“Someone has to be there for you through this.”
“But . . . you?”
The whole of their childhood was between them suddenly, all the good times and, more important, the bad.
Claire stared at her sister. “If you start this thing with me, you have to stick around if things get tough.”
Meg glanced out the window at a passing motorist. “You can count on me.”
Claire touched her sister’s chin, made her turn to make eye contact. “Look at me when you say that.”
Meg looked at her. “Trust me.”
“I must be near death if I agree to this. God help me.” Claire frowned. “I don’t want to tell anyone.”
“Why should we say anything until we know for sure?”
“It’ll just worry Dad and make Bobby come home.” She paused, swallowed hard. “I don’t even want to think about telling Ali.”
“We’ll tell everyone I’m taking you to a spa for a week. Will they believe that?”
“Bobby will. And Ali. Dad . . . I don’t know. Maybe if I tell him we need time together. He’s wanted us to reconcile for years. Yeah. He’d buy that.”
Joe had read once about a species of frog that lived on the Serengeti Plain in Africa. These frogs, it seemed, laid their eggs on muddy riverbanks in the monsoon season when the earth was black and oozing with moisture. But the wet season turned dry in time, and on the Serengeti a drought could go on and on. The eggs could lay trapped in the arid, hard-packed ground for years. Amazingly, when the rains finally returned, newborn frogs would come bubbling up through the mud and go in search of mates, to begin the cycle of life again.
Impossible, he’d thought at the time, for life to adapt to such conditions.
And yet, he felt a little like that now. The meeting with Diana’s parents had released something in him. Not the guilt, or not all of it, certainly, but their forgiveness, their understanding, had eased his burdens. For the first time since his wife’s death, he could stand straight again. He could believe that there was a way out for him. Not medicine. He could never go through that again, never watch death up close. But something . . .
And there was Meghann. To his disbelief, she’d called. Asked him on a date. His first real date with a woman in more than fifteen years.
He wasn’t sure even how to prepare for it.
She wasn’t like Diana. There was no softness in Meghann. No single moment with her promised anything—least of all another moment. Even when they were at their most intimate, when he was inside of her, she sometimes turned her face away from him.
He knew it would be smart to forget her and the desires she’d rekindled. Smart, but impossible. That would be like expecting those frogs to feel the sweet rainwater and stay hidden in the safety of their riverbank. Thousands of years of evolution had honed certain instincts to the point where they couldn’t be ignored.
Meghann, perhaps even more so than the Roloffs’ forgiveness, had brought Joe back to life. He couldn’t turn away from her now.
It was because of her that he dared—at last—to go to town. On his lunch break, he strode down Main Street, head down, face partially obscured by a baseball cap. He walked past the two old men sitting outside the Loose Screw Hardware Shop, past a woman dragging two small children out of the ice-cream store. He was aware of people pointing at him and whispering. He kept moving.
Finally, he ducked into the old barber shop and climbed up into the empty chair. “I could use a haircut,” he said, not making eye contact with Frank Hill, who’d first cut Joe’s hair for the fourth-grade class photo.
“You sure could.” Frank finished sweeping the floor, then grabbed a comb and some scissors. After pinning a bib in place, he started combing Joe’s hair. “Head up.”
Joe slowly lifted his head. Across the room a mirror held his reflection. He saw the imprint of the last few years. Sadness and guilt had left their mark in the lines around his eyes and the silver in his hair. He sat still for the next thirty minutes, his stomach clenched, his hands fisted, waiting for Frank to recognize him.
When it was over and he’d paid Frank for the haircut, he headed for the door. He’d just opened it when Frank said, “You come on back and see me anytime, Joe. You still have friends in this town.”
That welcome gave Joe the courage to walk down to Swain’s Mercantile, where he bought new clothes. Several old acquaintances smiled at him.
He made it back to the garage by 1:00 and worked for the rest of the day.
“That’s about the tenth time you’ve looked at that clock in the past half an hour,” Smitty said at 4:30. He was at the workbench, putting together a skateboard for his grandson’s birthday.
“I’ve . . . uh . . . got someplace to be,” Joe said.
Smitty reached for a wrench. “No kidding.”
Joe slammed the truck’s hood down. “I thought maybe I’d leave a couple of minutes early.”
“Wouldn’t hurt my feelings none.”
“Thanks.” Joe looked down at his hands; they were black with grease. He couldn’t see touching Meghann with these hands, though the grease under his fingernails certainly hadn’t bothered her in the past. It was one of the things he liked about her. The women he’d known in his previous life looked down on men like the one he’d become.
“Whatcha got going on—if you don’t mind me asking,” Smitty asked, moving toward him.
“A friend is coming over for dinner.”
“This friend drive a Porsche?”
Smitty smiled. “Maybe you want to borrow the barbecue. Cut a few flowers from Helga’s garden?”
