Meg would see it differently, of course. Meg, who’d graduated high school early and then breezed through seven years of college, who never failed to mention that she had buckets of money, and had the nerve to send her niece Christmas gifts that made the others under the tree look paltry by comparison.
“My waffle’s up.”
“So it is.” Claire took the waffle from the slot, buttered and cut it, then put the plate in front of her daughter. “Here you go.”
Alison immediately stabbed a piece and popped it into her mouth, chewing in that cartoon-character way of hers.
Claire couldn’t help smiling. Her daughter had had that effect on her since birth. She stared down at the miniature version of herself. Same fine blond hair and pale skin, same heart-shaped face. Although there were no pictures of Claire at five, she imagined that she and Alison were almost carbon copies of each other. Alison’s father had left no genetic imprint on his daughter.
It was fitting. The minute he’d heard Claire was pregnant, he’d reached for his running shoes.
“You’re in your jammies, Mommy. We’re gonna be late if you don’t hurry.”
“You’re right about that.” Claire thought about all the things she had to do today: mow the back field; recaulk the showers and bathroom windows; bleach the mildewed wall in cabin three; unplug the toilet in cabin five; and repair the canoe shed. It was early yet, not even 8:00, on the last day of school. Tomorrow, they’d be leaving for a week of rest and fun at Lake Chelan. She hoped she could get everything done in time. She glanced around. “Have you seen my work list, Alison?”
“On the coffee table.”
Claire picked up her list from the table, shaking her head. She had absolutely no memory of leaving it there. Sometimes she wondered how she’d get by without Alison.
“I want ballet lessons, Mommy. Is that okay?”
Claire smiled. It occurred to her—one of those passing thoughts that carried a tiny sting—that she’d once wanted to be a ballerina, too. Meghann had encouraged her to dream that dream, even though there had been no money for lessons.
Well, that wasn’t quite true. There had been money for Mama’s dance lessons, but none for Claire’s.
Once, though, when Claire had been about six or seven, Meghann had arranged for a series of Saturday-morning lessons with a junior high friend of hers. Claire had never forgotten those few perfect mornings.
Her smile faded.
Alison was frowning at her, one cheek bunched up midbite. “Mommy? Ballet?”
“I wanted to be a ballerina once. Did you know that?”
“Unfortunately, I have feet the size of canoes.”
Ali giggled. “Canoes are huge, Mommy. Your feet are just really big.”
“Thanks.” She laughed, too.
“How come you’re a worker bee if you wanted to be a ballerina?”
“Worker bee is what Grampa calls me. Really I’m an assistant manager.”
It had happened a long time ago, her choosing this life. Like most of her decisions, she’d stumbled across it without paying much attention. First, she’d flunked out of Washington State University—one of the many party casualties of higher education. She hadn’t known then, of course, that Meghann was basically right. College gave a girl choices. Without a degree, or a dream, Claire had found herself back in Hayden. Originally, she’d meant to stay a month or so, then move to Kauai and learn to surf, but then Dad got bronchitis and was down for a month. Claire had stepped in to help him out. By the time her father was back on his feet and ready to resume his job, Claire had realized how much she loved this place. She was, in that and in so many things, her father’s daughter.
Like him, she loved this job; she was outside all day, rain or shine, working on whatever needed to be done. When she finished each chore, she saw tangible proof of her labor. There was something about these gorgeous sixteen acres along the river that filled her soul.
It didn’t surprise her that Meghann didn’t understand. Her sister, who valued education and money above everything, saw this place as a waste of time.
Claire tried not to let that condemnation matter. She knew her job wasn’t much in the great scheme of things, just managing a few campsites and a couple of cabins, but she never felt like a failure, never felt that her life was a disappointment.
Except when she talked to her sister.
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS LATER, CLAIRE WAS READY TO LEAVE on vacation. She took a last pass through the tiny house, looking for anything forgotten or left undone, but everything was as it should be. The windows were locked, the dishwasher was empty, and all the perishables had been taken out of the fridge. She was straightening the shower curtain when she heard footsteps in the living room.
“What in the name of a frog’s butt are you still doing here?”
She smiled and backed out of the minuscule bathroom.
Her father stood in the living room. As always, he dwarfed the small space. Big and broad-shouldered, he made every room seem smaller by comparison. But it was his personality that was truly oversize.
She’d first met him when she was nine years old. She’d been small for her age, and so shy she only spoke to Meghann in those days. Dad had seemed larger than life when he stepped into their travel trailer. Well, he’d said as he looked down at her, you must be my daughter, Claire. You’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. Let’s go home.
It was the word she’d waited for, dreamed of. It had taken her years—and more than a few tears—to realize that he hadn’t offered the same welcome to Meghann. By then, of course, by the time Claire understood the mistake, it was well past the time to rectify it.
