Ten years ago, Nora Glass started writing essays about being a single mother of a six-year-old daughter. Her weekly column made her a household name, and over the years, her fans have watched Ellie grow from a toddler to a teenager.
But now Nora is facing a problem that can’t be overcome. Diagnosed with a devastating disease that will eventually take away who she is, she is scared for herself, but even more frightened about what this will mean for her sixteen-year-old daughter.
Now Nora has no choice but to let go of her hard-won image as a competent, self-assured woman, and turn to the one person who has always relied on her: her twin sister, Mariana. Nora and Mariana couldn’t be more different from one another, and they’ve always had a complicated relationship. But now the two sisters will have to summon the strength to help them all get through a future none of them could have ever imagined, while uncovering the joy and beauty that was always underneath.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF RACHAEL HERRON
Written by today’s freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, from friendship to family to finding our place in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experience, as well as encourage us to explore these topics together—because books, and life, are meant for sharing.
Visit us online at www.penguin.com.
Also by Rachael Herron
While writing acknowledgments for any book, I’m always overwhelmed at how many people make a book. My deepest thanks go to my editor, Danielle Perez, for knowing what needed to be stripped away to make my characters truly come to life. Thanks as always to Susanna Einstein, one of my favorite people and the best agent in the world. I promise I’ll try not to make you cry like that again. Thanks to Dana Kaye, for being the best publicist ever. I thank the crew at Zocalo, who keep me going with coffee and grins: Evelyn, Tom, Winnie, Cathy, Kat, Buddy, Ed, and everyone else. Thanks go to A. J. Larrieu, who knows her epigenetics from her heritability (any errors in science are mine alone). Thanks to one of my favorite firefighters, Lucas Hirst, who gave me lots of info I chose not to use, and thanks to my coworkers/friends at the firehouse, who, when I have to go do writing business, cover my shifts for me without complaining (within my earshot, anyway). Huge thanks to Rebecca Beeson, who endured many twin questions and is a beautiful writer herself. To Sophie Littlefield, thank you for propping me up so much during the writing of this book that I should probably build you a flying buttress or something. To Cari Luna, thank you for loving me even after I stole your rocks. To Lala Hulse, always, my love and gratitude for everything—I couldn’t do any of this without you, not one single little bit. And to my sisters, Christy and Bethany Herron, who are and always will be my two best friends. You are the ones I will never let go.
EXCERPT, WHEN ELLIE WAS LITTLE: OUR LIFE IN HOLIDAYS, PUBLISHED 2011 BY NORA GLASS
New Year’s Eve
When Ellie was little, she and I changed all the rules. After my husband left, it was just me and my little girl (and my twin sister, but she’s implied in everything I do). The cozy insularity of our little nuclear family became something to be feared overnight. Members of the PTA looked at me as if my husband’s abandonment were something catching. If Paul had died, we would have received condolence calls, hamburger casseroles, and brownies made from scratch. But because he moved fifty miles east with Bettina the blond bookkeeper, because he started a new roofing company and a new family all at once, all we got were pitying looks in the school parking lot and small, halfhearted waves.
So we changed all the rules, starting with the hardest part: the holidays.
This is how we do New Year’s Eve at my house. We don’t go out. I’m scared of driving with all the drunks on the road after midnight, and besides, why would you start a New Year anywhere but in your own home, where you feel the safest, the most loved? (Once, when she was eight, Ellie begged to be allowed to spend New Year’s Eve at her friend Samantha’s house, but she didn’t even make it till nine p.m. before calling me to come get her. “Lemon and honey, Mama,” she said. “They don’t do that here.”)
We get to do whatever we want on New Year’s Eve. There’s so very little left of the year to damage that we figure if we spend the evening watching the entire Die Hard series, no one will mind. We eat what we want, too. Sick of holiday candy and chocolate by that point, we choose things at the grocery store like fancy pickles and ham poked with rosemary sprigs. We like ropes of salty black licorice that we get at a candy store on Tiburon Boulevard. The girls behind the counter always wince when we ask for half a pound, and once one of them admitted we were the only ones she’d ever sold it to. I make a sweet, fruity bread similar to German stollen that’s supposed to be eaten for breakfast, but we eat it for dinner instead, sliced thinly, served cold, and slathered thickly with butter. I can eat six pieces before I start to feel sick, and Ellie, as small as she is, can pack away even more.
We also get to wear whatever we want. One year Ellie wore a blue two-piece bathing suit with a pink tutu. I wouldn’t let her get too close to the fireplace for fear a spark would set her entire acrylic ensemble ablaze. When she got cold, she wrapped my black terry robe around her thin shoulders and trailed the length of it behind her like a vampire cloak.
In more recent years, we’ve taken to having a pajama party. New pajamas are de rigueur, carefully bought with the New Year in mind. Last year mine were dark blue, covered with grumpy-looking sheep wearing sweaters. Ellie’s were green flannel with cowboys roping monkeys.
When the time grows near, we don’t watch the prerecorded ball drop in New York. Even at a distance, it’s too much of a party for us homebodies, my daughter and me. Instead, we keep an anxious eye on the clock, as if it might not get all the way to midnight if we don’t watch it carefully. Both of us pretend no one else has slipped into the New Year yet. New Zealand hasn’t already celebrated. New Yorkers aren’t already in bed. In our snug home above Belvedere Cove, we are the first in the whole world to greet the early seconds of a newly minted year.
Then my Ellie goes to the front door and, with great solemnity, opens it to let the year inside. We make our tea, and this is the most important step.
It springs from a New Year’s Eve when Ellie was sick with the flu, sicker than she’d ever been. She was four. Paul had left us a month before. I’d hoped Ellie would sleep through the night so I could cry alone on the couch at midnight as I watched happy couples kiss in Times Square.
But instead, she woke and came out of her room. She stumbled over the long feet of her favorite bunny-footed pajamas, coughing so hard she sounded like a dog barking.
I had a cooling cup of mint tea in front of me, and I had an idea.
I carried her onto the back porch, where, under a full moon, she picked a lemon off our tree. We squeezed the whole thing into the mug, and then I let her add a big spoonful of honey to it.
“Lemon,” I said, “because the New Year might be a little sad, like a lemon is sour.”
“Because of Papa?” Her eyes were wet with another coughing fit. They were Paul’s eyes, so bright green it hurt to look at her sometimes. “Because he doesn’t want to be with us?”
“With me, honey. You know he wants to be with you. Papa loves you.” Paul, though, was too busy then soothing his very pregnant new wife to have any real time for his daughter, something that made me mad enough to spit acid in the direction of Modesto. “But we add honey because the year will be sweet, too.”
She was asleep ten minutes after drinking the tea, her breathing easier in her chest. Mine was easier, too, knowing she hurt less.
I didn’t think she’d remember it, but the next year, when she was five, she put on the same footed pajamas, even though they were by then too small, and tucked her body into her favorite corner of the couch. She looked up at me. “Lemon and honey?”
