Between Sisters Page 23


Claire’s smile faded. “You?”

“I’m not a social moron. I can do this.”

“But . . . but . . . your job is so hectic. I couldn’t ask you to take time out of your busy schedule for this.”

“You didn’t ask. I offered. And it so happens that I find myself . . . underutilized at work.” The idea seized hold of her. Maybe it could bring them together. “This would be perfect, really. I’d like to do this for you, Claire.”

“Oh.” Claire sounded underwhelmed. Meghann knew what her sister was thinking—Meghann was a bull in a small-town china shop.

“I’ll listen to you and do what you want. It’ll be your wedding. I promise.”

“I think it sounds great,” Bobby said, smiling broadly. “You’re very generous, Meghann.”

Claire frowned at Meghann. “Why am I seeing Father of the Bride playing in my head? You never do anything in a small way, Meg.”

Meghann felt awkward suddenly, vulnerable. She wasn’t certain why she wanted this so badly. “I will this time. Honest.”

“Okay,” Claire said finally. “You can help me plan my wedding.”

Meghann grinned and clapped her hands. “Good. Now, I better get started. Where’s a local phone book? And what’s the date again—the twenty-third? Next Saturday? That’s not much time to pull this together.” She headed for the kitchen, where she found a scrap of paper and began a to-do list.

“Oh, man,” she heard her sister say. “I’ve created a monster.”

TWELVE

BY THE SECOND NIGHT IN HIS SISTER’S HOUSE, JOE FELT AS IF he were suffocating. Everywhere he looked he saw glimpses of his old life. He didn’t know how he was going to go forward, but he knew he couldn’t stay here.

He waited until Gina left to go grocery shopping, then crammed his things—including several framed photographs of Diana that he’d taken from the house—into the old backpack and headed for the door. He left a note on the kitchen counter.

Can’t stay here. Sorry. Hurts too much.

I know this is a rough time for you, so

I won’t go far. Will call soon. Love you.

Thank you.

J.

He walked the few miles back to town. By the time he reached Hayden, it felt as if he were slogging through mud. He was tired again, weary.

He didn’t want to run away, didn’t want to hunker down in some shitty little motel room and gnaw on the old guilt.

He looked up and saw a sign for the Mountain View Cemetery. A shiver passed through him. The last time he’d been there it had been pouring rain. There had been two policemen beside him, shadowing his every move. The mourners had kept their distance. He’d felt their condemnation, heard their whispers.

He’d tried to walk away during the ceremony, but the police yanked him back in line. He’d whispered, I can’t watch this in a broken voice. One of his guards had said, Too bad and held him in place.

He should go there now, to the cemetery. But he couldn’t do it, couldn’t kneel on the sweet green grass in front of her headstone.

Besides, he wouldn’t find her at the cemetery. There was more of her in his heart than beneath any gray stone.

He skirted town and hiked across an empty field toward the river. The soft, gurgling sounds sparked a dozen memories of their youth. Days they’d picnicked along the water’s edge and nights they’d parked there, making love in the dark interior of the Dodge Charger he’d once owned.

He knelt there.

“Hey, Di.” He squeezed his eyes shut, battling a wave of guilt.

“I’m home. What now?”

No answer came to him on the summer breeze, no scent of Red wafted his way. And yet, he knew. She was glad he’d come back.

He opened his eyes again, stared at the silver caps of the current. “I can’t go to the house.” The thought of it made him almost ill. Three years ago, he’d walked out of their home on Bainbridge Island and never looked back. Her clothes were still in the closet. Her toothbrush was still by the sink.

No way he could go there. His only hope—if there was any hope at all—lay in baby steps. He didn’t have to move toward his old life; he simply had to stop running from it.

“I could get a job in Hayden,” he said after a long silence.

Staying in town would be difficult, he knew. So many people remembered what he’d done. He’d have to endure the looks . . . the gossip.

“I could try it.”

With that, he found that he could breathe again.

He spent another hour there, kneeling in the grass, remembering. Then, finally, he climbed to his feet and walked back to town.

There were a few people milling around the streets, and more than one face peered frowningly up at him, but no one approached him. He saw when he was recognized, saw the way old friends lurched at the sight of him, drew back. He kept his head down, kept moving. He was about to give up on the whole damn idea of finding a job here when he came to the end of town. He stood across the street from Riverfront Park, staring at a collection of cars, all lined up on a patch of gravel behind a sagging chain-link fence. A metal Quonset hut advertised Smitty’s, The Best Auto Shop in Hayden.

On the chain-link fence was a sign: Help Wanted. Experience requested, but who am I kidding?

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Joe crossed the street and headed toward the entrance.

A dog started barking. He noticed the Beware of Dog sign. Seconds later, a miniature white poodle came tearing around the corner.

“Madonna, stop that damn yapping.” An old man stepped out from the shadowed darkness of the Quonset hut. He wore oil-stained overalls and a Mariners baseball cap. A long white beard hid the lower half of his face. “Don’t mind the dog. What can I do ya for?”

