An early evening rain had fallen. In the encroaching darkness, the streets of Seattle lay like mirrored strips between the glittering gray high-rises.
The dot-com revolution had changed this once quiet city, and even after the sun had set, the clattering, hammering sounds of construction beat a constant rhythm. Buildings sprouted overnight, it seemed, reaching higher and higher into the soggy sky. Purple-haired kids with nose rings and ragged clothes zipped through downtown in brand-new, bright-red Ferraris.
On a corner lot in the newly fashionable neighborhood of Belltown, there was a squat, wooden-sided structure that used to sit alone. It had been built almost one hundred years earlier, when few people had wanted to live so far from the heart of the city.
The owners of radio station KJZZ didn't care that they no longer fit in this trendy area. For fifty years they had broadcast from this lot. They had grown from a scrappy local station to Washington's largest.
Part of the reason for their current wave of success was Nora Bridge, the newest sensation in talk radio.
Although her show, Spiritual Healing with Nora, had been in syndication for less than a year, it was already a bona fide hit. Advertisers and affiliates couldn't write checks fast enough, and her weekly newspaper advice column, "Nora Knows Best," had never been more popular. It appeared in more than 2,600 papers nationwide.
Nora had started her career as a household hints adviser for a small-town newspaper, but hard work and a strong vision had moved her up the food chain. The women of Seattle had been the first to discover her unique blendof passion and morality; the rest of the country had soon followed.
Reviewers claimed that she could see a way through any emotional conflict; more often than not, they mentioned the purity of her heart.
But they were wrong. It was the impurity in her heart that made her successful. She was an ordinary woman who'd made extraordinary mistakes. She understood every nuance of need and loss.
There was never a time in her life, barely even a moment, when she didn't remember what she'd lost. What she'd thrown away. Each night she brought her own regrets to the microphone, and from that wellspring of sorrow, she found compassion.
She had managed her career with laserlike focus, carefully feeding the press a palatable past. Even the previous week when People magazine had featured her on the cover, there had been no investigative story on her life. She had covered her tracks well. Her fans knew she'd been divorced and that she had grown daughters. The hows and whys of her family's destruction remained-thankfully-private.
Tonight, Nora was on the air. She scooted her wheeled chair closer to the microphone and adjusted her headphones. A computer screen showed her the list of callers on hold. She pushed line two, which read: Marge/mother-daughter probs.
"Hello and welcome, Marge, you're on the air with Nora Bridge. What's on your mind this evening?"
"Hello . . . Nora?" The caller sounded hesitant, a little startled at actually hearing her voice on the air after waiting on hold for nearly an hour.
Nora smiled, although only her producer could see it. Her fans, she'd learned, were often anxious. She lowered her voice, gentled it. "How can I help you, my friend?"
"I'm having a little trouble with my daughter, Suki." The caller's flattened vowels identified her as a midwesterner.
"How old is Suki, Marge?"
"Sixty-seven this November."
Nora laughed. "I guess some things never change, eh, Marge?"
"Not between mothers and daughters. Suki gave me my first gray hair when I was thirty years old. Now I look like Colonel Sanders."
Nora's laugh was quieter this time. At forty-nine, she no longer found gray hair a laughing matter. "So, Marge, what's the problem with Suki?"
"Well." Marge made a snorting sound. "Last week she went on one of those singles cruises-you know the ones, where they all wear Hawaiian shirts and drink purple cocktails? Anyway, today, she told me she's getting married again to a man she met on the boat. At her age." She snorted again, then paused. "I know she wanted me to be happy for her, but how could I? Suki's a flibbertigibbet. My Tommy and I were married for seventy years."
Nora considered how to answer. Obviously, Marge knew that she and Suki weren't young anymore, and that time had a way of pulverizing your best intentions. There was no point in being maudlin and mentioning it. Instead, she asked gently, "Do you love your daughter?"
"I've always loved her." Marge's voice caught on a little sob. "You can't know what it's like, Nora, to love your daughter so much . . . and watch her stop needing you. What if she marries this man and forgets all about me?"
Nora closed her eyes and cleared her mind. She'd learned that skill long ago; callers were constantly saying things that struck at the heart of her own pain. She'd had to learn to let it go. "Every mother is afraid of that, Marge. The only way to really hold on to our children is to let them go. Let Suki take your love with her, let it be like a light that's always on in the house where she grew up. If she has that for strength, she'll never be too far away."
Marge wept softly. "Maybe I could call her . . . ask her to bring her boyfriend around for supper."
"That would be a wonderful start. Good luck to you, Marge, and be sure and let us know how it all works out." She cleared her throat and disconnected the call. "Come on, everybody," she said into the microphone, "let's help Marge out. I know there are plenty of you who have mended families. Call in. Marge and I want to be reminded that love isn't as fragile as it sometimes feels."
She leaned back in the chair, watching as the phone lines lit up. Parenting issues were always a popular topic-especially mother- daughter problems. On the monitor by her elbow, she saw the words: line four/trouble with stepdaughter/Ginny.
She picked up line four. "Hello and welcome, Ginny. You're on the air with Nora Bridge."
"Uh. Hi. I love your show."
"Thanks, Ginny. How are things in your family?"
For the next two hours and thirteen minutes, Nora gave her heart and soul to her listeners. She never pretended to have all the answers, or to be a substitute for doctors or family therapy. Instead, she tried to give her friendship to these troubled, ordinary people she'd never met.
