Chicken Fest had worn Rue down to a nub. It was only the second year for it, but the first year had been such a success that they’d had a bigger crowd than they’d expected this time around. In addition to the four paying visitors at Sassy Spinster Farm --- the “inmates,” as her sister Laura liked to call them --- almost forty other people had shown up, one couple from as far away as Fort Worth. Two hours was a long way to drive to stare at chickens.
The day had been a soup-to-nuts crash course in raising and caring for poultry, with Rue explaining the chicken care ABCs, Webb doing a demonstration on designing and building a backyard coop, and Laura performing the gruesome honors of the sad chicken endgame. Only the true die-hard chicken freaks had joined Laura’s slaughter and plucking seminar; the fainthearted majority had opted for Rue’s rosemary chicken cooking demonstration. Even eleven-year-old Erica had gotten in on the act, overseeing a chicken petting zoo to show off the different varieties they raised, including the baby chicks and pullets that were for sale.
The event had gone over well from a financial standpoint, too. Webb’s demo coop had been raffled off at a profit. With Erica’s flare for commerce, they’d sold twenty-eight chicks. Best of all, three more people had decided to take out farm memberships, paying sixty dollars per month six months out of the year, which entitled them to a box of organic farm-fresh goods every week and a special winter box in December. The memberships, along with their farmers’ market trade, were the farm’s bread and butter. Those memberships were precious.
So were the boarding guests, who paid a hundred and seventy- five dollars per week to stay in an old farmhouse and learn hands- on about planting, harvesting, canning, and storing. The vast majority of the visitors were single women, but the name of the farm itself might have been a factor in the demographics. Sassy Spinster Farm wasn’t exactly a moniker that reeled in the men. Most of the guests were urbanites, and frankly, very few looked like they would ever move much beyond the basil-in-the-windowbox stage of agricultural endeavor, but something about the idea of living off the land lured them to this unassuming patch of East Texas. This year the farm had received an uptick in applicants because both Texas Monthly and, of all things, InStyle had given it a shout-out. As a consequence, they were booked solid all season. And this was only their second year taking in guests.
Most days around the farm were just routine --- work to be done, meals to be made, and never-ending chores. Saturdays were chaos. New guests often arrived Friday night or Saturday morning. The farm had a farmers’ market booth on Saturday, which was also box delivery day. Some CSA members picked up their boxes at the market, but the farm also made deliveries. Just getting through a garden-variety week was exhausting, but to stir things up and give an added payoff to the guests, every so often they had a special theme day, like Chicken Fest. Or the July Melon Thump. Rue was in charge of thinking up these and trying to get them organized. Chicken Fest this year had been bigger and more exhausting than ever, and more than it ever would be, she hoped. Three months post-chemo, her battery still felt drained.
Which was why she was only getting around to checking the weekend’s e-mail and that day’s phone messages on Sunday evening, after dinner. Two messages --- non-messages, really --- caused her a moment’s panic, followed by bemusement. She hunted down Laura, who was in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher.
“I hope you’ve got your wig glued down. We received two calls today from someone whose number pops up on the Black- Berry as Heidi B.”
Laura unbent her lanky frame from stowing a pan in the lower rack. She was two years younger than Rue, but now the difference seemed even greater. Rue’s body looked and felt like something whose warranty had expired. Yet Rue couldn’t help noticing that even when frowning, her sister’s face didn’t wrinkle. How could that be? Laura was thirty-six. You’d think a little crow’s-foot would have crept up on her by now. But no. Laura had always been in perfect health, no matter how much she abused herself. Her body bounced back from late nights and cigarettes and alcohol like one of those inflatable punching toys from when they were kids. She had the constitution of a Bobo clown. She was indestructible.
Most of the time she was immune to panic, too. But the name Heidi B. had a visible effect on her, even if she took her time drawling out her three-word response. “Oh. Sweet. Jesus.”
Outside of storybooks, the only Heidi either of them had known was their one-time stepsister, Heidi Dawn Bogue. Heidi’s mother, Marla, had married Laura and Rue’s father five years after their own mother had died, and for three years during their teens, they had lived under her inept and capriciously tyrannical rule. Part of the awfulness of that time was Marla’s constant doting on little Heidi Dawn, who was two years younger than Laura and insufferably prissy and stupid. While the sisters couldn’t fight back against Marla very effectively, Heidi was always an easy target. In fact, she might as well have had a bull’s-eye stamped beneath her pert blond bangs.
“Do you really think it’s her?” Rue wondered aloud.
“With the way our luck’s going . . .”
Doom was always perched on Laura’s shoulder. If it didn’t rain for a few days, she assumed they were in for a summerlong drought. When wild pigs rooted up some of her recently sprouted squash plants, as they had a week ago, she started envisioning an imminent D-day-style porcine invasion. So it was only natural that when the name Heidi B. appeared on a BlackBerry screen, it would be interpreted as an ill wind bearing down on them.
“I wonder what she wants,” Laura said.
“She didn’t leave a message, and I’m not inclined to call the number.”
“Do you think something happened to Marla?” Laura asked. “Do you think Heidi’s operating under the misapprehension that we would care?”
“I doubt it. I didn’t hunt for them too hard when Daddy died.” Rue shrugged. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Heidi B. --- it can’t be that uncommon. Anyway, I’ve got to shove off. You’ll look after the guests while I’m gone, right? And be civilized?”
Laura said something that might have been an agreement, but Rue wasn’t getting her hopes up. On Laura’s scale of pain, guests rated somewhere between oral surgery and Jeanette MacDonald–Nelson Eddy operetta movies. She had been dragged kicking and screaming into the scheme of taking in farm tourists at all.
Laura loved farming. Even though she had watched their father go a little further into debt and looniness each year growing corn and sweet potatoes and peaches, she’d thought she could do better when she inherited the place. She’d gone organic. She’d varied the crops. She’d added the poultry outfit. But every year had been a constant struggle to make the math add up.
After reading about community-supported agriculture, Rue, who had returned to the farm after her divorce three years ago, had suggested subscription farming. Then last year she’d hit upon the idea of agri-tourism when she’d read about a farm in Idaho that did it. If folks would go to Idaho, why not Texas? If they just spruced the house up a little...
The first year, despite its being more work than they had ever imagined, they had actually turned a profit. But all the money in the world couldn’t keep Laura from acting as if the barbarians had crashed through the gate. She dealt with the incursion by exaggerating her normal toughness and indifference to the niceties to the level of performance art. She greeted each new batch of guests with all the warmth of Louis Gossett, Jr., meeting his recruits in An Officer and a Gentleman --- as if they were just so many more wimpy urban nitwits to browbeat into shape.
As Rue turned to leave the kitchen, something odd caught her eye. Odd even for the Spinster Farm.
“What is a chicken doing in the kitchen?”
The chicken, a young rooster, was squatting in the corner, by a broom. The house had seen all manner of critters inside it through the years --- including, one memorable Sunday, a possum under the television --- but this was the first chicken who had made it inside.
“That’s just Fred.” Laura avoided looking at him, as if she didn’t want to make him self-conscious. “He’s been following me around all evening.”
Rue wasn’t the resident expert on chicken varieties, but she thought the white ones, the leghorns, usually were spastic and skittish. Yet, insofar as she could read bird expressions, she thought this one seemed a little dazed. “Is he sick?”
“Nah, he’s just depressed. We sold Lucy and Ethel today.” Catching the unspoken question in Rue’s eyes, Laura lowered her voice. “Ricky Ricardo’s in the freezer.”
Rue felt a little depressed herself now. “Why is he following you around? Does he have a death wish?”
“Let’s hope so. That’ll make my job a lot easier someday.”
Fred clucked listlessly and gave his wing feathers a flaccid flap. Rue felt like telling him to run for his life, to trust no one, but the sad creature didn’t seem open to suggestion.
“Ice water in your veins!” she huffed at Laura as she left the kitchen.
She checked on the guests drinking sweet tea on the back porch, and then went hunting for Erica, who was due back at her father’s by nine. She found her daughter sitting on the floor in her room upstairs, her long limbs folded awkwardly around her so that she bore a passing resemblance to a grasshopper.
When Erica spotted Rue, her face clouded with dread. “Can’t I just stay for the movie?”
Every night they showed a movie in the living room, and Erica seemed to regret missing the movies more than anything about living at her father’s house during the summer. Rue and William had agreed that she would have Erica weekends this summer, the reverse of how they usually handled the school year. Cancer had turned their custody arrangements topsy-turvy.
“You wouldn’t even like the movie,” Rue told her. “It’s French.”
“I don’t mind.”
“And it won’t be over till eleven.”
“Then why can’t I just stay the night?”
Rue felt a painful tug in her chest. More than anything else, she wished she didn’t have to have this discussion. She would rather debate whether Erica could have an Xbox or a television in her room, even. “I promised your dad.”
Erica answered with an extravagant pout. “He doesn’t care. He just knows he’s supposed to care. It’s all a big show.”
Unfortunately, Rue suspected this was true. She wished to heaven that William would do a little better job hiding it, though.
“I don’t see why I just can’t stay here,” Erica added. “He doesn’t want me there anymore.”
“Why do you say that?”
Erica bit her lip and then lifted her shoulders.
Rue tilted her head. “Is this about Ms. Dench?”
