As Close As Sisters

As Close As Sisters

by Colleen Faulkner


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Since the age of twelve, McKenzie Arnold has spent every summer at Albany Beach, Delaware, with her best friends Aurora, Janine, and Lilly. The seaside house teems with thirty years of memories—some wonderful, others painful—and secrets never divulged beyond its walls. This summer may be the last they spend together, as Janine contemplates selling her family cottage.

For now, all four enjoy morning beach walks and lazy evenings on the porch, celebrating Lilly's longed-for pregnancy and offering support during McKenzie's greatest crisis. It's a time for laughter and recriminations, a time to forge a new understanding of a long-ago night when Aurora sealed their bond with one devastating act. And as the days gradually shorten, events will unfold in ways that none of them could have predicted, to make this the most momentous summer of all.

In a deeply moving novel filled with heartbreak and warmth, Colleen Faulkner explores the complex ties between four very different women as they move through life together, and apart.

Praise For Colleen Faulkner's Just Like Other Daughters

"This deeply moving story of maternal love and renewal will touch your heart. It's a celebration of the capacity of the human heart to heal itself and embrace change, beautifully written with rare insight." —Susan Wiggs, # 1 New York Times bestselling author

"Be prepared to weep tears of sorrow as well as tears of joy. This is a novel you won't soon forget." —Holly Chamberlin, author of Last Summer

"Just Like Other Daughters was so real, so honest. . .I laughed, I hoped, I cried.  It's that good." —Cathy Lamb, author of Henry's Sisters

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"[R]eaders will savor it until the very last page." —RT Book Reviews

Library Journal

Since they were 12 years old, McKenzie, Lilly, Janine, and Aurora have spent a summer month together at Janine's beach house in Albany Beach, DE. The friends relish their annual get-togethers—but this year will be different. McKenzie has been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer and the friends know this will be their last summer together at the waterfront retreat. The four characters act as alternating narrators, each telling a story of the vacation and of the previous years, particularly the life-changing day that took place decades before. While they navigate the twists and turns of their lives, the month at the beach becomes a time to grapple with the past and the future. Through disasters and triumphs, the women find solace in the bonds of friendship. VERDICT Readers of women's fiction and in women's book groups will be drawn to romance writer Faulkner's (Just Like Other Daughters) new novel. Pour a glass of pinot grigio, grab a box of tissues, and savor the ride. A discussion guide is included.—Emily Hamstra, Univ. of Michigan Libs., Ann Arbor

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594731276
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 10/28/2014
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

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As Close as Sisters



Copyright © 2014 Colleen Faulkner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61773-519-6



I don't understand why I have to write this. Why I have to keep the journal. I'm the one who's dying.

We always keep a journal of our annual stay in Albany Beach. But I hate writing it all down as much as Aurora, Lilly, and Janine hate it. And I'm the one who's bald and spends a good deal of my time in the bathroom puking or wishing I could puke. I would think my friends, my dearest friends, my closer-than-sisters, could cut me a break.

They won't.

According to Aurora, the unsanctioned leader of the gang, I should keep the journal precisely because I am dying. If my doctors' predictions are accurate, I won't be around next July to write the damned thing. Aurora thinks I should take my turn while the option's still available.

I don't understand why Aurora's vote always seems to count more than mine, Janine's, or Lilly's. Actually I do. We all do. It's always been that way. At least since August 17, 1986.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I need to start at the beginning. But not the very beginning. I don't have that much time. Literally. So I'll start at the beginning of this chapter in our lives. I'll start with my arrival at the beach house.

I arrived at the beach house, for what is to be my last summer, a day earlier than the others. I planned it this way. I wanted to settle in. I wanted to get a good night's sleep and be rested when the girls arrive tomorrow. (I don't know why we still, at forty-two years old, call ourselves girls. We just do.) The two-hour trip from my house in northern Delaware to the beach has exhausted me. I don't want to be exhausted when they arrive.

I also wanted to get here first so I could open up the house. This is a gift to Janine, Lilly, and Aurora. We all hate closing the house up at the end of our summer stay, but we hate opening it up more. Those first few hours always take us back too close to that August night. Each time we arrive, the ghosts have to be resurrected, then folded out of sight with the sheets and tablecloths we use to protect the furniture. The nightmare that was that night has to be swept away with the spiderwebs and mouse droppings.

