The Disappearances – Emily Bain Murphy

I want something of hers. There’s a teacup downstairs, the last one she used before she died. She didn’t finish her chicory coffee that morning, and what she left stained the porcelain in a faint ring. Her lipstick remains smudged in Red Letter Red along the rim. It’s been three weeks, and I still haven’t been able to wash it away. But I shouldn’t choose the teacup. Nothing fragile is going to survive today. “Aila?” Cass opens my bedroom door, her white blond hair pinned up in a plait, her wide eyes darker than normal. “Your father says I can come with you to the train station, but we have to leave in five minutes.” “I’ll be ready,” I say softly. “I would be more worried about Miles.” She nods and disappears back into the hallway. Her footsteps fall on creaking boards, and then the house returns to its solemn hush, so quiet you can almost hear the dust settle. As if we have all already left it. Five minutes.

I go to my parents’ room. It’s been tidied since the last time I was here, the day of my mother’s memorial. Now the bed is made. All the flowers have been cleared away. Her vanity is free of her compacts and even the precious glass vial of Joy perfume she always displayed but hardly ever wore. I open her drawers, run my fingertips over her jewelry, but it’s all tangled and gaudy, and I want to leave it there, just as she left it. As if she could come in at any moment and clip on her big ugly earrings, as bright and jagged as suns. I turn to the bookshelf. It, too, has been sorted, but I prefer the way it used to look, when the books were all jumbled and wedged in at odd angles, threatening to fall onto my feet. My eye catches a large leather volume, its spine dwarfing all the others.

I’ve never seen it before. I kneel down in front of it, my knees finding the threadbare place where the rug has worn almost through to the floor. I pull out the book and flip through the pages. They whisper against my fingers, thin and delicate, like moth wings. It is Shakespeare, a collection of his plays and poems, and my mother’s handwriting is everywhere in it, littering the margins and cluttering the white gaps between sentences in differentcolored ink. The pages are yellowing, as if Mother has had this book for a long time. I wonder where it’s been hiding until now. An envelope is taped to the back cover. It is blank, and unsealed, and there is a note inside. “Aila! Miles!” Father’s voice rings out from the kitchen.

“Coming!” I call back. The note was written recently; I can tell by the way her handwriting shakes, like it did when she was nearing the end. It says: Stefen: You will find what you asked for within this. I will always love you. Your Viola My attention snags on the two names. Because the first one does not belong to my father. And the second, though it is definitely my mother’s handwriting, was not her name. My mother was the other well-known Shakespeare heroine. The one who also died young. Juliet.

“Aila!” my father calls again. This time it’s more of a warning. Leave it, I think. You don’t even like Shakespeare. And maybe I don’t want to know who this Stefen is. I put the book back on the shelf and decide that I want the teacup. It is my mother just as I remember her, safe and familiar, and it is still marked by her touch. I’ll bring it even if I have to hold it on my lap, cupped in my hands like a butterfly for the entire journey. I hurry down the narrow stairs, which seem to slope more and more to the right each year. I’ve never lived anywhere but this house—which we fondly call “the Tilt”—and I know just where to place my hand on the banister to keep my balance and where to step so the stairs don’t creak.

When I reach the landing, I hear my next-door neighbor, Mrs. Reid. She’s in the kitchen with Father, taking final instructions for watching over the Tilt while we’re gone. She’s opening drawers and closing them, and I’m sure she’s the one who organized my mother’s books. Maybe out of guilt. “I’m sorry, again, Harold, that we aren’t able to take the children,” she says. I pause on the staircase, in the shadows. All I can see are her stockinged calves and the worn leather of her pumps, but I picture her lips pursing down, her white hair wispy and always looking as though it’s being swept heavenward by the wind. “With Earl’s health,” she continues, “I just didn’t feel that we could manage them both.” She means that she would have taken me, but not Miles.

She doesn’t want to be responsible when he inevitably steals something or sets a fire. The creases in Mrs. Reid’s pumps deepen as she shifts her weight. “I thought someone else in town would surely be able to help, but . ” “Well, thankfully, we’ve found other arrangements,” Father says stiffly. Then he turns away to yell again, but I appear in front of him before he can say my name. “I’m here,” I say. My eyes fall from Mrs. Reid’s overly rouged cheeks to her hands, where she’s been anxiously fiddling with something. A tea towel embroidered with green leaves—and my mother’s teacup, scrubbed shiny clean.

