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Chapter 1

Now: So Far Away

Sweat trickled down Claire Jordan’s neck in her makeshift office at the sticky Haitian internet café. A plastic tumbler of iced coffee sweat along with her as a sweet roll remained mostly untouched except by a persistent fly. She checked her email, skimming past all the work-related stuff when she saw a message from Jack.

“Libby’s biopsy came back. Breast cancer. Oncologist appointment next week. Thought you should know.”

Claire looked up from the screen. She touched her left breast, her heart. Her connection to Libby had been formed in the primordial mud pie of early childhood. Pressing their thumbs together and solemnly reciting Robert Frost, they’d become blood sisters at twelve. Promises to keep. Over the years Claire had tested that bond, mostly by her absence. Libby had stayed in their hometown to marry Jack, have children, teach school, and take care of her parents. Everything Claire had chosen not to do. And like her mother had always said, “Life is living with your choices.”

The belief that she’d failed Libby tore at her heart, which she imagined must look like a cartoon wall that Wile E. Coyote had just run through. Only hers had more holes. The father-shaped hole was the oldest. Then there was the big space for Sam. And a baby-sized one for… Sometimes she forgot about those holes. But other times, like today, despite the heat, a chill leaked in. She shivered.

Usually, Claire was happy that nothing bound her to a place or person. Nothing except her mother and Libby, that is. The only people she trusted completely. The only people who had never, would never disappoint her. And with the internet, the world felt as though she and Libby were once again passing notes in junior high. Even her mother had mastered email. Neither Libby nor her mother had mentioned cancer.

But, no. She couldn’t. Flying home now was impossible. Claire hadn’t even gone home for Libby’s fiftieth birthday last month. She couldn’t take the time.

Claire’s team coordinated funding for several global relief organizations, prioritizing and matching needs with donors. After decades in the field, she was finally making a real difference. The deadline loomed for the next round of grants and micro-loans. Much depended on that money. Desperately poor women whose small cooperative awaited grants to buy sewing machines and fabric. Money to turn that old bread truck into a mobile health clinic. Renewed contracts for two primary school teachers. Not to mention the three young women applying for scholarships to midwifery school. Those projects would save lives and lift entire communities. Women counted on her. They trusted her. And that funding deadline was what, two weeks away? So no, not now.

Years ago, she’d chosen to stay away. Going home hurt too much. Still…

Her young co-worker, Enrique, tapped intently on his own keyboard, the rickety wooden table at which they sat wobbling with every keystroke.

Just how sick was Libby? Could this trip wait until spring? Could Libby die? Frustrated, Claire scrubbed her fingers through her short, sweaty hair. Honestly, what could she do for Libby?

The answer came quickly. Be there, as Libby had been for her. Damn. Besides, how long could it take to show her support? A few days, a week at most?

“Do you think you could handle things for a while?” Claire asked. Enrique had only been on the job for a few months. But he was a college grad with a big smile and a bigger heart. And he spoke three languages, for God’s sake.

“What’s wrong?”

“Something’s come up at home. A friend is sick.”

“Sorry. In New York?”

“No. Nevada. Where I was raised.” Enrique’s brows raised in surprise. He wouldn’t know this about her. She didn’t talk about her past. “There are only two interviews left. And you can help the ladies finish their paperwork. You can still text or email or…” Claire said, offering him training wheels.

 “You trust me?” His shiny brown forehead wrinkled. She was known for being hands-on, guiding her applicants personally through each step, from the development of their project through funding and implementation.

“Yes, I trust you.” Although saying it didn’t make it true. Enrique looked as uncertain as she felt.

Ignoring the rest of her inbox, Claire went directly to the airline website. She swatted at the fly and sucked noisily at the straw of her drink as she waited for the site to load. Even the internet seemed slow in this climate. Finally, she typed in her destination: Reno, Nevada. Not too many choices if she wanted to leave today. All routes involved several stops along the way. She opted to stay well south of winter. Fort Lauderdale, Dallas, Vegas, Reno. The trip would take nearly a full day, with several plane changes and layovers.

