He would have given his fortune–hell, he’d have given everything he had or owned or could borrow–in exchange for the one thing he’d always taken for granted. The one thing Eric needed.
By the time Nora hopped to the bathroom and back into the bedroom, she was dizzy and out of breath. She shifted onto the bed and leaned back against the wobbly wooden headboard.
She knew she needed to handle Ruby with kid gloves, to treat her daughter’s pain (which Nora never that she had caused) respectfully, to let Ruby make all the first moves toward a reconciliation. No matter how much it hurt, how deeply the ache went, Nora didn’t want to bulldoze the situation.
But Ruby had always brought out the worst in her. Even in the good times, her younger daughter had had a way of saying things that rubbed Nora the wrong way. More often than not, they both ended up saying something they regretted.
And Ruby knew that every coldly spoken “Nora” would break her heart just a little. It was, she knew, Ruby’s way of reminding Nora that they were strangers.
You have to keep your cool.
And for God’s sake, don’t tell her what to do… or pretend you know her.
If they’d gone somewhere else, maybe this would have been easier, but nothing new could grow here, not in this soil contaminated by the past.
It was in this house that Nora had made her biggest mistake–and given the life she’d led, that was saying a lot. This was where she’d come when she left Rand. She had meant for it to be temporary. At the time she’d simply thought: Space; if I don’t get some space I’ll start screaming and never stop.
All she’d wanted was a little room, some time to herself. She’d been overwhelmed by her life. A twenty-minute ferry ride had seemed perfect. She hadn’t known that two miles could stretch into more than a decade.
She remembered that whole summer, and the bad years that had preceded it, in excruciating detail.
She remembered how it had felt and tasted, that slowly descending depression, like a thick glass jar that closed around you, sucking away the air you needed to breathe, creating a barrier between you and the world. The hell of it was that she’d been able to see all that she was missing, but when she’d reached out, all she touched was cold, hard glass.
It had started with a few dark days, a few nightmares, but as the winter had turned into spring, and then into summer, she had simply … fallen. All these years later, she’d never found a better word for it. She’d felt then-as she did now-as brittle as a winter leaf. It had always taken so damned little to break her.
If she hadn’t left Rand then, she believed she would have died. Her pain had been that great. Still …
She’d thought she could come home again, that women were granted the same latitude in marriage that men were. How naive she had been.
She reached for the bedside phone and picked it up, thankful to find a dial tone. She wouldn’t have expected any less from Caroline.
She dialed Eric’s number, but no one answered. He was probably exhausted from the trip. He tired so easily these days.
She didn’t want to think about that now, about how the cancer was erasing him. If she thought about that now she’d fall apart, and with Ruby on the other side of that door, Nora didn’t dare fall apart.
She dialed another number. Dr. Allbright answered on the second ring. There was a moment of silence at the other end, the sound of a match flaring. “Hello?”
“Hi, Leo. It’s me, Nora.”
He inhaled, blew the smoke from his cigarette into the phone. It came through in a whooshing sound. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” she said, wondering if he could hear the lies in the same way that he could see them on her face. “You asked me to call when we arrived, so …”
“You don’t sound fine.”
“Well … Ruby and I are crowded in with a lot of old ghosts.” She tried to laugh. "This house . . .”
“I don’t think you should be there. We talked about this. With all that’s happening, you should be in the city.”
It was nice to have someone care about her–even if she paid him to do so. “And let the vultures pick at me?” She smiled ruefully. “Of course, it appears to be open season on Nora Bridge wherever I go.”
“Ruby,” he said.
“I knew it wouldn’t be easy.” That much was true, at least. She’d known how much it would hurt to see her daughter’s bitterness in such sharp, close detail; and it did.
“We talked about this, Nora. If she hates you, it’s because she was too young to understand.”
“I’m fifty, Leo, and I don’t understand it all.”
“You owe it to yourself-and to Ruby-to tell her the truth.”
She sighed wearily. The thought of opening herself like a rotting flower to her beloved daughter was more than she could bear. “I just want to see her smile at me. That’s all. Just once and I could carry that image forever. I don’t expect her to like me… let alone love me.”
“Ah, Nora,” he said, and she heard the familiar disappointment in his tone.
“You ask too much of me, Leo.”
“And you ask too little, Nora. You’re so afraid of your past that-”
“Tell me something useful, Leo. You’re a parent, give me some advice.”
“Talk to her.”
“About what? How do we get past what happened eleven years ago?”
“One step at a time, that’s how. Try this: tell her one personal thing about you every day. Just one, and try to find out one thing about her. That would be a start.”
“One personal thing.” Nora considered it.
Yes, she could do that. She’d just have to find a way to share one honest moment, a day with her daughter. It wasn’t much, and it wouldn’t change everything, but it felt … possible. For now, that was all she could hope for.
