CHAPTER 1 - NOW
That deep blue of summer, endless and brilliant. The heat seems to come with a noise like insects, a noise that shimmers. Coolers hold down blankets and bees are gathered at trashcans. Abby is lying in the sand, happy, but when she turns the ocean is gone, replaced by a dark meadow, the waves now undulations of tall, dry grass. The sky’s gone gray, a storm churning, gathering. This was the noise she heard, the storm’s approach. In a flash she sees it, the giant oak tree, black limbs snaking into an ashen sky. At its base is a table set for two, always set for two. A crystal chandelier quivers on the branch above.
It’s been years since she’s been here and understanding bangs her heart into a furious rhythm as suddenly she’s sinking, unable to move, the sand that had been so soft a moment before now dirt that spills into her mouth. She’s choking, gasping, waking to a bed soaked with sun, sheets shoved to the floor.
Outside, a dove’s cry turns to a demand; who-ooo, who, who, who.
The dark meadow. The nightmare that started in High School and recurred once or twice a month until she left Minnesota. An ending that’s always the same – suffocation, desperate gasps for breath. The one time she’d gone home during college, brave with longing and rested from a year of unplagued sleep, the dream had returned like a waiting, loyal friend. Never again has she been back, never again has she had the dream. Until now.
“It’s been fourteen years,” she tells Robert, later, in the car. He was asleep when she left and she’s waited to tell him in person. Though her voice holds striations of panic, he doesn’t understand. Words are a pale shadow of meaning. “Fourteen years since I’ve had the dream.”
“One nightmare,” he says, “is one nightmare. Try not to worry, okay?”
The air conditioning blasts, her toes chilled. The entrance to the freeway is in an old residential neighborhood and the once proud houses are faded, pockmarked with missing siding. Glass shimmers in the gutter.
“Anxiety,” she says. “That’s what they used to say. But it never made sense. Once I left for college they stopped – if anything I was more anxious.”
“You had an estate visit today?”
An attempt to change the subject, to loosen her mind’s grip. She tries to let him, to take herself from the meadow and join him in a recap of her day, her work at the antique jewelry store and the estate trips it involves, crowds of family photos on shelves, paintings darkened with time, marriages that last longer than most lifetimes or end faster than the turn of a season. A screenwriter, Robert loves the stories Abby collects. Tell me more, a constant refrain in their relationship, as they fall asleep at night, over plates of pasta, on walks down boulevards flanked with magnolia trees, flowers as big as teacups. “Forty-eight years they’d been married,” she says, though she still sees the tremor in the oak tree’s leaves, feels the dirt that fell into her mouth. “The wedding ring was her mother’s. Once sewn into the hem of a dress in Poland.”
Then they’re on the freeway, the oldest in Southern California. Made for horses, she tells people. You enter from a stop sign. Zero to sixty in the time it takes to change the radio station. Robert changes lanes to pass a car and out of the corner of her eye she feels another driver doing the same. She looks away. Think pretty – one of the rings from today, an aquamarine the same pale blue of a pool’s shallow end. A welcomed glimmer in a June light. Still the freeway’s energy pulses, gathers for impact, and her legs push against the floor.
Death, accidental and early, has always been her preoccupation. Horrible images exist behind Abby's eyes, pretty eyes, eyes that laugh, eyes that should not look for such things. Girls who wear pink should not think your thoughts, she was once told by an ex-boyfriend who did not understand that she chose these colors, these bright soft colors, precisely because of what exists in her mind.
“Did I ever tell you I didn’t get my license till I left Minnesota?” she asks. “All those one lane highways. The accidents. That and my mom tried teaching me on a stick.” A three point turn, the car rolling forward, angled into the street, other drivers patient but waiting. Abby’d simply thrown it into park, gotten out and run to the passenger side. Her mother had no choice but to take over.
“I was at the DMV on my birthday,” Robert says.
Robert, at his core, is logic, a calm voice, a man who highlights when he reads, straight hair and ironed shirts. Abby is always, without fail and from the start, a few decibels too loud, chaos, the person who drops the book in the bathtub, curly hair that tends to knot and nailpolish that’s always chipped. All reasons he loves her, she knows - she's his voice when he wants to scream, the mess he longs to make.
He flicks on the blinker, then glances over his shoulder. “Wine?”
“I had it -” but even as she's saying this she's looking in the backseat and not seeing it, that bottle with its graceful lettering, better than they normally drink, more expensive than they normally allow. Chosen especially for the evening, for her best friend Hannah’s first dinner at her first house. Left on the kitchen counter.
