MAGGIE RACED DOWN THE STREET, CLUTCHING JOSHUA’S NOTE. Two simple words had propelled her into the night. It’s finished . . .
They had come up from Fall River this morning after performing at a benefit. Joshua had whistled as he drove. Geneva commandeered the passenger seat of the camper, leaving Maggie to bounce around in the back. Her sister-in-law claimed to be carsick, but in truth Geneva wanted to be in control of the map. In control, period.
Joshua had dropped Maggie off at the Laundromat less than two hours ago. He was in a terrific mood, looking forward to talking to their agent. “Abner will come through for us,” he had promised. “We’ll be back in the big time before you know it, Princess.”
And now this—finished.
Maggie crossed Fells Way, barely pausing as a minivan screeched and spun away from her. He had to be at the beach—the ocean always had a way of calming Joshua. They were in Lynn, Massachusetts, scheduled to perform at a dinner theater. It was early March. Off-season, which was how they had gotten the gig.
Maggie reached the public beach, deserted now that the sun had set. It was too dark for dog walkers, too early for kids making out or drinking in cars. She dashed across the parking lot and down the stairs, jumping the last three steps. Her heart pounded; the pulse in her neck felt like a rocket about to explode. She looked right, then left. The vast expanse of sand was broken by a long pier on one side and a public bathhouse to the other.
Someone was at the end of the pier. “Joshua? Joshua!”
The figure turned—an old woman. Maybe she should run up there, ask the woman if she had seen Joshua wandering on the sand. But the old woman bent back over the railing, cradling her head in her hands, her message clear. I have my own pain. Leave me be.
Maggie turned in a circle in the sand, unable to decide which way to go. The beach was too long. How would she find Joshua, tell him that none of it mattered, that she still believed in him?
“Oh, God,” she cried. “I’ll do anything—just help me find him.”
Stop your blather, old woman, Julia Madsen told herself. Marco is not coming back.
She stood alone at the end of the pier, speaking nonsense into the night, knowing that there was more life in the oil-soaked pilings under her feet than there was in Marco. But she could sooner stop breathing than stop talking to Marco. It had been sixty years since she had gone to Hollywood to make her fortune and win the hearts of millions. Marco had been right there with her, telling her she was beautiful and talented and deserving of every bit of it.
Marco even understood when Julia had to marry Geoff Wiggin. The studio expected their leading lady to be squired around on the arm of someone photogenic and famous. Things were different these days—blond starlets were hip when they kept company with dark-skinned boys. Today Marco would be a star in his own right, an exotic mixture of the islanders and the Europeans, with that strong body and silky hair that Julia loved to run her fingers through, only a wisp on the day that his eyes closed for the last—
No. That day still tore through Julia like fire. Not that they didn’t have warning. Two years of chemo and radiation had left Marco a shadow. But his will burned bright, even with his last breath. “I swear I will push through that gate and come back. Listen for me . . .”
Marco had kept up with his island religion, a sensual mythology that ascribed power and personality to the sun and wind and sea. In his illness, he clung especially to a deity named Sola, the gatekeeper between here and now and that to come. When a person was born, Sola ushered his spirit into this world. At his death, she swung the gate the other way and welcomed him into summerland, a place where poetry and love were eternal. It was said that, if properly approached, Sola would let the dead speak from the other side on the anniversaries of their births. Marco had spun tales of lovers reuniting on the birthday of the one who had passed.
He would have been seventy-nine today. Julia had tried every prayer and incantation she could think of, but the gate to whatever lay on the other side had remained stubbornly closed. “Come on, Sola. Open up and let my dear one pass . . .”
Julia leaned into the wind, listening to the waves struggle against the incoming tide. A plane roared overhead. Gulls squealed in constant expectation. Someone screamed from down on the sand. It was all background noise, a track laid down with no meaning.
She wrapped her fingers around the razor. The ivory handle was inlaid with silver and carved with Marco’s initials. The blade was finest steel, kept sharp long after Marco switched to disposables. It would all be over in a couple of hours now. Just one more obligation.
Geoff’s nephew Dane had called earlier in the day, begging Julia to come to Boston. She had no energy for dealing with city traffic and no wish to disturb this fragile peace that had settled on her now that she had come to a decision. Even so, there was something in Dane’s tone that made her agree to have dinner with him. He was anxious to tell her about his latest scheme—something to do with the Internet—and no doubt looking for money to make it happen.
