“What do we do now?” she said into the silence that felt suddenly awkward. “For Claire, I mean.” She stepped back from him, put some distance between them.
“We wait to hear from Stu Weissnar. And we pray he agrees with my assessment.”
Joe was at the front door when he heard his name called. He stopped, turned.
Gina stood there. “I hear my brother is acting like a doctor again.”
“All I did was call Stu.”
She came closer, smiling now. “You gave her a chance, Joe.”
“We’ll see what Stu says, but yeah. Maybe. I hope so.”
Gina touched his arm. “Diana would be proud of you. So am I.”
“Come sit with us in the waiting room. You’ve been alone long enough. It’s time to start your new life.”
“There’s something I need to take care of first.”
“Promise me you’ll come back.”
An hour later, he was on the ferry headed to Bainbridge Island. He stood at the railing on the upper deck as the ferry turned into Eagle Harbor. The pretty little bay seemed to welcome him, with all its well-maintained homes and the sailboats clustered at the marina. He was glad to see that it looked the same; still more trees than houses, and the beachfront hadn’t been cut into narrow lots.
This is it, Joey. This is where I want to raise our kids.
His fingers tightened around the railing. That day hadn’t been so long ago—maybe ten years—but it felt like forever. He and Diana had been so young and hope-filled. It had never occurred to either one of them that they wouldn’t be together forever.
That one of them would have to go on alone.
The ferry honked its horn.
Joe returned to his truck, below deck. When the boat docked, he drove off.
Memories came at him from every street corner and sign.
Pick up that armoire for me, won’t you, Joey, it’s at Bad Blanche’s.
Let’s go to the winery today. I want to smell the grapes.
Forget dinner, Joey, take me to bed or lose me.
He turned onto his old road. The trees were huge here; they towered in the air and blocked out the sun. The quiet road lay shadowed and still. There wasn’t a house to be seen out here, just mailboxes and driveways that led off to the right.
At the last one, he slowed down.
Their mailbox was still there. Dr. and Mrs. Joe Wyatt. It had been one of Diana’s first purchases after they’d closed on the house.
He drove down his long, tree-lined driveway. The house—his house—sat in a patch of grassy sunlight beside a wide gravel beach. It was a pretty little Cape Cod–style home with cedar shingles and glossy white trim.
The wisteria had gone wild, he noticed, growing thick and green along the porch railings, around the posts and up some of the exterior walls.
He was moving slowly now, breathing hard, as he left the safety of his car and walked toward the house.
The first thing he noticed was the smell. The salty tang of sea air mixed with the sweetness of blooming roses.
He found the key in his wallet—the one he’d kept especially for this day.
In truth, there had been weeks, months even, when he’d never believed he’d find the guts to reach for it again.
The key fit the lock, clicked.
Joe opened the door—
Honey, I’m home
—and went inside.
The place looked exactly as he’d left it. He still remembered the day he’d come home from court—supposedly an innocent man (no, a not-guilty one)—and packed a suitcase. The only phone call he’d made had been to Gina. I’m sorry, he’d said, too tired to be eloquent. I need to go.
I’ll take care of the place, she’d answered, crying. You’ll be back.
I don’t know, he’d said. How can I?
And yet, here he was. True to her word, Gina had taken care of the place. She’d paid the taxes and the bills from the money he’d left in a special account. No dust collected on the furniture or windowsills, no spiderwebs hung from the high pitched ceilings.
He walked from room to room, touching things, remembering. Every stick of furniture reminded him of a time and place.
This chair is perfect, Joey, don’t you think? You can sit in it to watch TV.
Every knickknack had a story. Like a blind man, he moved slowly, putting his hands on everything, as if somehow touch elicited the memories more than sight.
Finally, he was in the master bedroom. The sight of it was almost too much. He forced himself to go forward. It was all still there. The big antique bed they’d gotten from Mom and Dad as a wedding present, the beautiful quilt that had come to them on Dad’s death. The old nightstands that had once been piled with books—romance novels on her side, military histories on his. Even the tiny needlepoint pillow that Diana had made when she first got sick.
He sat down on the bed and picked up the pillow, seeing the tiny brown spots that marred the fabric.
I don’t think needlework is a good therapy. I’m losing so much blood I’m getting light-headed.
“Hey, Diana,” he said, wishing for the days when he’d been able to conjure her image. He stroked the pillow, trying to remember how it had felt to touch her. “I was at the hospital today. It felt good.”
He knew what she’d say to that. But he didn’t really know if he was ready to go back. His life had changed so much, degraded somehow into tiny bits that might not fit together again.
He hadn’t forgotten the way people looked at him at his old office. They saw him and wondered, Is that what a murderer looks like?
