Between Sisters Page 17


“Don’t think about it,” Meghann said aloud.

But, of course, it was impossible. Turning away from the past was something Meg could do when she was strong. When she was weak, the memories took over. She closed her eyes and remembered. A lifetime ago. They’d been living in Bakersfield then. . . .

“Hey, girls, Mama’s home.”

Meghann huddled closer to Claire, holding her baby sister tightly. Mama stumbled into the trailer’s small, cluttered living room, wearing a clinging red-sequined dress with silver fringe and clear plastic shoes.

“I’ve brought Mr. Mason home with me. I met him at the Wild Beaver. You girls be nice to him now,” she said in that boozy, lilting voice that meant she’d wake up mean.

Meghann knew she had to act fast. With a man in the trailer, Mama wouldn’t be able to think about much else, and the rent was long past due. She reached down for the wrinkled copy of Variety that she’d stolen from the local library. “Mama?”

Mama lit up a menthol cigarette and took a long drag. “What is it?”

Meghann thrust out the magazine. She’d outlined the ad in red ink. It read: Mature actress sought for small part in science fiction television series. Open call. Then the address in Los Angeles.

Mama read the ad out loud. Her smile froze in place at the words mature actress. After a long, tense moment, she laughed and gave Mr. Mason a little shove toward the bedroom. When he went into the room and closed the door behind him, Mama knelt down and opened her arms. “Give Mama a hug.”

Meghann and Claire flew into her embrace. They waited days for a moment like this, sometimes weeks. Mama could be cold and distracted, but when she turned on the heat of her love, it warmed you to the bone.

“Thank you, Miss Meggy. I don’t know what I’d do without you. I’ll surely try out for that part. Now, you two scamper off and stay out of trouble. I’ve got some entertaining to do.”

Mama had read for the role, all right. To her—and everyone else’s—amazement she’d nailed the audition. Instead of winning the small part she’d gone up for, she’d won the starring role of Tara Zyn, the space station’s microbotanist.

It had been the beginning of the end.

Meghann sighed. She didn’t want to think about the week Mama had gone to Los Angeles and left her daughters alone in that dirty trailer . . . or the changes that had come afterward. Meghann and Claire had never really been sisters since.

Beside her, the phone rang. It was jarringly loud in the silence. Meghann pounced on it, eager to talk to anyone. “Hello?”

“Hey, Meggy, it’s me. Your mama. How are you, darlin’?”

Meg rolled her eyes at the accent. She should have let the answering machine pick up. “I’m fine, Mama. And you?”

“Couldn’t be better. The Fan-ference was this weekend. I have a few photos left over. I thought y’might like a signed one for your collection.”

“No thanks, Mama.”

“I’ll have m’houseboy send you one. Lordy, I signed s’many autographs, my fingers ache.”

Meghann had been to one of the Starbase IV Fan Conference weekends. One had been enough. Hundreds of starry-eyed geeks in cheap polyester costumes, clamoring for photographs with a bunch of has-beens and never-really-weres. Mama was the only cast member who’d had a career since the show was canceled, and it wasn’t much. A few bad made-for-TV movies in the eighties and a cult horror classic in the late nineties. It was reruns that had made her rich and famous. A whole new generation of nerds had latched on to the old show. “Well, your fans love you.”

“Thank God for small miracles. It surely is nice to talk to you, Meggy. We should do it more often. Y’all should come down and visit me.”

Mama always said that. It was part of the script. A way to pretend they were something they weren’t—family.

It was understood that she didn’t mean it.

Still . . .

Meghann took a deep breath. Don’t do it. You’re not that desperate.

But she couldn’t sit alone in this condo for three weeks. “I’m taking a vacation,” she said in a rush. “Maybe I could come stay with you.”

“Oh. That would be . . . fine.” Mama exhaled heavily; Meghann swore she could smell smoke coming through the phone. “Maybe this Christmas—”

“Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Mama laughed. “Honey, I’ve got a photographer from People magazine comin’ over at three o’clock, and at my age I wake up lookin’ like one o’ those hairless dogs. It takes ten women all day to make me beautiful.”

Her accent was getting pronounced. That always happened when her emotions were strong. Meghann wanted to hang up, say forget it, but when she looked around her empty, photo-free apartment, she felt almost sick. “How about Monday, then? Just for a few days. Maybe we could go to a spa.”

“Don’t you ever watch the E! channel? I’m leavin’ for Cleveland on Monday. I’m doin’ Shakespeare in some park with Pamela Anderson and Charlie Sheen. Hamlet.”

“You? You’re doing Shakespeare?”

Another dramatic pause. “I’m gonna forget I heard that tone in your voice.”

“Cut the accent, Mama. It’s me. I know you were born in Detroit. Joan Jojovitch is the name on your birth certificate.”

“Now you’re just being rude. You always were a prickly child.”

