Despite being a widow, Maddie was never alone. "It's bridge night at Suzie's house...My prayer group is meeting for dinner at Valley Landing...My book club, the former squash players, not the library group, is meeting to discuss 'In the Midst of Winter'...I'm volunteering at the soup kitchen on Waukegan...I'm..."
There was always something or someone filling her days—and her evenings.
Until one day I couldn't take it any longer. "Can I come?"
She stared at me, a long smile building until it burst out. It made all the wrinkles in her face dig deep. Maddie's wrinkles were born of a million smiles. She was all horizontal lines, stairstepping into her salt-and-pepper crown.
"That wasn't so hard, was it? I wondered when you were going to ask to join."
"You could've invited me," I fired back.
"And you could stop playing the victim." The words shot out staccato and seemed to startle her as much as they did me. She followed with a quick, "Let me grab my keys," and fled the room.
By the time she returned, her bright smile was back in place and the moment had passed. And though my surprise and anger lingered, to revisit her sharp reply felt petty and beyond pathetic. I kept my mouth shut.
I only remember that exchange because it was one of the rare times I did keep my mouth shut. Maddie used to tease me about "living in the present tense"—allowing no time for reflection or a heartbeat of pause to separate my will and my actions.
She was right. I do live in the present. But I don't see how it's wrong. The past only brings regret, and the future holds nothing bright.
I survey the church. There are two pews in the front draped with red velvet Reserved signs. For family, I assume. They are empty. Figures. When Pete died ten years ago, I didn't hear much about family. I didn't know Maddie back then, but I still attended the funeral. Half of Winsome showed up, and all those groups of women came in hordes to help her. Every book club, volunteer organization, church group, and the town's business association banded together to make sure all her needs were met—well, not all her needs; her husband 'had' just died.
But they brought enough food that Maddie didn't cook for almost a year. My husband—my ex-husband—Seth was close to Pete, and to her. It was his idea to give her a trunk-style freezer for her garage. At the time, I balked—I balked at most things in those days. But over the past few months, that freezer came in very handy.
Back then, no family came to honor Pete. And it looks like no family has come today. Not that Maddie didn't call us all family. I can't name a single person in Winsome who didn't love her. The letters framed all over the shop attest to that. They're from kids Maddie taught and tutored, and from friends who were excited about the new bookshop. They are letters of love, which Pete framed and hung when they opened their doors. She could recite each by heart.
But it's not the same—I know. Family means more. You can miss your family so much you have to look down to see your chest rise and fall, to confirm that it hasn't been cut open and you're not bleeding out and you're still breathing. Friends can't hurt you like that, nor can they fill that fissure.
There's a questioning hum around me. People aren't just missing her or whispering about her. They're wondering. I sense it more than hear it.
'Did you know? How long was she sick?'
No one knew, people. No one knew she got the diagnosis in late July. It's only December! She'd commented about headaches, backaches, stomachaches for the past couple years, then brushed them aside each and every time. 'I'm getting old, girls.'
No one knew.
I'd barged in on her in September. The shop's restroom door was ajar and I needed a tissue. I banged it open and landed right on her, slumped over the toilet bowl.
"Maddie, Maddie, Maddie...You naughty girl...Late night?"
"I wish. My head...Everything hurts. How can everything hurt so much?
How bad can this get?" She pushed back from the toilet and leaned against the wall.
"How bad can what get?" I whispered and slid down the wall next to her.
Her tone warned me Advil could not fix this, whatever 'this' was. "Dying." Her eyes widened as if she'd said "Voldemort."
It felt as hideous and evil as Harry Potter's dark wizard.
She then shook her head—not in an 'I can't believe I said that' gesture, but in a 'Please don't tell anyone' gesture.
I rubbed her back and I kept her secret.