It is morning and Clare sits at the kitchen table, a breakfast spread in front of her. There is music playing in another room, a song too folksy and quiet for Clare to discern the words. Helen Haines washes her hands at the sink, wooden cabinet doors askew on their hinges behind her. What does Clare know of Helen? That she wears old jeans and a plaid shirt untucked. That she must be a decade older than Clare, forty-something, her dark hair streaked with gray and wrapped in a tight bun. That she owns this grand house and the eighty acres it sits on. That she invites women seeking refuge to stay here with her, women on the run. Women like Sally Proulx. Women like Clare.
This time yesterday Clare stood on a patch of grass at a gas station hundreds of miles from here, watching from a distance as Malcolm filled the tank, cell phone warm to her ear, counting the rings on the other end of the line.
My name is Clare O’Brien, she said when Helen Haines finally answered. I am a friend of Sally Proulx’s.
Well-rehearsed lies, only her first name true. There had been a long silence before Helen cleared her throat and asked what Clare wanted.
I need a safe place to stay, Clare said. And I know Sally is missing. I want to help.
Hours later Clare stood at the gate to this strange house with her duffel bag at her feet, swatting at the flies that swooped in the stillness. Across the road from the gate a field of young corn stood ablaze in the pink light. Farmland and trees stretched in every direction. Thick with heat. Too reminiscent of home. When Clare emerged through the bend of trees arching over the long driveway, the first thing she noticed was the river. The willow tree. This house. And standing before it all on her front steps, hands in the pockets of her faded jeans, its matriarch, Helen.
“How did you sleep?” Helen asks, still hunched over the sink.
“Not terribly well,” Clare says. “I had a nightmare.”
“The heat can do that.” Helen wipes her hands on a dish towel and sits across from Clare. “And you traveled pretty far.”
The story Clare told Helen had her traveling from the east and not the north. Helen will know nothing of Clare’s actual trip with Malcolm, the turn inland from the ocean, southward on busy highways, the sun high and blaring through the windshield, a full day of driving until he’d deposited her at a nearby gas station and she’d called the taxi to take her the rest of the way. Helen will know nothing of the curt and fumbling good-bye Malcolm offered as he unloaded her bag from his truck, a strained nod in her direction before driving away, the parking lot gravel too wet from rain to kick up under his wheels.
“I have to say,” Helen says. “I was surprised to get your call yesterday.”
“I debated coming at all,” Clare says.
“Sally never spoke of you.”
“No,” Clare says. “I don’t imagine she would have.”
Clare pauses, mirroring Helen’s frown.
“We don’t advertise this place.”
“I know you don’t.”
“And yet you knew about it.”
“Because Sally told me,” Clare says.
“And now we’ve been in the news.” Helen looks to her feet, anxious. “You didn’t say much last night.”
“I was overwhelmed,” Clare says, a half-truth. “Arriving here. That cross nailed to the willow tree. It threw me.”
“I hate that cross,” Helen says. “Markus put it up.”
“My brother. He lives across the river. It’s a memorial to our parents. But now . . .” Helen trails off.
“Well,” Clare says. “I appreciate you giving me the chance to rest.”
“Sally didn’t talk about home,” Helen says. “Where she came from. Some women do. Some tell you everything. Some don’t. She mentioned her mom. A sister, once, I think. She and William seemed pretty alone in the world.”
Clare lifts a salt shaker from the table and clutches it hard in her fist. She thinks of the details on Sally’s family from the file, a mother dead and a sister across the country quoted in a story about Sally’s disappearance as saying they’d long been estranged. No father. Few friends. Sally Proulx and her son, alone. It’s hard to pinpoint how it happens, how the isolation sets in for women when a marriage turns bad.
“Did you see Raylene this morning?” Helen asks.
“She wasn’t in the room when I woke up.”
“She often goes for walks before the heat settles in.”
“Is it just you and Raylene in the house?” Clare asks.
“And you,” Helen says. “And Ginny. My daughter. I really only have room for two or three women. Less when Ginny is home for the summer.”
“I haven’t met her.”
“She’s a late riser. And she’ll glare you down like a bear. Just ignore her.”
Ginny, Clare thinks. Virginia. The only photo from the case file had been culled from social media, a hazy profile shot of a young woman in a bikini top and flowing skirt, arms bent loosely overhead, the river swirling fast behind her. Helen stands again and returns to the sink. The room is large and square, a long harvest table at its center. A back door leads to a stretch of untended field and then a distant grove of trees. So much like home, Clare thinks again.
“There are two detectives working Sally’s case,” Helen says. “I know they’ll want to meet you.”
“I’m happy to talk to them,” Clare says, smiling to ward off the surge of dread at the prospect.
Helen stares at Clare, rapping her ringless fingers against the table, her nails cut square. There is a simple beauty to Helen, skin golden from summer sun and eyes a deep brown, but she does nothing to play it up. Clare thinks of her own mother, yanking the brush through her hair and dabbing on lipstick before so much as opening the door to receive the mail. You have standards or you don’t, she’d say to Clare as they roamed the cosmetics aisle of the drugstore. There is no middle ground.
“I don’t know much about what happened to Sally,” Clare says. “Maybe you can fill me in.”
“Other way around,” Helen says. “I need you to fill me in.”
