I approached Middle River at midnight--pure cowardice on my part. Had I chosen to, I might have left Washington at seven in the morning and reached town in time to cruise down Oak Street in broad daylight. But then I would have been seen. My little BMW convertible, bought used but adored, would have stood out among the pickups and vans, and my D.C. plates would have clinched it. Middle River had expected me back in June for the funeral, but it wasn't expecting me now. For that reason, my face alone would have drawn stares.
But I wasn't in the mood to be stared at, much less to be the night's gossip. As confident as my Washington self was, that confidence had gradually slipped as I had driven north. I drank Evian; I nibbled a grilled salmon wrap from Sutton Place and snacked on milk chocolate Toblerone. I rolled my white jeans into capris, raised the collar of my imported knit shirt, caught my hair up in a careless twist held by bamboo sticks--anything to play up sophistication, to no avail. By the time I reached Middle River, I was feeling like the dorky misfit I had been when I left town fifteen years before.
Focus, I told myself for the umpteenth time since leaving Washington. You're not dorky anymore. You've found your niche. You're a successful woman, a talented writer. Critics say it; the reading public says it. The opinion of Middle River doesn't matter. You're here for one reason, and one reason alone.
Indeed, I was. All I had to do was to remember that Mom wouldn't be at the house when I arrived, and my anger was stoked. I wrapped myself in that anger and in the warm night air when, in an act of defiance just south of town, I lowered the convertible top. When Middle River came into view, I was able to see every sleepy inch.
To the naive eye, especially under a clear moon, the setting was quaint. In Peyton Place, the main street was Elm. In ours, it was Oak. Running through the center of town, it was wide enough to allow for sidewalks, trees, and diagonal parking. Shops on either side were softly lit for the night in a way that gave a brief inner glimpse of the purpose of each: a lineup of lawn mowers in Farnum Hardware, shelves of magazines in News 'n Chews, vitamin displays at The Apothecary. Around the corner was the local pub, the Sheep Pen, dark except for the frothy stein that hung high outside.
On my left as I crossed the intersection of Oak and Pine, a barbershop pole marked the corner where Jimmy Sacco had cut hair for years before passing his scissors to Jimmy the younger. The pole gleamed in my headlights, tossing an aura of light across the benches on either side of the corner. In good weather those benches were filled, every bit as much the site of gossip-mongering as the nail shop over on Willow. At night they were empty.
Or usually so. Something moved on one of them now, small and low to the seat, and I was instantly taken back. Barnaby? Could it be? He had been just a kitten when I left town. Cats often lived longer than fifteen years.
Unable to resist, I pulled over to the curb and shifted into park. Leaving my door open, I went up the single step and, with care now, across the boardwalk to the bench. I used to love Barnaby. More to the point, Barnaby used to love me.
But this wasn't Barnaby. Up close, I could see that. This cat, sitting up now, was a tabby. It was orange, not gray, and more fuzzy than Barnaby had been. A child of Barnaby's? Possibly. The old coot had sired a slew of babies over the years. My mother, who knew of my fondness for Barnaby, had kept me apprised.
Soothed by the faint whiff of hair tonic that clung to the clapboards behind the bench, I extended a hand to the new guard. The cat sniffed it front and back, then pushed its head against my thumb. Smiling, I scratched its ears until, with a put-put-putter, it began to purr. There is nothing like a cat's purr. I had missed this.
I was straightening when I heard a murmur. Cats have claws, it might have said, but when I looked around, there were no shadows, no human forms.
The cat continued to purr.
I listened for a minute, but the only sound here on the barbershop porch was that purr. Again, I looked around. Still, nothing.
Chalking it up to fatigue, I returned to my car and drove on--and again the town's charm hit me. Across the street was the bank and, set back from the sidewalk, the town hall. The Catholic church was behind me and the Congregational church ahead, white spires gently lit. Each was surrounded by its woodsy flock, a generous congregation of trees casting moon shadows on the land. It was a poet's dream.
But I was no poet. Nor was I naive. I knew the ugly little secrets the darkness concealed, and it went far beyond those men who, like Barnaby, sowed their seed about town. I knew that there was a place on the sign between Farnum and Hardware where and Son had been, until that son was arrested for molesting a nine-year-old neighbor and given a lengthy jail term. I knew that a bitter family feud had erupted when old man Harriman died, resulting in the splitting of Harriman's General Store into a grocery and a bakery, two separate entities, each with its own door, its own space, and its own sign, and a solid brick wall between. I knew that there were scorch marks, scrubbed and faded but visible nonetheless, on the stone front of the newspaper office, where Gunnar Szlewitchenz, the onetime town drunk, had lit a fire in anger at the editor for misspelling his name in a piece. I knew that there was a patched part of the curb in front of the bank, a reminder of Karl Holt's attempt to use his truck as a lethal weapon against his cheating wife, who had worked inside.