Leanne Dench was William’s new girlfriend. She had been Erica’s fifth-grade teacher the year before, and William probably never would have met her if Rue hadn’t gotten sick. He hadn’t been to a school function since Erica had enrolled in kindergarten. But Rue, who had been knocked out by her second chemo, had guilted William into attending the school’s parents’ night. And that night love... or something... had blossomed.
“I can’t stand her,” Erica said. “She’s at Daddy’s all the time now.”
Rue didn’t have a particularly bad opinion of Leanne Dench. She was a little odd --- she always had an unblinking, shell-shocked look about her --- but Rue assumed that was a by-product of spending nine months of the year in a classroom full of fifth graders. If anything, she was shocked that William had shown such good sense in his choice of a girlfriend. Their marriage had broken up because of his roving eye, among other things, so for years she had been bracing herself to hear that he had taken up with a barmaid or a topless dancer. Someone flashy and brainless. But no. He’d finally got serious about someone new, and it was someone who was as close to a younger version of herself as it was possible to find in the limited dating pool of Sweetgum, Texas.
Sometimes there was no accounting even for good taste.
Rue took a deep breath. “I know this is hard. You’ve had a difficult year. But except for when you stay with him, your father’s been alone.”
“Because he left us! Why shouldn’t he be alone?”
“Well, we’ve discussed this. The divorce wasn’t any one person’s fault.”
Erica rolled her eyes. “I’m not eight years old anymore, Mom. I know about the cashier woman at Pizza Stop.”
She does? “How?”
“I have ears.”
Maybe she had a satellite hooked up to those ears. Rue felt herself flailing and was glad to hear Laura’s footsteps behind her.
“I thought you two had gone,” Laura said.
“I don’t think I should have to go at all.” Erica always felt more bold about speaking up around Laura, who was Team Erica’s head cheerleader. She lifted her chin loftily. “I don’t think I should have to stay in a place where people are living in sin.”
Rue and Laura exchanged quick glances.
“Do you mean Leanne Dench is hanging out at William’s house a lot now?” asked Rue.
Erica rolled her eyes to telegraph her disdain for her mother’s naïveté. “Mama, she lives there.”
“This is new,” Laura said.
“That’s what I thought at first,” Erica said. “But then, I started noticing that Ms. Dench’s stuff was all over the house. This week I found her embroidery in the cereal cabinet and a pair of old panties stuck in the bottom of the laundry hamper!”
“At least it wasn’t the panties that were in the cereal cabinet,” Laura joked.
Erica snorted appreciatively.
Rue shuddered. She would gladly have skipped over this topic, but Laura wouldn’t let it die. “How did you know those panties were hers?”
Erica made a sour face. “They were like her others I saw when she did her laundry at Daddy’s --- pale yellow with little blue flowers.”
“Forget-me-nots,” Laura guessed.
“I don’t see how anyone could forget them,” Erica said. “They’re the high waist kind and sort of baggy, like the ones Great-Granny Anderson wore. I tell you, that woman is sooooo creepy and sneaky. She probably goes rushing over to Dad’s the minute I come here.”
Rue chewed over this tidbit. If true, the couple certainly had been discreet. Relationships were practically impossible to keep secret in Sweetgum.
“I shouldn’t have to go back there now, should I?” Erica asked hopefully.
“Erica . . .” Rue hated to be the voice of doom. She would much rather have joined in the sneering at Ms. Dench’s panties, but someone had to be the adult here. “There’s no law that says your father can’t have a girlfriend....”
Erica scowled. “But she’s so gross! She acts all sweet and everything, but she’s really just a phony. It was the same in school. She pretended like she was the nicest teacher in the school. I should have known it was all a big act --- even before she gave me a C in conduct.”
Laura snorted. “As if she had any choice about that after you snuck into the cafeteria and put green food coloring in the mac and cheese.”
“Nobody got hurt,” Erica said.
No one had been hurt, but upon hearing about the green macaroni, the principal had decided that there had been at least a security breach and possibly even a terrorist incident in the cafeteria and had ordered the entire school evacuated. The meeting in the principal’s office after the truth had come out was a moment in parenting Rue would have been glad to forget.
She flicked a glance at her watch. “We’d better go,” she said, feeling even more dread about parting from her daughter than she had before. Not because she feared the corrupting influence of William and Leanne Dench’s liaison, but because Erica was so obviously unhappy. Maybe she would speak to William. Not tonight. She wasn’t up to a scene tonight. But soon. Just a word over the phone, maybe.
Erica stood with the enthusiasm of a condemned man. She could see that this was not a battle she was going to win tonight. “Can I just run and say good-bye to Milkshake?”
A part of Rue wanted to grab at any excuse to keep Erica with her. She could tell William, in the manner of a Victorian novel, that she thought he and Leanne were behaving in an unseemly manner.
But then here she was, living with Laura, the closest thing Sweetgum had to a town scarlet woman. She had been tossed out of the Carter’s Springs bingo hall and had caused a scene at the all-church harvest festival by passing out in the pumpkin patch (Laura had sworn she was just tired, but Rue remained skeptical), and then there was the small matter of her having busted up two engagements. Including her very best friend’s.
And of course, many people in Sweetgum just looked askance at Sassy Spinster Farm. They thought the sisters were crazy to turn their house into a revolving door of strangers from Austin to Albuquerque. They had introduced an unasked-for foreign element to the town. The first pierced nose Sweetgum had seen had belonged to one of their guests; the first openly lesbian couple had been guests, too. If it weren’t for the fact that their outfit accounted for quite an uptick in commerce at Charlie McCaffree’s store, who knew but that the whole town might have marched on the farm, torches in hand, like the villagers in Frankenstein.
“All right,” she told Erica, “but be snappy.”
“I’ll need to feed Spunky, too,” Erica replied. Spunky was an orphaned baby goat that was living in their barn. Erica had claimed bottle-feeding him as her chore. “And the kittens.”
A feral cat had recently deposited four offspring in the barn. Unlike the rarely seen mother, the kittens were fat and tame from being fed and pampered by everyone. Even the dogs liked the kittens. They were in no danger of starving during Erica’s absence.
Erica marched out, and Rue and Laura followed her downstairs. In the kitchen Rue grabbed her keys and let out a long sigh.
Laura, pouring out what had to be her twentieth cup of coffee for the day, looked at her with sympathy. “Want me to drive her?”
“No, I’m going to.”
“You look a little tired.”
“Chicken feathers in my head. I’ve done only a perfunctory accounting, but it looks like we made more than we expected today.”
“Good. And the new subscriptions, too.”
“We needed those.”
Laura grunted. “Of course, if the drought doesn’t end, I don’t know what we’ll be filling those CSA boxes with.”
Rue laughed. “Mud pies, maybe.”
“Dream on. We’d need rain to make mud.”
“It’s not really a drought,” Rue assured her. “Didn’t we get a sprinkle a week ago? It’s just a dry spell.”
“Least amount of rain we’ve had any spring that I can remember. Between the drought and all these people, I might just have to clap a FOR SALE sign on the place and go start a second career.”
“A manic-depressive ex-farmer.”
Laura had the same horror of selling the land that their father had had. Which was a laugh, since she and their father had had the most frictional relationship between man and daughter Rue could imagine. They had butted heads Laura’s entire life, if for no other reason, Rue guessed, than that seeing another person with the same bullheaded streak was so unnerving to both of them. In his last year their father had even made noises about giving the entire farm to Rue rather than leaving anything to Laura.
“Give that gal an acre and she’ll just stay a sassy spinster her whole life,” he had announced at a family get-together.
But of course, he had divided everything up equally. Like Laura, he was all roar and no claw. And if he was watching them from whatever rocking chair he’d managed to plant his rear into in heaven, he would probably be more amused by the new name Laura had given the farm than by the improvements Rue had bestowed on his beloved property --- giant sunflowers and other wildflowers along the fence lines, updated bathrooms and new decorations in the house, and fresh bright paint on the house and outbuildings. He would have scoffed at those things as frills, just as Laura had. It had taken some doing to convince her that these were necessities if they were going to attract paying guests.
“I honestly wouldn’t mind driving Erica,” Laura offered again. “In fact, I’d enjoy dropping in on the lovebirds for a moment. Just to say howdy.”
“Just to drop a comment to Leanne Dench about her underwear, I’ll bet.”
Laura hooted. “I’ll leave that to Erica. She’s my girl --- she’ll find a way to squeeze it into the conversation before too long.”
Rue shook her head. “I’m definitely going to drive her myself. You just encourage her to be like you.”
Her sister feigned mystification. “What’s the matter with me?”
Rue pocketed her keys. “We can go into that someday when we both have a decade to spare.”
After Rue left, Laura stalked through the house, feeling at loose ends. There was always this lull at night between dinner and the movie. She was tempted to nip up to her room and hide out for a while. She didn’t know why Rue was worried about the inmates. This time around they were a gaggle of porch sitters and generally stuck together. A manageable herd. They would stay out there until Rue came back and rounded them up for the movie. Then they’d all go to bed at the same time. In some groups, the people never meshed, which could be a problem. Or sometimes they’d get a few troublesome people, go-getters who were always sneaking up on you while you were trying to catch a moment alone.
She didn’t have the easy way with strangers that Rue did. Laura didn’t particularly want to socialize with the guests at all. But she didn’t want to seem as if she were avoiding them, either.
She gravitated back to the kitchen. The dishwasher was still going, and she leaned against the counter, enjoying its companionable hum.
