What he grieved for was the idea of her. For those few moments—unexpected and sweet—he’d dared to step onto old roads. He’d let himself want someone, let himself believe in a new future.
He took a long drink. It didn’t help.
In the kitchen, the phone rang. He got slowly to his feet and started that way. It was probably Gina, calling to make sure he was okay. He had no idea what he’d tell her.
But it wasn’t Gina. It was Henry Roloff, sounding hurried. “Joe? Could you meet me for a cup of coffee? Say in an hour?”
“Is everything okay?”
“How about the Whitewater Diner? Three o’clock?”
Joe hoped he could walk straight. “Sure.” He hung up the phone and headed for the shower.
An hour later he was dressed in his new clothes and walking down Main Street. He still felt a faint buzz from the beer, but that was probably a good thing. Already he could feel the way people were staring after him, whispering about him.
It took an act of will to keep smiling as the hostess—a woman he didn’t know, thank God—showed him to a booth.
Henry was already there. “Hey, Joe. Thanks for coming so quickly.”
“It’s not like I was busy. It’s Saturday. The garage is closed.” He slid into the booth.
Henry talked for a few minutes about Tina’s garden and the vacation they’d taken to St. Croix last winter, but Joe knew it was all leading up to something. He found himself tensing up, straightening.
Finally, he couldn’t take the suspense. “What is it, Henry?” he asked.
Henry stopped midsentence and looked up. “I want to ask a favor of you.”
“I’d do anything for you, Henry. You know that. What do you need?”
Henry reached down under the table and brought out a big manila envelope.
Joe knew what it was. He leaned back, put his hands out as if to ward off a blow. “Anything but that, Henry,” he said. “I can’t go back to that.”
“I just want you to look at this. The patient is—” Henry’s beeper went off. “Just a minute.” Henry pulled out his cell phone and punched in a number.
Joe stared down at the envelope. Someone’s medical charts. A record of pain and suffering.
He couldn’t go back to that world. No way. When a man had lost his faith and his confidence as profoundly as Joe had, there was no going back. Besides, he couldn’t practice medicine anymore. He’d let his license lapse.
He got to his feet. “Sorry, Henry,” he said, interrupting Henry’s phone call. “My consulting days are over.”
“Wait,” Henry said, raising a hand.
Joe backed away from the table, then turned and walked out of the restaurant.
Though the radiation treatments themselves lasted only a few minutes a day, they monopolized Claire’s life. By the fourth day, she was tired and nauseated. But the side effects weren’t half as bad as the phone calls.
Every day, she called home at precisely noon. Ali always answered on the first ring and asked if the owie was all better yet, then Dad got on the phone and asked the same question in a different way. The strength it took to pretend was already waning.
Meghann stood beside her for every call. She hardly went to the office anymore. Maybe three hours a day, tops. The rest of the time, she spent huddled over books and articles, or glued to the Internet. She attacked the issue of a tumor the way she’d once gone after deadbeat dads.
Claire appreciated it; she read everything that Meghann handed her. She’d even consented to drink the “BTC”—brain tumor cocktail—Meghann had devised based on her research. It contained all kinds of vitamins and minerals.
They talked daily about treatments and prognoses and trials. What they didn’t talk about was the future. Claire couldn’t find the courage to say, I’m afraid, and Meg never asked the question.
The only time Meg seemed willing to disappear into the woodwork was at 2:00. The designated Bobby Phone Call time.
Now, Claire was alone in the living room. In the kitchen, the 2:00 buzzer was beeping. As usual, Meg had heard it and made an excuse to leave the room.
Claire picked up the phone and dialed Bobby’s new cell phone number.
He picked up on the first ring. “Hey, baby,” he said. “You’re two minutes late.” Bobby’s voice poured through her cold, cold body, warming her.
She leaned back into the sofa’s downy cushions. “Tell me about your day.” She’d found that it was easier to listen than to talk. At first, she’d been able to laugh at his stories and make up pretty lies. Lately, though, her mind was a little foggy, and the exhaustion was almost unbearable. She wondered how long it would be before he noticed that she spent their conversations listening to him, or that her voice almost always broke when she said, I love you.
“I met George Strait today. Can you believe it? He passed on a song—one called “Dark Country Corners”—and then mentioned that it’d be a good match with my voice. I listened to the song and it was great.” He started to sing to her.
A sob caught in her throat. She had to stop him before she burst into tears. “That’s beautiful. Top 10 for sure.”
“Are you okay, baby?”
“I’m fine. Everyone here is fine. Meg and I have been spending a lot of time together; you’d be surprised. And Ali and Sam send their love.”
“Slap ’em right back with mine. I miss you, Claire.”
“I miss you, too. But it’s only a few more weeks.”