When my daughter kissed me at midnight that year, I missed my old life a tiny bit less than I had the previous New Year’s. Paul was becoming more and more adept at dodging phone calls from his first daughter as he busied himself with his new family, but his leaving us meant I got this little girl all to myself. A girl with his blond eyebrows and my concern for wrongs to be righted. A little girl who liked to suck the rinds of our homegrown lemons (making faces all the while) as much as she liked to lick the honey spoon I handed her in the kitchen.
So this year, I wish you more honey than lemon. And I wish it for all your years to come.
“I’m not wearing those,” said Ellie. She remained where she was, lying flat on her back on her bed, her cell phone held above her face with a hand that floated, the phone seemingly weightless.
Nora said, “But these are the ones you asked for.”
Ellie blew out her breath in a whoosh. “I was kidding.”
How was Nora possibly supposed to know that? “I gave you the catalog a month ago and that’s what you stuck your Post-it note on.” Nora had thought the light pink pajamas with the ducklings had looked impossibly juvenile for her sixteen-year-old daughter, but she’d felt a warm glow as she’d clicked buy. It was proof that her little girl could still be just that—little. She’d even started a column: “Big Girls Still Like Footie PJs.”
“I picked the ugliest pair of pajamas in the whole catalog and you thought I was serious,” Ellie said. It wasn’t a question.
The hurt was shallow—like a sharp jab under the nail—but it stung, nonetheless. “Okay, I’ll wear them, then.” They were almost the same size, a fact that surprised Nora every time Ellie raided her closet.
The phone jerked in her daughter’s hand. Good. She’d gotten a reaction, at least.
“I could. Would you really mind that much?”
Ellie sat up, tucking the phone under her thigh. “Aunt Mariana is coming over.”
“I bet she won’t be wearing dumb baby pajamas.”
Nora’s twin, Mariana, still seemed cool to Ellie. Nora herself had lost the ability to be anything but pathetic to her daughter this year. No, that wasn’t quite true, she acknowledged to herself. Ellie also thought her mother was naive, overly enthusiastic about too many things, and possibly stupid.
Nora refolded the pajama top and put it on top of Ellie’s bureau. She used the cuff of her sleeve to rub off a water-glass ring. She’d have to take the Pledge to it later, when Ellie wasn’t in the room to complain about the lemon smell.
“Mom.” In Ellie’s voice was the apology Nora had gotten used to not receiving in words. “You gotta see that’s horrible. Right? You can see that?”
Nora stroked a flannel duck’s head. “I guess if I’d stopped to really think about it, I would have been concerned about your choice.” Instead, she’d been pleased that Ellie had taken a moment to choose anything at all. “I should have taken you to Macy’s. Or Target. They have cute pajamas.” Wanting to stop talking but unable to prevent her lips from moving, she said, “Want to go now? They’re open till at least nine. We could make it and be back for—”
“No, thanks.” The phone hovered above her daughter’s head again. Ellie had hit sixteen years old like it was her job, like she was going to get a bonus from her boss if she could be the biggest pain in the ass possible. She didn’t clean her room without threats of physical violence, and she had mastered the art of making Nora feel like something not even worth pulling off the bottom of a shoe.
“Have you played that game yet?”
In trying to find her daughter a Christmas present she wouldn’t hate, Nora had researched which multiplayer online games were most popular for Ellie’s demographic. She’d used her Twitter account for the research since it was a safe bet Ellie never looked at her feed. Nora’s followers, mostly longtime readers who were also parents and often single, had overwhelmed her with suggestions. Queendom seemed like a game Nora could get behind—with its feminist slant, women ruled the game’s domain, and Ulra, the Dragon Queen, was both the ultimate monster and the creature players wanted to become.
Ellie raised her head and met Nora’s eyes briefly. Then her head dropped back to the bedspread again. Her thumbs spun and danced over the phone’s keyboard.
“Fine,” said Nora. “I can see you’re busy.”
“It just seems like something girls would play.”
Nora switched on the night-light—a tiny dark-haired fairy peeping out from behind the moon—even though Ellie hadn’t slept with it on for at least three years. “You’re a girl. In case you hadn’t noticed.” What Nora wanted was for Ellie to scoot sideways, offering her—even tacitly—a place to sit. A moment to talk.
“You know what I mean.”
“It’s a storytelling game. You get to narrate the action. And you’re so good at writing—”
“No, I’m not. You always forget I’m not you.”
Nora played her trump card. “And almost half of the players are male.”
Ellie rolled to her side, newly interested. “Where did you read that?”
“Somewhere online, in all of my vast and far-reaching research into the game that you would like the most.”
“How long did you spend doing that?”
Not long enough. “Days.”
“Okay, at least two hours.”
“Oooh.” Ellie’s tone was sarcastic, but Nora could tell she’d scored a point.
One measly point, racked up against Ellie’s three million or so. It still felt good. “What are you going to wear tonight?”
“Isn’t the whole point to wear whatever we want? I mean, that’s what you wrote in that god-awful book.”
A person could die of paper cuts, given enough blood loss. Nora had run every essay in When Ellie Was Little by her daughter before it was published, giving the then twelve-year-old Ellie ultimate say over what could and couldn’t be published. She’d objected to one line that called her baby cheeks “pudgy,” but the rest had stood. They never talked about the book, just like they didn’t talk about Nora’s lifestyles column for the Sentinel.
“Then I’m just wearing what I’m wearing now.”
“Great.” It was so stupid for Nora to want to argue with her. Of course it was fine if Ellie came downstairs in an antique Sonic Youth T-shirt and jeans.
“Great!” Ellie flopped back to the bedspread. Sometimes Nora thought what Ellie was best at was that backward dive. Forget the fact that she was in calculus, the only junior in the class, forget that she placed first in honors English—what Ellie could make a full-time job of was falling backward with a sigh so heavy it seemed likely to pull down the ceiling with her someday.
She didn’t close Ellie’s door behind her, but she heard the soft thunk of the door shutting before she reached the stairs.
Nora hated closed doors.
A new tradition for New Year’s Eve. An extra one.
That’s what they needed.
Nora sat on the back porch with the plastic Michael’s craft store bag at her side. It was balmy out, surprising for this time of year. Usually late December brought cold winds and thick fog to this section of the coast. Even as protected as the marina town of Tiburon was by the San Francisco Bay, it still got bitterly cold overnight sometimes, frost forming on the gnarled twists of hobbyist grapevines in backyards, ice coating the Mercedes and Land Rover windows.
That night, though, was warm enough for Nora sit outside with nothing more than Paul’s old red flannel over her T-shirt. It was the best thing he’d left, besides his daughter, whom he wanted no part of, rat bastard. Nora looked down the hill and over the Smythes’ new roof, past the Miller-Reids’ redwood, which really needed trimming, down to the boats bobbing in the dark water. Most of them still bore their Christmas lights, a week old but still cheery. The boats looked tiny from the six-block distance, brightly lit toys left behind in a vast tub of black ink. The air smelled of pine and, faintly, of car exhaust.