I swallow. “I forgot one thing,” I say, turning and running back up the stairs. I touch my mother’s dresses one more time, hanging in neat, still lines in the closet, knowing they will be packed in storage or given away by the time I return. Then I grab the book of plays, stuffing it into my knapsack without another thought. Father drives us to the train station in our mud-streaked Studebaker—he and Miles in the front and Cass and me in the back seat, my knapsack with the book in it lying heavy on the seat between us. “Think Mrs. Reid can handle the Tilt while we’re away?” Father asks. He smiles at me in the mirror and reaches over to ruffle Miles’s hair, but Miles just stares straight ahead. As we pull away, I don’t let myself look at the browning dahlias in Mother’s flower boxes. Everything is in motion when we arrive at the station, as if the air itself were anxious.

Posters flutter on the walls, pigeons flap and peck, tow-white strands of Cass’s hair whip loose from her braid. She helped me set my wave this morning because I’ve always liked the way she does it best, but I can already feel it starting to fall. My dress clings to my legs, and my ankles are sweating inside my bobby socks. It’s unseasonably hot for late September. Cass and I step into the shadows of the eaves while Miles and my father purchase our tickets. I lean against a war poster that warns, “Telling a friend may mean telling THE ENEMY.” An advertisement over Cass’s head promises an “ALLAMERICAN sugar with energy crystallized by the sun!” Overhead, the clouds swirl like soup. “You’ll come back soon,” Cass says. “You’ll write,” I answer. “I wish you could stay with me,” she says, tears brightening her eyes.

She is my oldest friend, the one who climbed into bed behind me on the day my mother died and braided my hair until I fell asleep. The next morning, I found that she’d woven in her favorite ribbon, the cerulean one embroidered with flowers. The one she’d always planned to wear to our first school dance. “I wish I could, too,” I say. Being stuffed in a room with Cass and her three older sisters sounds better than the unknown ahead, even though I’ve always been a little frightened of Cass’s mother. Cass stares at the suitcase at our feet. “You’re not going to fall in love with some swoony out there and never come back, are you?” I squeeze her hand. “Maybe now Dixon Fairweather will finally realize what a dish I am.” She starts to cry-laugh as my father joins us on the platform, looking down at the newly purchased tickets in one hand and clutching my brother’s suitcase in the other. “Where’s Miles?” I ask, and my father glances up with the pained look of someone who has spent too long staring at the sun.

“He was just here,” he says. Our train is coming down the tracks, its white smoke pillowing up into the sky. The brassy clang of the bell grows louder. “I’ll check the entrance,” I say, snatching up my bag. “Lavatory,” my father says. “I’ll take the staircase,” Cass volunteers. There are people everywhere in the depot, mostly women and children now that so many of the men have been plucked away to fight. I walk through the snaking line and peer out into the street, the heat and train bell in my ears, my heart quick and light. He is not there. I’m searching for the burnt copper of his hair, but on the way back to the platform I glimpse the tweed of his cap instead.

Miles is sitting on the floor of the station, eating a half-melted Peppermint Pattie he must have hidden in the pocket of his shorts. I want to jerk his arm or at least rip the candy from his hand. Instead I stand and let my shadow fall over him. “Golly gee,” he says flatly. “You found me.” “Miles,” I hiss. “We were looking for you. Why did you run off?” I ask, although part of me wishes that he had actually gone far enough to make us miss the train. “Use your eyes,” he mumbles. “I was hungry.

” “Use your head. You wreak havoc wherever you go.” You’re the very reason no one here was willing to take us, I want to say, but instead I offer him a hand up. He follows me, dragging his feet, back out to the platform, to my father and Cass. “Found him,” I say unnecessarily. I can tell that my father doesn’t want to yell at Miles in these last moments. He squints at us and picks up our suitcases, his broad, tall frame sharp against the sagging leather. He won’t leave until tomorrow, heading in the opposite direction. A plane to San Francisco. Then out to the endless Pacific.

