Meg dug through the toys and books in the suitcase, found the right one, and started to read.
“You gotta be on the bed,” Alison said.
“Oh.” Meghann climbed onto the bed and settled in comfortably. Alison immediately snuggled in beside her, resting her cheek on the precious wubbie.
Meg started to read again.
An hour and six books later, Alison was finally asleep. Meg kissed her niece’s sweet pink cheek and left the room, careful to leave the door open.
Afraid to turn on the television or the stereo—she didn’t want to wake Alison—she tried to read a magazine. Within minutes she was falling asleep, so she padded into her bedroom, changed into her Seahawks nightshirt, brushed her teeth, and got into bed.
Closing her eyes, she thought of all the things she had to do tomorrow. There was no way she’d fall asleep tonight.
Woodland Park Zoo.
The BFG at the Children’s Theater.
Fun Forest at Seattle Center.
Her mind skipped from Fun Forest to National Forest to Hayden to Joe.
He’d kissed her good-bye so gently on that last morning they were together. It had made her feel inexplicably vulnerable.
She wanted to see him. And not just for sex.
For what, then?
She’d chosen him in the first place for his unavailability. What had been his first words to her, or practically the first?
I won’t take you home with me.
Or something like that. Right off the bat he’d declared his unavailability.
And so she’d gone for him. But where could they go beyond the bedroom? He was a small-town mechanic who still cried over his divorce.
There was no future for them.
Still . . . when she closed her eyes he was there, waiting to kiss her in the darkness of her own mind.
She sat upright, flicked on the light. “What is it?”
Alison stood there, clutching her wubbie. Her face was moist with tears; her eyes were red. She looked impossibly small in the open doorway. “I can’t sleep.”
She looked so much like Claire. . . .
“Come on up here, honey. Come sleep with me. I’ll keep you safe.”
Alison bolted across the room and clambered up into the bed, then snuggled close against Meg, who held her tightly. “Your mommy used to sleep with me when she was scared, did you know that?”
Alison popped a thumb in her mouth and closed her eyes. Almost immediately, she was asleep.
Meghann loved the smell of her, the little girl/baby shampoo sweetness. She cuddled in close to her niece and closed her eyes, expecting to start thinking about tomorrow again.
Amazingly, she fell asleep.
The telephone woke Claire up. She sat up fast. “What time is it?” She looked around for the bedside clock, found it. Five forty-five A.M. Oh, God. “Bobby, the phone—”
She scrambled over him and picked it up. “Hello? Meghann? Is Ali okay?”
“Hey, darlin’, how are you?”
Claire released a heavy breath and climbed out of bed. “I’m fine, Mama. It’s five-forty-five on Kauai.”
“Is that right? I thought y’all were the same time zone as California.”
“We’re halfway to Asia, Mama.”
“You always did exaggerate, Claire. I do have a reason for callin’, you know.”
Claire grabbed her robe out of the closet and slipped it on, then went out onto the balcony. Outside, the sky was just turning pink. In the backyard, a rooster strutted across the lawn; hens clucked along behind. The morning smelled of sweet tropical flowers and salt air. “What is it?”
“I know you don’t think I’m much of a mother.”
“That’s not true.” She yawned, wondering if there was any chance of falling asleep again. She looked through the windows at Bobby, who was sitting up now, frowning at her.
“It is so. You and Miss Perfect are constantly remindin’ me that I did a poor job raisin’ you. I consider it ungrateful to say the least, but motherhood has its burdens, as you know, and misunderstanding is mine.”
“It’s a little early for drama, Mama. Maybe you could—”
“The point is, I do some things poorly and some things well. I’m like ordinary people in that way.”
Claire sighed. “Yes, Mama.”
“I just want you to remember that. And tell your bigmouthed sister. No matter what y’all remember, or think you do, the truth is that I love you. I always have.”
“I know, Mama.” She smiled at Bobby, mouthed: Mama, then: coffee.
“Now put your husband on the phone.”
“You do have a man in your bed right now?”
Claire laughed. “I do.”
“Let me talk to him.”
Mama sighed dramatically. “It’s another of my burdens to be saddled with suspicious daughters. It’s about a weddin’ gift, if you must know. I heard y’all didn’t like the car.”
“There’s no room for Alison.”
“Does she have to go everywhere with y’all?”
“Put Bobby on. This present is for him, since you were so ungrateful.”
“Okay, Mama. Whatever. Just a second.” She went back inside. “She wants to talk to you.”
Bobby sat up. This can’t be good, he mouthed as he took the phone from Claire. “How’s the sexiest mother-in-law in the world?” After a moment, his smile faded. “What?” Then: “You’re kidding me. How did you do it?”
