I’ve done everything I can. Dusted as high as I could before the dizzies soared in, Atty staggering me even more, volunteering to finish off for me, my nervousness that apparent. He climbed his stool again and again, sweeping the mantel, the tops of lamps. He knocked down this huge cobweb in the corner, though he admitted it was kind of his favorite. “It blows around when the door’s open. Like waves.” I’ve never been a Martha Stewart, and looking up, a sure way to bring on the dizzies, is something I avoid whenever possible, but good God, favorite cobwebs? I had no idea how far things had deteriorated.
In on it, too, in her own way, Iz unbraids her hair for the first time since who knows when, brushes it out till it glows. She’s, well, stunning. Four years old and already scary beautiful. I’d say that even if she weren’t mine.
So then, the house sparkling, we wait, Atty perched on the back of the couch like a lookout on some Mongol peak, gazing up the street, down, Izzy asking again about Allie. “Mom, is she your best friend?”
“She was,” I manage. “But I haven’t seen her in years. Years and years.” Seven, I think, though that kind of cataloguing is no longer easy for me. Eight? She came out the once with…with…who? Some guy, another guy. Even with myelin slick as Teflon, that parade would be tough to keep in order. We still had Half Moon Whitewater, I remember that. She’s never met At or Iz. We floated, camped out at…at… Goddamn, a night on a river? I never thought I’d lose one of those. But, though the name escapes, I feel the heat of the sand under my feet, dig my toes into that like a massage. There was a kind of cave, our fire playing off a big limestone overhang. Dalt will know. He’ll remember. I’ll have to ask. He promised he’d be home as soon as humanly possible. I made him promise. God. Like seeing Allie again is something I need backup for.
But the dancing firelight, the soot stains on the amphitheater of the cave roof, they’re right here. I smile, remembering watching Allie and the man of the hour, whatever the hell his name was, playing grab ass around the fire. How when Dalton and I walked upstream to fish, to give them a little time, Dalt said it was a shame, he kind of liked this one, that it was too bad the odds of seeing him again, with Allie’s track record, were so slim. When we got back they’d already pitched their pads and bags way back against the rock, so Dalt and I made our bed out at the mouth, the swimming hole eddy swirling only feet away. Dalt glanced up at the sky, saying, “Let’s pray it doesn’t rain upstream.” Later, but not later enough for any considerations of modesty, the firelight dying, but still aglow, glimmering on the cave roof over our heads, Allie started into it with the nameless boy. The amphitheater, Dalt and I discovered, as did the Romans or Greeks, or whoever, acted like a giant ear, treating me and Dalt to every whisper, every moan and gasp, every single slurp and suck. We nearly died. Dalt whispered, “Sounds like hogs at the trough,” and I nearly peed myself, said, “Oh, it is.” We fought so hard not to spoil it for them, not to blow the mood with our gales of laughter, that I was sore the next morning, my ribs bruised with hugging it all in. But, even so, listening to that, well, it caused issues, and Dalt and I, we were stealth itself, and I fall back into that, the two of us going all slow and silent, stretching it out and out until long after Allie and her guy had fallen away, long after we thought we could, and then, how at the end, every nerve frazzled and frayed to snap point, I had to fight not to scream, not to bellow, “We win!” Instead, our breaths barely caught, without a word of planning, even a question, a request, Dalt and I slipped the few feet into the river, slick as otters with each other’s sweat, came up cold together, each wiping the hair, the water out of the other’s face. We went round and round the eddy, watery kisses, kicking only enough not to cross the line, get swept downstream, the cave black now, the fire out, the moon bright behind the hill, the tops of the pines etched out like battlements against it, holding everything at bay, the world, the future, all that’s marred under the harsh light of tomorrow.
Izzy says, “Aren’t best friends forever?”
I run my hand over her hair. Like silk. “Of course. It’s just that we moved so far away.”
“She’s here,” Atty says.
