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You weren't supposed to have favorite children. If there was one thing Margaret Porter knew, it was that nothing could divide a family faster than showing favoritism, even in the most minor circumstances. When the girls were small, she had always made sure to let them take turns riding up front next to her, pushing the shopping cart, picking out the breakfast cereal. So that neither of them could ever say to the other, "You're Mom's favorite."
Now, lying in her bed and waiting for Jane to come home, she watched Sylvie folding the laundry. Her second daughter was thirty-three, unmarried, devoted, and she creased each nightshirt sharply before tucking it into a perfect square. When one tiny mistake was made, one sleeve marginally out of line, the shirt was shaken out and the entire endeavor repeated.
Margaret would have liked some tea, but she didn't want to interrupt. By her silence, she hoped to show Sylvie how much she appreciated her. Nevertheless, she was beset by nervousness. Would Sylvie finish in time to meet her older sister's train? Margaret reclined on her pillows, finding it a bit difficult to lie still. She calmed herself by seeing the scene as a movie. In some eyes, this would be the very picture of mother-daughter contentment: dutiful child, loving parent, clear March light streaming through the big windows.
"Goddamn it," Sylvie mumbled, shaking out the blue Irish linen nightshirt for the third time. "I can't get it right."
"Perhaps you could hang that one," Margaret said. "Instead of folding it. Wouldn't a hanger make all the difference?"
Sylvie gave her a look that could only be described as murderous. It truly made Margaret flinch. Not because she imagined Sylvie genuinely wanting to send her to eternal rest, but because in spite of her best intentions, Margaret had hurt her feelings.
"Oh, honey, never mind. I didn't mean that," Margaret said.
"It's okay, Mom."
"You're doing such a beautiful job."
"Thank you." Sylvie gave a lovely smile. Margaret lifted her head to see better. It was truly a smile to launch a thousand ships. Sylvie was a radiant beauty, but she kept her light hidden--both the girls did, as if they had become afraid of who would follow it to their doors.
Their fresh-faced beauty was surpassed only by their brainpower. Sylvie had gone to Brown University, with a semester at the Sorbonne. Jane, who had made her mother proud by entering Brown two years before her sister, elected not to graduate. Eschewing academics, she had chosen . . . a career in baking. In New York City.
While Sylvie had stayed in Twin Rivers, Rhode Island. Until recently, she had been the librarian at Twin Rivers High School, where Margaret had been principal. Education was a marvelous field for a woman: It kept the mind rigorous, it offered free summers, and it provided an excellent benefits package. If one wasn't going to marry--and sometimes even if one was--one had to make sure not to overlook practical matters like health insurance.
Neither of her girls had married, and although Jane hadn't finished college, Margaret was proud of her independence. In that way, she supposed that she had been a good role model. For although she had been married, she had, for all practical purposes, raised her daughters on her own.
The wall clocked ticked loudly, and as the hour advanced, she could hardly contain her excitement. Usually time's passage signified things medical and mundane: time to take her medication, time for a dressing change. But right now, it meant time to meet Jane's train. She gazed across the room at Sylvie, still working on the laundry. She cleared her throat.
"What is it, Mom?"
"Isn't it time for you to go?" she asked, unable to hold back any longer.
"Didn't I tell you?" Sylvie asked, not looking up as she creased a pair of striped pajama bottoms. "Jane's taking a cab."
Margaret's mouth must have dropped open. She lurched forward, as if to launch herself out of the bed. She would drive to the station herself, if she had to.
"What will she think?" Margaret asked. "She'll be hurt, she won't feel welcomed, she'll . . ."
Sylvie gave her a wicked smile. "Just kidding," she said. "I'm going."
Margaret tried to smile back, but she couldn't, quite. She felt rocked inside, as if she'd gone off the tracks. It wasn't easy, being the mother to such sensitive girls. Not picking Jane up at the train--that could cause a resentment that would send her away for the next ten years.
"Is the little rock ready?" Margaret asked.
"The wedding cake."
"Mom," Sylvie said, finally ceasing her folding, coming to the edge of the bed. "What are you asking me?"