Meghann didn’t know what to say. The last place in the world she wanted to go was to her mother’s, and yet being studiously noninvited rankled her. “Well. Good luck.”

“It’s a big break for me.”

For me. Mama’s favorite words. “You better get a good night’s sleep before the magazine shoot.”

“That’s the God’s honest truth.” Mama exhaled again. “Maybe y’all could come down later in the year. When I’m not so busy. Claire, too.”

“Sure. Bye, Mama.”

Meghann hung up the phone and sat there in her too-quiet home. She called Elizabeth, got the answering machine, and left a quick message. Then she hung up.

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What now? She had no idea.

For the next hour, she paced the apartment, trying to formulate a plan that made sense.

The phone rang. She dived for it, hoping it was Elizabeth. “Hello?”

“Hi, Meg.”

“Claire? This is a nice surprise.” And for once it was. She sat down. “I talked to Mama today. You won’t believe this. She’s doing—”

“I’m getting married.”

“—Shakespeare in—married?”

“I’ve never been so happy, Meg. I know it’s crazy, but that’s love, I guess.”

“Who are you marrying?”

“Bobby Jack Austin.”

“I’ve never even heard his name.” Not since Hee Haw went off the air, anyway.

“I met him ten days ago in Chelan. I know what you’re going to say, but—”

“Ten days ago. You have sex with men you just met, Claire. Sometimes you even sneak away for a wild weekend. What you don’t do is marry them.”

“I’m in love, Meg. Please don’t ruin it for me.”

Meg wanted to give advice so badly she had to curl her hands into fists. “What does he do for a living?”

“He’s a singer/songwriter. You should hear him, Meg. He sounds like an angel. He was singing in Cowboy Bob’s Western Roundup when I first saw him. My heart stopped for a second. Have you ever felt that way?”

Before Meghann could answer, Claire went on, “He’s a ski instructor in Aspen in the winter and he travels around in the summer, playing his music. He’s two years older than I am, and he’s so good-looking you won’t believe it. Better than Brad Pitt, I kid you not. He’s going to be a star.”

Meghann let it all soak in. Her sister was marrying a thirty-seven-year-old ski bum who dreamed of being a Country and Western singer. And the best gig he could get was Cowboy Bob’s in Nowheresville.

“Don’t be yourself, Meg,” Claire said evenly when the pause had gone on too long.

“Does he know what the campground is worth? Will he sign a prenuptial agreement?”

“Damn you, Meg. Can’t you be happy for me?”

“I want to be,” Meghann said, and it was true. “It’s just that you deserve the best, Claire.”

“Bobby is the best. You haven’t asked about the wedding.”

“When is it?”

“Saturday, the twenty-third.”

“Of this month?”

“We thought, Why wait? I’m not getting any younger. So we booked the church.”

“The church.” This was crazy. Too fast. “I need to meet him.”

“Of course. The rehearsal dinner—”

“No way. I need to meet him now. I’ll be at your house tomorrow night. I’ll take you guys out to dinner.”

“Really, Meg, you don’t have to do that.”

Meg pretended not to hear Claire’s reluctance. “I want to. I have to meet the man who stole my sister’s heart, don’t I?”

“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Claire paused, then said, “It’ll be good to see you.”

“Yeah. Bye.” Meg hung up, then punched in the number for her office and left a message for her secretary. “Get me everything we’ve got on prenuptial agreements. Forms, cases, even the Ortega agreement. I want it all delivered to my house by ten o’clock tomorrow morning.” As an afterthought, she added, “Thanks.”

Then she headed for her computer to do some checking up on Bobby Jack Austin.

This was what she’d do on her idiotic vacation. She’d save Claire from making the biggest mistake of her life.

TEN

CLAIRE HUNG UP THE OFFICE PHONE. IN THE SILENCE THAT followed, doubt crept into the room.

She and Bobby were moving awfully fast. . . .

“Damn you, Meg.”

But even as she cursed her sister, Claire knew the doubt had been there all along, a little seed inside of her, waiting to sprout and grow. She was too old to be swept away by passion.

She had a daughter to think about, after all. Alison had never known her biological father. It had been easy so far, bubble-wrapping Ali’s world so that none of life’s sharp edges could hurt her. Marriage would change everything.

The last thing Claire wanted to do was marry a man who had itchy feet.

She knew about men like that, men who smiled pretty smiles and made big promises and disappeared one night while you were brushing your teeth.

Claire had had four stepfathers before she’d turned nine. That number didn’t include the men she’d been asked to call Uncle, the men who’d passed through Mama’s life like shots of tequila. There and gone, leaving nothing behind but a bitter aftertaste.

Claire had had such high hopes for each new stepfather, too. This one, she’d thought each time. He’ll be the one to take me roller-skating and teach me how to ride a bike. Of course, it had been Meg who’d taught her those things; Meg, who never once called one of Mama’s husbands Daddy and refused to have any hopes for them at all.

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