From the bag, Nora took three fat white candles. The fake vanilla scent was almost strong enough to banish the smell of the trees. Deodorizing the outdoors. She took out the scraps of lace she’d bought, idly running the longest one through her fingers. What next? Instead of gluing the fabric to the candles, instead of perusing the magazines she’d brought outside with her for inspiring images to snip out with her paper scissors, she continued to stare into the night, seeing the inside of the doctor’s office rather than the top of her back fence.
It should be more worrying, this staring habit of hers. It had been getting worse lately. A lot worse. That new inability to concentrate, something Nora had always excelled at, was the reason she’d gone to the doctor eight weeks before, the reason she’d done the first panel of blood work. She was forty-four. Too young to be starting menopause, but maybe she was hitting perimenopause. Maybe the doctor would give her supplements or instructions to go to acupuncture more often.
Then the office had called back, requesting more blood. Nora was pleased. They were taking it seriously. The next thing on her doctor’s very thorough list was a neuropsychological test. It had been strangely exhilarating, doing silly tasks like drawing the face of a clock and explaining how the hands worked, demonstrating how to tie her left shoe. That was followed by another, shorter pen-and-pencil test during which they asked more seemingly random questions. Memory work. Then a PET scan of her brain, something that would measure the uptake of sugar, they said.
Nora had thought the doctor’s overreaction was a good sign, solid proof that she had excellent insurance. But the week before, she’d begun to feel as if she were a scientific pincushion, someone they were just pushing for fun—See how much blood she’ll give us. Lay your bets on the table! Maybe Nora was an experiment. She had consoled herself with the fact that she was probably good at it. She was acing their exams, whatever they were. She smiled when they jabbed her with needles that looked like straws, and she got to know the names of the phlebotomist’s kids. He had two, Juan and Roberto. He was as white as sourdough, raised in the inland valley, but his wife was Latina, and she’d gotten to name the kids. She was pregnant again, this time with a girl, and she was going to let him name her. Nora told him with mock seriousness, Nora’s a good name. Sure, he said, agreeing with her, but she could tell it wouldn’t make the short list.
No one had diagnosed her with anything yet. She was getting older, that was all. Everyone had the same affliction, and at least she had her column in which to work it out. Whatever it was, she was sure she’d be able to milk it for both humor and a paycheck. She wasn’t very worried. When her blood work came back, it didn’t support a cancer diagnosis, and after she’d heard that, she’d relaxed. With any luck it would be something embarrassing. Her biggest reader response always came after her confessionals: My daughter came as close to asking me for a divorce as she ever has. While sanitizing my Diva cup in boiling water, I let the pot go dry, and the cup caught on fire while Ellie was studying in the living room with three friends. If you’ve never smelled a burning menstrual cup, you’ve never lived, my friends. I had to shove cinnamon sticks up my nose while I aired out the place, and my daughter refused to talk to me until I promised never to say the word “menses” out loud ever again. Her e-mail would blow up with shared mother-daughter humiliation stories.
Telling stories about getting older, being diagnosed with small strange ailments (corns, joint aches, vision degeneration), would just be good fodder. Memory lapses, the kind she’d been having lately, were more annoying than worrisome.
She blinked, unsure how long she’d been staring over the treetops.
With the marina lights still twinkling below, Nora took out the tiny bottle of glue she’d bought at the craft store. It wasn’t like she didn’t have at least ten bottles of glue already in her craft room, but when she’d been at the store, she couldn’t remember what kind she had. Mod Podge? Wood glue? Elmer’s? Standing in the glue aisle, she couldn’t even picture what her craft room looked like. Funny, really. Years ago she’d spent so much time setting up that space, which had been a wine cellar for the previous owners. She and Paul didn’t drink much more than the wine they bought at the grocery store, and they’d laughed about a whole climate-controlled room just for alcohol. She’d rolled her fabric so that it fit in the wine bottle nooks. Her yarn fit in the round holes, perfectly—she could fit two, sometimes three skeins in each. She’d added two long wooden tables, an OttLite, and a space heater. Nora loved it down there, and so had Ellie before crafting had gotten embarrassing.
Before Nora couldn’t remember what glue she had.
She’d bought a little bottle of Aleene’s, just in case.
She jumped, dropping the bottle of glue. It skidded away from her, off the side of the deck, and she heard it making tiny crashes as it rolled down the steep hill toward the Smythes’ fence line.
Mariana said, “What are you doing out here?”
“I was . . .” What had she been going to do? “These candles.”
“Ellie said you’ve been out here in the dark for an hour.”
“No, I haven’t.” Nora glanced at her watch. Almost ten. “Damn.”
Mariana was wearing a ripped black leather jacket and a ragged blue scarf, the first one Nora had ever knitted. Her jeans were frayed at the knees. Her shoes were the exception to her outfit—they were purple leather boots that had probably cost more than all of Ellie’s fall school clothes put together. How many times had Nora mentioned that her sister might do better saving money, rather than buying four-hundred-dollar shoes that couldn’t be worn in the rain?
“You must be freezing,” Mariana said. She took off the scarf and wrapped it around Nora’s throat.
“You’re not wearing your pajamas,” said Nora. It had gotten cold, she suddenly realized. An ache had seeped into her lower legs, as if she’d been jogging too much lately, whereas the truth was she couldn’t remember her last run. “I can’t remember,” she said.
“What?” Mariana’s smile lit her whole face.
That face. Nora loved it—it was her own visage, reflected back at her but prettier. Everything a little better than her own. Mariana’s eyes had more hints of cocoa and spice, whereas Nora’s were plain crayon brown. Mariana’s chin was defined and firm; Nora’s was getting a little weak, she knew. Even though they were fraternal, they’d looked identical enough to trick people growing up. And now, it was just nice, seeing her own face look so pretty on someone else.
“What do you mean?” asked Mariana again. The wind lifted her long brown hair—smoother and shinier than Nora’s—and she tugged it back.
“Nothing.” Nora shook her head to clear it and then touched the scarf. It smelled of Mariana, of patchouli and gardenia, sweet and spicy at the same time. “I should make you a new scarf. This looks awful.”
“Nah,” her sister said. “I like this one. Let’s go inside, huh?” Mariana linked her arm with Nora’s and, as if it were her house and not Nora’s, led her up the three steps and inside.
S omething was wrong with Nora.
When their eyes met on the back porch, Mariana could tell. Something was different—not missing, not even out of place. It was just off enough that Mariana couldn’t quite touch it. It was just a feeling. Her friend Beth could read auras. “Hey, we should do lunch with Beth soon.”
Nora didn’t even look at her as she spilled the bag of lace on the kitchen counter. She poked through the pieces as if looking for something important.
Mariana lined up the candles and tugged at their wicks until they stood at attention. “Look. I’m turning them on. Get it?”
Nora rolled her eyes. That was more like her.
“Okay, tell me what you were going to do with these.”
Nora’s voice was defensive, as if they’d been arguing about it. “They’re wishing candles. For wishes.”
“Well, yeah. I would guess that’s what wishing candles were for. How do they work?” Mariana examined a bit of lace. She held it up to her eyes and peeked through the holes.
“You pick a word for the new year. Then you carve the word into the side of the candle, and when we burn them together, the words will come true the next year.”
