Between Sisters Page 5


Claire wanted to go against her overprotective nature, but when you’d grown up in a house where your Mama allowed anything, you learned fast how easy it was to get hurt. It made you afraid. “Let’s see the dock, okay? And we’ll see how you’re swimming. Then we’ll see.”

“‘We’ll see’ always means no. You promised.”

“I did not promise. I remember it distinctly, Alison Katherine. We were in the water; you were on my back, with your legs wrapped around me. We were watching Willie and Bonnie jump into the water. You said, ‘Next year I’ll be five.’ And I said, ‘Yes, you will.’ And you pointed out that Bonnie was five. I pointed out that she was almost six.”

“I’m almost six.” Alison crossed her arms. “I’m jumping.”

“We’ll see.”

“You’re not the boss of me.”

Claire always laughed at that. Lately it was her daughter’s favorite comeback. “Oh, yes I am.”

Alison turned her face toward the window. She was quiet for a long time—almost two minutes. Finally, she said, “Marybeth threw Amy’s clay handprint in the toilet last week.”

“Really? That wasn’t very nice.”

“I know. Mrs. Schmidt gave her a long time-out. Did you bring my skateboard?”

“No, you’re too young to ride it.”

“Stevie Wain rides his all the time.”

“Isn’t that the boy who fell and broke his nose and knocked out two front teeth?”

“They were baby teeth, Mommy. He said they were loose anyway. How come Aunt Meg never comes to visit us?”

“I’ve told you this before, remember? Aunt Meg is so busy she hardly has time to breathe.”

“Eliot Zane turned blue when he didn’t breathe. The amb’lance came to get him.”

“I didn’t mean that. I just meant Meg is superbusy helping people.”

“Oh.”

Claire steeled herself for her daughter’s next question. There was always a next question with Alison, and you could never predict what it would be.

“Is this the desert already?”

Claire nodded. Her daughter always called eastern Washington the desert. It was easy to see why. After the lush green of Hayden, this yellow-and-brown landscape seemed desolate and scorched. The black ribbon of asphalt stretched forever through the prairie.

“There’s the water slide!” Alison said at last. She leaned forward, counting out loud. When she got to forty-seven, she yelled, “There’s the lake!”

Lake Chelan filled their view to the left, a huge crystal-blue lake tucked into a golden hillside. They drove over the bridge that led into town.

Two decades ago, this town had been less than three blocks long, without a national franchise to be found. But over time, word of the weather had spread west, to those soggy coastal towns that so prized their plate-size rhododendrons and car-size ferns. Gradually, Seattleites turned their attention eastward. It became a summer tradition, the trek across the mountains toward the flat, scorched plains. As the tourists came, so did the development. Condominium complexes sprouted along the water’s edge. As one filled up, another was built beside it, and so on and so on, until, at the millennium, this was a thriving vacation destination, with all the kiddie-required amenities—pools, water-slide parks, and Jet Ski rentals.

The road curved along the lakeshore. They passed dozens of condominium complexes. Then the shore became less inhabited again. They kept driving. A half mile upshore, they saw the sign: Blue Skies Campground: Next Left.

“Look, Mommy, look!”

The sign showed a pair of stylized trees bracketing a tent with a canoe in front.

“This is it, Ali Kat.”

Claire turned left onto the gravel road. Huge potholes caught the tires and sent the car bouncing right to left.

A mile later, the road took a hairpin turn into a grassy field dotted with trailers and motor homes. They drove past the open field and into the trees, where the few coveted cabins sat in a cluster along the shore. They parked in the gravel lot.

Claire helped Alison out of her car seat, then shut the door and turned toward the lake.

For a split second, Claire was eight years old again, a girl at Lake Winobee, standing at the shoreline, wearing a pretty pink bikini. She remembered splashing into the cold water, shrieking as she went deeper and deeper.

Don’t go in past your knees, Claire, Meghann had hollered out, sitting up on the dock.

For Christ’s sake, Meggy, quit bein’ such an old fuddy-duddy. Mama’s voice. Go on in, sweetums, she’d yelled to Claire, laughing loudly, waving a Virginia Slims menthol cigarette. It won’t do to be a scaredy-cat.

And then Meghann was beside Claire, holding her hand, telling her there was nothing wrong with being afraid. It just shows good sense, Claire-Bear.

Claire remembered looking back, seeing Mama standing there in her tiny bicentennial bikini, holding a plastic cup full of vodka.

Go ahead, sweetums. Jump in that cold water and swim. It doesn’t do a damn bit o’ good to be afraid. It’s best to get your yuks in while you can.

Claire had asked Meghann, What’s a yuk?

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It’s what so-called actresses go looking for after too many vodka collinses. Don’t you worry about it.

Poor Meg. Always trying so hard to pretend their life had been ordinary.

But how could it have been? Sometimes God gave you a mama that made normal impossible. The upside was fun times and parties so loud and crazy you never forgot them . . . the downside was that bad things happened when no one was in charge.