“I didn’t know how to ask.”
“Hell, Joe, you just do. Open your mouth and say please. That’s part of being neighbors and coworkers.”
“Helga made a cheesecake last night. I’ll bet she has a few extra pieces.”
“My friend is bringing dessert.”
“Ah. Sort of a potluck, huh? That isn’t how we did it in my day. ’Course in my day, us men never cooked a thing.” He winked. “Not on the stove, anyway. Have a nice night, Joe.” Humming a jaunty tune, he headed back to the workbench.
Joe shoved the oily rag in his back pocket and left the shop. On his way to his cabin, he stopped by Smitty’s house, talked to Helga for a few minutes, and left carrying a small hibachi. He set up the barbecue on the front porch, filling the black hole with briquettes that he’d bought that morning at Swain’s.
Inside the house, he looked around, making a mental list of things to be done.
Oil, wrap, and stab the potatoes.
Shuck the corn.
Season the steaks.
Arrange the flowers in the water pitcher.
Set the table.
He looked at the clock.
She’d be there in ninety minutes.
He showered and shaved, then dressed in his new clothes and headed for the kitchen.
For the next hour, he moved from one chore to the next, until the potatoes were in the oven, the corn was on the stove, the flowers were on the table, and the candles were lit.
Finally, everything was ready. He poured himself a glass of red wine and went into the living room to wait for her.
He sat down on the sofa and stretched out his legs.
From her place on the mantel, Diana smiled down at him.
He felt a flash of guilt, as if he’d done something wrong. That was stupid; he wasn’t being unfaithful.
Still . . .
He set his glass down on the coffee table and went to her. “Hey, Di,” he whispered, reaching for the photograph. This was one of his favorites, taken on New Year’s Eve at Whistler Mountain. She wore a white fur hat and a silvery parka. She looked impossibly young and beautiful.
For three years, he’d poured his heart out to her, told her everything; suddenly he couldn’t think of a thing to say. Behind him, candles flickered on the table set for two.
He touched the photo. The glass felt cold and slick. “I’ll always love you.”
It was true. Diana would always be his first—maybe his best—love.
But he had to try again.
He collected the photographs, one by one, leaving a single framed picture on the end table. Just one. All the rest, he took into the bedroom and carefully put away. Later, he’d return a few of them to his sister’s house.
When he went back into the living room and sat down, he smiled, thinking of Meghann. Anticipating the evening.
By 9:30, his smile had faded.
He sat alone on the couch, half drunk now with an empty bottle of wine beside him. The potatoes had long ago cooked down to nothing and the candles had burned themselves out. The front door stood open, welcoming, but the street in front was empty.
At midnight, he went to bed alone.
In the past nine days, Meghann and Claire had seen several specialists. It was amazing how fast doctors would see you if you had a brain tumor and plenty of money. Neurologists. Neurosurgeons. Neuro-oncologists. Radiologists. They went from Johns Hopkins to Sloan-Kettering to Scripps. When they weren’t on airplanes, they were in hospital waiting rooms or doctors’ offices. They learned dozens of frightening new words. Glioblastoma. Anaplastic astrocytoma. Craniotomy. Some of the doctors were caring and compassionate; more were cold and distant and too busy to talk for long. They outlined treatment models that were all depressingly alike and stacked them on statistics that offered little hope.
They each said the same thing: inoperable. It didn’t matter if Claire’s tumor was malignant or benign; either way it could be deadly. Most of the specialists believed Claire’s tumor to be a glioblastoma multiforme. A kind they called the terminator. Ha-ha.
Each time they left a city, Meghann pinned her hopes on the next destination.
Until a neurologist at Scripps took her aside. “Look,” the doctor said, “you’re using up valuable time. Radiation is your sister’s best hope right now. Twenty-five percent of brain tumors respond positively to the treatment. If it shrinks enough, perhaps it will be operable. Take her home. Stop fighting the diagnosis and start fighting the tumor.”
Claire had agreed, and so they’d gone home. The next day, Meghann had taken her sister to Swedish Hospital, where yet another neuro-oncologist had said the same thing, his opinion bolstered by yet another radiologist. They’d agreed to begin radiation treatment the next day.
Once a day for four weeks.
“I’ll need to stay here for the treatments,” Claire said as she sat on the cold stone fireplace in Meghann’s condo. “Hayden’s too far away.”
“Of course. I’ll call Julie and take some more time off of work.”
“You don’t have to do that. I can take the bus to the hospital.”
“I’m not going to dignify that with an answer. Even I am not that big a bitch.”
Claire looked out the window. “A friend of mine went through chemo and radiation. . . .” She stared at the sparkling city, but all she really saw was Diana wasting away, losing her soul along with her hair. In the end, all those treatments hadn’t helped at all. “I don’t want Ali to see me like that. She can stay with Dad. We’ll visit every weekend.”