Such a Martha Stewart–Nora thing to do. “I like it,” said Mariana, and it was true. “What’s the glitter and the lace for?”
A short pause. “For whatever you like. Decoration.”
“But if you cover the candles with lace, then where do we carve the—”
“Never mind.” Nora swept everything back into the bag. “It doesn’t matter. It’s fine if it’s not your thing.”
“I didn’t say—”
“Did you bring the screwdriver Luke was going to lend me?”
Mariana knew she’d forgotten something. As usual. “Crap, I’m sorry.”
Nora folded the top of the bag tightly. “It’s fine. I’ll just buy one. Where’s Ellie?”
“She said she was going up—”
“Ellie!” Nora bellowed up the staircase as if she’d lost her daughter on a crowded beach.
Something was definitely wrong with Mariana’s sister. She didn’t look different. It was like when a computer screen started that slight flickering. It was visible only when you looked sideways at it.
Mariana steered Nora by the shoulders to the refrigerator. “I’m starving.” She wasn’t, but her twin loved nothing more than someone asking for food. “I bet you have something amazing in there.”
Nora blinked as if just noticing for the first time that Mariana had arrived. “I do. I totally do.”
“Great. I’ll eat just about anything at this point.” Luke had brought home sushi, bags of it. He always bought twelve rolls, never believing her that they wouldn’t eat more than three or four. Mariana couldn’t imagine stuffing anything else in her mouth ever again. But she’d do it for Nora.
“I got figs and I made those bacon-cheese biscuits you like. Oh, and I have the best goat cheese. A local gal makes it.”
This was better. “Yeah? Do you know how she processes it?” There was very little that Mariana could imagine caring less about than how a Marin local made cheese in her backyard dairy, but Nora’s eyes lit up.
“She showed me everything, and I got to meet the goats when I went to pick up my second order.”
“You’re kidding. Get it?”
“They were darling.” Nora took out a plate, prearranged of course, and knocked the door of the fridge closed with her hip. With her other hand, she slid two glasses off the wine rack, cleverly not breaking them the way Mariana would have had she tried that maneuver. “They jump, did you know that? Straight up into the air, like, well . . . like little goats, I guess. And their eyes looked like they were stuck on sideways.”
Mariana looked at the plate with growing distrust. “Huh.”
“The males and females are kept separate because they’ll start to breed at six weeks old. Think about that. I met Wallace and Gromit in her yard, and then I met Cliff and Clair in the pen.”
“As in Huxtable?”
“Oh!” Nora stopped pouring the white wine into Mariana’s glass, the liquid splashing to the countertop. She laughed. “I didn’t make that connection. One of the babies in the yard was Vanessa, I think. That’s kind of great.” She mopped up the spilled wine with a pristine white dish towel.
“So the woman who makes cheese is our age.”
Nora tilted her head again, as if checking in with someone before answering.
Mariana felt a thump in the middle of her chest. “Nora?”
“Yeah. I guess you’re right. I just assumed she was older than us.”
“Why?” Mariana settled herself on a kitchen stool.
“Don’t you do that nowadays?” Nora pushed the glass toward Mariana and filled her own. “Meet women you think are older, like middle-aged, and then you find out they’re our age? And it’s us who are middle-aged?”
Mariana nodded. “Oh, my god. Yes. And you’re shocked, convinced you look better than them, but you can’t be sure.” It had happened just that afternoon at Luke’s motorcycle shop. Mariana had caught herself noticing Eliza’s roots, thin sparkles of silver showing at her part. Then she’d realized that if she let her own hair grow out more than four weeks, it would have exactly the same white shine. “I do it all the time. But you look great,” said Mariana.
Nora glanced at her distractedly. “I don’t.”
“Really?” If Nora didn’t think she looked good, it was a judgment on Mariana. Sure, they weren’t identical, but they were close enough. “Did I tell you the other day at Whole Foods a woman accosted me and told me she loved my book?”
That got Nora’s attention. “Really?”
“She recognized me?”
“Well, the point here is she recognized you by looking at me, but yeah.”
“Oh.” Nora twisted the stem of her glass. “That’s so nice.”
“I thought so.”
“What did you say?”
“That I didn’t know what she was talking about.”
Mariana longed to move to the couch, to sprawl. It had been a long day, and she was perched almost formally on the stool. “Of course not. I thanked her sweetly and told her she’d made my day.”
“Thank you for that.” Nora dampened a sponge and started scrubbing at an invisible mark on the countertop.
“Come on, you think I don’t get PR?” Mariana had to be perfect in the minds of her app subscribers. She’d known that when she’d started BreathingRoom, her meditation application, which was just starting to take off—she just hadn’t known how hard it would be to continue pulling it off.
Nora didn’t look up from the sponge. “Sorry. The app, I know. You get it.”
“Hang on. If you scrub at that counter any more, you’re going to reach the basement.” Mariana slid off the stool and picked up both their glasses. “I’ve been sitting at my desk all day—” She saw her sister thin her lips. Naturally. Nora didn’t believe it yet, but the app would be important. This time, this venture: Mariana could feel it. Everyone wanted to meditate, and no one knew how. Mariana might be a fuckup in a lot of ways, but she knew how to sit, how to be mindful, how to breathe. She knew how to say it, how to talk people through it. The app, with its instructional guided meditations, was going to be her ticket. BreathingRoom would take off. Any day now.
She chose the big red chair and a half Nora had bought on her advice years ago. “I still think this is the most comfortable thing in the house. Besides my bed. So tell me. What’s wrong? I can tell something is.”
“Speaking of your bed, are you staying over tonight?”
“I think so. I don’t want to cross the bridge with the crazies after midnight.”
Nora grinned at her. “Sleepover!”
It was silly. They were forty-four, and still the prospect of a sleepover with her sister and niece made Mariana giddily happy. Popcorn and silly movies and staying up too late (till midnight tonight, obviously, maybe later), followed by a lazy morning in Nora’s perfect kitchen. Nora knew how much Mariana loved fresh orange juice and always had it made, squeezed by hand, by the time Mariana wandered downstairs. In return, Mariana—the pancake queen—would flip perfect chocolate chip pancakes, one after another, for Nora, who could pack away an astounding number of them. Once her sister had managed to eat seventeen while Mariana and Ellie roared with laughter. “I’ll make pancakes for you.”
“I hoped you would. But where’s Luke?”
“Home,” Mariana said shortly. He’d been going to come, but then they’d had that stupid fight. Again. She didn’t want to talk about him, though. “Hey, you’re avoiding my question. Are you okay? You’re all distracted and weird.”
“You’re not.” Nora had that face on, the one Mariana knew better than her own. The one that said she wasn’t going to answer the question straightforwardly. But Nora was the other half of her coin. Mariana knew exactly how to flip her into the air. “Where’s Harrison?”
Nora was ready for it. Smoothly, she said, “Next door, I’d assume.”
“Has Ellie used her Christmas present from him yet?”
“Just once. Why he thought a sixteen-year-old would like a turquoise and yellow backpack, I’m not sure, but she filled it with her library books yesterday before she left and made sure she went to ask him a question first. Then she actually took it with her to the library, if you can believe it.”
