If Jean had learned anything in the five years he'd been married to Zoe (and twice that if you included dating), it was that when her family said "tradition," the best thing to do was to shut up and get out of the way. Zoe's family did tradition like it was a religion, an obsession, and an obligation all wrapped up into one.
So when she told him, over lunch with her mother and her grandmother, that it was time to start planning the family reunion, Jean asked, wisely, he hoped, "what can I do to help?" Not quite as wisely, he added, "I've been with you for ten years now, and I've never heard of you guys doing a reunion."
Zoe's irrepressible Grandma Francis cackled gleefully. "We can't stand each other, so we only do it every seventeen years. We let weddings and funerals fill in the gaps in between."
It turned out, as three generations of Carter women explained to him, that planning this thing was a year-long event, much like their wedding had been. For one, they all stressed, every Carter still living had to be invited. Every one.
Lists came out: their wedding guest list, Jean's family tidily crossed off. Grandpa Herbert's funeral consolation-card list (Jean had never heard of such a thing), likewise with people X'd off. Birth announcements. Death announcements. Wedding photos. And, hidden in the back of his mother-in-law's closet, the extensive preparations from the last Carter Family Reunion.
A new list was made, and checked, and checked again. Flow charts were made. More begats flew over Grandma Francis' kitchen table than there were in the entire Bible. Divorces, affairs, bastard children - the gossip flew with a cheerful malice and a lot of sniggering. Carter women had, Jean learned (not for the first time), amazingly ditry senses of humor. He spent a lot of time drinking with his father-in-law and brothers-in-law, only to find them just as obsessed, and gossiping just as much; in the middle of a beer, Dad Carter would shout into the room, "Hey, did you remember Amber? That stripper with her kid we're pretty sure is Uncle Todd's?"
"Really," his brother-in-law assured him. "The eyes. And, well, the habit of shoving dollar bills into little girl's dresses. That's all Uncle Todd."
Eventually, it seemed as if everything had been planned, everyone invited. The biggest three pavilions at the local state park had been rented, the caterers booked, the decorations purchased, the invitations sent. Zoe was still frowning, though, and Jean hated it when she was unhappy.
"What is it, hon?" he asked, in a rare moment he got her alone.
"I feel like we're missing someone."
"That's natural. You've invited half of the state, by this point it has to feel like you've been staring at lists for a century." He knew that's how he felt.
"No, I mean... I really think we missed someone." He couldn't talk her out of it, and for days, she wandered around frowning, lips pursed, eyes squinched. Finally, at just about the least appropriate moment, she shouted "Claude!"
"Jean," he corrected.
"No, no." She sat up and pulled her robe on, reaching for her phone at the same moment. "We forgot Claude."
Claude, it turned out, was the son of Aunt Helga and her estranged ex-husband; the boy had been born about sixteen years ago, and soon afterwards, former-uncle-Adam had filed for divorce, taken custody of their young son, and vanished. Nobody had tried to stop them; as Grandma Francis put it, "Everyone knew Helga was a crazy bat already. Good for the boy getting out. But now we have to find him."
The whole family turned to Jean. "I knew you married a PI for a reason," he grumbled.
"Please?" Zoe's puppy-dog-eyes were legendarily. Her father still winced when she turned them on. "It's important, Jean."
"They probably are happier not being connected with the family," he offered, already knowing he'd lost. "Helga's pretty bad. I wouldn't want to come back, if were them."
"Adam doesn't have to. But Claude needs to be here. It's important," his mother-in-law reiterated. "Very important."
Grandma Francis added the magic words. "We'll pay your going rate."
"Important it is," Jean agreed. He and Zoe were trying to have a baby. He couldn't afford to be proud about money.
Tracking down former-Uncle-Adam turned out to be not a very hard proposition. He'd moved two cities away and started going by his middle name and a variant spelling of his last name - nothing complex, but if the Carters had chosen not to go after him, he probably hadn't needed anything elaborate. Once Jean and Zoe paid him a visit, however, things began to get tricky.
"I'm glad I got out when I did," Adam admitted, "and I never want to go back, but if Helga and I had a son, she never told me about it." He lived in a one-bedroom walk-up, a nice place, but nothing fancy. There were no signs of a child anywhere around.
What was more, Jean had a knack for telling if people were lying - a side effect of his job as an investigator. Former-Uncle Adam wasn't lying; he had no idea what they were talking about.
But neither had Zoe and her family been lying when they'd told stories about Adam bringing Claude around, cradling him, packing him up in the middle of the night and leaving. And now, Zoe was white and tight-lipped. "I was afraid of this," she whispered.
"What?" Gruesome images floated through his mind, but all he asked was "did we get the wrong Uncle Adam?"
"No, this is him. But... this is why we have reunions, Jean. Why we stay close to our family." She stood and, followed by the bemused eyes of both Jean and Adam, walked to a wall between two doorways. "We, ah. We tend to fade if we don't."
"Fade?" Fade. Was she losing it? Her family had a history of mental illness.
"Fade. We're, ah, a little bit imaginary. I'm sorry, I meant to tell you eventually. But what it means is, we need each other to anchor ourselves here. It's why what the cousins did to Helga is so bad, ignoring her like that. But she deserved it." She opened a door. Jean could have sworn she'd been staring at a wall, but then she opened a door. "Claude? Claude, you can come out now."
Jean knew he was staring; he could feel Adam staring as well. "Claude?" Adam whispered. "Claude? Oh, oh, shit, son, son, come on out."
As the father and very thin, almost transparent teen reunited, Jean found himself looking at his wife. “A little bit imaginary?”
"Only if you don't believe in us." He had never seen her look so vulnerable. But he had never believed so fiercely in her, either, or in her love. He smiled, the sideways smirk she liked so much, and made it a joke.
"I'll believe in you as long as your grandma's check clears." He'd had imaginary friends growing up, more than real ones. He was pretty sure he could handle an imaginary wife.