Margaret smiled, feeling that awful panic. She knew the word she wanted, it was right there, on the tip of her tongue.
"Mom?" Sylvie asked again.
Sixty years ago, when Margaret had been the championship speller in this same small town--as Jane was to be years later and Sylvie after her--Margaret had had moments like this. She would know the word, she could see the proper spelling in her mind's eye, but the order of the letters would be momentarily elusive. But if she just focused, held on, it always came to her.
"Is the . . ." Margaret began again. Something was supposed to be ready. She knew that, and all she had to do was remember what it was. So she could complete her question without Sylvie noticing that she was drifting. She told herself she didn't want to worry her daughter, but deep down it was something worse: she didn't want her daughter to put her into the same home where Margaret had put her mother.
"Is Jane's bedroom ready?" Sylvie asked, helping her out, and Margaret could have grabbed her hand and moaned with relief. Instead, she restrained herself, as if nothing major had just happened. Perhaps Sylvie hadn't even noticed.
"Yes. Is it? I'm sure it is. You're so good, Sylvie. You always take such good care of the house, and me, and--"
"It's ready," Sylvie said calmly, straightening a book on the shelf, lining it up perfectly with the one next to it.
"Sweetheart," Margaret said, taking her hand. She caressed the small hand, thinking of what a porcelain doll Sylvie had been. She had made heads turn at school, at the beach. And she was still, at thirty-three, a beauty of the first order. Not that Jane wasn't also lovely, but just--not so classically pretty. Just a bit different.
"Individuals," Margaret said out loud. "You're both so special in your own ways."
"Don't get out of bed while I'm gone, okay?" Sylvie asked. "I don't want you to fall."
"Both so pretty, and smart, and talented. I can hardly believe your sister is coming home. To have both my girls under the same roof again."
"Not for very long," Sylvie said impassively, her eyes blank and inscrutable. "Don't get your hopes up, Mom. You know she's very busy."
Margaret smiled. The girls had been so close as children. She had been so happy to have Jane, and then she'd been thrilled when Sylvie had turned out to be a girl and not a boy--to give Jane a sister. There had been some difficult years . . . but now that the girls were older, and the family was going to be together again, everyone would have the chance to get to know each other--in a new way.
"This is just marvelous," Margaret said. "I feel like Marmee, in Little Women."
"Marmee had four daughters, not two."
"Two are plenty! My girls have more life in them than any four I can think of. Who needs four when I have you and Sylvie?"
"I'm Sylvie, Mom," she said dangerously.
Margaret's stomach thudded. "I know. I said Jane."
"No, you said Sylvie. But never mind. I know what you meant."
"Are you sure? Because I meant to say--"
"I know. You meant to say her name. Bye, Mom. Be home soon. Don't get out of bed."
"I won't. Oh, you take such good care of me!" Margaret said, beaming. She smiled as wide as she could, and made sure to show the light in her eyes. Sylvie had to know how much she was loved and appreciated. No daughter could ever be so generous with her affection and her time. She had sacrificed a lot, taking this leave of absence to stay home with her mother. Margaret had to make sure to show her thanks to Sylvie now--before Jane arrived.
No one could ever accuse Margaret of playing favorites. She had made other mistakes in her life, but not that one. Inside, she thought human nature to be very unfair. Because of course, no matter how hard a person strained against it, one always had a favorite. Presented with two of anything, one couldn't help judging, weighing, determining which--however slightly, however secretly--was dearer to one's heart.
Life's challenge had always been to keep it hidden.
The train was late. Of course.
And not just a little late, but a full forty minutes overdue. Apparently, there was track work in Kingston, and the train wouldn't arrive in Twin Rivers till three-thirty. Sylvie didn't really mind. It gave her a chance to be alone. She got so little time to herself these days. But she couldn't wait to see her sister, and in some ways it did seem symbolic: If anyone could cause an entire railroad to run late, it would be Jane.
She double-checked--with the trackside tote board and with the stationmaster. Sylvie was known for her punctuality; she was never late. So, with forty minutes to spare, she drove the station wagon out of the parking lot, onto Route 1.
