The Taste of Air
a novel by Gail Cleare


When Mary Reilly turns up in a hospital hundreds of miles from the senior community where she lives, Nell and Bridget discover their mother has been hiding a second life. She has a lakeside cottage in Vermont and a series of complex relationships with people her daughters have never met. The thread of mystery leads back to the middle of the 20th century, and knits together all three women, the sacrifices they've made and the secrets they carry.

Nell is a carpool mom and corporate trophy wife who yearns for a life of her own. Bridget is a glamorous interior designer who transforms herself for every new man, always attracted to the bad ones. Their mother Mary was an army nurse in the Vietnam War, then married handsome navy pilot Thomas Reilly and lived happily ever after…or did she?



Chapter 1

Nell ~ 2014

Her day began with reassuring rituals. Make the beds, start a load of laundry, empty the dishwasher. After lining up shiny crystal tumblers inside the glass-fronted cabinets, she filled the upper shelves with neatly nested plates, bowls, and cups. Her finger found a chipped edge, and she tossed the imperfect saucer into the trash. It was expensive china, but she would order a replacement. The house always looked fresh, with cut flowers on the dining room table. It smelled of roses and sandalwood. When Nell walked through her beautiful, decluttered, well-organized home, balance and serenity followed.

She had pulled on a jacket and was typing a grocery list on her cell phone when it rang. Nell didn’t recognize the caller ID but answered just in case, as she knew good mothers did.

“Eleanor Williams?”

Not the school. They never call me that.

“Yes?” She didn't feel like being patient with a telemarketer and reached for the off button.

“Mrs. Williams, I’m calling about your mother, Mary Ellen Reilly.” An elevator bell sounded in the background, and a voice was talking over an intercom.

Nell frowned and put the phone back to her ear. “What about her?”

“This is Hartland General Hospital in Vermont. Sorry to call with bad news, but your mother is in our intensive care unit.”

This had to be some kind of weird mistake.

"You must have the wrong person. My mother lives in Massachusetts. I just talked to her yesterday." Nell paced in front of the kitchen island.

“She gave us your number.” The woman sounded impatient, then her voice softened. “This morning, Mrs. Reilly named you her legal health care proxy.”

Nell steadied herself against the spotless granite countertop and sat down on a barstool. Mom was supposed to be safely tucked into her apartment at the Maplewood Community, not three or four hours away in some hospital. Can this be for real?

“Is she okay? What happened?” Nell threaded her fingers through her cropped hair and tugged.

“Your mother was admitted early this morning with a respiratory infection. Her condition is listed as serious.”

That was familiar territory. Every year, Mom caught a nasty cold and had a terrible time getting rid of the cough. She’d been diagnosed with walking pneumonia the previous winter and recovered at home, but this time it must be much worse, since she’d been hospitalized. At her age, it could be a disaster. Nell reached for the notepad and pen and noticed her hand was shaking.

What was Mom doing in Vermont? She hadn't mentioned a trip.

“Is someone with her?” Mom used to go on little weekend jaunts with her girlfriends from the senior center until Nell and Bridget convinced her to stop driving.

“Not that I’ve heard.” The woman’s tone was insistent. “Can you get here soon? The doctors want to see you.”

“Okay,” Nell said, her voice faltering. “Where are you located exactly?”

Her usually perfect script looked nearly incoherent when she scribbled the address with the letters and numbers staggered across the page. She stared at the note while a trickle of panic washed over her. Mom was counting on her to take charge. She’d asked for Nell, not Bridget, which was flattering, but now she had to live up to it.

The past few years, they’d been nearing the point where their mother-daughter roles would reverse. When Nell turned forty the previous year, the term middle-aged developed a new meaning. She was literally in the middle, between her children and her remaining parent, caring for both the younger generation and the older one. Bridget didn’t have kids and worked full-time, so it was different for her.

Nell pictured her mother three months before, when everyone was together on vacation in Florida. Out on the golf course, playing a slow but sociable eighteen holes, silver-haired and slender, Mary Reilly was still beautiful at seventy-five. Except for the annual chest cold, Mom was in good health.

Grabbing the phone again, Nell dialed her mother’s cell number. It seemed worth a try. The call went directly to voice mail, so Nell speed-dialed Bridget.

“Good morning, sister dear. What’s up?” Her older sister's musical voice answered the telephone with a slight Southern drawl, something acquired since she’d moved to the suburbs of Washington, DC. The loud bubbling in the background meant Bridget was enjoying her usual morning soak in the hot tub.

