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Jo Dubray was suddenly terrified. Not just nervous, as she'd been at eighteen when she moved into a dorm room with a girl she'd never met. No, she was so scared her hands were actually slick on the steering wheel of her Honda and her heartbeat was drumming in her ears.
What had she been thinking, to commit to living with a group of total strangers?
Pulling up in front of the house, her car piled high with all her worldly goods, she still liked the neighborhood. She made herself notice that much in an attempt to calm herself, to say, See? The decision can't be that bad.
Not far from the university, this particular street was narrow and edged with sidewalks that twisted and buckled to accommodate the roots of old maples and sycamores. Lovely old homes peeked between leafy branches.
As Jo parked in the one-car driveway, the house itself pleased her as much as it had the only other time she'd seen it, during her fleeting, find-a-place-to-live visit to seattle. A classic brick beauty, built in the 1920s, the house had the run-down charm of an elderly lady whose proud carriage denies the existence of a sagging hemline or holes in her gloves. Wood trim, once white, peeled. The retaining wall that supported the lawn six feet above the sidewalk had crumbled and the grass was weedy and ragged, shooting up through overgrown junipers someone long ago had planted to avoid having to tend flower beds. but leaded glass windows glinted, the broad porch beckoned and dormers poked from the steeply pitched roof.
Despite an inner tremor, she carried one suitcase up to the house as a sort of symbol: I'm moving in. Then, on the doorstep, Jo hesitated. She had a key, but she didn't feel quite right using it yet. In the end, she rang the doorbell.
Kathleen Monroe, her hostess/landlady/ housemate, a tall elegant blonde, answered the door with a warm smile. "Jo! You're here at last! What did you do with your car?" She peered past Jo. "Oh, Helen must have found a spot on the street. That's great. You can unload without hauling everything a block.
I'll need you to move before morning so I can get my car out of the garage, though." Her brilliant smile lit her face again. "Come on, I'll take you up to your room, as if you don't know where it is. but on the way you can meet Helen, who makes up our threesome."
Jo crossed the fingers clutching her suitcase. Not having met the third housemate had been one of her reservations about taking the plunge. But Kathleen hadn't found another woman when Jo had made the commitment, so it had been a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. Given the fact that she was quitting a full-time job in San Francisco to go back to graduate school at the University of Washington, Jo had taken it. She couldn't afford a condo to herself. Anyway, it might be fun to have roommates again, she had told herself at the time.
"Oh, and you haven't met Emma yet, either, have you?" Kathleen continued, in the same friendly way. "Let's stick our heads in the kitchen—Emma's starting dinner."
The kitchen was shabby like the rest of the house, the linoleum yellowed and peeling, the cupboards painted a peculiar shade of mustard and the counters edged with a metal strip. "I'll be remodeling as I can afford it,"
Kathleen had promised Jo when she'd showed her the house initially. "If you're interested in pitching in with painting and such, I'd welcome you."
Jo had agreed, liking the homey feel to the high-ceilinged rooms, the scuffed oak floors, the pine table in the kitchen laid at the time for breakfast with quilted mats and a bouquet of daisies in a vase. It might be fun to help the house regain her grace.
This time, however, Jo wouldn't have noticed if Kathleen had painted the cupboards purple. She was too nervous about meeting her landlady's fifteen-year-old daughter. What if she had spiked hair, a dog collar and listened at all hours to Eminem at top volume?
No dog collar, but Jo was more shocked than if the girl had worn one. She was painfully thin. Her head looked too large for her pathetically skinny body, and her pale-blond hair was dull and thin. The sight of somebody who had to be recovering from a serious illness—or starving herself to death—stirring spices into a pot of what smelled like spaghetti sauce was beyond weird. She cooked, but did she eat? Why hadn't her mother said anything about her problem to Jo when she'd mentioned having a teenage daughter?
Kathleen gave no sign now that anything was wrong, either. "Emma, meet Jo Dubray. Jo, my daughter, Emma." Her voice was proud, her smile allowing no option but for Jo to respond in kind.
"Emma, how nice to meet you. I hope you don't mind having a stranger down the hall."
"Well, you won't be strangers for long, will you?" Kathleen said brightly, not allowing her daughter to respond. "Now, let's say hello to Helen and then I'll let you move in."
Jo gave a weak smile over her shoulder at the teenager, who was rolling her eyes. Then she let herself be led toward the stairs.