The after-dinner lull made her restless. It wasn’t as if she looked forward to the movie all that much; she didn’t love movies like Rue did. Usually about thirty minutes into a movie, Laura would start to lose focus. Something in the story would seem foolish to her --- a dumb plot device, say. Or something about an actor would annoy her. (Was it just her, or was Tom Hanks slightly cross-eyed if you stared at him hard enough? Or why was it never explained why Greta Garbo, who was supposed to be French in one movie, spoke with a Swedish accent? And just who was Adam Sandler supposed to appeal to, exactly?) Rue frowned on talking during movies, so the unanswered questions would set something twitching inside Laura.
She’d start thinking about getting in her truck and driving until she got to someplace where she could have a beer or shoot a round of pool.
For a while last winter, she hadn’t been bothered by the restlessness so much. She had been busy looking after Rue and doing the farmwork besides. At night she had been too tired to move; worry had worn her out more than anything. And she hadn’t wanted to leave Rue alone. Not for a minute longer than she had to. So she’d sat through every minute of Gone with the Wind, even though she could never understand the big deal about Ashley, anyway. And she’d made it through musicals that drove her up a tree generally, and any number of lame comedies that produced not even the slightest chuckle. Anything Netflix could throw at her, she’d endured.
But now Rue was recovered, and that old restless twitch had started up again. The guests didn’t help, either. Laura seized any excuse to bolt away from them.
“Here you are.”
She turned. Her old friend Webb was leaning in the doorway. She shouldn’t have appreciated the way his gaze lingered on her, but she did. Sad but true. Those sleepy blue eyes of his always managed to get to her.
On the other hand, why should she be immune? Those eyes got to everybody.
“Hiding?” he asked.
“How could I be hiding? I’m right in the middle of the kitchen. I’m a sitting duck.”
“Except you know everyone else is out on the porch.”
“I saw you out there,” Laura said. “Deep in conversation with . . . What’s her name?”
“Jeanine! She was mooning at you.”
He ambled over to get himself a glass of water. “Actually, she was asking me about composting.”
“She might have had compost on her lips, but there were stars in her eyes.”
He laughed. “It’s like poetry.”
“Face it, Webster. You’re the matinee idol of Sassy Spinster Farm.”
Most of their female guests seemed surprised to discover the farm had a man there at all. Some even were a little dismayed at first --- the ones who had dreamed that their time there would be a sort of retreat from the world, a man-free paradise where they would shed their high heels and become can-do women of the soil. But Webb soon became a favorite with everyone. Not only was he a gorgeous specimen of human male, but he was a sympathetic listener. So that those visitors who had come to escape their problems --- and so many of them did --- would find themselves spilling their guts about their ugly divorce, or their latest boyfriend problems, or just the utter loneliness of their life back in Houston or Memphis or Amarillo. One or two had actually fallen a little in love with him, but the guests were here for only a week, or two weeks tops. Their boy was safe.
Laura couldn’t help feeling slightly possessive of Webb. It was just the way things worked when you’d known a kid forever. The trouble was, Webb didn’t think of himself as a kid. Which was only natural for a thirty-two-year-old, she supposed.
“Everyone’s talking about the movie,” Webb said, to change the subject. “Lots of grumbling about subtitles.”
Laura didn’t blame them. As if movies weren’t hard enough to sit through without having to read along. “Do they have any better ideas?”
“Jeanine saw a copy of The Wizard of Oz on the DVD shelf. She thought maybe they could substitute that.”
Laura’s lips twisted into a frown. “That’s Erica’s. She’d be heartbroken if she found out we watched it without her.”
“You could not tell her about it.”
“She’d find out,” Laura said. “Besides, I never liked that one much, anyway.”
“You don’t like anything that doesn’t have Lee Marvin in it.”
“I just don’t like the ending,” she said defensively.
His brows rose. Tell people you didn’t like The Wizard of Oz and it was as if you had just insulted motherhood and apple pie. “The happy ending? Let me guess. You wish they’d all been massacred by the winged monkeys?”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s the part where she’s about to go home. She says good-bye to everybody, and she tells the Scarecrow she’ll miss him most of all.”
So? “So how’s that supposed to make the Tin Man feel? Or the Cowardly Lion? As far as I’m concerned, the Cowardly Lion’s the whole show. If I were Bert Lahr, I would have turned around and said, ‘Thanks for nothing, bitch!’ ”
“I hope you know there’s a special ring of hell set aside for people who call Dorothy a bitch.”
“And the worst part is,” Laura continued, on a roll, “she gets back to Kansas, and suddenly she decides that there’s no place like home, as if everything’s hunky-dory.”
Webb gaped at her. “Yeah, well, that’s sort of the point of the story, isn’t it?”
She stared at him, stupefied. “No, the point of the story was that Mrs. Gulch was going to euthanize Toto. But nobody back in Kansas ever addresses that issue, do they? Nobody ever says, ‘Oh, by the way, Mrs. Gulch died in the tornado, so Toto’s safe now.’ As far as I’m concerned, Dorothy’s just back at square one. She’s going to have to run away again.”
“You’ve way overanalyzed this.”
“And that’s leaving aside my opinion of Glinda, the so-called Good Witch. . . .”
“All right,” Webb said. “I’ll tell them to stick with the French thing.”
“I don’t have time to be watching movies, anyway.” Laura tapped her fingers against Formica. “I should be out trying to hunt down pigs.” She’d already set out twice to avenge her squash patch. But those feral pigs were elusive little bastards.
Webb put his glass down and frowned at the rooster, which was still squatting in the corner. “Is that Fred?” The chicken had its dull, red-eyed gaze trained on Laura. “He looks depressed.”
“I thought that, too, at first. Now I’m wondering if that chicken’s trying to mess with my head.”
“Do you want me to take him back outside?”
“I will, later. I promised to stay in the house till Rue got back.”
“Rue go off with Erica?”
Laura nodded. “She’ll be back soon. Let her deal with everyone’s movie woes.” She couldn’t help thinking about how exhausted Rue had seemed after the day’s activities, though. It was troublesome.
“She gets a lot done,” Webb said. “I can’t believe it sometimes.”
“The most important thing is that we don’t hover over her. She got really sick of that. I wish there were some way we could spare her having to explain to every new crop of guests that comes in. Maybe we could leave a notice in their room with their towels. Your hostess had cancer, which is why she’s half bald and tired. ’Nuff said.”
Left unmentioned were the questions about the scars on Rue’s face --- the old scars. Even after all these years, Laura couldn’t bring herself to talk about those in any context.
“Rue doesn’t mind talking about it,” Webb said.
“She’s just polite. Too polite.”
“Or maybe she just wants to talk. Some people are like that. You know --- normal.”
“I just wish it were all up to her, that’s all. I don’t want her to feel like she has to say anything if she doesn’t want to. Especially now, when she’s finally gotten to the point where she can start putting it all behind her.”
Webb nodded. “And what about you?”
A surprised laugh rasped out of her. “Me? I wasn’t the one with cancer.”
“Yeah, but they say that sometimes taking care of someone can be even harder.”
“That’s just horseshit.” Laura had heard things like this before. Caretaker fatigue, they called it. As if helping someone was anywhere near as difficult as what Rue had been through --- the strain, shock, and unfairness of being diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at thirty-seven and enduring two surgeries and chemo and radiation. The whole gauntlet.
“Probably so,” Webb agreed.
But he agreed in a way that let her know that he was just giving in to avoid an argument. Or that he didn’t think it was worth arguing about in the first place. He was maddening that way.
“You never put up a good fight.”
“I’ve had enough real fighting, thanks.”
He never talked much about that, either. Or about the breakup with his wife when he got back from Afghanistan. He had been discharged in January but had disappeared for a month --- a month, Laura assumed, of dealing with the fact that he’d come back to a broken home and the worst job market in three decades. Then he’d just shown up to visit the farm one day in February and offered to work through the season for meals and board while he sorted himself out. What with all that had happened to Rue, and the way the farm activity had picked up this season, Laura wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. But she did wonder why Webb would want to stay here, of all places. She and Webb had a long history, and not all of it was good.
“It would be gratifying if you’d occasionally hold up your end of an argument just a little bit longer,” she said. “Winning all the time makes me nervous.”
“You’d win anyway.”
“Yeah, but I like to earn it.”
He inched closer, unsettling her. “Why don’t we skip the movie, Laura? Go for a walk, maybe.”
“In the pitch dark?”
“Since when do you mind the dark?”
“I’m going to conk out after the movie.”
He pinned her with a sleepy-lidded stare. “You won’t watch the movie, and you won’t sleep, either. You’ll be in your truck before eleven.”
She folded her arms. “Not tonight. I’m bushed.”
“We could go out together,” he suggested.
“Where would that get us?”
“Who knows? We could just take it as it goes.”
Laura glowered at the old linoleum at her feet. It wasn’t that she was a prude. In fact, the very idea of her trying to maintain some maidenly distance between herself and Webb would send guffaws rippling through Sweetgum and clear across the county. There wasn’t anybody who hadn’t heard about his bachelor party. The first one, at least. She hadn’t been invited to the second. Understandably.
“Pick on somebody your own age,” she told him.
“Is four years really so much?”
“It is when I can still remember you as a snot-nosed kid on the bus.”
His mouth tensed. They’d had this discussion one too many times for him not to know that he would never win it. “I never had a snotty nose. That was Duane Biggs.”
