If walls could talk, the stories they’d tell. Especially these walls, Ariana Costas thought as she glanced at the rows and rows of pictures leading down the stairs of her family home. A true documentary of insanity if there ever was one—the infamous “wall of shame,” as Ariana liked to call it—that portrayed her relatives at their conniving best.
Judging by the commotion she heard from the kitchen, her family was up to their usual tricks. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized that, sadly, nothing had changed in the five years she’d been gone. Apparently not even a missing daughter could deter them from their routine. Pulling her black suit jacket around her like armor, Ariana stepped inside the kitchen and into the fray.
Her mother’s sister, who technically lived next door though you’d never know it with the amount of time she spent here, sat with the phone book, calling people at random.
“Hello? Do you need your chimneys cleaned?” Aunt Dee asked in her high-pitched voice. “Winter’s around the corner and you can’t be too careful. You wouldn’t want to light a fire and discover there was an animal stuck inside, would you?” After a short conversation, she set up an appointment and marked it in her calendar.
Ariana was always amazed anyone fell for the scheme. “What are you and Uncle John going to milk these unsuspecting people for once you’re inside?” she asked as she walked over to the coffee machine.
Aunt Dee merely winked at her before moving on to the next number in the book.
In the meantime, her handsome father sat at the rectangular table drawing posters. A smile quirked at her lips as she took in his clean-shaven head. Prostate cancer seven years ago hadn’t sidelined him. Instead, chemotherapy and her father’s resulting baldness had started the family’s biggest moneymaker, The Addams Family Act, derived from the old television show of the same name. Her father had taken on the persona of Uncle Fester, her beautiful mother with her raven hair was Morticia, while the rest of her relatives rallied around. Over the years the show had earned money at the local theater, and her family had become the pride of Ocean Isle, her small coastal hometown, fifteen minutes outside of Atlantic City , New Jersey .
Ariana was so grateful her father was healthy and still in remission, she kissed his bald head. Over his shoulder, she studied his poster.
“ ‘Earn while you Eat! Join a weight study,’ ” Ariana read aloud. “And how much will this study cost each participant?” she asked her father.
“Only what they want to give. You know that,” Nicholas said without glancing up from his work.
She rolled her eyes. Ariana had seen this scam and ones like it before. Every Costas relative conned their way through life with a wink, a smile, and legendary Greek charm. The only shocking thing was that her family members managed to avoid doing hard time, something Ariana chalked up to luck.
With a sigh, she took a cup from the pantry. She’d arrived at her parents’ home late last night after being info rmed of her sister’s disappearance, and she could barely keep her eyes open. The coffee was too dark and thick to look appealing, but then no one in her family claimed to be related to Martha Stewart or Chef Boyardee. Thank God.
She lifted the mug to her lips, breathed in deep, and choked on the fumes. She dropped the cup into the sink, her eyes watering. She tried to speak and coughed again. “What is this stuff?” she asked, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
Her mother breezed in, her long black hair flowing to her waist behind her, and kissed Ariana on the cheek. “It’s brake fluid.”
Ariana sighed. Yet another perfect example of why she’d avoided bringing friends home when she was a teenager.
Her mother patted her shoulder. “It wasn’t meant to be tasted.”
“Then what’s it doing in the coffeepot?”
“We were out of Tupperware.”
“Of course.” Ariana’s eyes began to tear again. “Give me a tissue, please.”
A hand reached out and waved a handkerchief in front of her eyes.
“Thanks.” As Ariana blotted the tears, she looked over her shoulder and into the eyes of a real, live monkey. In any other home, she’d have jumped back in fright. “Who does the chimp belong to?” she asked, resigned.
“Not a chimp, a capuchin,” Aunt Dee explained as the small monkey jumped down from the counter and scampered to the middle of the room. “If you’ll recall, Great-Aunt Deliria was engaged to a monkey. This could be a long-lost relative.” She swept her hand wide in a grand gesture and pointed to the animal, who was now sitting on the kitchen floor and unceremoniously playing with both feet.
Ariana winced at the sight and didn’t bother to remind her mother’s sister that Aunt Deliria was an Addams family relative, not their own. The presence of the animal, who resembled the monkey on the television show Friends, spoke for itself.
Was it any wonder Ariana had escaped to Vermont and normalcy as soon as she was able?
And she’d stayed there until that phone call. The one telling her that her twin sister was missing.
“You people are insane! Aren’t you worried about Zoe?” she asked.
Zoe, the vibrant, lively one. Ariana refused to believe her sister was dead. According to documented studies, Ariana should have felt her death the moment her twin left this earth. She’d known the moment Zoe broke her leg when they were seven. Surely Ariana would sense her death now. She didn’t, and her heart insisted Zoe was still alive. She had to be or Ariana’s chance to make amends would be gone along with her.
At the mention of Zoe’s name, silence had descended in the kitchen and lasted long enough for Ariana to grow increasingly uncomfortable. And guilty. Of course they were worried. Despite the hustle of daily activity, Ariana had felt the pall of Zoe being missing, and when they thought no one was looking, she’d caught a look of sadness in each of her relatives’ eyes.
Finally Nicholas rose from his seat and hugged Ariana. “It’s okay,” he said, his hold on her tight. “It is just that we agreed not to discuss Zoe until she walks in the door. Safe and well.”
“And she will,” her mother added with certainty. “Until then it’s business as usual. And wait until you hear what new business we have planned.”
Ariana wasn’t interested in their newest scam, but those words of normalcy, at least by her family’s standards, along with the scent of her father’s aftershave, reassured Ariana as it had when she was a child.