“Hey, Dad. I was making sure everything was ready for you to move in.”
His grin showed a row of Chiclet-white dentures. “You know damn well I ain’t moving in here. I like my mobile home. A man doesn’t need this much room. I got my fridge and my satellite TV. That’s all I need.”
They’d been having this discussion ever since Claire had moved back to the property and Dad had given her use of the house. He swore up and down that the mobile home hidden in the trees was more than room enough for a fifty-six-year-old single man.
“Don’t talk about my butt. I know it’s getting bigger. Now, dance on over here and give your old man a hug.”
Claire did as she was told.
His big, strong arms enfolded her, made her feel safe and adored. He smelled faintly of disinfectant today. That was when she remembered the bathroom that needed fixing.
“I’ll leave in an hour,” she said. “The toilet in cabin—”
He spun her around and pushed her gently toward the door. “Get going. This place isn’t going to fall apart without you. I’ll fix the damn toilet. And I’ll remember to pick up the PVC pipe you ordered and to stack the wood under cover. If you remind me again, I’ll have to hurt you. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”
Claire couldn’t help smiling. She’d reminded him about the pipe at least six times. “Okay.”
He touched her shoulders, forced her to stop long enough to look at him. “Take as long as you want. Really. Take three weeks. I can handle this place alone. You deserve a break.”
“You never take one.”
“I’m on the down side of my life, and I don’t want to get out much. You’re only thirty-five. You and Alison should kick up your heels a bit. You’re too damn responsible.”
“I’m a thirty-five-year-old single mother who has never been married. That’s not too responsible, and I will kick up my heels in Chelan. But I’ll be home in a week. In time to check the Jefferson party into their cabins.”
He thumped her shoulder. “You’ve always done exactly what you wanted, but you can’t blame a guy for trying. Have fun.”
“You, too, Dad. And take Thelma out for dinner while I’m gone. Quit all that skulking around.”
He looked genuinely nonplussed. “What—”
She laughed. “Come on, Dad. The whole town knows you’re dating.”
“We’re not dating.”
“Okay. Sleeping together.” In the silence that followed that remark, Claire walked out of the house and into the steely gray day. A drizzling rain fell like a beaded curtain in front of the trees. Crows sat on fence posts and phone wires, cawing loudly to one another.
“Come on, Mommy!” Alison’s small face poked through the car’s open window.
Dad hurried ahead of her and kissed his granddaughter’s cheek.
Claire checked the trunk—again—then got into the car and started the engine. “Are we ready, Ali Kat? Do you have everything?”
Alison bounced in her seat, clinging to her Mary-Kate-and-Ashley lunch box. “I’m ready!” Her stuffed orca—Bluebell—was strapped into the seat with her.
“We’re off to see the Wizard, then,” Claire said, shifting into drive as she yelled a final good-bye to her father.
Alison immediately started singing the Barney theme song: “I love you, you love me.” Her voice was high and strong, so loud that poodles all across the valley were probably hurling themselves to the ground and whining pitifully. “Come on, Mommy, sing.”
By the time they reached the top of Stevens Pass, they’d sung forty-two Barney theme songs—in a row—and seventeen Froggy-Went-A-Courtings. When Alison opened her lunch box, Claire rammed a Disney audiotape into the cassette player. The theme music to The Little Mermaid started.
“I wish I was like Ariel. I want flippers,” Alison said.
“How could you be a ballerina then?”
Alison looked at her, clearly disgusted. “She has feet on land, Mommy.” Then she leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes, listening to the story of the mermaid princess.
The miles flew by. In no time, they were speeding across the flat, arid land on the eastern side of the state.
“Are we almost there, Mommy?” Alison asked, sucking on a licorice whip, bouncing in her seat. The area around her lips was smudged with black. “I wish we’d get there.”
Claire felt the same way. She loved the Blue Skies Campground. She and her girlfriends had first vacationed there a few years after high school graduation. In the early years there had been five of them; time and tragedy had whittled their number down to four. They’d each missed a year now and then, but for the most part, they met there year after year. At first they’d been young and wild and driven to pick up local boys. Gradually, as they’d started dragging bassinets and car seats with them, the vacation had settled down a bit. Now that the kids were old enough to swim and play on the playground alone, the girls—women—had refound a slice of their previous freedom.
“Mommy. You’re spacing out.”
“Oh. Sorry, honey.”
“I said, we get the honeymoon cabin this year, remember?” She bounced even harder in her seat. “Yippee! We get the big bathtub. And this year I get to jump off the dock, don’t forget. You promised. Bonnie got to jump when she was five.” Alison sighed dramatically and crossed her arms. “Can I jump off the dock or not?”