These things were legend in Middle River, stories that every native knew but was loathe to share with outsiders. Middle River was insular, its face carefully made up to hide warts.
Holding this thought, I managed to avoid nostalgia until I passed the roses at Road's End Inn. Then it hit in a visceral way. Though I couldn't see the blooms in the dark, the smell was as familiar to me as any childhood memory, as evocative of summer in Middle River as the ripe oak, the pungent hemlock, the moist earth.
Succumbing for an instant, I was a child returning with chocolate pennies from News 'n Chews, shopping alone for the first time, using those rosebushes as a marker pointing me home. I could taste the chocolate, could feel the excitement of being alone, the sense of being grown-up but just a tad afraid, could smell the roses--unbelievably fragrant and sweet--and know I was on the right path.
Now as then, I made a left on Cedar, but I had no sooner completed the turn when I stepped on the brake. On the road half a block ahead, spotlit in the dark, was a tangle of bare flesh, one body, no, two bodies entwined a second too long in that telltale way. By the time they were up and streaking for the trees amid gales of laughter, I had my head down, eyes closed, cheeks red. When I looked up, they were gone. My blush lingered.
"Pulling a backabehind," it was called by the kids in town, and it had been a daredevil antic for years. Middle River's answer to the mile-high club, pulling a backabehind entailed making love in the center of town at midnight. This couple would get points off for being on Cedar, rather than on Oak, and points off if the coupling failed to end in, uh, release. Whether they would tell the truth about either was doubtful, but the retelling would perpetuate the rite.
Growing up here, I had thought pulling a backabehind was the epitome of evil. Now, seeing two people clearly enjoying themselves, doing something they would have done elsewhere anyway, I was amused. Grace would have loved this. She would have written it into one of her books. Heck, she would have done it herself, likely with George, the tall, sexy Greek who was her first and third husband and, often, her partner in rebellion.
Still smiling, I approached the river. The air was suddenly warmer and more humid, barely moving past my flushed face as I drove. The sound of night frogs and crickets rose above the hum of my engine, but the river flowed silently, seeming this night unwilling to compete. And yet I knew it was there. It was always there, in both name and fact. Easily 70 percent of the town's workforce drew a weekly paycheck from the Northwood Mill account, and the river was the lifeblood of the mill.
A short block up, I turned right onto Willow. It wasn't the fanciest street in town; that would be Birch, where the elite lived in their grand brick-and-ivy Colonials. But what Willow lacked in grandeur it made up for in charm. The houses here were Victorian, no two exactly alike. The moon picked out assorted gables, crossbars, and decorative trim; my headlights bounced off picket fences of various heights and styles. The front yards were nowhere near as meticulously manicured as those on Birch, but they were lush. Maples rose high and spread wide; rhododendron, mountain laurel, lilac, and forsythia, though well past bloom, were all richly leafed. And the street's namesake willows? They stood on the riverbank, as tall and stately as anything weeping could be, their fountainous forms graceful enough for us to forgive them the mess their leaves made of our lawns.
Quaint downtown, quintessentially New England homes, historic mill--I understood how a visitor could fall in love with Middle River. Its visual appeal was strong. But I wasn't being taken in. This rose had a thorn; I had been pricked too many times to forget it. I wasn't here to be charmed, only to find an answer or two.
Naturally, I was more diplomatic in the voice message I had left earlier for Phoebe. The few questions I had asked since I'd been here last hadn't been well received. Phoebe was unsettled and Sabina defensive. I didn't want to get off on the wrong foot now.
With Mom gone, Phoebe, who was the oldest of us three, lived alone in the house where we grew up. If I still had a home in Middle River, it was here. I didn't consider staying anywhere else.
"Hey, Phoebe," I had said after the beep, "it's me. Believe it or not, I'm on my way up there. Mom's death keeps nagging at me. I think I just need to be with you guys a little. Sabina doesn't know I'm coming. I'll surprise her tomorrow. But I didn't want to frighten you by showing up unannounced in the middle of the night. Don't wait up. I'll see you in the morning."
The house was the fifth on the left, yellow with white trim that glowed in my headlights as I turned into the driveway. Pulling around Phoebe's van, I parked way back by the garage, where my car wouldn't be seen from the street. I checked the sky; not a cloud. Leaving the top down, I climbed out and took my bags from the trunk. Looping straps over shoulders and juggling the rest, I started up the side stairs, then stopped, burdened not so much by the weight of luggage as by memory. No anger came with it now, only grief. Mom wouldn't be inside. She would never be inside again.
