Three women step off of a plane. It sounded like the start of a joke.
Joshua Flynn, age twenty-two, native of Nantucket Island, senior at Middlebury College, summer employee of the Nantucket Memorial Airport, where his father was an air traffic controller, noticed the women immediately. They arrived on a US Airways flight from LaGuardia. Three women, two small children, nothing unusual about that, so what caught Josh's eye? Josh Flynn was a creative-writing student at Middlebury, and his mentor, the writer-in-residence, Chas Gorda, liked to say that a writer smells a good story in the air like it's an approaching storm. The hair on your arms will stand up, Chas Gorda promised. Josh checked his forearms—nothing—and tugged at his fluorescent orange vest. He approached the plane to help Carlo unload the luggage. Josh's father, Tom Flynn, would be at a computer terminal five stories above Josh's head, occasionally spying out the window to make sure Josh was doing what he called "a decent job." Being under surveillance like this provided as unsettling a work situation as Josh could imagine, and so in the two weeks he'd been at it, he'd learned to sniff for stories without giving himself away.
Two of the women stood on the tarmac. Josh could tell they were sisters. Sister One was very thin with long light-brown hair that blew all over the place in the breeze; she had a pointy nose, blue eyes, and she was visibly unhappy. Her forehead was as scrunched and wrinkled as one of those funny Chinese dogs. Sister Two had the same blue eyes, the same sharp nose, but instead of scowling, Sister Two's face conveyed baffled sadness. She blinked a lot, like she was about to cry. She was heavier than her sister, and her hair, cut bluntly to her shoulders, was a Scandinavian blond. She carried a floral-print bag bursting with diapers and a colorful set of plastic keys; she was taking deep, exaggerated breaths, as though the flight had just scared her to death.
The third woman teetered at the top of the steps with a baby in her arms and a little boy of about four peeking around her legs. She had a pretty, round face and corkscrew curls that peeked out from underneath a straw hat. She was wearing jeans with muddy knees and a pair of rubber clogs.
The sisters waited at the bottom of the stairs for this third woman to descend. Heavy-breathing Sister reached out for the baby, shaking the keys. "Come to Mama," she said. "Here, Melanie, I'll take him." In addition to the baby, Straw Hat held a package of Cheez-Its, a green plastic cup, and an air-sickness bag. She was two steps from the ground when the little boy behind her shouted, "Auntie Brenda, here I come!"
He was aiming for Scowling Sister, but in his excitement, he hurtled his forty-some pound body into the back of Straw Hat, who went sprawling onto the tarmac with the baby. Josh bolted forward—though he knew he wouldn't be quick enough to save anyone. Straw Hat covered the baby's head with her hands and took the brunt of the fall on her knees and her left arm. Ouch.
"Melanie!" Heavy-breathing Sister cried. She dropped the diaper bag and raced toward Straw Hat. The baby wasn't making any noise. Neck broken. Dead. Josh felt his spirit trickle onto the tarmac as though he'd wet his pants. But then—a cry! The baby had merely been sucking in air, released now in heroic tones. The baby was alive! Heavy-breathing Sister took the baby and studied him for obvious injury, then shushed him against her shoulder. Scowling Sister approached with the perpetrator of the crime, older brother, clinging to her legs.
"Is the baby okay?" Scowling Sister asked. Her expression shifted from impatient to impatient and concerned.
"He's fine," Heavy-breathing Sister said. "Just scared." She reached out to Straw Hat. "Are you okay, Melanie? Are you okay? Do you feel okay?"
Melanie dusted the tarmac grit off her face; there was a scrape on her elbow, some blood. The Cheez-Its blew off down the runway; the plastic cup rolled to Josh's feet. He picked it up, and the air-sickness bag as well.
"Would you like me to get a first-aid kit?" he asked Melanie.
She put a hand to her cheek, and the other hand massaged her stomach. "Oh, no. Thank you, though. I'm fine."
"Are you sure?" Heavy-breathing Sister said. "What about…?"
"I'm fine," Melanie said.
"Blaine will apologize," Heavy-breathing Sister said. "Apologize, Blaine."
"Sorry," the boy mumbled.
"You could have hurt your brother. You could have hurt Melanie. You just can't do things like that, sweetheart. You have to be careful."
"He said he was sorry, Vick," Scowling Sister said.
This was not joke material. The three women, collectively, were the most miserable-looking people Josh had ever seen.
"Welcome to Nantucket," Josh said, hoping his words might cheer them, though Carlo was always reminding him that he was not an ambassador. He should just tend to the bags; his father would be watching.
Scowling Sister rolled her eyes. "Thanks a lot," she said.
They should have driven to the island, Brenda thought as they climbed into a cab outside the terminal. She had been coming to Nantucket her entire life and they always drove, and then put the car on the ferry. This year, because of the kids and Vicki's cancer and a desire to get to Nantucket as expediently as possible no matter what the cost, they had flown. They shouldn't have broken with tradition in Brenda's opinion, because look what happened—they were off to a horrible start already. Melanie had vomited the whole flight; then she fell, giving Vicki something else to worry about. The whole point of the summer was to help Vicki relax, to soothe her, to ease the sickness from her body. That's the point, Melanie! Now, Melanie was sitting behind Brenda in the cab with her eyes closed. Vicki had invited Melanie to Nantucket for the summer because Melanie had "problems." She was dealing with a "complicated situation" back in Connecticut. But it was also the case that Brenda's company alone had never been enough for Vicki. All their lives, all through growing up—whether it was camping trips, nights at the summer carnival, or church on Sunday—Vicki had brought a friend.
This summer it was Melanie Patchen. The news that Melanie would be joining them was sprung on Brenda at the last minute, giving her no opportunity to protest. During the limousine ride from Darien to LaGuardia, Brenda had heard about the "complicated situation": Melanie and her husband, Peter Patchen, had been trying "forever" to get pregnant; they had, in the past calendar year, endured seven failed rounds of in vitro fertilization. Then, a few weeks ago, Peter admitted he was having an affair with a young woman from his office named Frances Digitt. Melanie was devastated. She was so upset she made herself sick—she couldn't keep food down, she took to her bed. Then she missed her period. She was pregnant—and the "complicated" part of her "situation" was that she had left Connecticut without telling her husband that she was leaving, and without telling him she was pregnant. She was stealing away with Vicki and Brenda and the kids because she "needed time to think. Time away."
Brenda had taken in this information silently but skeptically. The last thing she and Vicki needed this summer was a stowaway from a complicated situation. Vicki had lung cancer, and Brenda had problems of her own. Earlier that spring, she had been fired from her teaching job at Champion University for sleeping with her only male student—and, as if that weren't catastrophic enough, there were "unrelated" criminal charges pending, concerning a valuable piece of university-owned art. Sex scandal! Criminal charges! Brenda had gone from being hot property—a celebrated young professor, the It girl of Champion University—to being the subject of rumor and gossip. Everyone on Champion's campus had been talking about her: Dr. Brenda Lyndon, who earned top teaching marks in the English Department her very first semester, had conducted an illicit affair with one of her students. And then, for a reason nobody could discern, she had "vandalized" an original Jackson Pollock—a bequest from a gung-ho alumnus—that hung on the wall of the English Department's Barrington Room. In addition to the mortifying shame of her relationship with John Walsh, Brenda had been forced to hire a lawyer she couldn't afford to deal with the vandalism charges. Best-case scenario, Brian Delaney, Esquire, said, would be the university's art restoration team deciding they could tinker with the painting, fill in the "divot," make the painting as good as new. Worst-case scenario would be irrevocable damage. The university was still looking into the matter.
Brenda had ostensibly come to Nantucket because Vicki had cancer and needed help. But Brenda was also unemployed, unemployable, and in serious need of money. Melanie wasn't the only one who needed "time away" or "time to think"—Brenda needed it, too. Desperately. She had devoted her entire career to one narrow subject: Fleming Trainor's novel, The Innocent Impostor. This little-known volume, published in 1790, had been the topic of Brenda's dissertation and of the surprisingly popular seminar she taught at Champion. Since Brenda would be forever ostracized from the world of academia, the only way The Innocent Impostor could make her any money now—at least the kind of money she needed to pay a lawyer and / or a "hefty fine"—was if she used it in some unconventional, and un-academic, way. It was Brian Delaney, Esquire, who suggested Brenda write a screenplay. At first Brenda scoffed, but as Brian Delaney, Esquire, eloquently pointed out: Hollywood loves that old-time shit. Look at Vanity Fair, look at Jane Austen. The Innocent Impostor was so obscure it wasn't even available on Amazon.com, but Brenda was desperate, not only for money, but for a project, something to work on. She batted the idea around for a while, and the more she thought about it, the less outlandish it seemed. This summer, if anyone asked her what she did for a living, she would tell them she was writing a screenplay.
The other reason that Brenda had come to Nantucket was that John Walsh was in Manhattan, and even in a city of eight million people, Brenda felt his presence as acutely as if he lived on the other side of her exposed-brick wall. She had to sever ties with John Walsh no matter how strongly she felt about him, she had to flee the city of her disgrace, she had to help her sister. A summer on Nantucket was the answer all the way around, and the cottage that had belonged to Brenda and Vicki's great-aunt Liv was, after three years, out of probate. The two sisters owned it now, officially.
The question wasn't, why was she here? The question was, why wasn't she happier she was here?
Brenda held the baby tightly on her lap and put an arm around her four-year-old nephew, Blaine, who was buckled in next to her. The cabbie said, "Where to?" And Brenda said, "Shell Street, 'Sconset."
Shell Street, 'Sconset: These were Brenda's three favorite words in the English language. It had not slipped Brenda's mind that one way to access a large sum of money was to sell out her half of Aunt Liv's house to Vicki and Ted. But Brenda couldn't bear to relinquish the piece of this island she now owned: half of a very small house. Brenda gazed out the window at the scrubby evergreens that bordered Milestone Road, at the acres of moors held in conservation. She inhaled the air, so rich and clean that it worked like an anesthetic; Blaine's eyelids started to droop. Brenda couldn't help thinking that Walsh would love it here. He was a man of the outdoors, being typically Australian; he liked beaches and waves, open space, clear sky. He was at a loss in Manhattan, all that manufactured civilization baffled him, the subway suffocated him, he preferred to walk, thank you, mate. How many times had he traversed Central Park in a snowstorm to get to Brenda's apartment? How many times had they met secretly in Riverside Park after class? Too many, apparently, and not secretly enough. One person had harbored suspicions, the wrong person, and Brenda's career in academia was over a semester and a half after it began. She had been branded with the scarlet letter despite the fact that Walsh was thirty-one years old and Brenda herself only thirty. The situation at Champion had been such a hideous mess, the cause of such powerful shame, that Brenda had no choice but to end everything with Walsh. He wanted to come visit her here. It would be different, he said, out of the city. Maybe, Brenda thought. But not different enough.
