Phia's feet pounded in rhythm as she ran around Green Lake, weaving in and out of the traffic of women pushing strollers, children stopping without warning, dogs on leashes--everyone edgy to be outside, enjoying the budding trees, blooming daffodils and glistening lack on this unusually sunny March afternoon. It was her first day back from Spain and the familiar path was welcome after a long, jet-lagged day at work, but now she felt hemmed in by the crowd clogging the paths.
Sprinting the last three blocks from the lake to her ranch bungalow, Phia unlocked the door and heard the phone ringing over the barking of her dogs, who were impatient for a game of catch. Walking past the phone, she opened the back door and Harli and Spring bolted outside, still barking as the machine picked up.
"Phia, are you there?" It was Vannah, her older sister, sounding irritated as always.
Tossing balls out the door to the dogs to stop their noise, she picked up the phone. "Hey, Vannah."
"Where have you been?"
"Running," Phia said, squatting to untie and kick off her shoes.
"Why weren't you at work?"
"I left early to get a run in before dark." Sliding the water pitcher out of the refrigerator, she poured a mug and gulped it down.
"On vacation for tow weeks, then checking out early--hope your boss likes you."
"I went in early this morning to catch up." Phia hated herself for explaining, but couldn't bite back the words.
"Well, I've been calling you at both places for over an hour and your cell phone's turned off."
Phia leaned against the refrigerator and pulled her Achilles taut, picturing Vannah at her immaculate table in her tidy brick house, drinking tea, reading a romance novel, with nothing to do for the whole day but call and bother her sister. "So--what did you need, Van?"
"Didn't you get my message?"
She pushed away from the refrigerator. "I just got in, remember?"
"You need to come home," Vannah said. "It's Mama."
Phia froze. "What about Mama?"
"The cancer's back, in her liver."
Phia stared at the answering machine, its blinking light an incessant reproach. "Did you hear me?" Vannah asked. "Are you even listening?"
Bending her head against her knees until her hamstrings began to burn, Phia imagined the muscles ricocheting up into her groin. "I heard you, Vannah."
"I told Susu you wouldn't come," Vannah said. "That you'd have some excuse--as if she doesn't have enough on her plate already with Mama and the baby." She laughed, a brittle sound that made Phia cringe. "We'll do our best to explain, but really--after all Mama's done for you, I'd think--"
Phia threw the mug against the wall. "You think I don't love Mama, that I don't appreciate her?" She tried to inhale, just take one mouthful of air, release, then another.
"Look," Vannah said with a sigh, and Phia could just see her rolling her eyes, shaking her head. "Mama's really sick, but if you can't handle it, you should just stay there."
Staring at her hand, Phia willed it to stop shaking and tried to steady herself against the counter, but couldn't hold the phone anymore, so let it drop, left Vannah's voice dangling, all coiled and caught up in that long, loopy cord.
Stumbling into the bathroom, Phia shed her clothes and adjusted the shower until it was as hot as she could stand. As the water beat against her scalp, she was stunned by a sharp memory of Vannah's fingers pulling gently at this very hair as she French-braided it; then another of her at sixteen, bent over the desk in the room Phia shared with Susu, Vannah's long dark hair hanging over her face like a veil as she let it air dry, cutting out paper-dolls for Susu, who was in bed, sick with the flu. She used to be so loving, Phia thought as she massaged conditioner into her hair. Where had all this bitterness come from?
Waiting for the conditioner to soak in, Phia picked up the shell she used as a soap dish, remembering the spring Mama had come to stay in this house for her cancer treatments at the Seattle clinic. Taking the ferry across Puget Sound to Whidbey Island the afternoon before Mama left, she'd leaned against the railing, a knit cap covering her bald head, her arms spread wide to catch the mist coming up off the water. "It's like the Irish Sea," Mama'd said, "only the trees are bigger and the rocks on the coastline are missing." Phia remembered her finding the shell as they'd walked along the beach, holding hands. "Keep this so you'll remember to pray for your Mama when you're in the shower each day," she'd told Phia.
The shower's spray turned suddenly cold, and Phia's hands shook as she dried off and dressed, then made a cup of tea and dialed home. If Vannah answered, she vowed, teeth still chattering, she'd hang up.
"Susu," she whispered when she heard her baby sister's voice.
"Phia, I've been worried." Susu's voice dipped. "Vannah said that telling you didn't go well."
"Did she mention that she told me not to come home?" Shivering, Phia watched clouds roll in over her back fence.
"Phia--Mama needs you. She needs all of us."
"Vannah doesn't want me there."
"Focus on Mama," Susu said, her voice sharper than usual. "Can you please try to make peace with Van?"
"That depends on her," Phia said, wincing as she cut her foot on a piece of the broken mug.
"She's here," Susu said, "if you want to talk to her."
"I wanted to know about Mama," Phia said, hobbling back into the bathroom.
"She's just settling in. We brought her home from the hospital earlier."
Pressing a cotton ball against the cut to staunch the bleeding, Phia listening to the sound of water running and dishes clanking over the phone. Mama was in the kitchen, tidying up, just as always. "Why didn't anyone tell me?" She asked as she spread disinfectant on the cut, savoring the intense burn.
"You were in Spain, and it all happened so fast. Mama didn't want to worry you." Her cheerful sister sounded so tired. She pictured Susu's hand cupped over the mouthpiece, trying to keep her from hearing whatever she was saying to Mama. "Here she is, Phia," she said with a sigh, and Phia pictured her massaging her temples, as she'd done so often when she was a teenager with migraines.
"Bairn, you're home," my mama said, her voice hoarse.
"How are you, Mama?"
"Fine now that I'm home." She heard Susu and Vannah and others--my Uncle Tommy? Auntie Riona? Aunt Annie?--chattering in the background.
"You entertaining folks your first night home?"
"No, just family," Mama said, sounding even more tired than Susu. "How are you, Bairn?"
"Wishing we could take a ferry across the Sound."
"I remember that day. It was good. I love the sea."
"You could come back." Phia pressed a bandage over the cut on her foot. "I'd take care of you again."
"Not this time, Phia," she answered with a yawn in her voice. "Tell me about Spain, the marathon, Robert."
Phia twisted her hair into a braid, holding the phone between her chin and shoulder. "We broke up." Robert's face rose in front of her eyes, the angles sharp and rigid, his eyes always ready to pick a fight. She shook her head, shattering the image, replacing it with Mama's soft smile.
"He wasn't the man for you," Mama said. "He was like a fence, stiff and straight, and didn't let you out. Your man's still out there."
"I'm not so sure."
"You come on home, Bairn," Mama said.
Looking down at her bandaged foot, Phia stood tentatively, testing her weight. Outside, the clouds hung low and a spring rain began to pelt the roof. "I'm coming--as soon as I can get away."