“Mommy!” Alison’s voice pulled Claire into the present. “Hurry up.”

Claire headed for the old-fashioned farmhouse that served as the campground’s lodge. The wraparound porch had been newly painted this year, a forest green that complemented the walnut-stained shingles. Big mullioned windows ran the length of the lower floor; above, where the owners lived, the smaller, original windows had been left alone.

Between the house and the lake was a strip of grass as wide as a football field. It boasted a Lincoln Log–type swing set/play area, a permanent croquet course, a badminton court, a swimming pool, and a boat-rental shed. Off to the left were the four cabins, each with a wraparound porch and floor-to-ceiling windows.

Alison ran on ahead. Her little feet barely made a noise on the steps as she hurried up. She wrenched the screen door open. It banged shut behind her.

Claire smiled and quickened her pace. She opened the screen door just in time to hear Happy Parks say, “—can’t be little Ali Kat Cavenaugh. You’re too big to be her.”

Alison giggled. “I’m gonna be a first grader. I can count to one thousand. Wanna hear?” She immediately launched into counting. “One. Two. Three . . .”

Happy, a beautiful, silver-haired woman who’d run this campground for more than three decades, smiled over Alison’s head at Claire.

“One hundred and one. One hundred and two . . .”

Happy clapped. “That’s wonderful, Ali. It’s good to have you back, Claire. How’s life at River’s Edge?”

“We got the new cabin done. That makes eight now. I just hope the economy doesn’t hurt us. There’s that talk of a gas price hike.”

“Two hundred. Two hundred and one . . .”

“We sure haven’t seen a drop-off,” Happy said. “But we’re like you—all returning guests. Year after year. Which reminds me: Gina is already here. So is Charlotte. The only one missing is Karen. And this is your year for the honeymoon cabin.”

“Yep. The last time Alison slept in the big cabin, she was in a Portacrib.”

“We get the TV,” Alison said, jumping up and down. Counting was forgotten for the moment. “I brought tons of movies.”

“Only one hour a day,” Claire reminded her daughter, knowing it was a mantra that would be repeated at least ten times a day for the next week. Her daughter could literally watch The Little Mermaid 24/7.

Behind them, the screen door screeched open. A group of children burst through the door laughing, followed by six adults.

Happy slid a key across the desk. “You can fill out the paperwork later. I have a feeling this is a group of site hunters. They’ll want a photo tour of each site before they commit.”

Claire understood. The River’s Edge Resort had only a minimum number of campsites—nineteen—and she doled out the good ones carefully. If she liked the guest, she put them near the restrooms and the river. If not . . . well, it could be a long walk to the toilets on a rainy night. She slapped the worn pine counter. “Come over for drinks one night.”

“With you crazy girls?” Happy grinned. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Claire handed Alison the key. “Here you go, Ali Kat. You’re in charge. Show us the way.”

With a yelp, Ali was off. She zigzagged through the now-crowded lobby and burst outside. This time her feet slapped the porch steps.

Claire hurried along behind her. As soon as they’d gotten their luggage from the car, they raced across the expanse of lawn, past the boat-rental shed, and plunged into the trees. The ground here was hard-packed dirt, carpeted with a hundred years’ worth of pine needles.

Finally, they came to the clearing. A silvery wooden dock floated on the wavy blue water, tilting from side to side in a gentle rocking motion. Far out, across the lake, a white condo grouping sat amid the golden humps of the distant foothills.

“Clara Bella!”

Claire tented a hand over her eyes and looked around.

Gina stood at the shoreline, waving.

Even from here, Claire could see the size of the drink in her friend’s hand.

This would be Gina’s intervention week. Usually Gina was the conservative one, the buoy that held everyone up, but she’d finalized her divorce a few months ago and she was adrift. A single woman in a paired-up world. Last week, her ex-husband had moved in with a younger woman.

“Hurry up, Ali!” That was Gina’s six-year-old daughter, Bonnie.

Alison dropped her Winnie-the-Pooh backpack and peeled off her clothes.

“Alison—”

She proudly showed off her yellow bathing suit. “I’m ready, Mommy.”

“Come here, honey,” Gina said, pulling out an industrial-size plastic tube of sunscreen. Within moments, she’d slathered Alison all over and released her.

“Don’t go in past your belly button,” Claire said, dropping their suitcases right there, in the sand.

Alison grimaced. “Aw, Mommy,” she whined, then ran for the water, splashing in to join Bonnie.

Claire sat down beside Gina in the golden sand. “What time did you get here?”

Gina laughed. “On time, of course. That’s one thing I’ve learned this year. Your life can fall apart, frigging explode, but you’re still who you are. Maybe even more so. I’m the kind of woman who gets someplace on time.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Rex would disagree. He always said I wasn’t spontaneous enough. I thought it meant he wanted sex in the afternoon. Turns out he wanted to skydive.” She shook her head, gave Claire a wry smile. “I’d be happy to shove him out of the plane now.”

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