The front door opened and shut, and a few moments later Rue appeared. She looked all worn out. Laura imagined that there had been more words with Erica in the car, and more arguments about the necessity of Erica having to live with her dad for the summer. Which wasn’t even what Rue wanted. It had to be heartbreaking.
When Rue saw them, though, she smiled. “What’s so funny?”
“Duane Biggs,” Laura replied.
Rue’s face tensed in concentration. “That little kid on the bus who was allergic to everything?”
“What made you think of him?” asked Rue.
“Webb was just comparing himself favorably to the competition.”
Rue looked from one of them to the other, then shook her head. “I’m not going to step into this. It’s time to start the movie, anyway. Where is everybody?”
“Back porch,” Laura and Webb announced together.
“Still? I guess I’ll go get them, then.”
“Head ’em up. Mooove ’em out,” Laura drawled.
To her delight, Webb executed a perfect whiplash sound effect.
Of course, the movie didn’t have a prayer of holding Laura’s attention. She dutifully took her seat next to the door and watched the beginning with all the concentration she could muster, but it was a lost cause. She thought about how good it would be to shoot a game of pool. To have a beer. To escape. Maybe there would be some guy at Chester’s Lone Star to flirt with. Someone whose life she wouldn’t feel so bad about messing up.
But ever since he’d appeared at her door, back from the war, Webb had taken a strange hold on her conscience. She had told Webb she wasn’t going out tonight. If she proved herself a liar, she would be the target of one of his disapproving stares in the morning. He would be full of disappointment in her, only he wouldn’t say so. He would just make her feel it. She would be suffused with guilt, as if she had somehow betrayed him. Which was stupid, because they were nothing to each other.
She yawned. Yawning succeeded in making her feel sleepy, which gave her an excuse to slip out.
Don’t think about the truck. She deliberately left her keys on the little hook by the kitchen door, so that they wouldn’t be on her dresser when she went to bed, reminding her of how easy it would be to run out the door and fire up the old Chevy. She loved the feeling of driving late at night with the windows down and warm air whipping through the truck’s cab, the radio blasting.
Not tonight, though. Tonight she was just going to bed.
In her tiny attic room, which, because of the slanting roof, had about two square feet of full headroom, she tossed her clothes onto an old school desk, turned the fan to cyclone setting, and climbed into bed. Warmish air blasted her, and she closed her eyes, trying to imagine looking up through a windshield and seeing fat stars overhead and a V of roadway lighted by her headlights in front of her.
She wasn’t certain how long it was before ringing woke her up.
It was hard to even think as she lurched about in the dark, feeling for her phone. As she did, she realized that there were other noises, too. Outside the dogs were barking up a storm.
“Oh, thank God!” cried a voice on the other end. Though it was hard to hear for the sound of dogs barking. They seemed to be barking inside the phone, even. “I was beginning to think the place was deserted.”
“Who is this?”
“It’s me. Heidi!”
Laura frowned at the slightly familiar sound of the woman’s voice, which was practically yelling over the dogs. She got up and went to the window.
Down below the dogs were jumping at the driver’s window of a white car. And inside that car, evidently, was her ex-stepsister, one of the last people in the world she ever wanted to see again.
“It’s so great to be back!” Heidi gushed.
It was just Heidi’s luck that Laura had answered the phone. From the sound of the less than warm reception, her old nemesis hadn’t changed one itty bit, either. But this was just the sort of week she was having. It had started at Sunday brunch with her mother lecturing her about being fickle, which was akin to having Joan Rivers admonish you for having too many face-lifts. The week had then continued with what could be summarized as a very bad few days at the office, topped off by an assassination attempt.
The past two days had really been a nightmare. With nothing but a hastily stuffed duffel bag, she had loaded her battered, terrified self on the first westbound plane, had spent the night in Minnesota, and had ended up in Dallas by way of Atlanta. This morning she had missed her connection, which had put her into Dallas at eleven at night instead of three in the afternoon. Her butt hurt from being planted in various waiting rooms, cramped plane seats, and the rental car for two hours. And finally, icing on the cake, she’d gotten lost. Lost in the town of Sweetgum, pop. 117.
Sweetgum. Now here was a place that time forgot! After twenty years it still had just the one cinder-block store with a single gas pump outside, a smattering of houses along the one street, and a squat but sprawling brick schoolhouse. About the only difference in the town itself that she could detect was that it now boasted four churches instead of three. How they could add more churches without getting more people was a bit of a mystery, unless some of the same people were doubling up on their praying.
Praying extra hard to get out of Sweetgum, probably.
She’d found one positive development: the general store now had an Icee machine. She really could have used that back in ’88! When she’d stopped to ask directions, she had helped herself to a root beer slush and had also grabbed a package of little powdered doughnuts off a shelf near the register. She hadn’t eaten since lunch.
The man behind the counter --- still Mr. McCaffree, just twenty years more ancient --- had squinted at her suspiciously. “You one of them Spinster Farm gals?”
“That’s where I’m going.”
He shook his head. “That place just beats the heck out of me. But I guess there’s no accounting for how people’ll spend their dollars.”
“I’d like to spend some of mine on this stuff.”
He sized her up while he punched his knobby fingers into the keys of his old cash register. “You’re better looking than most of the Spinster crowd.” Before she could thank him, he added, “Not that that’s sayin’ a whole damn lot.”
At the unexpected response, he eyeballed her more critically. “You look familiar.”
“I should. I spent enough on candy here to fund your retirement.”
“Wait a minute...” For a second he looked like he was going to pop a bifocal.
“Don’t you remember me, Mr. McCaffree? I’m Heidi… Heidi Dawn Bogue…I mean, Rafferty. Though it’s actually Bogue again.” It hadn’t seemed kosher to keep her stepfather’s name after her mother had run off with the exterminator.
The old man’s mouth popped open. “Marla’s girl?”
“Good God almighty! Never thought we’d see you around here again. Or your mother, neither.”
“You won’t see her.”
“I bet she’s just as pretty as ever.”
“Caused quite a stir when you two disappeared.”
“That was a bad time for the Raffertys all around,” he said.
Heidi cringed inwardly but refused to comment. “I think I’ve got some change coming to me from that five I gave you?”
He dug his old leathery claw into the register for the change. “You shouldn’t be wandering around so late at night. Ten minutes later and I’da been closed.”
“Ten minutes longer looking for the farm and my head would have exploded.”
A delighted cackle rent the air. “You mean you’re lost?”
“I can’t find the blacktop road to the farm. I must have missed it.”
“First person I ever knew who got lost in this town.”
“It’s been twenty years.” She was too tired to resist being defensive. “And I didn’t drive back then. And it’s dark.”
But as she’d discovered after Charlie had given her directions, she’d passed the gate ten times before and missed it.
Now she sat huddled in her rental car with two snapping dogs lunging against her windows as she nervously shoved the last of her doughnuts in her mouth. For days she’d tried to keep herself from falling to pieces. It seemed like she’d hardly taken a deep breath since Thursday afternoon; the last forty-eight hours she had been entirely preoccupied with not having a nervous breakdown. She’d been hoping to put all her troubles behind her, but distance was actually having the opposite effect. It was as if her nerve endings were still attached to the East Coast and had grown more taut with each passing mile. She was just about ready to snap.
Especially when she thought about Vinnie. And Stephen. And Tom Chinske.
She sucked down a last noisy slurp of her Icee.
Calm, she commanded herself as she finally saw a person --- probably Laura, unfortunately --- emerge from the house. From the looks of the woman as she marched rigidly across the farmhouse yard by moonlight and porch light, this wasn’t a welcome wagon rolling in. Halfway to the car she bellowed at the dogs to shut the hell up.
The dogs fell silent.
Yup, that was Laura. Worse, it was Laura carrying a shotgun.
God knows she and Laura hadn’t been exactly chummy, even by stepsister standards, but surely Laura didn’t mean to shoot her?
She gulped back a world of anxiety, opened her car door a crack, and poked her head out into night air that was still shockingly hot and humid. It was the tag end of May, but it felt like July. She tried to feign enthusiasm. “Hey there, Laura! Long time no see!”
Laura stopped. She’d always been lanky, but twenty years had made her seem taller and more angular. Her loose white T-shirt didn’t conceal her bony shoulders, and hip bones jutted out from beneath the fabric of her boxer shorts.
“Son of a bug up my butt,” Laura said in her gravel voice. “It really is you. And here I was hoping this was just a nightmare.”
Heidi could feel her smile flagging. “Did I get you up?”
“Yeah, you did. Not that you’re probably too worried about my beauty sleep. What are you doing here?”
Heidi’s sinking heart was only slightly bolstered by the sight of two more figures filtering toward them --- one from the front porch, who had to be Rue (hallelujah!), and another, a man, who was coming around the side of the house. At least if Laura shot her, there would be witnesses.
“I thought I’d come for a visit. You know, for nostalgia’s sake.”
Laura coughed up a laugh. “You’d better think again.”
During the long trip down here, Heidi had imagined the greeting she would receive a million times. She’d never fooled herself that anyone would actually be glad to see her, but for some reason being chased off the property at gunpoint had not occurred to her. “You mean you don’t have a room for me? But isn’t this, like, a hotel?”
“Yes. And right now we’re, like, full.”
“Oh, well, maybe --- ”
“We’re full up till September.”
A band of panic tightened around Heidi’s chest. “Are you saying that I can’t stay?”
