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Stars To Lead Me Home

Chapter 1

I know my marriage is in shambles, had known long before Lillian called.

“I’m coming over,” she says. “With Jean. Break out the wine and throw some blankets in the boat. I have something very important to tell both of you and I want to be on the lake under the stars when I tell it.”

The minute I put the phone down, my husband pounces. “What was that all about?”

“Lillian and Jean are coming.”

“Those troublemakers would have to ruin a peaceful Saturday night!” The way he says this makes his face turn red. He knows more about stealing joy than any person I ever met.

“Don’t worry. You won’t even have to see them. We’ll be at the lake.”

“In this cold? Are you crazy?”

I don’t bother to defend my sanity. I don’t even bother to point out that Mississippi is having one of the mildest winters on record, that he went golfing this morning wearing nothing more than a sweater.

I start grabbing blankets and wine, cheese straws and Hershey’s kisses, three big hunks of the German chocolate cake I baked this morning, linen napkins and real silver forks. Who cares if the boat tilts and I lose all of this in the lake? Lillian and Jean are worth it. These friends are worth any price, even Dick’s rage, which is sure to come again later tonight when we’re lying in bed as far apart as possible, him ranting and me wishing he’d just shut up, wishing there was an easy way to deal with the wrenching loneliness of being a couple but living a lie.

It’s already dark when I race into my back yard, the sky a deep navy that makes a perfect backdrop for the constellations spread across the Milky Way. Lillian will love this. Like me, she identifies with the stars, credits them with magical powers that can heal the hurts of your heart and guide you to your perfect home.

Wrapping my sweater against the chill, I stand under the glow of constellations, trying not to think about the hurts in my heart and the twenty years they’d been accumulating.

The roar of Lillian’s battered Thunderbird convertible pulls me out of my stargazing. I stash the supplies by the edge of the lake, its water already turning silvery and mysterious, then dash toward the driveway with my arms wide open.

Even if I saw Lillian and Jean only yesterday at school where all of us teach, seeing them again is an occasion for hugs and squeals and jumping up and down. Some people might frown on women our age carrying on like teenagers, but what do we care? As long as we have each other, everything will be all right.

“Lillian, I can’t wait to hear your news? Is it a new baby?” She has two children, but she’s only thirty-six, plenty young enough to have another.

“There’s no need to ask, Maggie.” Jean makes a face at Lillian then trots beside us toward the back yard on her short legs, barely keeping up. “I pestered her to death in the car, and she wouldn’t tell me a thing. But if it’s another kid, I’m going to strangle her. Who needs a little person in diapers?”

That’s Jean for you. She has opinions about everything, and she’s not shy about sharing them.

“I wouldn’t mind a little person in diapers.” My two daughters are grown and gone, and I miss the unexpected pleasures, playing with a rubber ducky at bath time, watching spit bubbles form when a baby first yearns toward the beautiful art of language, sitting in my rocking chair late at night, the only person awake in the house except for the tiny bundle in my arms. A girl, I think. But not with Dick. Which presents a whole other line of thought.

“Forty is not too old, Maggie,” Jean says, “but I’m going to whip your butt if you get pregnant by Dick.”

“Who else would it be, Jean?” Lillian has reached the water before us and is already climbing into the boat. “Somebody toss me the blankets and the picnic basket.”

I hand them in to her then turn to Jean. “Go ahead and hop in.”

“What about you?”

“Somebody has to push us off.”

“I can help you with that.” Jean stands on the edge of the lake with her hands on her hips. She’s as stubborn as she is opinionated, two qualities I covet but probably won’t ever learn. I’m a peacemaker, a woman who hates controversy and will go to any lengths to avoid it.

“Jean, get in this boat and let Maggie push off.”

“I don’t see why I can’t help.”

“Because your legs are too short and you’ll dump me in the water, like the last time, and I don’t want to be soaking wet and have frogs in my hair when I tell you my news.”

By the time Jean has clambered in and I’ve managed to shove off then hop into the boat without soaking my tennis shoes, they’ve already wrapped themselves in blankets and are digging in the basket for food.

I row us toward the center of the lake, which sounds like a Herculean feat but isn’t. This is a small private lake, easily navigated and totally non-threatening, no fear of getting lost or running aground or getting snared in a tangle of fallen trees hidden by dark water.

This lake is one of the many reasons I find it hard to think about leaving. What would I do in a kitchen where I couldn’t stand at the window and watch the sunset over the water? How would I remember all those summer days when the girls were small and we’d picnic by the lake?