Mariana could. Ellie had always been good at taking care of other people’s feelings. She looked over her shoulder at the front door. “So come on. Is he really not coming over?”
“He said he might but not to look for him. He might fall asleep early.”
“When are you two going to fuck and get it over with?”
“Mariana!” One of Nora’s legs shot out and kicked the coffee table.
With some difficulty, Mariana stopped herself from laughing. “You always say you don’t think of him like that, but—”
It was the way Nora said it. Her voice was thready. Thin. Usually Nora’s next-door neighbor was a topic ripe for teasing. They laughed about him when he wasn’t there, and Mariana was comfortable enough with him to tease him to his face. She liked the man, genuinely enjoyed his company, and she’d suspected for years that if Harrison weren’t so into dating women with half his IQ, he and her sister would have had a fling a long time ago, getting it out of their systems.
The strange look that crossed her sister’s face did more to unnerve Mariana than anything else had.
“Oh, my god. Nora. You slept with him.”
“No,” Nora started, but her word was cut off by something that sounded like a cough even though she maintained the same facial expression.
Mariana flipped her legs off the arm of the chair and slid into a seated position on the floor next to Nora’s knees. “You did.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
Mariana’s spine loosened with relief. Just a man. Just a boy problem. Easiest thing in the world. Luke’s hurt face flashed into her mind.
“Tell me everything.” She rested her head against the couch’s seat cushion. “If you leave one single word out, I will know, and I will bite you in the kneecap, I swear to god.”
Nora didn’t know where to start. She couldn’t believe she’d kept it a secret from Mariana for so many weeks.
In front of her, Mariana leaned forward and bared her teeth, aiming for her knee. “I’ll do it,” she growled. “I’ll bite you so hard . . . Tell me.”
“It was just once.”
Mariana narrowed her eyes. “Are you lying to me?”
“Soooo hot,” her sister drawled. “A one-night stand with your best friend.”
“You’re my best friend. Duh.” Nora hated it when Mariana called Harrison that. It wasn’t like you got a choice when you were a twin. Nora’s best friend had been chosen in utero forty-four years prior. If Mariana had ended up being a psychopathic serial killer, it would have just meant that Nora’s best friend was on death row.
She took a deep breath and placed a hand over her bellybutton.
Mariana clapped twice. “Your best male friend. Whatever. Tell me.”
“There’s not much to tell.”
“You’re killing me. So. When?”
Nora felt her face color.
“Oh, Nora. How long ago? You didn’t tell me?” Mariana’s voice was hurt.
They talked to each other. Every day. They always had, about everything. And yet, even yet, sometimes nothing was said.
“Eight weeks. Maybe nine.”
Mariana swallowed. Her neck was an inch longer than Nora’s—they’d measured once, when Nora had realized she wasn’t the same swan her sister was. “Wow.”
“I’m so sorry—” Eight weeks was an eternity not to tell her sister something this big. She told Mariana when Whole Foods ran out of the local Zocalo dark roast she loved best. She told her about her bad dreams. But she hadn’t told her about Harrison. Why?
Mariana waved her hand. “No, stop.”
“Really, you’ll just end up making it worse.”
The words made Nora want to take back the apology, as sincere as it had been. There was no rule she had to tell Mariana anything at all. She hadn’t broken any laws. “It’s really not a big deal, anyway.”
Mariana’s hand crept up to grip the edge of the couch cushion her head leaned against. “You didn’t do anything wrong by not telling me. I’m sorry I reacted like that. Tell me everything.”
Her smile was an antidote to everything that hurt inside Nora. “Okay.”
“Most importantly, was it good?”
Nora folded her lips around her smile.
“Right on. More, please. Is he hung?”
Nora could only squeak. She held a finger to her lips and looked over her shoulder toward the staircase. It had been years since Ellie had hidden there, listening, but it could still happen.
“The reason I ask,” Mariana continued, “is because of his hands. They’re small. But I think they’re the deceptive kind of small, because his feet are frickin’ enormous. Remember when we went to the lake a few years back with Ellie and him? I couldn’t take my eyes off what was in his flip-flops.”
“I mentioned it to you then.”
“If you did, I blocked that out completely.” Harrison had brought an intelligent-looking but not-quite-smart-enough law student who hadn’t understood the importance of sunblock and had ended up with a blistered sunburn. Nora had shared her aloe vera gel.
Mariana shrugged, tucking her fist under her chin, catching it between her jaw and clavicle. “‘Friends with benefits’ isn’t a phrase because it never happens. Happens all the time. Look at me and Luke.”
“You met him in a bar and”—Nora broke off before almost whispering—“slept with him the night you met.”
“Yeah, but then he became my friend. Okay, and then my boyfriend. But whatever.”
Nora shook her head, but her heart felt light, like it was made of paper. She hadn’t realized how much she’d hated keeping the secret from her sister.
“Anyway. This isn’t about me. More.” Mariana rocked forward and backward once, tapping Nora’s knee with her forehead. “How did it start?”
“We had too much wine. Isn’t that always how it happens?”
“Where was Ellie?”
“Ah. So you had too much wine on purpose.”
“No.” But she had. They had. She knew that. It was nice to have something to blame it on. The next morning, Harrison had rolled over with such a look, and it had cut something inside her, sliced her heart in a way she knew she couldn’t handle. He wanted more. She hadn’t seen that coming. Oh, man, she’d said to him. I drank so much last night. Can hardly remember a thing! She’d seen him pull back, a hurt snail retreating into its beloved shell. Yeah. Me, too.
They hadn’t talked about it. Not once in two months. He’d tried bringing it up one night, but she’d asked him not to. He’d complied.
“Whatever it was, I blew it.”
“Oh, my god.” Mariana sat up, wrapping her arms around her knees. “That means you’re admitting there was something to blow.”
“No, I didn’t . . .”
Mariana scrambled to her feet. “I’m going over there and dragging his ass over here.”
“What?” Her sister cocked a hip. “I thought he was your best friend. Your other one.”
“Don’t,” said Nora, feeling as if they were in high school again and Mariana was teasing her, cajoling her to talk to boys when she could barely look at them. “Please don’t.” Tears thickened in her throat. Good grief, it wasn’t that serious. Mariana was teasing. Nora sucked in a breath. She couldn’t cry about it. God, don’t let Mariana see . . .
But she had. “Oh, honey. No. I’m sorry. Please, don’t . . .” Mariana sunk to the couch, pressing her knees against Nora’s. “Please don’t cry. You know how I get when you do.”
It was true. Sometimes it seemed like nothing in the whole world could truly upset Mariana except for seeing Nora cry. When Paul left, Mariana would climb behind Nora in her bed, unable to look her in the face while she howled, wrapping her arms around her, able to console Nora only from the back, only from where she was safe from the tears. When hit face-to-face with them (in the kitchen, at the grocery store), her cheeks went pale, her skin tone almost sallow. Nora suspected Mariana felt physically ill when she cried, actually experiencing nausea. It must be nice to be so strong you felt queasy in the face of weakness.
