Between Sisters Page 13


“Put the gun down, Dale. You don’t want to do something stupid.”

“I already did something stupid.” His voice broke, and Meghann saw that he was crying. “I had an affair and got greedy and forgot how much I love my wife.”

May started to get to her feet. Meghann grabbed her, forced her down, then stood up herself.

She raised her hands into the air. Her heart was a jackhammer trying to crack through her rib cage. “Come on, Dale. Put the gun down. We’ll get you some help.”

“Where was all your help when I tried to tell my wife how sorry I was?”

“I made a mistake. I’m sorry. This time we’ll all sit down and talk.”

“You think I don’t know how screwed I am? Believe me, lady, I know.” His voice caught again. Tears rolled down his cheeks. “Jesus, May, how did I get here?”

“Dale,” Meghann said his name in a calm, even voice. “I know how—”

“Shut up. It’s your fault, you bitch. You’re the one who did all of this.” He raised the gun, aimed, and pulled the trigger.

Joe awoke with a fever and a stinging throat. A dry, hacking cough brought him upright before he’d even fully opened his eyes. When it was over, he sat there, bleary-eyed, in desperate need of some water.

A glittering layer of frost coated his sleeping bag, its presence a testament to the altitude. Though the days in this part of the state were as hot as hell, the nights were cold.

He coughed again, then climbed out of the sleeping bag. His fingers were trembling as he rolled up the bag and tied it onto his backpack. He stumbled out of the still-dark forest and emerged molelike and blinking into a sunny day. Already the sun was angry as it climbed the cloudless sky.

Joe dug the toothbrush, soap, and toothpaste out of his pack and, squatting by the rushing rapids of Icicle Creek, readied himself for the day.

By the time he finished, he was breathing hard, as if the exertion of brushing his teeth was on par with running the Boston Marathon.

He stared at himself in the river. Though his reflection wavered in the current, the clear water captured his image in surprising detail. His hair was far too long and as tangled as the underbrush that had formed his bed for the last two nights. A thick beard covered the lower half of his face; it was a quiltlike combination of gray and black. His eyelids hung low, as if in tired defeat.

And today was his birthday. His forty-third.

In another time—another life—this would have been a day for celebration, for family. Diana had always loved a party; she’d throw one at the drop of a hat. The year he’d turned thirty-eight, she’d rented the Space Needle and hired a Bruce Springsteen impersonator to sing the soundtrack of their youth. The place had been packed with friends. Everyone wanted to celebrate Joe’s birthday with him.

Then.

With a sigh, he pushed to his feet. A quick check of his wallet and pockets revealed that he was nearly broke again. The money he’d made last week mowing lawns had all but disappeared.

Slinging his backpack into place, he followed the winding river out of the National Forest. By the time he reached Highway 2, he was sweating so hard he had to keep wiping his eyes. His forehead was on fire. He knew he had a fever. One hundred degrees, at least.

He stared at the black river of asphalt that flowed down to the tiny town of Leavenworth. On either side, spindly green pine trees stood guard.

Town was only a mile or so away. From this distance, he could see the Bavarian-themed buildings, the stoplights and billboards. It was, he knew, the kind of town that sold handmade Christmas ornaments year-round and had a quaint bed-and-breakfast on every corner. The kind of place that welcomed tourists and visitors with open arms.

Unless you looked or smelled like Joe.

Still, he was too tired to walk uphill, so he turned toward town. His feet hurt and his stomach ached. He hadn’t had a good meal in several days. Yesterday, he’d survived on unripe apples and the last of his beef jerky.

By the time he reached town, his headache was almost unbearable. For two hours, he went from door to door trying to find temporary work.

There was nothing.

Finally, at the Chevron station, he spent his last two dollars on aspirin, which he washed down with water from the rusty sink in the public rest room. Afterward, he stood in the candy aisle, staring blindly at the products.

Corn Nuts would be good now . . .

Or barbecue potato chips.

Or—

“You gotta get a move on, Mister,” said the young man behind the cash register. He wore a tattered brown T-shirt that read: We interrupt this marriage to bring you elk-hunting season. “Unless you’re gonna buy something else.”

Joe glanced up at the clock, surprised to see that he’d been there more than an hour. Nodding at the kid, he took his canteen into the rest room and filled it with water, then used the facilities and headed out. At the cash register, he paused. Careful not to make eye contact, he asked if there was a place he could find part-time work.

“The Darrington farm hires transients sometimes. Usually at harvesttime. I dunno about now. And the Whiskey Creek Lodge needs maintenance men during the salmon run.”

Picking fruit or gutting fish. He’d done plenty of both in the past three years. “Thanks.”

“Hey. You look sick.” The kid frowned. “Do I know you?”

“I’m okay. Thanks.” Joe kept moving, afraid that if he stopped for too long he’d stumble, then fall. He’d wake up in a hospital bed or on a jail-cell cot. He wasn’t sure which fate was worse. Each brought too many bad memories.

