“Ah. That is the point,” Mom said, sighing.
“You’re not looking at me again.”
Mom said nothing, just took another sip of tea.
“I want to hear the fairy tale. The peasant girl and the prince. All of it. Please.”
Mom set the tea down on the bedside table and got out of bed. Moving past Nina as if she were invisible, she walked out the room, across the hall, and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
At lunch, Nina tried again. This time, Mom picked up her sandwich and carried it outside.
Nina followed her out to the winter garden and sat beside her. “I mean it, Mom.”
“Yes, Nina. I know. Please leave me.”
Nina sat there another ten minutes, just to make her point, then she got up and went inside.
In the kitchen, she found Meredith still packing pots and pans into a box. “She’ll never tell you,” she said at Nina’s entrance.
“Thanks for that,” Nina said, reaching for her camera. “Keep boxing up her life. I know how much you want everything to be neat and labeled. You’re a barrel of laughs. Honest to God, Mere, how can your kids and Jeffstand it?”
Nina came back into the house at just past six. In the last bit of copper-colored evening light, the apple blossoms glowed with a beautiful opalescence that gave the valley an otherworldly look.
The kitchen was empty except for the carefully stacked and labeled cardboard boxes that were tucked neatly into the space between the pantry and fridge.
She glanced out the window and saw that her sister’s car was still here. Meredith must be in another room, knee-deep in boxes and newsprint.
Nina opened the freezer and burrowed through the endless rows of containers. Meatball soup, chicken stew with dumplings, pierogies, lamb and vegetable moussaka, pork chops braised in apple wine, potato pancakes, red pepper paprikash, chicken Kiev, stroganoff, strudels, hamand-cheese rolls, homemade noodles, and dozens of savory breads. Out in the garage, there was another freezer, equally full, and the basement pantry was chock-full of home-canned fruit and vegetables.
Nina chose one of her favorites: a delicious slow-cooked beef pot roast stuffed with bacon and horseradish. She defrosted the roast in the microwave, with all the root vegetables and rich beef broth, then ladled it to a baking dish and put it in the oven. She set the oven for 350 degrees, figuring it couldn’t be too far wrong, and then filled a pot of water for homemade noodles. There were few things on the planet better than her mom’s noodles.
While dinner was in the oven, she set the table for two and then poured herself a glass of wine. With this meal, the aroma would bring Mom to her.
Sure enough, at six forty-five, Mom came down the stairs.
“You made dinner?”
“I reheated it,” Nina said, leading the way into the dining room.
Mom looked around at the ravaged wallpaper, still smeared with streaks of blood that had dried black. “Let us eat at the kitchen table,” she said.
Nina hadn’t even thought about that. “Oh. Sure.” She scooped up the two place settings and put them down on the small oak table tucked into the nook in the kitchen. “There you go, Mom.”
Meredith walked in then; she noticed the two place settings and her face scrunched in irritation. Or maybe relief. With Meredith it was hard to tell.
“Do you want to eat with us?” Nina asked. “I thought you’d need to get home, but there’s plenty. You know Mom. She always cooked for an army.”
Meredith glanced through the window, up in the direction of her house. “Sure,” she finally said. “Jeff won’t be home tonight . . . until late.”
“Good,” Nina said, watching her sister closely. It was odd that she’d stay for dinner. Usually she all but ran for home when she had the chance. “Great. Here. Sit.” The minute her sister was seated, Nina quickly set another place at the table and then got the crystal decanter. “We start with a shot of vodka.”
“What?” Meredith said, looking up.
Mom took the decanter and poured three shots. “It does no good to argue with her.”
Nina sat down and picked up her glass, holding it up. Mom clinked hers to it. Reluctantly, Meredith did the same. Then they drank.
“We’re Russian,” Nina said suddenly, looking at Meredith. “How come I never thought about that before?”
Meredith shrugged, clearly disinterested. “I’ll serve,” she said, getting to her feet. She was back a few moments later with the plates.
Mom closed her eyes in prayer.
“Do you remember that?” Nina asked Meredith. “Mom praying?”
Meredith rolled her eyes this time and reached for her fork.
“Okay,” Nina said, ignoring the awkward silence at the table. “Meredith, since you’re here, you have to join in a new tradition Mom and I have come up with. It’s revolutionary, really. It’s called dinner conversation.”
“So we’re going to talk, are we?” Meredith said. “About what?”
“I’ll go first so you can see how it goes: My favorite song is ‘Born to be Wild,’ my best childhood memory is the trip to Yellowstone where Dad taught me how to fish.” She looked at her sister. “And I’m sorry if I make my sister’s life harder.”
Mom put down her fork. “My favorite song is ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ my favorite memory is a day I watched children making snow angels in a park, and I’m sorry that you two are not friends.”
“We’re friends,” Nina said.