No one comes to the house but us. Ever. Janine's mom wanted to have it bulldozed. Or sold; it's probably worth a lot of money. Two or three million, because it's oceanfront. But she respected her daughter's wishes and deeded it to Janine instead.

As I got out of my Honda, I looked up at the two-story Cape Cod built on pilings. I'd parked in the back; the front of the house faces the ocean. The cedar shingles have weathered to a lovely gray, but the white trim is flaking and needs painting. I grabbed a duffel bag off the backseat and leaned against the car to catch my breath. I breathed deeply, and the salty breeze stung my nostrils and revived me. Most of the windows of the house were covered with curtains or blinds, but two on the second floor weren't.

I felt as if the house were watching me.

I took another deep breath, heaved my bag onto my shoulder, and crossed the short distance to the staircase that led up to the back deck and the back door. Beneath the house, there was a clutter of things: old rope, a bicycle leaning against the outside shower, a stack of bushel baskets from previous years' crab feasts. I dropped my bag on the bottom step and looked for the key in a pile of empty flowerpots under the staircase. I have no idea why the flowerpots are there. No one ever stays long enough to plant flowers. Not since 1986. Could they really have been there that long?

I found the key in a Ziploc bag inside a terra-cotta flowerpot. It was on a Dolle's keychain. Dolle's is an icon on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk. Saltwater taffy is their specialty, although they make caramel popcorn and other beachy treats. Janine and I both worked there when we were in high school and college.

Fingering the key, I went up the steps, half carrying, half dragging my bag. It didn't seem this heavy when I put it in the car.

The beach cottage was built, circa 1935, on pilings that had saved it from more than one hurricane and nor'easter. Janine grew up in this house; lived here until she was fourteen. Her maternal great-grandparents had built it.

It seemed like a long way up the steps, and I was out of breath by the time I reached the top. A lousy dozen steps. I panted, trying desperately to fill my lungs with oxygen, knowing my lungs wouldn't cooperate. I had portable oxygen in the car. "Just in case," said my oncologist. "Just in case," said my mother. I was afraid I was going to need it.

Technically, I have thyroid cancer, but those Machiavellian cancer cells had traveled down into my lungs. I was breathing at about forty-one percent capacity right now. It beat not breathing at all. At night, I used nebulizer treatments, which relaxed the muscles around my airways and made it easier to breathe. I've been putting off the supplemental oxygen albatross as long as I can, knowing my reliance on it was inevitable.

Leaning on the rail, I took long, slow, deep breaths. Shallow breathing didn't work; it used only the top half of the lungs. Slowly, I walked across the deck to the back door. A foot seemed like a mile. The door, an oasis. I opened the screen door and slipped the key into the doorknob. Then I hesitated.

Did I really want to do this? Did I really need to scrape the scabs off these wounds yet again?

It wasn't too late to cancel. I could play the Cancer Card and go home to my cozy little college town of Newark, Delaware. I could call my twin daughters, play the Cancer Card again, and insist they stay with me for the summer instead of their father. I could do that. I'm dying. I'd learned since my diagnosis that I could pretty much do and say anything I wanted and people would put up with it. But I couldn't do this to my friends or my daughters because ... because they have to go on living when I'm gone.

Jared and I have the typical custody arrangement; our seventeenyear- olds live with me during the school year. They see their dad every other weekend, a few weeknights a month, and he gets them for most of the summer. He lives in Rehoboth Beach, within biking distance of the boardwalk. I think that when we divorced four years ago, he realized that living in a cool place might make the difference between seeing his girls once they got older and not seeing them at all. He wasn't smart about a lot of things that year (like cheating on me with the cashier from Home Depot), but I give him credit—he thought through his move to the beach before he made it. He used to do construction in Wilmington. Now he has his own company in Rehoboth Beach. He's doing well, well enough to pay hefty child support for our girls and keep his new wife and baby comfortable. The baby's name is Peaches. Honest to God. It's on the birth certificate. Who names a baby Peaches?

