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It was the longest day of the year. The full moon was rising out of the sea. The old dog lay on the grass beside Caroline, his chin resting on folded paws. Caroline, her mother, and her sisters sat in white wicker chairs. The gathering had an edge; family ghosts were circling around.
Caroline Renwick felt like a matriarch, but she was just the oldest sister. She loved her family. They were strong yet vulnerable, ordinary women who happened to be exceptional. Sometimes she felt she spent too much time with them, shepherding them along like a flock of eccentric sheep. Whenever that happened, she would jump on a plane, go on a business trip. It didn't matter where, as long as it was far enough away to give her mind a rest. But for right now, she was home.
As the moon rose, it grew smaller and colder, lost its pinkness and became silver. Stirred and panting, Homer raised his head from his paws ... to watch. "Oh, girls," Augusta Renwick said, looking at her three daughters once it was entirely up.
"Isn't it incredible?" Augusta asked, staring out at Long Island Sound.
"A full moon on the longest day of the year," said Caroline. "That has to be a good omen."
"You're always looking for signs," Clea teased. "A full moon, shooting stars..."
"The North Star," Skye said. "Caroline taught me how to find it the last night I was ever really happy."
"The last what?" Augusta asked, smiling.
"Mom ..." Caroline warned.
"My last happy night," Skye said sadly. She stumbled slightly on the words, making Caroline wonder how much she had already had to drink.
"You're happy now, darling," Augusta said. "Don't be ridiculous. How can you say something like that?"
"Easily," Skye said softly, staring at the old dog Homer.
"Mom..." Caroline started again, racking her brain for something light and conversational.
"Oh, Skye. Stop now," Augusta said, looking wounded. "We're celebrating the summer solstice! Let's get back to talking about stars...."
"The North Star..." Clea said, laughing. "I don't need it anymore. If I want to go somewhere, I'll call my travel agent. No more hiking, no more hunting for this girl."
"Don't need any stars," Skye said.
"We all need stars," Augusta said. Then she said it again, as if it were very important: "We all need stars."
"We need cocktails," Skye said. "Isn't it time? The sun's down, the moon's up. There: I've got signs too. It's the cocktail hour. Right, Homer?" The ancient golden retriever thumped his tail.
"Well, it is," Augusta agreed, checking her small gold watch for added confirmation. She glanced at Caroline and Clea as if she expected them to interfere. Watching her mother, Caroline was reminded of a teenage girl on the brink of doing something her parents would disapprove of, daring them to stop her. Hearing no objections, Augusta walked into the house.
"Cocktails," Skye said to Homer.
"Drinking's not the answer," Caroline said. Instead of acting offended, Skye blew her a kiss. After all this time, their roles in life were clear: Skye misbehaved, and Caroline cleaned up.
Caroline shifted in her chair. She felt an unease deep down, worry mixed with fear. Lately she had been restless, cranky, dissatisfied with her bountiful life. She looked at Skye and saw a person she loved throwing herself away. She had to fight to keep from saying something sharp. For all these years, Caroline had been the glue holding her youngest sister together, and she felt as if Skye might finally be coming undone.
"Simon's not back, is he?" Clea asked, referring to Skye's scoundrel artist husband. "He's not coming tonight?"
"No, is Peter?" Skye asked, referring to Clea's husband, a hospital chaplain.
"No, he took the kids out for pizza," Clea replied.
"Peter's such a good guy," Caroline said, "wanting a night out with his kids."
"Caroline, how was your date the other night?" Clea asked.
"Fine," Caroline said, smiling as she shrugged.
"Who, that poor investment banker who drove all the way up from New York just to learn he doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell--" Skye began.
"Okay." Caroline laughed, getting up. "Enough." Thirty-six and never been married. The only Renwick girl never to tie the knot or even come close, she knew her sisters wished they could do something about her die-hard singleness.
"Seriously," Skye teased, tripping over the "s"'s. "Two hundred miles in his 500SL to find out you don't kiss on the first--"
"I'll see what Mom's up to," Caroline said, walking away so she wouldn't have to hear how drunk Skye sounded.
