|Pub Date: 12-6-22|
Adult - Historical Fiction
This is a dual-narrative story about two sisters who realize their mother isn’t who they’d always thought when a legendary movie star shows up at her funeral, unraveling the sweeping story of a friendship that begins at a nursing school in Iowa in 1967 and onward as it survives decades of change, war, fame—and the secrets they kept from each other and for each other.
Horner’s Funeral Home was on the other side of town from the Greensboro University, and St. Luke’s School of Nursing’s white clock tower was just visible over the trees. The university had all the flags lowered to half-mast for the week. It was a nice touch. Mom had been a student there and then a teacher and for the last twenty years, an administrator.
She closed her eyes, letting the wind do its work.
Clara felt her sister lean back against the wall next to her, smelling of vanilla and Pinot Grigio.
“Hey,” she said, eyes still closed.
Clara hummed in her throat, a sound that wasn’t yes or no. That was, in fact, the exact sound of the exhausted limbo the last few days had put her in.
“Me neither,” Abbie said. “It just… I feel like I’m missing something, you know? Like I’m walking around all wrong.”
Clara felt the same. Being BettyKay Beecher’s daughter was a part of her identity she didn’t always carry comfortably, but it was there.
“Where’s Vickie?” Abbie asked, and Clara caught herself from flinching at the sound of her girlfriend’s name.
“She wishes she could be here but she has a case in front of the Illinois Supreme Court.”
She felt Abbie’s doubt, the way she wanted to probe and pick.
“Did you have to blow up that picture so damn big?” Clara asked, before Abbie could get to her follow-up questions.
All around the funeral home were pictures of the Beecher family. And—God knows why—Abbie had decided to blow up to an obscene size, the picture of their mother that was on the back of her book: Pray for Me: The Diary of an Army Nurse in Vietnam. In it BettyKay was a fresh-faced twenty-two-year- old, with a helmet-shaped brunette bob wearing an olive green United States Army Nurse Corps uniform.
“Fiona’s turning into a little parrot, so we don’t swear anymore. We say ‘effing’ and ‘darn’ and ‘poop.’”
“That’s effing nonsense.”
“Probably.” Clara could hear the smile in her sister’s voice. “And yes, I did. I love that picture of Mom. She looks so brave.”
Clara thought she looked terrified.
“Max and Fiona don’t understand what’s happening,” Abbie said. “They keep asking why Gran is lying down.”
Clara’s laugh was wet with the lingering allergic reaction to the flowers. “That’s awful.”
“Denise from the hospital keeps trying to get the kids to touch Mom’s hand. So they can feel how cold she is and then they’ll understand.”
“What will it make them understand?”
“That she’s dead.”
“That’s morbid even for Denise.” They were both laughing, which felt alien but sweet.
“She says it will give them closure.”
Abbie reached out and grabbed her hand. Clara started to pull away, but Abbie didn’t let go.
I should tell her. Part of her even wanted to. To share the burden of information like they were kids again. And Abbie, who liked the view from the perch her reputation as a Beecher in this town gave her, would tell Clara it wasn’t true. Couldn’t possibly be. That Mom had been wrong. Angry. Something.
Some excuse to keep everything the way it was.
That was why Clara couldn’t tell her. Because Abbie had to live in this town side by side with the memory of Mom. Bringing Abbie into it would make her sister’s life harder.
“Abbie, don’t get upset but I am going to leave after the reception at the church.” There. Done. Band-Aid-style.
“And go where?” Abbie asked.
And here comes the look. “Chicago? You’re kidding.”
“We have a new client—”
“You’re leaving?” Accidentally Clara caught Abbie’s furious gaze and wished she hadn’t. She could see her sister’s rage and her grief and it felt worse than her own.
“I’ll be back,” Clara lied.
“Bullshit.” So much for not swearing.
“You know. I should have expected this. You show up last-minute in your car and your ugly suit—”
“With your nose in the air—”
“I’ll pay to have the house boxed up.”
Abbie sucked in so much air Clara went light-headed from the lack of oxygen around her.
“Can we please not make this a big deal?” she asked.
“What did I ever do to you, Clara? To make it so easy for you to leave me behind?”
The wind caught the side door as it opened, banging against the brick with a sound that made Clara and Abbie jump like they’d been caught smoking.
Ben, Abbie’s husband, stuck his head out and Abbie stepped forward. Ben was a good-looking guy in a gentle giant kind of way. Constantly rumpled, but usually smiling. He reminded Clara of a very good Labrador retriever.
She wanted to pat his head and give him a treat. And then yell at him for tracking mud across the rug.
“There you are,” he said.
“I was just getting some air,” Abbie said, with surprising defensiveness. “Is everything okay?”
“There’s…” Ben glanced over his shoulder and made a face, bewildered and somehow joyful in a way that made Clara and Abbie push off the wall. It was his mother-in-law’s funeral after all. Joy was a strange sentiment.
“What?” Clara asked.
“Well, I think you should come in and see for yourself.”
Ben held the door while Abbie and Clara walked back into the packed room. Everyone was silent now, pressed to the walls and corners in little clumps, whispering in that painfully familiar way out of the corners of their mouths and behind their hands. There was a path down the center of the room right to Mom’s casket, where she lay with her arms crossed, wearing her favorite green dress and way too much blush.
Standing at the casket, was a woman. A stranger.
Everything about her screamed not from around here. She wore an elegant long black skirt and a pair of boots with low heels of rich black leather. A gray sweater (Ralph Lauren Collection cashmere or Clara would eat her own boots) with a black belt around her trim waist. Her hair was long and silvery blond, the kind that appeared natural but Clara would put money on the fact that it cost a lot and took a lot of time to keep that way.
She kind of…glittered.
“Who is that?”
“You don’t recognize her?” Ben whispered between Abbie and Clara’s shoulders, his breath smelling of coffee and cough drops.
Something about the woman did seem familiar, polished.
“Is she from the publishing company?” she asked Abbie.
“I don’t think so. They sent a cheesecake.”
“That morning show Mom did sometimes, in Des Moines? Ramona?”
“Ramona Rodriguez died, like, ten years ago.”
Clara should know this woman. But her mother’s funeral was throwing her off.
“Are you kidding me? You really don’t recognize her?” Ben asked. “It’s Kitty Devereaux.”