I'm digressing again. I'd like to say it was the drugs I'm taking that make my thoughts wander, but that would be a lie. Ask my staff at the University of Delaware, where I used to be the head librarian. (Theoretically, I'm on hiatus. That's what employers say when they let you go home to die.) I was like this before I had an entire pillbox of medicine to take every day.

I turned the key and pushed the door open. I was assaulted by stale air and crushing memories. I picked up my bag and stepped into the laundry room that would soon be a catchall for stinky running shoes, wet bathing suits, and dirty clothes. It was late in the day, and the yellowing curtains over the window made the room dim.

Panic fluttered in my chest. I steadied myself against the washing machine. I felt a little dizzy. Weak-kneed. I wanted to blame that on the cancer, too. Couldn't. Every summer I felt this way the first time I stepped into this house.

I closed my eyes.

Every year, I wanted to slough off this feeling as quickly as possible, but not today. Today, I stood there and took in the whole experience: the flutter of my pulse, the faint nausea, the clammy palms. Because, feeling pain ... feeling fear, I'd learned, meant I was still alive.

I'll never do this again, I thought. I'll never walk into this house for the first time. I'll never feel the way I'm feeling at this instant.

It passed. Quicker than you'd think it would. Another thing I've learned over the last year is how adaptable human beings are. What seems unimaginable quickly becomes perfectly acceptable. The first time I said, "I'm dying," I could barely manage the words; now, I say it like I'm telling the time.

I exhaled slowly. I inhaled.


I opened my eyes. I grabbed my bag, walked through the kitchen into the big living room (that also served as the dining room), and dropped it near the staircase. It was hot in the house. Did I turn on the air or try the windows first?

I went to the floor-to-ceiling windows that ran along the front of the house, and I pushed back the long, white tulle curtains. I unlocked and slid open the windows and let the cool breeze from the ocean fill the stifling room. The late afternoon sun cast shadows on the front deck. I gazed out over the dunes, speckled with dry sea grass, intersected by a zigzagging sand fence. The ocean rippled. Pulsed. I heard the waves hit the shore. I felt them. I closed my eyes, and I really felt them.

This moment passed, too. I didn't feel the waves anymore. I just felt silly standing there with my eyes shut.

I reached for the nearest dustcover, a pink, flowered sheet. I gave it a yank and uncovered a rocking chair. I moved from piece of furniture to piece of furniture. The living room, like the rest of the cottage, was decorated in shabby chic. It had been a group effort. I bought the white end tables and coffee table at a yard sale years ago. Janine contributed the two matching Ikea couches, covered in unbleached canvas. An ex-girlfriend had bought them. Janine didn't want them at her place, but she wouldn't just donate them to the Salvation Army, either. They were practically new.

I pulled a blue sheet off a faded, flowered recliner. I have no idea where it came from, but it has been here for years. I tossed the sheet in the growing pile on the floor and seriously considered sitting down in the chair. It looked so comfy, so inviting. But if I sat, I was afraid I wouldn't get up again today. Usually my energy petered out by three. It was four thirty, and I was still feeling pretty ... okay.

I went to the fireplace and opened the flue, afraid if I didn't do it now, no one else would think of it and the house would fill up with smoke when we lit a fire some night. It had happened the previous year. Maybe the year before that, too. The hinges screeched, the flue opened, and I rubbed my sooty hand on my jeans.

Lined up across the mantel, at nose height, were framed photographs of us. The Fantastic Four. There was one of us in the seventh grade. Career Day. My mom took it. I reached for the five-by-seven photograph in a WE WERE FRIENDS frame.

Lilly was wearing a white lab coat and the school nurse's stethoscope. She couldn't get into medical school; she became an optometrist. Janine was dressed like a cowgirl, but she was wearing a shiny sheriff's badge; now she wore a police badge. I studied myself in the photo: dark red hair pulled into a loose ponytail. Not unattractive looking, just ... awkward.

I miss my hair. I resent my hair loss. It's petty, I know, considering the fact that I'm about to lose my life, but I miss it anyway, and still spent too much time obsessing over it.