“Not only that, I’m saying that it’s damn strange that you’d want to stay. Or that you’d even come here at all. Or that you wouldn’t make sure you’d talked to one of us first. And then you show up in the middle of the night and expect us to be thrilled to see you?”
Heidi didn’t quite understand what came over her next. She wasn’t headstrong, as a rule; she had a backbone of Jell-O, and her will was as bendy as a pipe cleaner. Yet at that moment she stood her ground. “I have to stay. I can’t leave.”
“Why? Something the matter with your car?”
Rue finally arrived. The sight of her almost made Heidi weep. It wasn’t just that she was glad to see the nicer of the sisters, the semi-sane one, but also that she seemed so different. So old. Her bulky terry bathrobe swallowed her, and she had a knit cap on her head. A hat seemed crazy in this heat.
Then Heidi looked at the man, whose white teeth flashed at her. She couldn’t tell if he was laughing at her or meant to be encouraging, but both he and Rue seemed more welcoming than Laura.
“Hi, Rue,” Heidi said.
“Heidi Dawn! Long time no see!”
Laura flicked an annoyed look at her sister. “Took y’all long enough.”
Rue pointed to the rifle. “What are you doing with that thing?”
The guy’s smile broadened. “Locked and loaded even in her pajamas.”
“It’s just my pig gun,” Laura said, intimating that she’d left the heavier artillery inside. “I like to be prepared.”
“Well, I’m sure you don’t have to wave it at Heidi,” Rue said. “Or me, either, if you don’t mind.”
“The way the dogs were carrying on, I wasn’t sure what I’d find out here,” Laura told her.
“Was that the dogs?” The man feigned surprised. “We thought that was you.”
Rue’s more kindly presence, and the assurance that the gun wasn’t about to be trained on her, gave Heidi the nerve to finally step out of the car. When she emerged from the safety of the Toyota, Rue greeted her as if they’d just bumped into each other at the mall.
“Well, my word! Look at you! It’s been an age. What are you doing now? And what are you doing here? Just passing through?”
Laura didn’t wait for Heidi to explain. “She says she wants to stay.”
“Well, for heaven’s sake!” Rue said. “I wish you would have written us. It’s so good to see you, but --- ”
“I told her that was impossible, but she won’t leave,” Laura interjected.
“I can’t.” Heidi detected the first sign of a weepy quaver in her voice but was helpless to stop it. “I can’t,” she insisted, as if repetition might strengthen her position.
The other three exchanged glances.
“Look,” Heidi said, “I know there’s no love lost between us, but I’m not trying to take advantage. I’ll work just like everybody else, and of course, I’ll pay.”
Rue looked almost pained. “It’s not a matter of --- ”
“I’ll pay you double!”
“I told you, we don’t have a place for you here.” Laura gestured broadly with her free hand. “You can see the house for yourself. It hasn’t grown any in twenty years. And it’s not like we’ve been keeping your bedroom like a shrine in anticipation of your return. Your Dirty Dancing poster is long gone, and we tossed out your Go-Go’s tapes. Sorry.”
God, she hadn’t changed a bit. Still vicious. I was crazy to come here, Heidi thought.
But her gaze followed Laura’s gesture to the hulking two-story frame house, painted so white it almost glowed. It looked just as it always had, only tidier. When she was a kid, she’d hated the place --- she’d been so depressed when her mother had married some old man who lived out in the middle of nowhere. Now it looked like a refuge. Her last hope.
Laura and Rue had changed the farm, she knew. Back when she’d lived here, there were just fields of corn and sweet potatoes and a few fruit trees. But she’d read about the farm in a magazine, and even in the darkness she could imagine what was beyond the house from the memory of those glossy pictures: fields of vegetables, and herb gardens, and a chicken house, where fresh eggs were gathered every day. She’d been dreaming of it.
According to the article she’d read while she was at the hairdresser’s --- an article in a glossy magazine that had talked about agri-tourism --- people came to Sassy Spinster Farm to learn how to grow things, to retreat from the bustle of urban life, and to rejuvenate spiritually by reconnecting with the soil under the guidance of the owners.
Reading it, Heidi had nearly fallen off the vinyl salon bench, laughing at the thought of Laura guiding anyone’s spiritual renewal. The time Heidi had spent at this place, Laura had been her tormentor. A one-girl torture squad. Sweetgum’s own Torquemada.
Yet that article had lingered in her mind. She’d wondered if the place really had changed, and she couldn’t stop thinking about her old stepsisters. She had been unhappy on the farm . . . but she had been fourteen. Maybe if she had been older or more self-confident, or if her mother hadn’t been insane, they would have all had a different relationship. Maybe the Rafferty sisters would have taken her under their wing, instead of treating her like a leper. Maybe if she had learned to be a little more like Rue and Laura, she’d be a sassy spinster now instead of a gutless, quivering wreck.
The article had been accompanied by a picture of Laura and Rue, with the house in the background. The sisters had been photographed in profile, back to back. Laura was leaning on a hoe, and Rue, her face shaded by a wide-brimmed hat, held a basketful of eggs on her hip. They radiated self-sufficiency. Heidi couldn’t imagine either of them bolting up in a 3:00 a.m. panic over stupid mistakes --- all 236 of them, at last count --- or sitting in front of a computer screen in a beige cubicle wondering what she was going to be when she grew up, if she ever grew up, which should have already happened by now but somehow hadn’t. Or worrying that maybe she had grown up, and this was just the person she was always going to be, forever and ever, which was even more terrifying.
She’d stolen that magazine from the hairdresser’s. And then, when the crunch had come, she’d decided that her last best hope was Sweetgum.
Big mistake (#237).
It was all too much. She sank back down into the driver’s seat, letting the driver’s door gape open. Where was she supposed to go now? What was she going to do? This had been her solution, her survival strategy. In her fevered thoughts during her plane flights, she’d dreamed she’d find not just refuge here, but some sort of spiritual rejuvenation through fresh eggs and dirt. And what was she getting? Bubkes.
The spigots opened, and she wept like a baby.
Rue took a tentative step forward. “Heidi?”
“I wanted to be a sassy spinster!” Heidi wailed.
Crying in front of Laura and Rue and that man was mortifying, but it felt so good, she couldn’t make herself stop. She would never see any of them again, anyway. Not after she drove off into the night to God knows where. She was going to have to sleep in her car on the side of the road and would probably be killed by some psycho. Or go home and be killed by a more familiar psycho.
Neither option held much appeal.
“Uh, Laura…?” Rue stepped back a few paces and beckoned her sister to join her. “Can I talk to you for a sec?”
The man, Heidi noticed, was not asked to join. He leaned against the rental car. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
She snuffled and took a closer look at him. He had on jeans and boots and a loose dark T-shirt. His slight slouch against the car disguised his height, but he was probably taller than the other two, maybe over six feet. He had dark hair, a charmingly beaky nose, and one of those Cary Grant dents on his chin. A nice face. But she still couldn’t place him.
“You look familiar, but I have the memory of a fruit fly.”
“I’m Webb Saunders.”
She gasped. “Of course!” Webb Saunders had been behind her a year in school and was one of the few boys in junior high school who had acted like a human being. “What are you doing here? Are you...?”
Her gaze cut anxiously toward Rue and Laura. Please tell me you’re not romantically linked with one of the wicked step-slags. Well, Rue wasn’t so bad . . . but she shuddered to think that Laura had gotten her hooks into him.
“I’m just a hanger-on,” he assured her.
“Oh, that’s what I want to be! At least for a little while.” She sniffed again and nodded to the powwow going on a few feet away. “Though I guess it doesn’t matter. If they have their way, I’ll be history soon.”
“I’d say odds are even.”
The two sisters flicked gazes back at Heidi, maybe to ascertain her mental state. It couldn’t have looked good. A quick peek at her red eyes and streaky makeup in the rearview seconded her doubts. She dug some Kleenex out of her purse and used one to blow her nose and another to mop up the mascara damage.
“I must look like a crazy person in search of a straitjacket,” she said.
“You don’t look half as crazy as Laura looked when we first came out here.”
In the latter stage of the conference between the two sisters, Heidi noticed more gesticulating on Laura’s part. She raised her arms up, flapped her hands, then placed them emphatically on her bony hips. Heidi strained to hear what they were saying, and was pretty sure she caught the word idiot once or twice. She should have taken offense, but all she cared about were her chances.
She angled a pleading look at Webb. “You couldn’t throw in a good word on my behalf, could you?”
“Nobody around here listens to me.”
They might not listen, but Heidi would have bet money that they did a lot of looking. It was sort of hard not to look, even though tall, dark, and handsome had proven to be a deadly combination for her. Webb didn’t look at all lethal, however. His expression was too open and unguarded. Maybe this was just a new good-looking guy strategy. It was hard to believe someone that gorgeous wouldn’t know his own power.
The power wasn’t lost on her, though. She felt its jolt and gave herself a mental slap. No men. At least not until she had extricated herself from the present calamity. And even then she should probably remain celibate, for her own good. It would be the equivalent of a serial debtor having her credit cards cut.
He certainly was easy on the eye, though.
Over at the powwow, Laura crossed her arms in front of her and heaved a sigh of resignation.
Heidi sat up straighter.
Rue returned to the car. “Laura and I discussed it, and since you’ve come such a long way and you’re in such a spot ...and since you’re sort of family --- ”
A sound croaked out of Laura that was something between mirth and outrage.