Ruby strode through the house, going from window to window, yanking the gingham cotton curtains open, letting what little sunlight was possible into every room. By now it was nearly three o’clock. Soon there would be no daylight through the clouds at all. She wanted to catch what she could.
She was desperately tired all of a sudden. The middle-of-the-night phone call, the predawn flight, the drive to the islands … suddenly it all caught up with her and sapped her strength. If she wasn’t careful, she could lose a fight with her own emotions and start crying at the sight of this old house.
At last, she found herself in the kitchen/dining room. Nothing had changed.
A round maple table sat tucked beneath the kitchen window, its four ladder-back chairs pulled in close. A centerpiece of dirty pink plastic dahlias was flanked by a set of porcelain salt and pepper shakers shaped like tiny lighthouses. A cookbook was in its rack on the kitchen counter, its pages open to a recipe for lemon squares. Four hand-embroidered dishcloths hung in a row across the front of the oven.
She passed beneath the archway that separated the kitchen from the living room, noticing the brass mariners clock that hung in the center of the arch’s plaster curl. That clock was silent now, its chimes-two quick ding-dings every half hour-had been a constant punctuation to their family’s noisy soundtrack. But it had probably been years since anyone had remembered to change the batteries.
In the living room, an overstuffed sofa and two leather chairs faced a big, river-rock fireplace. On the back wall were bookcases filled with two generations’ worth of Reader’s Digest editions, and an RCA stereo. A red plastic milk box held all of the family’s favorite albums. From here, Ruby could see the upper half of the top album: “Venus” by Bananarama.
That one was hers.
Next, the photographs on the mantel caught her eye. They were different frames than she remembered. Frowning, she walked toward the fireplace.
All the pictures were of Caroline’s children.
There was not a single shot of Ruby. Not even one of Ruby and Caroline.
“Nice, Caro,” she said, turning away. She headed for the stairs, but as she walked up the creaking narrow steps to the second floor she felt … forgotten
Her fingers trailed through the dust on the oak banister, leaving two squiggly lines. The second floor was small, barely big enough for a full-size bedroom. The bathroom-added by Grandpa Bridge in the early 1970"s–had once been a closet. It was barely big to bend over at the sink to brush your teeth. Ugly, avocado-green shag carpeting covered every inch of the floor.
She pushed the door open to her parents’ old bedroom and flicked the light switch.
A big brass bed filled the room, flanked by two French Provincial end tables. The bedside lamps were yellow, their green shades draped in golden plastic beads.
i her grandmother had often said, and with that unexpected memory, Ruby remembered her grandma, sitting in that corner rocker, her veiny hands making knitting needles work like pistons. You can never have too many afghans, she’d said every time she started a new one. There had always been an Elvis album playing on the turntable when Grandma knitted …
It had been a long time since she’d had so clear a memory of her Nana.
Maybe all she’d needed to remember the good times was to see this place again. The room was exactly as Nana had made it; Nora had never bothered to redecorate. When Nana and Pop had died, Dad had moved their family into the bigger house on Lopez Island, and left this house for summer use.
Ruby crossed the room and went to the French doors, opening them wide. Sweet, rain-scented air made the lacy curtains tremble and dance. The bloated gray sky and steel-blue water were perfectly framed by twin Douglas firs, as thin and straight as pipe cleaners.
She stepped out onto the tiny second-floor balcony. A pair of white deck chairs sat on either side of her, their slatted backs beaded with rain.
For a split second, she couldn’t imagine that she’d ever lived in a valley so hot and airless that boiling water sometimes squirted out of ordinary green garden hoses.
She backed off the balcony and turned into the room. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the new photographs on the bedside table.
“God damn it,” she muttered, looking through them.
Caroline had done it again. They were all pictures of Caroline’s new life. It was as if her sister were trying to exorcise Ruby from the family.
Frowning, she marched back downstairs and went outside. She grabbed their two suitcases from the car and carried them inside, dropping her mother’s in front of the closed bedroom door.
Upstairs, she opened the closet’s louvered doors, then yanked down on the beaded light chain. A bare light bulb in the ceiling came on in the empty closet.
She tossed her suitcase inside. It hit a cardboard box, rattling it.
She knelt onto the dusty shag carpet and pulled the box toward her. In bold, black marker pen, someone had written BEFORE across the top flap.
Ruby opened the box … and found herself.
Photographs. Dozens of them. These were the pictures that used to sit on every flat surface in house–tables, mantels, windowsills.
Pictures of two little girls in matching pink dresses … of Dean and Eric in Little League uniforms … of Dad waving from the stern of the Captain Hook. And one of Nora.
She slowly withdrew that one.
This was the mother she’d forgotten, the woman she’d grieved for. A tall, thin woman, with auburn hair cut in the layered Farrah Fawcett style, wearing crisp white walking shorts and a celery-green T-shirt. The photograph was old and creased, but even the maplike fissures couldn’t dim her mother’s smile. In the background was the peaked white tip of the Matterhorn.