But what if it hadn’t been about Meredith and Nina at all; what if it had been a reaction to seeing the words acted out?
She went deeper into the closet and stood in front of her mother’s chest of drawers. There was something in here that would reveal her mother. There had to be. What woman didn’t have some memento hidden far from prying eyes?
She closed the door until there was only the slimmest view of the room, and then she returned to the chest, opening the top drawer. Underwear lay neatly folded in three piles: white, gray, black. Socks were organized in similarly colored balls. Several bras filled out the corner. She let her fingers trail beneath it all, feeling the smooth wood of the drawer’s bottom. Guilt made her grimace but she continued through the second and third drawers, with their neatly folded sweaters and T-shirts. Kneeling, she opened the bottom drawer. Inside, she found pajamas, nightgowns, and an out-of-date bathing suit.
Nothing hidden. Nothing more personal than undergarments.
Disappointed and vaguely embarrassed, she closed the drawer. With a sigh, she got back to her feet and stood there looking at the clothes. It was all perfectly organized. Everything with a place and in it; the only thing that didn’t fit was a sapphire-blue wool coat hanging at the very back of the closet.
Meredith remembered the coat. She’d seen her mother wear it once—to a performance of The Nutcracker when she and Nina were little girls. Dad had insisted, had twirled Mom around and kissed her and said, “Come on, Anya, just this once . . .”
She reached back for it, pulled it out. The coat was a bright blue cashmere in a classic forties style, with broad shoulders, a fitted waist, and wide, cuffed sleeves. Intricately carved Lucite buttons ran from throat to waist. Meredith put it on; the silk lining was deliciously soft. Surprisingly, it fit pretty well; wearing it made her imagine her mother as young instead of old, as a smiling girl who would love the feel of cashmere.
But she hadn’t loved it, had rarely worn it. Neither, though, had she thrown it away, and for a woman who kept so few mementos, it was an odd thing to have saved. Unless she hadn’t wanted to hurt Dad’s feelings. It must have been expensive.
She put her hands in the pockets and twirled to look at herself in the full-length mirror behind the door.
That was when she felt it, something hidden, sewn into the lining behind the pocket.
She felt for the fraying edge of the secret compartment and worked it for a few seconds, finally extracting a tattered, creased black and white photograph of two children.
Meredith stared down at it. The image was slightly blurry and the paper was so creased and veined it was hard to see clearly, but it was two children, about three or four years of age, holding hands. At first she thought it was her and Nina, but then she noticed the old-fashioned, heavy coats and boots the kids were wearing. She turned the picture over and found a word written on the back. In Russian.
She flushed guiltily before she realized it was Nina, thundering up the stairs like an elephant.
Meredith opened the closet door. “I’m in here, Nina.”
Dressed in khaki pants and a matching T-shirt, with hiking boots, Nina looked ready to go on a safari. “There you are. I’ve been look—”
Meredith grabbed her arm and pulled her into the closet. “Is Mom still in the kitchen?”
“Baking enough bread for a third world country? Yes. Why?”
“Look what I found,” Meredith said, holding out the picture.
“You went snooping? Good girl. I wouldn’t have thought you had it in you.”
Nina took the photograph and stared down at it for a long time and then turned it over. After a quick glimpse at the word, she turned it over again. “Vera and Olga?”
Meredith’s heart actually skipped a beat. “You think?”
“I can’t tell if they’re boys or girls. But this one kinda looks like Mom, don’t you think?”
“Honestly? I don’t know. What should we do with it?”
Nina thought about that. “Leave it here for now. We’ll bring it with us. Sooner or later, we’ll ask Mom.”
“She’ll know I went through her stuff.”
“No. She’ll know I did. I’m a journalist, remember? Snooping is my job description.”
“And I found out from Daisy that Mom was sick when she married Dad. They thought she’d die.”
“Mom? Sick? She never even gets a cold.”
“I know. Weird, huh?”
“Now I’m certain about my plan,” Nina said. “What plan?”
“I’ll tell you at dinner. Mom needs to hear this, too. Come on, let’s go.”
Nina waited with obvious impatience while Meredith returned the photograph to its hiding place and hung the coat back up. Together, they went downstairs.
Their mother was seated at the kitchen table. On the counter, there were dozens of loaves of bread and several bags from the local Chinese restaurant.
Nina carried the Chinese food to the table, positioning the white cartons around the vodka bottle and shot glasses.
“Can I have wine instead?” Meredith said.
“Sure,” Nina said absently, pouring two shots instead of three.
“You seem . . . buoyant,” Mom said.
“Like a Pekingese when the mailman comes,” Meredith added when her sister sat down across from her.
“I have a surprise,” Nina said, lifting her shot glass. “Cheers.”
