Arden’s half-hour television show for Channel Six, a local Boston station, was called Simplify This, which Arden privately knew was a ridiculous title because, really, nothing in life was simple.
She couldn’t remember when she’d last had a vacation, and even when she had a weekend off, she’d worked, tapping away at her laptop or considering DVDs prospective entrants had sent her, or reviewing call sheets or expenses. Even watching television was work because she recorded and savagely studied competing shows, comparing theirs to hers, searching for what she was missing, what she could improve. Reading books and magazines: same thing. Even exercise was work for Arden because she had to keep her thirty-four-year-old body in shape for the merciless cameras that made everyone’s butt look ten inches wider and ten pounds heavier. Same with having her nails and her hair done. She was fairly certain she worked when she slept.
Simplify This expressed her hard-won life’s motto: to simplify your life, to stuff useless old family heirlooms like grandmothers’ tea sets and framed photos of relatives so distant you couldn’t remember their names into neat cardboard boxes, tidily labeled and piled in the attic or basement, or given away to the secondhand shops so you could claim a tax deduction. As you did this, you vanquished the ghosts of the past, the should-haves and could-haves, the expectations of parents, the dreams of childhood. Then your present life was clear and spacious, facing forward, not back.
Arden had spent her adult years simplifying. She had created a television show and her own life’s battle cry out of the desire to simplify her odd, complicated family (if you could even call it that), which was like a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces scattered by the winds.
Today she parked her posh little Saab convertible in her reserved spot in the station’s lot, whipped through the glass doors, nodded to the security guard, and strode down the corridor to her private lair. She unlocked it, stepped inside, leaned against the door, and kicked off her high heels.
It was a hot day for early May. Arden stripped off her suit jacket and unzipped her tight skirt. She collapsed in the wonderfully padded chair behind her desk, put her feet up, and listened to her voice mails.
Messages: The dry cleaner said the stain wouldn’t come out of the lavender silk dress. The masseuse reminded her she’d changed the time of her appointment. Marion Cleveland understood that all entries to Arden’s wonderful show should be sent by mail with a DVD, but Marion was a close personal friend of Ernest Hilton, the program director of Channel Six, and so Marion thought Arden wouldn’t mind Marion phoning directly because Marion’s house would be perfect for Simplify This.
Four forceful thuds sounded at her door, and before she could speak, Ernest Hilton barged in, followed by a tiny wide-eyed brunette.
“Ernest.” Arden swung her legs off her desk and straightened in her chair, yanking her shirt down over the undone zipper of her skirt.
“Arden.” Ernest hauled a chair from the corner of the room, moved the stack of folders off it onto the only empty space on Arden’s desk, and set it next to the visitor’s chair facing Arden. He gestured to the size zero to sit.
I’m not going to like this, Arden thought. She knew Ernest well enough after six years of working with him. He was fifty, jovial, and fat, and he never appeared in front of a camera.
“I’d like you to meet Zoey Anderson.”
Arden smiled. “Hi, Zoey.” The young woman was dazzling, with enormous dark eyes and long dark hair clipped loosely to the back of her head. Her dress was a simple sleeveless sheath of linen, at least two sizes smaller than what Arden wore, and Arden was slim.
“So here’s the deal,” Ernest continued, after Zoey gave a brief smile. “Channel Six has been bought out. New management. Now new show.” He held up his hands and spread them in a banner. “Simplify This from A to Z. Get it? From Arden to Zoey.”
Arden’s heart turned to ice.
“What the numbers are telling us, see, Arden, is that we’re not getting any of the younger demographic. You’ve captured the marrieds, the empty nesters, the first new homes in the suburbs, but no one under thirty watches ST.”
“I wouldn’t say no one,” Arden objected.
“Time to move on, any old hoo.” Ernest slapped his hands on his mammoth thighs. “Things get old fast. Gotta change.”
“ST has excellent ratings,” Arden reminded him. “The ratings show—”
“Of course, of course,” Ernest interrupted. “But they could be even better, and they will be once we’ve got Zoey on board. She can work with the under thirties. Who needs help simplifying more than they do? They live in lofts, share apartments, don’t know how to do their taxes or keep records, trip over all the wires for adapters for their thousands of devices. . . .”
