“What?” Neve Weatherby, office manager of Doyle Designs, stopped typing. Her fingers dropped onto the keyboard, trailing a line of A’s across a blank page. “What do you mean? What are you talking about?”
“They’re taking it all,” Maggie said. She could barely get the words out. Something burned inside her chest. Was that her heart, actually breaking in two? “The house. And the business.”
Neve stared up at her boss. “Who is? The bank?”
The interior designer nodded. Twenty-four hours. That’s how long until the Bay Bank of New England began the foreclosure process on her house and home business, according to the icy-voiced woman Maggie had just hung up on. Fishing a piece of paper from her back pocket, she reread the latest email from her attorney.
The bank will not enter into a payment plan unless you demonstrate assets equal to the amount owed…if you cannot complete payment of your missed mortgages, the bank will not adjust your future payment schedule…unfortunately, foreclosure is the next step…please contact me ASAP to discuss other options…
She closed her eyes, rubbing one temple. What other options? Filing for bankruptcy? She’d lose her business. Selling the house? She’d have nowhere to live. Robbing a bank? She tugged at a curl. That would be about the only option worth exploring.
Neve’s narrow brows drew together. “Wait a minute. Can’t you offer them some sort of compromise? Could we come up with a couple thousand dollars? Would that stop the foreclosure?”
Maggie yanked up a bamboo blind, so hard it snapped from its frame and fell at her feet.
“How? I owe them something like fifteen thousand dollars.” Uttering the words stung her. “We can’t come up with any more money. You’re living with your parents, for God’s sake. I haven’t paid you in over a month--“
“I told you I could wait a little, until the business got back on its feet.”
Maggie continued as if Neve hadn’t even spoken. “And I sure as hell don’t have any cash lying around. I cleaned out my savings last month when the refrigerator broke, remember?”
She kicked at the blind. “No one in this town has an extra dime. I was the one stupid enough to think I could make a living here. I was the one crazy enough to think that Hart’s Falls might actually need an interior designer.”
“They did.” Tension squeezed Maggie’s shoulders, turning muscle and tendon into wire cables that pinched the nerves at the back of her neck.
“What did your attorney say?” Neve tugged at the makeshift handle on the mini-fridge beside her desk. Out came a bottle of ginger ale, half-full, no bubbles.
“Same thing she always says. If I can come up with the money for the last three months, the bank will work with me. If I can’t, then...” She couldn’t finish. Then the house goes up for auction, and I lose it. For good.
It didn’t matter that her rah-rah-voiced attorney said the foreclosure process could take months. Maggie didn’t want to sleep in a house that only half-belonged to her, a house that one morning she might wake up to find inhabited by a fresh-faced family who lugged cardboard boxes into the spaces where her life had been. Once the whole ugly process began, little pieces of her sanity would slip away, like crumbling sidewalk under her feet.
“Well, what about selling the house?” Neve asked. “I mean, then you could get money to pay off the bank, and at least you wouldn‘t lose the business. You could rent a place for a while, work out of there.”
“I don’t want to.” Little-girl stubborn, Maggie dropped her head, studying the stitching on her jeans. How could she sell the white two-story with the wide front porch, after she’d poured so much time and energy into making it her own? How could she leave?
She’d loved the sleepy hamlet of Hart’s Falls, Rhode Island, since the day she drove through, nearly five years ago. She loved its historic buildings, its tree-lined central avenue. She loved its collection of residents, from the Portuguese single father across the street to the lesbian couple who’d opened a bicycle repair shop down by the Methodist Church. The ache inside her chest cracked and spread.
“I don’t want to sell the house,” she said again. “I don’t want to pay rent to anyone else. I did that for three years in Manhattan.”
Neve nodded, resting a cheek in one palm. “Have you thought about marrying a millionaire?”
Maggie almost laughed - real laughter, not the fake kind she‘d been pretending to call up from her gut for the last couple of months. “Sure, that’s the best idea I’ve heard so far. Got any suggestions? I don’t think millionaires grow on trees around here.”
“You could go up to Boston. There must be some cute, rich guys there. Or put an ad on the Internet. Join one of those singles’ dating groups.”
“Yeah, I can just picture my profile,” Maggie said. “Desperate red-head, thirty, seeks single male with unlimited funds to rescue her from bankruptcy. Can offer a two-bedroom house with interior design business included. That sure would reel ’em in.”
A memory washed over her. She’d almost had the chance to marry into money, loads and loads of it, years ago. Of course, back then, Maggie hadn’t cared at all. Her college boyfriend could have made her queen of the world, or thrown his entire legacy down the drain, and it wouldn’t have changed a thing. She hadn’t wanted to be with him for his money or his name. She only loved the way he spun the earth beneath her feet, the way they fit together, the way he made her feel normal after so long.