“Not good. We’ve got trouble.” Nell shouted into the phone to be heard.

“Trouble? Honey, trouble is my middle name,” Bridget sang out.

“Bridget. Pay attention, this is important.” Nell raised her voice again. “Turn off the jets so you can hear me.”

The bubbling stopped.

“What’s got you all riled up so early in the morning?”

Nell told her what had happened. There was a moment’s silence.

“This is our mother you’re talking about? For sure?” Bridget’s playful tone had disappeared, as had her faux Southern accent.

“Apparently so. She gave them my number. How did she get so sick all the sudden? And what is she doing way up in Vermont?” Nell calmed herself with a deep breath, waiting for the inevitable commands that would come next.

 “I can’t even guess. This is totally bizarre. You’d better get up there fast since she asked for you this time. I’ll call Maplewood and give them hell.” Bridget jumped into crisis-management mode and took charge as she had always done since the day Nell learned to walk and started to follow her around. Then her voice faltered. “Okay, Nell? I can cancel my client meetings and be ready to hop on a plane whenever you need me.”

“I’ll go see what’s happening,” Nell said. “Call you this afternoon.”

“Love you. Talk soon.”

Nell headed into David’s study to go online and buy a ticket on the noon flight to Vermont from nearby Newark Airport. She tried not to think about the terrible things that might be about to happen and focused on getting herself out the door. After calling her husband, she spoke to the housekeeper and the babysitter and emailed the other parents in the carpool. Then she went upstairs to throw some things in a bag, all the time wondering what in the world her mother was doing in Vermont all by herself.

*       *       *

At one o’clock, Nell’s plane landed in Burlington. Lake Champlain glittered beyond the city center, stretching wide along the western horizon with the misty mountains of upper New York State behind it in the distance. She rented an economy car, bought a map, and turned south, leaving the urban area behind.

Her mind was caught in a repeating loop of worry about Mom, but eventually, the fantastic landscape penetrated her consciousness. Softly rounded bright-green mountains filled the view in all directions, row upon row of them, receding into the pale distance. Weaving her way through valleys, where black-and-white cows grazed in vast, grassy fields, Nell felt as if she’d entered a fantasy world. It reinforced the eerie sensation that the whole day had been nothing but a dream.

The bright blue sky soared overhead, a gigantic bubble of pure clean air. It invited her to roll down the windows and breathe deep. Back home in New Jersey, the air was yellow and gritty, the colors dull. Here, the palette was almost fluorescent. The planet seemed alive, wild, and pulsing in a way that the concrete hive where Nell lived never did.

When she turned off at the exit for Hartland, a winding country road led past farms and houses toward the village center. The iconic white spire of a Congregational church appeared, then the cluster of Colonial-era buildings that surrounded the town green. She parked in the hospital lot at the far end of the green.

Nell caught a glimpse of her tense eyes in the rearview mirror. She gave her short, blond hair an efficient tousling then locked the car and followed signs to enter the lobby with a whoosh of revolving glass doors. A woman in a pink uniform sat at the reception desk, talking on the phone. Nell glanced at her name tag. “VOLUNTEER - Doris Barton.”

Doris ended the call and looked up at Nell with a friendly smile. “Can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Mary Reilly.” The lobby was deserted. Nell wondered how many beds the small building could possibly accommodate. She might have to move Mom someplace where they had the latest technology and more expertise.

“Are you her daughter?” There was too much sympathy in the woman’s eyes.

Nell nodded as a nervous throb tightened her stomach.

“Could I see some identification?”

Nell passed over her driver’s license and picked lint off her black jacket while the woman made copies. She balled up all the little bits of fluff and stuffed them into her pocket before Doris turned around.

“Here’s a copy of the health-care proxy she signed, for your records.” She handed Nell a document.

Mom had listed Nell’s legal name, Eleanor Reilly Williams, with her address and cell phone number. It was definitely Mom’s handwriting. In that moment, Nell surrendered to the reality of the situation. She folded the paper and slipped it into her purse.

 “She’s in Intensive Care.” The woman pointed to a doorway. “I’ll call and say you’re on the way. Down that hall. Just follow the signs.”

Walking through long corridors, Nell found her way deeper into the building. The walls turned from sage green to pale blue to dusty rose. The hallways became dim and hushed, with the citrus scent of cleaning solution in the air. When she pushed open the door to Intensive Care, two nurses wearing scrubs pointed her toward one of the white-curtained doorways.