“I saw your help-wanted sign.”

“No kiddin’.” The old man slapped his thigh. “That thing’s been up there since Jeremy Forman went off to college. Hell, that’s been pret near on two years now. I—” He paused, stepped forward, frowning slowly. “Joe Wyatt?”

He tensed. “Hey, Smitty.”

Smitty blew out a heavy breath. “I’ll be damned.”

“I’m back. And I need a job. But if it’d cost you customers to hire me, I understand. No hard feelings.”

“You want a job wrenching? But you’re a doctor—”

“That life is over.”

Smitty stared at him a long time, then said, “You remember my son, Phil?”

“He was a lot older than me, but yeah. He used to drive that red Camaro.”

“Vietnam ruined him. Guilt, I think. He did stuff over there. . . . Anyway, I’ve seen a man run before. It isn’t good. Of course I’ll hire you, Joe. The cabin still comes with the job. You want it?”

“Yes.”

Smitty nodded, then led the way through the Quonset hut and out the other end. The backyard was big and well maintained. Flowers grew in riotous clumps along the walkway. There, a thicket of towering evergreens stood clustered behind the small log cabin. Moss furred the roof; the front porch sagged precariously.

“You were a teenager the last time you lived here. I couldn’t keep track of all the girls you dated.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“Yeah,” Smitty sighed. “Helga still keeps it spick-’n’-span clean. She’ll be glad to have you back.”

Joe followed Smitty to the cabin.

Inside, it was as clean as always. A red-striped woolen blanket covered an old leather sofa and a rocking chair sat next to the river-rock fireplace. The yellow Formica-clad kitchen appeared well stocked for appliances and pots and pans, and a single bedroom boasted a queen-size four-poster bed.

Joe reached out and shook Smitty’s bear-claw hand. “Thank you, Smitty,” he said, surprised at how deep his gratitude ran. His throat felt tight.

“There are a lot of people in this town who care about you, Joe. You seem to have forgotten that.”

“That’s nice to hear. Still, I’d be happier if no one knew I was here, for a while, anyway. I don’t . . . feel comfortable around people anymore.”

“It’s a long road back from something like that, I guess.”

“A very long road.”

After Smitty left, Joe burrowed through his backpack for one of the framed photographs that he’d taken from his sister’s house. He stared down at Diana’s smiling face. “It’s a start,” he said to her.

Meghann woke up disoriented. In the first place, the room was dark. Second, it was quiet. No honking horns and sirens and the beep-beep-beep of trucks in reverse gear. At first she thought a radio was on, in a room down the hall. Then she realized that the noise was birdsong. Birdsong, for God’s sake.

Claire’s house.

She sat up in bed. The beautifully decorated guest room was oddly comforting. Everywhere were handmade trinkets—proof of time spent on the little things—as well as Ali’s artwork. Framed photographs cluttered every surface. In another time and place, Meghann might have laughed at the crudely painted macaroni-coated egg carton that acted as a jewelry box. Here, in her sister’s house, it made her smile. When she looked at it, she pictured Ali, with her pudgy little fingers, gluing and placing and painting. And Claire, clapping with pride when the project was done; then proudly displaying it. All the things their own mama wouldn’t have had time for.

There was a knock at the door, then a hesitantly called out “Meg?”

She glanced at the bedside clock.

Ten fifteen.

Oh, man. She rubbed her eyes, which felt like a sandpit from lack of sleep. As usual, she’d tossed and turned all night. “I’m up,” she said, throwing the covers back.

“Breakfast is on the table,” Claire said through the closed door. “I’m going to go clean the swimming pool. We’ll leave at about eleven, if that’s still okay?”

It took Meghann a second to remember. She’d promised to join Claire and her friends in town. Wedding-dress shopping in Hayden with grown women who called themselves the Bluesers.

Meghann groaned. “I’ll be ready.”

“See you then.”

Meghann listened to the footsteps as Claire walked away. How long could she keep up this charade of I’m your sister, I support your wedding? Sooner or later, her head would pop off, or—worse—her mouth would open and her opinion would explode, bomblike: You can’t marry him. You don’t know him. Be smart.

None of these opinions would sit well.

And yet, because Meghann couldn’t return to work, had no friends to call, and no true vacation plans, she found herself preparing to plan her sister’s wedding. Honestly, who could possibly be worse for the job?

She couldn’t even remember the last wedding she’d attended. Oh, yes she could.

Hers.

Of course, it hadn’t been the wedding that sent them on the wrong road; it was the pairing up that had done it.

She got out of bed and went to the door. Opening it a crack, she peeked out. Everything was quiet. She hurried down the hallway to the small second-floor bathroom. An unopened traveler’s toothbrush lay on the side of the sink, no doubt a quick repossession from the “resort’s” mini store. She brushed her teeth, then took a quick, very hot shower.

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