|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 2.40(d)|
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The twins are six years old—just weeks away from their shared birthday—when it happens.
Agnes rushes about the house, looking for her rain boots.
“Esme,” she huffs as she climbs the stairs. “Ellie—have either of you seen my galoshes?”
“They’re called rain boots, Mom!” Esmerelda shouts. “Galoshes are the things you wear over your shoes.”
“Those are called overshoes,” Agnes says.
“Just—” Agnes pauses on the landing, breathing hard. “Stop. Just stop.”
Esmerelda stands in the doorway of the girls’ bedroom. She shrugs, then squeezes past her mother and walks to the bathroom.
“Where’s your sister?” Agnes asks.
“Attic,” Esmerelda says, as if it should be obvious, and she shuts the bathroom door.
Agnes raps on the door with her knuckles. “Make it fast in there. Your father’s going to be waiting at the airport for us.”
“Whatever,” Esmerelda says, her voice muffled by the door.
Agnes pounds the door sharply with her fist. “Young lady, you’re too young for ‘whatever.’ Save it until you’re thirteen. What are you doing in there?”
Esmerelda doesn’t answer. Agnes turns and leans against the wall and presses her fists against her eyes and drops her mouth open in a hushed scream. Then she straightens up, pushes off the wall, and unclenches her hands slowly, stretching her narrow fingers wide until they tingle slightly. She takes a deep breath, then exhales.
“One thing at a time,” she says softly. “One thing, one thing.”
She stands there for a moment, almost swaying on her feet, eyes still closed. Then she takes a deep, calming breath, opens her eyes, and goes to the attic door.
“Ellie!” she shouts up the stairs. “You’d better be ready!”
Eleanor sits alone in her father’s workshop, studying the unfinished model house. It’s dim in the attic. The rain has turned the outside world a pleasant gray. She prefers days like this to any other kind—no sunshine, just rain. At age six, her favorite word is inclement. She uses it whenever she can, having learned it from her first school closure of the year. Today can certainly be described as inclement.
But the light spilling through the circular window at the far end of the attic is too pale, too far removed from the workbench, and Eleanor cannot see the details of her father’s latest project. Reluctantly she reaches up to the lamp and switches it on. A warm orange glow floods the work space, and the small house before her casts a long brown shadow across the table.
She can see the house clearly now and can almost pick out the last part her father painted: a hardened dollop of blue paint lurks beneath one tiny windowsill. She can picture his careful, deliberate brushstroke. He would have realized that he had too much paint on the brush. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have dabbed the excess paint on the mouth of the small bottle, but he had probably been in a hurry, in which case she could imagine him stroking the exterior of the house this way, then that way, and working the extra blob of paint into the narrow crevice beneath the windowsill, where it would be mostly hidden from view, a secret that only she can share with him.
The rest of the house is well constructed. She thinks it’s probably her father’s best work yet. The floor plan is creative, different from the simpler houses that she draws during art hour at school. Her houses are single-room blocks with leaning doors and lumpy rooftops. Her father’s are split-level constructions, sometimes with elaborate windows that reach all the way from the floor to the ceiling of a room.
Her favorite days are spent in the attic with him, perched on the stool on the other side of the table. She would be careful to stay out of his light. He would pull the lamp closer and peer through its magnifying lens at the house, delicately pressing the skeletal bones of the structure into the Styrofoam foundation with tweezers.
“Why do you make little houses?” she had asked him once.
“Well,” he answered slowly, drawing the words out as he fit a miniature chimney into place, “because I’m not a very good architect.”
“What’s an architect?”
He smiled at her without looking up. “Someone who designs buildings. They say where everything goes and what it looks like.”
“Why aren’t you a good one?”
“I’m not a very good student,” he confessed. “You have to be a good student to be a good architect.”
“Oh,” Eleanor replied. Then she said, “But you make pretty houses.”
“Well, thank you, sweetheart.”
She watched him a little longer, then asked, “What’s your work instead?”
“You know the answer to that,” he said. “What does Daddy do for a job?”
Eleanor bit her lip. “Real cheese.”
“Realty,” he corrected.
“I know,” she said, then laughed. “ ‘Real cheese’ is funnier.”