“More for us,” Robert says. “Tomorrow night. In-N-Out. Burger and Bordeaux. You sent them those cheese knives, right?”
“Last week. But we can’t show up empty-handed.”
As they exit, Abby sees their only hope will be some convenience store bottle best suited for cooking. Here, to put in the pasta, she'll say when Hannah – a wine rep, long red hair and an impeccable palate – answers the door. Somehow it seems fitting, that Abby’s failed in this, the simple ability to bring a bottle of wine to dinner. Left behind, that’s how she feels. The thirty-three-year-old trapped in an apartment, in a relationship without a ring. Marriage? A house? Children? That's for everyone but her, everyone else who hurtles along while she tries to enter from a stop sign. And now she'll show up to dinner, a frazzled guest with Gallo jug wine.
It will happen, he’s told her. Career back on track, debt settled, money for a down payment, there’s a list of what needs to be checked off, though all Abby hears is that Robert needs to sell another script first –about as easy as winning the lottery. Why rush? Let’s do it right, he’s said, and Abby’s begun to wonder if the course they’d started was borne strictly from convenience. There’s no freeway access to Abby’s place, she’d long ago heard him tell a friend. Could that be it? Was the exit simply not close enough? Four years later and there they are in a shared apartment, the freeway so close it sounds like rain.
This is not what she'd imagined would happen, not what her young, optimistic self had conjured in the Noxema nights of her youth. Then what she'd pictured was the boy she'd had a crush on, Aidan Mackenzie, one day really seeing her and being hit with the knowledge they should be together, cheerleader girlfriend be damned. At that point, marriage was a given, a course she knew without question she’d one day be on, and imaginings of a proposal soothed her back to sleep when she’d wake in the middle of the night. White tablecloths and candlelight, a bended knee in the fury of a New York crowd, an extended hand on the side of the road, neat rows of corn like a world freshly combed. A romantic from day one. Now, in the car, Abby smiles at how ridiculous she was. Just yesterday she’d found a notice for her fifteen-year reunion, in only two weeks. Hidden between the glossy pages of a magazine, it sailed to the floor like an idea attempting to settle.
Tags of graffiti brighten walls and dozens of jagged bottles lie splintered against a building, broken as if someone had simply needed to hear the sound. The neighborhood is neglected, all of it, as if the whole place has just given up and is filled with women whose shifts at work are too long, men who pride themselves for the wrong things, and children who are told every day to go play at their friends' houses. Everything’s coming apart at the seams.
They pull to a stoplight before the liquor store and Abby sees three guys with shaved heads and wife-beaters watching them from the corner. It won’t take long for them to cross the street, to be at the car, the Audi that was the one illogical thing Robert bought when he'd sold a script five years ago, a car that now might get them killed. Robert is more bookish than brawn, the one who stops fights, calming words and hands on shoulders, steering tempers away. Yet Abby can see it – one step in front of her, he’d be about to speak when the knife plunges into his side, tearing his shirt, scraping a rib.
Wait. A knife? Do gangs even carry knives?
“You okay?” he asks. They’re parked. Robert’s turned in his seat, watching her. It’s one thing she loves about him; carried within him always is a barometer of her comfort. Though he’s barely looked across the street, Abby knows he’s seen them and is aware they’re raising her nerves. Because of this, in the years since she met Robert, her fears have actually lessened, his presence like a hand that smoothes the covers. See? There’s nothing there.
They fly from the car to the store, Robert's steps spurred by heat and the time he sees on his watch, Abby's steps jet-fueled by fear. Still the guys are on the corner, locked in the reflection of the glass. Robert leads her to the counter, a dusty bottle of over-priced cabernet in his hand, and Abby waits for the chime of the door, arms lifted, guns aimed - they don't have knives, she's decided - when she forces her gaze to the window in time to see the group boarding a bus.
It was a bus stop. They were standing there because they were waiting for the bus.
“What?” Robert asks, as if he feels the realization weight her, a shift in her muscles.
“Sometimes I disappoint myself.” She glances back at the bus, its blinker a mere formality as it lurches into the lane.
It doesn’t take long for the narrow, winding roads to lift them above the city. Parched chaparral and sage, houses with dry shingles and old wooden frames, everything just waiting for a spark, one bright orange inhalation. Abby spots a eucalyptus tree, dense branches reaching through telephone wires, bowing over the street. Gasoline trees, a firefighter she’d met had called them. It's their sap. Incendiary. I even smell one of those fuckers my heart slams into gear.
