I love getting packages in the mail.
Not just presents, although I especially like presents, but any box will do. It could be something silly I saw on late night TV and sleep-ordered or the latest pair of shoes from my favorite designer that hadn’t yet hit the stores. Even if it’s a power cord for my cell that I had to buy because I’d somehow misplaced the forty other ones—as long as it comes shipped to my house in a sturdy brown box, I’m a happy camper.
This particular box was heavy and I tore into the industrial strength packing tape with abandon. My thirtieth birthday was fast approaching and I just knew it had to be something wonderful. I peeled back the final flap and plunged my eager fingers into the plethora of pink packing peanuts. Finding something solid to grasp, I carefully lifted my prize into the light.
I had to sit down to study the decomposing piece of metal that had emerged from the depths. I’m not usually the ungrateful type when it comes to gifts, but when your big brother sends you a dirty piece-of-crap sculpture for your thirtieth birthday… well, let’s just say I wasn’t overwhelmed by the warm-fuzzies. No card, of course, because that wasn’t Luke’s style. I knew it was from him, even without a return address on the label, I recognized my brother’s chicken-scratch writing style.
Happy-freaking-birthday to me.
I removed my gaze from the disappointing relic to look out the window at the snow falling lazily toward Central Park and tried not to feel sorry for myself. It was a peaceful scene and one which I normally appreciated throughout the year and especially so during the holiday season. But recently everything around me, like my latest gift, appeared tarnished.
My elite address at 15 Central Park West had been a bribe from my father, a way to get me to accept a summer-long mission of mercy on behalf of Avalon Pharmaceuticals. Spending three months in war-torn and impoverished countries all over the globe had not been my idea of a good time. Especially when my friends were spending their summer after college graduation cruising the Mediterranean on private yachts or other more leisurely pursuits.
Okay, I don’t have a lot of friends, but I have a few—alright, one—and she had certainly not been flying coach—on standby—to every hellhole on the planet.
“Daddy,” I had whined. “What if I get sick? Are you really going to send your daughter into the bowels of humanity so you can get a little publicity?”
“It’s not as if you have something more important to do. Now stop being a brat and start packing. I don’t expect much from you, but when I tell you to do something, you’ll to do it without question.”
“But…but Daddy, they sleep in tents! This isn’t like sharing a bathroom in the sorority house. This is serious. Why can’t we just give them the medicine we’re donating and call it even? I don’t want to go!” I had tried to look pathetic and vulnerable. It had never worked before, but I was desperate enough to resort to begging.
“Chloe,” he warned, unmoved by my display. “You will do as I ask. You will do it for me, you will do it for the company and most of all you will do it for yourself.”
I rolled my eyes and stuck my tongue out as he turned to leave. “I just know I’m going to come home with malaria or leprosy, or something! You’ll be sorry when that happens!” I had shouted at his retreating back.
Fortunately—or unfortunately, as I saw it at the time—I hadn’t contracted any of the terrible diseases I had feared. But it took most of that summer to work off my mad at the unfairness of my plight. The experience had affected the way I viewed the world, not enough to deny myself the multi-million dollar piece of real estate in the heart of New York City, but it had changed me all the same.
Looking back, I should have respectfully declined the carrot and hopped right out from under my father’s controlling thumb. Because I hadn’t chosen the route that might have actually given me some character, I’d become a high priced whore in his pharmaceutical brothel. My official title is Director of Marketing, but what that really means is I’m in charge of hiring and approving the people who actually have the talent to make the synthetic drugs we thrust upon the healthcare industry sound sexy.
Am I qualified? Who knows—and who really cares. What matters, at least to my father, is that I’m not an embarrassment to the Avalon name. Even I have to admit that I’m a bit wishy-washy when it comes to goals—although I still don’t know why he insists heiress isn’t appropriate for my résumé.
In fact, who needs a résumé when they have a trust fund?
And that kind of thinking is exactly why you’re a worthless piece of crap, I silently chastised myself.
I may not need qualifications to maintain my financial status, but with the big 3-oh-shit rapidly approaching I was falling more deeply into a funk each day. I was turning bitter and couldn’t seem to stop myself. I felt trapped within the stereotype I’d perpetuated—an aimless, careless and socially inept spoiled little rich girl. My entire family thought I was odd. I was a disappointment to my father, a conundrum to my mother, an annoyance to my sister and irrelevant to my brother.