She walked across the wide green lawn into her mother's house. Firefly Hill had been her childhood home. Hugh and Augusta Renwick had named their house on the Connecticut shoreline after Noel Coward's house in Jamaica, because on still June nights like these, when the moon rose out of the Sound, the dark fields around the old Victorian house and the thicket behind the beach below sparked with the green-gold glow of thousands of fireflies. The three sisters would run barefoot through the grass, catching the bugs in cupped hands.
And they had named it Firefly Hill because Noel Coward, to the Renwick family, meant martinis and conversation, wicked gossip and wit, wild parties and lots to drink -- but never too much until way after dark. Caroline's father had been a famous artist; her mother had celebrated him with legendary parties here in Black Hall, the birthplace of American Impressionism.
The house smelled like home. Whenever she entered the place, the smell of her childhood was the first thing Caroline noticed. Salt air, wood smoke, oil paint, gin, her mother's perfume, and her father's gun oil all mingled together. She wandered through the cool rooms and couldn't find her mother.
There, sitting on the wide steps of the side porch, tucked back from her daughters' view, the sea breeze ruffling her mane of white hair, was Augusta Renwick.
Caroline hesitated in the darkened living room. Even alone, thinking herself unobserved, her mother had such poise, such theatricality. She gazed across the ocean with such intensity, she might have been awaiting her husband's return from a dangerous voyage. Her cheekbones were high and sculpted, her mouth wide and tragic.
She wore a faded blue shirt and khakis, tattered old sneakers. Around her neck were the black pearls Hugh Renwick had given her ten Christmases before he died. Augusta wore them always; to a party, to a ball, in the garden, to the A&P, it didn't matter. Her black hair had gone white when she was only thirty years old, but she had never dyed it. It was long and luxuriant, halfway down her back. Her eyebrows remained dark. She was still a dramatic beauty.
"Hi, Mom," Caroline said.
"Darling," Augusta said, emotional. "I just made the drinks and I was sneaking a quick one. Have one with me before we go back to your sisters."
Augusta patted the spot beside her. Caroline grabbed a seat cushion off the wicker rocker and placed it on the top step. The martini shaker, condensation clinging to the deep monogram in the sterling silver, rested between them.
"I was just sitting here, thinking of your father," Augusta said. Shielding her eyes, she looked across the waves, violet and silver in the moonlight. "He loved the June full moon. Didn't he? Couldn't he do a beautiful picture of that sky?"
"He could, Mom," Caroline said.
"Here's to Hugh," Augusta said, raising her glass at the moon, "and to the picture he could make of this moment. His wife and his oldest daughter and the longest day of the year. First one of the summer."
"First one of the summer," Caroline said, raising an imaginary glass.
"Oh, I miss him."
"I know you do."
There was a moment of silence, and Caroline could almost feel her mother waiting for Caroline to say "I do too." Augusta carried an air of sadness and longing around with her, and Caroline knew it had to do with the past, deep love, and missed chances. Hugh had died seven years before, of stomach cancer. As life unfolded, there seemed to be more things they all had to say to him, but he wasn't there to hear them. Her mother had loved him madly till the end.
Across the Sound, the lighthouses of Long Island had flashed on. To the west, the bright lights of some enormous fishing boat or work platform, moored over the Wickland Shoals, blazed like a small city.
"Come on," Caroline said, tugging her mother's hand. "Let's go back to the others and watch the moon."
Her mother left the drink things on the porch steps. Caroline felt relieved. As they crossed the yard, they felt the breeze in their hair. This was the time of day that reminded Caroline of her father more than any other. Her mother was right: She did hold things against him, but that couldn't stop the lump in her throat. Not all the memories were of bad things.
The fireflies had begun to come out. They twinkled in the rosebushes. They spread across the field, lighting the tall grass like a million candles. The fireflies made their beach magical. They danced down the gently sloping grassy hill, darting through the reeds and spartina above the sandy white strand. No other beaches along the shoreline glowed so intensely. Her father said his girls were special, that the fireflies lit their way and illuminated their beach so they could always find their way home.
Sometimes he would catch the fireflies and kill them, rubbing their lightning juice across Caroline's cheeks, anointing her with glowing war paint. Or he would pinch them between his big fingers and drop them into his glass, making his martini sparkle with stars, laughing with pleasure as he enchanted his daughters. For so long, Caroline had loved her father more than anything.