Brenda was relieved that Aunt Liv wasn't alive to witness her fall from grace. Aunt Liv, a celebrated professor of Russian literature at Bryn Mawr College, had cultivated Brenda for a life in academia. She had served as a mentor and a role model. How many hours had they talked about Fleming Trainor—and Isaak Babel, Tolstoy, Solzhenitzyn, Dumas, Hugo, Whitman? How many times had they agreed there was no nobler pursuit than the study of literature, no better way to spend an evening than alone with Turgenev?
I was doing so well, Brenda thought. Until Walsh.
When Brenda thought of Aunt Liv now, the term "rolling over in her grave" came to mind. So in some way this summer on Nantucket was about seeking atonement. Brenda wanted others to forgive and, more saliently, forget; she wanted to find some peace for her roiling conscience. Time to think. Time away. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, having Melanie around. Misery did love company.
Brenda checked behind her again. Now Vicki's eyes were closed. She and Melanie were both asleep, and weirder still, they were holding hands, like they were lovers. Brenda tightened her grip on the warm, doughy baby in her lap. She felt like a six-year-old, jealous and left out.
Victoria Lyndon Stowe had been making lists all her life. She attributed this to the fact that she was the firstborn, a classic type-A personality, something her parents did nothing but reinforce. Vicki is so organized, she never forgets a thing. As early as the fifth grade, Vicki wrote down what she wore to school each day so that she didn't repeat an outfit. She made lists of her favorite movies and books. She made a list of what each friend gave her for her birthday, and she always wrote the thank-you notes in order so that she could check them off, boom, boom, boom, just like that. At Duke, there had been myriad lists—she was president of the Tri-Delts, the head of the Drama Society, and a campus tour guide, so there were lists for each of those things, and a separate list for her studies. Then, out in the real world, the lists multiplied. There were "single girl living and working in the city" lists, lists for her wedding to Ted Stowe, and finally the endless lists of a mother of young children. Schedule doctor's appointment; return library books; save milk cartons for planting radishes; money for babysitter; playdate with Carson, Wheeler, Sam; call balloon man for birthday party; buy summer pajamas; oil the tricycle; have carpets cleaned in the playroom.
When Vicki was diagnosed with lung cancer, the lists came to a halt. This was her doctor's suggestion, though Vicki initially protested. Lists kept her world in order; they were a safety net that prevented important things from falling through. But Dr. Garcia, and then her husband, Ted, insisted. No more lists. Let them go. If she forgot to pick up the dry cleaning, so what? She would undergo two months of intensive chemotherapy, and if the chemo worked as it was supposed to—shrinking her tumor to a resectable size—it would be followed by thoracic surgery in which they would remove her left lung and her hilar lymph nodes. Chemotherapy, surgery, survival—these things were too big for any list. And so, the lists had all been thrown away, except for the one Vicki kept in her head: the List of Things That No Longer Matter.
A brother and sister running across the street, late for their dentist appointments. A pretty skirt worn with the wrong shoes. Peterson's Shorebirds. (There was a group of retired women in Darien who wandered the beach with this exact volume in hand. Vicki hated these women. She hated them for being so lucky—they didn't have cancer, thus they had the luxury of spending precious minutes of their lives tracking an oystercatcher or a blue heron.)
Unfortunately for Brenda and Melanie, there were things about this summer on Nantucket that had initially been placed on Vicki's List of Things That No Longer Matter—such as whether Brenda and Melanie would get along, or whether all five of them would be comfortable in Aunt Liv's summer cottage—but now it seemed like they might matter after all. Vicki's so organized, she never forgets a thing. But the fact was, Vicki had forgotten the physical details of Aunt Liv's cottage. When Vicki made the radical decision to come to Nantucket for the summer, her only thought had been of the comfort that Aunt Liv's cottage, and Nantucket, would give her. Every summer growing up she had stayed in the cottage with her parents and Brenda and Aunt Liv. It was her favorite place, it defined summertime, and Vicki's mother, Ellen Lyndon, had always sworn that any ailment in the world—physical or emotional—could be cured by a little Nantucket sand between your toes. Everyone else thought Vicki was crazy to go away for the summer, endangering herself even, but another thing that Vicki put on her List of Things That No Longer Matter was what everyone else thought.
Inviting Brenda to come along had been the obvious choice. Vicki needed help with the kids and getting back and forth to chemo, and Brenda, fired from Champion in a blaze of scandal with attendant legal trouble, was desperate to escape the city. It was summer, salvaged for both of them. In the harrowing days following Vicki's diagnosis, they talked about reliving their memories from childhood: long beach days, catching fireflies, bike rides to Sesachacha Pond, corn on the cob, games of Monopoly and badminton, picking blackberries, twilight walks up to Sankaty Head Lighthouse, which spun its beacon like a cowboy with a wild lasso, picnics of bologna-and-potato-chip sandwiches, spending every day barefoot. It would be just the two of them, creating memories for Vicki's own kids. It was a chance for Vicki to heal, for Brenda to regroup. They would follow their mother's advice: Nantucket sand between the toes. It might cure anything: cancer, ruined careers, badly ended love affairs. Just the two of us, they said as they sat under the harsh hospital lights awaiting a second opinion. It would be a sister summer.
But how, really, could Vicki leave her best friend behind in Darien—especially with the monstrous news of Peter's affair followed by an even bigger stunner (whispered, frantically, at three in the morning over the telephone). Melanie was—after all this time, after so many costly and invasive procedures—pregnant!
Come to Nantucket, Vicki had said immediately, and without thinking (and without consulting Ted or Brenda).
Okay, Melanie had said just as quickly. I will.
As the taxi pulled up in front of Aunt Liv's cottage, Vicki feared she'd made a mistake. The house was smaller than Vicki remembered, a lot smaller. It was a shoe box; Blaine had friends with playhouses bigger than this. Had it shrunk? Vicki wondered. Because she remembered whole summers with her parents and Brenda and Aunt Liv, and the house had seemed, if not palatial, then at least comfortable.
"It's darling," Melanie said as she stepped out of the cab. "Oh, Vicki, it's all that I imagined."
Vicki unhinged the front gate. The landscapers had come, thank God. Melanie loved flowers. Pale pink New Dawn roses cascaded down a trellis, and the front beds had been planted with cosmos and blue delphiniums and fat, happy-faced zinnias. There were butterflies. The postage-stamp lawn had been recently mowed.
"Where's the sandbox?" Blaine said. "Where's the curly slide?"
Vicki produced a key from her purse and opened the front door, which was made from three rough-hewn planks and sported a brass scallop-shell knocker. The doorway was low. As Vicki stepped through, she thought of her husband, Ted, a hale and hearty six foot five. He had told her from the beginning that he was vehemently against her going to Nantucket. Did she really want to spend all summer with her sister, with whom her relationship was spotty at best? And Melanie Patchen, who would be as needy as Vicki, if not more so? And did she really want her chemotherapy—the chemo that she was asking to save her life—to be administered at the Nantucket Cottage Hospital? Wasn't that the equivalent of being treated in the Third World? What the hell are you thinking? he asked. He sounded confused and defeated. Ted was a hedge fund manager in Manhattan; he liked problems he could fell like trees, problems he could solve with brute strength and canny intelligence. The horrifying diagnosis, the wing-and-a-prayer treatment plan, and then Vicki's wacko decision to flee for the summer left him confounded. But Vicki couldn't believe she was being asked to explain herself.
It was, quite possibly, the last summer of her life, and she didn't want to spend it in stifling hot Darien under the sympathetic scrutiny of her friends and peers. Already, Vicki's circumstances were being repeated like the Song of the Day: Did you hear? Vicki Stowe has lung cancer. They're going to try chemo first and then they'll decide if it's worth operating. They don't know if she'll make it. A steady stream of food and flowers arrived along with the offer of playdates. Let us take Blaine. Let us take the baby. So you can rest. Vicki was the new Darien charity. She couldn't stand the casseroles or the calla lilies; she couldn't stand her children being farmed out like they were orphans. The women circled like buzzards—some close friends, some friends of friends, some women she barely knew. Ted didn't get it; he saw it as outreach by a caring community. That's why we moved here, he said. These are our neighbors, our friends. But Vicki's desire to get away grew every time the phone rang, every time a Volvo station wagon pulled into the driveway.
Vicki's mother was the one who had suggested Nantucket; she would have joined Vicki herself but for an ill-timed knee replacement. Vicki latched on to the idea, despite the fact that her mother wouldn't be coming to help. Aunt Liv's estate had been settled in March; the house belonged to her and Brenda now. It felt like a sign. Brenda was all for it. Even Vicki's oncologist, Dr. Garcia, gave his okay; he assured her that chemo was chemo. The treatment would be the same on Nantucket as it would be in Connecticut, or in the city. The people in Vicki's cancer support group, all of whom embraced holistic as well as conventional medical treatment, understood. Enjoy yourself, they said. Relax. Play with your kids. Be outside. Talk with your sister, your friend. Look at the stars. Eat organic vegetables. Try to forget about fine-needle aspirations, CT scans, metastases. Fight the good fight, on your own terms, in your own space. Have a lovely summer.
Vicki had held Ted hostage with her eyes. Since her diagnosis, she'd watched him constantly—tying his necktie, removing change from his suit pocket, stirring sugar into his coffee—hoping to memorize him, to take him with her wherever she went.
I'll miss you, she said. But I'm going.