“It’s New Year’s Eve,” said Mariana desperately. “You can’t cry. It’s bad luck. Or something. Have some goat cheese. Think of the kids.” A pause. “Get it?”
The damned crying—maybe it was a symptom of something. She really wanted to google it, but she was worried it would confirm a perimenopause diagnosis. Every day for at least the last five or six weeks, she’d either fought off tears or given in to them somewhere quietly, privately. Once Ellie had almost caught her, but she’d pleaded something was in her contact lenses, and Ellie, who didn’t seem to be able to notice anyone but herself lately, had bought it.
Tears trickled down Nora’s face. She wiped them away impatiently. “I’m not crying.”
“You are. God, Jesus, you are. Stop it. Please?” Mariana’s hands were fists in front of her belly.
“Are we going to box?”
“Will it stop you from crying?”
“I swear to everything holy, I’m not crying. This stupid water keeps coming out of my eyes. I think it’s allergies.”
From the direction of the kitchen came Ellie’s voice. She’d sneaked down the stairs—when? How much had she heard? “Mom?”
She sounded young. Small. “We’re in here. Just talking,” called Nora, scrubbing at her cheeks with the backs of her hands.
“No, here. Don’t.” Mariana used a napkin, one of the cheerful poinsettia ones Nora had sewed herself, using discounted post-Christmas fabric she’d found one year. They had prompted an essay, actually, about finding joy in craft store sale bins.
Mariana blotted carefully. “There. Blink. Good.”
“Where’s that cheese?” Ellie poked her head into the room.
“In here, chipmunk. Come give me a hug,” said Mariana.
Nora watched the two of them embrace. Her sister and her daughter. If Mariana couldn’t handle tears, at least she handled happiness well. She was used to it, after all. Inside, Nora felt a tiny bloom of fear, a terrified algae spreading through her blood. She reached into her jeans pocket to touch the piece of beach glass she kept there. Smooth and warm, as usual.
Then she stood with them. “I want more wine. Ellie? Sparkling apple cider? It’s your favorite.” She ignored the eye roll that went along with her daughter’s assent.
They’d celebrate the New Year, by god, even if she had to drag them both along behind her.
“Ten, nine, eight . . .”
Maybe Ellie could tell Aunt Mariana about what had happened. Later. When the house was dark and her aunt was in the guest bed. Maybe she could sneak in and tell her.
“Seven . . .”
No. There wasn’t anything to tell.
Three pairs of eyes were trained on Ellie’s phone, which she’d propped up against one of those candles Mom had said she wanted to carve but then hadn’t done anything with except light. She should have cleaned her screen. The black background of the clock was showing all the smudges, especially at the bottom where the keyboard normally was.
“Six . . .”
What would happen in the next year? A year and a half of high school felt like forever, but then she’d be somewhere else. Smith, if she was lucky, far away. Smith was her first choice, the college she’d spent the most time imagining herself at. It was the largest of the Seven Sisters colleges. Any school that had turned out both Julia Child and Madeleine L’Engle was a good place to be, Ellie figured. UCLA was on the short list, too, and she was considering Portland, even though she had no clue what she wanted to do. To be. It was only the rest of her life at stake.
“We know you’ll pick the school that’s best for you,” her mother would say. “We stayed close to home, and we both regret it sometimes. You’ll make the right decision.”
No pressure, though.
It usually didn’t bother Ellie to hear her mother or her aunt talk about herself in the plural form—both of them did it, practically unconsciously. Every once in a while, though, it made Ellie feel lonely. Like she was the only one who didn’t get someone. She’d never have a person, not like they did. Mom and Mariana had been born together—Ellie couldn’t compete with that. Her half sister, TeeTee, was eleven and a total brat. She competed in beauty pageants, for god’s sake. Her stepmom totally did the whole makeup and puffy hair Toddlers and Tiaras thing. It was creepy.
Sometimes Ellie thought she could almost remember when her dad was actively still being her dad instead of just some guy who sent money to her mom and called her once a month to apologize—again—about how busy his life was and how he couldn’t come pick her up to have lunch even though he lived only an hour away. Other days she wondered if she was just making up the memories, crafting them from photographs, stitching them together with wishes like her mom stuck rickrack to kitschy potholders.
Sometimes she just wanted to be the most important person to someone. That was all. If she’d said it out loud, Mom would have denied it—would have said that she loved Ellie best of all. But she knew the truth. She was okay with it, mostly.
Now that Mom and Harrison had done the deed, they’d probably shack up, too. They were probably already talking about her going away to college so they could have sex in every room. Loud, middle-aged, horrifying sex. You would think once anyone hit forty, they would give up on the idea. What was the point? Also, gross. Ellie had suspected it, sure, from the way her mom suddenly stopped going to Harrison’s house for her glass of wine at night. Yeah, Ellie was out of the house one night and suddenly they couldn’t look at each other? It had been pretty clear.
Ellie would have preferred it, though, if it had just remained a suspicion. Hearing it confirmed while she was coming down the stairs—that was just disgusting. It changed immediately from kind of amusing to just plain awful.
No whoring around. That’s what she and Samantha said laughingly to Vani at school, who basically slept with anything that moved, up to and including the janitor, Simmons. The janitor. But that was hilarious. That was just Vani. She’d always been advanced, and she didn’t mind that Samantha and Ellie weren’t ready yet.
Ellie stared at the numbers on her phone, which were changing so slowly she could almost hear the electrons inside gathering, rallying to change shape and charge. She knew she’d never say the words to her mother in jest. No whoring around, Mom. Even thinking the words made her kind of want to cry.
What if they wanted to get married or something? What would happen to the house? What if Mom sold it when she went to college? College students went home for the holidays, and if there was no home to go to, didn’t that just mean there was no point to having holidays? She’d be the one student eating in the freezing cafeteria, the women dishing out plates of turkey and mashed potatoes with a side of pity. One of the cafeteria workers would probably take her home with her that night, saying that any girl needed to be in a warm family home on Christmas Eve. For some reason, Ellie pictured this happening in New York City, even though she wasn’t planning to apply to any school there. But the cafeteria worker who ushered her into an old station wagon driven by her red-cheeked husband lived just a bit upstate, and in her imagination, they sped through New York, the husband surprisingly good at jostling for road space among the bossy taxicabs. He drove hard and fast until they reached a country road lined by trees covered with snow, and then, inside the cozy suburban home, they sat Ellie next to their four children and fed her Jell-O and slices of salami the dad had cured in the workshop out back. It was practically a story. Ellie imagined herself writing it out. Maybe she would try later. She kept trying to finish short stories, but the most she ever got was a few pages in before they seemed as lame and stupid as the pink baby-duck pajamas her mom had bought her. It was weird how good a writer she always thought she was until she actually tried to write anything.
“Five . . .”
