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Musical Chairs

Chapter 1

Halfway up the leafy, winding driveway, past the grove of ferns that were beginning to unfurl along the rubbly wall, Bridget’s station wagon hit a pothole. The grocery bags on the passenger seat tipped over, sending lemons and onions rolling around on the floor of the car, while one of the suitcases slid from the top of the pile and smacked against the back hatch, upsetting the cats in their carriers. Bridget slowed down. Next to one of the granite boulders was a downed tree, directly under the electrical lines, that had left a debris field all the way to the spot where the driveway forked, the woodsier side leading to the guesthouse, a small Hansel-and-Gretel cottage with gingerbread trim and peeling white shutters. Bridget took the slightly more manicured route, startling a bunch of turkeys by the edge of the forest as she approached, making them scatter like teenagers busted at a keg party. She turned off the car in front of her clapboard weekend house, grateful to stop the sound from both the engine and the radio, which was playing a version of Beethoven’s Fifth that was so bad she hadn’t been able to stop listening to it. Bridget opened the car door to a preferable sound: the chirping and croaking of every horny amphibian in and around the pond.

She looked into the backseat, where her cello was securely wedged in, and geared up to start carrying the full load she’d packed for the summer into the house, but her phone rang before she could even get out of the car to stretch her legs. The cats meowed in protest.

“I think I have a cavity,” Isabelle said.

“Hi to you, too. You have a toothache?”

“The whole left side of my face hurts. Where are you?”

“I just got to the house and spooked a gaggle of turkeys,” Bridget said. “The weather’s looking a little iffy—”

“A rafter of turkeys. Don’t even tell me; I’m so jealous. So, I woke up with this throbbing pain, and I have to go to work. What do I do?”

“Compresses,” Bridget told her grown daughter, who was over six thousand miles away. “Gargle with warm water and salt and take Tylenol. Can you make an appointment to see a dentist during your lunch break?”

“I want to go to Dr. Herndon, not some random—”

“You can’t wait a year to fill a cavity.”

“You think I should come home?” Isabelle asked, as if that were a completely reasonable question.

“There are excellent dentists there. Did you eat breakfast?” It always amazed Bridget to think that in Hong Kong, Isabelle was already experiencing tomorrow.

“I can’t chew.”

“Have a yogurt.”

“I wonder if it’s my wisdom teeth; I should have gotten them out in college like everyone else.” Isabelle’s voice came into focus, and Bridget could tell she’d been taken off speakerphone: “Have you talked to Oscar, like in the past couple of days?”

“I’ve texted him.” Bridget was having a tough time negotiating a pattern of communication with her newlywed son. She didn’t want to be overbearing, but she certainly didn’t want to seem uninterested in the details of his life. She was interested, very much so, in fact. Were weekly calls acceptable? And should she try calling Matt also? Or was it okay that she usually reached out to Oscar, leaving messages since her calls often went to voicemail? They both worked all the time.

“You should call him,” said Isabelle. “Cold compresses or hot?”

“Is your face swollen?”

There was a pause as Isabelle, presumably, consulted a mirror. “Not really.”

“Hot then,” said Bridget. She got out of the car, noticing how damp and warm the air was, how good it smelled, and opened the door to the backseat. “Trust your instincts; they’ve always been excellent.”

“I’m fine, don’t worry.” And then she added, “It’s just that, I sometimes wonder what I’m even doing here. I feel like I’m not living my best life, or maybe I mean the right life.” Isabelle sighed. “I miss you.”

That last sentiment made Bridget feel even worse than the thought of her daughter suffering a toothache. “I miss you, too, but this all seems perfectly normal. You’re adjusting to a new place. You’ll be great as soon as you settle in and make some friends.”

“Are you coming to visit?”

The cats were scratching at the bars of their carriers.

“I don’t have our fall schedule yet. It depends on our new violinist, who—”

“Oops, crud, it’s almost seven. I gotta go to work.”

“See a dentist,” Bridget said. “Love you.”

She got her cello case out of the backseat and put the straps over her shoulders, reaching back into the car awkwardly to get the cats. She carried them to the front door, looking out across the field to the barn in the distance. It was surprisingly dusky, the evening providing a dim filter that flattered her well-worn home.

There was a low rumble overhead, and the sky darkened.

First nights in the country by herself were always spooky, and this one was no exception. Bridget’s heart raced with every creak and rattle, and the noises were constant, thanks to the torrential rain and terrified cats. She kept wishing her kids were sleeping upstairs, that Will was reading in the loft, or—even better—that Sterling was in her bed, telling her how overjoyed he was to be there, even in a typhoon.