The cottage had been built in 1803—back, Vicki thought, when life was both busier and simpler, back when people were shorter and held lower expectations. The cottage had originally been one room with a fireplace built into the north wall, but over the years, three "warts" had been added for bedrooms. All of the rooms were small with low ceilings; it was like living in a dollhouse. That was what Aunt Liv had loved about the cottage—it was life pared down, scaled way back. There was no TV, no answering machine, no computer or microwave or stereo. It was a true summerhouse, Aunt Liv used to say, because it encouraged you to spend most of your time outside—on the back deck overlooking the yard and garden, or down the street at 'Sconset's public beach. Back in 1803 when the woman of the house had cancer, there were no oncologists or treatment plans. A woman worked right through it—stoking the fire, preparing meals, stirring the laundry in a cauldron of boiling water—until one day she died in bed. These were Vicki's thoughts as she stepped inside.
The cottage had been cleaned and the furniture aired. Vicki had arranged for all of this by telephone; apparently, houses that sat dormant for three years were common stuff on Nantucket. The house smelled okay, maybe a bit too optimistically like air freshener. The living room floors were made from wide, buttery pine boards that showed every scratch from a dragged chair, every divot from a pair of high heels. The plaster-and-wood-beamed ceiling was low, and the furniture was old-ladyish, like something out of a Victorian bed-and-breakfast: Aunt Liv's delft blue high-back sofa, the dainty coffee table with a silver-plated tea service resting on a piece of Belgian lace. There were the bookshelves bowing under the weight of Aunt Liv's summer library, there was the fireplace with mismatched andirons. Vicki moved into the small kitchen, appliances circa 1962, silver-threaded Formica, Aunt Liv's china, which was painted with little Dutch girls in wooden shoes. The caretaker's bill was secured to the refrigerator with a magnet advertising a restaurant called the Elegant Dump, which had been defunct for years.
The west bedroom was sunny. That would be Melanie's room. Twin beds were made up with the pink-and-orange-striped sheets that Vicki remembered from her childhood. (What she remembered most vividly was staining the sheets during her first period. Aunt Liv had sensibly pulled out the hydrogen peroxide while Ellen Lyndon had chirped with over-the-top sentimentality about how "Vicki is a woman now" and Brenda glowered and chewed her cuticles.) Vicki would take the largest bedroom, with the king bed, where she would sleep with the kids, and Brenda would sleep in the old nursery, a room just slightly bigger than Vicki's walk-in closet at home. This was the room Aunt Liv had always occupied—it was called the old nursery because both Aunt Liv and Vicki and Brenda's grandmother Joy had slept in cribs in that room alongside the family's baby nurse, Miss George, more than eighty years earlier. Once Aunt Liv had arthritis and every other old-person ailment, Vicki's parents suggested she take the big bedroom—but that didn't suit Liv. She stopped coming to Nantucket altogether, and then she died.
There was a flurry of activity as everyone piled into the house, dragging luggage and boxes. The cabbie stood by the car, waiting to be paid. That was Vicki's department. She was going to pay for everything all summer. She was summer's sponsor. She handed the kid twenty bucks. Enough?
He grinned. Too much. "Thanks, ma'am. Enjoy your stay."
As the cab pulled away, Blaine started to cry. Vicki worried that all the change would traumatize him; there had been a scene at breakfast when he'd said good-bye to Ted, and then he'd knocked Melanie off the airplane's steps. He was acting out. It was three o'clock, and although he was outgrowing his nap, Vicki knew he needed some quiet time. She herself was bone weary. Just picking up her bag and walking five feet to the bedroom made her feel like she'd climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Her lungs were on fire. She hated them.
Suddenly, Brenda made a noise even worse than Blaine's whiny cry. She was moaning in that Oh no, oh no, no, the-world-is-ending kind of way. What was it? A dead animal in the old nursery? A family of dead animals? Vicki lowered her bottom onto her bed's squishy mattress. She didn't have the energy to move, so she called out, "What's wrong, Bren?"
Brenda appeared in the absurdly low doorway of Vicki's bedroom. "I can't find my book."
Vicki didn't have to ask which book. This was Brenda, her sister. There was only one book: Brenda's two-hundred-year-old first edition of Fleming Trainor's The Innocent Impostor. This book, a little-known novel of a mediocre Early American writer, was the foundation of Brenda's career. Brenda had spent six years getting her master's degree and doctorate from the University of Iowa, she had written a dissertation and had part of it published in an obscure literary journal, and she'd landed the job at Champion University—all because of this book. The first edition was an antique, worth thousands of dollars, Brenda claimed. She had owned it since she was fourteen years old, when she bought it for fifty cents at a flea market. The book was, for all intents and purposes, Brenda's pet. She wouldn't consider leaving it in Manhattan, where the subletter could get at it. It had traveled with them in a special briefcase—temperature and humidity controlled, the whole nine yards. Now it was missing.
"Are you sure?" Vicki said. "Did you check everywhere?" Despite the fact that Brenda's missing book fell squarely onto Vicki's List of Things That No Longer Matter, she tried to summon sympathy in the interest of getting things off to a good start. And crises of this nature were Vicki's specialty. With the kids, her day was spent hunting for things: the other shoe, the ball that rolled under the sofa, the pacifier!
"Everywhere," Brenda said. It was amazing how quickly her demeanor had changed. She had been a bitch all day, but now that her book was missing, she was turning into the cake that someone left out in the rain. Her cheeks were blotching, her hands were twitching, and Vicki sensed tears weren't far off.
"What if I lost the book?" Brenda said. "What if I left it at"—the next word was so awful, it stuck like a chunk of carrot in the back of her throat—"LaGuardia?"
Vicki shut her eyes. She was so tired she could sleep like this, sitting up. "You carried it off the plane with you, remember? You had your little purse, and . . ."
"The briefcase," Brenda said. She blinked rapidly, trying to fend off the tears. Vicki felt a surge of anger. If Brenda had been the one to get cancer, she wouldn't have been able to deal. God never gives you more than you can handle—this saying was repeated with conviction at Vicki's cancer support group—and that is why God did not give Brenda cancer.
Somewhere in the house, the baby was crying. A second later, Melanie appeared. "I think he's hungry," she said. She caught a whiff of Brenda's desperate mien—the hands were still twitching—and she said, "Honey, what's wrong? What's wrong?"
"Brenda lost her book," Vicki said, trying to sound grave. "Her old book. The antique."
"That book is my life," Brenda said. "I've had it forever, it's priceless…okay, I feel sick. That book is my talisman, my good-luck charm."
Good-luck charm? Vicki thought. If the book really had supernatural powers, wouldn't it somehow have kept Brenda from sleeping with John Walsh and ruining her career?
"Call the airport," Vicki said. She took Porter from Melanie and latched him onto her breast. As soon as the chemo started on Tuesday, he would have to be weaned. Bottles, formula. Even Porter, at nine months old, had a more legitimate crisis than Brenda. "I'm sure they have it."
"Okay," Brenda said. "What's the number?"
"Call information," Vicki said.
"I hate to ask this," Melanie said. "But is there just the one bathroom?"
"Quiet!" Brenda snapped.
Melanie's eyes grew wide and Vicki thought for an instant that she might start to cry. Melanie was sweet and self-effacing to a fault, and she hated confrontation. When the whole ugly thing with Peter happened, Melanie didn't yell at him. She didn't break his squash racquet or burn the wedding photos as Vicki herself would have. Instead, she'd let his infidelity quietly infect her. She became sick and fatigued. Then she discovered she was pregnant. The news that should have caused her the greatest joy was suddenly a source of conflict and confusion. Nobody deserved this less than Melanie. Vicki had given Brenda a direct order—Be nice to her!—but now Vicki saw she should have been more emphatic. Really nice! Kid gloves!
"Sorry, Mel," Vicki whispered.
"I hear you," Brenda said. Then, in a businesslike voice, she said, "Nantucket Memorial Airport, please. Nantucket, Massa-chusetts."
"Anyway, yes," Vicki said. "Just the one bathroom. Sorry. I hope that's okay." Vicki hadn't poked her head into the bathroom yet, though she was pretty sure it hadn't changed. Small hexagonal tiles on the floor, transparent shower curtain patterned with red and purple poppies, toilet with the tank high above and an old-fashioned pull chain. One bathroom for a woman about to be served up a biweekly dose of poisonous drugs, a woman in the throes of morning sickness, a four-year-old boy unreliably potty trained, and Brenda. And Ted, of course, on the weekends. Vicki took a breath. Fire. She switched Porter to her other breast. He had milk all over his chin and a deliriously happy look on his face. She should have started him on a bottle weeks ago. Months ago.
"I'm going to unpack," Melanie announced. She was still wearing her straw hat. When Vicki and Brenda had arrived in the limo to pick her up that morning, she'd been in her garden, weeding. As she climbed into the Lincoln Town Car, clogs caked with mud, she said, "I should have left Peter a reminder to water. I just know he'll forget, or ignore it."
"Your husband is still living with you?" Brenda had said. "You mean to say you didn't throw him out?"
Melanie had glanced at Vicki. "She knows about Peter?"
At that minute, Vicki's lungs had felt like they were filling with swamp water. It went without saying that Melanie's situation was confidential, but Brenda was Vicki's sister, and the three of them were going to be living together all summer, so . . .
"I told her," Vicki said. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay," Melanie said softly. "So I guess you know I'm pregnant, too?"
"Yeah," Brenda said.
"I'm sorry, Mel," Vicki said.
"I'm a dead end," Brenda said. "Really, I am. But if you want my opinion . . ."
"She doesn't want your opinion, Bren," Vicki said.
"You should tell the man to fuck off," Brenda said. "Twenty-seven-year-old adventure girl, my sweet ass!"
"Brenda, enough!" Vicki said.
"Just please don't tell anyone I'm pregnant," Melanie said.
"Oh, I won't say a word," Brenda said. "I promise."
A few minutes later, after enough time had passed for everyone in the limo to reflect on this exchange, Melanie had started vomiting. She claimed it was because she was sitting backward.
Vicki propped Porter up over one shoulder, and he gave a healthy belch; then he squirmed and let out a wet, vibrating gush from his rear. The tiny bedroom smelled funky and breadlike.
Brenda poked her head back in. "They have the book at the airport," she said. "Some kid found it. I told him I wouldn't have a car until Friday, and he said he'd drop it by on his way home from work." She grinned. "See? I told you the book was lucky."