I jump, having watched Izzy play with her hair instead of even looking at mine. I’m wearing a sweatshirt, for Christ’s sake, knowing Allie would be on me like stink if she thought I dressed up for this. But the big-belly, hand-warmer pocket, besides covering a multitude of sins around my waistline, is a pretty good spot to bury a claw. I actually, and I’m not proud of this, dug out an old rescue kit, the triangle bandages, and, dusting off long dormant first aid skills, rigged myself a sling, took another triangle and tied my arm against my body, tight enough to stop the shaking, tight enough I could barely breathe. In the end, though, there was my hand, hanging out of the creamy, tattered cloth, curled and twitching. I tugged it all off. Had to get Iz to help me untie the knots, reroll the bandages. I wondered about calling any one of my docs, begging for a cast, amputation, anything. And I wind up with a sweatshirt. But it’s got we heart mom blazed across the chest, and that kind of says it all, too. Who I am now. And corny enough it’ll give us something to laugh over. I shake my head, think, Fabulous, you’re wearing an icebreaker. She’s my best friend, and even four year olds know what that’s about. Where have I gone, I wonder. I miss me.
But I hear a car door slam, and burrow my bad hand as far as it will reach into the pocket, finger comb my feral hair, and instead of heading for the door, or even the window, I ask Atty, “Is she still beautiful?”
He twists around with a look on his face that so says, How the hell would I know? It gives me the smile I need to open the door.
Allie is not still beautiful, she is more so. Izzy could be hers. Her hair’s a cascade of blonde highlights that, goddamn her, are completely natural. Her legs are miles long, still sheathed in Levi’s, a sleeveless shirt showing off her tanned guns, a fleece vest I’m sure got plucked out of some seconds bin, but on her looks tailored, hugging in, swelling out, in places that on normal people would have to be airbrushed.
We stop a second, both of us doing the check out, and she grins, says, “Holy effing shit. We all heart Mom. Duh.” And then she grabs me, flattens me all over her, my lame arm pinched between us, something I wonder if she feels pattering there against her belly, the heartbeat of something alien between us.
She leans back to look at Iz and At in the doorway, whispers, “You did it! Just like you said you would.” She bends low, says, “Hello, guys,” and Atty comes out and shakes her hand. Poor guy looks like an ambassador delivering the surrender documents.
Allie sucks in a breath when Iz steps out, says, “Oh my God, Mad, she’s gorgeous.”
“I know. Who’d’ve figured.”
“Well, there’s Dalton. She’s got some genes on her side.”
Atty’s eyes widen.
“Girl talk,” Allie says. “You’ll get used to it. You and your dad had Mom outnumbered too long. I’m the reinforcements. We’ve got the odds now.” She dips her head to the side, shrugs an apology, says, “Sucks for you.”
“My dad will be back soon,” Atty promises, which absolutely slays Allie, and poor At, he doesn’t get it, can’t, and he retreats to the house with his sense of dignity in shambles, and I know Allie will never win him back. Good eye, I want to say to him, you steer clear of every girl like Allie you ever meet. I mean, if I was a guy, I’d wait years for my turn, decades. But my son? No way. Not ever.
I can’t help a glance to her car behind her, the empty passenger seat. I can’t remember the last time I saw her alone. She only said that she was going to be out this way, that she’d love to see me, that how’d we ever let it get this long to begin with?
I really don’t know. Well, yes I do. I know exactly when my calls began tapering off, my emails. To everyone. Can you say dizzies? Nasties? Tremors? Sure you can. It’s easy. M-fucking-S. Who the hell would I want to tell about that? Why? Who would want to hear? If I had to make a list of those people, I’d have to say, though I love her to death, Allie would not even make the finals. But really, not many have. Even my parents. Every time they came out, I played Mad the Invincible, sapping myself of energy I didn’t have to spare, collapsing for weeks the moment they left.
No, that news has wrapped only around us, me and Dalt, At and Iz, not much I’m able to hide from them, all of us cocooned within it together. Really, leaving the valley, all our old friends, made at least that easier. Not having people watch me decline. I just couldn’t stand that.
“So,” Allie says, “gorgeous kids, darling house.” She looks around. “Where’s the hot husband?”
“Working,” I say. "He really will be back soon. Atty wasn’t kidding.”
“Atty? What’s that short for?”
“You’d never believe me.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Some old boyfriend?”
“Name your kid after an old boyfriend? Allie, even you are not that twisted. And you know exactly how many boyfriends I’ve had.”