“What is it?” Meredith asked.
“First we talk,” Nina said, reaching for the beef with broccoli, serving up a portion on her plate. “Let’s see. My favorite thing to do is travel. I love passion in all of its guises. And my boyfriend wants me to settle down.”
Meredith was shocked by that last bit. It was so intimate. To her surprise, she decided to match it. “I love to shop for beautiful things. I used to dream of opening a string of Belye Nochi gift stores, and . . . my husband left me.”
Mom looked up sharply but said nothing.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Meredith said at last. “I think maybe love can just . . . dissolve.”
“No, it does not,” her mother said.
“So how do—”
“You hang on,” her mother said. “Until your hands are bleeding, and still you do not let go.”
“Is that how you and Dad stayed happy for so long?” Nina asked. Mom reached for the chow mein’s serving spoon. “Of course that is what I am speaking of.”
“Your turn,” Nina said to Mom.
Meredith could have kicked her sister. For once they were actually talking and Nina turned it right back to the game.
Mom stared down at her food. “My favorite thing to do is cook. I love the feel of a fire on a cold night. And . . .” She paused.
Meredith found herself leaning forward.
“And . . . I am afraid of many things.” She picked up her fork and began to eat.
Meredith sat back in amazement. It was impossible to imagine her mother afraid of anything, and yet she’d revealed it, so it must be true. She wanted to ask, What frightens you? but she didn’t have the courage.
“It’s time for my surprise,” Nina said, smiling. “We’re going to Alaska.”
Meredith frowned. “We who?”
“You, me, and Mom.” She reached down and produced three tickets. “On a cruise ship.”
Meredith was too stunned to say anything. She knew she should argue, say she had to work, that the dogs couldn’t be left alone—anything—but the truth was that she wanted to go. She wanted to get away from the orchard and the office and the talk she had to have with Jeff. Daisy could run the warehouse.
Mom looked up slowly. Her face was pale; her blue eyes seemed to burn through the pallor. “You are taking me to Alaska? Why?”
“You said it was your dream,” Nina said simply. Meredith could have kissed her. There was such a gentleness in her sister’s voice. “And you said it, too, Mere.”
“But . . . ,” Mom said, shaking her head.
“We need this,” Nina said. “The three of us. We need to be together and I want Mom to see Alaska.”
“In exchange for the rest of the story,” Mom said.
An awkward pause fell over the table.
“Yes. We want to hear the whole . . . fairy tale, Mom, but this is separate. I saw your face when you said you’d always dreamed of going to Alaska. You have dreamed of this trip. Let Meredith and me take you.”
Mom got up and went to the French doors in the dining room. There, she stared out at the winter garden, which was now in full vibrant bloom. “When do we leave?”
The next morning, Nina stood at the fence line, with her camera in her hands, watching workers stream onto the property. Women headed toward the shed, where they would pack apples from cold storage for shipment around the world; in a few months, Nina knew, they’d be busy sorting the harvest by quality. All up and down the rows, workers in faded jeans, most with jet-black hair, climbed up and down ladders beneath the branches, carefully hand-wrapping the fledgling apples to protect them from bugs and the elements.
She was just about to go back into the house when a dirty blue car pulled in front of the garage and parked. The driver’s door opened. All Nina saw was a shock of gray-threaded black hair and she started to run for him.
“Danny!” she cried, throwing herself into his arms so hard he stumbled backward and hit the car, but still he held on to her.
“You’re not an easy woman to track down, Nina Whitson.”
Smiling, she took him by the hand. “You did okay. Here. Let me show you around the place.”
With an unexpected pride, she showed him around the orchard her father had loved. Now and then she shared memories from her past; mostly she told him about the story her mother was telling.
Finally, she said, “Why are you here?”
He smiled down at her. “First things first, love. Where’s your bedroom?”
“On the second floor.”
“Damn,” he said. “You’re goin’ t’ make me work for it.”
“I’ll make it worth your time. Promise,” she said, kissing his ear.
He carried her up the stairs and into her girlhood room.
“A cheerleader, eh?” he said, glancing at the dusty red and white pom-pom lying in the corner. “How come I never knew that?”
She started unbuttoning his shirt. Her hands were frantic as she undressed him. Anticipation of his touch was an exquisite torture, and when they were both nak*d and in bed, he began caressing her with an ardor that matched her own. She was on fire for him; there was no other way to put it. And when she came, it was so intense it felt as if she were breaking apart.
Afterward, he rolled over onto one elbow and looked down at her. His face was deeply tanned and lined, the creases at his eyes like tiny white knife marks. His hair had taken flight during their lovemaking, turned into dozens of curly black wings. He was smiling, but there was something pinched in it, and the look in his eyes was almost sad. “You asked why I was here.”