Josh Flynn didn't have a mystical bone in his body, but he wasn't insensitive, either. He knew when something was meant to be, and for some reason as yet unclear to him, he was supposed to be involved with the three women and two small children he had singled out earlier that afternoon. They had left behind a very important piece of luggage, and because Carlo had to leave early for a dental appointment, Josh was the one who fielded the phone call and Josh was the person who was going to deliver the goods. A briefcase with a fancy dial next to the locks. If Josh had been writing a certain kind of novel, the briefcase would contain a bomb, or drugs, or money, but the other students in Chas Gorda's creative-writing workshop found thrillers "amateurish" and "derivative," and some nitpicker would point out that the briefcase never would have made it through security in New York. What was in the briefcase? The woman—and Josh could tell just from her voice that it was Scowling Sister—had sounded unnerved on the phone. Anxious and worried—and then relieved when he said that yes, he had the briefcase. Josh shifted it in his hands. Nothing moved; it was as though the briefcase were stuffed with wadded-up newspapers.
It was four-thirty. Josh was alone in the small, messy airport office. He could see the evening shift getting to work out the open back door, other college kids who had arrived on the island earlier than he did. They were waving the fluorescent wands like they'd seen it done on TV, bringing the nine-seater Cessnas on top of their marks, staying clear of the propellers, the way they'd all been taught in training. The evening shift was the best—it was shorter than the day shift, and busier. Maybe next month, if he did a decent job.
Josh fiddled with the briefcase locks just to see if anything would happen. At the mere touch of his fingertips, the locks sprung open with a noise like a gun's report. Josh jumped out of his chair. Whoa! He had not expected that! He checked the office. No one was around. His father worked upstairs through the evening shift. He always got home at eight o'clock, and he liked to eat dinner with Josh by eight-thirty. Just the two of them with something basic that Josh put together: burgers, barbecued chicken, always an iceberg salad, always a beer for his father—and now that Josh was old enough, a beer for Josh. Just one, though. His father was a creature of habit and had been since Josh had bothered to take note of it, which he supposed was at the age of twelve, after his mother committed suicide. His father was so predictable that Josh knew there was no way he would ever come down to the office, and his father was the only person he feared, so . . .
Josh eased the briefcase open. There, swaddled in plastic bubble wrap, was a heavy-duty freezer bag, the kind of bag fishermen down on the wharves filled with fresh tuna steaks. Only this bag contained…Josh peered closer…a book. A book? A book with a brown leather cover and a title in gold on the front: The Innocent Impostor. A novel by Fleming Trainor. After three years of literature courses at Middlebury, Josh's knowledge of important writers was growing. He had read Melville, Henry James, Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac. He had never read—nor heard of—Fleming Trainor.
Josh stared at the book and tried to put it together in his mind with Scowling Sister's panicked voice. Nope, didn't make any sense. But Josh liked that. He closed the briefcase, locked it tight.
The briefcase sat on the passenger seat of his Jeep for the ride out to 'Sconset. Josh had lived on Nantucket his entire life. Because there was a small year-round community, everyone had an identity, and Josh's was this: good kid, smart kid, steady kid. His mother had killed herself while he was still in elementary school, but Josh hadn't derailed or self-destructed. In high school he studied hard enough to stay at the top of his class, he lettered in three sports, he was the senior class treasurer and did such a fine job running fund-raisers that he culled a budget surplus large enough to send the entire senior class to Boston the week before they graduated. Everyone thought he would become a doctor or a lawyer or a Wall Street banker, but Josh wanted to do something creative, something that would endure and have meaning. But nobody got it. Even Josh's best friend, Zach Browning, had cocked his head and said, Do something creative? Like what, man? Paint someone's portrait? Compose a fucking symphony?
Josh had kept a journal for years, in a series of spiral-bound notebooks that he stashed under his bed like Playboy magazines. They contained the usual stuff—his thoughts, snippets of dreams, song lyrics, dialogue from movies, passages from novels, the scores from every football, basketball, and baseball game of his high school career, riffs on friends, girlfriends, teachers, and his father, memories of his mother, pages of descriptions of Nantucket and the places farther afield that he had traveled, ideas for stories he wanted to write someday. Now, thanks to three years under the tutelage (or "hypnosis," as some would say) of Middlebury's writer-in-residence, Chas Gorda, Josh knew that journal keeping was not only okay for a writer, but compulsory. In high school, it had seemed a little weird. Weren't diaries for girls? His father had caught Josh a couple of times, opening Josh's bedroom door without knocking the way he'd been wont to do in those days and asking, "What are you doing?"
"Something for English?"
"No. Just writing. For me." It had sounded odd, and Josh had felt embarrassed. He started locking his bedroom door.
Chas Gorda warned his students against being too "self-referential." He was constantly reminding his class that no one wanted to read a short story about a college kid studying to be a writer. Josh understood this, but as he rolled into the town of 'Sconset with the mysterious briefcase next to him, anticipating interaction with people he barely knew who didn't know him, he couldn't help feeling that this was a moment he could someday mine. Maybe. Or maybe it would turn out to be a big nothing. The point, Chas Gorda had effectively hammered home, was that you had to be ready.
Nantucket was the dullest place in America to grow up. There was no city, no shopping mall, no McDonald's, no arcades, no diners, no clubs, no place to hang out unless you were into two-hundred-year-old Quaker meetinghouses. And yet, Josh had always had a soft spot for 'Sconset. It was a true village, with a Main Street canopied by tall, deciduous trees. The "town" of 'Sconset consisted of a post office, a package store that sold beer, wine, and used paperback books, two quaint cafes, and a market where Josh's mother used to take him for an ice cream cone once a summer. There was an old casino that now served as a tennis club. 'Sconset was a place from another age, Josh had always thought. People said it was "old money," but that just meant that a long, long time ago someone had the five hundred dollars and the good sense it took to buy a piece of land and a small house. The people who lived in 'Sconset had always lived in 'Sconset; they drove twenty-five-year-old Jeep Wagoneers, kids rode Radio Flyer tricycles down streets paved with white shells, and on a summer afternoon, the only three sounds you could hear were the waves of the town beach, the snap of the flag at the rotary, and the thwack of tennis balls from the club. It was like something precious from a postcard, but it was real.
The address Scowling Sister had given Josh over the phone was Eleven Shell Street. The Jeep's tires crackled over crushed clamshells as he pulled up in front of the house. It was small, cute, typical of 'Sconset; it looked like the house where the Three Bears lived. Josh picked up the briefcase. He was officially nervous. The house had a gate with a funny latch, and while he was fumbling with it, the front door swung open and out came a woman wearing a pair of denim shorts and a green bikini top that shimmered like fish scales. It was…well, Josh had to admit it took him a minute to get his eyes to focus on the woman's face, and when he did, he was confused. It was Scowling Sister, but she was smiling. She was getting closer to him, and closer, and before Josh knew it, she was wrapping her arms around his neck, and he felt the press of her breasts against his grubby airport-issued polo shirt, and he smelled her perfume and then he felt something unsettling happening—he was losing his grip on the briefcase. Or no, wait. She was prying it from his hand. She had it now.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you, thank you."
"Uh," Josh said. He took a few steps back. His vision was splotchy and green—green from the plot of grass in the side yard, green from the shiny material cupping Scowling Sister's breasts. Okay, now, for sure, the hair on his arms was standing up. "You're welcome."
"I'm Dr. Lyndon," Scowling Sister said, offering her hand. "Brenda."
"You're such a doll to bring this by," Brenda said. She hugged the briefcase to her chest. "I thought it was gone forever."
"No problem," Josh said, though it was more of a problem than he imagined. He was thrown into a frenzy by the sight of Scowling Sister. Her hair, which had been loose at the airport, was now held in a bun by a pencil, and little pieces fell down around her neck. She was very pretty. And pretty old, he guessed. Maybe thirty. She was barefoot and her toes were dark pink; they looked like berries. Enough! he thought, and he may have actually spoken the word because Brenda tilted her head and looked at him strangely, as if to say, Enough what?
"Do you want to come in?" she asked.
Chas Gorda would have encouraged Josh to say yes. One way to avoid being self-referential was to open your world up, meet new people. Listen, observe, absorb. Josh had never seen the inside of one of these little cottages. He checked his watch. Five o'clock. Normally, after work, he went for a swim at Nobadeer Beach, and sometimes he stopped by his old girlfriend Didi's apartment. He and Didi had dated all through high school, but then she had stayed on the island and Josh had left, and now, three years later, you could really tell the difference. Didi worked at the admitting desk at the hospital and all she talked about was her weight and Survivor. If she had found an old book nestled in Bubble Wrap, she would have snorted and chucked it in the Dumpster.
"Oh-kay," he said. "Sure."
"I'll make us some tea," Brenda said. But she was distracted by a noise, a computerized version of "Für Elise." Brenda pulled a cell phone out of her back pocket and checked the display.
"Oh, God," she said. "I am not going to answer that." She smiled lamely at Josh, and he watched the enthusiasm drain from her face. They were two steps from the door when Brenda stopped. "Actually, everyone in the house is asleep."
"The kids. My sister. Her friend. And I'm not sure we even have any tea, so . . ."
"That's all right," Josh said, backing away. He was disappointed, but also relieved.
"Another time," Brenda said. "You promise you'll come back another time? Now you know where we live!"
Melanie would never complain out loud, not with her best friend so gravely ill, but she felt like mold on the wall at a fleabag motel. Here, then, was a classic case of Be Careful What You Wish For. Her breasts felt like lead balloons. They hurt so much she couldn't sleep on her stomach, and yet that was her favorite position for sleep, facedown, without so much as a pillow. Now she had to contend with new sleeping quarters, a sagging twin bed in this strange, sunny room that smelled like artificial pine trees.
All she had wanted was to get away—as far away as possible. When she was in Connecticut, facing the utter wasteland her life had become, moving to Pluto had seemed too close. But now she was at loose ends; from a distance, things somehow looked worse than they did when she was standing in the middle of them. And the bizarre, unfathomable fact was, she missed Peter.