She peers around the corner. Blind. The drop-off a brace of blue that sits to her left. One swerve, that’s all it would take. A tire would miss the road, the tumble slow at first, an almost reluctant pull of gravity, then faster and faster, invigorated. The landing among trees, then silence, nothing more than a broken glimmer from above. She can’t look. “I bet the view is amazing.”
“You're not even looking at it.”
“That's why I said ‘I bet the view is amazing.’” She flashes him a quick smile before once again focusing on soil and plants, the solidity of the mountain. Agave plants line a driveway, arms twisting and reaching into the air like creatures from another world.
Then they arrive. A mid-century slab, geometric patterns in an iron gate. Hannah opens the door to cool air and the scent of pine trees, that everyone’s home smell of Christmas. Abby finds it, a candle, glowing on an end table. Wood floors so dark they appear black, a worn Persian rug, burnt sienna and hydrangea blue. The brown leather couch is purposefully worn and the walls are bone white. Abby hands her friend the bottle. “We forgot the real wine at home.”
A quick glance at the label. “It’s a good one,” Hannah says. “But you got gouged if you got it from that place down the hill. I’ve got tons – you didn’t need to stop. But thank you.”
Her lips are full and a bit upturned – Abby’s convinced she sells wine just by drinking it – but her smile is wide and slightly goofy. Too pretty, Abby’d thought in college when they first met, until Hannah smiled and the curtain drew back revealing her as a girl Abby felt she’d known all her life, someone who had a Porche keychain for her Kia key, who played the French horn when she was younger, and wore flipflops in the rain. One in a long line of exquisite women, Hannah seemed to not even glimpse her own beauty, so accustomed was she to the sight.
Everything, as Abby expected it would be, is perfect. White snapdragons tower in a crystal vase by the window, and the view above the arrangement stretches from spotless panes of glass, a city tinged with evening.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Robert says, lips to her ear, as Hannah gets their drinks. “And I sell this script, that’s all it takes.”
Hannah returns with a frosted beer mug for Robert and a balloon glass for Abby, the wine poured only a third of the way up the basin. Abby swirls the wine. “I feel like I'm at a grown-ups' dinner party.”
“You are a grown up. Robert, can you help Ben? Our neighbor left a bunch of firewood by the driveway. Abby, this way.”
A tiled patio is off the kitchen. Pots of rosemary, deep Adirondack chairs painted a slick poppy red, a copper fire pit in the center. A patio, what Abby would do for a patio, the simple ability to be home and outside. “You have a Cuisinart,” she says as she sits, watching Robert in the kitchen window with Hannah’s husband, Ben. “And trees.”
“One little speck of earth is ours.”
Abby turns, peering up at the wild hillside that ends at an old wood fence. Behind it all a eucalyptus soars into the sky, white bark a ghostly skin. “I had one of my old nightmares last night.”
Hannah’s already reclined, legs stretched, ankles crossed. “The dream? The field one?”
“The meadow. The tree.” A lizard darts into a crack in the retaining wall. “I found a reunion notice. June 17th. It’s like my mind put me right back there, back in high school, afraid to sleep.”
“Or too busy thinking of that guy to sleep.” Another grin.
Aidan Mackenzie. That guy. Even now, years later, those words swim on the surface of what he’d meant to her.
“Maybe I should go,” Abby says. “Robert’s script is going out. I don’t know if I want to be here for that.”
“You don’t think it will sell?”
“We’ve been through it. Close calls. Celebrating for nothing. Only now I know it decides my future as well.”
Hannah tilts her face to the sky. “He is how he is, right? I hate it, but I guess try to see it as noble? He wants to be sure he can provide.”
“Right. That’s how I try to see it, because I love him and the alternative sucks – that he’s waiting for his life to start. Not ours.”
“Well that’s ridiculous. From the moment you met him your life together started. You’re not waiting for anything. You’re in it.”
Abby sets her wine glass on the ground beside her. The sky’s begun to blush, trees darkened in silhouette, branches black and stretching. Again she sees the oak tree, the chandelier, the table set and waiting. You’re not waiting for anything. And yet, since last night, she has the feeling that she is.