“This is stupid,” Meredith said.
“No,” Nina said. “Staring at each other in silence is stupid. Go.”
Meredith gave a typically long-suffering sigh. “Fine. My favorite song is ‘Candle in the Wind’—the Princess Di version, not the original; my favorite childhood memory is when Dad took me ice-skating on Miller’s Pond . . . and I’m sorry I said we weren’t close, Nina. But we aren’t. So maybe I’m sorry for that, too.” She nodded, as if in saying it, she checked something off her To-Do list. “Now, let’s eat. I’m starving.”
Nina wasn’t even finished eating when Meredith got to her feet and began clearing the table. The second her sister was up, Mom followed suit.
“I guess dinner is over,” Nina said, reaching for the butter and jam before Meredith snatched it away.
Mom said, “Thank you for dinner,” and left the kitchen. Her footsteps on the stairs were quick for a woman of her age. She must have been practically running.
Nina couldn’t really blame Meredith. As soon as their little conversational jumper cables had been used—the so-called new tradition—they had fallen into their familiar silence. Only Nina had even tried to make small talk, and her amusing stories about Africa had been met with a lukewarm response from Meredith and nothing at all from Mom.
Nina left the table just long enough to get the decanter of vodka. Thumping it down on the table, she said, “Let’s get drunk.”
Meredith, elbow-deep in soapy water, said, “Okay.”
Nina must have misheard. “Did you say—”
“Don’t make a lunar mission out of it.” Meredith walked over to the table, plucked up Nina’s plate and silverware, and went back to the sink.
“Wow,” Nina said. “We haven’t gotten drunk together since . . . Have we ever gotten drunk together?”
Meredith dried her hands on the pink towel that hung from the oven door. “You’ve gotten drunk while I was in the room, does that count?”
Nina grinned. “Hell, no, that doesn’t count. Pull up a chair.”
“I’m not drinking vodka, though.”
“Tequila it is.” Nina got up before Meredith could change her mind; she ran into the living room, grabbed a bottle of tequila from the wet bar, and then snagged salt, limes, and a knife on her way back through the kitchen.
“Aren’t you going to mix it with something?”
“No offense, Mere, but I’ve seen you drink. If I mix it with anything, you’ll just sip it all night and I’ll end up drunk and you’ll be your usual cool, competent self.” She poured two shots, sliced a lime, and pushed the glass toward her sister.
Meredith wrinkled her nose.
“It’s not her**n, Mere. Just a shot of tequila. Take a walk on the wild side.”
Meredith seemed to decide all at once. She reached out, grabbed the shot, and downed it.
When her eyes bulged, Nina handed her the lime. “Here. Bite down on this.”
Meredith made a whooshing sound and shook her head. “One more.”
Nina drank her own shot and poured them each another, which they drank together.
Afterward, Meredith sat back in her chair, pushing a hand through her perfectly smooth hair. “I don’t feel anything.”
“You will. Hey, how do you manage to keep looking so . . . neat all the time? You’ve been packing boxes all day, but you still look ready for lunch at the club. How does that happen?”
“Only you can make looking nice sound like an insult.”
“It wasn’t an insult. Honestly. I just wonder how you stay so . . . I don’t know. Forget it.”
“There’s a wall around me,” Meredith said, reaching for the tequila, pouring herself another shot.
“Yeah. Like a force field. Nothing reaches your hair.” Nina laughed at that. She was still laughing when Meredith drank her third shot, but when her sister gulped it down and glanced sideways, Nina saw something that made her stop laughing. She didn’t know what it was, a look in Meredith’s eyes, maybe, or the way her mouth kind of flitted downward.
“Is something wrong?” Nina asked.
Meredith blinked slowly. “You mean besides the fact that my father died at Christmas, my mom is going crazy, my sister is pretending to help me, and my husband . . . is gone tonight?”
Nina knew it wasn’t funny, but she couldn’t help laughing. “Yeah, besides that. And anyway, you know your life rocks. You’re one of those wonder women who do everything right. That’s why Dad always counted on you.”
“Yeah. I guess,” Meredith said.
“It’s true,” Nina said with a sigh, thinking suddenly about her dad again, and how she’d let him down. She wondered how long it would last, this sudden bobbing up of her grief. Would it ever just submerge?
“You can do everything right,” Meredith said quietly, “and still end up in the wrong. And alone.”
“I should have called Dad more from Africa,” Nina said. “I knew how much my phone calls meant to him. I always thought there was time. . . .”
“Sometimes the door just slams shut, you know? And you’re all by yourself.”
“There is something we can do now to help him,” she said.
Meredith looked startled. “Help who?”
“Dad,” Nina said impatiently. “Isn’t that who we’re talking about?”
“Oh. Is it?”
“He wanted us to get to know Mom. He said she—”