Peter, Melanie's husband of six years, was very tall for an Asian man. Tall, broad in the shoulders, startlingly handsome—people on the streets of Manhattan occasionally mistook him for the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Melanie had met Peter at a bar on the East Side. Peter, at that time, had worked on Wall Street, but shortly after he and Melanie married he became a market analyst at Rutter, Higgens, where he met Ted Stowe, Vicki's husband. Vicki and Ted were expecting their first child; they were moving to Darien. Melanie and Vicki became good, fast friends, and soon Melanie was pestering Peter about moving to Connecticut, too. ("Pestering" was how Peter described it now. At the time, to Melanie, it had seemed like a mutual decision to move.) Melanie wanted children. She and Peter started trying—nothing happened. But Melanie had fallen in love with a house, not to mention the green-grass-and-garden vision of her life in Connecticut. They moved and became the only young couple in Darien without children. At times, Melanie blamed her fertility problems on the suburb. Babies were everywhere. Melanie was forced to watch the stroller brigade on its way to the school bus stop each morning. She was confronted by children wherever she turned—at the Stop & Shop, at the packed day care of her gym, at the annual Christmas pageant of St. Clement's Episcopal Church.
You're so lucky, the mothers would say to Melanie. You're free to do whatever you want. You can sit through dinner and a bottle of wine at Chuck's without sixteen hundred interruptions, without all the silverware and half the dinner rolls ending up on the floor, without the waitstaff glaring at you like you're something stuck to the bottom of a mortician's shoe. The mothers were kind; they pretended to envy Melanie. But she knew that they pitied her, that she had become a woman defined by her faulty biology. Never mind that Melanie had graduated from Sarah Lawrence, that she had taught English to the hill tribes of northern Thailand after college; never mind that Melanie was an avid gardener and a dedicated power walker. When the other women saw her, they thought: That's the woman who's trying to conceive. The one who's having difficulty. Barren, maybe. Something's wrong, poor thing.
Peter didn't acknowledge any of this, and Melanie knew now, in the post-breakup where deep, dark secrets oozed out like sludge from the sewer, that he'd never cared whether they conceived or not. (No wonder she'd had such trouble! Everyone knew the game was 90 percent attitude, positive thinking, visualization.) Peter had tried to make her happy, and the best way he knew to do this, being a man, was to spend money on her in flabbergasting ways. Weekend trips to Cabo, the Connaught in London, the Delano in South Beach. An Yves Saint Laurent velvet blazer that had a two-month waiting list. A twelve-ounce black truffle flown in from Italy in a wooden box packed with straw. Orchids every Friday.
As the months of infertility dragged on, Melanie immersed herself in starting seeds, digging beds, planting shrubs and perennials, mulching, weeding, spending nearly a thousand dollars on annuals and herbs and heirloom tomato plants. She let the two beautiful little girls who lived next door cut her tulips and hyacinths for their May baskets. She fed her hydrangea bushes clam necks from the fish market. A Saint Bernard would have been easier to take care of than the damn garden, Peter complained.
Peter had told Melanie about his affair with Frances Digitt on the way home from the Memorial Day picnic that Rutter, Higgens threw every year in Central Park. There were softball, hamburgers and hot dogs, watermelon, egg-in-a-spoon races and water balloons for the kids. It was a nice event, but Melanie had suffered through it. She and Peter had tried in vitro seven times with no results, and they had decided not to pursue any more treatment. It just wasn't working. But still people asked, "Any news?" and Melanie was forced to say, "We've let it go, for the time being." Ted and Vicki had not attended the picnic at all because Vicki had just gotten her diagnosis confirmed with a second opinion from Mount Sinai and she didn't feel up to seeing anybody. So Melanie fielded inquiries not only about her infertility but about Vicki's cancer as well. With the number of people pursuing Melanie and pinning her down in conversation, it would have been easier to hold a press conference.
On the way home, Melanie mentioned to Peter that the afternoon had worn her down, she hadn't had much fun, probably because Ted and Vicki weren't there.
"Life is too short," Melanie said. She said this every time she thought of Vicki now. Peter nodded distractedly; Melanie intoned this sentiment so often, its meaning was diluted. But Melanie meant the words urgently: Life was too short to fritter away in a constant state of yearning, aching, wanting. Waiting for something to happen.
At Exit 1 on I-95, they hit traffic and Peter cursed and they slowed to a crawl.
Now's the time, Melanie thought. And she said, "I think we should try again. Once more."
She steeled herself for his reaction. He hadn't wanted to pursue in vitro at all. There was something about it that felt forced to Peter, unnatural. Melanie had pushed the issue not once, not twice, but seven times, promising that each round would be the last. And then, a few weeks ago, she had really, really promised; she and Peter had made a pact of sorts, sealing it with their first spontaneous lovemaking in nearly a year. Afterward, Peter talked about a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, just the two of them. They would stay at a resort that didn't allow children.
Melanie was ready for Peter to be annoyed that she was revisiting the topic yet again; she was ready for anger. But Peter just shook his head, and with his eyes on the bumper of the car in front of them, he said, "I'm involved with someone else."
It took Melanie a moment to understand what he meant by "involved," but even after the obvious occurred to her, she still wasn't sure. "Involved?" she said.
"Yes. With Frances."
"Frances?" Melanie said. She looked at Peter. He had drunk several beers at the picnic. Was he impaired? Should he even be driving? Because what he was saying didn't make any sense. "You're involved with Frances? Frances Digitt?" Melanie could only picture Frances as she had just seen her—in a pair of red nylon running shorts and a white T-shirt that said Mad River Glen, Ski It If You Can. Frances Digitt was twenty-seven years old, she had a butch haircut, she was into all these extreme sports, like rock climbing and backcountry skiing. She had hit a home run during the softball game and she ran the bases pumping her fist in the air like a sixteen-year-old boy. "You're having an affair with Frances?"
"Yes," Peter said.
Yes: They were having the sleaziest kind of office sex—in coat closets, in the deserted restrooms after hours, on top of his desk with the door closed and locked, in his swivel chair, Frances's skirt hiked up, straddling him.
When they got home that night, Peter moved into the guest room while Melanie took a bath and cried. Peter did not move out—he claimed he didn't want to, and Melanie couldn't bring herself to demand it. They slept under one roof, in separate rooms. He was not willing to end his "involvement" with Frances Digitt, not yet, he said, but maybe someday. Melanie was tortured by this. She loved the man, and he was using her heart for target practice. Most nights he came home, but some nights he called to say he would be "staying in the city" (which meant, she could only assume, staying with Frances Digitt). He rendered Melanie powerless; he knew she didn't have the courage to divorce him and take all his money, which was what everyone encouraged her to do.
When Melanie started feeling sick, she wasn't surprised. Extreme emotional stress, she thought. Depression. She couldn't keep food down. She would think about Frances Digitt and gag. She was overcome with exhaustion; she took three- and four-hour naps in the afternoons. Her cycle had been manipulated for so long with hormones that she didn't notice when she missed her period. But then her breasts started to tingle and ache, and smells she normally loved—coffee, fresh sage from the garden—turned her stomach. She went to a drugstore three towns away, where nobody knew her, and bought a test.
Of course, she thought. Of course, of course. She was pregnant now, when it no longer mattered, when it was a painful and complicated discovery instead of a joyous one. Melanie was aching to tell Peter. Every time she looked at him, she felt like she was going to burst with the news. She thought he would be astute enough to figure it out on his own—because she rushed to the bathroom to vomit, because she slept all the time. Peter either didn't notice these obvious symptoms or he chalked them up to Frances Digitt–inspired melodrama. Melanie decided she would not tell Peter—she was resolved in this—until something changed. She wanted Peter to leave Frances Digitt because he loved her, Melanie, and not because there was now going to be a baby. A baby. Their baby. After all that trying, after all the needles, drugs, treatments, counting days, scheduling sex, it had happened on its own. Even Peter would be amazed, even he would shout with joy. But she couldn't divulge the news yet. The pregnancy was her only currency; it was all she had left, and she didn't want to share it.
So…get out of town. Go with Vicki—and her sister, Brenda—to an island thirty miles out to sea.
Melanie hadn't told Peter she was leaving; he wouldn't realize it until seven o'clock that evening when he found her note in an envelope taped to the door of the mudroom. He would be stunned by her departure. He would realize he'd made a horrible mistake. The phone would ring. Maybe. He would ask her to come home. Maybe.
But maybe he'd be happy she left. Relieved. Maybe he would count Melanie's departure as his good fortune and invite Frances Digitt to move into their house and tend Melanie's garden.
One bad thought was all it took. Melanie rushed to the communal bathroom and vomited bitter green bile into the toilet, which was spotted with urine because Blaine could not yet clear the rim. She pooled water in her hand and rinsed her mouth, glanced at her reflection in the brown-spotted mirror. Even the mirror looked sick. She stepped onto the rickety bathroom scale; if the thing were right, then she had lost three pounds since discovering she was pregnant. She couldn't keep anything down, not ginger ale, not dry toast, but she kept at it, eating and vomiting, because she was hungry, ravenous, and she couldn't stand to think of her baby starving and dehydrated, shriveling up like a piece of beef jerky.
The house was quiet. Vicki and the kids were sleeping, and Brenda was outside talking to…that handsome kid from the airport, the one who had offered Melanie first aid. It figured. Melanie hadn't gotten the whole story about Brenda and her student, but it didn't take a wizard to figure out that Brenda was a loose cannon. Promiscuous. Easy. Look at the way she was touching the kid's shoulder, then shaking her boobs at him. And he was just a kid, in his twenties, though quite adorable. He had smiled at Melanie when he offered the first aid, like he'd wanted to help but wasn't sure how. Melanie sighed. When was the last time Peter had smiled at her? She pulled the shades against the sun. The only good thing about pregnant sleep was that she was too exhausted to dream.
Brenda was the only adult awake when the phone rang. She had cleared Aunt Liv's tea set and all the ceramic knickknacks and enamel boxes from the coffee table so that she and Blaine could play Chutes and Ladders. The baby, meanwhile, would sit in Brenda's lap for thirty or forty seconds, then climb over her folded knees like Hannibal over the mountains and he was off, crawling across the satiny floorboards, pulling at lamps, fingering electrical cords, plugs, outlets. Somehow, while Brenda was teaching Blaine to count out spaces on the board, Porter put a dime in his mouth. Brenda heard him gagging, and she picked him up and smacked him on the back; the dime went flying across the room. Blaine moved himself forward an illegal fourteen spaces, and Brenda, although desperate for the game to be over, made him move back on principle. He started to cry. Brenda gathered him into her lap, and Porter crawled into the kitchen. At least he was too short to reach the knives. But then, as Brenda explained to Blaine that if he cheated at games no one would ever want to play with him, she heard a muffled thud that sickened her heart.