“Not enough,” she says.
“What was it I called you before?”
Allie rolls her fingers, as if to say out with it. “The name?”
“Bitch, that was it.”
“Atty.” She takes a wild stab in the dark. “Atticus?”
“Attila. Dalt was in Mongolia.”
Allie eyes me long and hard, says, “Honey, what have you got to drink?”
And that’s how Dalt finds us, out back on the deck he made, away from the prying eyes of any neighbors. We’ve fallen into first one six-pack, then another.
Izzy is swinging in her tire, and even Atty has loosened up some, standing on top of the tire above Iz, hanging on to the rope. When they see Dalt they launch off, come running, hit him just as he’s opening a beer. He sets it down, foam cascading over the top, puddling around its base while he rolls around in the grass with the kids. He’s avoided the hug with Allie this way, which she sees as plainly as I do. She fixes me with a look. “Are you guys always this disgusting?”
“Pretty much,” I say.
Dalt grills burgers for the kids, and then, glancing at us, tallying our empties, burgers for us too. The scallops, marinating in the fridge, I can see him think, might be better saved for tomorrow.
Later, Dalt puts the kids to bed, and they both hug me goodnight, kiss me, then go and hug Allie, too, tell her goodnight. She’s surprised. I catch her flinch, then she hugs back, tells them to sleep tight, watches them tail Dalt into the house until they’re all gone, and it’s just me and Allie and the dusk. Maybe that’s all she’s been waiting for. I think she might say something about the kids, Dalt, my luck, but she wags the neck of her beer bottle towards my bad arm and says, “So, what’s up with that?”
It’s the beer, I suppose, that made me think I was going to skate through the whole visit without getting caught. An absolute pipe dream, but I’m caught off guard. I stammer, say, “What?” and she says, “Your arm,” not delayed a second by any dodge, then, “Come on, Mad. What’s going on?”
I look around the yard, wish we had fireflies here, like we did in Ohio, something I haven’t thought of in years. The kids would just love them. We could catch them in jars.
“Maddy?” Allie says, but she’s not her usual insistent self. She’s concerned, and I hate that.
“It’s nothing,” I say. “Just banged up.”
“My ass,” she says.
“That’s banged up, too?”
She slaps her rear, says, “No junk in this trunk,” and for that second I think I’m off the hook, but she follows with, “What is it, Mad? Parkinson’s or something?” She’s almost kidding, coming up with the worst she can think of so the truth will be easier.
I look down the neck of my empty bottle, that little black hole, and shake my head. “No. Not Parkinson’s. Just a little MS.” I give her the lowdown.
Allie doesn’t say anything, not for a long time, and I sit with my bottle, peel the label off, flatten it against my thigh, which, thank God, is not doing any of its twitches. The beer, which I read on the label for the first time, is a Rogue. “We were thinking, if Dalt can get away, we might do the Rogue while you’re here. The wild-and-scenic stretch. You up for it?”
“ms?” Allie says. “You’re sure? Not pms?”
I shake my head. “They’re kind of different.”
I take a pull on my empty bottle and Allie says, “There’s nothing in that,” and before I know it she’s waiting on me. See what I mean? She presses a fresh bottle into my hand, takes a knee in front of my Adirondack chair, and I say, “Dalt made these chairs,” and she puts her arms around me, and doesn’t say a word.
It’s nice and all, but, to tell the truth, I’d rather have fire ants crawl over me. I mean, I’d take a hug from Al any day of the week, any time there wasn’t some guy there already, hogging all the space. But not for this. Not for pity. Not because I can no longer hide my arm, my self.
“Come on, Al,” I say. “It’s okay.”
But she doesn’t let go, just looks up at me, her hair clinging to my sweatshirt, same way Izzy’s does. It’s almost dark, but her eyes sparkle. They always do, but I’m terrified they’re misting up, that this could tip into horrible in the next instant.
“Allie,” I say. “Get up. Dalt’ll come out and think I switched teams.”
She lowers her head to my chest, so much like Iz now it’s all I can do not to wrap her up, promise her we’ll all always be okay. “He’ll want to shoot videos,” she says.