Rue batted an annoyed glance at her sister and soldiered on. “Maybe you wouldn’t mind being squeezed into a spare room?”
Heidi was on her feet in two shakes. “I’ll take anything! The attic would be fine with me!”
“I’m in the attic now,” Laura barked.
Okay, maybe it wouldn’t be fine. The last thing she wanted was to share a room with the person who had put corn syrup in her shampoo bottle on school picture day.
“You might have second thoughts in the morning and decide to leave,” Rue said. “But that will be your decision.”
“Thank you!” Heidi turned to flash a celebratory smile at Webb, but he was already ambling off into the darkness. Before Rue and Laura could change their minds, she hurriedly leaned into the car to retrieve her duffel bag. The dogs, sensing the matter had been settled in her favor, nosed up to her, making her maneuvers a little more difficult. Still, Heidi patted one on the head and tried to sound friendly. “You’re a good dog, aren’t you, boy?”
“That’s not a boy,” Laura said. “That’s Shelley Winters.”
“Oh! Sorry.” Bag in hand, Heidi slammed the car door shut. He, she, Shelley Winters...like she gave an att’s rass. She had a place to stay; that was all that mattered to her for now.
Though, on second thought, it was never too soon to ingratiate herself. “Cool name!” she said as she tagged along behind the sisters.
Rue slowed down for her. “The other pup is named Monte, after Montgomery Clift. I adopted them after I watched A Place in the Sun. You know me and movies.”
Actually, she had forgotten. Rue had always been one to stay up for the late show in those days before satellite dishes.
“I’ve got the movie bug, too.” Heidi added quickly, “My taste has matured since Dirty Dancing.”
“Mine hasn’t much,” Rue said. “If the eighties were on fire, that would probably be one of the films I’d save.”
“Are you kidding? It wouldn’t even make my top ten --- although it might be the stupid eighties teen movie I’d be most likely to rescue.” Heidi frowned. “No, that would be Sixteen Candles.”
“Girls?” Laura called impatiently from the doorway. “Are you going to stand out there all night, holding forth on Molly Ringwald movies, or are you coming in?”
They quickened the pace. Heidi had forgotten how quiet it was out here. There was no white-noise whir of cars in the distance, no air traffic, no distant sirens. When she tilted her head at all, all she heard were bugs chirping and humming. The old Sweetgum bug lullaby.
Tired as she was, a manic relief coursed through her as she was ushered up the steps to the house. Walking through the front door, she felt like a rabbit diving into a hole just before a predator could snap at it. She’d made it --- she was safe. True, Laura still seemed to hate her, but she could deal with that. After what she had been through, Laura’s huffing and puffing seemed downright quaint.
Rue led Heidi into the house, where they passed through the dark foyer. She could just make out the staircase. It was strange to be walking into the old house after all these years --- like Nelson Mandela visiting his old jail cell. They turned down a narrow hall and stopped at the first door.
“This isn’t ideal,” Rue warned. “Remember the old sewing room?”
“I won’t mind!”
“Unfortunately, it’s the best we can manage right now,” Rue explained.
She opened the door and snapped on the light to reveal exactly what she had predicted... only worse. When Heidi had lived here, the little room had been used as a sort of large closet. It housed the sewing machine and overflow from the house --- the broken vacuum, a box of old curtains, and decades of abandoned projects. It appeared no one had cleared it out since then. One wall was lined with shelves full of old books, bric-a-brac, and odds and ends, like jars of rubber bands and old nails, but you couldn’t really see all the contents of the shelves, because there were boxes piled waist-high everywhere, even on a little love seat that had a cinder block in place of a leg. The sewing machine --- an old metal Singer encased in its own heavy cabinet --- was there, too, next to the one window. From the position of the cabinet, it looked like it had been used as a bedside table to the bed sitting next to it. The hospital bed.
Alarmed, Heidi looked into Rue’s face. She nearly gasped when she did.
She’d forgotten the wreck. Rue, who had always been the pretty sister, had been in a car accident with Laura when they were teenagers. Her face had been banged up, but Heidi, who had left Sweetgum right after the accident, had always imagined it would return to normal. For the past twenty years her memory had always conjured up the pre-accident Rue.
The problem started with Rue’s left eyebrow, half of which was missing in action. The eye below it squinted slightly. Her cheek was mottled down to her slightly crooked jaw. Odder still, Rue’s skin had achieved the feat of seeming both sallow and too red at the same time.
Only a split second passed, but Rue’s eyes registered understanding. “Still a walking advertisement for seat belts.”
Heidi blinked. “I didn’t mean to…” She almost said, “Gawk,” but luckily stopped herself before she compounded her faux pas. She faltered and turned her attention away, but unfortunately, her gaze again landed on the bed. The steel bed. It had the side guard up on one side, and the headrest was on an incline. “Where did that come from?” she asked.
“Dad. He was too weak to get up the stairs at the end, so we turned the library into his room. Now it’s my room, so we moved this in here.”
Mr. Rafferty had died in the bed she was supposed to sleep in?
Laura swept into the room. “Better change those sheets.”
They haven’t changed the sheets since Mr. Rafferty died? Now that Heidi thought about it, that musty odor in the room had a slightly medicinal twinge to it. An old-person smell of Vicks VapoRub. Was it coming from the bed? She had to force her feet to remain planted and not back away.
Laura unfolded a top sheet with a single snap, and Heidi jumped.
“Forgive me for not asking sooner,” Rue said, “but how’s Marla?”
Heidi would have understood if she’d never asked at all. There had been no love lost between the sisters and their stepmother. Her mother was difficult enough to deal with as a blood relation. Heidi shrugged, wondering how little she could get away with telling them about her life in New York. Let the acting begin. “She’s okay.”
“Still have a fondness for bug men?” Laura asked.
Heidi winced on her mother’s behalf. “No…That ended a long time ago. So did marriage number four.”
Laura was shaking her head, but Rue bestowed a more kindly look on her. “We’ll have lots of time to catch up tomorrow.”
“Actually, that would be today,” Laura said before turning back to Heidi. “How long did you say you were staying?”
One sister hid it better than the other, but clearly she wasn’t wanted here. This was going to be awkward.
But awkward she could handle. If she went home, she would probably be killed. The thought called up the memory of her coworker Tom Chinske, and she closed her eyes for a moment, trying to blot out the expression of pure fear that had been his parting glance to her. For all she knew, Tom Chinske wasn’t even alive now.
Yeah, she could handle awkward. In her book, awkward beat dead any day of the week.
Laura followed Rue into her room after they’d put the prodigal ex-stepsister to bed. “I wish you would have let me handle that. I was doing fine before you and Webb came out.”
“Oh, right. I saw how fine you were doing, Laurel Mae.” Calling Laura by the name on her birth certificate was something only Rue could get away with. “You looked like you were going to strangle her.”
“I was just going to shoo her away.”
“At two in the morning?”
“This isn’t the desert. There are hotels between here and Dallas. She’d be more comfortable in a hotel than sleeping on Daddy’s hospital bed.” Laura paced in a tiny circle, worrying her thumbnail against her lip. “Do you think we can get rid of her in the morning?”
“Because we said she could stay. And we’re not going to charge her for staying here, either.”
“Are you crazy?”
“No, she’s not.”
“For God’s sake, Laura, she lived here for three years. Okay, so we didn’t like her mother, but she’s not her mother.”
Laura couldn’t believe it. “We didn’t like her, either. Have you forgotten what an annoyance she was? Have you forgotten her whining about not having ballet lessons, and practicing those horrible pieces on the piano all the time? I swear I still twitch every time I hear someone play ‘The Entertainer.’ ”
Rue leaned forward, laughing silently.
“Have you forgotten the twirling?”
For an entire year it had seemed as if the kid had never been seen without a baton in her hand. Her mom had even bought her a spangled leotard, which she’d wear sometimes when she practiced in the yard. For those times when she really wanted to release her inner geek.
Rue tried to compose herself. “I remember, but also I remember that she was eleven or so when she moved here from Houston and probably thought she’d landed in the boonies, and then she had to deal with us. It wasn’t Heidi’s fault that our father went off to an army buddy reunion, got drunk, and eloped with her mom.”
“Her mom the cocktail waitress probably had a lot to do with why Dad got drunk.”
“That wasn’t Heidi’s fault, either.”
Rue was always so damn fair. “You were older. You didn’t have to deal with her as much as I did.”
“Okay, but that doesn’t change the fact that this was her home. The woman’s not asking us to deed the land over. She just wants to visit. Why shouldn’t she have a right to come back to the place she grew up if she wants to, and remember?”
“Remember what? Us stealing her homework and switching out the sugar for salt the day her mom made her birthday cake? And have you forgotten those drum majorette tryouts?”
Rue shuddered. “I had nothing to do with that.”
“Don’t play innocent.” A frightening thought occurred to Laura. “You don’t think she came here to exact revenge, do you?”
“Like a horror movie. The Bloody Stepsisters.”
“I’m not joking!”
“When Webb showed up in February, you thought he was here to exact revenge, too.”
“I’m still not counting it out,” Laura said. “Anyway, this is different. The woman just shows up out of the blue after twenty years and then starts weeping because we don’t want her --- as if we ever did! Didn’t she seem deranged to you? A little unbalanced?”
“Yes, but that might have something to do with the fact that you had a gun and two yapping border collies were blockading her from getting out of her car.”