“It’s time,” he says. I embrace Cass first and try to think of the perfect words to say, but Father’s foot is tapping, his eyes never leaving the nearest conductor, and somehow Miles has managed to ruin even this. “Well,” I say, suddenly shy, “goodbye.” I take out one of my own ribbons and push it into Cass’s hand. Then I turn to my father. He’s shaved for the first time in weeks, and his cheek is so smooth I want to stay there for just a moment longer, to breathe in that smell of star anise and lather. I used to lie awake at night, fearing that he’d be called up in the draft. But now that it has happened, I know he will not die in the war—because my mother just died, and that will serve as some sort of protection around him, like a halo. This makes perfect sense to me. So I press my cheek against his one last time and then let him go.

“It won’t be long before I’ll see you again,” Father says. Miles sets his chin but then drops his bag and throws his arms around our father in a hard hug. “It’s only temporary,” Father says. He swallows, his voice catching. He lets go of Miles and leans down to whisper in my ear, “My little elf.” Miles and I board the train, and Cass stands just below the window, tears streaming down her face. She’s tied my ribbon into her hair. As the porter loads my suitcase, its tag turns over like a browned leaf and I catch the swirl of my mother’s handwriting. I wave to my father, but he has already turned away. Now there is not a doubt left that I will see him again.

This can’t be my final memory of him, his shoulders weighted under a sky the color of graphite, my reflection flickering and fading as I wait for him to turn back one last time and watch us go. The train ride north to Sterling is four hours. I don’t mean to fall asleep, but halfway there I do. My neck has a crick in it when I jerk awake. Every dream is the same: the bright puffs of flowers around Mother’s bed; how still she is, her hands like marble when I reach up to touch them; and then the chill that echoes through to my bones until I gasp awake. For a moment I think we’ve missed our stop, but Miles is sitting across from me, sketching, and there’s nothing out the window but fields and sky. I reach for the hidden tip of my knobby right ear, a habit of childish comfort I’ve been trying to give up. I can tell that Miles notices by the way he smirks down at the notepad in his lap. His fingers guide various pencils over the page until the familiar curve of our mother’s headstone appears, wreathed with a rainbow of flowers. It’s all he draws lately, the same picture repeating, just like my dream.

I wonder which one of us will stop first. “Are you hungry?” I ask, unwrapping the peanut butter sandwiches Mrs. Reid packed and handing a half-smashed one to Miles. The train car is almost empty now. We eat without talking, and when I tire of staring out the window, I pull out the Shakespeare book. The cover is thick, bound with burgundy leather. I flip through the pages, wondering where to start. There are pen markings under certain lines, and she’s written nonsensical notes in the margins, circling words like nose-herb and scribbling Sounds like Var’s . The play Twelfth Night seems to have the most markings. Some of the pages are bent, and the ink is smeared.

I flip to the end again, but this time I ignore the envelope. The back cover is lined with velvet, and my fingertips leave patterns on it the way they would on a frosted window. And then I notice the smallest tear fraying at the corner. I glance at Miles. He is absorbed with drawing the yellow burst of a sunflower, so I pull on the cover’s thread. It comes away, and I realize it’s been sewn on in faint stitches. My curiosity catches like a white flame, and I work out the stitches with my nail, staring out the window so that I won’t draw Miles’s attention. When the flap is loosened enough, I slide the book back into my knapsack to hide it. Then I sweep my fingers into the opening. Even before my fingertips feel glass, I know it.

There’s something hidden inside. CHAPTER TWO I tear the opening a little more to give my fingers space to work. Whatever is hidden there feels cold and smooth. I draw it out and examine it in the palm of my hand. It is a colorless jewel, as clear as water, with a teardrop suspended inside, set in a gold band. The familiar chill from my dream suddenly seeps through my fingertips. It’s my mother’s ring. I never saw her right hand without it, and I assumed it had been buried with her. Her rings were usually caked with dirt from her garden, but this one looks as though it’s been thoroughly cleaned. It stings a little to see it now.

