Madison was digging a hole for a new fence post when the car pulled into the driveway. She knew right away it wasn’t one of their friends, for no one they knew drove a cherry-red sports car that looked like it could go a hundred miles an hour without breaking a sweat. She couldn’t identify the make, but then most of the vehicles on this road were either pickup trucks or old beater American cars from the 1970s that some backwoods mechanic kept running. She straightened and tossed her hair back, and noted that the car had an out-of-state license plate. Mike was out in the woods with his chainsaw, four-wheeler and trailer. She wondered if he had his phone with him and would hear it if she needed to get him up here in a hurry. Who could be out here with a car like that, and what did they want? She brushed her gloved hands against the legs of her jeans and watched as the car door opened and a small, long-haired woman got out. “Holy shit,” she whispered to herself, “it’s Pilar.”
Good old spur-of-the moment Pilar. Typical that she would show up without calling first. Not that Maddie minded; Mike had been distant lately, and she could use the company. She hoped her sister wasn’t going through some sort of life crisis that would keep her here for weeks – and where had she gotten a car like that?
She dropped her tools and her gloves and went to greet her. “I’m a mess,” she said, opening her arms.
“I don’t mind,” Pilar said, and they embraced. She was wearing jeans and a frilly white blouse that billowed around her small frame. Madison felt like she would crush her if she squeezed too hard.
“What are you doing here?” Madison asked eagerly. “Are you hungry? This is a nice car.”
“Thanks. It’s Claude’s. I’m just borrowing it.”
“Come on in. I’ll make some coffee. You still drink coffee, right? You’ll have to excuse the kitchen. I haven’t cleaned up since breakfast.”
“Don’t apologize,” Pilar said. “I’ll take you up on the coffee, though.” A cell phone went off somewhere inside the car. Pilar reached through the open window and fished a colorful knit handbag off the passenger seat. She found the phone and glanced at the display.
“It’s Claude,” she said. “Probably wondering where his car is.” She pressed a button and the ringtone ceased. “I don’t feel like talking to him yet.”
“I thought you said you borrowed it.”
“I did,” Pilar said, with the pixie, I’ve-got-a-secret smile Madison remembered from childhood. “I just neglected to ask him first. I’ll tell you about it over coffee.”
Inside, Pilar took a seat at the kitchen table as Madison cleared off the plates and glasses and deposited them in the already overloaded sink. “I’ll get to those later,” she said, as she moved to the coffee maker. “So you just took off with your boyfriend’s car without telling him? I imagine he’s none too pleased.”
“Serves him right,” Pilar said. “Mister Quebec Libre will have to find his own way to get to Montreal. Maybe his girlfriend can give him a ride.”
Madison poured water into the machine and turned it on. She took a seat at the table across from her sister. “Tell me,” she said.
“You mind if I smoke?” Pilar said. “We could go out on the porch if you don’t want it inside. It’s warm down here.”
“I don’t care,” Madison said. “Mike stinks up this place enough as it is. But I thought you quit.”
“I did. Claude left these in the car.” She pulled out a pack of Canadian cigarettes and laid it on the table. “I only smoke when I’m stressed, or pissed off.” She took one from the pack, rummaged in the handbag again, and found a lighter with a blue fleur de lies on it. “Claude’s lighter, too,” she said, and laughed, touching the flame to the end of the cigarette. “I think I’ll replace it with a maple leaf one, just to antagonize him.”
Madison waited for the coffee to finish brewing and her sister to continue. She knew that whatever story Pilar had to tell would come spilling out of her sooner rather than later, without any prompting from her. “You’re lucky you caught me home,” she said. “I’ve got a new schedule, with every Wednesday off. I told ’em I needed a day in the middle of the week, what with all there is to do on a farm in the spring. Jeremy’s out from California, have you heard?”
Pilar took a drag off the cigarette and nodded. “Gretchen told me.”
“In fact,” Madison said, “I’m supposed to go pick him up at the hospital this afternoon. He’s been down at the point with Paul for a few days, but he’s staying with Everett. I’m his ride back to Bangor.”
“You’re going to Ellsworth today?”