In the middle of a nest of stainless-steel machines, blinking LEDs, and electrical cords, Mom lay on a metal bed that looked like a giant praying mantis. Her eyes were closed. She looked so pale that she virtually disappeared into the sheets, and only the blue veins showed. Her limp white hair blended in with the pillowcase. She seemed frail and paper-thin, a ghost woman.

A fat gray tube fastened onto her open mouth like a huge parasitic worm. Rhythmically blowing air into her lungs from a nearby machine, it looked like some kind of torture, and tears streamed down Nell’s cheeks as she picked her way across the room to stand by the bed. The situation was much worse than she’d imagined. Someone she hardly recognized had replaced the strong, vibrant woman who’d raised her.

She laid her hand over her mother’s, trying not to disturb the IV line held in place with bloodstained tape. Nell listened to the machine breathe. Her mother’s face looked serene as though she were miles and years away. Her chest moved up and down.

A young nurse wearing purple scrubs entered the cubicle. “I’m Jennifer. I’ve been taking care of Mary since about seven this morning.” She smiled at Nell. “We gave her some medication to help her rest. It should last for several more hours.” She reached up to adjust one of the tubes. Their eyes met, and the woman silently commanded Nell not to get hysterical.

Thinking again that her mother was counting on her, she suppressed the impulse to panic and tried to focus on practical matters. She cleared her throat and straightened her back. “How is she? Where’s the doctor? Can I talk to him?”

“The pulmonologist was here a while ago. She’ll be back later,” Jennifer said. “The hospital’s doctor on duty came by this morning, and he’ll be back at the end of the day. A chest X-ray confirmed Mary has pneumonia. She’s on antibiotics through the IV. Her heartbeat is slow and steady, CAT scan normal, blood pressure good, and she’s stable. Her general health seems fine. The machine is breathing for her, so she can rest and fight the pneumonia.”

Nell blinked, absorbing the information. “That thing.” She pointed at the ventilator. “How long will she need to have it inside her?”

“We try not to keep them on the machine for more than a couple of days, so they don’t get too dependent. It can be hard to wean them off. We may have to put in a feeding tube later if the doctor decides to continue with the ventilator. She needs nourishment to stay strong.” The nurse reached up and adjusted the line running to Mom’s arm.

Nell pictured a tube running down her mother’s throat and into her stomach, and she shuddered.

“You can sit here and wait or get something to eat. Maybe some coffee?” Jennifer said.

“I could definitely use some caffeine.” Nell rubbed the back of her neck, where a sore muscle twinged. “Are you sure she won’t wake up?”

“The cafeteria is right downstairs. Here’s the ICU number. Give me your cell number, and I’ll call you if anything changes.”

“All right, I’ll go in a little while.” Nell took the business card Jennifer offered and wrote her number on the nurse’s clipboard. She got a tissue out of her pocketbook to swab the tears from her face. “First, I need to know how Mom got here. Can you tell me what happened?”

“She came in early this morning through the Emergency Room. Somebody must have called 9-1-1. Don’t worry. I’ll be in to check on her every few minutes.” The nurse put her hand on Nell’s shoulder and smiled encouragement.

Nell sat in the chair by Mom’s bed and watched her sleep. She started to calm down as the sense of urgency faded. Her mother seemed to be resting in comfort, not in any pain. While she sat, Nell reorganized the contents of her purse and tossed all the day’s crumpled tissues into a trash can. Everything fit after that, which made her feel much better. So did the steady sound of the machine breathing and the peaceful expression on Mom’s delicate face. It looked as if she was dreaming about something happy. Nell wondered what thoughts had smoothed the worry lines on her mother’s brow.

She’d been up before dawn to get the kids ready for school and felt so tense the muscles in her shoulders quivered. Nell stood up and tried to stretch the kinks out of her back. Then she went in search of coffee, wandering out the way she had come in. Mom’s care seemed logical and under control for the moment, though it would be good to talk to a doctor soon and find out more.

She looked at her watch. Back at home, the kids would be getting out of school about now. The housekeeper should be finishing chores and starting to cook dinner. Nell would call in a little while to check on everyone, but she wasn’t worried. Things ran smoothly at Nell’s house even when she wasn’t there in person to supervise. It was all about building a system, a routine. Everyone knew what was expected of them.

