Between Sisters Page 2


Now, all these years later, their lives were connected by the thinnest of strands. Once every few months, she and Meg talked on the phone. On particularly bad days, they fell to talking about the weather. Then Meg would invariably “get another call” and hang up. Her sister loved to underscore how successful she was. Meghann could rattle on for ten minutes about how Claire had sold herself short. “Living on that silly little campground, cleaning up after people” was the usual wording. Every single Christmas she offered to pay for college.

As if reading Beowulf would improve Claire’s life.

For years, Claire had longed to be friends as well as sisters, but Meghann didn’t want that, and Meghann always got her way. They were what Meghann wanted them to be: polite strangers who shared a blood type and an ugly childhood.

Claire reached down for the Weed Eater. As she slogged across the spongy ground, she noticed a dozen things that needed to be done before opening day. Roses that needed to be trimmed, moss that needed to be scraped off the roofs, mildew that needed to be bleached off the porch railings. And there was the mowing. A long, wet winter had turned into a surprisingly bright spring, and the grass had grown as tall as Claire’s knees. She made a mental note to ask George, their handyman, to scrub out the canoes and kayaks this afternoon.

She tossed the Weed Eater in the back of the pickup. It hit with a clanging thunk that rattled the rusted bed.

“Hey, sweetie. You goin’ to town?”

She turned and saw her father standing on the porch of the registration building. He wore a ratty pair of overalls, stained brown down the bib from some long-forgotten oil change, and a flannel shirt.

He pulled a red bandanna out of his hip pocket and wiped his brow as he walked toward her. “I’m fixing that freezer, by the way. Don’t you go pricing new ones.”

There wasn’t an appliance made that he couldn’t repair, but Claire was going to check out prices, just the same. “You need anything from town?”

“Smitty has a part for me. Could you pick it up?”

“You bet. And have George start on the canoes when he gets here, okay?”

“I’ll put it on the list.”

“And have Rita bleach the bathroom ceiling in cabin six. It got mildewy this winter.” She closed the pickup’s bed.

“You here for dinner?”

“Not tonight. Ali has a Tee Ball game at Riverfront Park, remember? Five o’clock.”

“Oh, yeah. I’ll be there.”

Claire nodded, knowing that he would. He hadn’t missed a single event in his granddaughter’s life. “Bye, Dad.”

She wrenched the truck’s door handle and yanked hard. The door screeched open. She grabbed the black steering wheel and climbed up into the seat.

Dad thumped the truck’s door. “Drive safely. Watch the turn at milepost seven.”

She smiled. He’d been giving her that exact bit of advice for almost two decades. “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you, too. Now, go get my granddaughter. If you hurry, we’ll have time to watch SpongeBob SquarePants before the game.”

TWO

THE WEST SIDE OF THE OFFICE BUILDING FACED PUGET Sound. A wall of floor-to-ceiling windows framed the beautiful blue-washed view. In the distance lay the forested mound of Bainbridge Island. At night, a few lights could be seen amid all that black-and-green darkness; in the daylight, though, the island looked uninhabited. Only the white ferry, chugging into its dock every hour, indicated that people lived there.

Meghann sat alone at a long, kidney-shaped conference table. The glossy cherry and ebony wood surface bespoke elegance and money. Perhaps money most of all. A table like this had to be custom-made and individually designed; it was true of the suede chairs, too. When a person sat down at this table and looked at that view, the point was clear: Whoever owned this office was damn successful.

It was true. Meghann had achieved every goal she’d set for herself. When she’d started college as a scared, lonely teenager she’d dared to dream of a better life. Now, she had it. Her practice was among the most successful and most respected in the city. She owned an expensive condo in downtown Seattle (a far cry from the broken-down travel trailer that had been her childhood “home”), and no one depended on her.

She glanced down at her watch. 4:20.

Her client was late.

You would think that charging well over three hundred dollars an hour would encourage people to be on time.

“Ms. Dontess?” came a voice through the intercom.

“Yes, Rhona?”

“Your sister, Claire, is on line one.”

“Put her through. And buzz me the second May Monroe gets here.”

“Very good.”

She pushed the button on her headset and forced a smile into her voice. “Claire, it’s good to hear from you.”

“The phone works both ways, you know. So. How’s life in Moneyland?”

“Good. And in Hayden? Everyone still sitting around waiting for the river to flood?”

“That danger’s passed for the year.”

“Oh.” Meghann stared out her window. Below and to her left, huge orange cranes loaded multicolored containers onto a tanker. She had no idea what to say to her sister. They had a past in common, but that was pretty much it. “So, how’s that beautiful niece of mine? Did she like the skateboard?”

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“She loved it.” Claire laughed. “But really, Meg, someday you’ll have to ask a salesperson for help. Five-year-old girls don’t generally have the coordination for skateboards.”