This is what I would have wanted to take with me if she had given me the choice. Why would she hide it in a book and plan to send it off to some stranger named Stefen? I slip the stone onto my finger, but it’s too big, so I hold it in my palm. It takes not half a minute for Miles to notice. “What’s that?” He looks up from his drawing, his eyebrows knitting. “It’s Mother’s ring. She gave it to me,” I lie, and hurriedly unclasp my necklace, exchanging my small heart pendant for the stone. It clinks against the buttons lining my dress. “Next stop is yours,” says a gruff voice behind me, so near that I jump. The conductor’s breath is stale with coffee, staining the air around us. I haven’t seen any signs of a town since I jerked awake from my dream, and fields stretch out endlessly from beyond the window, only occasionally split by a farmhouse or barn.

Gardner had been a small town to grow up in, but this feels like being dropped in the middle of an ocean. An ocean of cornstalks burnt gold by the sun. “The finishing word,” Miles says, putting his boots up on the seat next to me and closing his notepad. “Go.” I play with the clasp of my tortoiseshell barrette. The finishing word was Mother’s game, and I’m not sure I ever want to play it again. Every mile on this train, every minute that passes is taking me farther away from my old life. The life I still want to be living. A thought comes to me gently, and it is in my mother’s voice: That ship has sailed, honey. Now you can either drown or hitch a ride on the next one.

Will anyone put flowers on her grave while we are all away? Even though I’m only half thinking, I have a stroke of genius. “My finishing word is palimpsest,” I say. I snap the hair clip triumphantly. Miles slumps back in his seat. “I’ve never heard of that word. You probably made it up.” “No, I didn’t. You know tabula rasa?” He gives me a vacant stare. “We’re starting over with a blank slate, but we haven’t completely left our past.” He chews on his cheek as if he’s trying to decide whether to believe me.

“What’s yours, then?” I ask over the train’s shrieking brakes. A patchwork of fields is rolling into the paved streets of a small town center. “My finishing word is forsaken,” Miles says. “How dramatic.” “Fine. Then I’ll make it emprise. A fancy word for adventure.” “That’s a good one,” I admit. “You win.” It’s a strong finishing word, especially for an eight-yearold—even if I hadn’t already decided that I would let him win.

“Grab your bag.” Miles’s eyebrows arch together, and then his green eyes narrow. “What will you do if I don’t get off?” he asks. “You will,” I say, picking up his bag along with mine. I pretend they aren’t as heavy as they are. “No one would blame me, you know,” he says, but he shimmies down the aisle toward the exit. “My mother just died.” “Right, because I have no idea what that feels like,” I say, and when Miles pauses on the train step, I give him a shove. Then I take a deep breath of my own and step down onto the platform. There are only two people waiting in the shade of the station’s overhang: a middle-aged woman and someone I assume is her son.

I remember Mrs. Cliffton from my mother’s funeral. She was the only person not from Gardner, so she stuck out in the blurred line of mourners who went through the receiving line that day. She had been formal and reserved when she took my hand. “Matilda Cliffton. I was your mother’s best friend from childhood,” she explained, and I recognized her name. “My mother was always so pleased to get a letter from you,” I told her, and I had already moved on to greet the next person when she suddenly hugged me, as if she couldn’t leave until she had done it. I overheard her offer to help my father however she could. I’m guessing she probably hadn’t envisioned Miles and me stepping off this train three weeks later. “Hello!” Mrs.

Cliffton calls, stepping toward us. Her black crepe funeral dress has been replaced with a day suit the color of plums and a matching hat. Her red hair is pulled up in a smart bun. She is more handsome than I remembered. But maybe it’s because this time she’s smiling. “Welcome!” she says. “Aila, seeing you here is like stepping back in time. You look just like Juliet did when we were young.” “Thank you,” I say. I am grateful that she can say my mother’s name.

That we can still talk of her. “You remember my brother, Miles.” Miles sticks out his hand. “Miles Quinn,” he repeats solemnly as Mrs. Cliffton takes it. Our father’s pomade has evaporated, and Miles’s cowlick now stands up like a missed clump of grass. “Welcome, Miles. And this is my son, William. He’ll get your bags,” Mrs. Cliffton says.

“Will,” the boy says, extending his hand. He looks to be about my own age, with dark hair that is slightly overgrown, and I can’t help but notice it covers the tips of his ears. His teeth are slightly crowded in his mouth, and his eyes are a blue I’ve never seen before. He’s sort of handsome, in a way that falls between scruffy and striking. “So this is Sterling,” I say quickly, glancing around. “Actually, no,” Mrs. Cliffton says. “Sterling’s still a good drive from here, but this is our nearest station.” She glances up at the darkening sky. “We’ll want to try to beat the rain.