Not knowing about Mom and Harrison hurt her feelings, that was all. She’d even asked her mom if anything had happened with him. Okay, Ellie hadn’t been that blunt—she didn’t say, “Did you fuck the neighbor?” which was what Vani probably would have said even to her own mother—but she’d very clearly said, “I don’t understand why you’re not going to hang out over there. Like you always do. Did something happen between you two?” The most important thing was to get her mom to start going over there again—as his friend—because sometimes Ellie felt like that hour or so her mother was out of the house was the only time she had to herself, ever. Every other minute of the day was consumed: by water polo practice in the morning, by the following seven periods of classes, then by homework at the study center her mom insisted was to help her learn study skills but Ellie knew was actually an expensive form of babysitting. Then her mother picked her up and took her home, where she had eyes in the back of her head. If Ellie was just lying on her back on the bed, her head hanging off, dangling toward the ground, Mom knew she wasn’t doing anything productive and would be standing in the doorway before she knew it, suggesting she clean her room or do more homework. When Mom was at Harrison’s, though, Ellie could sit and space out. Watch TV. Lie in the bathtub and consider the shape of her big toes—something was wrong with them, but she hadn’t been able to figure out what it was. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Were they just a bit too long, or fat in the base, or . . .
Her mother nudged her shoulder. “Four . . .”
It was something to think about. She didn’t want her mom selling the house, no. But there might be pluses to this, if it happened. If Mom and Harrison lived together, they’d be too busy cooing at each other to notice what she did, right? And he had that whole third floor that he kept saying he was going to make into a separate apartment—maybe he would do that for her. That would be something. Sam and Vani would like that. She’d be the cool one, for once. They’d come spend the night, and she would lift a bottle of wine from Harrison’s stash, and they’d watch the R-rated movies Vani’s parents didn’t let her watch and text the boys that Vani had slept with, teasing them with boob Snapchats or worse.
“Three . . .”
Ellie had done that only once, and honestly, it had felt less weird pushing the send button than it had lifting her bra so Samantha could snap the picture of her breasts. Not like Eric or Jake would even know which girl was which (except for Vani—her bra size went along with her experience), but it was still weird. Sure, the photo was supposed to last only ten seconds before self-destructing, but what if it didn’t? What if Eric, who had built a working Tesla coil in his garage, had figured out how to get around the thing that disallowed screenshots, and a picture of her naked chest was out there? What if it was recognizable? What if it got into his parents’ hands and was then eventually identified and sent back to her mother with a note, “Please teach Ellie to keep her shirt on at all times.”
She would just have to kill herself.
On one side, her mother clutched her hand. It kind of hurt. On her left, Aunt Mariana took her other hand, her skin cool and soft, reassuring as always. Together, they said, “One!”
“Happy New Year!”
There was a flurry of hugs, and then her mother said, “Go on, Ellie.”
It was her job to open the door and let in the New Year.
Her mother looked instantly hurt, as if Ellie was doing it specifically to pain her.
Ellie shrugged. “I don’t want to.”
“But . . .”
“If it’s that big a deal to you, why don’t you just do it?” Ellie didn’t mean to sound like a kid in the playground—No, you play with Joel—but it was too late to take it back. “I mean, I always do it. Time for someone else to have a turn.”
“But . . .” Her mother just kept sitting there, looking like she was going to cry or something.
“I can do it—,” started Mariana.
“Fine.” Ellie stood and then stomped to the door. She flung it open. “There. Are you happy?” She looked at her mother, who looked horrified.
Ellie’s cheeks were on fire and she knew she shouldn’t say another word, but she couldn’t stop herself. “Come on in, New Year!” she yelled into the darkened street. She heard fireworks and the faint pops of gunfire. “Do your worst!”
Then Ellie flounced—she could feel herself doing it even though she hated herself for it—upstairs, tossing over her shoulder, “I’m tired. You two just keep drinking. You can have my lemon and honey. Happy fucking New Year.”
Two gasps. She got two gasps out of it. This year was going to suck, and she would never figure out where she was supposed to apply to college and for what, and it would be her fault for not opening the goddamned door when her mother told her to. But she’d gotten a rise out of them both. She mentally patted herself on the back so hard that if she’d done it for real, she would have knocked herself all the way to the ground. It almost made up for feeling so terrible.
EXCERPT, WHEN ELLIE WAS LITTLE: OUR LIFE IN HOLIDAYS, PUBLISHED 2011 BY NORA GLASS
When she entered kindergarten, Ellie got her first taste of the way popularity works, thanks to Valentine’s Day.
Ellie was well liked by the children in her class. Her teacher said she was a pleasure to teach. She got along well with most. I predicted no trouble for her.
But do mothers ever get that right?
That first year, one girl named Sissy got all the good cards. There were rules, of course, that every child had to give one card to every other child. (I wondered about the single mothers of five, the women who could barely get protein on the table at night, let alone afford two boxes of Valentine’s Day cards for each kid.)
There were no rules, however, about what kind of card had to be given.
Sissy got five cards with chocolate attached. She got three oversized foil cards and two filled with glitter. One of her cards sang. Sissy was a pretty child, with long blond perfect hair. She wore black shoes that shone every day, never scuffed. She had a light singsong lisp and a way of dispensing random hugs that made even the playground moms smile at her harder, hoping to be graced with one. Everyone wanted to be her best friend, including Ellie.
Ellie asked if she could make Sissy a card, instead of giving her one of the Peanuts cards we’d bought. I didn’t understand playground politics yet. I thought it would be sweet. I even thought perhaps Sissy would choose my daughter to be her best friend. I wanted that. I pictured kindergarten to be something like my yoga group. After you went a few times, you were accepted, greeted happily, and embraced upon leaving. In my mind, Sissy was the equivalent of my friend Lily, a woman who looked right into your eyes when she asked how you were, a woman I’d been so pleased to have been chosen as a friend by. So I understood.
I helped Ellie glue the handmade hearts onto the construction paper card. Ellie knew her letters by then and composed the words she often put in cards she made for me, “I love you.” She added, “Your friend, Ellie.”
Ellie told me later that when Sissy had opened the card from Yolanda that sang Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” the construction card Ellie had made had slipped off Sissy’s desk to the floor, where Rodney Byron had stepped on it, mashing it into three mangled pieces before he moved away.
Sissy never noticed.
What Ellie didn’t know then—what I didn’t know—was that she’d be hurt like this a hundred times before it would hurt less. She’s only eleven as I write this essay, she’ll be fourteen when this book falls into your hands, and her true romantic heartbreaks are still to come, all lined up in her future. How I wish I could see into each one of them. How I wish I could meet each man (or woman—I don’t care one way or the other) she’ll love, how I wish I could prep him—this is the woman you treat well. I don’t care about any of the others you’ve loved. This is the one who matters. Don’t make this girl of mine ache for even the smallest fraction of a moment or I will tear your head off your body like a paper doll and then light it on fire.
Sissy was just a girlfriend crush, but I wanted to step on that little girl’s fingers. (Don’t look at me like that. You’ve felt that way, too.) By the next day, Ellie had shrugged it off and sworn undying love to Yolanda of the singing card. I still steamed, staring holes in the back of Sissy’s blond head as she swung delicately upside down from the monkey bars.
How do parents balance this love? On one side, it’s crushing, completely and totally. The power of your love could flatten a star, could create a black hole—the vast, dense weight of your love sucking everything inward, even the radiance of light itself. On the other side, it’s weightless. A breath against your cheek, a moment in time that slips through your fingers, as ephemeral as the quiet bubbles she blew as a baby.