I try a chuckle, but it’s dust dry. I swig from the beer Allie brought. “Get up,” I say. “Please.”
She does, pats my leg, takes the step back, sags down into her chair. “I can’t believe you didn’t let me know,” she says.
“Oh, hi, Allie, I’m fucked up. Just thought I’d let you know. It’s stupid.”
“Not telling me is stupid.”
“Why? There’s nothing you can do.”
“Do? You called both times you were pregnant, didn’t you? There was nothing I could do about that.”
“You could be happy.”
“And what, I can’t be sad?”
“No. There’s no point. It just turns into pity, and that’s…I don’t know. I hate that.”
“I hate that? Holy shit, Mad. You need to get out some, talk to adults now and then.”
I tilt my head back, daring the dizzies, and look up at the stars. “I’m fine, Allie. Really, I am.”
“How bad is it?”
I smile. Those are exactly the words she used when she finally asked me straight out about Dalt. How bad is it? Only Allie. Like the real deal is this kind of affliction. Man, if only she could know.
“Maddy?” she presses.
“It depends on the day,” I say, blow a breath up to the sky. “There can be bad ones, but, mostly, it’s no big deal.”
“No big deal how?”
“God, Allie, would you? It just wears me down sometimes. Makes me tired. That’s all.”
“And just the one arm’s tired now?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” I yank my hand out of my pocket, hold it up waving between us, my thumb clicking against my curled fingers like some Spanish dancer brandishing her castanets. As soon as I see it myself, I stuff it back in its pocket.
I look away from Allie’s face, her eyes. Just what I expected. Stricken. I take a swig of beer, and say, “It’s okay, Allie. Really. It is.”
Allie nods, and I see her struggle, the way she works up a smile, if a shaky one, awfully brittle. She clears her throat. “I suppose a girl could do a wicked hand job with that,” she says, and the beer shoots straight up into my sinuses, and I splutter, “Ass!” and she says, “Well?” and we laugh, and Dalt slides open the back door, takes one look and says, “I don’t have a chance back here, do I?” and I say, “You never did,” and Allie snorts, says, “We should have both done you that night in the moonlight,” and Dalt says, “Um, right. Well, I’m going to call it then. I got Friday. The weekend. We can do the Rogue if you want.”
“Check him out,” Allie says, “still hoping.”
But I only smile at that, the hilarity gone as fast as it came, because I don’t really like seeing Allie see that there is one guy on the planet who isn’t lusting for her, don’t like seeing the cracks it exposes in her. I mean, if that’s all you’ve got, and you know it can’t last long, shit, give me ms. And since she’s been all relentless about my arm, I finally ask what I’ve been meaning to since she stepped out of that car alone. “So, where’s your guy?”
“Which one?” she shoots back.
“Any. Alissa solo. Don’t know if I’ve seen that before.”
She plucks a beer from the cooler beside her, swooping it up and twisting off the cap in a move that could be on a beer commercial. “Rebounding a little bit,” she says.
“You?” I say. “Rebounding?”
“Allie, that’s like me having a little ms.”
“Being a little pregnant.”
It’s an old joke, like being sort of dead, and I almost miss that she doesn’t say it quite right. It’s a beat or two before I say, “Are you?”
“A slip up.”
“You don’t know him.”
“Well.” I lean forward. “Tell me. Where is he?” I hadn’t expected this kind of juice.
“Fuck if I know,” she says, and, even with all her men, this is the very first time I’ve ever seen her the way I’ve always imagined them, stunned and staggered as she lowers the boom, flips the switch, lets them know she’s moving on.
“He wasn’t in it for that,” she says.
“And?” I’m so shocked I give a wave toward her tummy, and I use my bad hand, don’t realize till then that it’s found its way out of my pocket.
“Taken care of,” she says. She’s studying the deck boards, Dalt’s spacing between them so regular they look fake.
I try to take a sip, but only clink the bottle rim against my teeth. This with my good hand. Taken care of. It’s not the first time, I know that. I drove her to the clinic in Corvallis, back when we were first in school. I hardly knew her then. She hadn’t even asked me to summer in Wyoming with her yet, learn the river trade. It’s kind of, I realize, what we bonded over.