“Uh-huh.” She looked up at the clock. Eleven-thirty. Mike would be coming in for his lunch soon. “I was planning to leave around two.”
“Why don’t you ride with me?” Pilar said. “I’m going to see Mom myself. I could use the company. Hell, we’ll make a day of it.”
“Can you fit Jeremy in that spiffy little car of yours? Of Claude’s, I should say. What kind of car is that, anyway?”
“It’s a Fiat. Five-speed, and fun as hell to drive. Don’t worry, it’s got a back seat. And Jeremy’s short.”
Madison laughed at this in spite of herself, for Pilar calling someone short was like Albert Einstein calling someone intelligent. She was maybe five feet in her shoes. “What are your plans?” she asked her sister. “Can you bring me back here tonight? We’ll put you up.”
“Plans? What are those?”
“Things Gretchen makes,” Maddie replied. “I made the mistake of telling her I had Wednesdays off. She volunteered me to drive Jeremy back to Bangor and asked me if it was okay afterwards.”
“How convenient for you.”
Madison shrugged. “I don’t mind,” she said. “I was probably gonna go see Mom anyway. Your showing up was a wild card, though.”
Pilar displayed her mischievous grin again. “She doesn’t know I’m coming, either. Let’s surprise her.”
Just then the door opened, and Mike Murphy, his denim jacket covered in sawdust, entered the kitchen and did a double-take when he saw the two sisters sitting at the table. He looked first at Madison and then at Pilar, and then at his wife again. “Didn’t know we were having company,” he said.
“Neither did I,” Maddie replied.
“Hi, Mike,” Pilar chirped.
“Pilar. Long time.” Mike nodded in her general direction but did not return her smile. Madison could see the wheels turning in his mind: How long was she staying? What new crisis had happened in her life that Madison would be asked to solve? Where did she get a car like that? She got up and went to the refrigerator. “I’ll make you a sandwich,” she said. “Go clean up.”
He clomped off toward the bathroom. “I don’t know what his problem is lately,” Madison said in a low voice when she heard the water running. “He’s not being intentionally rude. He’s just been emotionally absent for the past few weeks, like he’s not really here. He comes in and has about three words to say to me.”
“How’s that song go?” Pilar said.
Pilar sang a couple of lines in a high reedy voice about a man spending all day at work and having nothing to say to his wife when he got home.
Maddie shook her head. “Doesn’t ring a bell. Everett would know it.”
“How is Everett, by the bye?”
“He’s good. He’s putting Jeremy up.”
Pilar arched an eyebrow. “That must be interesting.”
Madison shrugged. “It’s a chance for them to get to know each other,” she said. “Do some brother bonding. They never got to when they were kids.”
Pilar got up, took her half-finished cigarette to the sink, and turned on the water long enough to extinguish it. She looked around for a trashcan, and Madison pointed at a tall receptacle just inside the door. “All I remember is Jeremy coming home and arguing with everyone,” Pilar said. “Arguing with Mom, and Paul, and fucking up all the games you and Gretchen organized. If he couldn’t win, he’d find a way to ruin the game for everyone else. I hope he’s not driving Everett out of his mind.”
“He seems to have mellowed,” Madison said. “Though I’ve just seen him the once, at the hospital. But we were never close, you know. He and Gretchen ganged up on me all the time. Like if they broke something, they’d swear each other to secrecy and see if they could get Mom to blame me for it.” Madison was taking stuff out of the refrigerator as she spoke: mustard, bread, a head of lettuce, the remains of a ham, a jar of dill pickles. “You want a sandwich, while I’m making?”
“Make two and we’ll take ’em on the road,” Pilar suggested. “I grabbed a bottle of wine from the house before I left, so if you’ve got a couple of plastic cups, we’re good to go.”
Mike emerged from the hallway, wiping his hands on a towel. “So they let you back into the United States,” he said to Pilar.
“As far as I know, I’m not on any Homeland Security list,” Pilar said.
“Pilar’s driving me to Ellsworth,” Madison said. “I told her we’d put her up tonight. She can sleep in Graham’s room.”