Everyone else treated me like I would break, after the operation, she remembered. He just made me feel like a regular person. Attractive. Whole. She felt her cheeks redden and pressed the backs of her hands against them to stop the rush of blood.
We thought it would last forever. We made promises to each other, the kind you make when you’re twenty or so and think the rest of your life is easy to sketch out. We watched the moon move across the sky and talked about where we’d be in twenty or forty or sixty years. We made plans. We made love. We held on until we thought nothing but the splitting of the earth could pull us apart.
Stupid, Maggie told herself. Young and stupid, that’s all we were. Because at the last minute, she split them apart herself. She let all her old ghosts convince her that they would never work together. She gave in to the insecurity that made her feel all edges and angles inside the smooth sophistication of his world. She let the hollowness inside her swell until there was nothing to see but darkness. She told a lie and let him go, and he walked away.
Maggie traced the rim of her coffee mug, letting the broken edge dig into her fingertip until it hurt. God, how she missed him sometimes. How she missed the two of them together, that rhythm of a relationship, a simple waltz of days that took you through the light and the dark but always with someone holding fast to the small of your back. Steadying you. Spinning you. Loving you. She hadn’t met anyone like him in all the years since. Sometimes it seemed like she never would again.
If I hadn’t let him go, then maybe today I wouldn’t be indebted to the bank. She tossed her head, and flame-red curls tumbled everywhere. I wouldn’t be wondering how to pay my mother’s nursing home bills. I wouldn’t be lying awake at three in the morning, wondering why I let the best thing in my life walk away ten years ago.
But if she’d stayed with him, sooner or later he would have found out her secret. He would have discovered the lie she’d told from the very beginning. He would have peeled her open one day to find her missing pieces. I did the only thing I could. I couldn’t tell him the truth, not about that.
Neve started a fresh pot of coffee. “Did you eat anything this morning?”
“I don’t have time. Or an appetite.” Maggie sank onto the worn velour loveseat in the corner and tried to steady her soul.
You only have one choice. The voice prickled at the back of her skull, the way it had all night and all morning. Only one way to get the money. She pulled at a loose thread in her shirt and tried to ignore the voice. Bad enough she wasn’t getting any sleep. Bad enough her clothes hung on her five foot frame, making her resemble a damn middle schooler on the wrong side of puberty. Now Maggie could add growing dementia to her list of ailments, since her brain had been splitting into a variety of personalities lately and working against her in the wee hours of dawn. Maybe Alzheimer’s runs in the family, she thought.
“What about Bradley Torrance?” Neve asked.
“What about him?”
“Didn’t you two go out a few weeks ago?”
“Yeah.” Maggie thought of the corner table the brawny farm equipment wholesaler had reserved at the local Italian restaurant. She thought of the bottle of wine he’d selected from the list of four, the dollar he’d given her to feed into the jukebox, the way he’d forked pieces of chocolate cake from her plate.
“He’s a nice guy.” Neve poured a cup of coffee, left it black, and handed it over. “Not to mention good-looking. And he took over his father’s business the week after he graduated from high school. It’s grown twice as big since then.”
“Forget it. I’m not going out with Brad again just so he’ll feel sorry for me and pay off my debts.” The thought made Maggie cringe.
“You know, it takes time to get to know someone,” Neve went on, sounding more like a forty-year old woman than the girl just three years out of high school that she was. “You should give him another chance. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, Maggie wanted to say. Things can happen in an instant. Life can change forever in the space it takes to draw a breath. And everything--everything--can turn upside down in just one night.
Silence settled inside the former parlor that she’d painstakingly gutted and redesigned from the bottom up. Den, half-bath, kitchen in the back: she’d decorated all the rooms on the first floor of the house, imagining four years ago that they might serve as examples of the work she could do. Meanwhile, the second floor became her sanctuary, with the business below like a humming heart, inspiring her. Driving her. Keeping her alive.
I did all right, the first year or so, she thought. But between her student loans, and her mortgage, and her little Ford Escort dying once and for all, she’d slipped behind. A replacement car, even used, brought another monthly payment. Property taxes inched their way up. Moving her mother into Elmhurst House had set the last nail into place. Even an ordinary assisted-living facility, with none of the frills of the places up in Boston, ran over a thousand dollars a month. The small pension left by Maggie’s stepfather covered barely half the cost.
The long hand on the clock slid its way toward the six, and the hairs along the back of her neck stood at attention. Twenty-four hours. That’s how long I have until I lose it all. The voice returned, a mosquito buzzing about her temples. She’d turned it over fifty different times and fifty different ways inside her head. She’d explored every other avenue she could think of, and she knew the voice was right. She didn’t see a way out that didn’t involve Dillon Murphy, the stepbrother she hadn’t seen or talked to in five years. Maybe six. She had to find him. She had to ask him for help.