He was outside the mini mart, unsteady on his feet, trying to will the aspirin to take effect when the first raindrop hit. It was big and fat and splatted right in his eye. He tilted his chin up, saw the sudden blackness of the sky overhead.

“Shit.”

Before he finished the word, the storm hit. A pounding rain that seemed to nail him in place.

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He closed his eyes and dropped his chin.

Now his flu would escalate into pneumonia. Another night outside in wet clothes would seal it.

And suddenly he couldn’t live like this anymore. He was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Home.

The idea came to him like a balmy breeze, took him far away from this ugly spot in the driving rain. He closed his eyes and thought of the small town where he’d been raised, where he’d played shortstop for the local ball team and worked at a garage after school and every summer until he went away to college. If any town would still accept him after what he’d done, it would be that one.

Maybe.

Moving slowly, his emotions a convoluted mixture of fear and anticipation, he went to the phone booth and stepped inside its quiet enclosure. Now the rain was only noise; it was like his heartbeat: fast, breathless.

He let out a long breath, then picked up the phone, punched 0 and placed a collect call.

“Hey, little sister,” he said when she answered. “How are you?”

“Oh, my God. It’s about damn time. I’ve been worried sick about you, Joey. You haven’t called in—what? Eight months? And then you sounded awful.”

He remembered that call. He’d been in Sedona. The whole town had seemed to be draped in crystals and waiting for otherworld contact. He’d thought Diana had called him there, but of course she hadn’t. It had just been another town to pass through. He’d called his sister on her birthday. Back then, he’d thought he’d be home any day. “I know. I’m sorry.”

She sighed again, and he could picture her perfectly: standing at her kitchen counter, probably making a list of things to do—shopping, carpool, swimming lessons. He doubted she’d changed much in the last three years, but he wished he knew for sure. Missing her blossomed into an ache; it was the reason he never called. It hurt too much. “How’s my beautiful niece?”

“She’s great.”

He heard something in her voice. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” she said, then more softly. “I could use my big brother right about now, that’s all. Has it been long enough?”

There it was, the question upon which everything rested. “I don’t know. I’m tired, I know that. Have people forgotten?”

“I don’t get asked so much anymore.”

So some had forgotten, but not everyone. If he returned, the memory would tag along. He didn’t know if he was strong enough to stand up to his past. He hadn’t been when it was his present.

“Come home, Joey. It has to be time. You can’t hide forever. And . . . I need you.”

He heard the sound of her crying; it was soft and broken and it pulled something out of him. “Don’t cry. Please.”

“I’m not. I’m chopping onions for dinner.” She sniffed. “Your niece is going through a spaghetti phase. She won’t eat anything else.” She tried to laugh.

Joe appreciated the attempt at normalcy, however forced.

“Make her some of Mom’s spaghetti. That should end it.”

She laughed. “Gosh, I’d forgotten. Hers was awful.”

“Better than her meat loaf.”

After that, a silence slipped through the lines. Softly, she said, “You’ve got to forgive yourself, Joey.”

“Some things are unforgivable.”

“Then at least come home. People care about you here.”

“I want to. I can’t . . . live like this anymore.”

“I hope that’s what this phone call means.”

“I hope so, too.”

It was that rarest of days in downtown Seattle. Hot and humid. A smoggy haze hung over the city, reminding everyone that too many cars zipped down too many highways in this once-pristine corner of the country. There was no breeze. Puget Sound was as flat as a summer lake. Even the mountains appeared smaller, as if they, too, had been beaten down by the unexpected heat.

If it was hot outside, it was sweltering in the courthouse. An old air-conditioning unit sat awkwardly in an open window, making soft, strangled noises. A white flap of ribbon, tied to the frontpiece, fluttered every now and then, defeated.

Meghann stared down at the yellow legal pad in front of her. A neat stack of black pens were lined up along one side. The desktop, scarred by decades of clients and attorneys, wobbled on uneven legs.

She hadn’t written a word.

That surprised her. Usually her pen was the only thing that worked as fast as her brain.

“Ms. Dontess. Ahem. Ms. Dontess.”

The judge was speaking to her.

She blinked slowly. “I’m sorry.” She got to her feet and automatically smoothed the hair back from her face. But she’d worn it back this morning, in a French twist.

The judge, a thin, heronlike woman with no collar peeking out from the black vee of her robes, was frowning. “What are your thoughts on this?”

Meghann felt a flare of worry, almost panic. She looked again at her blank legal pad. Her right hand started to shake. The expensive pen fell from her fingers and clattered on the table.

“Approach the bench,” said the judge.

Meghann didn’t glance to her left. She didn’t want to make eye contact with her opposing counsel. She was weak right now—shaking, for God’s sake—and everyone knew it.

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