The only sounds are the rustle of chocolate wrappers (Jean), the barely audible snatches of somebody humming “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (Lillian), and water lapping against the boat. This is the kind of mild winter evening I love, in the silent dark under the stars with friends who would walk through fire for you.

“I need a new heart.”

Lillian drops this bomb without preamble, five little words, spoken with dignity and purpose, words neither Jean nor I want to understand.

“Who doesn’t?” Jean says. “Bill claims mine is pickled.”

All three of us laugh, but there’s a nervous edge to it, a sick feeling that we’ve missed the point. The last echoes of laughter fade, and we wait for what will happen next.

For a while nothing does.

I tip my head back to study the stars. I’m looking for answers, buying time, praying Lillian didn’t mean what she said.

“It’s the weirdest thing how you can go along thinking you’ll be around to see your children graduate, to plan their weddings. And then the doctor says your heart won’t make it. He says he has to take your old diseased heart out of your chest and replace it with the heart of a perfect stranger.”

“Oh, my God. Lillian.” I grab her hand, hold on tight as if the very act will anchor her to the earth, prevent her from flying off into the unknown and leaving us behind. “If I could, I’d give you mine.”

“If hearts grew back, I’d give you half of mine and half of Maggie’s.” Jean takes both our hands, completing the circle. She’s crying, making no bones about it, crying so hard her speech is garbled. “We would, wouldn’t we, Maggie?”

I nod, too full to speak. Lillian is too young to die. What will her family do without her? What will Jean and I do?

“There must be something else you can do. Some medicine you can take to fix it.”

“There’s nothing, Maggie. Only a transplant. I’m on the list. All I can do now is wait.”

“We’ll be with you every step of the way, Lillian.” Jean gives her face a savage swipe with her shirt tail. “We’ll do your laundry and watch your kids and fix your meals.”

“You don’t cook, Jean,” I tell her. “That’s why God made Betty Crocker.” She says this with asperity, and I’m glad to see Jean is already moving away from shock and grief to the real task: we will be the wind beneath Lillian’s wings until she gets a borrowed heart and can fly again.

“I don’t want you two hovering over me.” Did Lillian read my mind? “I want to go on living in the normal way. I don’t want to be constantly reminded that my heart’s not good enough. I don’t want to think about a getting a new one, I don’t want to talk about it, and I absolutely forbid either of you to pray for a donor heart.”

Now I’m the one reading minds. Somebody will have to die so she can live. That’s what Lillian knows, what she can’t bear to think about.

“No more talk about this.” Lillian grabs the wine bottle. “Where’s the corkscrew? Let’s celebrate.”

“I’d like to know what in the world we have to celebrate?” Jean hands her the corkscrew.

For a moment I agree with Jean, and then all of a sudden, I know. What if I were the one who needed a new heart? What if I could drop dead any minute unless I got a new one? I’d have Jean and Lillian, of course, but I’d be stuck in this cold-hearted house, dying in a bed where not a word of love has been spoken in so many years I don’t even want to think about it.

For too many years I’ve been on the fence. Should I leave or should I stay? How will the children handle it? How will I make it on my own, on a school teacher’s salary? How can I bear to leave the house, a place I’ve called home for twenty years?

Those excuses no longer hold. I’ve figured the money so many ways I dream in dollar signs. The girls are now grown and gone, and the house no longer feels like home.

“I’ll tell you what we have to celebrate. I’m leaving Dick.”

“Hear, hear!” Jean takes a swig from the bottle and passes it to Lillian. “It’s about time, Maggie!”

“I’ll drink to that.” Lillian upends the bottle and is grinning when she hands it to me. “Make a toast, Maggie.”

I lift the bottle high and moonlight catches the glass, reflecting a shower of stars across our faces.

“To us! Friends forever!”

Jean and Lillian send up a cheer and I join in, but it’s not the toast I’m thinking about. It’s the possibility that the path we’re on will repair two hearts, one diseased and one shattered by neglect and relentless chipping.

Lillian and I glance upward at the same time. Though the stars are light years away, I feel as if I can reach out and touch Sirius, the brightest star in the winter sky.

Usually the Dog Star, or as I prefer to think of him, the Sparkling One, shines white with a tinge of blue. But when the air is unsteady, he undergoes a miraculous change.

If ever the air was unsteady, it’s tonight. Lillian’s news has disturbed us in ways that spill over into the atmosphere, and my news adds to the shock waves.

The Sparkling One flickers in the winter sky, its brightness spreading across the water until that the three of us are sitting in a rainbow colored circle of starlight.