She studies the unfinished house on the table now and marvels at the microscopic detail: the insect-size stairs leading to the front door, the little brass knocker on the door itself. Her favorite parts are the lawn and trees, something her father’s houses didn’t always include but which this one does. The lawn spreads wide around the roofless home, rolling with little hills and crunchy vegetation. The driveway is empty, but a perfect mailbox stands at the end of it.
Down the attic stairs, the second-floor door bangs open. Eleanor jumps, jostling the diminutive house in her hands.
Her mother calls upstairs. “Ellie! You’d better be ready!”
“I’m ready, Mom!” she shouts back.
Eleanor hears the door creak as Agnes begins to close it again, but then the sound stops.
“You shouldn’t be up there without your father,” her mother adds. “Come on down now.”
Eleanor jumps down from the stool. It rocks under her bottom, and she takes a moment to steady it before heading downstairs.
That’s when she notices the mailbox, its post snapped clean in half.
The attic door opens a little more, and Eleanor comes out, looking sheepish.
“You know your dad wouldn’t like you being up there alone,” Agnes says.
Eleanor nods meekly and stares at the floor. “Yes, ma’am.”
“No time for moping,” Agnes says. “I can’t find my galoshes.”
“Your rain boots?” Eleanor asks. “They’re by the back door.”
Agnes shifts her jaw and goes into her thoughts, then snaps her fingers. “That’s right—I was covering the petunias.”
Eleanor turns toward her room, but Agnes puts a hand on her shoulder.
“No goofing off,” she says to her daughter. “I need you both downstairs. We’re late.”
Paul will return from Boca Raton in just under two hours. He had complained to Agnes on the phone last night that he’d seen only the inside of a Holiday Inn—his room and the banquet hall where the realty seminar was being held—for six days straight. He had put postcards in the mail—quaint photographs of gulls on the sterns of sailboats, funny pictures of elderly women in bathing suits—but none had yet arrived.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Agnes had said. “You’re in Florida. It’s your own damn fault if you can’t find the beach.”
She knew the strain in her voice was obvious. Paul had to have known she was approaching her limit—he had traveled three times last month, and then there were his regular nights drinking with the other realtors, plus a few late showings in the new beachfront development—but he went, anyway. Maybe he didn’t know how little patience Agnes had to start with. Maybe he couldn’t see that it was running out.
“How are things going?” he’d asked.
But her problems wouldn’t matter much to him. The walls of his hotel room were so close that he couldn’t see past them. Agnes and her problems weren’t real until he got home again and they were something he had to confront and solve.
“When you get home,” Agnes answered, “I’m driving to Portland, and I might spend all your money on wine and a suite of my own. And I might not ever come back.”
But she had hung up on him, and her frustration hadn’t diminished overnight. She steadies herself and kicks the runner flat again.
She scurries downstairs now. On the landing behind her she can hear the bathroom door open, and Eleanor and Esmerelda murmuring together. Agnes misses the bottom step and almost falls down. The red runner that covers the hardwood floor bunches up under her feet, and she slides and grabs at the banister.
Her boots are exactly where Eleanor had said they were, like small sentries beside the sliding glass door. It’s one thing off her back, and she exhales slowly. The glass is cool, and she rests her forehead against it and watches the rain falling in the backyard. Her breath fogs the glass, and then the fog quickly retreats when she inhales. Then it comes back with the next breath.
The backyard was supposed to be her place—her version of Paul’s attic. The petunias are lined up carefully beneath the plastic cover she put out the night before, safe from the rain, but now she doesn’t care. They’re only flowers. If they’d been destroyed by the rain, Paul would only tell her to get some more from the nursery. He wouldn’t consider the care she’d put into them, teasing them out of the ground, transforming them from hard bulbs into delicate, lovely paintings.
She’s serious about the hotel room in Portland.
Upstairs, the twins are fighting. She can hear the sound of their voices filter through the ceiling.
She should go up and pull them apart, but the glass feels nice against her skin, and her hair hangs around her face, separating her from the world outside, creating a small space that is all her own. She can feel the chill radiating off the glass, and each breath she lets out is warm and slow. The contrast between the temperatures is delightful.
Agnes closes her eyes. A lifetime of rainy mornings like this one. They are beautiful in their own cold way, but they burrow into her and turn her into somebody else. An angry parent, a lost child. Every one reminds her of her mother.
What little she remembers of her.
“It’s all water,” she mutters to herself. “Fucking water.”