"Porter?" she said.
He gurgled happily in response.
Brenda slid Blaine off her lap. Aunt Liv's banjo clock chimed; it was six-thirty. Vicki and Melanie had been in their respective rooms with the doors closed since three. Brenda would have welcomed three and a half quiet hours for herself—but she was not pregnant and she did not have cancer. Cancer, she thought. Did the word ever get less scary and horrible? If you repeated it often enough and understood it better, did it lose that Grim Reaper chill?
In the kitchen, Brenda found her two-hundred-year-old first edition of The Innocent Impostor splayed on the floor like a dead bird. Porter sat next to the book, chewing on something. The cap to Brenda's pen.
Brenda cried out. Gently, she picked up the book, amazed that as old as it was, it hadn't crumbled into dust from the impact. She never should have taken it out of the briefcase—the book, like an elderly person, needed to be coddled. She smoothed the pages and swaddled it in its plastic cover, nestled it in the bubble wrap and locked it up, safe from grubby little hands. She plucked the pen cap out of Porter's drooly little mouth and threw it, with some force, into the kitchen trash.
Her problems were small beans, she reminded herself. In comparison, that was. She did not have cancer, she was not carrying her cheating husband's baby. Out of three bad situations, hers was the least dire. Was that a blessing or a curse? I am grateful for my health. I will not feel sorry for myself. I am here to help Vicki, my sister, who has cancer. Two hours after the news of Brenda's dismissal hit Champion's campus, Brenda had received an e-mail from a colleague of hers at the University of Iowa. Rumor has it you've been axed, Neil Gilinski wrote. Rumor has it you committed the only sin that can't be forgiven other than out-and-out plagiarism. Brenda's heart had tumbled. The news of her disgrace had traveled halfway across the country in two hours. It might as well have appeared on Page Six. But she would not feel sorry for herself. She would be grateful for her health.
"Auntie Brenda!" Blaine called out. "Come on! It's your turn!"
"Okay," Brenda said. "I'll be right there."
At that moment, the phone rang. The phone hung on the kitchen wall; it was white, with a rotary dial. Its ring was cranky and mechanical: a hammer hitting a bell. The sound made Brenda's breath catch. Fear seeped into her chest. Brian Delaney, Esquire, had already left two urgent-sounding messages on her cell phone. Call me, please. Dammit, Brenda, call me. But Brenda didn't want—indeed, couldn't afford—to call him back. Every phone call cost her a hundred dollars. If Brian had good news, such as the art restoration professional at Champion had found no permanent damage to the painting in question and the English Department had decided to drop all charges, then he could leave a message saying as much. And if Brian had bad news, she didn't want to hear it. Every time her cell phone rang, she prayed it would be Walsh. That it should be her lawyer added insult to injury. But the cottage's ringing phone took Brenda by surprise. She had known the phone number at Number Eleven Shell Street since she was a little girl, but she hadn't given the number to Walsh or to Brian Delaney, Esquire. Which meant it was probably her mother.
"Hello?" Brenda said.
"Is my wife there?" a man asked. He sounded even angrier than Brenda.
How did people live without caller ID? "Ted?" Brenda said.
"I said, is my wife there? This is the number she left on the note. A note! ‘Gone for the summer.' What the hell?"
"You mean Melanie?" Brenda said. She was impressed that Melanie had bolted with only a note.
"She's here," Brenda said. "But she's not available."
"What does that mean?"
"I can't explain it any more clearly," Brenda said. "She…is . . .not…available."
"Put her on the phone," the husband said.
"No," Brenda said. She gazed at her briefcase and felt fresh relief that it hadn't vanished into the purgatory reserved for lost luggage, and then she checked on Porter, who had found the other half of Brenda's pen. His mouth was bleeding blue ink. "Oh, geez," Brenda said. When she lunged for the pen, Porter crawled away and Brenda nearly yanked the phone off the wall. In seconds, Porter and the pen were inches from Vicki's bedroom door. "I'm sorry," Brenda said. She hung up on Melanie's husband.
As she buckled Blaine and Porter into the double jog stroller, she wondered, Why isn't there an Olympic crawling event for babies? Porter would win. Then she thought, Melanie's husband sounded pretty damn entitled for someone who was having an affair.
"I'm hungry," Blaine said. "When are we having dinner?"
"Good question," Brenda said. She hadn't eaten since Au Bon Pain in LaGuardia. There was no food in the house, and it was possible that Vicki might sleep until morning. Brenda ran inside and helped herself to forty dollars from Vicki's wallet—she'd earned it.
As Brenda pushed the stroller over the crushed shells toward the market, she thought, I am helping my sister, who is very sick. Sick sounded better than cancer. People got sick all the time, and then they got better. Vicki is sick, but she will get better, and in the meantime, I will take care of everything. But Brenda feared she wouldn't be able to handle it. She had visited with the kids often since the previous September, when she moved back east from Iowa City to take the job at Champion—but she'd never had both of them alone for three whole hours. How did Vicki do it—one crawling all over creation, into everything, while the other one asked a hundred questions a minute, like, What's your favorite number, Auntie Brenda? Mine is nine. No, actually, mine is three hundred and six. Is that more than fifty? How did Vicki keep her mind from turning into a bowl of porridge? Why had Brenda thought that spending the summer taking care of the children would be something she would excel at? What led her to believe that she'd have a single quiet hour to try her hand at screenwriting? Melanie had said she would pitch in, but look what happened—she'd nearly killed Porter coming off the airplane and then she dozed off like Sleeping Beauty. That left Brenda holding the bag. Brenda to cover the kids, Brenda to drive Vicki to chemo, Brenda to shop for the food—and cook? This was what Brenda had offered, earnest in her desire to redeem herself, to prove to her sister and parents that she was neither soft nor rotten, she was neither self-centered nor self-destructive. She was not a person who typically broke rules or committed sins. She was a nice person, a good person. But really, really, Brenda thought, it wasn't as easy as that. She was soft; she was self-centered. And Vicki was asking too much of Brenda this summer; she wanted Brenda to be her wife, and what if Brenda couldn't do it? What she craved the most right now was quiet, even the quiet solitude of her apartment back in Manhattan. But to free herself of the rent, Brenda had sublet the apartment to her best friend in the world, Erik vanCott, and his fiancée. Erik and Noel would be making love in the bed that had most recently been occupied by Brenda and Walsh. Brenda had an exquisite longing in her stomach that was unique to being separated from one's true love. She could call Walsh, she thought, palming her cell phone. But no. She wouldn't pitch all of her resolutions into the trash can just yet. It was only the first day!
At the market, Brenda bought milk, bread, a log of goat cheese, some purple figs, a pound of gourmet butter (this was the only kind they had), a bunch of bananas, a pint of strawberries, a bag of Chips Ahoy!, and a pint of Ben & Jerry's Phish Food. Thirty-five dollars. Even Brenda, who was used to Manhattan prices, gulped. She gave the bag of cookies to Blaine, snatching one for herself first and one for Porter to gnaw on. As she was leaving the market, she noticed a bulletin board by the door. Yoga on the beach at sunrise, missing cat, room to share.
Yes, she thought.
She went back to the counter and borrowed an old flyer from the deli and a nearly used-up black marker. In streaky gray letters, she wrote: Babysitter wanted. Flexible hours, daily, in 'Sconset. Two boys, 4 years and 9 months. Experience required. References. Please call 257-6101.
She pinned it to the bulletin board in a prominent place, and then she strolled the kids home with one hand and held the bag of very expensive groceries in the other. If Brenda had just a little assistance with the kids, she would be better able to help Vicki and she would be able to start her screenplay, which might possibly earn her money and keep her from being a financial burden to Ted and Vicki and her parents. A voice in Brenda's head whispered, Soft. Self-centered.
Oh, shut up, Brenda thought.
That night at dinner—steak tips, a baked potato, iceberg salad—Josh told his father he was thinking of quitting the airport.
Tom Flynn didn't respond right away. He was a quiet man; Josh had always thought of him as stingy with words. It was as though he withheld them on purpose to frustrate and annoy people, especially Josh. What Josh realized was that in not speaking, Tom Flynn prompted other people—and especially Josh—to say too much.
"It's boring," Josh said. He did not share the story about the three women, the woman falling, the baby, the briefcase, or the delivery of the briefcase to 'Sconset, though Josh understood it was this incident that was causing him to think about quitting. "It's pointless. I'd rather be doing something else."
"Really?" Tom Flynn said. He cut into his wedge of iceberg lettuce. Always with dinner they had iceberg salad. It was one of the many sad things about Josh's father, though again, Josh couldn't say exactly why. It was his refusal to deviate, his insistence on routine, the same salad winter, spring, summer, fall. It was tied to the death of Josh's mother eleven years earlier. She had hanged herself from a beam in the attic while Tom was at work and Josh was at school. She hadn't left a note—no hint or clue as to why she did what she did. She had seemed, if not overly happy, at least steady. She had grown up on the island, she had gone away to Plymouth State College, she had worked as an office manager for a construction company. She had few close friends but everybody knew her—Janey Flynn, nee Cumberland. Pretty lady, runs the show at Dimmity Brothers, married to Tom who works out at the airport, one son, good-looking kid, smart as a whip. That was his mother's biography—nothing flashy but nothing sinister either, no quiet desperation that Tom or Josh knew of. And yet.
So at the age of twelve Josh was left with just his father, who battled against his anger and confusion and grief with predictability, safety, evenness. Tom Flynn had never yelled at Josh; he never lost his temper; he showed his love the best way he knew how: by working, by putting food on the table, by saving his money to send Josh to Middlebury. But sometimes, when Josh looked at his father, he saw a man suspended in his sorrow, floating in it the way a fetal pig in the biology lab at school floated in formaldehyde.
"Yeah," Josh said. "Well, I don't know. I don't know what I want." Josh wished he had taken a job off-island for the summer, at a camp in Vermont or something. He liked kids.
The phone rang. Josh finished off his bottle of Sam Adams and went to answer it, since, invariably, it was for him.
"Josh?" It was Didi. It sounded like she was a couple of drinks ahead of him. "Wanna come over?"