As was her custom, when the show was finally over, she returned to her office. There, she took the time to write personal thank-you notes to any of those callers who'd been willing to leave an address with the show's producer. She always did this herself; no secretary ever copied Nora's signature. It was a little thing, but Nora firmly believed in it. Anyone who'd been courageous enough to publicly ask for advice from Nora deserved a private thank-you.
By the time she finished, she was running late.
She grabbed her Fendi briefcase and hurried to her car. Fortunately, it was only a few miles to the hospital. She parked in the underground lot and emerged into the lobby's artificial brightness.
It was past visiting hours, but this was a small, privately run hospital, and Nora had become such a regular visitor-every Saturday and Tuesday for the past month-that certain rules had been bent to accommodate her busy schedule. It didn't hurt that she was a local celebrity, or that the nurses loved her radio show.
She smiled and waved to the familiar faces as she walked down the corridor toward Eric's room. Outside his closed door, she paused, collecting herself.
Although she saw him often, it was never easy. Eric Sloan was as close to a son as she would ever have, and watching him battle cancer was unbearable. But Nora was all he had. His mother and father had written Eric off long ago, unable to accept his life's choices, and his beloved younger brother, Dean, rarely made time to visit.
She pushed open the door to his room and saw that he was sleeping. He lay in bed, with his head turned toward the window. A multicolored afghan, knitted by Nora's own hands, was wrapped around his too-thin body.
With his hair almost gone and his cheeks hollowed and his mouth open, he looked as old and beaten as a man could be. And he hadn't yet celebrated his thirty-first birthday.
For a moment, it was as if she hadn't seen him before. As if . . . although she'd watched his daily deterioration, she hadn't actually seen it, and now it had sneaked up on her, stolen her friend's face while she was foolishly pretending that everything would be all right.
But it wouldn't be. Just now, this second, she understood what he'd been trying to tell her, and the grieving-which she'd managed to box into tiny, consumable squares-threatened to overwhelm her. In that one quiet heartbeat of time, she went from hopeful to . . . not. And if it hurt her this terribly, the lack of hope, how could he bear it?
She went to him, gently caressed the bare top of his head. The few thin strands of his hair, delicate as spiderwebs, brushed across her knuckles.
He blinked up at her sleepily, trying for a boyish grin and almost succeeding. "I have good news and bad news," he said.
She touched his shoulder, and felt how fragile he was. So unlike the tall, strapping black-haired boy who'd carried her groceries into the house . . .
There was a tiny catch in her voice as she said cheerfully, "What's the good news?"
"No more treatments."
She clutched his shoulder too hard; his bones shifted, birdlike, and immediately she let go. "And the bad news?"
His gaze was steady. "No more treatments." He paused. "It was Dr. Calomel's idea."
She nodded dully, wishing she could think of something profound to say, but everything had already been said between them in the eleven months since his diagnosis. They'd spent dozens of nights talking about and around this moment. She'd even thought she was ready for it-this beginning of the end-but now she saw her naïveté. There was no "ready" for death, especially not when it came for a young man you loved.
And yet, she understood. She'd seen lately that the cancer was taking him away.
He closed his eyes, and she wondered if he was remembering the healthy, vibrant man he'd once been, the boy with the booming laugh . . . the teacher so beloved by his students . . . or if he was recalling the time, a few years before, when his partner, Charlie, had been in a hospital bed like this one, fighting a losing battle with AIDS . . .
Finally, he looked up at her; his attempt at a smile brought tears to her eyes. In that second, she saw pieces from the whole of his life. She pictured him at eight, sitting at her kitchen table, eating Lucky Charms, a shaggy-haired, freckle-faced boy with banged-up knees and soup-ladle ears.
"I'm going home," he said quietly. "Hospice will help out . . ."
"That's great," she said thickly, smiling too brightly, trying to pretend they were talking about where he was going to live . . . instead of where he'd chosen to die. "I'm way ahead on my newspaper columns. I'll take the week off, visit you during the day. I'll still have to work the show at night, but-"
"I mean the island. I'm going home."
"Are you finally going to call your family?" She hated his decision to handle his cancer privately, but he'd been adamant. He'd forbidden Nora to tell anyone, and as much as she'd disagreed, she'd had no choice but to honor his wishes.
"Oh, yeah. They've been so supportive in the past."
"This is different than coming out of the closet, and you know it. It's time to call Dean. And your parents."
The look he gave her was so hopeless that she wanted to turn away. "What if I told my mother I was dying and she still wouldn't come to see me?"
Nora understood. Even a thin blade of that hope could cut him to pieces now. "At least call your brother. Give him the chance."
"I'll think about it."
"That's all I ask." She forced a smile. "If you can wait until Tuesday, I'll drive you-"
He touched her hand gently. "I haven't got much time. I've arranged to be flown up. Lottie's already up at the house, getting it ready."
Haven't got much time. It was infinitely worse, somehow, to hear the words spoken aloud. She swallowed hard. "I don't think you should be alone."
"Enough." His voice was soft, his gaze even softer, but she heard the barest echo of his former strength. He was reminding her, as he sometimes had to, that he was an adult, a grown man. "Now," he said, clapping his hands together, "we sound like a goddamn Ibsen play. Let's talk about something else. I listened to your show tonight. Mothers and daughters. That's always tough on you."
Just like that, he put them back on solid ground. As always, she was amazed by his resilience. When life seemed too big to swallow, she knew he made it through by cutting it into bites. Normal things . . . ordinary conversations were his salvation.