Agnes pushes away from the glass door. She slips her feet into her boots. They slide in comfortably. The rubber creaks. Her shoulders are tight. Her head has begun to pound. She reminds herself to breathe—in, out, slowly, slowly—but the migraine will come along, anyway, and there is nothing to be done about it.
She goes to the foot of the stairs and calls again for the girls.
They appear at the top, disheveled, elbowing each other for standing too close.
“Get your coats,” she tells them. “We’re late.”
She presses her thumbs against her temples gently and moves them in circles. The girls reappear and thunder down the stairs. Agnes winces. This is not the time for one of her headaches.
The telephone chirps in the kitchen.
“I’ll get it!” Esmerelda crows.
“No, Esme—,” Agnes starts, but the girl moves in record time, and, given the choice now between her exasperated mother and her sister’s sudden important task, Eleanor also darts from the hall into the kitchen.
“It’s Aunt Gerry,” Esmerelda calls.
Agnes says, “Tell her we’re out the door, and get your bottoms over here and into your coats.”
“She says you have to talk to her,” Eleanor says, reappearing in the hallway.
“Jesus,” Agnes grumbles. “Fine.”
Gerry offers to drive to Portland for her. “I closed the office because of the storm,” she says. “You might as well keep the girls home. Let me go get the big guy for you.”
But that isn’t part of the plan, and though Agnes does not look forward to the long round-trip, she declines the offer. “We’re running late. I’ve got to get the girls into the car. Come for dinner later, if you want.”
She takes her own raincoat from the peg beside the front door and puts it on. She leaves it open, because it’s a stiff coat, and getting into the car is difficult when it’s zipped up. Her purse hangs on another peg, and she grabs it, too, then reaches instinctively for the small foyer table. Her fingers meet its empty surface, and she glances down.
“Keys,” she says, looking around.
The girls are waiting beside her in their coats: purple for Esmerelda, blue for Eleanor. The different colors were Paul’s idea. “So we can tell them apart,” he said. It wasn’t his brightest idea.
Agnes points at the coats. “Switch,” she says. “We don’t have time.”
Eleanor frowns and shrugs out of the purple coat. “You’re not supposed to be able to tell,” she complains.
Agnes pats the pockets of her coat, ignoring her daughter.
Esmerelda is holding the ring of keys on one finger.
Agnes exhales in a rush. “Thank you,” she says. “Are we ready?”
She looks again at her daughters. Esmerelda has a book in one pocket of her coat. Eleanor has a spiral notebook and a pencil case. Given time, the girls often retreat into their own worlds in exactly this way. Esmerelda reads books that she has sneaked from her parents’ stash, tired of her Nancy Drew mysteries, and Eleanor draws elaborate maps—underground tunnels full of misdirection and booby traps.
“What book did you take?” Agnes asks.
Esmerelda looks away. “Oh, just a book. It’s nothing.”
Agnes lets it go. She’d discovered a copy of The Shining under Esmerelda’s pillow a few weeks earlier and had interrogated the girl. As it turned out, Esmerelda didn’t understand most of what she was reading, but she understood the Danny parts of the story. To her, The Shining seemed to be the story of a boy who got to play all day in an empty hotel. It sounded like an adventure.
She opens the door. In the short time it has taken them to get ready, the rain has become a torrent, thundering down onto the lawn and driveway as if it might shatter the pavement. She ushers the girls onto the front porch with her, beneath the eaves, and locks the door.
“Count of three?” Eleanor asks, looking up at Agnes.
“Go now,” Agnes says, putting a hand on each girl’s back and nudging them down the porch steps.
The three of them run squealing into the rain. It pounds on their thin coats. Their boots splash in new lakes on the driveway. The blue Subaru glistens in the pale light. Eleanor and Esmerelda wrestle for control of the front door, jostling each other.
“In, in, in!” Agnes shouts over the rain.
But the doors are locked.
They scream and run back to the safety of the porch, breathing hard, their faces slick and wet. Eleanor stomps in place, shaking like a puppy.
“Front seat,” Esmerelda declares.
“It’s my turn,” Eleanor argues.
“Mom!” Esmerelda howls. “I called the front seat—”
“We don’t have time for you to fight over stupid things,” Agnes says. “This is a stupid thing. Figure it out. Okay? Now, count to five, then come after me.”