That crushing, lightweight love fills and empties you within the space of a single blink.
Wish your babies Happy Valentine’s Day. Look forward to watching them fall in love over and over again. And relax, resting in the sunlight, consoled by the knowledge you will never again love as desperately as you do now.
The funny thing was that Nora wasn’t nervous when she went in to meet with Dr. Niles. She could admit she might have been a little obsessed with WebMD when it first hit the Internet, but she liked to think she channeled her hypochondria for good now. Using a combination of the Mayo Clinic Symptom Checker, the NIH, and the CDC, she’d successfully diagnosed her friend Lily’s onset of Bell’s palsy and Ellie’s whooping cough. She was good at diagnosing the difference between a cold and the flu (it was usually a cold). She had all the markers of perimenopause: breast tenderness, urinary urgency, fatigue. Her period had been five days late last month, and the PMS had been horrible. Always driven to clean while premenstrual, Nora had taken down the ceiling fans—actually uninstalling each one—to swab each blade with her homemade vinegar–tea tree oil cleaner. (Her column “Does Green Really Clean?” had gone viral the year before, getting more than four million reads and pushing When Ellie Was Little back onto the bestseller list, and now, even if she’d wanted the industrial strength of 409, she wouldn’t have been able to justify buying a bottle of it.) She predicted the doctor would tell her to start thinking about HRT (she wasn’t interested), and then she’d get back to work on the column that was giving her fits, the one on how working from home could be just as productive as working from an office. In annoying irony, she kept wandering away from the computer, forgetting to finish it.
Dr. Niles’s office could have doubled as a hotel lobby, full of healthy potted plants and watercolor paintings of boats and bays. When Nora was done filling out paperwork, the tan receptionist handed her a box of Valentine hearts with a conspiratorial smile. The pink Be Mine tasted like a preschool chalkboard might, granular and sweet. While she chewed her way through the small box, she played with the piece of beach glass she’d chosen that morning—pure, clear blue, and perfectly round. It was a good worry stone, made for a doctor’s office. She put it back in her pocket when she started to put it in her mouth, almost confusing it with the candy heart in her left hand.
The doctor herself was as pretty as the office, with a blond bob and a manner so warm Nora thought she might have missed her calling as a preschool teacher. She could picture Dr. Niles bending down to stick a SpongeBob Band-Aid on a six-year-old, receiving kisses that smelled of peanut butter. She would be careful with germs and keep one of those tiny plastic bottles of Purell in the front pocket of her adorable smock, which she’d wear un-ironically. Ellie’s preschool teacher, when Nora thought about it, had been someone who should have been a doctor. Mrs. Finchly’s posture had been so rigid Nora had sometimes wondered if she wore a brace under her plain dresses. She’d smiled at the kids, but Nora had never seen her squat on the playground, arms wide open, like all the mother-helpers did. Mrs. Finchly took her job seriously. Much more seriously than the teacher in the other preschool class did, the one who was always wandering around with Play-Doh on her dress and her arms filled with finger-painted maracas and flutes made of bamboo. Yes, Mrs. Finchly would have inspired more trust as a doctor than as a teacher.
In Dr. Niles’s office, Nora asked her, “Did you ever teach?”
The doctor shuffled a paper, pushing it underneath a brown manila folder. Was that where the answers were? The nerves Nora hadn’t been feeling rushed in to fill their familiar place. She wanted to reach forward, grab the folder, and run. In her car, she would read the words that would tell her why they’d taken so much blood, why the phlebotomist with two-almost-three children looked at her so strangely the last time she’d sat in his ergonomically correct chair with the armrests made for tired elbows. If she didn’t understand the words, she’d google them on her phone. She was a trained reporter, after all. She knew how to do research.
“Not really. When I was premed, I was a TA for a couple of classes. Once I had to teach a semester of childhood development but I wasn’t that good at it.” She smiled. A dimple darted into her cheek and then ducked away. “Why?”
“Do you have kids?”
Gamely, she said, “Not yet.”
“But you will.”
“I’d like to.” Dr. Niles held out her left hand and looked at it as if the small, sparkly diamond still surprised her. “I haven’t been married that long, actually. We do want kids. Someday.”
“The sooner the better.”
The doctor looked at Nora again with that sweet gaze. “You were young when you had your daughter?”
“Not too young. I was twenty-eight.” Could this woman be any more than twenty-five? She was a doctor—was it even possible she could be that young?
Dr. Niles pulled out another sheet of paper. “You just have the one child, is that right?”
“Yes.” Nora’s blood chilled, as if she’d plunged her wrists into ice water. “Why?”
“And you’re not married?”
“Are your parents still alive?”
“We never really knew our father. Our mother died in a car crash when she was forty-four.” Her age. God. She hadn’t thought of that till right now.
“She never had these kinds of episodes that you’ve been dealing with? Memory loss or confusion. Any kind of mood swings?”
Nora frowned. “Mom was a little volatile, I remember, just before the crash, but she was still working two jobs and her boyfriend had also just moved out. She was tired. It just happened.” What was the doctor implying? That if her mother hadn’t died young, she would have had something? Had what?
“What about your sister? You’re a twin, right? Identical?”
“Fraternal.” Nora was confused. “Are you asking if she’s married?”
“Does she have children?”
There was so much more under her voice, things that Nora didn’t understand. Fear tugged at the base of her neck.
“No. Just my Ellie.”
Dr. Niles nodded and leaned back in her chair. She steepled her fingers. In an older doctor, it would have come across as pensive. Knowledgeable. Instead, she looked like a child playing in a leather chair too big for her small body.
“You came by yourself today?”
“You’re scaring me,” Nora said with a smile. Maybe this would make the young doctor laugh and realize she was being too serious. Oh, sorry! I didn’t mean to frighten you. It’s really no big deal at all, nothing to worry about.
“We’ve found something.” The words were blurted out rapidly, as if the doctor didn’t know what else to do with them. “You have early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.”
Nora laughed at the words, relief soaking her like warm water. It was just a mistake, then. “I’m forty-four. Not old.”
Dr. Niles’s voice was tight as she said, “Early-onset is a different beast, I’m afraid.”
“I don’t understand. I don’t have Alzheimer’s. I’m forty-four. You can’t get it that early.” She would tell the doctor her job. That was always a good idea.
Dr. Niles reached forward, touching her papers again. Nora’s papers. Her tongue darted out and wet her lips, and Nora realized the doctor was nervous. Maybe even more so than Nora was.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Pack Up the Moon
“Herron is an inexhaustible champion of the healing power of love.”—Sophie Littlefield, National Bestselling Author
“Filled with fiercely honest emotion, a celebration of the power of love to heal even the most broken of hearts.”—Susan Wiggs, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author
“Herron writes beautifully about the love between a parent and child...A wonderful...read about love, loss, forgiveness and family.”—The Gazette
“A heartbreaking story of loss and family that achieves an optimistic feel in the end....The language [is] poetic and moving at many points.”—RT Book Reviews