“Allie,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
She shrugs. “I, it’s…” She traces the neck of her bottle across her lower lip. “It’s harder when you’re older,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
I don’t know what to say. I’ve never expected anything about it. Those scary years with Dalt, wondering if it was ever going to happen, I would have never been anything but overjoyed by the news. I never, ever, would have gone the other way. But then I think of before, with Troy. If something had happened there, despite his claims to be firing nothing but blanks. No. That would not have worked.
“You get wondering how many chances you’re going to get,” Allie says, and I look up, see that night is full on around us, Allie just a shadow beside me.
“You, you’re thinking about having kids?”
“Maddy,” she says, “sitting here, watching you, how could you even ask? You guys are like the Cosbys or something.”
“But I’ve been wanting this my whole life. You, Allie, not exactly your style.”
“Styles can change, can’t they? Is that against some rule?”
“Sure, Al, sure they can.”
We sit in the dark. I hear Allie picking at her label now, the tear of paper.
“So,” I say, after we’ve been quiet long enough. “This guy.”
I close my eyes. “Yeah. Him.”
“I told you about him. Last year, when you called on my birthday.”
I rack my brain, but these are the kind of things that are the hardest for me to bring up, all the birthday calls I’ve ever made sifting down into one lump—The Birthday Call. Nothing at all about a guy Allie talked about. There are a lot more of them than birthday calls. But a year ago. That’s a long haul for her.
“The married one,” Allie says into the darkness.
Now that detail should stand out, but still I draw a blank. “Married, Al? That’s kind of off-limits, isn’t it?”
“Was supposed to be. But, it wasn’t ever a plan,” she says, then, “You don’t remember talking about this?”
“I’m sorry, Al. It’s just, this shit plays hell with my memory.”
She’s silent, and I say, “It’s not just some lame excuse.”
“When I went in to pee,” she says. “I…you’ve got railings in your hall. I thought maybe there was something wrong with one of your kids, something I missed. Or maybe that they just came with the house.”
“Dalt put them there,” I say.
“Figures,” she says. “Mr. Fricking Perfect.”
“You have trouble walking?”
“We’re talking about you here, Allie. Hello? Married guy. What the hell?”
“But, walking, Mad. That’s like pretty basic stuff.”
“It’s only when it’s really bad. I get off balance. Dalt overreacted.”
“Off balance,” Allie says. “Overreacted. Lot of that going around.”
“It wasn’t a plan, Mad. Certainly not a good one. It could have been. But it wasn’t. And the getting pregnant. That was a terrible plan.”
“You planned it?”
“Sarcasm, Mad. No. No way in hell I would have planned that.”
“So. That was the end of it?”
“There never should have been a start.” Allie lets out a breath. “But it could have been great, Mad. It really, really could have been. So great. But, um, somebody’d beaten me to the punch.”
I wish it wasn’t so dark, that Dalt had remembered to turn on the light. I need to see her face to believe this is Alissa talking, Allie, the master spinner, caught in her own web. It’s more than I can fathom. “But, he’s running around on his wife,” I say. “It couldn’t be that great. He couldn’t be.”
“Like I said, you don’t know him.”
“Allie?” I say. “Is this really you?”
She laughs then, a little, and says, “I know. And, no, I’m not sure this is me. Not sure who me is anymore.”
“Allie,” I say. “What happened?”
She clinks her bottle against the arm of her chair. It sounds empty. “I don’t know. I just, I don’t know, got stupid or something. It just happened. Then we were so far over our heads so fast. It was like boiling down the canyon in a canoe.”
“Is he still, married?”
I hear movement, a nod or a shake, I can’t tell. “He couldn’t leave his kids. Do that to them.”
“So, you do know where he is.”
“Yes.” It’s only a whisper.
“Are you still…”
“No. I can’t. We can’t.”
“Did he know? About—”
“Yes. Like I said, it wasn’t something we could do.”
There’s a tiny part of me that wants to ask, Well, what part of it was something you could do? I mean, she totally dragged me over the coals about Troy, when I finally fessed up about what was going on with Dalt. She was merciless. That kid, she kept calling him, making me wonder if Troy had called her, signed her up to play for his side.