Development had really changed the Twin Rivers landscape. Set between the two rivers, just a few miles from Narragansett Bay, the town had fallen upon hard times fifty years ago, when the old textile mills closed. But then a huge machine works had opened in Crofton, across the river, and support businesses had begun to spill over into Twin Rivers.
All those old farms, with red barns and apple trees and black-and-white cows, were giving way to more Burger Hamlets, Bedding Heavens, and Now-Marts. Views of the Williams River and the canal were increasingly being blocked by new houses and condos and assisted-living facilities.
But the existing orchards were still beautiful. Soon the trees would be in full bloom. Spring in the valley was a sight to behold, and Sylvie was glad Jane would be home to see it. Maybe it would make her want to stay.
Sylvie went past the two malls, the old one in Crofton and the brand-new, more upscale mall in Twin Rivers--Jane hadn't been to that one yet, and Sylvie wondered what she'd make of the fact that Langtry's had come to the region. She drove past Audubon Elementary and Middle School, where she and Jane had both gone.
They had gone to Twin Rivers High School, where Sylvie was still--in spite of the leave she had taken--school librarian. She knew her mother sometimes wondered whether life might have been different if they'd shipped Jane off to Sacred Heart, where the nuns could have straightened her out. But the trouble had occurred after high school.
All things happen for a reason, Sylvie had to believe--even when they made no sense. She knew there had to be order in the world, a method to the universe. She liked to think that good acts brought about happy fortune, and bad acts brought about suffering. The problem was that some people's bad acts brought about good people's suffering.
That was why Sylvie always did the right thing. It was probably what made her a good librarian: She enjoyed order. In the madness of this world, and with all the available texts and documents and information, Sylvie could be counted on to find what was needed, and to put it back when it was done. She liked to help others.
She drove past the high school now. There was the library: six big windows, second floor, just above the front entrance. She could almost smell the books, the library paste. She could nearly feel the quiet, all the energy emitting from all those students as they studied and did their homework. Sighing, she started to drive away. But first, she had to check.
John Dufour's car was there, parked in the assistant principal's spot. He had gotten a new Subaru--it had four-wheel drive. Sylvie knew that aside from Scrabble, he enjoyed skiing and kayaking. She supposed that he would be taking his new car into the wilderness. She hoped that he would be safe. There had been several sightings of black bears this year, near the reservoir north of Providence.
Checking her watch, she saw that it was time to return to the train station. It would take her exactly seven minutes: eight, if she hit the long light at the Steamboat Mall. As she got closer, her stomach flipped. She hadn't let herself think about this much. Sometimes she had thought it would never happen again--that Jane lived in New York now, that she had traded her small-town roots for the big city.
With everything Jane felt about this town, Sylvie could understand her not wanting to come back. In some ways, it was best for everyone that she stay away. But right now their mother was in trouble, and she needed both her girls to help out and decide what should happen next. Sylvie was exhausted, trying to do it alone.
In four and a half minutes, the train would arrive. Sylvie shivered, with anticipation and a weird sort of fear. She could hardly believe this was happening. She hadn't dared to imagine Jane actually coming--she hadn't slept at all last night, expecting the phone to ring, Jane ready with a last-minute excuse for canceling. Not that Sylvie wouldn't, in all sorts of ways, have understood.
But the phone hadn't rung; Jane hadn't canceled. Her big sister was coming home.
And Sylvie wondered how long it would take her to leave again.
The train line ran along the shore from New York to Providence, and all the way to Boston. It passed through cities and villages, fields and marshes. When the eastbound train passed between the river and the bay range, its whistle could be heard all through the Twin Rivers valley.
Dylan Chadwick, working in his Crofton orchard, heard it. Whenever he heard a train, he imagined Amanda and Isabel aboard it. He imagined them getting away, traveling to beautiful, hidden destinations, seeing the world while waiting for him to find them. He remembered that last day, all three of them in the car, speeding through midtown Manhattan toward Penn Station.
They had almost made it. He would have flashed his badge, seen them aboard, watched the train pull out. They would have called him from the Longwood Hotel, when they'd reached Wilmington, Delaware. But they never made it out of New York. They never made it past West Thirty-third Street.