Authors: Jennifer Scott
Tags: #Fiction, #Contemporary Women, #Holidays, #Family Life
THE SISTER SEASON
“Emotionally honest and psychologically astute,
The Sister Season
is ultimately an uplifting story about the pull of the past, the need for forgiveness, and the redemptive power of familial love.”
—Liza Gyllenhaal, author of
A Place for Us
The Sister Season
is a powerful, honest look at the harm that ripples out from every unkindness and the strength inherent in the sisterly bond.”
—Heidi Jon Schmidt, author of
The Harbormaster’s Daughter
Praise for the YA Novels of
Writing as JENNIFER BROWN
“A compulsive read.”
Gail Giles, author of
Right Behind You
What Happened to Cass McBride?
Written by today’s freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, from friendship to family to finding our place in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experience, as well as encourage us to explore these topics together—because books, and life, are meant for sharing.
Visit us online at www.penguin.com.
“This debut is one to top the charts.”
“A nuanced novel . . . Brown creates multifaceted characters as well as realistic, insightful descriptions.”
“[This] books power—and its value—come from the honest portrayal of characters.”
“A powerful, timely, and compulsively readable story. . . . This is an excellent choice for book discussions and a must-purchase for all libraries.”
Other Books by
Writing as Jennifer Brown
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014
USA | Canada | UK | Ireland | Australia New Zealand | India | South Africa | China
A Penguin Random House Company
First published by NAL Accent, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Copyright © Jennifer Brown, 2013
Conversation Guide copyright © Penguin Group (USA) LLC, 2013
Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA:
Scott, Jennifer, 1972–
The sister season/by Jennifer Scott.
1. Sisters—Fiction. 2. Middle-aged women—Fiction. 3. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
First and foremost, I would like to thank my agent, Cori Deyoe, for always being willing to read and champion my work, and for never wavering in her belief that I would someday write women’s fiction.
Thank you to Sandy Harding for making my first foray into women’s fiction safe, easy, and fun, and to everyone at New American Library/Penguin who helped bring
The Sister Season
to life. From cover design to copyediting, I couldn’t have done it without you.
Thank you to my writing friends, with all the idea bouncing and manuscript reading and hand-holding and whatnot—especially Rhonda Helms, Michelle Zink, and Susan Vollenweider.
I’d like to thank my kids for being patient and understanding when the writing needs to happen and the traveling needs to happen and the speaking and the Skyping and the reading need to happen, and for still being around when Mommy comes home and the super-tight hugging needs to happen. And especially thank you to my husband, Scott, who is the other me, only usually the better me. There would be no book without you. I love you all.
Finally, I want to thank my parents, and Hugh Bethards, for giving me the gift of Sundays on the farm. Henry the goose and Clawed the barn cat, you are as much a part of this story as I am.
Blow, blow, thou winter wind.
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
As You Like It
(Act II, Scene 7) (1600)
he tree needed tinsel.
Elise stood back and admired the great Colorado blue spruce that dominated the den, absently rubbing the raised scratches on her arms. She’d always been allergic to the damn things, but she felt too heartwarmed by their scent and the sleepy bluish tint of their limbs to care. The way Elise saw it, the spruce, cut from the ground by one of the sweet Boy Scouts who set up their tent on Highway 3, was the only way to go. A farmhouse with a fake Christmas tree was practically a crime in her book.
When Elise was a little girl, her daddy had always dragged the sticky things into the den, despite the protests of her depressingly pragmatic mother, who insisted that the house would burn down the minute he clipped the first twinkling light onto the first heavy branch. Elise recalled what seemed like a million Christmases, lying under the tree, itching and staring up into the faces of ornaments, winking in and out of motion, deep reds and supple golds, her kneesocks pulled up tight to her knees, her ponytail pushing painfully against the wooden floor while she tried to remember all the words to “Silent Night” (were the shepherds lowing, or was it the sheep? No, maybe cows. And what was lowing, anyway?).
God, how she missed her daddy. The firm, scratchy feel of his calloused fingers brushing up against the back of her neck so gently, the same way they stroked a horse’s neck. She missed the way he would smilingly chide her mother,
Now, Bernie, this here tree is moist as a duckling’s backside.
The way he’d spread his broad fingers over his chest while sucking in a lung-filling breath.
That’s a smell God intended
, he’d say, and though Elise never quite knew what he meant by that, she felt certain she understood the feeling that must have been coursing through him while he said it.
So, itching or no itching, there would be a real spruce in her house.
And tinsel. The tree needed tinsel.
She quickly stuffed the flaps shut on the large box behind her, the one with
scrawled across the top in ancient Magic Marker. Which of the girls had done that? Claire, perhaps? Her spelling had always been atrocious. As she closed the box, a waft of stale cardboard puffed up her silver bangs. It was the scent of Christmas,
a smell God intended,
and she nearly buckled under the weight of memories.