"Come over" meant sex. Didi rented a basement apartment in a house on Fairgrounds Road, less than a mile away. The apartment was all hers and Josh liked the privacy of it, though it was always damp, and it smelled like her cat.
"Nah," he said.
"Come on," she said. "Please?"
Josh thought of Scowling Sister in the green shimmery bikini top.
"Sorry," he said. "Not tonight."
The duck-breast sandwich with fig chutney wrapped in white butcher paper from Café L'Auberge on Eleventh Street. Spinach in her teeth. The smell of a new car. Blaine's preschool field trip to the dairy farm. Colleen Redd's baby shower. The baseball standings.
At the end of every winter, Vicki became restless, and this past April the restlessness had been worse than ever before. The skies in Darien were a permanent pewter gray; it rained all the time; it was unseasonably cold. Vicki was trapped in the house; the baby still nursed six times a day and wouldn't take a bottle, which limited how much Vicki could get out alone. Some days she stayed in her yoga pants until Ted got home from work. She tried to enjoy the quiet rhythm of her days—her kids would only be little once—but increasingly she dreamed of a change in her life. Returning to work, maybe? She had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Duke, after all, and at one point had entertained thoughts of going to law school. She craved something private, something entirely her own. An affair, maybe? She'd heard her friends whisper about similar longings—their biology was to blame, a woman hit her sexual peak in her thirties, it was their situation: a husband, small children. Wouldn't it be nice if there was someone tending their every need for a change? Suddenly, men everywhere looked good to Vicki—the mechanic who worked on the Yukon, the boys at the gym, the new associates, just out of business school, at Ted's office. Vicki needed something else in her life, otherwise she would turn into one of these women with too little to do who slowly lost her mind. She felt combustible, like she might burst into flames at any moment. Her anger and her desire scared her. She began to feel a tightness in her chest, and then the tightness, if she wasn't imagining things, became a pain. She was short of breath. One morning, she woke up huffing like she did when she was in the basement doing laundry and she heard Porter on the baby monitor and she raced up two flights of stairs. Something was wrong with her.
Vicki's disdain of doctors and hospitals was legendary. In college, she contracted a bladder infection that she left untreated, and it moved to her kidneys. She was so sick, and yet so averse to going to the doctor, that her roommates took her to the infirmary while she was asleep. Years later, when she had Blaine, she arrived at the hospital forty minutes before he was delivered and left twenty-four hours later. And yet that morning, she drove right to the ER at Fairfield Hospital. What is wrong with me? Why can't I breathe?
At first, the doctors thought she had walking pneumonia, but the X-ray looked suspicious. An MRI revealed a mass in Vicki's left lung the size of an apple. Subsequent tests—a PET/CT scan and a fine-needle aspiration—confirmed that this mass was malignant, and it showed suspicious cells in her hilar lymph nodes. She had robust stage-two lung cancer. She heard the oncologist, Dr. Garcia, say the words "lung cancer," she saw his melancholy brown eyes swimming behind the lenses of his thick glasses—and yet Vicki assumed it was some kind of joke, or a mistake.
"Mistake?" she'd said, shaking her head, unable to come up with enough oxygen to say anything more.
"I'm afraid not," Dr. Garcia said. "You have a four-centimeter tumor in your left lung that is hugging the chest wall, which makes it difficult to remove. It looks like the cancer may have also spread to your hilar lymph nodes, but the MRI didn't detect any additional metastases. A lot of times when the cancer is this far along it will turn up elsewhere—in the brain or the liver, for example. But your cancer is contained in your lungs and this is good news." Here, he pounded his desk.
Good news? Was the man stupid, or just insensitive?
"You're wrong," Vicki said. It sounded like she meant that he was wrong about the "good news," but what she meant was that he was wrong about the cancer. There was no way she had cancer. When you had cancer, when you had an apple-sized tumor in your lung, you knew it. All Vicki had was a little shortness of breath, an infection of some sort. She needed antibiotics. Ted was sitting in the leather armchair next to Vicki, and Vicki turned to him with a little laugh. Ted was a powerful man, big and handsome, with a crushing handshake. Tell the doctor he's wrong, Ted! Vicki thought. But Ted looked like he had taken a kick to the genitals. He was hunched over, and his mouth formed a small O. Tell the doctor he's wrong, Ted! Vicki did not have cancer, technically or otherwise. Who was this man, anyway? She didn't know him and he didn't know her. Strangers should not be allowed to tell you you have cancer, and yet that was what had just happened.
"I have children," Vicki said. Her voice was flat and scary. "I have two boys, a four-year-old and a baby, seven months. You would have a hard time convincing them or anybody else that their mother having lung cancer is good news."
"Let me tell you something, Victoria," Dr. Garcia said. "I'm a pulmonary oncologist. Lung cancer is my field, it's what I do. And if you take all the patients I've seen in the past fourteen years—let's say, for the sake of argument, a thousand patients—I would put you smack in the middle. It's a challenging case, yes. To give you the best shot at long-term remission, we'll try to shrink the tumor with chemo first and then we'll go in surgically and hope we can get it all out. But full remission is a viable outcome, and that, Vicki, is good news."
"I don't want to be a case," Vicki said. "I don't want you to treat me like your nine hundred and ninety-nine other patients. I want you to treat me like the mother of two little boys." She started to cry.
"Many of my other patients had children," Dr. Garcia said.
"But they're not me. My life is valuable. It's really fucking valuable. My children are young. They're babies." Vicki looked to Ted for confirmation of this, but he was still incapacitated. Vicki wiped at her eyes. "Am I going to die?" she asked.
"We're all going to die," Dr. Garcia said.
Just as Vicki was about to tell him to stuff his existential bullshit, he smiled. "The best thing you can do for yourself," he said, "is to keep a positive attitude."
Positive attitude? But that, in the end, was how he had won Vicki over. Dr. Garcia was the kind of oncologist who used phrases like good news and positive attitude.
She went for a second opinion at Mount Sinai right after the initial diagnosis, at Ted's insistence. That appointment was with a female oncologist named Dr. Doone, whom Vicki had immediately renamed Dr. Doom because she wasn't nearly as upbeat about Vicki's chances of recovery as Dr. Garcia. Dr. Doone basically told Vicki that IF chemo shrank the tumor in her left lung such that it receded from the chest wall (which, tone of voice conveyed, was doubtful), then POSSIBLY a pneumonectomy would solve the problem IF THERE WERE NO ADDITIONAL METASTASES. It's not the tumor in your lungs that's the problem, Dr. Doone had said. It's where that tumor came from. It's where that tumor is going. She made a comment about Vicki being FOOLISH to pursue treatment in the BOONDOCKS. Dr. Doone felt Vicki should be treated at Mount Sinai—but since Dr. Doone herself had enough cancer patients to fill ten city buses, Vicki should accept as a HUGE FAVOR a referral to Dr. Martine, an oncologist at Sloan-Kettering who also happened to have been Dr. Doone's roommate at Columbia Physicians and Surgeons.
No, thank you, Vicki had said. I'm sticking with Dr. Garcia.
And Vicki understood at that point that Dr. Doom wrote her off. As good as dead.
Vicki had two days until her chemo started. Two days until the doctors cut into her chest to install a port through which they would pump her full of poison twice a week for the next two months. It was, Dr. Garcia assured her, nothing to get frantic about. The problem was, the chemo wouldn't cure her cancer. It would merely discipline it. Vicki could feel the mean-ass, dumb-shit little cells throwing a beer bash, doing the bump and grind and drunkenly copulating and reproducing as she lay in bed trying to breathe, with Porter hiccupping at her side. I have a malignant tumor in my lungs. Lung cancer. She could say it in her mind and out loud, but it didn't seem true. It wasn't even a kind of cancer that made any sense. Breast cancer made sense, and Vicki irrationally wished she had breast cancer. She was a thirty-one-year-old nonsmoking mother of two. Give me breast cancer! Lung cancer was for old men, two packs a day for twenty years; it was for John Wayne. Vicki laughed joylessly. Listen to yourself.
The traffic on I-95, a sale on beef tenderloin at Stew Leonard's, the United States' involvement in Iraq. Powder-post beetles in the attic. Swim lesson sign-ups. Collecting pinecones for Christmas wreaths. Chapped lips. Uncut toenails. Pollution in the Hudson. Duke, once again, in the men's NCAA basketball finals.
The chemo regimen consisted of two drugs: gemcitabine and carboplatin. Vicki could barely pronounce the names, but she was well versed in the possible side effects: weight loss, diarrhea, constipation, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, confusion—and she would, most likely, lose her hair. She had to stop nursing and she might become sterile. It was enough to bring her to tears—she had cried many silent hours when Ted and the kids were asleep, when the dark house seemed as terrifying as death itself—but the chemo was nothing compared to the pneumonectomy. The surgery blocked Vicki's path; she couldn't see over, around, or beyond it. If the chemo worked as it was supposed to, they would operate at Fairfield Hospital in early September. Dr. Emery, thoracic surgeon, Dr. Garcia attending. Two resident surgeons, five OR nurses, six hours, the removal of her left lung and the hilar lymph nodes. Who survived a surgery like that?
Oh, lots of people, Dr. Garcia said. Every day. And it has to be done, obviously. If you want to live.
But it was as though he were asking Vicki to pass through a tunnel of solid granite, or travel into outer space and back. Impossible to come to grips with. Terrifying.
Vicki could have lain in bed all day, obsessing about her cancer, dissecting it until it was in ten or twelve comprehendible pieces, but the curse and the blessing of her present situation was that there was no time. She was in Nantucket with two children to look after, a household to run—and a sister and a best friend who were, after being together for less than twenty-four hours, arguing.
Vicki heard them in the kitchen—strained pleasantries that quickly turned bitter. By the time Vicki wrapped herself in her seersucker robe, collected Porter, and made it out to the kitchen, she had pieced together the gist of the argument: Peter had called the night before, but Brenda had neglected to give Melanie the message.
"You were asleep," Brenda said. "You'd been asleep for hours."
"You could have left a note," Melanie said. "Slipped it under my door. Because now he won't answer his cell phone. He's furious with me."
"He's furious with you?" Brenda said. "That's rich. You'll pardon me for saying so, but I don't understand why you care. The man is cheating on you."
"You know nothing about it," Melanie said.
Brenda sliced a fig in half and tried to feed it to Blaine, who "yucked" and clamped a hand over his mouth.
