Harriet Hollingsworth was the kind of person who called 911 the minute she spotted a teenager ambling down the street, since as she said there was no sense waiting for them to get up to their nasty tricks. Each week Harriet wrote to the Quoddy Tides, Eastport's local newspaper, a list of the sordid misdeeds she suspected all the rest of us of committing, and when she wasn't doing that she was at her window with binoculars, spying out more.
Snoopy, spiteful, and a suspected poisoner of neighborhood cats, Harriet was confidently believed by her neighbors to be too mean to die, until the morning one of them spotted her boot buckle glinting up out of his compost heap like the wink of an evil eye.
The boot had a sock in it but the sock had no foot in it and despite a diligent search (one wag remarking that if Harriet was buried somewhere, the grass over her grave would die in the shape of a witch on a broomstick) she remained missing.
"Isn't that just like Harriet?" my friend Ellie White demanded about three weeks later, squinting up into the spring sunshine.
We were outside my house in Eastport, on Moose Island, in downeast Maine. "Stir up as much fuss and bother as she could," Ellie went on, "but not give an ounce of satisfaction in the end."
Thinking at the time that it was the end, of course. We both did.
At the time. My house is a white clapboard 1823 Federal with three full floors plus an attic, forty-eight big old double-hung windows with forest-green wooden shutters, three chimneys (one for each pair of fireplaces), and a two-story ell.
From my perch on a ladder propped againstthe porch roof I looked down at Ellie, who wore a purple tank top like a vest over a yellow turtleneck with red frogs embroidered on it. Blue jeans faded to the color of cornflowers and rubber beach shoes trimmed with rubber daisies completed her outfit.
"Running out on her bills, not a word to anyone," she added darkly.
In Maine, stiffing creditors is not only bad form. It's also a shortsighted way of trying to escape your money troubles, since anywhere you go in the whole state you are bound to run into your creditors' cousins, hot to collect and burning to make an example out of you. That was why Ellie thought Harriet must've scarpered to Vermont or New Hampshire, leaving the boot as misdirection and her own old house already in foreclosure.
From my ladder-perch I glimpsed it peeking forlornly through the maples, two streets away: a huge Victorian shambles shedding chunks of rotted trim and peeled-off paint curls onto an unkempt lawn. Just the sight of its advancing decrepitude gave me a pang. I'd started the morning optimistically, but fixing a few gutters was shaping up to be more difficult than I'd expected.
"Harriet," Ellie declared, "was never the sharpest tool in the toolbox, and this stunt of hers just proves it."
"Mmm," I said distractedly. "I wish this ladder was taller."
Shakily I tried steadying myself, straining to reach a metal strap securing a gutter downspout. Over the winter the downspouts had blown loose so their upper ends aimed gaily off in nonwater-collecting directions. But the straps were still firmly fastened to the house with big aluminum roofing nails.
I couldn't fix the gutters without taking the straps off, and I couldn't get the straps off. They were out of my reach even when, balancing precariously on tiptoe, I swatted at them with the claw hammer. Meanwhile down off the coast of the Carolinas a storm sat spinning over warmer water, sucking up energy.
"Ellie, run in and get me the crowbar, will you, please?"
Days from now, maybe a week, the storm would make its way here, sneakily gathering steam. When it arrived it would hit hard.
Ellie let go of the ladder's legs and went into the house. This I thought indicated a truly touching degree of confidence in me, because I am the kind of person who can trip while walking on a linoleum floor. I sometimes think it would simplify life if I got up every morning, climbed a ladder, and fell off, just to get it over with.
And sure enough, right on schedule as the screen door swung shut, the ladder's feet began slipping on the spring-green grass. I should mention it was also wet grass, since in Maine we really only have three seasons: mud time, Fourth of July, and pretty good snowmobiling.
"Ow," I said a moment later when I'd landed hard and managed to spit out a mouthful of grass and mud. Then I just lay there while my nervous system rebooted and ran damage checks. Arms and legs movable: okay. Not much blood: likewise reassuring. I could remember all the curse words I knew and proved it by reciting them aloud.
A robin cocked his bright eye suspiciously at me, apparently thinking I'd tried muscling in on his worm-harvesting operation. I probed between my molars with my tongue, hoping the robin was incorrect, and he was, and the molars were all there, too.