When she was a child, it hadn’t been so simple. Mom’s behavior was loving and consistent, but Daddy’s approval had come and gone for no apparent reason. That was probably why she always needed to please people. When Mom felt better and found out how well Nell had managed, she would be impressed. As soon as the doctor came back, Nell could get all the facts and start making decisions. But she might as well get a few things out of the way while she was waiting. She needed a place to stay and something to eat.

Nell ended up back at the front desk where Doris sat. The bright light in the lobby sent a spike of pain flashing through her left temple, a sign that a migraine was on the way.

Nell asked Doris to recommend a nearby motel or bed-and-breakfast, figuring she could quickly check in and grab some coffee while she waited for Mom to wake up. She received a blank look in response. The receptionist clicked a button on her computer and looked at the screen.

“Thought so. Don’t you want to stay at your mother’s place? It’s just a few minutes from here.”

Nell stared at her, dazed. “My mother’s place?”

The woman clicked another button, and a page began to emerge from the printer behind her desk. It was Mary’s registration form. The address line read, “27 Lakeshore Road, Hartland, VT.” A phone number with the local area code was listed.

“Beautiful old cottages down by the lake. She must love it there. Need directions?” Without waiting for an answer, the woman printed out a map and pushed it across the desk. She pointed out how to get to the lake, while Nell’s mind raced to the most logical conclusion. Mom must have rented a place on the water. The owners might know something about what happened to her. Nell would drive over for a quick snoop and see if anyone was around.

Going outside with the map clutched in her hand, Nell fumbled with her keys and got into the car. Half a mile away was Lakeshore Road, which as she expected, followed the banks of a small lake. Rocky beaches were studded with mica that sparkled in the sunlight. A few sailboats tacked back and forth across the dark blue water—another beautiful landscape painted in those glowing colors. A pair of cardinals darted across the road in front of her, the male a scarlet flash against the pines.

Nell pulled up at number twenty-seven, which was across the street from the lake. The white cottage had a small yard in front, neatly mowed, and an attached one-car garage. The front door was fire-engine red, just like the one on the house where Nell and Bridget had grown up. Black shutters framed the windows too. Looking at the oddly familiar house brought the scent of cinnamon to mind along with a memory of getting off the school bus to find Mom in her apron and warm applesauce cake waiting on the kitchen counter.

Parking in the driveway, she waited for someone to appear. Maybe the cottage belonged to friends and Mom had been visiting. Nobody seemed to be around. It was silent except for birdcalls and the barking of a small dog.

Nell got out of her car and walked up the path. Leaning forward to push the doorbell, she tried to peek into the windows without being obvious. For some reason, the place was making her feel odd. Funny coincidence that it looks so much like our old house. The memory blurred and shifted in her mind like a dream from long ago.

Nell’s brain began to tingle, anxiety building up in her chest. She looked around more carefully and saw her mother’s favorite flowering annuals, salmon-colored New Guinea impatiens, planted between the shrubs across the front of the house. Mom always planted them in early spring so they’d be in full bloom for the parade on Memorial Day.

All the shades were positioned exactly the same across the front of the cottage, lined up like soldiers. Mom had always been a stickler for that, saying it was a habit she’d picked up in the army, where she’d been a nurse before she and Daddy were married.

Nell leaned forward and rang the doorbell again then knocked. The sound echoed through the quiet neighborhood. There were no signs of movement inside the cottage.

Almost without thinking, in a strange, dreamy state of mind, she stepped into the flowerbed to the right of the door and reached behind the shutter. A key hung from a small hook, exactly where it should be. Her hand found it with a certainty gained from years of experience.

Whatever was going on, Nell didn’t like it. The place was a trip back to her teen years. It was as though she had slipped into a time warp.

She looked at the key in her hand as if it was a bug that might bite her. Then she walked up the steps, put the key in the lock, and turned it. The red door swung open.

She entered a narrow living room that stretched the full depth of the house. A clock ticked like a slow, sure heartbeat. Standing in the middle of the room, she turned full circle and examined the place carefully. The unremarkable furniture was old but looked comfortable. A worn Oriental carpet covered the floor in shades of blue and gold. There were silk flowers on the table by the window and shelves filled with cheerful ceramic tea sets. Over the fireplace hung a framed print of Mary Cassatt’s painting of two little girls playing at the beach, one of her mother’s favorite images. She’d always said it reminded her of Nell and Bridget. Nell had bought her a print at the Louvre Museum when she and David went to Paris on their honeymoon.

