Between Sisters Page 7


“I don’t pick up as many men as I used to. But sometimes . . .” She looked up, saw a sad understanding in Harriet’s eyes. It pissed her off. “Don’t look at me that way.”

Harriet leaned forward, rested her elbows on the table. Her steepled fingers brushed the underside of her chin. “You use sex to dispel loneliness. But what’s lonelier than anonymous sex?”

“At least when the guys leave my bed, I don’t care.”

“Eric again.”

“Eric.”

Harriet sat back. “You were married for less than a year.”

“Don’t minimize it, Harriet. He broke my heart.”

“Of course he did. And you suck on that candy every day in your practice, as women tell you their sad and similar stories. But the flavor has been gone for years. You’re not worried about someone breaking your heart again. You’re worried you don’t have a heart to break. The bottom line is, you’re scared, and fear isn’t an emotion that fits well with your need to control.”

It was true. Meg was tired of being alone and terrified that her life would be a stretch of empty road. A part of her wanted to nod her head, to say yes, and beg for a way to shed her fear. But that was a thin, reedy voice lost amid the screaming blare of self-preservation. The bedrock lesson of her life was that love didn’t last. It was better to be lonely and strong than heartbroken and weak.

Her voice, when she found it, was honed and tight. “I had a difficult week at the office. I’m getting impatient with my clients. I can’t seem to feel for them the way I used to.”

Harriet was too professional to show her disappointment with something as obvious as a sigh or a frown. Her only reaction was to unsteeple her fingers. That oozing, uncomfortable compassion was back in her eyes, though. That poor-Meghann-so-afraid-of-intimacy look. “Your emotions feel distant and inaccessible? Why do you think that would be?”

“As an attorney, I’m trained to see things dispassionately.”

“Yet we both know that the best lawyers are compassionate. And you, Meghann, are an extremely good attorney.”

They were on safe ground again, although it could get slippery again in a second. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I’m not as good as I used to be. I used to help people. Even care about them.”

“And now?”

“I’m some balance-sheet automaton who moves through the day crunching finances and spitting out settlements. I find myself hashing and rehashing canned speeches to women whose lives are falling apart. I used to be pissed off at the husbands. Now I’m just tired. It’s not a game—I take it too seriously still for that—but it’s . . . not real life, either. Not to me.”

“You might consider a vacation.”

“A what?” Meghann smiled. They both knew that relaxation didn’t come easily.

“A vacation. Ordinary people take weeks in Hawaii or Aspen.”

“Dissatisfaction isn’t something you can run away from. Isn’t that Psychology 101?”

“I’m not suggesting you run away. I’m suggesting you give yourself a break. Maybe get a tan. You could spend a few days at your sister’s place in the mountains.”

“Claire and I aren’t likely to vacation together.”

“You’re afraid to talk to her.”

“I’m not afraid of anything. Claire’s a campground manager in Podunk. We have nothing in common.”

“You have history.”

“None of it good. Believe me, the tour bus driver of Claire’s life would hit the gas and keep driving when he came to our childhood years.”

“But you love Claire. That must count for something.”

“Yeah,” Meg said slowly. “I love her. That’s why I stay away.” She glanced down at her watch. “Oh, damn. Hour’s up. See you next week.”

FIVE

JOE STOOD AT THE CORNER OF FIRST AND MAIN, LOOKING down the street at a town whose name he couldn’t remember. He shifted his backpack around, resettled it on his other shoulder. Beneath the strap, his shirt was soaked with sweat and his skin was clammy. In the windless, baking air, he could smell himself. It wasn’t good. This morning he’d walked at least seven miles. No one had offered him a ride. No surprise there. The longer—and grayer—his hair got, the fewer rides he was offered. Only the long-haul truckers could be counted on anymore, and they’d been few and far between on this hot Sunday morning.

Up ahead, he saw a hand-painted sign for the Wake Up Café.

He dug into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, a soft, smooth, lambskin artifact from his previous life. Flipping it open, he barely looked at the single photograph in the plastic square as he opened the side slit.

Twelve dollars and seventy-two cents. He’d need to find work today. The money he’d earned in Yakima was almost gone.

He turned into the café. At his entrance, a bell tinkled overhead.

Every head turned to look at him.

The clattering din of conversation died abruptly. The only sounds came from the kitchen, clanging, scraping.

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He knew how he looked to them: an unkempt vagrant with shoulder-length silver hair and clothes that needed a heavy wash cycle. His Levi’s had faded to a pale, pale blue, and his T-shirt was stained with perspiration. Though his forty-third birthday was next week, he looked sixty. And there was the smell. . . .

He snagged a laminated menu from the slot beside the cash register and walked through the diner, head down, to the last bar stool on the left. He’d learned not to sit too close to the “good people” in any of the towns in which he stopped. Sometimes the presence of a man who’d fallen on hard times was offensive. In those towns it was too damn easy to find your ass on a jail-cell cot. He’d spent enough time in jail already.