So I felt better, sort of. Then Ellie came back out with the crowbar and saw me on the ground.
"Jake, are you all right?"
"Fabulous." The downspout lay beside me. Apparently I'd flailed at it with the hammer as I was falling and hooked it on my way down.
Ellie's expression changed from alarm to the beginnings of relief. I do so enjoy having a friend who doesn't panic when the going gets bumpy, although I suspected there was liniment in my future, and definitely aspirin.
"Oof," I said, getting up. My knees were skinned, and so were my elbows. My face had the numb feeling that means it will hurt later, and there was a funny little click in my shoulder that I'd never heard before. But across the street two dapper old gentlemen on a stroll had paused to observe me avidly, and I feel that pride goeth before and after the fall, like parentheses.
"Hi," I called, waving the hammer in weak parody of having descended so fast on purpose. The sounds emanating from my body reminded me of a band consisting of a washtub bass, soup spoons, and a kazoo.
Some were the popping noises of tendons snapping back into their proper positions. But others--the loudest, weirdest ones--were from inside my ears.
The men moved on, no doubt muttering about the fool woman who didn't know enough to stay down off a ladder. That was how I felt about her, too, at the moment: ouch.
In the kitchen, Ellie applied first aid consisting of soapy washcloths, clean dry towels, and twenty-year-old Scotch. A couple of Band-Aids completed the repair job, which only made me look a little like Frankenstein's monster.
"Yeeks. All I need now is a pair of steel bolts screwed into my skull." The split in my lip was particularly decorative and there was a purplish bruise coming up on my cheekbone.
"Yes," Ellie said crisply, putting the first-aid things back into the kitchen drawer. "And you're lucky you don't need bolts."
Responding to her tone my black Labrador retriever, Monday, hurried in from the parlor, ears pricked and brown eyes alert for any unhappiness she might abolish with swipes of her wet tongue.
"You could have killed yourself falling off that ladder, you know," Ellie admonished me. "I wish you'd let me--"
Wriggling anxiously, Monday threw a body-block against my hip, which wasn't quite broken. Monday believes you can heal almost anything by applying a dog to it, and--mostly--I think so, too.
But next came Cat Dancing, a big apple-headed Siamese with crossed eyes and a satanic expression. "Ellie, I'm fine," I said, trying to sound believable. "I don't need a doctor."
Except maybe a witch doctor if Cat Dancing kept staring at me that way. She was named by my son Sam for reasons I can't fathom, as the only dance that feline ever does will be on my grave. She wouldn't care if I died on the spot as long as my body didn't block the cabinet where we keep cat food. We'd gotten her from my ex-husband Victor, who lives down the street and is also reliable in the driving-me-crazy department.
"Right," Ellie agreed. "Why, you're just a picture of health." Pick-tcha: the downeast Maine pronunciation.
When Ellie's Maine twang gets emphatic it's a bad time for me to try persuading her of anything. Fortunately, just then her favorite living creature in the world padded into my kitchen.
"Prill!" Ellie's expression instantly softened as she bent to embrace the newcomer.
A ferocious-looking Doberman pinscher, Prill sported a set of choppers that would have felt right at home in the jawbone of a great white shark. But the snarl on her kisser was really only a sweet, goofy grin. Prill was an earnest if bumbling guardian of balls, bones, dishrags, slippers, hairbrushes, and cats.
Especially cats. Squirming from Ellie's hug, Prill spied Cat Dancing and greeted the little sourpuss by closing her jaws very gently around Cat's head. Then she just stood there wagging her stubby tail while the hair on Cat's back stiffened in outrage and her crossed eyes bugged helplessly.
"Aw," I said. "Isn't that cute?"
Cat emitted a moan keenly calculated to warm the heart of a person who has just pushed the cat off the kitchen table for the millionth, billionth time, and that was about how many times I'd done it just in Cat's first week here.
"Prill," Ellie said in gentle admonishment. Days earlier she and I had found the big dog alone and tagless on the town pier, gamely trying to steal a few mackerel heads from the seagulls. No owner had yet claimed her, and I doubted now if anyone would.