The way Aidan sees it, there are three types of people in Makade: those who left, those who never left, and those who left only to return. That last category - the ones who left only to return - is deemed the worst. A reveal of uppity presumption - you think you're too good for here - mixed with failure - guess you're not. Not only is Aidan in that category, but he’s in a special off-shoot. After all, he had the brazen gumption to leave for the Cities – for college, albeit – and the sorry need to return, but as far as people could tell his choice to return was career-related, which spoke of failure as a man. Line to make Detective in St. Paul must've been around the block, was one of the first things said to him.
So in a way he understands: his third forgery case in only months. Dues to be paid, a pecking order to remind him that he's no better than the small town guys. Forget that he went to high school here. Forget that he came back – over a year already – because he missed it. All that matters is that he'd left. Infuriating, but he gets it. What he doesn’t get is why he was called in on his day off, for a forgery.
Dark shoe streaks on linoleum, styrofoam cups on rookies' desks, chipped ceramic mugs on the old timers'. Aidan looks to the clock on the wall, and then back down to Sergeant Budd Schultz, gray hair that’s more of an idea than an actuality. “You called me in for a forgery?”
It’s then that he sees them. Roses. On the edge of his desk, long-stemmed and red. The night, just started, goes from bad to worse. Thinking of you, Ashley. What girl sends a guy flowers? The same kind, he supposes, who mends a shirt on the third date. The kind who buys you a Vitamin B complex because she thinks you're under too much stress. The kind you either marry or dump immediately. “I should’ve ended things a month ago,” he says, to no one in particular, and sets the vase on a cabinet in the corner.
“No, I didn’t call you in for a forgery,” Schultz says. “Rape, three AM this morning. Violent. Woman named Sarah Breining. In surgery now.” He scratches his temple. “Mother was even there, heaviest sleeper in the state of Minnesota”
Detective Clive Harris - a know-it-all, a walking spoiler, the last guy you tell anything – nods to the coffee machine in the corner. “Got the good stuff. Gonna rock around the clock.”
That’s when Aidan sees it, a dark excitement. Officers with bags head straight to the secure evidence lockers, a few place hushed phone calls. Now he remembers another rape case. Just a couple weeks ago. Lila McCale. “Serial rapist?”
Schultz nods. “But worse. Like in Marshall. And they didn’t release key details then, so for it to happen the same way, I’m going with the ‘not a coincidence theory’. Briefing in the morning.”
Aidan says nothing, not about to give them the pleasure of him asking what happened there. He was in the Cities, not up on smaller town crimes, and they know it. “My old partner from S.P.P.D. is there now. If you want to talk to him.”
“They’ll collaborate, they’ll send someone,” Schultz says. “Same M.O.. But we’re keeping the details tight - no sense in a mass panic. Still gotta get fiber matches back, see if we get a positive link to Marshall, but meantime you might want to tell Miss Roses At The Station to keep her doors and windows locked. Double-bolted. Get a dog, set the alarm. I’m telling Carrie to skip her night class.” Again he scratches his temple, a red mark left behind. “This guy’s not done.”
Aidan leans back in his chair. “Shit. What the hell happened in Marshall?”
Before Schultz answers, one of the rookies enters the room. “Sorry,” he says to Aidan. “If you’re not busy. Call from one of your cases. Rebecca Sullivan.”
Aidan looks down and sees Rebecca Sullivan's name on the forgery file.
“Go,” Schultz says. “Make it quick.”
Rebecca's building has six units, one of those mid-seventies contraptions with a long hallway of short green astroturf carpet and doors that lead to uniform apartments with Navajo white walls and formica countertops. Everything smells musty, like a sweater from the Salvation Army. It's been almost ten minutes and so far all Aidan can tell is that Rebecca’s one of those women who needs attention, who's had it all her life and patterns her days in ways to lessen it's loss. She's late-thirties in a way that tells you her twenties were the good years.
“And no one saw him try to run you over with the car?” Aidan asks.
Rebecca folds her bare legs on the couch, knobby knees extending a bit beyond the cushion. Smoker’s lines splinter from her lips. “If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does that mean it didn't fall?”
Aidan smiles. “You mean make a noise.”
“Fuck you.” Her mouth opens in something like a smile, and Aidan sees the pink of her tongue press against her upper molar in a strangely suggestive way. “No,” she continues. “No one saw him try to do it. If someone was there, he wouldn't have done it.”
“There a reason you and your brother been fighting?”
“Him forging my mom’s will’s not enough? You've got the file. Or maybe you don't have to read it.” She laughs and pats the couch cushion beside her. “Come join me and I'll tell you a tale.”
