That night a storm rolled over the hills and Phia woke to a thunderclap that rattled the windows, followed by a blinding flash as lightning struck the rod on the barn roof. As the thunder rumbled over the house, she sat upright in bed, disoriented, her heart pounding, her hand reacing instinctively for the comfort of Susu. The empty pillow was cool to her touch. Susu was sleeping soundly in her own house; only Phia was awake in their childhood bedroom. Feeling the rungs of the familiar headboard, she squinted at the silhouette of her highboy dresser in the eerie flashes of lightning, its arched sides looking like bent arms carrying a heavy, but invisible, load. Her feet were freezing--she'd kicked off all the blankets--and she reached down, feeling sick as she remembered the blood of her dream, flowing down the stairs, over her bare feet. Turning on the light beside her bed, Phia gulped water from a glass on the nightstand. Her feet and underarms were sticky with sweat. Lifting the sheet, she peered at her thighs, knees, calves, ankles, toes. The sheets were white, clean. She sank back against the pillows, turned off the light and closed her eyes. Papa's favce swam before her. Lightning cracked again and Phia leapt out of bed, gathered blankets from the hallway closet and hung them over the curtain rods, draping the room in darkness, muting the storm's fury as it passed overhead and rolled towards Annie's. She imagined the thunder waking Marty and Riona, before moving down the road past Grampa's place, toward the yellow clapboard house where Mrs. Warren was lying with her hair in those ubiquitous curlers in her lonely bed. It was a real tempest, Phia thought, tumbling through the Palouse, over hills, down in the hollows, where farmhouses sat protected from the harshest western winds, gathering force as it pounded rain over Colton, before it swept down the steep grade to shower Lewiston and Clarkstonat the junction of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers.
In the morning, thought she knew Mama was dwonstairs waiting for her, Phia could hardly lift her head from the pillow, and wasted half her day in bed, as Annie would say. The next morning, Annie burst into the room and pulled down the blankets covering the windows. "Your Mama hates to see you hurting," she said, folding back the comforter Phia was hiding under, the mattress dipping with her weight.
"I don't do it on purpose," Phia grumbled, rolling over to escape the light from the morning sun.
"Things are different now," she said, shaking out the comforter. She took and deep breath and, as Phia watched her, Phia could see Annie's shoulder blades pressing against the thin flowered fabric of her shirt. Phia longed to reach out and touch her right in that vulnerable spot. "This room needs some fresh air," Annie said, opening the windows letting in the sounds and smells of spring--the steady rumble of a tractor, the smell of newly cut grass. Who the heck was cutting the grass so early in the day? Phia wondered as she pulled a pillow over her head.
"You know what day this is? Your mama wants to eat breakfast with you, and we'll expect you to help with Sunday dinner." She left the door open and marched out, saying, "I know you won't disappoint us."
When Phia went downstairs, Mama was sitting at the table eating a bowl of steaming oatmeal. Phia stood uncertainly, until Mama patted the seat beside her.
"Are you feeling better?" Phia asked, ladling brown sugar and raisins onto the oatmeal, then pouring milk on top.
"Good enough to get dressed," she said, pointing her spoonful of oatmeal at Phia. "I woke up this morning and decided I wanted porridge for breakfast." She took a bite and smiled. "And my bairn? not so good, I think."
"It's been a rough couple of days, but it helps to see you up and eating."
"Let's try to stay well together." Mama's hands shook as she reached for the pile of pills beside her bowl. Watching her swallow them with large draughts of apple juice, something recoiled in Phia. She'd never liked being around sick people. That was Susu's domain, she thought as her eyes wandered away from her to the unmade hospital bed. Beneath it sat a white plastic hospital bag, a pink kidney-shaped bowl sticking out of it. No, there was no pretending that Mama was well.
After breakfast, Phia took Mama out in the sun on the back porch. But as soon as they sat down, Annie stuck her head out the screen door. "Phia, those dishes won't wash themselves."
Phia sighed. Mama patted her hand, smiling. "Annie's in her teacher-mode," she said. "If I didn't have cancer, she'd be barking orders at me, too." As Phia walked into the house, she shook her head, trying to dislodge Mama's voice saying that word so easily.
As Phia washed the bowls sticky with oatmeal, Tommy came through the door with leaves for the table. "Glad you're up--I need a hand," he said.
"How many will be here today?" Phia asked, helping him slide the leaving in place to enlarge the oak table.
"Let's see," Annie said from the stove. "Daire, Kathy and their three kids," she ticked off each name on her fingers. "Marty and Riona, Susu and Jack, and the baby, of course. Vannah, Rudy and Dana Rose. Tommy and Dee." She sighed and pointed at Phia. "You and me." She picked up a freshly ironed, white linen tablecloth. "When you're done with the dishes, I'll give you a list."
Oh great, Phia thought. A list of chores. Her hands back in the sink, Phia watched Vannah glide onto the back porch when she arrived. As she bent to kiss Mama on the cheek, she looked gentle and tender, more like the big sister of Phia's earliest memories. When Vannah came into the kitchen a few minutes later, Phia turned and smiled. "Good to see Mama well, isn't it, Van?"
Vannah frowned, a line creasing her brow. "You shouldn't have left her out there without a blanket she was chilled to the bone."
"Don't bother," she said, filling a bucket with soapy water. "Annie's already taken care of it." She heaved the bucket to the floor and started mopping the linoleum.
Before Phia could reply, Riona sailed in and asked her to help unload the pies she'd baked for dessert--four apple, two maple-walnut, and two chocolate-pecan, laced--Phia knew from experience--with enough Jack Daniels to make her head spin.
"There's enough her for each of us to eat half a pie," Phia said as she spread the pies over the counters so they could finish cooling.
"Marty and Tommy have always loved their pie. Daire, too," Riona said. "And his boys, Sean and Eric are just like them. If there's any left, I'll freeze it for Tommy." That was Riona, baking enough comfort food to keep Tommy company for the long, hard nights ahead. Just looking at her baking soothed Phia's nerves and took the bite out of Vannah's criticism.
While Phia set the table, Riona and Annie argued over the whirr of the electric beaters Riona was using to whip the cream. "You know Tommy's cholesterol is going to spike after eating all this pie?" Phia heard Annie snarl.
"Your daddy ate nearly a stick of butter of butter a day and lived into his nineties," Riona argued. "Tommy is worrrying himself silly, and he's better off eating my pies than those frozen ones from Safeway."
When Annie saw Phia creeping out the front door, hoping to slip off for a run before everyone arrived, she caught Phia's arm and said, "Don't you try pulling one of your famous disappearing acts. I need you to ge on the salad right now." When Phia saluted, Mama laughed from the bed. She'd said she wanted to come in for a nap before supper, but Phia realized her real purpose was to watch them all ready the house as she had always done, often without any help but her girls, every single Sunday for as long as Phia could remember. Phia helped Tommy push her bed to one side of the table so she could be near everyone when her energy started to fade that evening, as it did every night at dark.