” Will takes our bags from the porter, and Mrs. Cliffton leads us to a Ford station wagon with wood paneling so smooth it looks glazed. Miles nudges me. “Just so you know,” he whispers, “your ear is showing.” My hand flies to the tip of my right ear, but it is still hidden under the carefully arranged layers of my hair. Miles’s face breaks into a grin wide enough to reveal the small space between his two front teeth. “The finishing word just became insuf erable,” I hiss. I ignore his wiggling eyebrows and climb into the car. Mrs. Cliffton opens the driver’s door and takes her place behind the steering wheel.

She starts the engine and pulls out onto the road, hunched forward, her gloved fingers wrapped around the wheel. She doesn’t make much conversation, and when the car heaves and jerks, the corners of her mouth tighten. It takes her a moment to find the windshield wipers once the raindrops begin to splatter like paint against the window glass. “Thank you for bearing with me,” Mrs. Cliffton says, her foot easing and catching on the clutch. “We recently lost our driver. I suppose we’re all doing our best to adapt.” She colors, as if she realizes how this must sound to us. I nod rather than answer. “We are all so hopeful that the war will be over quickly,” she adds.

This is just temporary, my father’s voice echoes in my head. My mother’s ring hangs weighted around my neck. The Clifftons’ car sends up thick plumes of dust behind us on the road, and we don’t pass any other drivers or dwellings for miles. “We’re largely farm country,” Mrs. Cliffton explains. “What does Dr. Cliffton do?” I ask politely. My question provokes the slightest moment of hesitation. “He’s a scientist,” Mrs. Cliffton says.

“He had polio as a child, so he isn’t much use for farming or fighting.” She glances at William. “Now he . looks for ways to improve our quality of life. Look ahead, dears—here is Sterling.” I peer out the window as we come into town. The main street is lined with American flags. There are a handful of stores, all crowned with tan awnings. Letters are painted across the glass windows of a tiny diner. “That’s Fitz’s,” Will says, nodding toward the rust-red bricks of a general store.

We pass a bank, a hardware store, a milliner, a bakery, an empty Texaco station, all drab and gray through the rain. It looks like any other sleepy farm town, but this is the one where my mother grew up. Maybe something of her is still here for me to find, like sunlight catching a handprint on glass. “Home’s just a bit farther,” Mrs. Cliffton says, humming, and turns onto a smaller road. Houses and farms are scattered along it like jacks between fields and a thick patch of forest. The sky is wide and laden with heavy clouds. Mrs. Cliffton turns off the road, and Will jumps out to open a large cast-iron gate. When he returns, the rain has speckled his white shirt with gray.

Then the car climbs the curving drive, and the Clifftons’ house comes into view. The house falls somewhere between the cramped and cozy nooks of the Tilt and the sprawling mansions my father once took us to see on the cliffs of Rhode Island. Lights blaze from a first-floor window through the shimmer of rain. Four chimneys rise from a slate roof, and rooms spread from the central house in two glass-covered wings. The red bricks glow as if they would be warm to the touch. I suddenly notice a faint stain blotting the hem of my dress and move my hand to cover it. “I’m sorry, we seem to have forgotten the umbrellas,” Mrs. Cliffton says, pulling around the circled drive to the front of the house. “We’ll have to make a run for it. The three of you go on in, and I’ll be right behind you.

” Will opens the door to a crack of thunder, and even though Miles and I sprint up the stone steps behind him, the rain soaks my dress until it clings to me. The careful wave Cass set in my hair this morning is now slicked to the side of my cheek. Will pulls open the heavy front door to a bright yellow foyer, and I hurry inside. The rainwater runs down my legs into a puddle on the checkered marble floor. A chandelier hangs two stories above our heads, twinkling like the sun. “Wow,” Miles says, gaping at the raised ceiling, his boots squeaking against the polished floor. At least the rain has masked the stain on my hem. Raindrops bead on Will’s forehead and drip down his lashes. He reaches a hand to brush them away. “I’ll get us some towels,” he says, and by the time he returns with them, Mrs.