The officer standing by the door shifts his feet, staring at the rug. Beside him, on the wall, is a photo of two blond kids, the younger boy's hair sticking up as if amped by electricity.
Aidan doesn't move. “I know you're contesting your mother's will.”
“I'm contesting what he did to my mother's will. Rick hated her, always did. And he hates me, because me and my mom were close. But now he’s in her house - the one she wanted me and my family to have, that she told me we would have. My boys don’t have a yard. Okay? I know that might not seem like a big deal, but boys need a yard. Used to be they could run around at her place, she even got a climbing structure for them, but now they can’t do that. So that's one thing. That's the current thing. Then there's other factors like he's a fucking asshole.”
Aidan looks again to the picture on the wall.
“I had blond hair when I was a kid,” she says, watching him. “My brother and I were towheads till my dad was killed. Then our hair went black.”
“Accident. Car accident. I say killed because it wasn't his fault.”
“Your kids were asleep when this happened? Tonight, I mean.”
“No, but they were inside. I was outside. Where the car is. Where cars tend to be. I might as well be talking to my husband.”
“Your husband doesn't believe you?”
“You see him here?”
“I'm not ignoring you.”
“You'd be the first.”
Aidan glances at the officer by the door, who shrugs.
“You've been here what,” she says to the officer, “six times?” She looks back at Aidan. “I'm about ready to set a place at the table for Officer Hughes.”
Officer Hughes shakes his head. “We've had no proof your brother's even been near here.”
“Again,” Rebecca says, “I'll bring up that tree in the fucking forest.”
Aidan fills out the report on her kitchen counter. By the stove is a stack of mail, the top envelope with his High School's emblem. The reunion invite. He lifts it up, glances at the recipient’s name. “I was in the same class as your husband.”
“Really? Same as my brother then, too. Before he left, I mean.”
Rick - her brother - Rick Sullivan. Now Aidan places him, remembers him from freshman year, studying the bulletin board at the end of the hall during breaks to make it seem as if he were alone for a reason. Pants that were always too short, the hazard of being tall in a life of hand-me-downs. Once he’d gotten in trouble for having a garter snake in his locker – whether he’d put it there or not, Aidan doesn’t remember. Nor, he realizes, did he see him beyond that one year.
“Where’d Rick graduate?”
“He didn’t. My uncle was a house painter, gave him a job. He quit school.”
“That’s too bad.”
“Yeah, well. He’s the one with the house. For some reason.”
Aidan just nods and goes back to filling out the report. But then he pauses and moves the stack of envelopes away from the stove, thinking of the silent, sleeping kids.
Three bottles of wine later and they’re on the patio, the fire an orange plume between them. Rosemary and burning pine fills the air and the sky is mostly dark, though clouds closest to the moon are lit up, great swaggering tumbles of light. Hannah sets a tray of cheese and crackers on a stool, a bowl of grapes alongside.
“I have a Sauternes in the fridge,” she says, and disappears back inside.
In the kitchen window, Abby sees her reaching for the appropriate glasses in a top cupboard. When did this happen? Gradual, of course, but with the house it’s suddenly obvious. Gone are the years of late night runs to Denny’s, turkey sandwiches dipped in ranch dressing, sweatshirts over pajamas, counting out exact change. Replaced by sturdy patio furniture and a view of the city, weekends early to bed, podcast commutes and scripts that need to sell. Across the fire pit Robert sits back in his chair, eyes closed, enjoying the moment.
“You okay?” Hannah asks when she returns, noticing Abby’s distraction.
The glass of Sauternes gleams in the firelight, a liquid gold that tastes of caramel and peaches. Abby smiles. “I’m good. Sometimes I just miss us.”
“Me and you?” Hannah squeezes in the chair next to her. “We’re still here. Evolving, but still here.”
“We don’t wear pajamas anymore to Denny’s.”
“No, that is true. We don’t. Not for a long time.”
Ben places another log on the fire, which sways, ducking, and dancing. Fire moves like a boxer, Robert once said to her when they first met. Even that seems long ago. Then she saw her life so differently; never would she have guessed that nothing would change in four years. Again she thinks of Aidan Mackenzie, that sense she’d had when she was younger that they would be together. What does he look like now? Though Abby refuses to join Facebook – InYourFacebook, she calls it – she now thinks of registering just to see. She’d heard his parents moved back to Idaho when he was in college. Could he be there? A log cabin, a flannel shirt, thick, sturdy arms. Irish Spring soap and pine.
