She sidled to the right, making room. He sat down beside her. He was close enough that she could feel the heat of his body, but they didn’t touch, didn’t speak.
Finally Sam said, “I was thirty years old when you called me.”
She frowned. “Oh.” What did he want her to say?
“I had no brothers and sisters and no other children.”
“I know that, Sam. You pointed it out every time I screwed up.”
He sighed. “I was pissed at Eliana. She’d denied me my daughter’s childhood. All those years I’d been alone when I didn’t have to be . . . and the way you and Claire lived from hand to mouth. I couldn’t stand it.”
“I know that.”
He twisted around to face her. “Claire was easy. She looked up at me with those big, trusting eyes and said, Hi, Daddy; just like that, I fell in love. But you.” He shook his head. “You scared the shit out of me. You were tough and mouthy and you thought everything I said to Claire was wrong. I didn’t know you were just being a teenager. I thought you were like . . .”
“Yeah. And I didn’t want Claire to be hurt. It took me a while—years—to see that you weren’t like Ellie. By then it was too late.”
“Maybe I am like Mama,” she said quietly.
“No,” he said fiercely. “You’ve been Claire’s rock through this nightmare. You have the kind of heart that saves people, even if you don’t believe it. And I’m sorry I didn’t see that when I was younger.”
“A lot of things have become clearer lately.”
“Yeah.” He sat back in the pew. “I don’t see how I’ll get through this,” Sam said.
Meghann had no answer. How could she, when the question haunted her as well?
A few minutes later, the door opened again. This time it was Bobby. He looked terrible.
“She wants to see Ali,” he whispered harshly. “I can’t do it.”
Sam made a fluttery sound. “Oh, God.”
“I’ll do it,” Meg said, slowly rising.
Claire must have fallen asleep again. When she woke, the sunlight outside had faded, leaving the room a soft, silvery color.
She saw her daughter then. Ali clung to Meghann like a little monkey, arms wrapped around her aunt’s neck, feet locked around her waist.
Claire made a quiet, whimpering sound before she rallied and pulled out a tired smile. The only way to get through this moment was to pretend there would be another. For Ali, she had to believe in a miracle.
“Hey there, Ali Kat. I hear you’re eating all the cinnamon rolls in the cafeteria.”
Alison giggled. “Only three, Mommy. Aunt Meg said if I had one more I’d throw up.”
Claire opened her arms. “Come here, baby.”
Meg leaned forward and gently deposited Ali into Claire’s thin arms. She hugged her daughter tightly, couldn’t seem to let go. She was battling tears and hanging on to her smile by a thread when she whispered into her daughter’s tiny, shell-pink ear, “You remember how much I love you.”
“I know, Mommy,” Ali said, burrowing closer. She lay still as a sleeping baby, quieter than she’d lain in years. That was when Claire knew that Ali understood, but when her daughter leaned closer to say, “I told God I’d never ask for Cap’n Crunch again if He made you all better,” Claire felt something inside her tear away. She clung to her daughter for as long as she could. “Take her home,” she finally said when the pain became more than she could bear.
Meghann was there instantly, pulling Ali into her arms again.
But Ali wiggled out of Meg’s grasp and slithered to the molded plastic chair beside the bed. She stood there, on the wobbly chair, staring at Claire.
“I don’t want you to die, Mommy,” she said in a husky little voice.
It hurt too much even to cry. Claire looked at her precious baby and managed a smile. “I know that, punkin, and I love you more than all the stars in the sky. Now you skedaddle on home with Grandpa and Bobby. I hear they’re going to take you to see a movie.”
Meghann picked Ali up again. Claire could see that she was near tears, too. “Make Bobby go home,” she said to her sister. “He’s been here every night. Tell him I said Ali needs him tonight.”
Meg reached out, squeezed her hand. “We need you.”
Claire sighed. “I need to sleep now” was all she could think of to say.
Hours later, Claire came awake with a start. Her heart was pounding so hard she felt light-headed. For a split second, she didn’t know where she was. Then she saw the flowers and the machines. If she squinted, she could make out the wall clock. Moonlight glinted on the domed glass face. It was 4:00.
In a few hours, they’d crack her skull open.
She started to panic, then saw Meg was in the corner, sprawled in one of those uncomfortable chairs, sleeping.
“Meg,” she whispered, hitting her control button; the bed tilted upward. The buzzing of the machinery sounded loud, but Meghann didn’t wake.
“Meg,” she said in a louder voice.
Meghann sat upright and looked around. “Did I miss the test?”
Meghann blinked, pushed a hand through her wild, tangled hair. “Is it time?”
“No. We have four more hours.”
Meghann got up, dragged the chair over to the bed. “Did you sleep?”
“Off and on. The prospect of someone cracking your skull open keeps a girl wideawake.” Claire glanced out the window at the moonlight. Suddenly, she was so afraid, she was shaking. All the veneer of bravery she’d applied for her family and friends had worn off, leaving her vulnerable. “Do you remember what I used to do when I had a nightmare?”
