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Eight years after signing the codicil to her best friend's will, Lucy Vargas was celebrating her fortieth birthday with her closest companions and one perfect stranger. The stranger, a dance instructor and nutritionist who worked at the town's newest fitness franchise, had been picked up along with the gift Lucy was opening, a small bracelet-size box wrapped in gold foil and festooned with white organza ribbon.
The present had been wrapped by Penelope's stepsister, Clover Lindstrom, who was proud of her creativity, and of the guest she'd brought to Lucy's gathering. Who else would have thought of a Kick the Pounds! certificate for a fortieth-birthday gift?
Who else indeed? Lucy was thinking, the color rising in her cheeks, prompting the stranger to wonder if the birthday girl was embarrassed at Clover's generosity.
This question, like so many that the newcomer would raise about Lucy, was completely off the mark.
First of all, Lucy was not a blusher. Her skin, unlike the vast majority of the world's redheads, was the same unruffled bronze as countless generations of Spanish ancestors. It wasn't the sort of tender-headed mood-ring complexion that broadcast its bearer's emotions far and near. Besides, a meticulous observer would have noticed that the color change began with Lucy's narrow nose, pinking up from her delicately curved nostrils and blossoming out to her wide cheekbones before rising to those unnaturally dark Sephardic eyebrows, plucked within an inch of their Mediterranean lives for this very occasion.
No, Lucy was not a blusher. Nor was she an ungrateful wretch. She knew precisely how lucky she was, the owner of this beautiful rambling house on the ocean, surrounded by friends from college, a painter who'd established herself in the world of fine art. Nothing to sneeze at, her good fortune.
Why then, instead, would Lucy have been trying so hard not to cry?
Was she sensitive about her generous figure, about turning forty without a husband, much less children? This might have been the unexpected guest's next speculation, were she to ponder the slight hiccup in Lucy's manner, the lack of conviction in the way she had lifted her glass to her friends.
No, none of these complaints explained the sadness, which revealed itself only in the sudden tilt of Lucy's shot glass, the way she winced at the Jack Daniel's pouring down her lovely throat.
It still happened, going on two years, no matter how often she found herself ambushed by the very same impossible desire. Lucy's first thought, opening the intricately wrapped box from Clover, had been a gleeful impulse to call Penelope and share the latest Clover Moment, over which the two would howl.
"You are such a bitch!" Lucy's unspoken admonition was aimed at herself, a private term of endearment, admiration even, that Lucy and Penelope had begun using in college and had tossed affectionately at each other ever since. "You bitch!" they'd crow, hugging each other, loving the way the words sounded so opposite from what they'd meant.
Lately, Lucy had found herself repeating the words as a form of self-comfort and, simultaneously, a form of self-reproach. It was not the time to make a spectacle of herself, not in front of Penelope's family, who were trying their best to make her happy on this special day.
Tessa, fourteen, had painted a card of Lucy's childhood home in Charleston, copied painstakingly from one of her family albums. June, ten, had tricked out the dining room with crepe paper and balloons. Joey, his voice ragged from a nasty cold, had marked the auspicious occasion with a poignant anecdote about how he'd met Lucy and Penelope at the University of Virginia.
Around the table, other celebrants had joined in with their own tales of yore. Martha and Susannah had gone to UVA too, had participated in the same revelries about which Joey was waxing so nostalgic, and Sateesh, Martha's husband, had heard these stories so many times he felt he might as well have been an alumnus too.
Clover, Penelope's stepsister, hated it when people brought up the university, for she'd not gotten in, in spite of her adoptive father's intercessions on her behalf. Perhaps that was why, after Lucy opened her present, Clover had stood up and cleared her throat. She opened a large purple scroll she'd lettered in silver verse. "Lucy, I wrote you a poem," she said. "I was going to set it to music but I ran out of time."
Clover placed her manicured hand on her heart.
If Penny were here, I know she'd say,
We'll go to Paris, I promise, someday,
Until then, let's lose that weight,
Just like your French sophisticate.
I'll go too,
We'll do it together,
And be best pals through nasty weather.
Clover stood, her trim figure enshrined in a pair of tan gingham capris with matching bustier. Her hands were clasped, her eyes shining with the emotion of the moment, grateful to have been able to give Lucy such a useful present.
"I don't know how to thank you," Lucy had said gravely, pinching the skin at the inside of her elbow. She could not look at Martha or Susannah, or she would start laughing. Then they'd all be forced to spend the rest of the night comforting Clover, whose neediness outstripped even her cluelessness, at least when it came to pressing Lucy's buttons.
This was not something Lucy would ever say out loud. Still, the thought crept in from time to time, ever since that famous night eight years earlier, when Penelope had finally talked each of them into signing her contract. Initially, instead of quieting her fears as the signatories had expected, their capitulation only seemed to confirm the urgency of Penelope's pessimism. She had spent the evening spelling out ever more precisely the things they must attend to in the event of her death. This included a complete catechism about taking care of poor Clover as well as Tessa and June. By night's end, Penelope had extracted numerous promises from each of them, promises not one of them expected to have to keep.