In the photo, I was wearing some sort of Lois Lane getup and holding a pen and a pad of paper. I had wanted to be a novelist back then, but I hadn't known how to portray that. My mom had made me a newspaper reporter instead. At the time, I remember thinking it was a dumb idea but had gone with it for lack of a better one at seven a.m. the morning of Career Day.

Aurora, with her blond hair, was at the very edge of the frame, wearing her school uniform, a French beret, and sporting a tiny black mustache she'd drawn above her upper lip with eyeliner. She'd wanted to be an artist. Her dream had come true. Aurora always got what she wanted.

I rubbed the dust off the top of the frame with my finger and put it back on the mantel. There was more dust. There were more pictures, pictures taken after August 1986. After Buddy died. After Janine cut her hair. After Lilly lost her mom. After I became the ordinary person I never wanted to be. But I didn't linger there any longer. We'd be here a month; there would be plenty of time to dust and reminisce.

I grabbed my duffel bag to take it into the front bedroom. We'd already agreed, in e-mails going back and forth, that I'd sleep here. Janine's parents' bedroom. It looked nothing like it did when he slept here, but it still creeped me out. I would rather have slept upstairs in the little room Lilly and I had always shared. But the girls were right; that made no sense. Stairs and cancerous lungs—oil and water. I left my bag on the floor, just inside the doorway. I went back into the living room and stared up the staircase. I didn't know why, but I wanted to go up. Now? Later?


I took two more deep breaths and slowly attacked the stairs, one step at a time. I longed for the days when I could run up these stairs. Hell, two summers ago I'd chased Lilly up, then back down, when she stole my cell phone and was reading sexts from my then-boyfriend aloud to the others. The relationship hadn't lasted. In retrospect, I realized I hadn't liked him as much as I had liked the idea of him. It was a big deal when he broke up with me. Not such a big deal now.

My chest was tight. I had to pause. I felt as if I was physically breathing, but there wasn't enough oxygen getting to my cells. Was this what it would feel like to suffocate? That was what everyone with tumors in their lungs feared. Suffocating. It's the way it happens—lung cancer death—though no one wants to come out and say it. That's the kind of information you find on the trusty Internet.

I put one foot up on the next step. I leaned heavily on the rail. I told myself I was almost there. A lie. I kept going.

There were three bedrooms and a bath on the second floor. My intention, halfway up the stairs, had been to open all the rooms. But as I struggled to reach the landing I thought that maybe I'd wait until morning when I was more rested. I still had to get the food and booze and my nebulizer bag out of the car. And I was badly in need of a glass of pinot grigio. I'm not supposed to be drinking with my medication, but I have a glass of wine when I feel like it. Why not? What's it going to do? Kill me?

I was really sucking wind by the time I reached the top of the staircase. It was so damned hot. Hotter upstairs than down. The whole heat rises thing, I guess.

I bent over, hands on my knees, as if I'd run a seven-minute mile.

The thought made me laugh. Or I would have laughed if I could have gotten enough air. Never in my life, even when I was at my fittest and considered myself a runner, could I have run a seven-minute mile. I leaned against the big, square, white newel post. My hand hit the carved cap on the top, and I knocked it off. It rolled across the hardwood floor and came to rest against the wall near the first bedroom door. I stared at the cap. It seemed so far away.

It's been unattached for as long as I've been coming here. I'd knocked it down the hall, down the steps. I wondered why none of us ever got some wood glue and reattached it.

I caught my breath, which seemed to take forever, then walked over to the newel cap and slowly leaned over to pick it up off the floor. I returned it to its rightful place, slipping the stripped threads of the post over the screw. How many times had I touched this cap? How many times more would I do it?

It was weird to constantly see things in finite terms where I had once seen them in infinite ones.

As I went down the hall, I thought I heard a sound downstairs. I stopped. Listened. I didn't hear anything. The wind, maybe? Had I left the back door ajar?

I pushed open the door of the first bedroom. Janine's room. I flipped the switch on the wall, and the overhead light and two bedside lamps came on. For a second, I didn't see the pale blue walls and white trim or the blond wood floor. I saw the room as it was that night. Pink walls, beige carpet. I saw the bed against the wall to my right, not where it was now.


Excerpted from As Close as Sisters by COLLEEN FAULKNER. Copyright © 2014 Colleen Faulkner. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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