Claire moved toward him, placed her hand on his shoulder. “What’s going on?”
He shook his head. “That’s incredible, Ellie. Really. I don’t know how to thank you. When?” He frowned. “You know we’re here—oh. Yeah. I understand. At the ticket counter. Yes. Okay. Of course we’ll call right away. And thank you. I can’t tell you how much this means. Yes. Good-bye.”
“What did she do?” Claire asked when he hung up the phone.
Bobby’s smile was so big it creased his whole face into pleats. “She got me an audition with Kent Ames at Down Home Records. I can’t believe it. I’ve been playing shit-ass honky-tonk joints for ten years waiting for a break like this.”
Claire threw herself at him, holding him tightly in her arms. She told herself it was foolish to have been afraid, worried, but still her hands were shaking. Too many bad years with Mama, she supposed. She always expected the worst. “You’ll knock ’em dead.”
He twirled her around until they were both laughing. “This is it, Claire.”
She was still laughing when he eased her back to her feet.
“But . . . ,” he said, not smiling now.
That worry came back. “What?”
“The audition is Thursday. After that, Kent is leaving for a month.”
Claire looked up at her husband, who wore his heart in his eyes right now. She knew that if she said no, said, Our honeymoon won’t be over by then, he’d kiss her and say, Okay, maybe call your Mama back and see if the audition can be rescheduled in a month. Knowing all that made her answer easy.
“I’ve always wanted to see Opryland.”
Bobby pulled her into his arms, gazed down at her. “I’d given up,” he admitted quietly.
“Let that be a lesson,” she answered happily. “Now, hand me that phone. I better let Dad and Meghann know that we’ll probably add a day or two on to the trip.”
The days with Alison settled into a comfortable routine. By the third afternoon, Meghann had let go of her obsessive need to show her niece every child-friendly venue in the city. Instead, they did simple things. They rented movies and made cookies and played Candy Land until Meg cried out for mercy.
Each night Meg slept with Ali tucked in her arms, and each morning she awoke with an unexpected sense of anticipation. She smiled easier, laughed more often. She’d forgotten how good it felt to care for someone else.
When Claire called to extend the length of her honeymoon, Meg knew she’d shocked her sister by offering—gladly—to keep Alison for a few extra days. Unfortunately, the oh-so-important birthday party ruined that option.
When Saturday finally came, Meghann was surprised by the depth of her emotions. All the way to Hayden she had to work to keep smiling, while Ali chattered nonstop and bounced in her seat. At Sam’s house, Ali flew into her grandfather’s arms and started telling him about the week. Meg kissed her niece good-bye and hurried out of the trailer. That night, she hardly slept at all. She couldn’t seem to stave off the loneliness.
On Monday, she went back to work.
The hours stacked on top of one another, growing heavier than usual. By 3:00, she was so tired she could hardly function.
She hoped that Harriet wouldn’t notice.
A useless hope, of course.
“You look bad,” Harriet said when Meghann slumped into the familiar chair.
“How did the wedding go?”
“It was nice,” Meg said, looking down at her hands. “Even Mama couldn’t ruin it. I planned the wedding, you know.”
“Don’t sound so shocked. I followed your advice and kept my mouth shut. Claire and I . . . connected again. I even baby-sat my niece during the honeymoon. But now . . .”
Meg shrugged. “The real world is back.” She looked up. “My condo is quiet. I never noticed that before.”
“Your niece was loud?”
“She never stopped talking. Except when she was asleep.” Meg felt a tightening in her chest. She would miss sleeping with Ali, miss having a little girl to care for.
“It reminded you of Claire.”
“Lately, everything reminds me of those days.”
“We were best friends,” Meg said softly.
Meghann sighed. “She’s married. She has her family. It’s just like before. I probably won’t hear from her until my birthday.”
“The phone works both ways.”
“Yeah.” Meghann looked down at her watch. She didn’t want to talk about this anymore. It hurt too much. “I gotta go, Harriet. Bye.”
Meghann stared at her client, hoping the smile she managed to form wasn’t as plastic as it felt.
Robin O’Houlihan paced in front of the window. Stick-thin and wearing more makeup than Terence Stamp in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, she was the clichéd Hollywood wife. Too thin, too greedy, too everything. Meg wondered why none of these women noticed that at a certain age thin became gaunt. The more weight they lost, the less attractive their faces became, and Robin’s hair had been dyed and redyed blond so often and so long it looked like a straw wig. “It’s not enough. Period. End of story.”
“Robin,” she said, striving for a calm and even voice. “He’s offering twenty-thousand dollars a month, the house on Lake Washington, and the condo in La Jolla. Frankly, for a nine-year marriage that produced no children, I think—”