And the worst part about this burgeoning insight was that I couldn’t figure out a way to change any of it. It was easier to lash out and play the part of the unrepentant bitch that had taken over the person I’d wanted to become. Maybe I’d buy myself a gift for my birthday—a tiny dog to complete the image.
But that really has nothing to do with my current rant—which has everything to do with my bad-gift-giving older brother. Geesh, that statue is fugly! Where in the heck was I supposed to put it? And why on earth would Luke think I’d want it? At least my baby sister, Sophia, had the good taste to get me samples from her latest photo shoot—luckily it was cosmetics, since she’s six inches taller than me and my left boob weighs more that her torso.
Have I mentioned I’m a tad bit jealous of the genetic cards I was dealt?
Sophia currently sat across from me, looking at the hunk of junk like it was emitting a foul odor as well as visual flatulence. “Luke really is an ass,” she declared in a stilted British accent. “At least he gave me a weekend of indulgence at Elizabeth Arden.”
“Stop talking like that. You’re an American and everybody knows it.” I was annoyed in general, not really at Sophia in particular, but she was my sister and therefore had to put up with my moods. And she was prettier than me, so she could just suck it.
“But don’t you think it makes me seem more mysterious?”
“No. You sound like you’re mentally deficient… and possibly Chinese.”
“I know! I can’t get it right.” She kicked at my tufted brocade ottoman and sent the cardboard box flying, packing peanuts and all, straight to the newly refinished hardwood surface that had been previously unblemished. The resounding thunk had me leaping from my chair.
“Dammit, Soph! You dented my freaking floor!” The relic was heavy, at least twenty pounds, and now there was a big nick in the ebony surface.
“Sorry,” she said, looking moderately contrite. Not that she offered to help pick up the forty gazillion Styrofoam nuggets static-clinging all over the room.
I grabbed the vacuum from the hall closet and started sucking them up—only to realize the tiny holding tank on the deafening contraption was half the size of the box that had spilled. Ugh! I have very few opportunities to use the vacuum, so sue me for not figuring it out before the damn thing was completely clogged.
“Help me pick these up,” I demanded.
“I can’t. I have a shoot tomorrow and I don’t want bruises on me knees… so slutty.”
I rolled my eyes, crawling around the floor chasing the magnetized curly-cues that jumped out of reach as soon as my fingers got close. It was bad enough that I’d gotten a crappy present, but now I had to deal with this too? My life sucked.
Not really, but right then it sorta did.
When all the pieces had been collected—at least those that hadn’t run to hide beneath every piece of furniture in the room—I picked the statue up and carried it with me to the couch, wondering what to do with it. Sophia wasn’t any help, as she was busy studying her manicure. She spent as much time grooming herself as a cat, which further irritated me as apparently she had gotten the perfect nails DNA, as well as the good birthday presents. Everything was getting suckier by the second.
“Where is Luke anyway? I thought he was busy with the Levitrasis drug launch.” The package had been shipped from the Bahamas—lucky bastard. We weren’t the tightest of families, but I think I would have heard if Luke was on vacation so close to the holidays.
“How should I know? You’re more involved with Avalon than I am.”
This statement wasn’t actually true, other than the fact that my paychecks came from Avalon Pharmaceuticals. I worked from home and hadn’t set foot in the Avalon headquarters for months. The only contact I had was the occasional lunch with my father to get final approval for any new campaigns I was working on. I usually spent the time nervously stuffing my face to keep from saying something stupid while he looked on with an expression of disgust.
Dad ruled his kingdom with absolute authority, which was another reason Luke mailing me a less-than-desirable birthday gift from a tropical locale so close to the launch of a new drug was strange. Unlike me and Sophia, Luke was the chosen heir to the Avalon throne. I’d been watching our father attempt to mold him into version 2.0 of himself for years.
Sophia wouldn’t know or care about that though because the only contact she had was when she needed to dip into her trust fund. Not that I could fault her for that, I may have acquired a softer heart for the needy than my younger sister possessed, but a girl couldn’t pass up a new pair of Louboutin’s could she? That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.
“I’m calling Mom. She hasn’t even mentioned having dinner to celebrate Christmas and my birthday.” It had become a tradition for the family to celebrate at Elaine’s and I was looking forward to it. I grabbed my cell and punched in the number.