Mike grunted his grudging assent, and Madison exchanged a look with her sister. “Nice car out there,” he said. Madison gave him credit for at least trying to be friendly, but what was his problem lately? He hadn’t fucked her in more than a month. He was up and about by four in the morning and she went to work at nine. Most afternoons and evenings he drank beer with his neighbor Bruce down the road, driving the half-mile home in a state of illegal inebriation and stumbling into bed by eight. Fortunately, few cops patrolled their road. The local authorities had an informal understanding with the local farmers. The farmers kept their most profitable crop out of sight and didn’t attract attention by marketing it openly, and the cops left them alone. Mike had scraped a few trees with his pickup truck on the way home, but over the past few years he had avoided scrapes with the law.
Their place was not a farm in the rolling, silo-dotted Midwestern sense of the word. It was a piece of land, approximately six acres, carved incrementally out of the woods over the years. The house, barn and garage, as well as the animal enclosures, had all been built by local laborers, paid under the table or in barter. The land sloped down to a creek, and on the south-facing slope was the vegetable garden, taking up most of what would otherwise have been a large back yard. Downslope and out of sight from the road was the cornfield, bare now but a glory at the end of summer. Across the creek stood a spread of woods they also owned, where Mike had spent the morning. They had been taking their winter wood out of this place since they’d lived here, and could continue to do so for years to come. It was reached by a dirt road several miles down which crossed a tiny bridge over the creek and doubled back. The trickiest part of the whole operation, from cutting down the trees to stacking the split firewood in the garage and on the deck, was negotiating a trailer full of logs over that narrow, rickety bridge. Madison had done it, the year Mike lost his license for OUI and the local sheriff’s deputy told him that yes, that did mean he couldn’t drive even on Maple Mountain Road, though he’d chanced it a few times. The deputy had known that they grew pot – everyone out here grew pot – but it was Mike’s suspended license that he hassled him about. Well, not hassled, exactly; he’d seen Mike driving in town twice and let him off with a warning both times. But after that, Madison had taken over the driving until he got his license back.
When had that been, four years ago? Five? They’d been together for a decade, and she felt time slipping away. It had been different when Graham was still at the University, and she had driven regularly to Orono, sometimes with her husband but more often attending games with her brother Everett, to shout her lungs out for her hockey-playing son. The games had given schedule to her life in the winter months when darkness and cold closed down on the farm.
But now Graham was in Florida, and this most recent winter had been hard for her. The three trips down and back were compensation, she supposed. He hadn’t lived on the farm with them full-time since his junior year at Hathaway, a hockey prep school powerhouse an hour away. But at least he’d been in the same state then, near enough that she could still feel his presence.
She saw more of her daughter and grandkids, who lived in Waterville and sometimes came up on weekends. She sensed that Serena disapproved of their outlaw lifestyle and wanted to shield the girls from it. Serena was going back to school on government money and studying to be a dental hygienist. She got free day care for her daughters but sometimes asked Maddie to babysit them anyway.
She thought about that phrase as she finished making the sandwiches: outlaw lifestyle. Madison didn’t feel like an outlaw. She liked living close to the land, out in what other people considered the middle of nowhere. She had plenty to do. Too much, sometimes, to keep the house clean or pick up some of the stray plastic buckets and pieces of machinery and piles of scrap wood and well, crap, that had a way of accumulating outside and making the place look dumpy. Madison wasn’t a worrier like her sister Gretchen. But Pilar’s presence had her wishing the place were more presentable.
And there was that sense of slippage again, of things getting away from her, of slow, gradual disintegration, leading toward decay and finally chaos. She tried to push this feeling aside, because it conflicted with her customary optimism, and it was spring and soon the crops would be blossoming. But the fraying at the edges of her life felt real.
Mike ate quickly and said he ought to be getting back to work. She got up and kissed the side of his beard as he slid toward the door. “Don’t wait up,” she said.
“Never do,” he said back, and stepped outside. A moment later she heard his truck start up and back out the driveway, and then she heard it thunk into gear. Ought to have that looked at, she thought, reminding herself to remind Mike about it. He would want to work on it himself, or with his buddies, but she knew a good mechanic in town whose acumen, when it came to cars, she trusted more than her husband’s.
“Well, so much for that,” she said brightly to her sister. “Hi Mike, bye Mike. He was downright loquacious today. I think he might have even gotten out a complete sentence or two.”