The cursor hovered over the “book now” button as she once more weighed her obligations. Shit. Click.

“Done. The flight leaves at eight tonight.” Claire looked at her watch. Plenty of time to pack and check out. Transportation to the airport would mean a bumpy two-hour ride to Port-au-Prince. She’d be in Carson City tomorrow afternoon. “You sure you’re ok?”

“No sweat.” Enrique smiled at his little joke as he dabbed at his face with a paper napkin. Everything here involved sweat. He flashed a dimpled grin. Ooooh, Why was she always a sucker for dimples? She shook that thought from her head and emailed her mother with her plans. After finishing the rest of her tasks, she gathered up her laptop, said good-bye, and strode back to the small guest house where they’d been staying. She had promises to keep.

Thirty years of life on the road had taught her three things. One: Never check your bag. Two: But if you do, be sure it’s so outrageously ugly that no one would claim it accidentally. Her battered orange duffel certainly fit the bill. Three: Bring only essentials, but be prepared for emergencies–a second pair of shoes, a small water filter, antibiotics, wet wipes, and Band-Aids. But last week, when she left her tiny apartment in New York City, she’d packed for the tropics, not February in Carson City where altitude and proximity to the Sierra Nevada Mountains meant freezing temps and ever-present chances of snow. She groaned just thinking about the layers of clothing she’d need. The best she could find was one wrinkled pair of khakis and a thin cardigan sweater. She stuffed them into her backpack for a quick change when she got north. If she needed more clothes, she knew she could borrow something from her mother’s amply stocked closets. At a spry and savvy seventy, Sylvia Jordan still ran her real estate business and maintained her reputation as something of a style maven, at least by Northern Nevada standards.

Her mother liked to say that Claire had inherited the travel gene from her traveling salesman father. Some of her earliest memories were of the roadmap tacked on her bedroom wall with his route traced in red crayon. Every Monday morning he’d drive off to sell medical supplies in communities all over the west. The names became a mantra of sorts–Las Vegas, Needles, Pahrump, Eureka, Ely, Elko, Moab, Winnemucca, Pocatello. She also recalled how the knowledge that he’d soon be gone again clouded each happy Friday homecoming.

And yet she’d followed the same path, first as a guide with a travel company after college, though that had been a second choice after her dreams of the Peace Corps fell through. Fell through due to her own actions, but still.

Claire took a long shower in tepid water to cool off. Thinking about Libby, she soaped her breasts and checked for lumps. Afterward, she wrapped a towel around her body and fluffed her closely cropped hair with a quick glance in the mirror. “Pretty butch,” she’d told Libby when she’d first cut it. It was simply more practical for her life in the third world, where amenities like hot water and electricity were often nonexistent. What had once been golden blonde, had dulled and darkened with age, but lately, she’d spotted troubling strands of white. Slathering heavy-duty sunscreen on her face, she noted the fine web of lines around her eyes, the creases beside her mouth. Fifty years of damage done.

As she reached for her underwear, the towel slipped and she caught a glimpse of not only the pale scar that ran low across her belly but her naked backside in the full-length mirror. What was this with her skin? Dimpling? Sagging? Running had kept her weight in check, her long legs lean and muscular, but jeez! How long had this been going on? She quickly pulled on cargo shorts. Note to self: No more skinny dipping.

Once packed, she pulled out her laptop to edit a few documents and tried to focus. However, her mind pulled her to the past, to another flight, and that desperate call to Libby.

And as always, Libby had complied. Which was why Claire was heading home now. And why doing so was complicated. Claire was indebted to Libby and yet had stayed away. Sure, they emailed one another, spoke on the phone, but in the last fifteen years, they’d seen each other only twice. Claire blamed her work but knew there was something more to it. Something deeper she rarely admitted even to herself. Envy. Some part of her wished for the one thing Libby had she would never, could never have.


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