“Kent thinks we should have all the songs chosen by next week. Then it’s into the studio. Do you think you could come down for that? I’d love to sing the songs to you.”
“Maybe,” she said, wondering what lie she’d come up with when the time came. She was too exhausted to think of one now. “Are you loving every minute down there?”
“As much as I can love anything without you. But, yeah.”
She was doing the right thing. She was. “Well, babe, I’ve got to run. Meg is taking me out to lunch. Then we’re getting manicures at the Gene Juarez Spa.”
“I thought you got a manicure yesterday?”
Claire winced. “Uh. Those were pedicures. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Claire. Is . . . is everything okay?”
She felt the sting of tears again. “Everything’s perfect.”
“I made us a picnic lunch,” Meghann said the next morning after another treatment.
“I’m not very hungry,” Claire answered.
“I know that. I just thought . . .”
Claire hauled up the will to think about someone else. Sadly, that was becoming difficult, too. “You’re right. It’s a beautiful day.”
Meghann led her to the car. Within minutes they were on the freeway. To their left, Lake Union sparkled in the sunlight. They passed the Gothic brick buildings of the University of Washington, then raced over the floating bridge.
Lake Washington was busy today. Boats zipped back and forth, hauling skiers in their wake.
On Mercer Island, Meghann exited the freeway and turned onto a narrow, tree-lined drive. At a beautiful, gray-shingled house, she parked. “This is my partner’s house. She said we were welcome to spend the afternoon here.”
“I’m surprised she hasn’t fired you, with all the time you’ve taken off lately.”
Meghann helped Claire out of the car and down the grassy lawn to the silvery wooden dock that cut into the blue water. “Remember Lake Winobee?” she said, guiding Claire to the end of the dock, helping her sit down without falling.
“The summer I got that pink bathing suit?”
Meghann set the picnic basket down, then sat beside her sister. They both dangled their feet over the edge. Water slapped against the pilings. Beside them, a varnished wooden sailboat called The Defense Rests bobbed easily from side to side, its lines screeching with each movement.
“I stole that bikini,” Meghann said. “From Fred Meyer. When I got home, I was so scared I threw up. Mama didn’t care; she just looked up from Variety and said, ‘Sticky fingers will get a girl in trouble.’ ”
Claire turned to her sister, studying her profile. “I waited for you to come back, you know. Dad always said, ‘Don’t worry, Claire-Bear, she’s your sister, she’ll be back.’ I waited and waited. What happened?”
Meghann sighed heavily, as if she’d known this conversation couldn’t be avoided anymore. “Remember when Mama went down for the Starbase IV audition?”
“She didn’t come back. I was used to her being gone for a day or two, but after about five days, I started to panic. There wasn’t any money left. We were hungry. Then Social Services started sniffing around. I was scared they’d put us in the system. So I called Sam.”
“I know all this, Meg.”
Meghann didn’t seem to have heard her. “He said he’d take us both in.”
“And he did.”
“But he wasn’t my father. I tried to fit in to Hayden; what a joke. I got in with a bad crowd and started screwing up. A therapist would call it acting out. Trying to get attention. Every time I looked at you and Sam together . . .” She shrugged. “I felt left out, I guess. You were all I really had, and then I didn’t have you. One night I came home drunk and Sam exploded. He called me a piss-poor excuse for a big sister and told me to shape up or get out.”
“So you got out. Where did you go?”
“I bummed around Seattle for a while, feeling sorry for myself. I slept in doorways and empty buildings, did things I’m not proud of. It didn’t take long to hit rock bottom. Then one day I remembered a teacher who’d taken an interest in me, Mr. Earhart. He was the one who bumped me up a grade, back when we lived in Barstow. He convinced me that education was the way out of Mama’s trailer-trash life. That’s why I always got straight As. Anyway, I gave him a call—thank God he was still at the same school. He arranged for me to graduate high school early and take the SAT, which I aced. Perfect score. The UW offered me a full scholarship. You know the rest.”
“My genius sister,” Claire said. For once, there was pride in her voice instead of bitterness.
“I told myself it was the best thing for you, that you didn’t need your big sister anymore. But . . . I knew how much I’d hurt you. It was easier to keep my distance, I guess. I believed you’d never forgive me. So I didn’t give you the chance.” Meg finally looked at her. She offered a small smile. “I’ll have to tell my shrink I finally got my money’s worth. It cost me about ten thousand dollars to be able to tell you that.”
“The only thing you did wrong was stay away,” Claire said gently.
“I’m here now.”
“I know.” Claire looked out to the sparkling blue water. “I couldn’t have done all this without you.”
“That’s not true. You’re the bravest person I ever met.”
“I’m not so brave, believe me.”