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The Life You've Imagined Part 36

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An hour later, all the residents of the doomed Nee Nance are up and at 'em. My mother starts to make pancakes in the kitchen for Cami and Sally. I'm not hungry, so I step into my room to clean it up.

I could leave it dirty, I know, since Paul is going to bulldoze it. I wince to think of a wrecking ball careening into that tiny octagon window through which I watched Haven parade by, watched for Beck to pull up for dates, watched for my father.

No, when I leave for the last time, I want to see this room as my parents saw it when they first moved in: bright and clean with promise, a quaint nursery for their little redheaded toddler.

"Hey," Cami says, startling me so much I almost drop my broom.

She doesn't question my sweeping. I think she gets it.



"Not hungry?"

I shake my head.

"Suit yourself. Hey, I've got an idea, yeah?"

"What's that?"

"Why don't your Mom and Sally live in my house?"

"Why would they do that?" I dump what seem like a decade's worth of red curls from the dustpan into a plastic trash bag.

"Because I think you and I should go to Chicago."

I stop in my sweeping and finally put the broom down. "What the hell for? I quit my job. And I thought you wanted so badly to live in your mom's house."

"I wanted to own it; I still want to own it. I want it to look pretty again, and I want it to be taken care of. Maybe I'll come back and raise a family there if I ever get to do that. But right now I don't need the space. Your mom does. I wouldn't even charge her rent. See? Then she'd be okay with her new job and I could get a real fresh start. I'm a good roommate, as you know. I don't even snore."

She plops herself down on the bed and tucks her hands behind her head, smiling smugly. "C'mon, it's perfect."

"With what money? Neither of us has a job."

"You've got some savings, yeah? I've got the money I won off your dad's sleazy friends. It's a start."

I shake my head and pick up the broom.

Cami sits up on the bed and pokes me in the side. "You loved the big city. You know you did."

This makes me think of how I felt the day I started at Miller Paulson, tiny among the skyscrapers, feeling the speed and energy of the city pulse under my feet, hearing it in the roar of the El.

My mother calls out that the pancakes are ready.

Cami springs up off the bed. "Think about it, yeah?"

I resume sweeping up the dust and sand, listening to the din from the kitchen, as the summer sun focuses through my small window and heats the room like a greenhouse. I shove the broom under my old brown vanity table, and as I pull it out, a half-crumpled piece of paper comes with it, with these words visible: Go confidently.

Epilogue.

Maeve I'm huddling in the back room of Agatha's, picking lint off my black wool suit, when I hear the chime for the front door, indicating someone's come in.

"Anna, you look like a snowman! Let me take your coat," I hear Agatha say.

I sigh with relief. I was worried, what with all the lake-effect snow they were predicting, and the drive from Chicago is more than four hours in good weather.

The door to the back room swings open, and there's Anna in a black pencil skirt, high-heel boots, and a red sweater. "Mom, there you are. Sorry I'm so late. The weather is awful. Also, I'm sorry about the red. I was in a rush to pack."

"I'm sure Sally would approve. She'd love it if we all wore feather boas."

She checks her watch. "Are you ready? They're waiting."

"I can't go out there."

Anna crouches down to be level with my face. "What is it? Are you not feeling well? How's your blood pressure?"

"That's not it. I'm fine, but ... I wished this on her, Anna. I got so frustrated with her that in my head, silently, I said I wished she'd just die. And then she did."

"Oh, Mom. Dr. Simon said it was a stroke, and what with all the smoking all that time, it's a wonder it didn't happen years ago."

But it didn't happen years ago. It happened after I spent the night bawling into my pillow in frustration.

Anna puts an arm around me and squeezes. "You were a saint. She was no blood relation to you, but you took care of her anyway. You had no responsibility to her."

"Sure, I did. What would have happened to her if I didn't help?"

"Exactly. Now come on. They're waiting."

I let her lead me out of the back room into Agatha's. Cami steps forward, looking pink cheeked and relaxed. Chicago has been good to her; Anna tells me she is tutoring, and studying to be an interior designer at night. Meanwhile, Anna is working hard as she ever did for Miller Paulson, but in running her own practice, she's given up office politics, and these days her voice is brighter; her laughter comes more easily.

Cami says, "Well, Mrs. Geneva, ready to go put the 'fun' in funeral?"

I can't help but laugh because it's exactly the kind of thing Sally would have said.

First Presbyterian is bursting with mourners, though none of them look mournful, which would please Sally to no end.

I walk toward the casket, and Anna follows close behind. Sally looks unnatural in repose, because she was seldom ever calm. Even when she slept, she was all over the covers.

"Nice wig," Anna says. "I don't remember that one."

"I had to order it online. It's what her natural hair used to look like."

She's wearing a black, curly, shoulder-length wig and a plain blue dress. I should have added a red feather boa.

I finally turn away and scan the crowd for familiar faces. There's Veronica and Grant talking to Doreen. They're looking appropriately understated and polished as ever. She sees me and gives me a sad smile and wave. The skin under her eyes looks shiny, and she has a handkerchief in her hand. In helping me out with Sally, she's gotten to know her, too, these last months.

Anna puts an arm around me and lightly rubs my upper arm. I reach up to pat her hand, thanking God she will allow me these small physical gestures again.

A short, gray-haired man approaches. "Maeve, I'm so sorry."

It takes me a moment to place him without his postal shorts and Diet Coke.

"Oh, hi, Al. Good of you to come."

"If you need anything, you let me know, okay? I'm in the book. I miss seeing your face every day, but Ellen just won't trade routes with me." He winks at me, then flushes slightly pink and walks away with a couple of glances back.