Cliffton is coming in through the front door. She starts when she sees us still standing there and heavily sets down our luggage. I look again at the water that has pooled at my feet, and I narrow my eyes. The wind has taken on a shrieking tone. The rain continues to beat against the windows. Yet Mrs. Cliffton and our leather suitcases are perfectly dry. We towel off and meet the Clifftons’ only remaining staff: a live-in cook and housekeeper named Genevieve. She is tall and rail thin and has hair the color of smoke. The tea she offers us is scentless but strong.

It feels like embers going down my throat, heating me from the inside as we follow Mrs. Cliffton on a tour of the house. I try not to compare it to the Tilt, but I can’t help noticing that the door handles are made of curved brass rather than our rounded glass knobs. There’s no beautiful grandfather clock that clicks and bongs throughout the night, no collection of frog knickknacks with little pieces of paper wedged beneath them so they don’t slide down the slope of the shelves. Instead there are decorative books and patterned curtains and tiny painted porcelain boxes that sit in perfectly level display cases. The hallways bear paintings of vases and bowls spilling over with fruit rather than Father’s nautical maps and sketched prints of archipelagos. At least he’ll get to see more of the ocean while he’s away, I think. Some of the furniture looks as though it’s never even been used. But Mrs. Cliffton is enthusiastic when we round a corner and she points out a wooden chair.

“Will built this for me when he was thirteen,” she says proudly. “It’s really more functional than beautiful,” Will says. “I adore it,” Mrs. Cliffton says. “You’re my mother,” Will says, smiling at me with a hint of embarrassment and running his hands along the scruffy hair at the back of his neck. He trails behind as we tour the sunroom and formal dining room and Dr. Cliffton’s library, where books cover the walls, their spines as ordered as piano keys. I’m examining an old Victrola and a tidy line of wooden canes when Miles reaches out to twirl the large midnight orb of a celestial globe. I grab his wrist. He still has peanut butter smudged on his hand.

I shoot him a look before turning to Mrs. Cliffton. “Your home is lovely,” I say. “Yes,” Miles echoes. He wipes his palms on the tail of his shirt. “Thank you for having us.” Mrs. Cliffton waves this off. “Your mother was like my sister,” she says. She blinks rapidly, and for a moment I worry that she’s going to cry.

Miles stiffens like a rod next to me. “So you and Miles are family,” she finishes, and smiles instead, and Miles’s shoulders relax again. “Shall we head upstairs? You can get settled in.” Mrs. Cliffton leads us back to the foyer, where I grab my knapsack from the floor and Will collects our suitcases. “Aila,” Mrs. Cliffton says brightly, leading us up the stairs, “do you remember the time I came to Gardner? Not for the funeral, but years back? You were still very young then. Actually, William was with me as well. Do you recall meeting as children?” “No,” I say after a beat. The pins in my hair are starting to tug, and I want to find my room and take them out.