“Sally should not have told you about this place. I’m having trouble getting past the fact that she did.”
“She sent me one e-mail. One e-mail. Telling me where she was. A week later I see on the news—”
“Telling you where she was. You see?” Helen rubs at her forehead. “Who knows who else she told?”
“No one, I’m sure. Sally—”
“She wasn’t supposed to do that. It’s the only rule. The only rule I have. I invite women here. They don’t just decide to come. They don’t invite each other.”
“I understand,” Clare says. “I’m sorry.”
“What if she told her husband? Or someone else?”
“I doubt she would have done that,” Clare says. “She knew who to trust.”
“No she didn’t,” Helen says.
In the file the only pictures of High River were from the initial missing persons report, the details of this refuge laid out in the plain language of police-speak. For years Helen Haines had housed women who needed a safe place to land, sometimes for months or years at a time. It might have been a refuge a week ago, Clare wants to say to Helen, but now it’s a crime scene.
“Eat,” Helen says.
Clare picks a muffin from the basket and rips it in two, grateful for the reprieve. The first bite is so moist it dissolves on her tongue. She wants to cry at its sweetness. With a swoosh the back door swings open and Raylene steps into the kitchen. In the daylight Clare can glean the details, Raylene’s black hair wavy down her back, her skin and eyes a dark brown.
“See anyone?” Helen asks.
“No,” Raylene says. “Not since yesterday. I think they’ve called the search off.” Raylene plops into the chair next to Clare. “Sorry. I don’t remember your name.”
“Clare is a friend of Sally’s,” Helen says.
“What?” Raylene shifts her entire body to face Clare. “Why didn’t you tell me that upstairs? Last night?”
“We only spoke for a minute,” Clare says.
The smell of coffee has overtaken the room. Helen pours a cup for each of them, laying out the cream and sugar at the center of the table. Raylene drops a heaping spoon of sugar into hers and stirs so that her spoon clanks against her mug, eyes never leaving Clare.
“She never mentioned any friend named Clare to me,” Raylene says. “And Sally told me everything.”
A mosquito lands at the center of the table. Clare lowers her fist to squash it. “I hate when people say that,” she says.
“Excuse me?” Raylene perks up in her chair.
“There’s no way of knowing if someone is telling you everything,” Clare says, sipping her coffee. “We all keep secrets.”
“Do we? Why would you say that?”
Clare shrugs, uncertain herself. She’d figured that playing the part of Sally’s friend would allow her to ask questions, to integrate. That she could fill in the blanks if people dug deeper, work around inconsistencies by claiming a faulty memory, difficult circumstances under which she and Sally met in the first place.
“She wrote Clare a few weeks ago,” Helen says. “E-mailed her. When Clare heard she’d gone missing, she came.”
“Why did you wait?” Raylene asks. “Why didn’t you come as soon as she wrote?”
“It’s complicated,” Clare says. “I can’t—”
“Yeah, well,” Raylene says. “Now you’re too late.”
Raylene squeals her chair along the floor as she stands. She returns the uneaten breakfast to the refrigerator and cupboards, opening and slamming each door with a flourish. Her figure
is curvy, and as she reaches for a high cupboard to return the unused teapot her T-shirt lifts. Clare spots the scarring snaked along her belly, the white crisscrosses of faded stretch marks. The marks of a pregnancy with no mention of a child. When the table is cleared Raylene leans on the counter, blowing her hair from her eyes, jaw pulsing. Livid.
“You just show up here, making snide remarks? Some random long-lost friend.”
“I’m not random,” Clare says.
“You are to me. To us.”
“She’s Sally’s friend,” Helen interjects.
“I didn’t mean to anger you,” Clare says. “I’m sorry.”
“Aren’t you angry?” Raylene asks. “Your friend and her kid are gone.”
A sharp ache jolts through Clare’s shoulder. She rests her palm over it. She can’t tell if she’s sweating from the heat or from the feverish spell that comes with the long stretch without anything for the pain. Withdrawal.
“I am angry,” Clare says, her voice low. “Really angry, actually. More than you can know.”
“It’s been devastating,” Helen says. “Just devastating. We’re doing everything we can to find them. To figure this all out. I have hope. I do. I really do.”
“I’m here to help,” Clare says. “Honestly. That’s all I want. I’ll speak to the police. I’ll search the river myself. I’ll do whatever I can.”
In a flash Clare’s eyes fill. The tears are strangely authentic. Maybe she need only think of her own regrets to invoke this emotion, to think of her own departure, all that she left behind. She need only imagine Grace, imagine her oldest and only friend coming for her, coming too late just as she has
pretended to do here. Clare presses her fingers to her eyes. Helen reaches across the table to squeeze her hand.
“We appreciate that you’re here,” Helen says, standing. “I know Sally would appreciate it too.”
Raylene is watching Clare from her perch at the counter, arms crossed.
“We can go for a walk,” Helen continues. “Have a chat. Get some fresh air. Would that be okay, Clare?”
Clare nods, sniffling, scooping the crumbs from her muffin over the edge of the table into her cupped hand. These are women among whom trust must be earned. Is it a great stretch for Clare to play this part? No, Clare thinks, swiping away the last of the tears. She could have been friends with Sally. She could have tried to help her friend when everything went awry. So it isn’t a stretch that Clare might be the one to make things right.