Cat's moan rose to an atonal yowl as Sam came in with his dive gear over his shoulder, wearing his new wristwatch which read out in military time. It was, my son had informed me happily, the way the Coast Guard did it. In love with all things watery, this summer he'd signed up for an advanced diving-operations seminar so risky-sounding, I disliked thinking about it.
But if he was going to be in and on the water for a living, as seemed inevitable, I guessed as much supervised practice as possible was only prudent. Now he dropped his gear beside the buckets of polyurethane and tins of varnish remover I'd put out a few days earlier. Besides the gutters, I was also refinishing the hall floor that spring.
"Wow, where'd you get that big shiner?" Sam asked with the half-worried, half-admiring interest of a young man who thinks his mother might have been in a recent fistfight. At nineteen, he had his father's dark hair, hazel eyes, and the ravishing grin--also his dad's--of a born heartbreaker.
"Oh, no." I rushed back to the mirror, finding to my dismay that Sam's assessment was correct. An ominous red stain was circling my right eye; soon my face would be wearing two of my least favorite human skin colors: purple and green.
And speaking of green . . .
A bolt of fright struck me. "Ellie, come and hold my eyelid out, please, and look under it. I think when I landed I shoved a contact lens halfway into my brain."
One blue eye, one green; oh, blast and damnation. But just as I was really about to panic, Sam's girlfriend Maggie arrived with a tiny disk of green plastic poised on her index finger.
"Did you lose this?" Maggie was a big red-cheeked girl with clear olive skin, liquid brown eyes, and dark, wavy hair that she wore in a thick, glossy braid down her plaid-shirted back.
"I spotted it on the sidewalk," she added. It was Maggie who'd bought Sam the military wristwatch, shopping for it on-line via her computer.
Then she saw me. "Jacobia, what happened?"
Well, at least the lens wasn't halfway to my brain. "I was testing Newton's law. The demonstration got away from me." I popped the other lens out. Suddenly I was blue-eyed again. Both eyes. "I'm okay, though, thanks."
Actually parts of me were hurting quite intensely but if I said so, Ellie would insist on taking me to the clinic where Victor was on duty. And rather than submit to my ex-husband's critical speculations on how my injuries had happened, I'd have gone outside and fallen off that ladder all over again.
"I guess I can't be in your eye-color experiment, though," I said. Like Sam, in the fall Maggie would be a sophomore at the University of Maine. "I don't think I should put the lens back in right away," I explained.
The experiment, for a psychology-class project, was to see how long it takes a person to get used to a new eye color. If my own reaction was any indication, the answer was never. It was astonishing how jarring the past week had been, seeing a green-eyed alien with my face looking out of the mirror at blue-eyed me.
Disappointment flashed in Maggie's glance, at once replaced by concern. "Oh, I don't care about that silly experiment," she declared.
But she did. She had designed it, proposed it, and with some difficulty gotten it approved, to get credits while staying in Eastport--where Sam was, not coincidentally--for the whole summer. It wasn't easy getting people with normal sight to wear the lenses, either. I was among the six she'd persuaded, the minimum for the project. "It's you I'm worried about," she added.
The girl was going to make someone a wonderful daughter-in-law someday. But it wouldn't be me if Sam didn't hurry up and get his act together. Other mothers fret if their kids get romantically involved too fast, but my son's idea of a proper courtship verged on the glacial.
Luckily in addition to her other sterling qualities Maggie was patient. "You should put something on it," she said. "A cold cloth or some ice."
"That," Ellie interjected acidly, "would mean she'd have to sit still. And you're allergic to that, aren't you, dear?"
Dee-yah. Catching the renewed threat of a clinic visit, I sat down and accepted the ministrations she offered: aspirin, a cloth with cracked ice in it. If I didn't, she might hogtie me and haul me to Victor's clinic. She could do it, too; Ellie looks as delicate as a fairy-tale princess but her spine is of tempered steel.
Also, I'd begun noticing that something about Newton's law had hit me in a major way. Sunshine slanting through the tall bare windows of the big old barnlike kitchen wavered at me, and the maple wainscoting's orangey glow was shimmering weirdly.
"Oh," I heard myself say. "Psychedelic."
"Jake?" Ellie said in alarm, reaching for me.
From the Hardcover edition.
Copyright© 2003 by Sarah Graves