Even Penelope, whose imagination had been formidable, couldn't have known how things would turn out; she was just being herself, her lovably worried self. Nothing pleased her more than to talk about her impending death from a plane crash, a car wreck, killer bees or a brain tumor masquerading as a migraine, unless it was, of course, her epitaph or her funeral. "Let Clover sing. She'll be the center of attention."
"Well, no better time than a funeral for the voice of an angel."
Lucy was alluding to a compliment Clover had gotten in her teenage pageant days and couldn't help but introduce into conversation at the oddest times, no matter how far-flung, no matter how off topic.
"Don't be mean, now," Penelope had scolded, overcome with guilt at having laughed at Lucy's sentimental swoon, her faux reverence, her dainty elocution.
If there was one thing Lucy knew, it was how much they all loved Clover, even when she was driving them completely crazy. For that, Penelope deserved a huge amount of credit. "Oh, stop feeling guilty, you've been great to her. Nicer than her own mother, for goodness sake."
"Hard to be meaner, hon," Penelope had murmured.
For Penelope, playing God had certain spillover effects, for her view of human nature was almost supernaturally forgiving. Clover might have seemed shallow, even silly, to most people, but Penelope had observed the damage inflicted on her stepsister at an early age. There was the fact that Clover's mother had eventually abandoned her, and then there were the two years before that, when Tabitha had been married to Penelope's father. This was a period that Penelope liked to call the "reign of terror, poise and cosmetics," when Mommy Dearest had either ignored the children completely or relentlessly prepared them for regional competitions of Tiny Confederate Dames of the South. By the time they attended that last contest in Savannah, Tabitha had already met her next husband, a bass boat magnate from Montgomery. The man apparently didn't care for children, but such conclusions were way beyond Clover's six-year-old ken. No, for Clover, the explanation was obvious. Having failed to place in the semifinals, she would just have to try harder to become the sort of person who pleased her mother enough to bring her back.
"You have to take care of her," Penelope had insisted the night they'd agreed to the contract, holding the champagne bottle over Lucy's glass without pouring, a quid pro quo in the making.
"Stop it," Lucy had laughed. "We're all going to be little old ladies together."
"I mean it."
"I know you do. That's the saddest part."
Lucy often thought back to this conversation, the way they'd all laughed, even Penelope, though some prescient inkling must have been telling her otherwise. How could we have known? Lucy asked herself regularly, a mantra against the guilt she felt for dismissing her friend's fears.
Up to the very moment your life changed, it was impossible to abandon the survival tactic some people called optimism, others denial. Lucy would come to see it as the naïveté of youth. Disasters were something that happened to other unfortunate souls, a conviction she'd gripped tight up to the very last moment, when a ringing phone delivered incomprehensible news.
Their particular cataclysm had hit on Thanksgiving morning, nearly two years before Lucy's fortieth birthday. Joey's plane had been delayed, and so Penelope had gone by herself to deliver a carload of food to an impoverished family. She'd left Tessa and June at home with Rocky, their golden retriever, and rushed along a country road, almost certainly rushing, knowing her girls were alone.
As it turned out, the recipient of her philanthropy, a woman named Cassie, was being held at gunpoint by her estranged husband. When Penelope arrived, honking festively in the driveway, she'd been invited inside to join the party.
They all took comfort in knowing it couldn't have lasted too long, medical examiners' estimates being what they were, confirmed by neighbors' testimony about the timing of the horn honking and the shotgun going off. And whatever else she'd suffered, there must have been a flicker, at least, of something else, an imp in Penelope that would appear even in the darkest moment to say, See, I told you so.
After the murder, Joey and the girls had moved out to Lucy's beach house. Staying home had been too hard. Everything in the family's house shouted Penelope's name, and every corner seemed like she'd be coming around it, rescuing them all from this terrible dream they'd been living. It was dysfunctional, or so most people said, but in the midst of shock, Lucy and Joey had blindly grasped at anything at all that could make the girls feel better. Joey had continued to work in the foundation offices, which adjoined the family's large gray Victorian house near the town square. Over the second summer, the girls had begun spending small chunks of time there, between day camps and classes. They'd even started to reinhabit their former bedrooms during the day, as a place to entertain friends or catch a nap, but at night, the family always slept at Lucy's.
It wasn't anything anyone had planned, but with Joey's travel schedule, it had just seemed easier and less disruptive for the girls to live in one place. Without really discussing it, the three of them had drifted into the habit of staying at Lucy's more or less permanently, without ever making a formal decision.
A similar inertia had emptied the guest rooms of Lucy's bed-and-breakfast, which she'd closed as soon as the last Thanksgiving guest had checked out two years earlier. Its clientele, many of whom were loyal regulars, moved on after their reservations were refused a second year. Eventually calls simply stopped coming in. Every now and then Lucy would tell herself it was time to think about reopening her doors, a thought that was quickly followed by the crushing sense that none of them, least of all Tessa and June, were prepared to go back to business as usual. Copyright © 2009 by Sheila Curran