“Speaking of which,” Pilar said, “I’ve been offered a job, of sorts. Goddard wants me to teach two classes in the fall.”
“Pilar, that’s fantastic.”
Pilar shrugged her small shoulders. “I don’t know about that. It’s part time. I suppose I could commute. It’s only two days a week, though it’s a long way to drive in winter.” She reached for the pack of cigarettes, then seemed to think better of it, and pushed it about six inches farther away. “Or I could get my own place down in Vermont, and see lover boy on weekends.”
“Or, you could break up with him. I mean, if he’s cheating on you, is he worth the trouble?”
“There is that option,” Pilar said. “Come on, let’s go outside. It’s too nice a day to sit in here and commiserate about men.”
Madison wanted to give Pilar a short tour of the farm, but first she found a stack of paper cups left over from a granddaughter’s birthday party and Pilar fetched the bottle of wine from the car. She poured two half-cups and they sipped at them as Madison led her sister around the gardens and pens. She could hear Mike’s chainsaw across the creek. A hawk flew overhead and they stopped to watch it.
When they returned to the house, it was one-thirty and Pilar’s cell phone was sounding off from inside the bag she’s left on the table. She pulled it out, pressed a button, and snorted. “Three more messages. I think I’ll leave him hanging for a little longer. Can I use your bathroom? I’m all set to hit the road anytime you are.”
Madison smiled at the Maine-ism “all set.” She made a quick sweep of the house, saw that the cats had food and water and that the downstairs door was closed, took her turn on the toilet, and pronounced herself ready to go. She packed the sandwiches into a small cooler, and added two Pabsts for good measure. Mike wouldn’t miss them. “Oops, I almost forgot. I told Mom I’d bring her some cookies.” She took a paper bag out of a high kitchen cabinet and tucked it under her arm along with her jacket.
“What kind of cookies?” Pilar wanted to know.
“Special kind,” Madison said. “I’d offer you one, but you might have to let me drive if I did.”
“Oh.” Understanding dawned on her sister’s face.
“Mom loves them,” Madison said. “I don’t think she knows what the active ingredient is. But they make her feel better. She sleeps more, and she has a better appetite in the morning. Plus I’m pretty sure they help with the pain. She said she’s been feeling better lately. I don’t know if she’s connected it to the cookies, but she asked me for more.”
After pouring more wine, they headed out in Claude’s Fiat. On the open road, Pilar cranked it up over seventy. “Christ, do you always drive like this?” Maddie said.
Pilar laughed, and eased back to about sixty-five. “Everybody in Quebec does. Claude figures he gets a speeding ticket every two years or so, and says it’s the price he pays for driving as fast as he wants. He’s happy to pay it. Most people up there think the same way.”
The cell phone sounded again, and Pilar reached into the handbag that now nestled between the two front seats. She glanced down at the display and frowned. “That man is not going to give up,” she said. “I might as well talk to him.”
She hadn’t answered the three times it had rung in Madison’s kitchen, but here in a fast-moving car with her sister’s life in her hands Pilar was going to engage a pissed-off boyfriend on a cell phone. They could get popped now for speeding, distracted driving, and drinking wine in a moving vehicle. Plus the cookies, if the cop had a dog along. I guess I do live an outlaw life, Madison thought. She took another sip of wine as the car zipped around a curve.
Pilar pressed the phone to her ear. “Hello?” Madison watched her face fold into a scowl. She said something in rapid-fire French, then listened again. Another sentence or two in French – Madison knew just enough to identify the word merde somewhere in there – and then a burst of English. “Claude, I’m going to see my mother. I’ll be back tomorrow. Keep your fucking pants on.”
Pilar shut off the phone and shoved it back into the bag. “Like he ever did before,” she muttered.
“Pilar, do you know for sure he’s seeing someone else?”
“Look in the glove box.”
Madison did. Atop the owner’s manual and various papers she assumed had something to do with the car’s registration and service record, she found a tube of lipstick. She pulled it out and held it up.