The thought almost made her sick to her stomach.
The telephone began to ring, and Maggie slumped farther down in the loveseat. “Let the machine get it.”
“We opened at ten.”
“I know.” But she was afraid that if she put her lips to the receiver, her throat might just open up, and the sobs would pour out, flooding the room until she floated away on her sorrow. Wouldn’t exactly be good for business.
“Hello, and thank you for calling Doyle Designs. We’re either hard at work or out of the office right now, but leave us a message and we’ll call you right back.”
Maggie held her breath, trying to guess who it might be.
It wasn’t the bank. Or a bill collector. Or the gravelly-voiced nurse from Elmhurst House.
“Yes, hello.” A deep male voice rumbled and coughed into the machine. “This is Carl Anderson, vice-president at Bullieston Software Development up in Boston. I’m interested in speaking with you about the possible purchase of your property. Our company is planning an expansion into Hart’s Falls, and we’ve been looking at several homes in the north neighborhoods down there. I understand that you might be open to discussion. I’m going to leave my cell phone number as well as the main office number here. Please call me when you can.”
He rambled off ten numbers, paused, then another ten, and came to an abrupt halt before clearing his throat and hanging up.
“What was that?” Neve asked.
“I have no idea. Play it again.”
But the message didn’t make any more sense to Maggie the second time around. Bullieston Software Development?
Her eyes widened. Wait a minute. Had this company talked to the bank? Did they already know that she was in trouble? She sighed. Of course they did. Companies like that did research, right? They sniffed around and looked into records and found out which poor souls were in danger of losing their homes. Then they snapped them up for a fraction of their worth.
“It’s one of those big Boston corporations, you think?” Neve said after a minute. “There are so many of them trying to come into town and buy real estate. Andrew was telling me about it.”
Maggie almost smiled. How long had it been since the Weatherby wedding--six months? Seven? And still Neve blushed like a schoolgirl when she mentioned her new husband. Maggie supposed it was charming, really, even though the thought of marrying one’s high school sweetheart, at the age of twenty-one, was as foreign a concept to her as swimming the ocean from Manhattan to Madrid.
She drew a random pattern on her thigh with one forefinger. She didn’t want to sell the house, not to a software company. Not even to the guy down the street. But what choice did she have? If she didn’t come up with the money, she’d lose everything.
If she didn’t come up with the money….
Maggie pushed herself to a stand. Enough feeling sorry for yourself. Figure out a way to find it. Figure out a way to pay back the bank. No matter what. She wound her hair into a tight ponytail at the back of her neck. Well, to get the money, her best bet was still to find Dillon. And to find Dillon, she needed to start with her mother, however daunting the thought. Maggie swallowed. Facing down Alzheimer’s, that slippery monster that reared and roared when you most wanted it to shut up and go to sleep, wasn’t exactly the way she wanted to spend her morning. But again, the voice buzzed, you don’t have a choice.
“Take messages from anyone who calls,” she said. Then she turned into her workroom and locked the door behind her.
Maggie punched the Play button on her stereo and scrunched down into her favorite recliner. Jon Bon Jovi, heartthrob extraordinaire and love of her life since the eighth grade, crooned the opening bars of “Livin’ on a Prayer.” She reached for her lighter and lit a clove cigarette, letting it burn in the ashtray beside her. Though she’d given up smoking them almost a year ago, sometimes she still craved the sweet smell, the kick, of a Kretek clove cancer stick.
Picking up her cell phone, she pressed the first of the saved numbers. She leaned back and followed the cigarette smoke on its hazy journey up the wall, toward the ceiling, and out the screened windows. Maggie sighed. For an instant, she wished she could ride the smoke, just journey up to the clouds and turn to vapor. I wish I could disappear. Forever.
“Elmhurst House.” The receptionist chirped her familiar welcome, breaking into Maggie’s daydream. As always, she had the urge to reach through the phone and grab the girl around the throat, stop that cheerful voice before it uttered another inane syllable. “How may I direct your call?”
“Fourth floor, please.”
“Certainly. Just a moment.” Soft rock, some sort of obscure Barry Manilow song, faded in and out as Maggie waited for the transfer.
“Fourth floor, Nurse Keller.”
That’s more like it, Maggie thought. Celia Keller, shaped like a battleship with a voice to match, fit Maggie’s mood much better most days. The steel-haired, steel-gazed head nurse never bothered with pleasantries, never dawdled in residents’ rooms to make small talk with their visitors or lingered on the phone to discuss the weather. She got straight to the point, good or bad. Maggie liked that.
“Ms. Keller, it’s Maggie Doyle. I’d like to stop by and visit my mother this morning. In about an hour or so.” “Regular visiting hours are from ten to eight, as you know.”