The waitress stood back by the grill, dressed in a splotchy, stained pink polyester uniform. Like everyone else in the place, she was staring at him.

He sat quietly, his body tensed.

Then, as if a switch had been flipped, the noise returned.

The waitress pulled a pen out from above her ear and came toward him. When she got closer, he noticed that she was younger than he’d thought. Maybe still in high school, even. Her long brown hair, drawn back in a haphazard ponytail, was streaked with purple, and a small gold hoop clung precariously to her overly plucked eyebrow. She wore more makeup than Boy George.

“What can I getcha?” She wrinkled her nose and stepped backward.

“I guess I need a shower, huh?”

“You could use one.” She smiled, then leaned a fraction of an inch closer. “The KOA campground is your best bet. They have a killer bathroom. ’Course it’s for guests only, but nobody much watches.” She popped her gum and whispered, “The door code is twenty-one hundred. All the locals know it.”

“Thank you.” He looked at her name tag. “Brandy.”

She poised a pen at the small notepad. “Now, whaddaya want?”

He didn’t bother looking at the menu. “I’ll have a bran muffin, fresh fruit—whatever you have—and a bowl of oatmeal. Oh. And a glass of orange juice.”

“No bacon or eggs?”

“Nope.”

She shrugged and started to turn away. He stopped her by saying, “Brandy?”

“Yeah?”

“Where could a guy like me find some work?”

She looked at him. “A guy like you?” The tone was obvious. She’d figured he didn’t work, just begged and drifted. “I’d try the Tip Top Apple Farm. They always need people. And Yardbirds—they mow lawns for the vacation rentals.”

“Thanks.”

Joe sat there, on that surprisingly comfortable bar stool, long after he should have gone. He ate his breakfast as slowly as possible, chewing every bite forever, but finally his bowl and plate were empty.

He knew it was time to move on, but he couldn’t make himself get up. Last night he’d slept tucked along a fallen log in some farmer’s back pasture. Between the howling wind and a sudden rainstorm, it had been an uncomfortable night. His whole body ached today. Now, for once, he was warm but not hot, and his stomach was full, and he was sitting comfortably. It was a moment of Heaven.

“You gotta go,” Brandy whispered as she swept past him. “My boss says he’s gonna call the cops if you keep hanging around.”

Joe could have argued, could have pointed out that he’d paid for breakfast and could legally sit here. An ordinary person certainly had that right.

Instead, he said, “Okay,” and put six bucks on the pink Formica counter.

He slowly got to his feet. For a second, he felt dizzy. When the bout passed, he grabbed his backpack and slung it over his shoulder.

Outside, the heat hit him hard, knocking him back. It took a supreme act of will to start walking.

He kept his thumb out, but no one picked him up. Slowly, his strength sapped by the hundred-degree heat, he walked in the direction Brandy had given him. By the time he reached the KOA Campground, he had a pounding headache and his throat hurt.

There was nothing he wanted to do more than walk down that gravel road, duck into the bathroom for a long hot shower, and then rent a cabin for a much-needed rest.

“Impossible,” he said aloud, thinking of the six bucks in his wallet. It was a habit he’d acquired lately: talking to himself. Otherwise, he sometimes went days without hearing another human voice.

He’d have to sneak into the bathroom, and he couldn’t do it when people were everywhere.

He crept into a thicket of pine trees behind the lodge. The shade felt good. He eased deep into the woods until he couldn’t be seen; then he sat down with his back rested against a pine tree. His head pounded at the movement, small as it was, and he closed his eyes.

He was awakened hours later by the sound of laughter. There were several children running through the campsites, shrieking. The smell of smoke—campfires—was heavy in the air.

Dinnertime.

He blinked awake, surprised that he’d slept so long. He waited until the sun set and the campground was quiet, then he got to his feet. Holding his backpack close, he crept cautiously toward the log structure that housed the campground’s rest room and laundry facilities.

He was reaching out to punch in the code when a woman appeared beside him. Just . . . appeared.

He froze, turning slowly.

She stood there, wearing a bright blue bathing suit top and a pair of cutoff shorts, holding a stack of pink towels. Her sandy blond hair was a mass of drying curls. She’d been laughing as she approached the bathrooms, but when she saw him her smile faded.

Damn. He’d been close to a hot shower—his first in weeks. Now, any minute, this beautiful woman would scream for the manager.

Very softly, she said, “The code is twenty-one hundred. Here.” She handed him a towel, then went into the women’s bathroom and closed the door.

It took him a moment to move, that was how deeply her kindness had affected him. Finally, holding the towel close, he punched in the code and hurried into the men’s bathroom. It was empty.

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