Zoey spoke up for the first time. Her voice was high pitched and girly girl. “One week I’ll do the youngies, and the next week you can do the oldies.” Arden was surprised Zoey didn’t put her finger in her dimpled chin.
The youngies, Arden thought, inwardly moaning. The oldies.
Another tap at the door. Once again it opened before Arden could speak. Sandra, her secretary, stuck her head in.
“Sorry, Arden, but you’ve got an emergency phone call.”
Arden stared. She had no husband, no children. She didn’t even own a pet. “Thanks, Sandra.” She nodded toward Ernest. “Excuse me. I’d better take this.”
Her mother spoke. “Arden? Honey?” Her voice sounded different. It didn’t crack with its usual take-charge, You know I’ve found the perfect house for you, Boston real estate agent’s pizzazz.
“Mom? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, darling. But, Arden, . . . your father died.”
“My father died.” Arden repeated in robot tones, trying to make the words compute.
“Oh, that’s so sad.” Across from her, Zoey’s enormous eyes filled with real tears.
“He died on the island,” Nora continued. “I’ve spoken with Cyndi and Justine. The funeral will be on Monday.”
“Mom, can I call you back?” Arden asked. “I’ve got people in the office. I need just a minute. . . .”
Her mother clicked off.
“I have to go to Nantucket,” Arden reported in a stunned monotone. “My father died. The funeral is Monday.”
Ernest nodded lugubriously and got to his feet. “Terrible thing, terrible thing,” he intoned, although for all he knew, Arden’s father could have been an ax murderer. “Take all the time you want, Arden. In fact, you’ve got a lot of vacation due you. Why not take a month. Or two. Or three? I’m sure Zoey can handle it. The timing is just right; she can start her part of the series, and then in the fall we can segue you back in.”
Arden sat dumbfounded, staring at her boss and his new, young, discovery. She knew how Ernest worked. With some degree of accuracy, she could interpret his every mouth crimp or eyebrow lift. Terror struck: was she losing control of her own show?
That would be a horrible thing, a betrayal of her and the years she’d put into Simplify This, and into this station, but as Arden sat quietly smoldering, there stood little Zoey with her eyes full of tears.
Lucky little Zoey, who wept when someone’s father died. Obviously, Zoey’s father had never abandoned her and her mother.
Arden could imagine Zoey’s life clearly: parents who adored each other and never divorced, brothers and sisters who were real siblings, a father who was a strong disciplinarian but fair, a mother who attended the school plays where Zoey had the leading role.
Nothing like Arden’s mess of a life. Or like Arden’s oh-so-charming disaster of a father.
She had always assumed she would somehow get more of him later. My God, Rory Randall was only sixty and in good health. He golfed, he played tennis, he swam! How could he be dead? Arden still had so much to say to him, so many difficulties needed to be discussed and settled—he had so much to say to her, she knew he did, she knew! She was his first daughter, his first child. Because of that, she was special! Her mother had made a mistake, someone had gotten their information tangled; Rory Randall might be ill, perhaps in the hospital with a minor heart attack, but not dead.
Emotions shifted within her like fractures in the earth, warning of a tidal wave surging her way. Arden reminded herself she was a pro. Some people in the station considered her practically a goddess; she was gorgeous, clever, energetic, invincible. If she allowed herself to display anything except expertise bordering on disdain, everyone in the station from the janitor to the CEO would think she’d broken down because of Zoey’s arrival. It wouldn’t matter that Arden’s father had died. Everyone knew Arden’s only love was her work.
She would not humiliate herself.
“I’ll pencil in another meeting for next Wednesday,” Arden said decisively. “I’ve got to leave now.”
“Of course.” Ernest and Zoey went out, closing the door respectfully behind them.
Arden zipped up her skirt, then grabbed her purse and jacket. She slipped her feet back into her murderous high heels and trotted out of her office to her secretary’s desk.
“Sandra, I’ve got to go to Nantucket for a week. My father died. You can reach me by cell.”
“Oh,” Sandra began, “I’m so sorry—”
But Arden didn’t trust Sandra. She knew the moment she was out of the building, Sandra would be gossiping about her with the other employees and interns. Really, there was no one you could trust.
Atop those impossible heels, she stalked, head high, out of the station. She got into her car, fastened her seat belt, and drove away. She didn’t allow herself to cry.
