Between Sisters Page 51


Meghann leaned back to open the picnic basket. “I’ve been waiting for just the right time to give you this.” She withdrew a manila folder and handed it to Claire. “Here.”

“Not now, Meg. I’m tired.”

“Please.”

Claire took the folder with a sigh. It was the one labeled Hope. She looked sharply at Meg, but didn’t say anything. Her hands trembled as she opened the file.

In it were almost a dozen personal accounts of people who had had glioblastoma multiforme tumors. Each of them had been given less than a year to live—at least seven years ago.

Claire squeezed her eyes shut, but the tears came anyway. “I needed this today.”

“I thought so.”

She swallowed hard, then dared to look at her sister. “I’ve been so afraid.” It felt good, finally admitting it.

“Me, too,” Meg answered quietly. Then she leaned forward and took Claire in her arms.

For the first time since childhood, Claire was held by her big sister. Meghann stroked her hair, the way she’d done when Claire was young.

A handful of hair fell out at Meghann’s touch, floated between them.

Claire drew back, saw the pile of her pretty blond hair in Meghann’s hand. Strands drifted down to the water, where they looked like nothing at all. She stared down at the hair floating away on the current. “I didn’t want to tell you it’s been falling out. Every morning I wake up on a hairy pillow.”

“Maybe we should go home,” Meg said finally.

“I am tired.”

Meghann helped Claire to her feet. Slowly they made their way back to the car. Claire’s steps were shuffling and uncertain now, and she leaned heavily on Meg’s arm.

All the way home, Claire stared out the window.

Back in the condo, Meghann helped Claire change into her flannel pajamas and climb into bed.

“It’s just hair,” Claire said as she leaned back against a pile of pillows.

Meghann set the Hope file on the nightstand. “It’ll grow back.”

“Yeah.” Claire sighed and closed her eyes.

Meghann backed out of the room. At the doorway, she stopped.

Her sister lay there, barely breathing it seemed, with her eyes closed. Strands of hair decorated her pillow. Very slowly, still not opening her eyes, Claire brought her hands up and started touching her wedding ring. Tears leaked down the sides of her face, leaving tiny gray splotches on the pillow.

And Meghann knew what she had to do.

She closed the door and went to the phone. All of Claire’s emergency numbers were on a notepad beside it. Including Bobby’s.

Meghann dialed Bobby’s number and waited impatiently for him to answer.

In the past twenty-four hours, Claire had lost almost half of her hair. The bare skin that showed through was an angry, scaly red. This morning, as she got ready for her appointment, she spent nearly thirty minutes wrapping a silk scarf around her head.

“Quit fussing with it,” Meghann said when they arrived at the Nuclear Medicine waiting room. “You look fine.”

“I look like a Gypsy fortune-teller. And I don’t know why you made me wear makeup. My skin is so red I look like Martha Phillips.”

“Who is that?”

“In the eighth grade. She fell asleep under a sunlamp. We called her Tomato Face for two weeks.”

“Kids are so kind.”

Claire left for her treatment and was back in the waiting room thirty minutes later. She didn’t bother putting the scarf back on. Her scalp was tender.

“Let’s go out for coffee,” she said when Meghann stood up to greet her.

“Coffee makes you puke.”

“What doesn’t? Let’s go anyway.”

“I have to go into the office today. I’ve got a deposition scheduled.”

“Oh.” Claire followed Meghann down the hospital corridor, trying to keep up. Lately, she was so tired it was hard not to shuffle like an old woman. She practically fell asleep in the car.

At the condo door, Meghann paused, key in hand, and looked at her. “I’m trying to do what’s right for you. What’s best.”

“I know that.”

“Sometimes I screw up. I tend to think I know everything.”

Claire smiled. “Are you waiting for an argument?”

“I just want you to remember that. I’m trying to do the right thing.”

“Okay, Meg. I’ll remember. Now go to work. I don’t want to miss Judge Judy. She reminds me of you.”

“Smart-ass.” Meg looked at her a moment longer, then opened the condo door. “Bye.”

“This is the longest farewell in history. Bye, Meg. Go to work.”

Meghann nodded and walked away.

When Claire heard the ping of the elevator, she went into the condo, closing the door behind her.

Inside, the stereo was on. Dwight Yoakam’s “Pocket of a Clown” pumped through the speakers.

Claire turned the corner and there he was.

Bobby.

Her hand flew to her bald spot.

She ran to the bathroom, flipped open the toilet lid, and threw up.

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He was behind her, holding what was left of her hair back, telling her it was okay. “I’m here now, Claire. I’m here.”

She closed her eyes, holding back tears of humiliation one breath at a time.

He rubbed her back.

Finally, she went to the sink and brushed her teeth. When she turned to face him, she was trying to smile. “Welcome to my nightmare.”