Clea and Skye were silent in their wicker chairs, watching the fireflies. Were they thinking of their father too? It seemed impossible that they weren't. Homer watched Caroline's progress across the yard, head on his paws. As she took her seat, he lifted his white face to kiss her hand. The night felt magical, as if the moon and the past and the ghost of Hugh had cast a spell upon them all. The Renwick women gazed at the moon and listened to the waves.
"What are you thinking?" Clea asked suddenly, leaning forward to tap Caroline's shoulder.
"About Dad," Caroline said.
Skye brooded in the moonlight, seeming to shiver. Their father was buried in the cemetery through the woods on the western edge of Firefly Hill, and Caroline watched Skye's gaze go there now.
"What are those boats?" Clea asked, pointing at the cluster of lights out by Wickland Shoals. "That's what I'm wondering."
"They anchored there today," Augusta said. "Two big white boats and a lot of little launches running in and out."
Leave it to Clea to be thinking something simple, uncomplicated, Caroline thought. She was the happiest Renwick sister, the least encumbered, the only one who had put the past behind her. Caroline gave her a smile. She turned to Skye.
"How about you?" she asked. "Why are you so quiet, Skye?"
"Just thinking," Skye said. But of course she would not say what about.
"We're all together, Caroline," Augusta said. "Let that be enough."
"I thought someone said something about cocktails," Skye said, rising unsteadily. "Can I get anyone anything?"
"I don't think so," Augusta said with a sidelong glance at Caroline.
But when Skye turned to walk precariously across the moonlit lawn, Augusta followed, linking arms with her youngest daughter. Homer rose, as if to follow. He seemed torn. Caroline scratched his ears, and he turned his eloquent eyes to hers. He had always sensed that Skye was the one who needed protection. But his great love was for Caroline, and both of them knew it.
Duty won. When Skye and Augusta headed up the gentle incline, Homer followed behind with his old head bent and his tail wagging. They disappeared inside the house. Caroline and Clea sat still, waiting. The music started: the tinkle of ice against silver, the complicit laughter, the clink of heavy crystal.
Unable to sleep that night Caroline turned her head and looked at the framed photo on her bedside table. It showed her, Clea, and Skye, all in summer dresses, at yet another party for their father, when Caroline was about sixteen.
Sisterhood is amazing. Caroline had known it almost forever, from when she was two, the moment she first realized her mother was growing large. It never ceased to amaze her: She and her sisters came out of the same womb.
Caroline knew it was the same for sisters everywhere. Whenever she met women who had sisters, she knew they knew. They understood the incredible connection. Staring at the picture, she tried to remember those girls from long ago. Her eyes focused on the image of herself: smiling but guarded, standing slightly behind Clea and Skye, as if to protect them.
"What were you thinking?" she whispered to her old self, to her younger sisters.
They grew up in the same house, with the same smells, the same sights, the same sounds. They had the same parents. They shared a room, fell asleep every night to the sound of one another's soft breathing. They shared the same images in dreams. They knew each other's nightmares. Some of their sweetest dreams were of one another.
"We walked each other to school," she said to herself, to her sisters.
When she looked at her sisters' bare legs, she knew every single scar. She knew the crescent-moon scar just under Clea's left knee, where she tripped in the night and fell on a piece of broken glass. She knew the inch-long scar on Skye's right ankle, from the time she snagged her foot on barbed wire, cutting through a pasture where none of them were supposed to be.
She knew the boys they liked. She had teased them about every single one. She helped them write love notes, she dialed boys' phone numbers for them so Clea or Skye could hear that boy answer and then hang up. Sometimes, and she would feel ashamed about this until she died, she flirted with them when her sisters weren't there. She wanted to see whether they liked her better.
Gazing at the picture, she knew they all had secrets. What about the different experiences, the things they'd never know about each other? They don't tell you everything, Caroline thought. The fights they heard their parents have when she was asleep. The only time in her life she ever cheated, on a math test in seventh grade, even though Caroline had helped her with her homework, she had pretended to "get it" just to please her.