"Oh," Kathleen tossed out, as if the tidbit were trivial, "did I mention that Helen has a daughter?"
Anxiety cramped anew in Jo's chest. How much more had Kathleen not thought to mention?
"No," Jo said. "How old?"
"Ginny is six. She's just started first grade."
Oh, no, Jo thought in acute dismay. A teenager had sounded okay; she'd be hanging out with friends most of the time anyway, wouldn't she? Jo didn't remember being home much herself when she was fifteen and sixteen. But a six-year-old was another story. She'd be watching Disney movies on the TV and bringing friends home after school so that they could shriek and chase each other around. She'd interrupt at the dinner table, ask nosy questions and pop into Jo's bedroom, her private sanctum, without the courtesy of a knock.
Jo didn't want to have children herself, which made the idea of living with one unsettling.
Struggling to remember the details of their agreement that would let her move out if she hated living here, Jo almost bumped into Kathleen, who had stopped in the doorway of the small, back room she'd called the den.
Jo peered around her.
A woman who looked about thirty sat at the desk, staring at an open phone book in front of her. A gray sweatshirt hung on her, and the one vibrant note in the room, her auburn hair, was bundled in a careless knot, as if it were an inconvenience instead of a vanity. A thin, pale child leaned against her. When she saw Jo and Kathleen in the doorway, she ducked behind her mother in apparent panic before peeking around her shoulder to stare with wide eyes. The woman didn't even look up.
"Helen," Kathleen said, in a voice that had become notably gentler, "I'd like you to meet our new housemate. Jo Dubray, this is Helen Schaefer and her daughter, Ginny."
Helen lifted her head, but slowly, as if it ached. Her gaze took a minute to focus on Jo. The smile looked genuine but wan. "Oh, hi. I'm glad you're here."
Ginny hid behind her mother.
"Nice to meet you," Jo said insincerely.
On the way up the stairs, she whispered, "Why's the girl so scared of people?"
Kathleen touched a finger to her lips. "Ssh. I'll tell you about it in a minute."
Jo felt sick to her stomach. What had possessed her to think this was a good idea? For the same monthly rent, surely she could have found a room somewhere that, however tiny, would have been hers alone.
Companionship, she had told herself. Instant friends, even, in this new city.
Instead she was going to be living with a perky Princess Diana look-alike who was in serious denial, an anorexic teenager, a sad woman and a first-grader whose huge, vivid eyes showed secret terrors.
In the large bedroom that looked down on the overgrown backyard, Jo set her suitcase on the floor and said firmly, "Tell me."
Kathleen hesitated, then sat in the overstuffed, flowered armchair beside the dormer window. "Helen is really very nice, and Ginny won't be any trouble. Poor thing, she's as quiet as a mouse."
"What," Jo asked, with a grimness she failed to hide, "is wrong with her?"
"Both of them."
"Helen was widowed recently. About three months ago." Kathleen made a face. "I felt sorry for her. But I should have consulted you."
"It's your house." A fact that Jo had thought wouldn't matter. All for one, one for all. That's what she'd imagined.
Echoing the absurd, visionary sentiment, Kathleen said plaintively, "But I want us to live together as equals. All of us." She sighed and looked down at her hands, fine-boned and as elegant as the rest of her. "I didn't really want us to take on a child. For one thing, we don't have another bedroom, unless we make over the den for her. For the time being, she's sharing with her mother. The thing is " Troubled lines creased her forehead, and at last she said with a faint, twisted smile, "I suppose I identified with her. In a way we don't have anything in common, because as far as I can tell, Helen loved her husband, and he died instead of deciding." She stopped, apparently choosing not to say what her ex-husband had decided. "But we're alike in that we both suddenly find ourselves on our own, with the horrifying knowledge that we have no real job skills and are rather lacking in everyday competence. Do you know, the last job I held was in college, when I waited tables?" Shocked, Jo asked, "What have you been doing?"
"Being a wife." Kathleen met Jo's eyes, her expression stark. "Putting on charity luncheons. Entertaining. Being a wealthy businessman's prop." Her laugh was brittle. "Sad, isn't it? I'm half a century out of date."
Jo could think of a million things to say, starting with: How did you let yourself be used like that? But they didn't know each other well enough for her to be so tactless.
"Helen," she said instead. "Is she always so.withdrawn?"