Hannah takes the cheese plate from the side table and holds it before Abby, who reaches towards the knife but stops when she sees the crackers. “Sesame seeds.”
“Crap,” Hannah says, leaning forward, squinting. “I didn’t even check.”
It’s a little oversight, but a detail Hannah never would’ve missed before. There’s no way around it, her best friend’s life has changed, filled with so much that’s wonderful, so much that Abby is thankful for, and yet she can’t help but feel left behind, can’t help but miss the days when Hannah stood beside her, studying ingredient lists, stocking up on Benedryl just in case, back in the days when it was just them and there were no expectations yet, no way to fall behind.
“I’m fine,” Abby says, trying to be. “This is perfect.” She lifts her glass, the flare of light like a strike of happiness.
Later that night Abby lies in bed, eyes open. Will she have the dream again? State of mind, her mother used to say. If you go to sleep thinking of the dreams, you’re summoning them. Partly true, she knows, but not thinking of something that worries her is almost impossible. Still, there’s no reason to think the dreams are back. One nightmare is one nightmare. Think of something good, Robert selling his script, their future house, string lights and wind chimes, summer dinners in the garden with pots of lavender and fig trees, wide splays of leaves and fruit like giant drops of purple.
Then her mind veers back to Aidan Mackenzie, the first day she’d met him, late into October of their freshman year, the world a blaze of orange and red. Even before he’d stepped on campus he’d been talked about - Olympic Developmental Soccer team, only a freshman, six feet already. There’d been a rain, one of those fall rains that takes down leaves and moistens an already damp earth. Laundry steam a slow wisp from the side of a house. Streetlights still on. Even now Abby remembers the red of his mother’s car in the gray morning as she idled two blocks from the school. I’ll be fine, Abby heard him say, before the car finally left. While he stood there, unmoving, facing the school and his unknown, Abby pretended to hunt for something in her backpack. That this athlete, handsome even from across the street, status already a given, would be nervous, would ask his mom to drop him off blocks away, was something that had never occurred to her and immediately she was endeared. He was tense, uneasy. She could see it as she stepped onto the dark pavement.
The first thing she said to him: Are you the one from Idaho?
When he turned everything changed. Untethered, an immediate sever to what had held her in place her whole life – she’d not even known it was possible, the feeling.
The second thing she said to him: Wait, do I know you? Because in that moment she knew she did.
And though he’d arrived in the state only two nights prior, he searched her eyes at the question. I just got here, he finally said – a reply Abby would recall later that night and later many nights, because he’d not answered her, not really. They’d walked to school together and when they arrived it took all of ten minutes for him to be claimed by a different crowd, their paths forever fissured.
The way he’d been pulled, she remembers. A glance back at her. Thank you, she thought she saw him say. Of course they’d had the following years of school together, but their paths met at most in halls or desks not too far away but never close enough. For those minutes, however, in that gray morning with the devouring brilliance of turning leaves, he’d been just hers.
For a while longer she thinks of him, the thoughts a familiar fit and comfort, until at last the tangled beginnings of sleep weigh in, her eyes staying shut longer with every blink. Nonsensical thoughts and images sprout off wildly, transforming and merging.
Bougainvillea. Branches with thorns like incisors, petals thin and reddish pink, a fury of fevered skin. Abby’s head is at its base and as she looks up the wood of the branches thicken and the petals begin to fall. Her eyes are closed as they drift onto her lids, brushing her lips. But the moment she sweeps them away she sees that the branches are now that of the oak tree, limbs wise and twisting into a sky of burned out grey. Beside her the table and chairs wait, and the shimmering sounds of the meadow gather into whispers, whispers that begin to take shape just as the ground beneath her shifts and opens and her body starts to sink. It’s when the dirt falls into her mouth that Robert shakes her awake, and it takes her a while to realize that the sounds she’d made in her dream must have filtered into the outside world. Something about that that doesn’t seem right, as if a thin layer has been pierced.
Her heart is wild. The back of her neck moist with sweat, hair damp. Three AM. The same time that used to surge her awake, a chasm in the night. Robert watches her, the lights all now on. He tells her he had no idea.
But it wasn’t just the dark meadow. It wasn’t just that she couldn’t breathe. This time the whispers gathered and became her own voice. And what she felt was fear. Pure, serrated, helpless fear, as over and again she said a name.
Claire Ballantine. Claire Ballantine. Claire Ballantine.