And yet I pictured her there, just beyond the kitchen door, sitting at the table waiting for me to come home. Her face would be scrubbed clean, her short, wavy blonde hair tucked behind her ears, and her eyes concerned. Oh, and she would be wearing pajamas. I smiled at the memory of that. She claimed it was about warmth, and perhaps it was, though I do remember her wearing nightgowns when I was young. The change came when I was a teenager. She would have been in her forties then and slimmer than at any time in her life. With less fat to pad her, she might have been chilled. So maybe it really was about warmth.
I suspect something else, though. My grandmother, who had always worn pajamas, died when I was fourteen. The switch came soon after. Mom became her mother then, and not only in bedtime wear. With Connie gone, Mom became the family's moral watchdog, waiting up until the last of us was home without incident--without incident, that was key, because incident led to disgrace. Public drunkenness, lewd behavior, unwanted pregnancy--these were the things Middle River talked about in the tonic-scented cloud that hovered over the barbershop benches, through the lacquer smell in the nail shop, over hash at Omie's. Being the butt of gossip was Mom's greatest fear.
Grace Metalious had hit the nail on the head with that one. As frightened as the fictitious Constance MacKenzie was of her secret leaking out in Peyton Place, she was more terrified of being talked about when it did.
Mind you, other than the fiasco with Aidan Meade, I never gave Mom cause for worry. I didn't date. What I did, starting soon after I could drive, was to go down to Plymouth on a Saturday night, stake out a table at a coffee shop, and read. Being alone in a place where I knew no one was better than being alone on a Saturday night in Middle River. And Mom would be waiting up for me when I returned, which eased the loneliness.
Feeling the full weight of that loneliness now, I went on up the stairs, opened the door, and slipped inside. Mom wasn't there, but neither was the kitchen I recalled. It had been totally renovated two years before, with Mom already ill, but determined. I had seen the changes when I was here for the funeral, but, climbing those side steps, my mind's eye still had pictured the old one, with its aged Formica countertops, its vintage appliances and linoleum floor.
In the warm glow of under-cabinet halogens, this new kitchen was vibrant. Its walls were painted burgundy, its counters were beige granite, its floor a brick-hued adobe tile. The appliances were stainless steel, right down to a trash compactor.
I didn't have a trash compactor. Nor did I have an ice dispenser on the refrigerator door. This kitchen was far more modern than mine in Washington. I was duly impressed, as I had been too preoccupied to be in June.
The kitchen table was round, with a maple top, wrought-iron legs, and ladderback chairs of antique white. Setting my computer bag on one of the latter, I turned off the lights, went through the hall and into the front parlor to turn off its lamp. There I found my sister Phoebe, under a crocheted afghan on the settee. Her eyes were closed; she was very still.
Of the three of us, she resembled Mom the most. She had the same high forehead and bright green eyes, the same wavy blonde hair, the same thin McCall mouth. She looked older than when I had seen her last month, perhaps pale from the strain of carrying on. Totally aside from any physical problems she might be having, I could only begin to imagine what the past month had been like for her. My own loneliness in coming home to a house without Mom was nothing compared to Phoebe's feeling it all the time. Not only had she lived with Mom for all but the short span of her own marriage, but she worked with Mom too. The loss had to be in her face day in and day out.
Lowering my bags, I slipped down onto the edge of the settee and lightly touched the part of her under the afghan that would have been an arm. "Phoebe?" I whispered. When she didn't move, I gave her a little shake.
Her eyes slowly opened. She stared at me for a blank moment, before blankness became confusion. "Annie?" Her voice was uncharacteristically nasal.
"You got my message, didn't you?"
"Message," she repeated, seeming muddled.
My heart sank. "On your voice mail? Saying I was coming?" I had assumed the lights were left on for me.
"I don't . . . on my voice mail? I think so . . . I must have." Her eyes cleared a little. "I'm just groggy from medicine. I have a cold." That explained the nasal voice. "What time is it?"
I checked my watch. "Twelve-ten." Deciding that grogginess from cold medicine was reasonable, I tried to lighten things with a smile. "The kitchen startled me. I keep expecting to see the old one."
I wasn't sure she even heard my remark. She was frowning. "Why're you here?"
"I felt a need to visit."
After only the briefest pause, she asked, "Why now?"
"It's August. Washington's hot. I finished the revisions of my book. Mom's gone."
Phoebe didn't move, but she grew more awake. "Then it is about Mom. Sabina said it would be."