“Hi honey, I was just thinking about you and what happens? My phone rings.” Mom started on one of her interconnectedness rants and I phased out.
“Are we still going to dinner for my birthday?” I interrupted when she finally took a breath. I hoped I wouldn’t have to wait for her to consult her psychic—she had been on a New Age woo-woo kick recently and I wasn’t in the mood to hear it. My mother was addicted to two things, fad religions and cooking. If they ever made a Real Housewives of Connecticut, she’d provide hours of entertainment.
“Of course we are. Even with your brother off on his quest, the party must go on.”
“Quest? Where is he?”
“Oh, you know your brother. He’s off to discover the next wonder-drug.”
I had put the phone on speaker so Sophia could hear both sides of the conversation and she piped in with an annoyed, “What in the hell does that mean?”
“Darling, please don’t swear. It’s so unbecoming.”
It was hard to suppress my giggle when Sophia screwed her face up into a cartoonish sneer with her eyes crossed. I made a slashing motion across my throat at her until she went back to her previous preoccupation with her cuticles. “So where is he?” I asked.
“You know I don’t involve myself in the business, love. I overheard your father speaking to him last week, so I know it’s someplace warm. Maybe next year we should go somewhere tropical for the holidays.”
I didn’t want to go anywhere for the holidays, next year or any other. I loved the traditions we had, even if there weren’t that many. I let the comment slide because Mom was always on some kick or another and they rarely came to fruition. Besides, getting Dad away from his desk was like separating an addict from their needle. It wasn’t going to happen without medical intervention and a lot of kicking and screaming. If we wanted to be together, we did it right here, because that was the only way we’d catch a glimpse of the Dadasuarus Rex. Not that any social occasion involving my father was enjoyable.
I got to the other point of my call before she could think of some other weird topic to discuss. “He sent me a very strange birthday present. It’s a statue and it looks really old.”
“And it’s ugly too,” Sophia put in for good measure.
“Well now, that’s odd. He sent your present here because he knows you always open everything before you’re supposed to. He wanted me to give it to you at your birthday dinner.”
Sophia and I exchanged confused glances and I took another look at the weird relic that had been delivered. “Maybe he felt bad for sending such an atrocious gift, so he got you something else,” Sophia offered. She looked a bit upset by the idea. Sophia was the baby, and therefore spoiled beyond rotten. It would not be pleasant if I received two gifts to her one.
“My instructor is here,” Mom suddenly interrupted. “I’ll see you girls on Christmas Eve.” She hung up before we could say goodbye.
“I don’t even want to know what she’s being instructed in now,” Sophia quipped.
“She’s wacked,” I agreed.
“If I can’t have a British accent, then you can’t be ghetto,” she complained.
“Wacked isn’t ghetto, it’s a colloquialism.”
“Total ghetto,” she countered.
“Whatever. So why do you think Luke sent me this ridiculous statue?”
“Who cares, get rid of it before it infects your apartment.”
“It looks old. Maybe it’s valuable.”
“It could be worth a million bucks and I would still tell you to toss it in the trash. If you’re feeling generous, donate it to a museum or something.”
“Maybe it has something to do with what he’s working on and he didn’t want to send it to his empty apartment.” I have a habit of not being able to let anything go. I push and push until I have the definitive answer—which is probably why I’m not very popular in appropriate social circles where everything is sugar-coated.
“Then why didn’t he write a little note or something?” she snapped, obviously becoming bored and irritated with the topic.
“How should I know? I’m just glad it’s not my only birthday present.”
“Word.” Sophia threw me her version of a gang sign, which ended up looking like the emblem for Chanel.
“Now who’s ghetto?”
“Just keeping it real. I can’t let you be the only homegirl,” she added with a wink.
“Sophia to earth. Stop playing around. I’m getting a weird vibe from this.”
“Now you sound like Mom.”
“Not funny. Seriously, there’s something strange going on here. The base of this is pearls.” I tested my theory by scraping my teeth against the little orbs encrusting the lower edges of the statue—gritty.
“Chloe!” Sophia exclaimed in shock. “What have I told you about putting strange object in your mouth? Go brush your teeth before your tongue falls out.”