Laura grumblingly admitted that there might be a little truth in that. “Still...it’s fishy. This should have been the last place she’d want to visit.”
“She probably saw us in a magazine and was curious about how the place had changed.”
“So curious she couldn’t make arrangements with us before getting on a plane?”
Rue folded her arms over her chest. “If you had picked up the phone when she called, would you have told her to come?”
“No, I wouldn’t, and you know why?”
“Because you don’t like her.”
“Because it’s a bad time. We’re all full up, and it’s the beginning of the busy season, and you’re just recovering…”
“We’re stretched too thin as it is. And here comes one more mouth to feed, one more person to entertain --- ”
“She said she wanted to work.”
That was a load of chuckles. “Her? Oh, she’s going to be tons of help. Remember the time Dad sent her out to weed and she pulled up all our onions?”
“She never did it again.”
“I doubt she’s changed much. If life were a battle of wits, she’d be unarmed.”
“She’s no different than any of the other guests, except she knows this place a little better. Let’s just give her a chance. She might not want to stay more than a day or two.”
Rue was too damn nice. She never made snap judgments, never sniped, never kicked up a fuss about anything. No wonder she had always been their parents’ favorite, not to mention every teacher’s pet.
Hell, if Laura had to pick, Rue would be her favorite, too.
“I’ll try to get her room fixed up tomorrow,” Rue said.
“Don’t do that. She might leave sooner like it is.”
Rue sent her a big-sister, “you should be ashamed” look.
Laura didn’t care. “Where are we going to put all that stuff, anyway?”
“That’s a good question.”
Every free inch of space in the house was guest space. “I’ll think about it tonight,” Laura said. Though really, even before she’d asked the question, she had already decided she’d move all the excess crap up to her room. She could shove it all in a corner. It wouldn’t give her much room to move around, but she didn’t have much room now, anyway. What was a few square feet less?
“Don’t think about it,” Rue said, pushing her toward the door. “Just go to sleep. Tomorrow will be a calmer day, and we can find out more then.”
“Okay, but I’m still not ruling out the possibility that she’s come to kill us all in our beds. You might want to lock your door, just in case.”
Rue loved mornings. In the old days, pre-cancer --- B.C. --- she had been one of those people who stumbled around in a groggy funk until the second cup of coffee worked its magic. Now each morning when her eyes popped open she understood right away what a miraculous event a new day was. Yes, there were some not-so-great moments to get through. Facing her new self in the mirror, for one. Not that her old self had been any great shakes, but there was no denying her frazzled appearance now. Her skin still had that chemical dipped look, and her little wisps of hair --- curly and pale --- seemed like they had sprouted from an alien’s pores. She’d never been overly vain, but come on. This was a bit much to take at five thirty in the morning.
Her whole morning ritual was a trial, and she tried to get through it thinking as little as possible, except maybe to wish that she could do without mirrors entirely, like nuns in the old days. But the trouble with a mirrorless world was she couldn’t risk looking like too much of a kook --- not with a houseful of guests, she couldn’t. So she had to put up with those early-morning glimpses of her face, which reminded her that the Rue in her head had parted ways with the Rue of reality.
But when finally she reached the kitchen, she felt like a new person. A new person with another day at her disposal. Each and every time she flipped on the lights, it felt like a lucky break.
A year ago she had been careful to be quiet in the early morning so she wouldn’t wake the guests, but going through life on tippy-toe no longer interested her. Next to the toaster was a boom box, and the first order of business each day was to decide what went into it. Occasionally, it would be classical music or bluegrass, but mostly she loved singers. Laura favored country music, and Webb could listen to any station on the FM dial and not even seem to notice the difference. But Rue’s CD collection, housed in what used to be their mother’s spice cabinet, spanned everybody from Enrico Caruso to Amy Winehouse, though she tended to fall back on jazz singers and crooners.
This morning she put in an old reliable --- Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong duets --- and cranked up the volume. Then she started thinking about the menu. She had a two-week breakfast repertoire, and oatmeal was next in the rotation. She hauled out the bag of steel-cut oats she bought in bulk in Dallas and then readied the soup pot she cooked them in. She hummed along with the songs on the CD as she worked --- “Stars Fell on Alabama,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay.”
While that was simmering, she mixed together the batter for sweet potato muffins.
Twice Laura passed through, shaking her head at the boom box and at Rue drumming along with the rhythm section with a rubber spatula. One trip was to bring in eggs, which she deposited in the second fridge in the pantry. The subject of their middle-of-the-night disturbance was not mentioned, beyond Laura’s terse observation, “Well, we’re both still alive.”
Rue laughed. It seemed just like any other morning.
The guests ate breakfast at the round kitchen table. It was large, but now Rue wondered if she shouldn’t get out the extra leaf for it. Five guests, Webb, herself, and Laura. Of course, Laura rarely sat down for breakfast. And no Erica till the weekend.
She felt a pang thinking of that and decided all she could do was not think of it. Denial was a skill she had perfected this past year. After the two muffin tins had been popped in the oven, she poured milk, half-and-half, and soy milk into small thermal pitchers, then arranged raisins, dried apples, brown sugar, and walnuts in bowls on the counter.
Laura came back through a little later to fill up a thermos of coffee for their two regular day workers, Dylan and Herman. Rue would also send them a bunch of muffins. “Any sign of Heidi?”
“Nobody’s down yet,” Rue said.
“She’s probably one of those sleep-till-noon types.”
“Cut her some slack. She had a long day yesterday. She probably didn’t get much rest.”
It was just the comment Laura had been fishing for, and now she reeled it in with zest. “I could have used a few more z’s myself!”
Rue let her sister’s indignation bounce off of her. Laura was one of those people who thrived on friction of one kind or another, even at six in the morning. “She’ll be up. She seemed eager.”
Laura stalked out with her thermos, muttering.
Ella and Louis sang “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” And then the CD ended. Rue reached her hand into the CD cabinet, picked at random, and came up with Perry Como. He was crooning “Some Enchanted Evening” when the first of the guests came down; the song produced a wrinkled nose from Margaret, who looked as if she had smelled a rotten egg. Rue placed a glass of orange juice in front of her.
Margaret was one of the serious types who came to the farm; she wanted to learn absolutely everything in two weeks. “You don’t have to wait on me,” she said quickly, jumping up from lacing her work boot. “Oh! Oatmeal.” She gave the pot a stir. “Look at that! You’ll have to give me the recipe.”
“It’s oatmeal.” Rue should have appreciated Margaret’s enthusiasm, yet something about the woman made her want to swat her away.
Margaret looked around. “Has Laura come down yet? I could help her.”
If there was one thing that drove Laura berserk, it was guests coming out to work before she was ready for them. She would be going over the plan for the day with Herman, Dylan, and Webb, and she wouldn’t appreciate Margaret’s help. One of Rue’s morning duties was to keep the guests corralled in the kitchen until after breakfast.
“She’s out with the guys just now,” Rue said. “You’d better wait till she gets back.”
“Okeydoke! Should I make another pot of coffee?”
Rue was relieved to be able to let her. Most of the guests were mellower, but the occasional live wire like Margaret reminded her of Erica when she’d been young and first started wanting to help out. Rue had had to think of flub-proof chores for times like this. Coffee making was as good as any.
The others began to filter in, thank heavens, which lured Margaret back to the breakfast table. She stood, hands planted on hips, totting up place settings. “Rue, you set one place too many.”
“Maybe Laura’s going to sit down, finally.” Jeanine, a twentyfour- year-old hipster from Austin, slipped into the chair next to Webb’s usual spot. She had been positioning herself there all week, but the strategy was getting her nowhere.
“I’m not sure Laura can digest sitting down anymore,” Rue said, humming along now to “Round and Round.”
Jeanine tilted her head to stare, perplexed, at the boom box. “Is this something you really like to listen to, or is this irony?”
Rue shook her head. “I don’t do irony before ten a.m.”
“I bet I know what the extra place is for,” said Montana. She was a hospital nurse from Shreveport who had come with another nurse, named Claire. “I heard the dogs barking last night.”
“I heard them, too, and there’s a car out in the drive that wasn’t there yesterday,” Claire said.
“You can’t see the front drive from your room,” Montana pointed out to Claire.
“I looked out the porch window just a moment ago. It’s a white Toyota Camry,” Claire replied.
“A Corolla,” Montana said.
“My brother owns one.”
“Of course,” Claire said. “Well, I’m sure you’re right.”
“But you were right, too. It definitely wasn’t out there yesterday,” Montana added.
So far Rue couldn’t tell if Montana and Claire were lesbians, or just very good friends, or soul mates in tedium.
Margaret hurried out to see the car for herself. When she returned, she seemed put out.
“Well, there is a white Corolla out there.” She turned to Rue. “I thought y’all only took four visitors at a time.”
“Normally, that’s true,” Rue said. “This is a special circumstance.”
“The more the merrier!” Claire said.
Not a sentiment Margaret shared, apparently. “When I first called to make reservations, I was hoping to bring my friend Rachel, but you said you were all full up.”
Webb strolled in at that moment, diverting attention momentarily from the unseen guest. Very momentarily. “Heidi up yet?” he asked as he took off his hat and sat down.
The name sent a wave of speculation rippling through the small group.
“Heidi?” Montana and Claire said, all ears.
“How old is she?” asked Jeanine. In her Webb quest, she seemed to consider youth her trump card.