“Do I look like the kind of chick who wears hot pink lipstick?” Pilar said. “In North fucking Hatley? And I don’t think he’s using it to scrawl separatist slogans on protest signs. He’s got some little sweetie in Montreal. That’s why he never wants me to go with him. He says I’d be bored in all the meetings, that everybody speaks French and I wouldn’t be able to follow the conversation. He’s all fired up about Quebec independence, but he’s just another hot-blooded Frenchman at heart.”
“Pilar, what does Claude do, exactly?”
“You mean, besides fucking and freedom-fighting?”
“He works for his father, who runs an investment firm in Montreal. The place in North Hatley is his parents’ place. He’s got an office in the house, which is sort of a satellite to the main office in Montreal. They help French-speaking businesses, all over Canada.”
“That doesn’t sounds so radical.”
“No. All the separatist shit is something Claude does on the side.” Pilar felt around in the bag and pulled out the cigarettes. “I guess it’s not the only thing he does on the side, though. You don’t mind, do you? I’ll roll down the window.”
When they hit the interstate in Newport, Pilar hit eighty, and before Madison could blink they were nearing Bangor. “Hey, I wonder what Everett’s doing today,” Pilar said. “You think he’s working?”
“He’s got a job at the University,” Madison said, “But I think they’re on break for the summer.”
“Let’s see if he wants to come.” Pilar reached for the phone as she zipped past a truck. Madison tensed as they blew by two more cars. “Here,” Pilar said, handing her the phone to forestall any further terror. “Press ‘contacts’ and then scroll down ’til you find Everett’s name.”
Though it took her a few minutes to figure out her sister’s phone, which was newer and fancier than hers, Everett answered, and a few minutes after that they pulled up to his apartment. He was game to go. After hugs all around and a pit stop to use Everett’s bathroom, they poured him into the back seat and poured him a cup of white wine in a paper birthday cup. “You know we’re bringing Jeremy back here with us,” he said. “Gonna be a tight fit.”
“Oh, we’ll manage,” Pilar said.
“What’s in the bag? Oh wow, cookies. They look good. Can I have one?”
Pilar glanced at Madison, flashed the pixie grin again. Madison lifted her eyebrows but said nothing. Everett already had a cookie in his hand, and took a big bite. Madison winked at Pilar. “Just one,” she said. “I made them for Mom.”
Everett paused in mid-bite, chewed, and swallowed. “They’re good,” he said.
“And good for you, too,” Madison told him, “even if you’re not sick.”
When they arrived at the hospital, Annabelle wasn’t in her room. The reluctant elevator dropped them off on the third floor after stopping at the second, returning to the first, and pausing at the second floor again. They found their mother at the far end of the hall beyond the nurses’ station, slowly walking as she leaned on the arm of a tall young man in scrubs. She brightened at the sight of Pilar. “Now you’re all in Maine at the same time,” she said. “Paul and Jeremy aren’t here yet. You just missed your sister Joan. She was here about half an hour ago. Pilar, how long can you stay? We’ve simply got to have a family get-together.”
“I’ve got to go back tomorrow, Mom. But I’ll come again soon, I promise. I’m sorry I missed Joanie. How long is Jeremy out here?”
“I don’t think he knows,” Everett said. “Maybe he’s hoping California will fall into the sea and decide for him.”
Madison laughed at this, and wondered if his cookie was kicking in.
“Come on down to my room,” Annabelle said. She looked up at the young man whose muscular arm she clung to. He had olive skin and dark, close-cropped hair. He could have been an ex-marine. “They get me up a few times a day, make me walk around. It’s part of my therapy. I’m getting gradually more mobile. We’re going to try stairs next week. Once I can do stairs, they’ll let me go home.”
They ambled slowly along around their mother as she made her way down the corridor, assisted by the young man, whom she had not introduced and who had not thus far spoken a word. At last, they reached her room.
“Look at this new alpaca blanket Joan brought me this morning. Now that it’s getting warmer, she brings me a blanket. But it’s soft and feels wonderful against my skin. David, help me get up on the bed, would you please, dear?”
The young man stood beside the bed and allowed his forearm and shoulder to be used for leverage as Annabelle eased her tiny frame up. He said he would be back to check on her in a couple of hours, nodded politely to the three siblings, and left the room.