While not the germaphobe that my sister is, I wasn’t going to argue the point. When I returned with minty breath, Sophia was holding the statue and rubbing a dishrag over the surface. “I think there’s some sort of writing on here.”
When wet, the thick layer of corrosion covering the top portion of the statue—which looked like a dark, miniature version of the national monument—did appear to have something inscribed into its surface. “Are those hieroglyphics?”
“Beats me, it looks like a story made from tiny pictures.”
“Which is as close to the definition of hieroglyphics as you’ll ever get,” I teased.
I hated the stereotype. When your baby sister not only looks like a super-model, but is fast on her way to becoming a household name, of course the plain older sister would be dubbed the smart one. If I could choose between beauty and brains, I would definitely pick brains—because beauty was fleeting (at least it was a reassuring thought). Unfortunately I got neither. I just happened to be more book-smart than Sophia was… not a big accomplishment. When you don’t fit in with your peers, you have a lot of empty hours left in each day. I filled mine with books.
I may have been born with a Tiffany teething ring, but so had everyone else I knew. The fact that I was an heiress to one of the largest pharmaceutical empires in the world didn’t make up for the fact that I was too curvy and too plain to compete in the Paris Hilton leagues.
“What did you get the parental units for Christmas?” I asked. A change in subject was in order or else I was in for a lecture on dressing better, showing off my ass-ets and a whole other slew of unwanted beauty tips.
“I had my last few covers framed.”
Of course she had. It was the perfect gift. My parents would love it. I’d gotten the whole family matching Christmas PJ’s. Totally lame. As if anyone other than me would actually wear them. I don’t know what I had been thinking… we’d all congregate around the tree on Christmas morning and pose in our matching flannel for a nostalgic family photo? As much as I longed for a normal family life, it was never going to happen.
Yes, I long for normal… it goes better with my wardrobe. Even with a limitless budget, it’s hard to find haute couture in a size eight.
When my ruminations went on too long, Sophia prompted, “What did you get them?”
“I can’t say because I got the same thing for everyone. I don’t want to give it away.”
I’d also had a charm made for the bracelet I’d given Sophia on her tenth birthday. The links were so full that the bracelet weighed about a hundred pounds now, but again, I clung to traditions like a spider monkey.
Sophia threw me a knowing look, basically calling me pathetic. “You got us matching pajamas, didn’t you?”
Had I mentioned it or was I really that predictable? “I can’t say, so stop guessing,” but my blush surely gave it away.
“Jesus, Chloe. When are you going to realize you’re an heiress? We’re never going to be all Little House on the Prairie and shit, no matter how hard you wish we were. And I will never understand why you’d want that anyway!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I just wish we did more things as a family.”
“Why? It’s not as if being together is fun, or even tolerable for that matter,” she spat vehemently.
Her outburst shocked me. Our father doted on her as if the sun rose each day simply for her benefit. How could she not understand why I’d want to feel a bit of that myself? “Don’t you ever wish you’d had a mom that had taken you school shopping instead of having the housekeeper buy your supplies and a stylist deliver your wardrobe? Or a dad who actually came to your school plays or, holy hell, your graduation?” But Dad had shown up for Sophia’s graduation, so the argument would be pointless to her.
“Get over it. Family bonding is totally overrated. And you have met our mother right? Good god, I would not have wanted her dragging me through the office supply store to pick out pencils. Are you high? Was there some weird hallucinogen on that statue? I told you not to go and lick it.”
“Stop being so bitchy, I’m not suggesting we spend every spare moment together. I just wonder what it would have been like if we hadn’t grown up like we did.”
“Well stop it. I don’t want to even imagine going to Walmart to pick out my three new outfits for the year!”
“You are such a snob.”
“Whatever. I think you might be having a mid-life crisis.”
“Thirty is not mid-life,” I corrected her.
“Close enough. I noticed you have a hair on your chin that is considerably longer than the rest of the fuzz. Ever hear of a new-fangled invention called a laser?”
I was tempted to throw the ugly statue at her and wondered if there was a ‘new-fangled’ laser that would remove the giant dent I wanted to put in her head. I restrained myself because the last girl-fight we’d had, I had definitely not been the victor. “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”
“Are you trying to get rid of me already? It usually takes hours to piss you off to the point where you throw me out.” She must have been having an off day because she didn’t even come up with a parting shot as she left.