By: L.M. Pruitt

My oldest nephew and niece, Johnny and June—Loretta had loved her country music—hadn’t made the funeral. Johnny was in the middle of a five year stretch in the penitentiary for car theft and June... well, she’d run off with her English teacher two years ago, right after her seventeenth birthday. Nobody had seen or heard from her since although if the English teacher’s ex-wife was to be believed, they’d gone west to Nevada. At least that was the address the child support checks came from—court-ordered, of course.

None of Loretta’s ex-husbands had shown up, either. The first was Johnny and June’s father and if I was being honest I hadn’t expected to see him. The second was responsible for Tammy while the third could lay claim to Dolly and Conway. Not that any of them ever had—once they shook Cotton Creek’s dust off their boots, they were gone, well and truly. Not that they weren’t talked about—even at the funeral, more than a few people had been more than a bit liberal with their discussion of Loretta’s love life.

Was it any wonder my head was pounding like a fucking drum?

“Aunt Jeannie.”

I didn’t curse but I dearly wanted to. Keeping my eyes closed, I said, “What, Tammy.”

“Well, I’m thinking we need to talk.”

And here I was thinking I needed about six beers and a couple of Vicodin so I could sleep through the night. Biting back a sigh, I opened my eyes. “Tammy, it’s been a helluva day. I think we’d all be better off waiting until tomorrow to have any kind of discussion.”

“I already put Dolly and Conway to bed so it’s just you and me.” She lowered herself to the sofa across from me, tucking the hem of her knee-length skirt tight around her. She’d been blessed—or rather cursed—with my genetics but between her babysitting money and Loretta, she was able to afford clothes which actually fit, so she still looked like a teenager and not a pinup girl. Pushing her chin length hair behind her ears, she said, “I think you and I need to talk about what’s going to happen next.”

“Tammy, at the moment the only thing I want to happen is sleep. Lots and lots of sleep.” I stretched my legs out, examining my toenails. I’d planned on getting a pedicure while I was in Atlanta, mostly because I was bored with my pink polish. Now, I’d either have to find someone in town or drive two hours to the nearest good-sized city. “It’s been a long day.”

Long and miserable and if the look on my niece’s face was any indication it was far from over.

“Well, yes, but I think me and Dolly and Conway have a right to know what’s going to happen to us.” She lifted her chin and looked down her nose at me, the snooty effect somewhat ruined by the trembling lower lip she couldn’t quite control. “Whether we’re going to get shipped off to some home somewhere or get hauled all over God’s green creation while you do your work.”

“I know Loretta liked to keep a bottle of Jim Beam in the back of the top kitchen cabinet.” I narrowed one eye and raised my brows. “You haven’t been sneaking any of it, have you?”

“No.” If she was feigning her shock, I sure hoped she was putting her acting skills to use in Drama Club. “Why would you think that?”

“Well, a little bit because that’s what I would do but mostly because you’re sitting over there talking nonsense like you’re three sheets to the wind.” I rubbed the bridge of my nose and sighed. “Nobody is going anywhere, Tammy. Not even me.”

Which was only one more reason for the low grade headache I’d been carrying around the last week. Any moment I hadn’t spent dealing with the funeral I’d been on the phone with either Bill or Allison, doing everything I could to rearrange not only the magazine but my life. I’d have my furniture and clothes and other odds and ends within the next few days—Allison had already found someone to sublet the apartment, so I didn’t need to worry about that expense. I’d bitten the bullet and hired on three new writers, all of them more than eager to travel all over the country and sleep in shitty hotels. I was, for the foreseeable future, riding a desk.

“But Ms. Jones said—.”

“Tammy, I’m surprised your mother didn’t tell you but one of the last people you should listen to about anything requiring more than two brain cells is Dana Jones.” The headache was only getting stronger and I knew if I didn’t take something and soon I was going to wind up with the sort of migraine which knocked me out for two or three days. “Come on, let’s go in the kitchen.”