"You told Sabina I was coming?" I asked in dismay. I would rather have called Sabina myself.
"I was over there for dinner. I couldn't not say."
Fine. I didn't want to fight. Sabina would have found out soon, anyway. "I miss Mom," I said. "I haven't taken the time to mourn. I want to know more about those last days, what was wrong with her, y'know?"
"What about the house?"
I frowned. "What about it?"
"Sabina said you'd want it."
"This house?" I asked in surprise. "Why would I want it? I have my own place. This is yours."
"Sabina said you'd want it anyway. She said you'd know all the little legal twists, and that it would be about money."
"Money? Excuse me? I have plenty of money." But I wasn't surprised Sabina would think I wanted more. She was always expecting the worst of me, which was why I would have preferred to phone her myself to let her know I was here. Then I might have nipped her suspicions in the bud.
"Have I asked for anything from Mom's estate?" I asked now.
Phoebe didn't reply. She looked like she was trying to remember.
"Mom's been dead barely six weeks," I went on. "Has Sabina been stewing about this the whole time?"
"No. Just . . . just once she found out you were coming, I guess."
That quickly, I was back in the midst of childhood spats. Sabina was the middle child, which should have made her the peacemaker of the family, but that had never been the case. The eleven months between Phoebe and her had left her craving attention, a situation I had aggravated with my arrival when Sabina was barely two.
Now I said, "This is why I called you and not her. I knew she wouldn't be happy about my visit, and that's really sad, Phoebe. Middle River's where I grew up. My family is here. Why does she have to feel threatened?"
Phoebe still hadn't stirred on the settee, but her eyes were as sharp as Mom's could be when she was worried we had done something wrong. "She doesn't know you anymore. I don't either."
"I'm your sister."
"You're a writer. You live in the city and you travel all over. You eat out more than you eat in. You know celebrities." Her eyes rounded when she recalled something else. "And your significant other is on TV all the time."
"He isn't my significant other," I reminded her.
"Roommate, then," she conceded and took a stuffy breath. "But even that's totally different from Middle River. Single women don't buy condos here with single men."
"Greg and I protect each other--but that's getting off the subject. I'm your sister, Phoebe," I repeated, pleading now, because the discussion was making me feel even more alone than I had felt entering the kitchen and finding no Mom. "I've tried to give in the last few years. Isn't that what our vacations were about? And the money for the new van? And even the new kitchen," I added, though my part was the appliances alone. "Why do you think I would try to take something you have?"
Seeming suddenly groggy again, Phoebe lifted an arm from under the afghan. She squeezed her eyes shut, rubbed them with thumb and forefinger. "I don't know. I don't keep lists."
"Phoebe," I chided.
"I guess not, but Sabina says--"
"Not Sabina," I cut in. "You. Do you distrust me, too?"
In a reedy voice, she said, "I'm confused sometimes." Her hand fell away. She opened her eyes, looking pitiful, and again, my heart sank. Something was definitely wrong.
"It's your cold," I reasoned, but was suddenly distracted. With the afghan lowered, I could see what she was wearing. Smiling, I teased, "Are those pajamas?"
She was instantly defensive. "What's wrong with pajamas?"
"Nothing. It's just that it was a Mom thing to do."
"She was cold. Now I'm cold."
The room was not cold. If anything, it was hot. I had entered town with my top down, while Phoebe had her windows shut tight. The house had no AC. Even the warmth outside would have stirred the air in here. Surely the moisture of the night would have helped Phoebe's cold.
Again, I thought how wan she looked. "Have you been sick long?" I asked.
She sighed. "I'm not sick. It's just a cold. They're a fact of life. Customers bring them into the shop all the time. It's late. I'd better go to bed."
I rose from the settee and shouldered my bags, then glanced back. Phoebe was holding the arm of the settee with one hand while she pushed herself up with the other. She reminded me of Mom the last time I had seen her. That wasn't good.
"Seriously, Phoebe, are you okay?"
On her feet now, she held up both hands. "I. Am. Fine. Go on. I'll get the light."
I was in the hall when the parlor went dark, leaving the stair lit by a lamp at the top. I went on up, then down the hall to the room that had always been mine. Dropping my bags inside, I turned back to wait for Phoebe. She walked slowly, seeming a tad unsteady. Middle-of-the-night grogginess? Possibly. But the niggling I had felt after being here last time was now a bona fide burr.
She came alongside, very much Mom's height, which was several inches shy of mine, and said, "Your room's just the same. I haven't touched anything."
"I wasn't worried. What about your room? Are you still sleeping there?"
"Where else would I sleep?"
"Mom's room. It's the biggest. This is your house now. You have a right to that room. Didn't Sabina suggest it last time I was here?"