In the middle of the night, during the worst of the storm, the lightning split a big branch off the willow tree and left it for dead in the pond. Heavy winds pressed on the backside of the tennis court fence until the rotted cedar posts fell over, taking the chain link with them. When Bridget woke up the next morning, having barely slept all night, the temperature had dropped fifteen degrees, and there were deer grazing on the weeds that grew between the deep cracks in the asphalt court. With three sides of the fence still up, it looked like she’d opened a petting zoo.

It was early, and Bridget had over four hours before she had to look presentable, so she threw on sweatpants and sneakers with the T-shirt she’d slept in. Before brushing her teeth or her hair, she went to the kitchen, where the old Sub-Zero was buzzing loudly in the background. She made small talk with the cats, Eliza (as in Doolittle) and Henry (as in Higgins). While the coffee brewed, she turned on NPR to drown out the racket coming from the fridge and texted her boyfriend in New York, knowing how much better she would sleep once he was under the same roof:

Beautiful, sunny morning! Can’t wait for you to get here :)

She added a heart emoji.

Sterling answered right away:

Read your email.

And then:


His clipped, businesslike tone grated, but he was right to be annoyed. Sterling was a novelist, and he’d asked her to proofread the foreword he’d written for a Cambridge University Press book on literary symbolism. She was certainly no expert on the topic, but she was a good and careful reader. Unfortunately, she’d let that task, along with a slew of other pressing matters, go undone that week while she was preparing her Upper West Side apartment for summer subletters. They were acquaintances of Sterling, his Dutch publisher, her husband, and their sixteen-year-old daughter. The family had arrived safely the night before—notifying her with a text that her place was smaller than they’d expected—at the same time that Bridget was discovering that an industrious mouse had spent the winter nesting in her underwear drawer.

Bridget pulled on a sweater she found draped over a chair, fed the cats, and ate a handful of stale granola. Alone in the Connecticut house, she wouldn’t have to think about feeding anyone other than herself and the cats. That would all change when Sterling arrived, but for the next two weeks, she could eat whatever she wanted at whatever time she chose without sitting down or even using a plate if she didn’t feel like it. In the early evening she could stand at the kitchen counter—in the same spot where she’d dutifully cut up watermelon and poured glasses of milk for her kids when they were young—drinking wine and scooping pub cheese onto crackers and calling it dinner.

She decided to go outside to assess the storm damage, and on her way to the front door, she noticed a puddle directly under the skylight. That was unfortunate. Looking up to see where the water was coming from, she saw a brown stain on the lower left corner, nothing too serious. She got a beach towel and dropped it on the floor.

Opening the door, she let her city cats run out after her. They dropped to the ground like a rookie SWAT team as they took in the scent of bears and bobcats in the woods and hawks overhead. Dozens of downed branches, still holding on to their tiny green leaves, were discarded all over the lawn. On the tree limb that was now floating in the middle of the pond, four turtles were sunbathing. The grass was soaked, the pond was full, and the wind was cool. The storm might have wreaked havoc, but it had left everything gloriously clean.

The peace was disrupted by the sound of a pickup truck coming up the long, wet driveway and making a sharp turn in front of the garage. The driver turned off the engine and opened his door. Her caretaker, Walter, stepped out slowly, reaching back to the passenger seat for a carton of eggs before walking over to her in the yard. “Thought I’d come see how you made out last night,” he said.

Bridget had never quite adjusted to the idea of unannounced visitors, but she’d learned long ago that locals had a different code of conduct from weekenders.

Walter stopped to peer up at her roof, putting an arthritic hand up to shade his eyes. He was tall and skinny, wearing jean shorts hiked up with a belt and a red T-shirt tucked in, giving him the look of a knobby-kneed, overgrown toddler.

As caretaker of the property for the past fifteen years, Walter had repeatedly alerted Bridget to problems with her house. He would call her in New York—in the middle of a meeting, a rehearsal, a concert—to report bad news: You got ice dams on the roof. There’s a litter of baby squirrels in the attic. The heat’s out in the guest cottage. It was up to Bridget to do something about these problems, and she tended to postpone repairs. She had, of course, addressed the direst issues, but she’d allowed all cosmetic or even mildly structural problems to fall by the wayside. The result was a wonderfully lived-in, cozy, but shabby home that could use a fresh coat of paint, a new hot water heater, and an exterminator.