“Juliet and I turned our backs for one minute,” Mrs. Cliffton says, reaching the second floor, “and the next thing we knew, you were both down in the field, covered head to toe in dirt.” She stops in front of the first door beyond the balcony. “We promptly threw you both in the tub.” When I realize that this means Will and I have seen each other in our unmentionables, and possibly even less than that, I do everything I can to avoid his face. Miles makes it worse with a muffled snicker. “That’s right,” Will says quickly, juggling our suitcases for a better grip. “We were burying something we’d found in the field, some treasure. I can’t remember what it was. Maybe with some Mind’s Eye we could . ” The way he cuts off makes me look up to catch the most peculiar expression cross his face. His mother’s hand jerks back from the doorknob, and the air strains and crackles with a sudden tension, as if they are waiting for some sort of reaction from us. “What is Mind’s Eye?” Miles asks, and Mrs. Cliffton gives Will an almost imperceptible shake of the head. “Oh, just something we can talk about later,” Mrs. Cliffton says to Miles, pushing open the door to the first guest bedroom. “Aila, that’s a lovely necklace,” she continues, changing the subject as she ushers us inside. “I remember that ring. Wasn’t it your mother’s?” “Yes,” I say. “Did she really give it to you?” Miles asks quietly as Will places my suitcase on the floor. I nod, uncomfortable with how intently both he and Mrs. Cliffton are looking at my neck. “She didn’t give me anything,” Miles says, and I wait until their backs are turned and then hide the ring behind the collar of my dress. My bedroom is simple and cheerful, with yellow walls that are cozy even with the storm beating against the window. There is a white four-poster bed with an embroidered quilt, and a window seat that looks out on the branch of a large oak. Mrs. Cliffton has placed tight puffs of cabbage roses and a picture in a silver frame on the bureau. The image holds younger versions of her and my mother. Juliet and Matilda wear matching school uniforms, their arms slung around each other, their faces caught in open-mouthed laughs. I’ve never seen a picture of Mother at my age. Her hair was a lighter auburn than mine, but she has my gray eyes that are a bit too wide, a small nose, and a sharp chin. It’s startling how much I look like her. I unpack my dresses and line my toiletries on top of the milk-white sink, then shelve the poetry volumes I’ve taken from the castaway pile at the Gardner library over the years. Stevenson, Frost, Dickinson, Yeats, and Wilde, each missing its cover or spidered with stains the color of light tea. I can’t bring myself to unpack my winter clothes just yet. Maybe we’ll be home by then. Instead I arrange my father’s dulled throwing dart, Mother’s Shakespeare volume, and Cass’s ribbon on my nightstand. Then I run a bath in the porcelain claw tub and dress for dinner. There are no mirrors in the bathroom—odd for a house that has just about everything else. I wonder if it would be too forward to ask Mrs. Cliffton for one. I do the best I can with my hair, feeling only by touch, and head downstairs for dinner. Dr. Cliffton stands from where he is seated at the mahogany dinner table to greet me when I enter the dining room. He is an older, softer version of Will, with blue eyes that aren’t quite as striking and are framed by wire-rimmed glasses. I make polite, stilted conversation—“I’ve never been this far north before”; “The rain sure is coming down”—over a dinner of watercress and grilled peach salad, roast chicken, and some sort of squash tart, all served by Genevieve. We did not eat like this even before the war and the rationing started. “One of the benefits of living in farm country,” Dr. Cliffton says as he notices me eyeing the small pat of freshly churned butter. I want to smear it, salty and smooth and creamy, all along my slice of bread, but I pretend that I don’t care for it and pass the plate on. Miles takes my cue and declines as well. We are impinging on the Clifftons enough without eating their precious butter. Dr. Cliffton clears his throat. “Did your mother speak often of Sterling?” he asks me. He pauses in cutting the tart. His knife and fork hover over his plate. “Only a little,” I say. In truth, she’d barely spoken of it at all. There is a long beat, as if this wasn’t the correct answer. For a moment all I can hear is cutlery scraping and the sound of my own chewing. “She told me once she didn’t much like it,” Miles offers, followed by a yelp as my heel catches his ankle. Dr. Cliffton laughs graciously, but there is something else in it as well. He pushes his chair back in concert with a loud crack of thunder and says, “You know, I believe I’ve just the thing for this occasion.” His right foot drags as he leaves the room, and I recall the collection of canes I’d seen during my tour of the house. Dr. Cliffton reappears a moment later, trailing bright strains of Glenn Miller from down the hall. It helps to drown out the steady patter of the rain. “Shall we move into the library?” Mrs. Cliffton suggests. “Genevieve could bring us some coffee, maybe even some ice cream?” Miles jumps up with a nod. They are all trying so hard, I realize. But I don’t have the energy to keep up. “Actually, I think I’ll turn in,” I say. “Long day,” Mrs. Cliffton says, nodding. The lights flicker. The four of them move on to Dr. Cliffton’s library, and I climb the stairs to my room. “Good night, Miles,” I call from the balcony, and he gives a short wave without really looking. I change into my nightgown and brush my teeth, staring at the blank wall in front of me. Tomorrow I’m going to ask about the mirror. I climb into bed, rolling my father’s dart between my hands. I hear Will challenge Miles to a game of checkers, followed by an amused “Hot dog!” barely five minutes later. Miles rarely loses games. He never loses at checkers. Someone changes the record to Billie Holiday, her voice drowsy and warm. She was Mother’s favorite. I return my dart to the nightstand and use my pillow to block out the music and the sound of the rain. It’s the first night in three weeks that I do not dream of her.

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