"I know nothing about it," Brenda agreed. "I didn't write a note because I was busy with the kids. We were on our way out to buy groceries. You were asleep. Vicki was asleep. I was left to captain the ship by myself and I…just forgot. Honestly, it flew out of my mind."
"I hope you didn't tell him I was pregnant," Melanie said.
"Oh my God, of course not."
"Or even hint at it. I don't want him to know. And I mean that."
"I didn't hint at anything. I was very vague. I didn't even tell him you were asleep. All I said was that you were unavailable. You should be thanking me. I did a great job."
"Except you didn't tell me he called."
"I had my hands full!"
"Bren," Vicki said.
Brenda whipped her head around. When she did that, her hair was a weapon. "Are you taking sides?"
There can't be any sides this summer, Vicki thought. I am too sick for sides. But she knew it would be fruitless. There was Brenda, her sister. There was Melanie, her friend. They didn't have a single thing in common except for Vicki. Already Vicki felt herself splitting down the middle, a crack right between her diseased lungs.
"No," she said.
Vicki had come to Nantucket with the hope of re-creating the idyllic summers of her youth. Had those long-ago summers really been idyllic? Vicki remembered a summer with one hundred mosquito bites, and another summer, or maybe the same summer, when she had a gnat trapped in her ear overnight, and one year Vicki fought with her father about long-distance phone calls to her boyfriend Simon. But for the most part, yes, they had been idyllic. Vicki and Brenda left school and friends behind in Pennsylvania, so the summers had starred only them and, in a hazy, parallel adult world, their parents, Buzz and Ellen, and Aunt Liv. The sand castles with moats, the smell of a real charcoal barbecue—it had all been real. And so, even as Melanie pouted on the living room sofa and Brenda huffed around the kitchen—they were like boxers back in their corners—Vicki peeled a banana, eyed the sunlight pouring through the cottage windows like honey, and thought: It's a beach day.
This sounded like a simple idea, but it took forever to get ready to leave. The children had to be changed into bathing suits and slathered with lotion. (Skin cancer!) Brenda found plastic sand toys, bleached white by the sun, in a net bag in the shed. The toys were covered with years of dust and cobwebs and had to be rinsed with the hose. Then, lunch. Vicki suggested, for the sake of ease, picking up sandwiches at Claudette's, but Brenda insisted on a picnic hodgepodged together from the bizarre ingredients she had brought home from the market: bread and goat cheese, figs and strawberries. At the mention of these provisions, Melanie gagged and ran for the bathroom. Vicki and Brenda listened to her throwing up as they folded the beach towels.
"Try not to upset her," Vicki said.
"She's pretty sensitive," Brenda said.
"She's going through a lot," Vicki said.
"You're going through a lot," Brenda said. She stuffed the towels into a mildewed canvas tote that had belonged to Aunt Liv. "What are we going to do on Tuesday, when I take you for your port installation? The doctors said it would take all morning. There is no way she can handle both kids by herself all morning."
"Sure she can."
"She cannot. I could barely do it myself. And, I hate to bring this up, I mean, I'm happy to help with the kids and all, that is why I'm here, but I was hoping to get some work done this summer. On my screenplay."
Vicki took a breath. Brenda was so predictable, but maybe only to Vicki. Vicki heard Ted's words: Your sister says she wants to help, but she won't help. She'll be too busy reading to help. That was how it always went. When Vicki and Brenda were children, Brenda had been excused from all kinds of chores—setting the table, folding laundry, cleaning her room—because she was too busy reading. Even if it was only the newspaper, when Brenda was reading, it had been considered sacrilegious to ask her to stop. Buzz and Ellen Lyndon had done a thorough (if unintentional) job of labeling their girls: Vicki was the go-getter, organized and hardworking, whereas Brenda had been blessed with the kind of rarefied genius that had to be coddled. Although Brenda was only sixteen months younger than Vicki, nothing was expected of her. She and her "great mind" were tiptoed around like a sleeping baby.
Melanie came out of the bathroom, wiping at her lips. "Sorry," she said. "Can I just have a piece of bread, please? With nothing on it?"
"Sure," Brenda said. "My pleasure."
Okay, Vicki thought. Okay?
The morning sparkled. Vicki, Brenda, and Melanie rambled down the streets of 'Sconset toward the town beach. Vicki was carrying Porter, who kept sticking his hand into her bikini top and pinching her nipple. She had tried to give him a bottle that morning, but he threw it defiantly to the floor. Then he lunged for Vicki, fell out of the high chair, and bumped his head on the table. Tears. The subsequent fussing over Porter made Blaine irate—he proceeded to march out the front door and urinate on the flagstone walk. Lovely.
Vicki removed Porter's hand from her breast. "Sorry, buddy." Brenda was up ahead schlepping the beach bag with towels and lotion, the net bag of plastic sand toys, the cooler with lunch and drinks, two beach chairs, and the umbrella. Melanie was wearing her wide-brimmed straw hat and carrying a leather purse. Brenda had caught Vicki's eye when Melanie emerged with the purse as if to say, Who the hell takes a purse to the beach? As if to say, I'm loaded down like a camel traveling across the Sahara and she's got a little something from Coach? Vicki almost suggested Melanie leave the purse behind—there was nothing to buy—but she was afraid she'd scare Melanie away. Melanie hadn't even wanted to come to the beach; she'd wanted to stay in the cottage in case Peter called.
Melanie was also attempting to hold Blaine's hand. She grasped it for five seconds, but then he raced ahead, into the road, around the corner, out of sight. Vicki called after him and removed Porter's hand from her breast. So much of parenting was just this mind-numbing repetition.
They all followed Brenda on a shortcut: between two houses, along a path, over the dunes. They popped out a hundred yards down from the parking lot, away from the clusters of other people and the lifeguard stand. Brenda dropped all her stuff with a great big martyrish sigh.
"I hope this is okay," she said.
"Fine," Vicki said. "Melanie?"
"Fine," Melanie said.
Brenda set up the umbrellas and the chairs, she stuck Porter in the shade next to the cooler, she spread out the blanket and towels and handed Blaine a shovel, a bucket, and a dump truck. He dashed for the water. Melanie pulled one of the chairs into the shade and took off her hat. Porter crawled over to the hat and put it in his mouth. Melanie made a sour face. Vicki snatched the hat from Porter and he started to cry. Vicki dug through the beach bag and handed Porter a spare pair of sunglasses. Immediately, he snapped off one of the arms.
"Great," Brenda said. "Those were mine."
"Oh, sorry," Vicki said. "I thought they were an extra pair."
"They were my extra pair," Brenda said.
"I'm sorry," Vicki said again. "He was eating Melanie's hat. He's like a goat."
"Well, we can't have him eating Melanie's hat," Brenda said. "It's such a beautiful hat! Better he should break my sunglasses. Look at them, they're useless."
"Were they expensive?" Vicki asked. "I'll replace them."
"No, no," Brenda said. "I don't want you to worry about it. They're just sunglasses."
Vicki took a deep breath and turned to Melanie.
"What do you think about the beach?" Vicki said. She wanted Melanie to be happy; she wanted Melanie to love Nantucket. She did not want Melanie to think, even for a second, that she had made a mistake in coming along.
"Do you think Peter's trying to call?" Melanie said. She checked her watch, a Cartier tank watch that Peter had given her after the first failed round of in vitro. "Should I call him at work? He goes in sometimes on Sundays."
He doesn't go to the office on Sundays, Vicki thought. He's just been telling you he goes to the office when really he spends Sundays with Frances Digitt making love, eating bagels, reading the Times, and making love again. That was what a man who was having an affair did on Sundays; that was where Peter was this very second. But Vicki said nothing. She shrugged.
Brenda cleared her throat. "Vick, are you taking the other chair?"
Vicki looked at the chair. Brenda had hauled it; she should sit on it.
"No. You take it."
"Well, do you want it?"
Brenda huffed. "Please take it. I'll lie on my stomach."
"Are you sure?" Vicki said.
"Should I call Peter at work?" Melanie said.
More breathy-type noises from Brenda. She pulled out her cell phone. "Here. Be my guest."
Melanie took the cell phone, set it in her lap, and stared at it.
Vicki heard a shout. She looked down the beach. Someone was waving at her. No, not at her, thank God. She settled in the chair.
"Will someone keep an eye on Blaine?" Vicki asked. "I'm just going to close my eyes for a minute."
"I'd like to try and write," Brenda said.
"I'll watch him," Melanie said.
"You're not going to call Peter?"
"No," Melanie said. "Yes. I don't know. Not right now."
Vicki closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun. It felt wonderful—sun on her face, her feet buried in the Nantucket sand. It was just as her mother had promised. The sound of the waves lulled Vicki into a sense of drowsy well-being. Was this what it was like when you died? Or was it completely black, a big nothing, oblivion, the way it was before you were born? She wanted to know.
"How long have you noticed this shortness of breath?" Dr. Garcia asked. They were in his office, which was bland and doctorish: medical books, diplomas, pictures of his family. Two children, Vicki noted. She liked Dr. Garcia more for the picture of his daughter dressed up as a dragonfly for Halloween.
"I've had tightness in my chest, a little pain for a week or two, since Easter, but I didn't think anything of it. But now, I can't get air in."
"Do you smoke?"
"God, no," Vicki said. "Well, I tried a cigarette when I was thirteen, outside the ice-skating rink. One puff. I smoked marijuana in college, three, maybe four hits altogether. And for two years I had a Cuban cigar once a week."
Dr. Garcia laughed. "Cuban cigar?"
"It was a poker game," Vicki said.
"The MRI shows a mass in your lung."
"It looks suspicious to me, but we're going to have to take a cell sample to figure out what it is. It could simply be a water-filled cyst. Or it could be something more serious."
Vicki felt her stomach rise up in revolt. She spotted a trash can next to Dr. Garcia's desk. Something more serious? Do not, she implored herself, think about the children.
"We'll do it now," Dr. Garcia said. "When I saw your scan, I blocked off time."
It sounded like he expected Vicki to thank him, but it was all she could do not to spew her breakfast all over his desk.
"It could just be a water-filled cyst?" she said. She held out hope for a juicy bubble of stagnant liquid that would just pop!—and dissolve.
"Sure enough," Dr. Garcia said. "Follow me."