She looked at him, confused by the sudden harshness of his voice. “What?”
“I didn’t know your Mama was pregnant, did I ever tell you that?”
“You told me.”
“I left one night to run to the store and when I got back, she’d left me. I tried to get ahold of her, but you know Ellie, when she’s gone, she’s gone. I went back to my job at the paper plant and tried to forget her. It took a long time.”
Claire put her hand on his. “I know all this.”
“You don’t know all of it. When Meg called me to come get you, I went from alone in the world to father of a nine-year-old in one phone call. I hated Ellie then like you can’t believe. It took years before I stopped hating her for denying me your childhood. All I could think about was what I’d missed—your birth, your first words, your first steps. I never got to hold all of you in my arms, not really.”
“What does this have to do with Bobby?”
“You can’t make decisions for other people, Claire, especially not for people who love you.”
“But you can sacrifice for them. Isn’t that what love is?”
“You see it as sacrifice? What if he sees it as selfishness? If . . . the worst happens, you’ve denied him the one thing that matters. Time.”
Claire looked at him. “I can’t tell him, Dad. I can’t.”
“I could kill her for what she did to you and Meg.”
“This isn’t about Mama dumping us,” Claire said, believing it. “This is about how much I love Bobby. I won’t make him give up his big break for me.”
Before Dad could say anything else, Alison bounded into the room, dragging her worn, stained baby blanket, the one she’d slept with every single night of her life. “Here, Mommy,” she said, “you can have my wubbie till you get all better.”
Claire took the grayed pink blanket in her hands. She couldn’t help herself; she held it to her face and smelled the little-girl sweetness of it. “Thanks, Ali,” she said in a throaty voice.
Alison crawled up into her arms and hugged her. “It’s okay, Mommy. Don’t cry. I’m a big girl. I can sleep without my wubbie.”
MEGHANN SAT IN THE WAITING ROOM, TRYING TO READ THE newest issue ofPeoplemagazine. It was the “Best- and Worst-Dressed” issue. Honest to God, she couldn’t tell the difference. Finally, she tossed the magazine on the cheap wooden table beside her. The wall clock ticked past another minute.
She went up to the desk again. “It’s been more than an hour. Are you sure everything is okay with my sister? Claire—”
“Austin, I know. I spoke with radiology five minutes ago. She’s almost finished.”
Meghann refrained from pointing out that she’d received the same answer fifteen minutes earlier. Instead, she sighed heavily and went back to her seat. The only magazine left to read was Field & Stream. She ignored it.
Finally, Claire came out.
Meghann rose slowly. On the right side of her sister’s head was a small area that had been shaved. “How was it?”
Claire touched her bald spot, feeling it. “They tattooed me. I feel like Damien—that kid from The Omen.”
Meg looked at the tiny black dots on the pale, shaved shin. “I could fix your hair so you couldn’t even see the . . . you know.”
“Bald spot? That would be great.”
They looked at each other for a minute or so. “Well, let’s go, then,” Meghann finally said.
They walked through the hospital and out to the parking garage.
On the short drive home, Meghann kept trying to think of what to say. She had to be careful from now on, had to say the right thing. Whatever that was.
“It didn’t hurt,” Claire said.
“Really? That’s good.”
“It was hard to keep still, though.”
“Oh . . . yeah. It would be.”
“I closed my eyes and imagined the rays were sunlight. Healing me. Like that article you gave me.”
Meg had given her sister a stack of literature on positive thinking and visualization. She hadn’t known if Claire had read them until just now. “I’m glad it helped. The lady at Fred Hutch is supposed to be sending me another box of stuff.”
Claire leaned back in her seat and looked out the window.
From this side, she looked perfectly normal. Meghann wished she could say something that mattered; so much was unsaid between them.
With a sigh, she pulled into the underground lot and parked in her space.
Still silent, they went upstairs. In the condo, Meghann turned to Claire. She stared at the bald spot for a second too long. “Do you want something to eat?”
“No.” Claire touched her briefly, her fingers were icy cold. “Thanks for coming with me today. It helped not to be alone.”
Their gazes met. Once again, Meghann felt the weight of their distance.
“I think I’ll lie down. I didn’t sleep well last night.”
So they’d both been awake, staring at their separate ceilings from their separate rooms. Meghann wished she’d gone to Claire last night, sat on her bed, and talked about the things that mattered. “Me, either.”
Claire nodded. She waited a second longer, then turned and headed for the bedroom.
Meghann watched the door slowly close between them. She stood there, listening to her sister’s shuffling footsteps beyond the door. She wondered if Claire was moving slower in there, if fear clouded her eyes. Or if she was staring at that small, tattooed pink patch of skin in the mirror. Did Claire’s brave front crumble in the privacy of that room?