Claire, dancing around the room on a stick pony all those years ago, whinnying and giggling, with no idea that Robert had tidily stashed a real pony out in the stable for her—Tilly, the damnedest horse to break, but Claire had done it as only Claire could, patiently, doggedly. Maya, baking cookies while wearing Grandma Ruby’s ratty old apron, chatting nonstop about what she would be like someday when she became a mom, when she had a husband. And Julia—stately Julia, who practically came out of the womb coiffed and proper—sitting next to the fire, her knees tucked up into her nightgown, staring into the flames as if she could see the meaning of Christmas in them. Julia, handing Robert a crudely wrapped aftershave, her fingers steadily gripping the paper, but her upper lip trembling. God, how Robert’s approval had always meant so much to that girl.
Oh, the food they’d had back then. Homemade stollen. Carefully carved geese so juicy that whole tablecloths were ruined. Venison sausages and greens and casseroles and hot, buttery braided breads. The drinking. The music. The laughter. The visits from friends and relatives and the revelry through the night. The fire that smoldered for hours, Elise’s nephews forever dredging up pocketfuls of acorns and tossing them into the flames just to hear the pops and watch the girls squeal when an errant shell would skitter right out of the hearth and rattle across the den floor. The shimmery garland that reflected the firelight and danced light and shadows off of cheeks, and the smell of pinecones soaked with cinnamon oil, with just a touch of the stench of melted lard from the bird feeders the girls had made prior to soaking those pinecones.
Elise brushed her hands together and stood, stretching her back.
The memories. It had all been so perfect. So just-so. So as she liked it.
Except for one thing.
The stony silences. The hushed, drunken insults. The withheld intimacy and the yelling and the way he always seemed on edge, as if she’d ruined his life by tethering herself and her children to him.
“Can’t you please just relax? Have a drink. Eat a cookie,” she’d begged him time and again. “It’s Christmas, after all.”
“To hell with your Christmas,” he’d growl, climbing the creaking steps to the bedroom, leaving her curled up in front of the dying firelight with itching arms and the garland shining onto her face in a darkened, empty room, her feet tucked under her, her shoulders shaking mournfully.
Robert hated tinsel. Thought it was trashy. Thought it beneath them.
She hadn’t decorated with tinsel in years. Probably not since the girls had last come home for Christmas anyway, so what did it even matter?
“Well, to hell with you, Robert,” she said aloud now, all these years later, shrugging off the memory and brushing her hands together once more, only this time with feeling. “I happen to think tinsel is beautiful, and this year, by God, we will have tinsel.” She bent and hoisted the mostly empty box and lugged it down to the basement, where she scooted it back underneath the metal shelves. When it was in place, she stood and rummaged through a plastic tub on the shelf just above where the Christmas box went. After a few moments, and one panicky skipped heartbeat when she could have sworn she saw a telltale fiddle shape on the back of a spider tucked inside a broken ornament in the bottom of the box, she emerged, clutching a fistful of silver strands.
The phone rang just as she reached the top of the stairs, and she paused as if to answer it, then thought better of it and jerked her hand away from the receiver as if it were alive. It might be one of the girls. Calling to say they couldn’t make it again this year. Calling to wish her a Merry Christmas a couple of days early. Calling to put their unwilling children on the phone to spit out an awkward thank-you for the mailed gift that they probably didn’t like and most likely had already returned for money or a gift card they could use to buy something they really wanted.
It was Christmas—of course she wanted to talk to them. She would call the girls later. All of them. She had to. And she’d make some other calls too. But first, the tinsel. Before Robert had anything to say about it.
She bent to check the oven on her way back through the kitchen. The cookies were browning beautifully. Just a few more minutes and they’d be perfectly soft in the middle with the tiniest crunch around the edges—just as the girls always liked them. The mulled wine she’d put on the stove in the morning had begun to percolate, sending a cloud of heavenly spicy orange scent into the room. She supposed she’d drink plenty of it later. She supposed she’d need to, when the weight of everything that had happened over the past several hours pressed in on her and she was faced with her own demons, demanding that she look at the truth.
“Well, good fortune,” she announced to Robert as she passed him on the way to the den. She held up the tinsel and shook it. “I still had some from years ago. It’s a bit dusty, but it will do.”
She breezed right past his recliner and into the den, tossing strands of tinsel gleefully toward the tree while she was still steps away from it. Pieces that didn’t snag on a limb fluttered to the floor, creating a shivering river of reflected tree lights.
“I know you don’t care for it,” she called. “But maybe just this once you’ll leave it be.” She artfully arranged a few strands, cocking her head to one side to study her work. “Maybe you’ll get used to it. I’m sure you will.”
After a few short minutes, she was done. She placed her hands on her hips and smiled wide—something she rarely did (her mom had taught her from day one that farmers’ wives have nothing but hard work and poverty to smile about, so what was the point?)—thoroughly enjoying her handiwork. The tinsel draped off the tree’s branches like silver molasses, and for the briefest moment she had a mind to wrap her hair into a tight ponytail and pull on a pair of kneesocks and lie underneath, see if the magic was still there.
“Well,” she said, wiping the corners of her eyes, not even realizing until she made the motion that there was wetness there. She swiped a knuckle past the tip of her nose as well. “I think it’s beautiful. A tree all three girls will love.” She kept staring at the blue spruce, even as she backed into the front room, and absently reached down and tweaked the stockinged toes of her husband’s left foot, perched on the recliner, with a familiarity born of decades of marriage. “Don’t you, Robert?”
But Robert didn’t answer.
She knew he wouldn’t.
He was dead.