Summer Island Page 31

This time there was no mistaking the genuineness of Caro's smile. It showed how false the others had been.

“Since Fred was born, I'd rather hit myself in the head with a jackhammer than have sex.”

“Maybe that's your problem. I try to have sex at least twice a week-sometimes even with someone else.”

Caro laughed. “Oh, Ruby ... God, I missed you ... ” She sounded normal now.

“I missed you, too.”

“So,” Caro said, leaning back now. “What brought you racing to my door?”

“What makes you think I raced?”

Caro gave her “the look.” “Nice outfit. I haven't seen so much black since Jenny went to the Halloween party as a licorice whip.”

“Good point.” They both knew that Ruby usually dressed defensively for Ca ro. It was easier that way.

“So what is it? You left Mom strapped to the wheel chair and ran screaming out of the house.” Caro grinned at her own black humor. “Or maybe you left her at a rest area a few miles back and now she's thumbing it.”

Ruby couldn't even smile. “I went to Dad's house this morning.”

“Yeah, so?”

She had no idea how to put a pretty spin on such ugliness, so she just said it. “When Nora left ... Dad was having an affair.”

Caroline sat back. “Oh, that.”

“You knew?”

“Everyone on the island knew.”

“Not me.”

Caroline's smile was soft and tender. “You didn't want to know.”

Ruby had trouble finding her voice. “She's not who I thought she was, Caro. We're trapped in that house together, and whether I like it or not, I'm getting to know her. We ... talk.”

“You're getting to know her?” Something passed through Caroline's eyes at that. If Ruby hadn't known better, she would have called it envy. Suddenly Caro walked out of the room. A few minutes later, she returned with two glasses of wine and a pack of cigarettes.

Ruby laughed. “Smoking-you're kidding, right? A cig in your hand would be like-”

“No jokes, Ruby. Please.”

Ruby saw how fragile her sister looked. “Point the way to cancer. That doesn't count-it wasn't funny.”

Caro opened the French doors and led Ruby to a seat at an umbrellaed table. The golf course stretched alongside the flowered yard, dipped to a valley, and rose on the other side to a row of houses remarkably similar to this one.

Caroline pulled a cigarette from the pack and lit up.

Ruby followed suit. She hadn't smoked in years, and she had to admit, the novelty of it was fun.

Her sister took a drag, exhaled, and stared out across the green. A stream of smoke clouded her face. “I've been talking to Mom for years, meeting her now and then for lunch, calling her on Sunday mornings, being the daughter she expects, and we're polite strangers. And you-” She shot Ruby a narrowed gaze. “You, who treats her like Typhoid Mary, she talks to.”

An awkward silence fell between them, and Ruby couldn't think of how to step over it. “We're stuck together.”

Caroline took a drag and exhaled slowly, Staring out at the green lawn. “That's not it. What's she like?”

“The worst part is, she's smarter than I am. She keeps making me remember who she used to be. Who we used to be. And you know, it hurts. When I was on the ferry this morning, before Dad dropped his A-bomb, I was thinking about our visits to the county fair. How we used to walk through the midway with her, eating cotton candy, tossing pennies at ugly china dishes, and I ... missed her.”

“I know how that feels.”

Ruby noticed that her sister's hands were trembling. “Have you forgiven her?” she asked. “I mean, really?”

Caro looked up. “I tried to forget it, you know? Most of the time, I do, too. It's like it happened to another family, not mine.”

“So, you haven't forgiven her any more than I have. You're just nicer about it.”

Caroline tried to smile, though there was a bleakness in her eyes that was unsettling. “Your honesty is a gift, Rube, even if it hurts people. You're... real. I can't seem to-”

A scream blared through the open window behind them.

Ruby jumped.“ Good God. Has someone been shot?”

Caroline deflated. Her shoulders caved downward, and the color seemed to seep out of her cheeks. “The princess is up.”

Ruby moved closer to her sister. “Are you okay, Caro?”

The smile was too fleeting to be real. “I'll be fine,” she said, and Ruby saw that her sister was pretending again. She got up from her seat and walked woodenly back into the house.

Ruby followed her.

“AAAGH. . .” This time there were two screamsA jack-in-the-box came crashing and jangling down the stairs and skidded across the kitchen floor.

“Go,” Caro said with a tired smile. “Save yourself.”

A naked Barbie doll cartwheeled down the stairs and thumped into the table leg.

The screams were getting louder. Ruby fought the urge to cover her ears. “Let's go upstairs. I want to at least see my niece and nephew.”

“Not when Jenny's in this kind of a mood. Trust me.”

Another toy came crashing down the stairs, followed by a shrieking cry. “MO-MMY NOW!”

Caroline turned to her. “Please? Another time?”

“Well ... next week I'm going to come down here and baby-sit. You and Jere can go out dancing or something.”

“Dancing.” Caroline smiled wistfully. “That would be nice.”

Ruby remembered suddenly that she wouldn't be here next week. She'd be back in California on The Sarah Purcell Show, telling the world about her mother. Suddenly she felt sick.

“You'd better get going. The ferry lines are hell this time of day.”