He came toward her, and the love in his eyes made her want to weep. “Our nightmare, Claire.”

She didn’t know what to say. She was afraid that if she opened her mouth, she’d burst into tears, and she wanted to look strong for him.

“You had no right to keep this from me.”

“I didn’t want to ruin everything. And I thought . . . I’d get better. You’d dreamed of singing for so long.”

“I dreamed of being a star, yeah. I like singing, but I love you. I can’t believe you’d hide this from me. What if . . .”

Claire caught her lip between her teeth. “I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t trust me. Do you know how that feels?” His voice was tight, not his voice at all.

“I was just trying to love you.”

“I wonder if you even know what love is. I’m in the hospital every day, honey, battling for my life, but don’t you worry about it, just sing your stupid songs. What kind of man do you think I am?”

“I’m sorry, Bobby. I just . . .” She stared at him, shaking her head.

He grabbed her, pulled her toward him, and held her so tightly it made her gasp. “I love you, Claire. I love you,” he said fiercely. “When are you going to get that through your head?”

She wrapped her arms around him, clung to him as if she might fall without him. “I guess my tumor got in the way. But I get it now, Bobby. I get it.”

Hours later, when Meghann returned to the condo, the lights were off. She tiptoed through the darkness.

When she reached the living room, a light clicked on.

Claire and Bobby lay together on the sofa, their bodies entwined. He was snoring gently.

“I waited up for you,” Claire said.

Meghann tossed her briefcase on the chair. “I had to call him, Claire.”

“How did you know what he’d do?”

Meghann looked down at Bobby. “He was in the recording studio when I called. Actually recording a song. Honestly, I didn’t think he’d come.”

Claire glanced down at her sleeping husband, then up at Meg. A look passed between the sisters; in it was the sad residue of their childhood. “Yeah,” she said softly, “neither did I.”

“He didn’t hesitate for a second, Claire. Not a second. He said—and I quote—‘Fuck the song. I’ll be there tomorrow.’ ”

“This is the second time you’ve called a man to come save me.”

“You’re lucky to be so loved.”

Claire’s gaze was steady. “Yeah,” she said, smiling at her sister. “I am.”

TWENTY-SEVEN

JOE WAS SITTING ON THE SOFA, STARING AT THE SMALL black-and-white television screen.

He was so caught up in the show, it was a moment before he noticed the footsteps outside.

He tensed, sat up.

A key rattled in the lock, then the door swung open. Gina stood in the opening, her fists on her hips. “Hey, big brother. Nice way you have of calling people.”

He sighed. “Smitty gave you a key.”

“We were worried about you.”

“I’ve been busy.”

She looked at the stack of beer cans and pizza boxes and smiled grimly. “Come on. You’re coming home with me. I have a roast in the oven and I rented Ruthless People. We are going to drink wine and laugh.” Her voice softened. “I could use a laugh.”

Something about the way she said it shamed him. He’d forgotten about her troubles. He’d been too busy swimming in the pool of his own. “Are you okay?”

“Come on,” she said, avoiding the question. “Smitty told me to drag your sorry ass out of here—his words. I intend to do just that.”

He knew there was no point in fighting with her—she had that look on her face—and, truthfully, he didn’t want to. He was tired of being alone. “Okay.”

He followed her out to her car; within minutes, they were in her bright, airy kitchen.

She handed him a glass of Merlot.

While she basted the roast and turned the potatoes, Joe wandered around the great room. In the corner, he found a sewing machine set up. A pile of bold, beautiful fabric lay heaped beside it. He picked up the garment she’d made, ready to compliment her, when he saw what it was. There was no mistaking the slit back.

“It’s a hospital gown,” Gina said, coming up behind him. “I should have put that stuff away. I forgot. I’m sorry.”

He remembered the day Gina had come to his house, bearing pretty designer hospital gowns just like this one.

You shouldn’t have to look like everyone else, she’d said to Diana, who’d wept at the gift.

Those gowns had meant so much to Diana. It didn’t seem like a big deal—just a change of fabric—but it had brought back her smile. “Who are they for?”

“Claire. She’s undergoing radiation right now.”

“Claire,” he said her name softly, feeling sick. Life was so damn unfair sometimes. “She just got married.”

“I didn’t tell you because . . . well . . . I knew it would bring up memories.”

“Where’s she getting the radiation?”

“Swedish.”

“That’s the best place for her. Good.” Radiation. He remembered all of it—the sunburned-looking skin, the puffiness, the way Diana’s hair started to fall out. In strands at first, then in handfuls.

He and Gina had spent their fair share of time in the cancer end zone. He couldn’t imagine how Gina could handle it again.

“Claire flew all around the country seeing the best doctors. I know she’s going to get better. It won’t be like . . . you know.”

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