“I’m here,” Dean said softly. “You’re not alone.”
Tears came to Eric’s eyes. “I know, baby brother. I Know … ”
Dean swallowed hard. "You can’t let her get to you.
Eric closed his eyes. “Someday she’ll be sorry. It’ll be too late, though.” By the end of the sentence, his words were garbled and he was asleep.
Dean leaned closer. Carefully, he tugged up blanket, tucked it beneath his brother’s chin.
Eric blinked awake and smiled sleepily. “Tell me about your life.”
“There’s not much to tell. I work.”
“Very funny. I get the San Francisco newspapers, you know-just to read about you and the folks. You seem to be quite the bachelor-about-town. If I didn’t know better; I’d say you were a man who had everything.”
Dean wanted to laugh and say, I do; I do have everything a man could want, but it was a lie, and he’d never been able to lie to his brother. And more than that, Dean wanted to talk to Eric the way he once had. Brother to brother; from the heart. “There’s something… missing in my life. I don’t know what it is.”
“Do you like your job?”
Dean was surprised by the question. No one had ever asked him that, and he’d never bothered to ask himself. Still, the answer came quickly. “No.”
“Are you in love with anyone?”
“No. It’s been a long time since I was in love.”
“And you can’t figure out what’s missing in your life? Come on, Dino. The question isn’t, what’s missing? The question is, what the hell is your life?” Eric yawned and closed his eyes again. Already he was tiring. “God, I wanted you to be happy all these years …” He fell asleep for a second, then blinked awake. “Remember Camp Orkila?” he said suddenly. “I was thinking about that yesterday, about the first time we went up there.”
“When we met Ruby.” Dean found an honest smile inside of him, drew it out. “She climbed up into that big tree by the beach, remember? She said arts and crafts were for babies and she was a big girl.”
“She wouldn’t come down until you asked her to.”
“Yeah. That was the beginning, wasn’t it? We’d never seen a real family before . . .” Dean let the words string out, find one another, and connect. Like threads, he wove them together, sewed a quilt from the strands of their life, and tucked it around his brother’s thin body.
Nora woke up groggy from her nap. She lay in bed for a minute, listening to the gentle, whooshing sound of the sea through her open window. It was almost nighttime; she’d been asleep for hours.
She pulled the phone onto her lap and dialed the number.
She spoke to Lottie for a few minutes, then waited patiently for Eric to come on the line.
“Nora? Well, it’s about damn time.”
She laughed. God, it felt good to smile, even better to hear his voice. He sounded almost like his old self. “I’ve had an … interesting last few days. I’m on Summer Island. Caroline is letting me relax here for a while.”
“Ah, the lifestyles of the rich and famous. I suppose it’s tough to make time for a dear old friend who is facing the Grim Reaper with quiet dignity.” He laughed at his own joke, but the laughter dwindled into a cough.
Nora closed her eyes, trying to picture him as he’d been only a few years ago … like on the afternoon his team had won the league championships and the kids had poured Gatorade on his head and chanted his Name …
“Nora? Did you lapse into a coma?”
“I’m here.” She made an instant decision: she wouldn’t tell him about the scandal. He didn’t need to worry about her. But she had to tell him something -she couldn’t just show up at his house in a wheelchair. “I had an accident and wound up in Bayview.”
“Oh, my God, are you okay?”
“For a fifty-year-old woman who drove into a tree, I’m great. And you told me that Mercedes was a waste of money-ha! It saved my life. I came out of it with a broken leg and a sprained wrist. Nothing to worry about. But that’s why I haven’t been to see you.”
“There’s something you’re not telling me.” She forced a laugh. “Your intuition is wrong this time.”
“Nora?” He said her name with infinite tenderness, and in it, she heard the gentle, chiding reminder of all they’d been through together. For the first time since this mess had begun, she felt truly cared for. “No, really, I-” She pinched the bridge of her nose and concentrated on taking shallow breaths.
“Nora. You know you can talk to me about anything.”
“You don’t need to hear about my troubles.”
“Who was it who sat by me in the hospital every night while Charlie was dying? Who was it who held my hand at the gravesite … who was there when I started chemotherapy?”
Nora swallowed hard. “Me.”
All the emotions she’d bottled up in the past few days came spilling out. She didn’t cry; she was almost preternaturally calm, in fact. But as she spoke, it felt as if the very fabric of her soul was ripping. “The Tattler just published nak*d pictures of me in bed with a man.”
“Jesus …” His voice was a whisper.
“That’s not even the worst of it.” Amazingly, she laughed. “I was actually posing with this guy. And fortunately for me, the photos were dated-proving that I was married to Rand at the time they were taken. The press is crucifying me. Apparently people are crawling out of the woodwork to call me a hypocrite.”
“That’s why you’re at the summer house? You’re hiding out?”