“You did. We were living in Needles that year. The same year I taught you to ride a two-wheeler.” Meg immediately wished she hadn’t said that. It always hurt to remember their past together. For a lot of years, Claire had been more of a daughter to Meghann than a sister. Certainly, Meg had been more of a mother to Claire than Mama ever had.

“Just get her a Disney movie next time. You don’t need to spend so much money on her. She’s happy with a Polly Pocket.”

Whatever that was. An awkward silence fell between them. Meghann looked down at her watch, then they both spoke at once.

“What are you—?”

“Is Alison excited about first grade—?”

Meghann pressed her lips together. It took an act of will not to speak, but she knew Claire hated to be interrupted. She especially hated it when Meg monopolized a conversation.

“Yeah,” Claire said. “Ali can’t wait for all-day school. Kindergarten hasn’t even ended and she’s already looking forward to the fall. She talks about it constantly. Sometimes I feel like I’m holding on to the tail of a comet. And she never stops moving, even in her sleep.”

Meghann started to say, You were the same way, and stopped herself. It hurt remembering that; she wished she could push the memory aside.

“So, how’s work going?”

“Good. And the camp?”

“Resort. We open in a little more than two weeks. The Jeffersons are having a family reunion here with about twenty people.”

“A week without phone access or television reception? Why am I hearing the Deliverance theme music in my head?”

“Some families like to be together,” Claire said in that crisp you’ve-hurt-me voice.

“I’m sorry. You’re right. I know you love the place. Hey,” she said, as if she’d just thought of it, “why don’t you borrow some money from me and build a nice little Eurospa on the property? Better yet, a small hotel. People would flock there for a good body wrap. God knows you’ve got the mud.”

Claire sighed heavily. “You just have to remind me that you’re successful and I’m not. Damn it, Meg.”

“I didn’t mean that. It’s just . . . that I know you can’t expand a business without capital.”

“I don’t want your money, Meg. We don’t want it.”

There it was: the reminder that Meg was an I and Claire was a we. “I’m sorry if I said the wrong thing. I just want to help.”

“I’m not the baby girl who needs her big sister’s protection anymore, Meg.”

“Sam was always good at protecting you.” Meg heard a tiny flare of bitterness in her voice.

“Yeah.” Claire paused, drew in a breath. Meghann knew what her sister was doing. Regrouping, climbing to softer, safer ground. “I’m going to Lake Chelan,” she said at last.

“The yearly trip with the girlfriends,” Meghann said, thankful for the change in subject. “What do you call yourselves? The Bluesers?”

“Yeah.”

“You all going back to that same place?”

“Every summer since high school.”

Meghann wondered what it would be like to have a sisterhood of such close friends. If she were another kind of woman, she might be envious. As it was, she didn’t have time to run around with a bunch of women. And she couldn’t imagine still being friends with people she’d gone to high school with. “Well. Have fun.”

“Oh, we will. This year, Charlotte—”

The intercom buzzed. “Meghann? Mrs. Monroe is here.”

Thank God. An excuse to hang up. Claire could talk forever about her friends. “Damn. Sorry, Claire, I’ve got to run.”

“Oh, right. I know how much you love to hear about my college dropout friends.”

“It’s not that. I have a client who just arrived.”

“Yeah, sure. Bye.”

“Bye.” Meghann disconnected the call just as her secretary showed May Monroe into the conference room.

Meghann pulled the headset off and tossed it onto the table, where it hit with a clatter. “Hello, May,” she said, walking briskly toward her client. “Thank you, Rhona. No calls, please.”

Her secretary nodded and left the room, closing the door behind her.

May Monroe stood in front of a large multicolored oil painting, a Nechita original entitled True Love. Meghann had always loved the irony of that; here, in this room, true love died every day of the week.

May wore a serviceable black jersey dress and black shoes that were at least five years out of date. Her champagne-blond hair fell softly to her shoulders in that age-old easy-care bob. Her wedding ring was a plain gold band.

Looking at her, you would never know that her husband drove a jet-black Mercedes and had a regular Tuesday tee-time at the Broadmoor Golf Course. May probably hadn’t spent money on herself in years. Not since she’d slaved at a local restaurant to put her husband through dental school. Though she was only a few years older than Meghann, sadness had left its mark on May. There were shadowy circles under her eyes.

“Please, May, sit down.”

May jerked forward like a marionette who’d been moved by someone else. She sat in one of the comfortable black suede chairs.

Meghann took her usual seat at the head of the table. Spread out in front of her were several manila file folders with bright pink Post-it notes fanned along the edges of the paperwork. Meghann drummed her fingertips on the stack of papers, wondering which of her many approaches would be best. Over the years, she’d learned that there were as many reactions to bad news as there were indiscretions themselves. Instinct warned her that May Monroe was fragile, that while she was in the midst of breaking up her marriage, she hadn’t fully accepted the inevitable. Although the divorce papers had been filed months ago, May still didn’t believe her husband would go through with it.

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