CHAPTER 2 - THEN
Someone's calling her name. Claire hears it three times, faint, like in a dream, a scream rendered nothing more than a whisper. Past the window, plunged into the black night, the lake water is dark as oil, slick and smooth. The parlor is empty. No one's there. She faces the door, convinced the voice will emerge again, but the only sound is the pace of the grandfather clock. She must've imagined it. It happens frequently in this house, the hope - or fear - that someone is there when they are not.
She turns back to the window. On the walnut table beside her is a silver teaset and Van Briggle's “Despondancy” vase, a large vase with a man curled at the top, hands on his knees, head facing the opening, a seemingly endless void. The maroon and blue matte glaze deepens towards the top, becoming almost black as the figure emerges, a form lifting from moroseness. When Claire first saw the vase in her early twenties, years had passed since her debutante ball and she’d resigned herself to either an arranged, loveless marriage, or being alone, and in preparation steeled herself against either lonely option with her pottery. Since she’s fallen in love not just with the vase but with the man who created it, a man who could understand the slight sadness she’d always carried within her. Artus VanBriggle, dead from tuberculosis at only thirty-five years old. He knew he was dying when he created the piece and after Claire learned this she saw within it both love and mistrust of the human form, the fragility of such vessels, the emptiness we cling to. That first time though, upon finding the piece, she’d seen only herself. Not dying from anything other than life.
Winter is what she wants, what she misses, which is not something people in Minnesota do. Trees outlined in white, ice skating, bursts of cloudy breaths, delicate chimes of ice. But especially the sweaters and long sleeves, able to disguise the fact that she's put on weight, not that anyone's said anything or even noticed for all she knows.
Less than two years they’ve been married. Never tumultuous, never a voice raised in anger, and so it made sense that the change she’d noticed was civil as well. A look she’d caught almost eight months ago, on a beautiful fall afternoon, a look she’s seen many times since. Distracted. He’d stopped before the window, smiling, a mosaic of brilliant leaves just beyond the glass – but she’d watched him and realized there was no focus to his gaze, what he saw was in his mind. And it was then she realized that the happiness she bore witness to had nothing to do with the color of the seasons, and nothing to do with her.
The next morning she took an extra slice of bread. From Wednesday to Saturday she’s by herself and the food that once had been a reward - you've earned this, enduring this house all alone – soon became a punishment. You’ve never been good enough for him, and now it will show. Entire lists of items she'll eat one by one, starting perhaps with the grasshopper pie or coconut cake, then leading to the zucchini bread baked fresh the other day. Only when she's physically, undeniably, ill, will she stop. After that, later in the day, or even the next, her steps are slowed, the anticipation turned to dread, yet still she's compelled, her mind held hostage by the simple fact that eating like this is an option. On Fridays she's relieved, a flagellant whose whip is taken away. It will be over. Her husband will be back. Saturdays are the day of his return. Saturdays are when it stops.
After all these months of eating like this her body has begun to change, her waist thick, arms padded. When she works at the potters' wheel her arms press against the protrusion of her stomach. All of her body is in the way and she worries someone will ask her if she's with child, the embarrassment from which she might never recover.
Through the trees the water moves, doused in moonlight. What would it be like to drown? What would it feel like, water rushing into your lungs, every gulp for air heavy and weighted? Or maybe, just for a moment, your body would recall its inception, and perhaps there would be a feeling of recognition and peace?
This is how I started, this is how I end.
The most radiant stars stay firm and fixed, but Eva's convinced the smaller ones are disappearing before her eyes, swallowed by the black sky just as she captures them in her gaze. A trick of vision, but maybe not. Maybe she is witnessing their disappearance. The thought gives new weight to staring at the sky, and she straightens as she takes the past-time more seriously.
It's the beginning of June, and in the night air is an awkward mixture of lilacs and morels, opened earth from nearby farms and the marshy scent of the settled lake. Rochester is less than two hours south of Minneapolis and yet she imagines the air up there completely different, a mesh of street smells and perfume curled with the heat of ambition. Time, too, would feel faster, she’s sure, marked by the hands of a clock rather than the slant of the sun or the curl in certain leaves.
Though it's dark anyone could see her, just sitting on the steps and staring at the stars, waiting. It's not a smart place for her to sit, being so visible, but the other option is the porch at the back of the house, and that faces the woods, woods that during the day are pretty and green and don't extend too far, but have multiplied and thickened in the falling darkness, have become an entire forest teeming with the hidden possibilities of night. No, she can't stare at the woods. Not by herself. She'd spend the whole time waiting for something to emerge.