“My career is over. I couldn’t get a job counseling toddlers about potty training.”
“Come on, this is America. Celebrities screw up all the time. It just makes us love them more. Jack Nicholson beats up a car with a baseball bat… and we give him another Oscar. Hugh Grant shows us not only moral flexibility but outright stupidity, and after a quick apology on Leno, he’s in a movie with Julia Roberts. So, you flashed your ass. Big deal. It’s not like the photographs showed you giving a bl*w j*b to a drug dealer. Hold your head up, cry when you admit your mistake, and beg for a second chance. Your fans will love you more for being one of them. Human.”
“That’s why I love you, Eric. The glass is always half full. Honest to God, if you were my son I’d be so proud.” She heard a sound-a clearing of his throat and she knew. She could have slapped herself for her insensitivity. "You called your mother.”
“She’s in Europe. The shopping is great.” He sighed, made a sound that was nearly a groan. “She hasn’t called me. But it’s only been a couple of days.”
A couple of days since she found out her son had cancer; and she hadn’t found time to call. The woman should be shot. “How about if I come to see you tomorrow? Between the wheelchair and the hospital bed, we’ll look like a scene from Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“That’d be great. And you won’t believe who’s here.”
Nora laughed. “Believe me, you won’t believe who is here, either.”
They spoke at the same time. Nora was the first to recover. “Dean is on the island?”
“He came up to see me.”
"I knew he’d come if you called. How is it between you two?’
“Awkward. A little unsure. We’re like best friends from high school who meet at the twenty-year reunion and don’t quite know what to say. But we’ll find our way back. And Ruby?”
“Angry. Truthfully, she hates me.”
“But she’s there. That means something. Remember; there’s a thin line between love and hate.”
“Thank you, Yoda.” She paused. “I had to tell her about your cancer.”
“That’s okay. Hell, I don’t care who knows anymore.” She could hear the smile in Eric’s voice. “Hey, do you know what happened between Dean andRuby? He won’t talk about it.”
“She won’t, either.”
“I was at Princeton when they broke up, but it must have been bad. Dean went all the way to boarding school to get away from her. But it’s interesting that neither of them ever married.”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“How do we get them together?”
Nora grinned. It felt great to talk about something besides Eric’s illness or her own scandal. And this made her feel like a mother for the first time in years. "Carefully, my boy. Very carefully.
By the time Nora hung up, her ankle was throbbing; the pain was only marginally worse than the itching that came with it. She wheeled into the bathroom, washed her face and brushed her teeth, then left the room.
“Ruby?” she called out. There was no answer.
She was halfway into the kitchen when she saw the package on the table.
Slowly, she wheeled closer.
It had been opened.
No wonder Ruby was hiding.
With a sigh, she pulled the slim box onto her lap and went into the living room, where she settled her-self onto the sofa, plopping her foot on a pillow on the coffee table. All thoughts of Ruby and Dean and true love vanished.
Her fingers were shaking as she opened the manila envelope marked NEW LETTERS and pulled out the stack of mail. On the top was a small, wrinkled, stationery-size envelope postmarked GREAT FALLS, MONTANA. She carefully opened it, unfolded the letter; and began to read.
I can’t bring myself to write Dear" anymore. I’ve written to you a dozen times over the last few years. Twice you have published my letters, and once you wrote me a private letter, saying that you hoped things were getting better.
You can’t imagine what that meant to me. I was drowning in a bad marriage, and you were always there.
Can you imagine how it feels to know the kind of person I’ve been taking advice from?
I looked up to you. Believed in you. My husband only broke my heart. You have broken my spirit. If only you had been honest, I might have continued to admire you.
Now, I see that you’re just another hack celebrity selling a product you don’t use.
Don’t bother answering this letter, or even printing it in Nora Knows Best. I don’t care about your opinion, and I certainly won’t be reading your columns anymore. I don’t suppose I’m alone in that decision. If I want to read fiction, I’ll go to the library. You have no right to offer anyone advice on anything anymore.
May God forgive you, Nora Bridge. Your fans will not.
Nora folded the letter and slid it back into the envelope. She needed something to get her mind off of this. She reached for the television remote, not surprised at all to see that Caroline had upgraded the television here at the summer house. With small kids in this media age, it was probably essential.
She pressed the “on” button-and heard her own name being spoken.
It was The Sarah Purcell Show-one of those talk fests where women came together to chat. The coffee klatch of the new millennium.
Nora wanted to change the channel or look away, but she was like a fish caught on the hook of her own name.
On-screen, a heavyset woman was standing in the audience. Sarah was beside her; holding a microphone to the woman’s mouth. “I trusted Nora Bridge,” the lady said. “Now, I feel like an idiot.”
Another woman in a nearby row stood up. “How could you be stupid enough to trust a celebrity? They all lie and cheat to get ahead. That’s how public life is.”