"I guess," Phoebe said, confused again. "But it'd mean moving all my things, and I've been in my room for so long." Her eyes grew plaintive. "Do I really have the energy for that?"
She should have it. She was only thirty-six. Clearly, though, she was depleted both physically and emotionally. I wondered how she managed to handle the store.
Rather than express doubt when she seemed so vulnerable, I said, "So, what time will you be up in the morning?"
"Seven. We open at nine."
"Can you stay home if your cold is worse?"
"It won't be worse."
"Okay then. I'll see you for breakfast?"
She nodded, frowned, added, "Unless I sleep later. I've been exhausted. Maybe it's the cold. Maybe it's missing Mom." With an oddly apologetic smile, she went on past me, down the hall.
"Want me to turn out the lamp?" I asked.
She looked back. "Lamp?"
I indicated the one at the top of the stairs.
She stared in surprise. "No. Leave it on. If it had been on that night, Mom wouldn't have tripped. It was dark. If she'd been able to see, she wouldn't have fallen, and if she hadn't fallen, she'd still be alive."
"She was ill," I reminded her. "It wasn't so much the dark as her balance."
"It was the dark," Phoebe declared and disappeared into her room.
I didn't sleep well. Once I opened the windows, pulled back the covers, and removed every stitch of clothing, I could deal with the heat, but the city girl I had become wasn't used to the noise. Traffic, yes. Sirens, yes. Garbage trucks, yes. Peepers and crickets, no. Naturally, lying awake, I thought about Mom, about whether Phoebe was sick, too, and, if so, whether it was from lead or worse, and each time I woke up, I thought of those things. Dawn came, and the night noises died, which meant that the river emerged. Our house sat on its banks. The waters rushed past, carrying aquatic creatures from upstream, leaves and grasses from its banks, all hurrying past the stones that lined its bank.
Seven came, and I listened for Phoebe, but it wasn't until seven-twenty that I heard signs of life in the house. Wearing a nightshirt now, I was sitting on the edge of the bed, about to stand, when Sabina slipped into the room.
Sabina and I were Barneses, with Daddy's midnight hair, pale skin, and full mouth. When we were kids, these features had come together on her far better than they had on me. Sabina was pretty and popular. I was neither. We were both five-eight, though Sabina had always insisted she was half an inch taller than I was. I didn't fight her on it. There was plenty else to fight about. Even as she approached the bed now, I felt it coming.
I tried to diffuse things with a smile. "Hi. I was going to call you. Is Phoebe awake?"
"No," Sabina replied in a low voice. She folded her arms and held them close. "I wanted to talk with you first. This has been really tough on her, Annie. I don't want you riling her up."
Dismayed by the abruptness of her attack, I said in a conversational tone, "I'm doing okay, thanks for asking. How are you?"
She didn't blink. "We could spend five minutes on niceties, but this is really important. Phoebe is having trouble accepting that Mom's gone. I don't know why you're here, but if you're thinking of doing anything to stir up trouble, please don't."
I was annoyed enough to lash back. "Phoebe is doing more than 'having trouble accepting that Mom's gone.' She looks physically ill. She says it's a cold. I'm wondering if it's something else."
"Oh, it is," Sabina confirmed, "but it's nothing you can fix. The way she's acting--like Mom did? It's a natural thing that sometimes happens when a loved one dies. I talked with Marian Stein about it."
"Who's Marian Stein?"
"A therapist here in town. I'm on top of this, Annie."
"Is Phoebe seeing her?"
"Of course, not. Phoebe doesn't need therapy, just time. This'll pass."
"Has she seen her doctor?"
"No need. Colds disappear. Symptoms pass."
I knew not to mention lead. It wouldn't be well received. So I said, "Mom was diagnosed with Parkinson's. It can run in families."
Sabina's eyes hardened. "And that," she said, still in a low voice but laced now with venom, "is why you shouldn't be here. She needs encouragement. You're so negative, you'll set her back."
"Oh, come on, Sabina," I scoffed. "I have enough sense not to mention this to her. But I Googled Parkinson's after Mom was diagnosed. If Mom had it, and if Phoebe has it, you or I may stand a greater risk. Aren't you worried about that?"
"If Mom had it?" Sabina charged. Her arms were knotted across her middle.
"There are other causes for the symptoms she had," I blurted out and regretted it instantly.
"I knew it! I knew you'd stick your nose in! Well, where were you last year or the year before that or the year before that? Fine and dandy for you to criticize us now--"
"I'm not criticizing."
"--but you weren't around. We were, Annie. Phoebe and I took Mom to the doctor,