He showed her the egg carton. “From our chickens.”


But instead of handing the carton over, he held on to it, pointing his finger at the bushes. “Be careful with those cats. We don’t let ours out. They kill the birds. It’s a big year for bears, you know.”

“Is that right.”

“And foxes and coyotes’ll kill cats, too. Seen any herons?” he asked.

“Not yet,” she said.

“They’ll eat your fish.”

It was hard to know in Walter’s worldview which predators were bad and which were good. One minute he was cursing the herons for eating the smallmouth bass in his pond, but the next he was cheering the bobcat for catching a rabbit. Bridget tried to avoid such topics since they rarely saw eye to eye: she felt happy for the heron and bad for the bunny, for example.

“Your kids coming to visit?”

“Too busy,” Bridget said. “Isabelle moved to Hong Kong and works sixty hours a week, and Oscar rarely leaves DC.”

“How’s that friend of his?”

“Husband,” Bridget corrected. Bridget was humble by nature, but she couldn’t help but speak well of her twins and son-in-law. “Matt’s working for a congressman now, as his chief of staff.”

“A Democrat?” Walter said, frowning.

“Jackson Oakley. The young star of the party.”

Politics, also a world of fighting animals, was another topic Bridget knew better than to discuss with Walter.

“When’s Bill coming? Haven’t seen him in a while.”

No one, but no one, called Will, her oldest friend and music colleague, “Bill” other than Walter, and he had insisted on using the nickname for years in spite of frequent attempts to retrain him. “I’m not sure. Will’s pretty busy this summer in New York, and our trio’s on a break until our new violinist starts—”

“Uh-oh,” Walter said slowly, catching sight of the tennis court. “Oh, boy, would you look at that.” He shook his head. “You gotta fix that in a hurry, or the rest of the fence is coming down with it.”

“Yeah, well,” Bridget said, “we don’t play much tennis anyway.”

“You want Kevin to come take a look?” He seemed fixated on the fence, while Bridget was certain that the big rocks protruding through the asphalt all over the court were a much bigger impediment to the game.

“I thought he moved to Maine.”

“He came back home,” Walter said, pointing vaguely to the north. “He’s living with his mom just up the road.”

Bridget shuddered; Walter’s grandson Kevin was a few years older than the twins. Was it possible he was already thirty?

“Kevin can come by,” he said, “give you a quote for some new cedar posts. And then maybe…” He glanced across the overgrown field at the old board-and-batten barn. (“Bird-and-bat barn” was the misnomer Isabelle had used as a child, and then more recently “Batshit Barn” was the nickname Oscar had given it, an appropriate moniker given the neglected structure’s broken windows, rickety stairs, and shitting bat squatters.) “…Maybe it’s time you take on that big project?” Walter said.

Bridget adored the barn, the steep roof, the silo, the muted gray paint. “Grand” and “historic” were the words the Realtor had used to describe the eighteenth-century building when she’d bought the property, but after another two decades of decay, even Bridget had taken to saying things like Batshit Barn lost a lot of shingles this winter. The truth was, Bridget hadn’t dared look inside in a decade. It looked like it needed a demolition team rather than a renovation expert, but Bridget couldn’t even imagine. Who was she to tear down a barn that had made it through over 220 Connecticut winters?

“Maybe someday I’ll restore it,” she said.

“Kevin’s got time to help you out this summer. He’s working part-time for the park and rec commission. Trail maintenance and the like.”

Bridget figured outdoor work might suit Kevin well. Lacking muscle tone and snappy synapses, he looked like he belonged in the woods, carrying an axe over his shoulder, bootlaces untied. Bridget had often worried about him when he was a young, chubby-handed, nearsighted, excessively drooly child; he’d believed in Santa Claus until he was twelve.

“I’ll think about it,” she said, hoping Walter didn’t plan on chitchatting much longer. She wanted to put clean sheets on her bed, arrange flowers in a vase on the kitchen counter, clear off the desk in Will’s loft to give Sterling a proper writing space, and buy a case of wine.

As if he were reading her mind, Walter said, “So you don’t need me stopping by? You’ll be around?”

“With my boyfriend,” said Bridget. “He’s never been here before, and I think he’s going to fall in love with the place.”

She didn’t mention that she was hoping to see if her relationship with Sterling might get bumped to the next level. Sterling had an eleven-year-old daughter who was heading off to sleepaway camp for eight weeks, and they were going to spend all that time together, a summer of romance, quiet, and privacy. So, no, she didn’t want anyone stopping by.