She should have refused and kept this night simply for herself. There was no reason for Dane to hit her up for money. He was about to inherit it all anyway. Despite her nephew’s loose way with women and drugs and his incessant scheming, Julia had always had a soft spot for him. She’d wish him good luck while meaning good-bye.
Julia had suggested the Sea Breeze, telling Dane it was an easy drive from her estate in Hawthorne. But her choice had been made from sentiment—she and Marco had met there. She had been a teenage waitress, jingling with tips because of her bright beauty and pert manner. He had been a busboy, overlooked because of his dark skin.
Tonight, after she bought Dane supper and bid him good night, she would come back out here and open the razor. It would be quick and painless, her blood ebbing away on the tide. Unless Sola allowed Marco to come to her before then. “Marco, you promised me a sign . . .” But the only reply was the first star of the evening, winking in the sky like some scrambled marquee.
Joshua Lazarus sat in the cold shadows under the pier, trying to find courage in the sweep of the wind to tell his wife and his sister that it was now official. Abner had made that perfectly clear during their phone conversation: “Sorry, man, but we’ve got to face the truth. Your brand of magic is obsolete, was probably obsolete the moment I signed you. It’s just . . . you had that amazing stage presence . . . but listen, I’ve got to move on, Josh. There’s young talent, kids coming up that need my guidance.”
Joshua was twenty-eight years old and finished.
How could he tell Maggie he had failed when she had given up everything for him?
I don’t care about college, Joshua. I don’t need it. I only need you. My husband, till death do us part. No, not even death; that’s how much I love you . . .
And what could he say to Geneva? She had made his career her whole life.
I’ll sell Ma’s house, buy a camper so we can travel to different cities. We’ll have money for props, for wardrobe, for publicity. No arguments, Josh. I’d move heaven and earth for you . . .
Four years ago, he had had it all. A contract with a top talent agent. A bride so beautiful she made his eyes ache. A smart sister who would help him navigate the tricky waters of show business. Joshua had known he would be something special, someone great.
It sounds weird, Gen, but I feel like I was born to be up there in those bright lights. And not because it’s all about me—no, it’s about the way I can make people feel. Even if it’s just for the length of the performance, if I can make them more alive, then . . . who knows, Maggie? Maybe they’ll take something away that makes their lives just a little better. All because of me . . .
Maggie would swear none of it mattered anyway as long as she had him. Geneva would try to fix him, just like she had all their lives. But this couldn’t be fixed.
He would pray if he could. But God didn’t exist—Geneva had told him that from the time he was a little boy, and she was always right about such things. Yet there must be some force to keep the stars in their courses and the tides coming in; some universal agreement must keep the earth from flying off its axis and spinning into the void.
He leaned against the base of the piling. Tattered seaweed swept in and out with each wave. The tide was coming in, slapping against the rocks where he sat, soaking his legs. The sharp cold was an agreeable sensation, reminding Joshua that he was still alive, that the pain gripping his chest wasn’t the only pain he could feel.
I still want to shine. I would do anything, if only some god or spirit or force would tell me what I have to do!
A low moan crept over him, perhaps from the pier overhead. Was that another heartsick soul? Or was it the wind, caught in the same dead end as he was?
He buried his head under his arms and let his own tears wash him with what little warmth he had left.
When his soul felt as raw as his throat, he felt dear arms encircle him and then heard the only words that could possibly matter. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Maggie.” He clung to her, feeling her fingers tighten into his back, smelling the salt on her skin. They kissed and clung to each other, not wanting to move even though the surf splashed against their ankles.
“You’re cold.” Joshua rubbed her arms.
“It’s still winter. And here we are, standing in the water. Aren’t we the bright ones?”
He shook his head. “You didn’t need to come out.”
“Oh yes, I did. I had to make sure you’re okay. I mean, of course you’re not okay. But as long as we’re together, we will be okay.”
He brushed her cheek with his lips. Her skin was cold and damp, her breath labored. “As long as we’re together . . .”
She pressed against him, squeezing him so tight his ribs ached. “Why did you pick this place, Joshua? It’s so cold and dark here.”
“I’m not really sure.” And that was the truth. Joshua didn’t know why he had been driven into this particular darkness.
Until a voice spoke from out of the night.