He'd warned her he'd be late and then she lost her key. Worse, tonight's one of those romantic nights you don't need a sweater for, the kind that hangs onto the heat like someone too happy to stop smiling. No doubt he's strolling leisurely. Taking his time, admiring lawns and porches and tree houses. If she was with him her fear of the woods would be different. Pulse-quickening in a delicious way.
At last the gravel crunches. Eva stands, excited, watching the moonlight release him one step at a time. Broad, straight shoulders - she hates sloping, a man with sloping shoulders is frail and too easily swayed, which is just no fun - dark, almost black hair, a strong, square jaw, and sturdy cheekbones. Really, everything about him is dark and unnervingly handsome.
He's got his keys ready by the time he reaches the steps. “Why are you outside?” Even annoyed, his voice is without edges, like Orson Welles or Gregory Peck.
“I must have left my key at home. But it's warm. I was alright.”
As she steps past him, hoping he's not too mad, the night scent of flowers and earth and cooling water disappears, replaced by him and only him. Clean soapiness, a touch of musk, the slight scent of sawdust he can never shake from work - the smell of progress.
Inside, William closes the door. “That's the third key. And the weather's not the point. You were in view for all of Rochester to see.”
“It was fine,” she says. “I was -” but then she stops speaking, because he's pushed her up against the door, his end of the day scruff against her skin, his determined and warm hand beneath her blouse.
There's not much food in the house, mostly canned goods, so as usual they'll start the next morning at the Princess Café and then head to the market for two days' worth of produce and another bottle of milk. The milk is for her, and at twenty-four years old it embarrasses her that she wants it, but she does. Milk and cows and youth and farms; all things best left behind, best forgotten.
But now, now they’re on the back porch, the moon caught in the tips of the pine trees, tomato soup from a can in bowls they balance on their laps. The porch is painted green, like grass, and they each have their spot on the floor at top of the stairs, her back against the left post, his against the right. In between them is a Monopoly game William found in a closet, pre-war with metal pieces and nicely cut wooden hotels and houses. The porch light brightens as they play, drinks chime, and shadows reach. Out here there's the faint scent of green onions that flower purple at the base of the wood railing. Out here they could do anything, their world without witness.
“Did you miss me?” she asks.
He smiles as he rolls the dice. “Always.”
“I missed you too.”
“I know you did.”
“I know I am.” He looks at her, his eyes devouring. “A new blouse. I like you in red.”
She touches the buttons, carved bakelite roses. “I only sewed these on this morning. One of which you knocked off. Ten minutes it took me to find it on the stairs.”
He smiles. “Entirely worth it. Remind me to buy you a few sets.”
When the moon is high the bath is running and the soup bowls are stacked in the kitchen sink. The board game doesn’t get put away. Everything is left in place, money and cards weighted with rocks, tokens stilled in their journey, a continuation always imminent, concessions and defeat only leading to the start of a new game. She finds the “Voice of Frank Sinatra” and sets the needle. This is what they'll listen to the rest of the night, a long-playing record that will force him out of the tub only once to start the music again. Her clothes are on the floor by the bed, the loose button on the nightstand. The bathroom's begun to fog. She tests the water with her toe. When at last she hears the first few notes begin, Frank's slow, smooth voice sliding into the room, the candles are lit and she's sunk deep into the bubbles, one leg up, foot by the faucet. Pale skin and red nailpolish. White, slick tiles. Her dark hair is wet and clumped at the ends. There are crickets through the open window.
He's got a brandy for himself, and for her a highball of whiskey and ginger. She takes it from him and presses the cold glass to her chest, against the heat of her skin. She watches him watch her. He swirls his drink. The world flickers.
“I’m sorry about the key,” she says.
“I’m sorry I was late.”
There's really not room for him, but it doesn't matter. The water rises with his weight. She leans back against the tiles, feeling a drop snake down her neck, and scoops a handful of bubbles, admiring them in the light. Thousands of reflections. Colors swim and shine and burst.
“I saw a double rainbow as I drove down from Minneapolis,” he says, watching her. “Just this morning.”
“Aren’t you lucky.”
He nudges her with his foot. “I am.”
She grins, then blows into her hand. A storm of bubbles rises into the air, a world of drifting light. He leans back, his smile that of a man entranced. One cluster has landed on a tile beside her. In it she sees herself, fractured and glassy, and tries, more than anything, not to think of where he was last night.