“Why did she show up in the middle of the night?” Clearly, Margaret found this behavior highly suspect.
Laura, who had come in right behind Webb, carrying Fred, glowered first at the boom box, then at the extra empty chair. She kept walking. “I’ll get her.”
Margaret gaped at the others. “Was she carrying a chicken?”
“Looked like it,” Montana said. “Did the new person wake you up, Webb?” Jeanine asked. She gave her hair a flip as she turned toward him. She had platinum hair with a dark black streak through the front --- a reverse Lily Munster.
He appeared unmoved by her hair maneuver. “Shelley Winters and Monte woke me.”
They all stopped for a moment to listen to Laura calling through a shut door to Heidi. They couldn’t hear Heidi’s replies, but they exchanged amused looks at the sound of impatience in Laura’s voice. Then, when it was clear Laura was on her way back, they focused their attention on their oatmeal bowls again.
Except for Jeanine. All her attention was on Webb. “Nothing ever wakes me up,” she said, yawning so that her little T-shirt crept up her midriff, revealing a belly button pierced by a silver hoop. “I always sleep like a baby.”
“If the sound of those barking dogs didn’t wake you, you sleep like the dead,” Montana told her.
Laura returned to her customary spot by the counter, set the chicken on the floor, washed her hands, and started grazing at the bowls of raisins and walnuts. “A man named Carl Bigsby lived down the road from here for years. He used to brag about being a sound sleeper, too. Then one night his house burned down, and all the firemen found of him was a charred head and a foot where his bed used to be.”
Spoons clattered against bowls, and Montana brayed in disgust. “That’s revolting!”
Laura’s eyes widened innocently. “It’s a true story.”
“Did you have to tell it while I was eating my oatmeal?” Jeanine asked, even though she hadn’t been eating her oatmeal. She always picked at her food; then Rue would clean her room in the morning and find a half dozen energy bar wrappers in the wastepaper basket. “That’s really gross.”
“And I really don’t think chickens are supposed to be allowed in eating establishments, are they?” Margaret asked, eyeing Fred warily as he darted anxious looks back at them all.
“I’m trying to cheer him up,” Laura said.
“Aren’t chickens carriers of something?”
Montana and Claire looked at each other as if just remembering the punch line to a shared joke. “Bird flu!” they said in unison.
“Oh God.” Margaret looked like she was on the verge of alerting the CDC. “Really?”
Perry Como sang “Hot Diggity” as charred body parts and quarantines swirled in people’s brains.
Laura popped another walnut into her mouth. “You know I don’t think much of your musical taste, Rue, but this is a low watermark even for you.”
“Perry Como is underrated,” Rue said. “I think he’s due for a serious reevaluation.”
No one else in the room looked convinced. And really, “Hot Diggity” wasn’t his best. Rue was used to grousing, though. This was nothing compared to the morning she played Slim Whitman. A yodeling cowboy at seven in the morning had nearly caused an insurrection.
“Sleeping Beauty awakes.”
Laura’s amused contempt was aimed at the doorway, where Heidi stood surveying the table. Her Sandra Dee blond hair was tied back loosely, and she was wearing just enough makeup to make her look natural without looking washed out. She had very fair skin, which caused Rue to worry about the shoulders exposed by her sleeveless shirt. She expected that they would need to get out the aloe vera before the day was out.
Rue left the stove and introduced Heidi around the table, while Heidi perched uneasily in the empty chair Rue had guided her to.
“I wish I’d known that they’d accept more guests,” Margaret repeated after the introductions were made. “Maybe I could have brought a friend, after all.”
Heidi looked uncomfortable. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to step on anyone’s toes.”
Margaret sniffed. “Don’t worry about it. I’m just not pushy enough, I guess.”
Rue’s and Laura’s eyes met, and Rue had to turn away to keep from laughing. “Heidi’s not just a regular guest,” Rue explained. “She used to live here. She’s family.”
“Sort of.” Heidi sent Rue a sleepy but grateful smile.
“We’re having oatmeal for breakfast this morning,” Rue told Heidi. “I’ll scoop up a bowl for you, and you can pick your own add-ins.”
Heidi looked decidedly unenthused. “Just coffee for me, thanks.”
Before Rue could explain the routine, Laura jumped in. “Coffeepot’s on the counter, and those ceramic doohickeys with handles next to it are coffee cups. Oh, and that little person in a maid’s uniform you see? That’s a hallucination.”
A blush washed across Heidi’s pale cheeks. Everyone at the table shifted uncomfortably, like kids who had witnessed someone getting dressed down by the principal. All except Webb, who shot Heidi a sympathetic smile. “That’s Laura’s sweet way of saying coffee’s serve yourself.”
Heidi nodded and then scuttled across the kitchen to get her coffee. Unfortunately, the coffeemaker was right next to Laura. Looking at them side by side, it seemed as though Heidi were attempting to make herself even smaller than she was to avoid coming too close.
Meanwhile, Laura inspected Heidi’s outfit. In addition to the sleeveless shirt, she was wearing jeans with the bottoms hiked up inside out to make them mid-calf length, and a pair of purple suede Mary Janes. “You intend to wear those shoes today?”
Heidi looked down in confusion. “Uh-huh. That’s why they’re on my feet.”
“Sandals aren’t practical. In case you don’t remember.”
“Didn’t you bring boots?” Margaret asked.
Margaret appeared flabbergasted by such unpreparedness. “Boots are essential.”
“These really are very comfortable,” Heidi insisted.
Laura slurped her coffee.
“Are you wearing Laura-approved footwear?” Heidi asked Webb, glancing down at his boots.
“Of course he knows what shoes to wear,” Laura told her. “He works here.”
“Working? Is that what I’m doing?” Webb asked, surprised. “And here I was so proud of myself. I thought I was freeloading.”
“Freeloaders don’t fix tractors,” Laura pointed out.
“Workers don’t pack away as much free food as I do, though.”
“We could starve you if it would make you feel more noble,” Laura joked in her favorite needling tone. “Maybe provide a bed of nails for you to sleep on, too.”
“The bed I’ve got is plenty uncomfortable, thanks.”
Heidi looked like she was about to jump into the conversation --- God knows she had an uncomfortable bed to complain about --- but at the last minute, something made her suck in her breath. The song had changed to the trumpet blare intro of “Papa Loves Mambo,” and she twirled, trying to find the source. She spotted the boom box and then caught Rue’s eye. “I love this! Can I crank it?”
“Be my guest.” Rue tossed Laura a triumphant grin. Could she say vindication? Someone else liked Perry Como!
Or at least one song by Perry Como.
“Can anybody mambo?” Heidi yelled out over the music, searching the faces in the room, all of which were now gawking at her. Not that it seemed to matter to her. Her hips were already wiggling, and she was in her own world. With only an air partner, she did a pretty fair simulation of some kind of exotic dance.
“Looks like you’re the only one,” Rue said.
Heidi’s eyes lit up. “Come here. I’ll teach you.”
Rue fell in behind her and tried to copy her steps, while Heidi called out the rhythm, Arthur Murray style. “Back-left-right sidestep, forward-left-right-sidestep!”
Unable to resist the lure of the instructional, Margaret leapt out of her chair and joined in, so they now formed a partnerless mambo line. Montana and Claire got in the act, too, making up the tail. Webb held back, grinning, especially when Heidi let out an exuberant “Wow!” to match Perry’s more reserved, cashmere sweatered one. Jeanine remained seated because Webb did, though she was sort of sit dancing. Laura, frozen in astonishment at what had erupted right under her very nose, followed them, zagging around the kitchen with the baffled amusement she usually wore when she watched Shelley Winters and Monte rolling in cow pies.
“That’s it, Rue!” Heidi yelled encouragingly, arching her neck for a peek at her students. “Release your inner Charo! Throw your hips into it!”
“And what dignity you have left,” Laura added.
Rue tossed back her head and laughed. For what was left of the song, she really did throw herself into it. And why not? Her kitchen had become an impromptu dance hall. Why hadn’t she thought of this before?
They mamboed en masse across the kitchen, nearly trampling Fred, who showed more energy than he had in twenty-four hours when he flapped out of the way.
When the song ended, it was with a mad, hip-swinging flourish from all the dancers. None of them were together and they were certainly not in sync with the music, but what they lacked in precision, they more than made up for with exuberance and pizzazz. When they broke their frozen ta-da positions and started laughing, Rue caught sight of another pair of eyes gaping at her.
Flushed and sweaty, Erica was standing in the doorway, her face frozen in that mild horror of an adolescent watching her mother dance in public.
“What are you doing here?” Rue exclaimed.
Perry Como launched into “It’s Impossible,” and Laura dove for the volume knob.
“I’m coming home for the summer,” Erica announced.
Rue glanced beyond her daughter’s head, looking for William. He was nowhere in evidence. “How did you get here?”
“But that’s five miles!” Rue was filled with anger. Erica had set out on her bike at six in the morning, and William hadn’t even called?
Erica was thoroughly nonchalant. “I know. I’m hungry. Mmm. Oatmeal. Can I have some? With chocolate chips?”
Rue half suspected that Erica was using hunger as a way to buy time, to best figure out how to wheedle her mother into giving in to whatever demand she was about to make. As Erica well knew, Rue couldn’t resist the maternal urge to push food in front of her offspring.
At that moment Erica spotted something amiss in the kitchen. She was practically pointing at Heidi, her attention s