Meg prayed not, as she went to the condo’s third bedroom, which was set up as an in-home office. Once, files and briefs and depositions had cluttered the glass desk. Now it was buried beneath medical books, memoirs, JAMA articles, and clinical trials literature. Every day, boxes from Barnes & Noble.com and Amazon arrived.
Meghann sat down at her desk. Her current reading material was a book on coping with cancer. It lay open to a chapter called “Don’t Stop Talking Just When You Need to Start.”
She read: This time of tragedy can be one of growth and opportunity, too. Not only for the patient, but for the family as well. It can be a time that draws you and your loved ones closer.
Meghann closed the book and reached for a JAMA article about the potential benefits of tamoxifen to shrink tumors.
She opened a yellow legal pad and began to take notes. She worked furiously, writing, writing. Hours later, when she looked up, Claire was standing in the doorway, smiling at her. “Why do I think you’re planning to do the surgery yourself?”
“I already know more about your condition than that first idiot we saw.”
Claire came into the room, carefully stepping over the empty Amazon boxes and the magazines that had been discarded. She stared down at the filled legal pads and inkless pens. “No wonder you’re the best lawyer in the city.”
“I research well. I’m really starting to understand your condition. I’ve made you a kind of abstract—a synopsis of everything I’ve read.”
“I think I better read it for myself, don’t you?”
“Some of it’s . . . hard.”
Claire reached for the standing file on the left side of the desk. In it was a manila file with the word Hope emblazoned in red ink on the notched label. She picked it up.
“Don’t,” Meg said. “I’ve just started.”
Claire opened the file. It was empty. She looked down at Meghann.
“This goes in it,” Meg said quickly, ripping several pages out of her notebook. “Tamoxifen.”
“There must be people who beat brain tumors,” Meghann said fiercely. “I’ll find every damn one and put their stories in there. That’s what the file is for.”
Claire leaned over, picked up a blank piece of paper. On it, she wrote her name, then she placed the paper in the file and returned the file to its stand.
Meg stared up at her sister in awe. “You’re really something. You know that?”
“We Sullivan girls are tough.”
“We had to be.”
Meg smiled. For the first time all day, she felt as if she could draw an easy breath. “You want to watch a movie?”
“Anything except Love Story.”
Meg started to rise.
The doorbell rang.
She frowned. “Who could that be?”
“You act like no one ever visits you.”
Meghann sidled past Claire and walked to the door. By the time she got there, the bell had rung another eight times. “Damn good doorman,” she muttered, opening the door.
Gina, Charlotte, and Karen stood clustered together.
“Where’s our girl?” Karen cried out.
Claire appeared and the screaming began. Karen and Charlotte surged forward, mumbling hello to Meghann, then enfolding Claire in their arms.
“Sam called us,” Gina said when she and Meghann were alone in the hallway. “How is she?”
“Okay, I guess. The radiation went well, I think. She goes every day for four weeks.” At Gina’s frightened look, Meghann added, “She didn’t want to worry you guys.”
“Yeah, right. She can’t be alone for a thing like this.”
“I’m here,” Meghann answered, stung.
Gina squeezed her arm. “She’ll need all of us.”
Meghann nodded. Then she and Gina looked at each other.
“You call me. Whenever,” Gina said quietly.
After that, Gina eased past Meg and went into the living room, saying loudly. “Okay, we’ve got spas-in-a-bucket, gooey popcorn balls, hilarious movies, and, of course, games. What should we do first?”
Meghann watched the four best friends come together; they were all talking at once. She didn’t move toward them, and they didn’t call out to her.
Finally, she went back to her office and shut the door. As she sat there, reading the latest literature on chemotherapy and the blood-brain barrier, she heard the high, clear sound of her sister’s laughter.
She picked up the phone and called Elizabeth.
“Hey,” Meg said softly when her friend answered.
“What is it?” Elizabeth asked. “You’re too quiet.”
“Claire,” was all she could say before the tears came.
Joe sat sprawled across the sofa, drinking a beer. His third. Mostly, he was trying not to think.
The ephemeral chance for redemption—the one that only last week had glittered in front of him like a desert oasis beside a long, hot highway—had vanished. He should have known it was a mirage.
There would be no starting over. He didn’t have the guts for it. He’d thought, hoped, that with Meg he’d be stronger.
“Meg,” he said her name softly, closed his eyes. He said a prayer for her and her sister. It was all he could really do now.
She wouldn’t clear out of his mind. He kept thinking of her, remembering, wanting. It was what had sent him reaching for the bottles of beer.
It wasn’t that he missed her, precisely. Hell, he didn’t even know her last name. Didn’t know where she lived or what she did in her spare time.