Clara can see ghosts, but she can't see who her real family is. It doesn't help that they're trying to kill each other off.
I didn't like Uncle Phil before I met him. I was ten years old, and because of him and Aunt Fran, I had to move from my room on the first floor to the room upstairs.
The move wasn't going smoothly. Papa and Bessie bumped into each other as they ran upstairs with boxes and furniture, and downstairs to retrieve another load.
Mama was dressed in a sheer white blouse and black velvet skirt, better for entertaining than for helping with moving. I could tell by the way she pushed her blond curls away from her forehead that she was going to excuse herself from the entire process. "Bessie, can you please turn off the lights?"
"I'll draw the shades, Miss Jo." Bessie put down the basket of stuffed toys she carried, and quickly walked from window to window in the entryway, closing the curtains.
"Darling, why are you complaining?" Papa said, balancing a box on one knee while he turned on the stairway light.
Mama put her hands over her ears. "Please don't yell, darling."
"I'm not yelling." Papa rolled his eyes. "Really, Jo. When do I ever yell? Don't confuse me with Phil."
I rolled my eyes, just like Papa, and whispered in his ear. "Mama's getting another headache." I was almost as tall as him, and only had to stand on tiptoe a little bit.
"I can tell, kitten. At a most convenient time, as always." He gently pulled my black ponytail. Then he turned to Mama. "Why don't you ever listen to me? If you and Bessie had moved Clara upstairs while I was away on my last business trip, we wouldn't have to run around in a panic at the last minute. And then you'd have plenty of time to indulge in your headaches."
"Your daughter is too much of a handful for me to attend to anything else." Mama's voice sounded like broken glass.
"Fly away, Mr. Teddy, fly away,' I sang. I twirled around in a circle in the entryway, holding Mr. Teddy high above my head. "Why do I have to move upstairs?"
"Because your Aunt Fran and Uncle Phil are coming to live with us." Mama said. "Clara darling, I already told you that at least five times. And please stop spinning. You're making me ill!"
Mr. Teddy and I slowed down to a stop. "Why can't Aunt Fran and Uncle Phil move upstairs instead?"
"Clara darling, please whisper," Mama hissed.
"Sorry, Mama," I whispered. "But why?"
"Because they need a bigger room." Papa put the box down on the floor and lowered his voice. "You can watch everything that's going on in the house from upstairs. And since I'm away so much, I need you to make certain this ship sails smoothly.”
I saluted him. "Yes, sir."
Papa saluted me back. "Can we dance to that?"
I kicked off my shoes and stood on top of his slip-ons in my stocking feet while he waltzed me around the entryway. The sun streaming through the stained-glass window of the front door made a halo of his sandy blond hair.
"But Papa, why can't Aunt Fran and Uncle Phil live at their house?"
"Because they sold their house. They don't have a house to live in anymore."
"That's dumb. Why did they sell their house?"
"Because they moved to England."
Mama sighed. "Clara darling, you're giving me a headache. I'm going to lay down now.”
After Mama walked out of sight, I said to Papa, "But why can't they buy a new house? Why do they have to live here?"
"I think they'll buy their own home eventually, if they don't move back to England. But for now, Uncle Phil is going to help me with the family business. He picked up some good ideas overseas." Papa picked up the box. "Did Mama tell you about Aunt Fran?"
"Mama never talks about anyone except herself."
Papa laughed. "Well, Aunt Fran and Mama are identical twins."
"Oh." I tried to imagine two Mamas living in the same house. "I wonder if Aunt Fran gets headaches, too."
"I don't know about that." Papa shrugged. "You'll have to ask Uncle Phil."
A horn honked outside.
"As a matter of fact, you can ask him now." Papa looked at the box in his hands and shook his head. "Bessie? Bessie?"
"Here I am, Mr. Michael."
"It looks like there's going to be a little more chaos than I anticipated. Can you please finish moving Clara's things upstairs while I welcome Franny and Phil?"
Bessie took the box from Papa. "Come on, Miss Clara. You can tell me where you want everything to go."
"Bessie, I'd like Clara to stay with me so that she can meet her aunt and uncle."
"Yes, Mr. Michael."
Papa opened the door. Franny walked in and gave Papa a hug. She wore a purple suit, and she smelled of lavender. Her blond curls fell below her shoulders "Michael, you look younger and more handsome every time I see you! How do you do it?" She turned to me and gave me her hand. "You must be Clara! Look how tall you are!"
I took her hand. "You do look like Mama!"
Behind Aunt Fran was a blond-haired girl, about my age, who looked at me and blushed. Then she smiled. "Hi, I'm Alice," she whispered.
I smiled at her.
"What are you grinning about?" Papa asked me.
Aunt Fran looked at me, then looked behind her. "It must be the beautiful day outside."
The door opened wider, and Uncle Phil stood at the entrance, holding four suitcases. He was so tall and wide that he blocked the sunlight. Uncle Phil was a good head higher than Papa, with midnight black hair, bushy eyebrows, and a ruddy complexion. Papa could get lost in Uncle Phil's shadow.
Uncle Phil put the suitcases down. "Michael, how are you? I can't tell you how much we appreciate your hospitality." His voice bounced like a cannon ball against the entrance walls as he extended his hand.
"Phil, great to see you! It's been years." He shook Phil's hand. "Let's get you two settled, and then we can discuss business.”
Uncle Phil stepped inside. "My goodness, is this Clara?"
I ducked behind Papa.
Uncle Phil put his hands on his hips. "And why are you dressed like a boy? I expected you to look like a proper young lady."
I looked down at my clothes. I was wearing a pair of Papa's old wool pants, the legs hemmed with safety pins, and one of his blue angora sweaters, with the sleeves rolled up. I stepped out from behind Papa and stuck out my chest. "I look just fine. Dresses are for sissies and old ladies."
Papa smiled. Aunt Fran covered her mouth with her hand. Uncle Phil's eyebrows drew together, but before he could reply, Mama joined us at the front door.
"Phil! Franny! How wonderful to see you both!" Mama gave her sister a peck on both cheeks and gave Uncle Phil a long hug.
Papa turned around. "Bessie? Bessie?"
"Coming, Mr. Michael," Bessie called out from upstairs.
"Can you please show Phil and Franny to their room?"
I ran upstairs and passed Bessie walking downstairs. Halfway up, I turned around and saw Alice following behind me. Aunt Fran watched us, a half smile on her face.
Uncle Phil knocked on the doorpost of my bedroom about an hour later. "Excuse me, Clara."
I sat on the floor with Mr. Teddy, a treasure map spread before me. Alice sat at my desk. I looked at Alice. She nodded.
I looked up. "Hi, Uncle Phil."
Uncle Phil cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Clara. I didn't handle things well downstairs."
"No, you didn't."
"So, I'd like to try again, if you don't mind."
I sighed, just like Mama did when she had to do something she didn't want to do. "Ok."
Uncle Phil cleared his throat again and stepped back. "Hello, I'm your Uncle Phil. You must be Clara." He offered his hand.
I stood up and shook his hand.
"May I have a hug?"
"Maybe someday. When I get to know you better."
I sat down on the floor. "Thanks, Uncle Phil. Goodbye."
Uncle Phil bowed. "Goodbye, Clara."