Meg Randall sat in her ancient Volvo tapping her fingers impatiently on the steering wheel as she waited for the car ferry to bump into its place in the pier so the vehicles could be unloaded. She considered herself one of the most moderate, gentle, easygoing women she knew, but at this moment she felt as impatient as Secretariat stalled behind the starting gate.
The steamship Eagle rumbled, shuddered, and groaned into its berth. Chains clanked as the dockworkers raised the ramp into place, jumped aboard, and waved the cars off. With a flash of triumph, Meg drove onto Nantucket.
She was here before Arden!
It had been years since she’d been on the island. She’d never been old enough to drive here before, but her car carried her with perfect assurance down Steamboat Wharf, through the cobblestone grid of town, and along the winding narrow lane of Lily Street, into the driveway of her father’s house.
She stepped out into the sunshine and looked around. The street, with its houses clustered closely together, its narrow brick sidewalk, and tidy trimmed privet hedges, lay in timeless peace beneath the morning sun. It was very quiet.
Meg stretched. She had actually arrived before Arden, and she passionately wanted to have first choice of bedroom. That was why she’d hardly slept last night, and had left Boston before six a.m. to make the nine thirty ferry from Hyannis. Meg was going to claim the back bedroom overlooking the yards, lawns, and rooftops of the other houses in the village.
She beeped her station wagon locked, reached into her pocket, and took out the small key to the front door. It lay in her hand like an icon, like a treasure. It was a treasure. She had never had a key to this house before. Even though she had lived here, she had never belonged.
White clapboard, three stories high, with a blue front door sporting a bronze mermaid door knocker, the house was similar to the others in the neighborhood. The driveway next to the house was short, ending at a privet hedge centered by a rose-covered arbor. Already some of the pale roses were blooming. On either side of the front door, blue hydrangeas blossomed, and pink impatiens spilled from the white window boxes.
A storybook house. A house with many stories.
Meg went up the eight steps to the small porch, took a deep breath, and opened the door.
Cleaners had been in; she smelled lemon polish and soap. Ignoring the first floor, she took the stairs to the second floor two at a time. Like all old Nantucket houses, this one rambled oddly around, with rooms that had fireplaces or closets built in at odd angles. But the path to the bedroom, her bedroom, was embroidered into her memory like silk thread on muslin.
Here it was, at the back, with the morning glory wallpaper and two walls of windows gleaming with light. An old-fashioned three-quarter mattress lay on a spool bed, covered with soft old cotton sheets and a patchwork quilt in shades of rose, lemon, and azure, echoing the colors in the hand-hooked rug covering most of the satiny old pine floor. An enormous pine dresser stood against one wall, still adorned with the posy-dotted dresser scarf that had been there when Meg was a child. This room had no closets, only hooks for clothes, but that had never mattered to Meg. She had cherished the room because of the slightly warped, ink-stained wooden desk and creaking cane-bottom chair placed against the back window, where she could sit and write or contemplate the starry sky and dream.
When she was a girl, for a year this had been her bedroom. Then Arden got into one of her jealous snits, claiming that since she was the oldest, she got first dibs. Meg had to take the side bedroom, which should have delighted her. It was twice as large as the odd back bedroom, and actually decorated. The theme was mermaids, and Meg’s mother, Cyndi, who at the time had been the current Mrs. Randall, had gone a bit wild, draping the windows with mermaid curtains, covering the twin beds with mermaid sheets and comforters, softening the floor with a thick Claire Murray mermaid rug. Even the bedside lamps were held up by mermaids. It should have been a young girl’s paradise.
It just made Meg cranky. She wouldn’t give her older, snotty half sister Arden the satisfaction of showing she preferred the back room, and she really wouldn’t beseech Arden to exchange rooms with her. She just accepted it. She was used to acceptance as a way of life.
Then their father married Justine and adopted Jenny, and Meg got to spend one blissful summer there. The next summer was when what Arden and Meg called The Exile began. After Justine took over, Meg and Arden didn’t get invited to spend any time at all at their father’s house, not one summer month, not one summer day.
But that was then, and this was now, a new stage in life, a new day. Years had passed.
Meg would pretend to be selfless, thoughtful, taking the small back bedroom, allowing Arden one of the big front rooms. Jenny had the other front bedroom, years ago done up in pinks and greens.
She needed to unpack quickly, before anyone else got here. She needed to spread her belongings out all over the room, claiming her territory.