“It wasn’t like the clichés,” Allie says. “Nothing like that at all. It wasn’t all sordid.”
“Okay,” I answer. But, a pregnant mistress, the guy fleeing back to the wife and kids? What’s not sordid?
“You think I’m full of shit, don’t you?”
“Allie. No. I don’t know anything about it.”
“Maddy. It’s me, Allie. Remember? You can tell the truth.”
I reach out into the darkness, clink my empty against hers. “You’re talking to a woman who shared a room with you,” I say. “I wouldn’t lie to you.”
“No, you just wouldn’t tell me,” she says, then quick, “I’m talking to a woman who saw Mr. Right and grabbed on for dear life. A woman smart enough to do that.”
“Well. But. That’s not normal. It just happened, Allie. We both just knew. There wasn’t any wondering.”
“Well, I’ve done a lot of wondering. With a lot of guys. And this time, we both just knew, too. We had it, Mad. God. Right in the palms of our fucking hands.”
“Well, it’s not like he’s the only—”
“Tell me, Maddy, how many times has it happened for you? Where you just knew?”
“Yep. And I’ve been out in the field a whole lot longer, doing a whole lot more research.”
I don’t know what to say.
“And so I come here, to see my old wild child pal, cheer myself up, only to find a mild child, all cozy in paradise, everything you’ve ever wanted all tucked in around you.”
“With railings on the walls,” I say.
You can nearly see the sudden pall of frost in the air between us. I hold my breath, don’t want to see the ice-queen cloud it would leave before me.
It’s Allie who exhales first. “But he doesn’t give a shit, does he, Mad?” she says, like one long sigh. “About how you get. Only tries to help. Happy to take you any way you come.”
“I try not to let him see.” I can only whisper. “When it gets bad.” I have never even admitted this to myself.
“Keep it secret?” She tilts her head back to the night. “God, Maddy, you two.”
She runs a hand up through her hair, the golden fall of it. “I caught a glimpse of something that good myself, but couldn’t have it, had to turn away.”
Now I want to get down on my knees, wrap my arms around her, cry all night. “Allie,” I say.
“Yeah, I know. Sucks for me.” She waits, but I can’t answer, can’t muster so much as one forlorn chuckle. “Are we out of beer here?” she asks. I’ve seen this before, Allie slumped on her stool in the corner, gearing up for the next round. Come out swinging.
“There’s more inside,” I tell her.
“Perfect,” she says, pulling herself up out of her chair. “I’ve got to pee anyway.”
I say, “Me too,” and get up to follow her in, use the chance to slip in behind her, instead of having her behind me studying my lurching gait, my trampoline walk, grabbing at everything in sight. Actually a beer usually helps, but four, five, six? Doubtful, at best.
But as soon as she hears me trying to rise, Allie steps back, takes my elbow, walks beside me. “I saw you walking before,” she whispers into my ear. “You really did almost hide it.”
I’m so grateful for her presence, more than her arm, I lean into her, tip my head against hers. “The Rogue,” I say. “You never answered. You’ll stick around long enough for that, won’t you?”
I feel her shrug. “I don’t know, Mad. Not sure I could take seeing all of you so perfect. Or listening to you and Mr. Wonderful going at it all long and slow. So right. You go skinny dipping again afterwards, it might just break what’s left of my heart.”
I stagger, and she holds me up. “You knew?” I say.
She puts her arm around my shoulder, no stupid Boy Scout elbow touch, but the real deal, and she says, “That’s when I knew. That I wanted that. What you had. First time ever. I mean, how stupid could I have been?”
“God,” I say, nearly giggling. “Dalt’d just die.”
She squeezes hard, really hugging me. I don’t need to be held up, but it’s all right now, this way. “Hiding stuff is stupid, Mad,” she says. “Believe me. It doesn’t work. People get hurt. Nobody ends up happy. It’s a bad plan. A very bad plan.”
We get inside and she leaves me in the kitchen, starts off for the bathroom. “Use the railing,” I shout after her.
“I may need to,” she says, and she laughs, and I remember that sound with no trouble at all, something immune to sheath scarring, to poor planning, to all things ever hidden, too deeply embedded to ever fade out.