He stared down at the pillow, stroking it. “You shouldn’t have asked it of me, Di. It . . . ruined me.
“Well . . . maybe I ruined me, too,” he admitted quietly. He should have stayed here, in this community he’d cared so much for. His mistake had been in running away.
It was time to quit hiding and running. Time to stand up to the people who judged him poorly and say, No more.
Time to take his life back.
Slowly, he got up and went to the closet, opening the louvered doors.
Diana’s clothes filled two-thirds of the space.
Three years ago, he’d tried to box them up and give them away. He’d folded one pink cashmere sweater and been done for.
He reached out for a beige angora turtleneck that had been her favorite. He eased it off of the white plastic hanger and brought it to his face. The barest remnant of her scent lingered. Tears stung his eyes. “Good-bye, Diana,” he whispered.
Then he went in search of a box.
THE NEXT MORNING STU WEISSMAN CALLED CLAIRE. HE spoke in clipped, rushed sentences. She was so groggy and disoriented, it took her several seconds to understand him.
“Wait a minute,” she finally said, sitting up. “Are you saying you’ll do the surgery?”
“Yes. But this thing will be a bear cat. Could be a bad outlook all the way around. You could end up paralyzed or brain damaged or worse.”
“Worse sooner, you mean.”
He laughed at that. “Yes.”
“I’ll take the chance.”
“Then I will, too. I’ll be there tonight. I’ve scheduled the surgery for eight A.M. tomorrow.” His voice softened. “I don’t mean to be negative, Claire. But you should put your affairs in order today. If you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean. Thank you, Dr. Weissman.”
All that day, Claire said good-bye to her friends. She did it one at a time, feeling that each of them deserved that kind of attention.
To Karen, she joked about the gray hairs Willie was sure to cause her in the upcoming years and begged her friend to make this third marriage work. To Charlotte, she said, Don’t give up on babies; they’re the mark we leave in this world. If you can’t have one of your own, find one to adopt and love her with all you’ve got. Gina was more difficult. For almost an hour they were together, Claire dozing off every now and then, Gina standing by the bedside, trying not to cry.
Take care of my family, Claire said at last, fighting to keep her eyes open.
Take care of them yourself, Gina had responded, her voice spiking for humor that it couldn’t reach. Then, softly, she said, You know I will.
They were awkward, painful partings, full of things unsaid and boundaries upheld. They all pretended Claire would still be here tomorrow night, laughing and screwing up as she always had. She left her friends with that faith, and though she wanted to own it for herself, hope felt like a borrowed sweater that didn’t quite fit.
She was bone tired, but most of all, she was afraid. Dr. Weissman had been guarded in his optimism and blunt in his assessment of the risk. A bad outlook all the way around, he’d said. The worst part of her fear was how alone it made her feel. There was no one she could tell.
Time and again throughout the long, drawn-out day, she found herself wishing that she’d died already, simply floated from this world unexpectedly. There was no way to be stealthy now, not with all her loved ones in the waiting room, praying for her, and the thought of the good-byes she still had left was devastating. Bobby and Sam would hold her and cry; she’d have to be ready for that. Meg would get angry and loud.
And then there was Ali. How could Claire possibly get through that?
The hospital had a small nondenominational chapel on the second floor.
Meghann stood outside it, paused in the open doorway. It had been years since she’d gone to a church in search of comfort; decades, in fact.
Slowly, she went inside, let the door ease shut behind her. Her footsteps were hushed and even on the mustard-colored carpet. She slid into the middle pew and knelt on the floor. There was no cushion for her knees, but she knelt anyway. It seemed right to be on her knees when she asked for a miracle.
She clasped her hands together and bowed her head. “I’m Meghann Dontess,” she said by way of introduction. “I’m sure you’ve forgotten me. I haven’t talked to you since . . . oh . . . the ninth grade, I think. That’s when I prayed for enough money to get Claire ballet lessons. Then Mama got fired again and we moved on. I . . . stopped believing you could help.” She thought of Claire upstairs, so pale and tired-looking in that hospital bed, and of the risks the surgery entailed. “She’s one of the good ones, God. Please. Protect her. Don’t let Ali grow up without her mom.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. Tears slid down her cheeks and plopped on her hands. She wanted to say more, maybe find a way to bargain, but she had nothing to offer beyond desperation.
Behind her, the door opened, closed. Someone walked down the aisle.
Meghann wiped her eyes and eased back onto the pew.
She looked up, surprised. Sam stood beside her, his big body hunched in defeat, his eyes a watery red. “She’s saying good-bye to her girlfriends.”
“I can’t stand watching each one come out of her room. The minute they close the door, their smiles fade and the crying starts.”
Meghann had run from the same thing. “She’s lucky to have so many friends.”
“Yeah. Can I join you?”