The congregants begin to make their way down front when the organ music strikes up.

The service soon evolves into an open-mic memory session, and Pastor Jim is rolling with it, knowing Sally by reputation as most of the town seemed to. Old coworkers from the school where she'd worked as a janitor had the congregation in stitches with tales of Sally's pranks, like dipping an onion in caramel, a la candy apple, and presenting it to the principal.

I've never laughed so hard at a funeral.

No one talked about her more recent oddities, apparently as unsure as anyone when the quirky Sally ended and the dementia began.

Finally, one of her coworkers suggested for the sake of brevity, they adjourn the memories to the Tip-A-Few after the graveside service. It was roundly agreed.

I can't catch my breath enough to sing "Amazing Grace," so I mouth the words, with Anna's steadying arm around me.

Before I leave the sanctuary, I let my hand brush the closed casket.

"Good-bye, dollface," I whisper.

The wind blows right through the mourners, carrying away the words of Pastor Jim. I suspect most of the people here are just counting the minutes until they can retreat to the Tip-A-Few, to do just that in the dank, warm bar.

The crowd breaks up almost before Pastor Jim gets his Bible closed. They're not going to lower the casket until everyone leaves. That's the arrangement.

Anna trudges in her fashionable, wobbly boots through the snow, picking her footing so carefully she doesn't notice right away why I stop several yards away from the limousine.

There's a man standing between us and the car. He wears a gray parka, with a fur-lined hood, and a beard. Sunglasses obscure his eyes, though the sun can't penetrate the shield of clouds and snow.

"Robert," I say.

Cami hustles past, but she shoots us a look as she goes by, as if to say, I won't go far. I won't go far.

"You look good," he says to me. I sneak a glance at Anna. Her face is calm beneath the curls, which have escaped from her hat and are waving in the gale. "So, do you hate me?"

"I don't hate anything," I tell him truthfully, though there were a few late evenings after that day I gave Anna the ring when I raged and cursed and stomped, just because I had to. "I am mad at myself for gathering dust waiting for you and then being all too ready to believe anything you said."

"Some of it was true," Robert ventures.

"Some of it was always true. That made it so easy to believe it all."

The wind batters us, and none of us speak for a few moments.

"Were you at the funeral?" Anna asks.

"Yes. I'm awful sorry."

I wonder what for. Our loss? His loss would, in theory, be greater, as they were siblings. Sorry for leaving me with Sally to care for? Sorry for showing up now?

Robert says, "Can you ever forgive me? What if I get rich? Legally and all? And really build a nice house? I won't even call you until it's done, for real."

"You're the father of my daughter, and we spent years and years together. But you'll understand if I don't keep looking for you to come down the street or for your letters in the mail."

I'm about to walk away when Anna speaks up. "I have to ask you something. Are you running from something? From the law? Or from your business associates business associates?"

Robert doesn't answer. He looks down at his feet. He's wearing sneakers, and they're wet with snow. She looks at me, shrugs, and starts to walk away to the car.

Robert says, "Is this it, Annie? Forever?"

She stops and opens her purse, digging around in it. She hands him a business card. "This has my office address. You can write to me."

Robert stares at her card and chews his lip. Then Anna reaches out and seizes him in a hug, and just as abruptly she breaks away and runs on tip-toe back to the limo. I follow as quickly as I can manage over the slick ground.

As the car motors down the cemetery drive, we both turn to look out the rear window. Robert is watching us go, blowing kisses into the wicked wind.

Acknowledgments.

The life I imagined as a starry-eyed kid hasn't come to pass, but what I've got is even better, and I owe that in large part to my husband, Bruce; my amazing kids (you'll appreciate this someday when you can read grown-up books); and my parents.

Much gratitude to my team! At Nelson Literary Agency, thank you to Kristin Nelson for her determination and dogged pursuit of what's best for me, and Lindsay Mergens for helping me understand the author publicity stew. At Avon, I'm blessed with an insightful and warm editor in Lucia Macro, plus the enthusiastic support of Esi Sogah, Christine Maddalena, and more amazing people than I could name here.

To the lawyers (and spouse) who helped me with the Anna character: don't sue me if I got it wrong! In all seriousness, thank you to my brother-in-law, Robert Ringstrom; Bob and Lee Heinrich; and Jill Morrow. If any lawyer types read this and think any part sounds wrong, it's my fault, not theirs. Better yet, call it artistic license, which it probably is.

For more research help from lifeguarding to the best in sewing machines, a hearty thank-you to Maggie Dana, Meredith Cole, Chris Graham, Kate Filoni, Janay and Andrew Brower, and J. E. Taylor. Also, a big thank-you to Maureen Ogle, who helped me find the context and exact wording of the "life you've imagined" quote, which is actually a misquote in the way it's most often repeated.

To my early readers, Elizabeth Graham and Jill Morrow, my utmost gratitude for your kindness and honesty.

To the readers, booksellers, reviewers, journalists, librarians, and bloggers who have gotten behind me, your support moves me more than you know. I'd list you all here, but I'm terrified of leaving someone out. I'll thank you in person, I promise.

A+.

Author Insights, Extras, & More ...

From Kristina Riggle and Avon A Discussion Questions 1. Why do you think Maeve has failed to move on from the store and her marriage? Why do you think Maeve has failed to move on from the store and her marriage?

2. Have you ever felt stuck in the past like Maeve? Were you able to move on? What did you do to get "out of the rut"? Have you ever felt stuck in the past like Maeve? Were you able to move on? What did you do to get "out of the rut"?

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