Ruby checked her watch. “Shit. You're right.” Caroline looped an arm around Ruby, drew her close, and guided her toward the door. There she paused. “I'm sorry you had to find out about Dad, but maybe it'll help. We're human, Ruby. All of us. Just human.”

Ruby hugged her sister, holding her so tightly that neither of them could breathe. “I love you, Caro.”

“I love you, too, Rubik's Cube. Now, get going.”

Ruby drew back. She had the strange thought that if she said anything except good-bye, Caro would simply shatter.

So good-bye was all she said.

Nora sat at the kitchen table, staring down at the package of letters. Earlier, she'd spoken to Eric, but afterward, the silence had tackled her again.

Idly, she rubbed her throbbing wrist. She'd spent an hour in the morning practicing with her crutches, and she was improving. She could go short distances. By the end of the week, she hoped to be out of the damned chair completely.

But the practice hadn't fulfilled all of its purpose. She couldn't clear her mind completely. The letters were always there.

She'd tried giving herself a little pep talk. They were just words, she told herself, scribblings on paper, and they were from strangers. Certainly she could find the strength to pick up a pen and fashion some kind of response. A good-bye and a thanks-for-the-good-times, at the very least.

Not true. Every letter she'd attempted began the same: Dear readers.

Sometimes she came up with a sad, pathetic beginning-I'm more sorry than you can know ... . or How can I begin to say what's in my heart.... or By now you all know who I really am.

But there was never a second sentence. And if all that wasn't bad enough, she was worried about Ruby.

Her gaze landed on the note she'd found sitting on the kitchen table. Dear Nora-Gone to see Dad.

It looked innocuous enough, but appearances were often deceiving. Ruby wasn't coming back.

It was Nora's own fault. She'd pushed her daughter too hard in the past few days, and that was dangerous. Ruby always shoved back; she had from infancy. Unlike Caroline, who smiled coolly and he your hand and stepped aside when reality got too close.

Nora had recognized her mistake the second she saw the good-bye note. Her daughter had had enough.

She slumped forward, dropping her head onto her crossed arms. A good cry would probably help, but she couldn't find even that easy road to relief. She was wrung dry.

Then she heard a car drive up ... footsteps on the porch ...

The door opened, and Rand stepped into the kitchen.

Nora understood instantly: Ruby had sent her father to deliver the bad news.

“Hey, Randall,” she said, pulling her casted leg off the second chair. “Have a seat.”

He glanced around. “I've got a better idea.”

Before he'd even finished the sentence, he'd crossed the room and scooped her into his arms. She made a garbled, whooping sound of surprise and put her arms around his neck, hanging on. “What the-”

“Just hang on.”

She clung to him as he carried her over the threshold and out onto the porch. There, he pulled an old mohair blanket off of the rocker and wedged it under his arm. He walked down the steps, across the shaggy lawn, out to the edge of the bank.

Beneath a huge madrona tree, he laid the blanket over the rocky ground, then gingerly set her down. Her bare toes stuck out from the end of her cast, and he leaned over and tucked the fringed end of the blanket around her foot.

He sat down beside her, propped up on his elbows, and stretched out his long legs.

“Still can't stand to be inside on a sunny day?” she said.

“Some things never change.” He turned to her, his face solemn. “I'm sorry, Nora.”

“About what?”

His gaze shifted to a point just beyond her left shoulder. “I should have said it a long time ago.”

She drew in a breath. Time seemed to hang suspended between them. She felt the hot summer sunlight on her face, smelled the familiar fragrance of the sea at low tide.

He looked at her finally, and in his eyes, she saw the sad reflection of their life together. “I'm sorry,” he said again, knowing that this time she understood.

“Oh,” was all she could say.

He leaned closer, touched her face with a gentleness that sapped her strength. “It was my fault. All mine. We both know that. I was young and stupid and cocky. I didn't know how special we were.”

Nora was surprised by how easy it was suddenly for her to smile. She'd spent twenty years loving this man, eleven more vaguely missing him, and yet now, with him beside her on an old blanket that held their youth in its rough weave, she finally felt at peace. Maybe that was all she'd needed, all these years. Just those few, simple words.

She laid her hand against his, and a peacefulness settled around her, as if everything in their lives had led to this moment. He was her youth, she realized sadly, a youth that was neither well spent nor quite misspent. Just ... spent. In his eyes, and his alone, was the woman she'd once been. “We were both at fault, Rand. We tried. We justdidn't make it.”

He leaned closer. She thought for a breathless moment that he was going to kiss her. He wanted to-she could see the desire in his eyes. But at the last second, he drew back, gave her a smile so soft and tender it was better than a kiss. “When I look back-and believe me, I try not to--you know what I remember?”


“That day you came back. Jesus ...” He closed his eyes. “I should have dropped to my knees and begged you to stay. In my heart, I knew it was what I wanted, but I'd heard about you and that guy, and all I could think of was me. How would it look if I took you back after that?” He laughed, a bitter, harsh sound. "Me, worrying about that, after the way I'd treated you. It makes me sick. And I paid for it, Nora. For eight long years, I went to sleep every night alone. And I missed you.

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