“You used to crawl into bed with me.”
“Yeah. That old cot in the trailer’s living room.” Claire smiled. “It smelled like spilled bourbon and cigarette smoke, and it was too small for the two of us. But when I got into bed and you hugged me, I thought nothing could hurt me.” She looked up at Meghann, then very gently peeled back the blanket.
Meghann hesitated, then climbed into bed with Claire, drawing her close. If she noticed how thin Claire had gotten, she didn’t comment on it.
“How come we forgot all the things that mattered?”
“I was an idiot.”
“We wasted a lot of time.”
“I’m sorry,” Meg said. “I should have said that a long time ago.”
Claire reached for Meg’s hand, held it. “I’m going to ask you something, Meg, and I don’t want any of your bullshit to get in the way. I can’t ask this twice; saying each word is like swallowing broken glass. If the worst happens, I want you to be a part of Ali’s life. She’ll need a mother.”
Meg squeezed Claire’s hand so tightly it cut off the blood flow to her fingers. Long seconds passed before she answered in a throaty voice, “I’ll make sure she always remembers you.”
Claire nodded; she couldn’t speak.
After that, they lay in the darkness, each holding the other one together until dawn lit the room and the doctors took Claire away.
Meghann stood at the window, staring out at the jumble of beige buildings across the street. In the three hours since they’d taken Claire to surgery, Meghann had counted every window and every door in this view. Twenty-three people had passed the corner of Broadway and James. Another sixteen had stood in line outside the tiny Starbucks.
Someone tugged on her sleeve. Meghann looked down. There was Alison, staring up at her. “I’m thirsty.”
Meghann stared into those bright green eyes and almost burst into tears. “Okay, honey,” she said instead, scooping Ali into her arms. Forcing herself not to squeeze the girl too hard, she carried her down to the cafeteria.
“I want a Pepsi Blue. That’s what you got me last time.”
“It’s only eleven in the morning. Juice is better for you.”
“You sound like Mommy.”
Meg swallowed hard. “Did you know your Mommy loved Tab when she was little? And Fresca. But I made her drink orange juice.”
Meghann paid for the juice, then carried Alison back to the waiting room. But when she leaned over to put Ali down, the girl squeezed harder.
“Oh, Ali,” Meg said, holding her niece. She wanted to promise that Mommy would be better, but the words caught in her throat.
She sat down, still holding Ali, and stroked her hair. Within minutes, the child was asleep.
From across the room, Gina looked up, saw her holding Ali, then went back to her crossword puzzle. Sam, Mama, Bobby, Karen, and Charlotte were playing cards. Joe sat off in the corner, reading a magazine. He hadn’t looked up in hours, hadn’t spoken to anyone. But then, none of them had spoken much. What was there to say?
Around noon, the surgical nurse came out, told them all that it would be several more hours.
“You should get something to eat,” she said, shaking her head. “It won’t help Claire if you all pass out.”
Sam nodded, stood up. “Come on,” he said to everyone. “Let’s get out of here for a while. Lunch is on me.”
“I’ll stay here,” Meghann said. Food was the last thing on her mind. “Ali needs the sleep.”
Bobby squeezed her shoulder. “You want us to bring you something back?”
“Maybe a sandwich for Ali—peanut butter and jelly.”
“You got it.”
When they’d gone, Meghann leaned back in her chair, rested her head against the wall. In her arms, Ali snored quietly. It seemed like yesterday that Meg had held Claire this way, telling her baby sister that everything would be okay.
“It’s been almost four hours, damn it. What’re they all doin’ in there, anyway?”
Meg looked up. Mama stood there, holding an unlit Virginia Slims cigarette. Her makeup had faded a little, been smudged off in places, and without it, she looked faded, too. “I thought you went out for lunch with everyone.”
“Eat cafeteria food? I don’t think so. I’ll eat an early dinner in my hotel suite.”
“Have a seat, Mama.”
Her mother collapsed into the molded plastic chair beside her. “This is the worst day of my life, honest to God. An that’s sayin’ something.”
“It’s hard. Waiting.”
“I should go find Sam. Maybe he’ll want to play cards or somethin’.”
“Why did you leave him, Mama?”
“He’s a good man” was all Mama said.
At first, Meghann thought it wasn’t an answer. Then she understood.
Mama had run away because Sam was a good man. Meghann could relate to that kind of fear.
“There are things I should have said,” Mama whispered, gesturing impatiently with her unlit cigarette. “But I never was too good without a script.”
“None of us talks really well.”
“And thank God. Talkin’ doesn’t change a thing.” Mama stood up suddenly. “Talkin’ to reporters always cheers me up. Bye, Meggy. I’ll be across the street when”—her voice trembled—“y’all hear that she’s fine.” With that, she sailed out of the waiting room, her smile Hollywood bright.