Nothing else looked familiar, though, and Nell started to relax. It was a vacation rental, of course. Why would she recognize it? The key was just a fluke. It was a great hiding place, that’s all. Hopefully, the landlord wouldn’t walk in and catch her roaming around. Well, if Mom had rented the place, then it wouldn’t matter anyhow. She just needed to confirm that her mother had really been staying there, so she turned and continued to explore.

Walking through to the adjoining kitchen at the back of the house, she found it clean and tidy with nothing on the counters or table. The room smelled faintly of toast. Probably from yesterday unless somebody else was here.

Passing a cozy den, she climbed up the stairs. Nell tried the bathroom first, looking for prescriptions, but the medicine cabinet only held some over-the-counter drugs. Her neck muscles crackled with tension, and her temple throbbed, so she took two painkillers and swallowed them with water from her cupped hand. The front bedroom looked like a guest room, an empty stage waiting for the next actor to appear. The larger bedroom, which looked out on the backyard, seemed inhabited. She noticed books and reading glasses on the bedside table and a white sweater hanging on a hook.

Opening the dresser drawers, she found a woman’s nightgowns and underwear, size small, and then the kind of bra Mom liked, the brand Nell herself had recommended. She noticed a familiar scent floating up out of the drawers. Baby powder and lavender, the same fragrance she smelled whenever she put her arms around Mom’s neck for a hug. Touching the clothes reverently, she stroked the wrinkles flat and put everything away.

Nell took off her jacket and hung it on the back of a chair. She looked over at the door of what must be a closet. Her throat ached with anxiety, and she hesitated, but then she stepped forward, swung the door open, and reached to pull the dangling light chain.

Hanging right on the back of the closet door, a long garment glowed a bright hot red, spotlighted by the bare bulb.

She blinked, but the uneven topstitching on one cuff was unmistakable. It was the red flannel bathrobe Nell had made for her mother in sewing class in high school. It looked as though Mom had just taken it off and would be right back inside it again that night for popcorn and TV.

The robe smelled like Mom too. Nell pressed the fabric to her face and inhaled, tears leaking from her eyes. She felt stretched as thin as the skin of an overripe tomato, ready to split at the slightest touch.

The closet was full of her mother’s clothes, way too many for a short visit. There were winter sweaters and summer shorts, parkas and snow boots along with T-shirts and sandals. The clothes were definitely Mom’s. Nell recognized them. It looked as if her mother had been living there for a long time.

How could this be happening? Mom lived at Maplewood, where people looked in on her every day. They would have noticed if she was gone. And why hadn’t she told Nell or Bridget about this house? Nell’s calm dissolved, and the insecurity that was right around the corner most of the time came rushing into the place in her stomach where she held her fear.

Her world had transformed from the orderly refuge where she always felt safe into a chaotic state of confusion. Nell’s head buzzed with a strange sense of betrayal. The hurt child inside cried out for life to return to normal, but she had a feeling nothing would ever be that way again.

Standing in front of her mother’s closet, she tried to imagine Mom sneaking off to Vermont. It wasn’t easy to picture. A wave of resentment swept through her, then she gasped for breath and clutched the left side of her head, where a steady pain burned. She took a deep breath and swallowed hard, trying to accept the truth. The combination of worry and shock had left Nell stunned, the migraine blazing out of control.

Shoulders sagging, Nell shuffled to the narrow bed that stood against the far wall and turned the white coverlet back from the pillow. A double window looked down on a lush garden filled with purple lupines and pink daylilies, which looked watery and Impressionistic through the aura of the headache. It hurt to look at the light, so she pulled down the shades.

She checked her cell to confirm no calls or texts had come in, set the alarm for half an hour, and put the phone on the bedside table. Lying down to stretch out, Nell let her head melt into the pillow as it released a wisp of that same reassuring powdery scent. A rosy glow of nostalgia hung in her mind when she closed her eyes and drifted. The throbbing in her head began to dull as she let her muscles loosen.

This was Mom’s cottage. She stayed here on and off for some unknown period of time, Lying in this bed with her head on this lavender-scented pillow. Napping in the long summer afternoons, with the hum of bees flowing across the smooth green lawn.

And doing god knew what the rest of the time. That was a question to pursue later. But first, just a few minutes of blissful oblivion.

Nell fell asleep, comforted by the scent of home.


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