“I hope your new guy’s handier than Bill—”


“—because you need to clean out your flues.”

Bridget couldn’t quite picture Sterling as a chimney sweep. “I sort of doubt it.”

“Well, enjoy the summer.” He walked back to his truck, saying, “They say we’ll be getting a lot of rain.”

“Thanks for the eggs,” she called after him.

She turned to go back in the house, standing in the doorway while the cats made up their minds whether they wanted to come in or stay out. Eliza Doolittle decided to come in, while Henry Higgins stayed out.

Bridget walked under the leaky skylight in the entry, through the living room, and into the kitchen. She needed to shower and get dressed in decent clothes before she went to her lunch, but her laptop was sitting in the center of the table in the breakfast room, as if to say, Pssst, remember me? She sat down and opened her email; right at the top, above a message from her sister, Gwen, was a new email from Sterling, with the subject line Airflow? She started reading, something about allergens and his need for a fan that made a nice breeze but wasn’t too loud, but before she could get any further, the battery gave out and her computer went dead. She got up and found her power cord, leaned over, and reached for the outlet under the window. A flash of heat rushed up the length of her arm, all the way to her heart, and—just as the wind had shoved the tennis court fence onto the ground—an electric shock knocked her flat onto the floor.

After driving to the Sharon Hospital, Bridget found herself lying on a gurney, hooked up to an EKG, with a red streak running from her hand to her elbow.

“We’ll get you out of here,” the nurse said. “Just taking precautions.”

Bridget closed her eyes and pretended she was getting a facial.

“What’s your name, hon,” the nurse said, verifying that the person in front of her matched the chart on her laptop. She was wearing eggplant-colored scrubs with bright pink Crocs, an outfit that clashed with itself and the peach-colored walls. She was a cheerful creature, making Bridget feel as though her electrocution had absolutely made her day.

“Bridget Stratton.”

“Date of birth?”

“June third, 19—”

A quick inhale. “I don’t suppose you’re related to Edward Stratton?” The nurse was looking down at her with excitement.


“He’s from England, they say, but he’s got a house around here.”

“No kidding.”

“Our local celebrity.”

Bridget pointed and flexed, pointed and flexed her feet.

“Even at his age,” the nurse said, happily nodding her head, “they say he’s got that… appeal, you know. He’s still got it.”

Staring at the ceiling, Bridget listened to the EKG machine as it beeped an A, at the same pulse of that Pachelbel piece she’d always hated.

“Your blood pressure’s high,” the nurse said, sounding pleased.

“Thanks,” said Bridget.

“No, I mean you should keep an eye on it, watch your diet. Are you exercising?”

The doctor came in past the pastel room divider, saving Bridget from having to answer. He studied her results, took off his glasses, and told Bridget she could go home. She sat up and turned so she was facing him, ready to get the stickers off her chest. The nurse began detaching the wires.

“This happened at work?” the doctor asked.

“She was at home,” said the nurse.

The doctor looked at her like he felt sorry for her. “You should have an electrician check out your wiring.” Lifting her arm, he turned her wrist over and examined the streak. “A shock like that can kill you.”

He got his prescription pad and scribbled on it as Bridget wondered what painkillers or relaxants he was giving her. She didn’t feel like she needed anything but had no intention of turning down meds.

“Braxton & Sons,” he said, handing her the prescription with the name of a local electrician. “They did my outside lighting, and the whole entry is much more inviting.” He looked down at the e-chart again. “Stratton? Say, are you—”

“No relation,” the nurse said, sounding disappointed.

“Too bad,” said the doctor. “What a guy; I’ll never forget hearing him conduct Gershwin in Central Park. Did you know the queen’s a big fan? They say he has a standing invitation to Buckingham Palace.”

Release papers in hand, Bridget walked out to her car and sent a quick text to Will:

Got electrocuted in the breakfast room :)

He answered immediately:

Jeeesh!! That house!!!!!! You okay????

His excessive use of punctuation amused her; for someone so reserved, his text messages were highly expressive.

She drove to the main intersection in the town of Sharon and sat at the light, admiring the old stone clock tower with its pointy red roof. She wished the clock said it was eight in the morning so she could start the day over again. She wished she’d at least taken a shower. The car behind her honked. She waved in apology, made a left turn, and drove to her father’s house.

Musical Chairs
by by Amy Poeppel

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
  • ISBN-10: 1501176420
  • ISBN-13: 9781501176425