Maggie stared at a bare patch on her wall. I need to repaint that, she thought. I missed it, somehow, in the sunlight. Or the shadows. Either way, I’ll--
“Ms. Doyle? Are you still there?”
“How is she today?” Maggie asked in lieu of a response. She needed to know before she got there. She needed to prepare herself.
Nurse Keller cleared her throat, sounding a little like the engine of a big-block Chevy revving up for a drag race. “She’s been sitting in the parlor for the last hour or so. Not too talkative today, but she’s awake and out of bed. I’d take that as a good sign.” Her voice remained noncommittal, not revealing much of anything. Maggie supposed when you worked in a place like Elmhurst House, you couldn’t get too attached to any one person on any given day.
“All right. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” The nurse’s words sounded stiff. “We’ll see you in a little while, then.”
Yes, you will, thought Maggie, as she hung up the phone and uncurled herself from the chair.
Standing in front of the mirror, wondering if it mattered whether or not she changed her shirt or did her hair, she tried to imagine the world inside her mother’s head. She tried to picture the cast of characters from the past that had taken up residence there. Maggie pulled at the corners of her eyes, trying to make the tiny wrinkles disappear. She’d never even heard of early-onset Alzheimer’s before three years ago. She certainly hadn’t imagined the way it could twist a life into something unrecognizable.
At first, her mother had joked about losing her car keys or driving all the way to the salon and forgetting her purse. She blamed her failing eyesight for the fact that she put away all of her socks in the basement freezer. She told Maggie that the reason she called her daughter Diane sometimes was because she’d always wanted Maggie’s middle name to be that instead of May.
I wanted to believe her, Maggie thought as she took out her ponytail, parted her hair and pulled a brush through it. The snarls hurt. I wanted to accept every excuse she gave me. After John died, I thought just living by herself made her lonely. God help me, I thought she made up half her problems just to have something to talk about when she called me every night.
The telephone call after midnight in a sleety November had changed all that. Maggie had driven home, four hours without stopping, to find a woman she didn’t recognize curled up in the fetal position, whispering names that Maggie didn’t know and had never heard before.
Some of the doctors tried to find environmental reasons for it, personal triggers for her mother’s dementia. Some simply pointed to chemical changes in her mother’s brain, as if Hillary Doyle were a specimen to be analyzed, more a subject and less a person. All charged more than Maggie’s meager health insurance policy or Hillary’s pension could cover. In the end, it didn’t matter what had altered her mother. Elmhurst House, the only assisted-living facility within fifty miles of Hart’s Falls that Maggie could afford, became Hillary Doyle’s new home. They’d packed up everything one weekend, put the shabby Poughkeepsie house on the market, and driven straight to Rhode Island. Her mother hadn’t spoken one word the entire trip.
Maggie usually visited on Sunday afternoons. Sometimes Wednesday evenings. Now she had to make the twenty-two mile trek under a blazing morning sun, with fingers crossed that her mother would remember Dillon, would remember the things she’d told Maggie about him, some three or four years ago.
Dillon came to visit this weekend. He’s moving back East, he says. I’m glad. Maybe he’ll visit more often…
You know, your brother is doing well for himself. Finally got away from that partner who was stealing half the profits…
Dillon called yesterday. Wanted to treat me to a weekend up in Boston. Said his business is taking off, that he picked up a couple of rich clients who want to hire him for the whole summer…
Maggie catalogued the things she knew about her brother--her stepbrother, really, no relation except in growing up under the same sagging roof. One: after spending some time wandering around California and Oregon, doing odd jobs, he’d found his way back East. To Boston, maybe, or someplace close by. Two: he owned his own company, or had at one point. And three: this company was successful enough to attract elite city spenders. She ticked off the positives on her fingers and hoped they might outweigh the negatives circling her brain.
He doesn’t live in Boston.
His business went belly-up years ago.
He never even started one to begin with.
Maggie stared out the window, at the lilacs and hyacinths and lily of the valley blooming in her backyard. She’d planted them all, taken gardening books out of the local library and urged the flowers to take root and bloom for her. She found, after the first few visits with her mother, that she needed something else to tend to, bright faces that responded to the sun and the rain and her voice talking to them. She picked at a chip in the wooden sill, blinking back tears that had snuck up on her. Darn it. I don’t even want to say goodbye to my gardens.
She rubbed at her eyes. Well, I won’t worry until I get there, she thought, slipping her bare feet into flip flops. Until I see Ma. Until I hear what she has to say. She grabbed her purse, vintage patchwork and suede with a clasp that didn’t always work, and headed for her car. Only if she doesn’t remember me, only if she doesn’t have a clue about where I might find Dillon, will I panic.