Written by today’s freshest new talents and selected by New American Library, NAL Accent novels touch on subjects close to a woman’s heart, from friendship to family to finding our place in the world. The Conversation Guides included in each book are intended to enrich the individual reading experience, as well as encourage us to explore these topics together—because books, and life, are meant for sharing.
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Also by Yona Zeldis McDonough
About the Author
It’s two p.m. on a freakishly warm afternoon in January. Susannah Gilmore reluctantly looks up from her laptop. Standing in the doorway of her home office is her husband, Charlie. “Have you seen what it’s doing outside?” he asks. She nods, attention drifting back to the screen. “It’s sixty-nine degrees.”
“The January thaw, right?” She’s read about this someplace, though she can’t recall where.
“Whatever. We should take advantage of it, though. Let’s go for a bike ride before the kids get home.”
“I wish I could.” She turns to him. At six foot three, he’s lanky and lean. Ginger hair, great smile, and, under his shirt, a constellation of freckles dotting his shoulders and upper back. Forty-three, yet still so boyish. “But I’ve got a deadline.”
“One afternoon is not going to make or break you. Not even an afternoon. An hour and a half, max. Carpe diem and all that.”
She smiles at him. “I really can’t. But you go.”
“It’ll be more fun with you.”
“Next time,” she says. “I promise.”
He sighs and Susannah turns back to her work. But Charlie remains standing in the doorway.
“What?” she says, trying to conceal her impatience.
“Are you sure?”
She hesitates. But the chapter, the deadline, the meal she’ll need to prepare in a few hours—the perpetually revolving domestic wheel keeps her rooted to her chair.
“All right.” He sounds a bit deflated but finally heads toward the stairs. Susannah barely registers his leaving. She wants to get back to the novel she’s writing, a novel in which a minor English noblewoman has become ensnared in a dangerous court intrigue. Tapping on her keypad, Susannah follows Lady Whitmore along vast, tapestry-lined corridors and up curving flights of steep stone steps. Now Lady Whitmore enters the bedchamber of the young and essentially powerless queen and closes the heavy oak door behind her. Will she be able to help the sovereign outsmart the cunning noblemen who want her out of the way, making room for an even more pliant pawn?
Sometime after three o’clock, Susannah registers her son Jack’s arrival home, and a short time later, her daughter Cally’s. Leaving Lady Whitmore, Susannah switches off the computer and goes downstairs. Time to start dinner.
As the sky darkens—despite the warmth, it is still winter, and dusk comes early—she moves around the narrow but cozy kitchen of her Park Slope brownstone, getting the meal together.
Charlie built this room almost single-handedly when they moved in nearly twenty years ago. The wood for the countertops was reclaimed from the bar of an old Irish pub that was going out of business; the floor tile was a manufacturer’s overstock that he’d bought for next to nothing. That was so like Charlie—he could see possibilities in the most unlikely of places, and he was a consummate craftsman, able to turn his vision into a reality.
Susannah checks the clock on the stove. Charlie said an hour and a half and it’s been more than three hours. He must have gotten sidetracked. She pictures him peddling up the hill on his green bicycle, exertion making his cheeks glow pink. He’ll be all excited about his outing, and eager to tell her where he’s been, what he’s seen. He really is a big kid. Four days a week, he teaches illustration at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan; on Fridays, he works at home. His current project is a picture book about intergalactic travel, and the preliminary drawings of the spacecraft—sleek and silvery blue—are pinned up around his studio.
She likes having him home on a day when the children are not here; sometimes she fixes them a special lunch or sometimes they go upstairs for what Charlie loves best: daytime sex. “I’m an artist,” he always said. “And for an artist, there’s no light like daylight.”
As Susannah bastes the chicken, she feels a small tug of guilt. Maybe she should have gone with him today. She’ll make it up to him, she decides. She’ll work extra hard this week and next Friday she’ll take the whole day off. She’ll bring him breakfast in bed and then climb back in with him. He’ll like that. So will she.
“Where’s Dad?” Cally walks into the kitchen and begins setting the table.
“He went for a bike ride; he should be home soon.” It’s almost six o’clock, the time they usually eat dinner. The roast chicken is ready and Susannah debates whether to keep it in the oven or take it out; does she want it dry or does she want it cold?
“He’s on Dad time,” Cally says. But she’s smiling. They all know Charlie is dreamy and easily distracted: by the sight of a splashy sunset that tinges the clouds with gold, by an old buddy who wants him to stop by for a beer, by a picture he just has to take with his iPhone. Jack, who has just walked in, goes over to the cutlery drawer and is now handing silverware to his sister; they are a good team. “Well, I hope he gets here soon. I’m starved.”
“Me too.” Cally straightens a place mat.
“He will,” says Susannah, though she is pricked by annoyance. She takes the chicken out of the oven. Cold is fixable. Dry is not. Both Cally and Jack have washed their hands and are sitting down, waiting. Everything is ready; everyone is here. Except her husband. She picks up her phone, and as she could have predicted, the call goes straight to voice mail; Charlie routinely turns off the ringer on his phone. But it is now four hours since he left. Couldn’t he have at least called to say he was going to be late? “Where the hell is he?” She does not actually mean to say this aloud.
“Don’t curse at Daddy!” Cally scolds.
“I’m not cursing at him.” Susannah is instantly contrite. “I’m just . . . cursing.”
“Well, you shouldn’t!”
“You’re right, sweet pea. He probably stopped to get something.” Charlie is apt to do that—tulips for the table, or an extravagant dessert. “Remember last week when he brought home that salted-caramel pie?”
“Don’t even talk about pie!” says Jack.
Then the bell rings. Oh, good—Charlie’s home. Obviously he forgot his keys—he does that a lot—and she hurries to let him in. But instead of Charlie, apologizing profusely, leaning down to kiss her, pressing his offering into her arms, she finds two police officers standing at the door. One has a blond crew cut showing from under his blue hat; the other is a dark-skinned woman. “Mrs. Miller?” She flashes her badge. “May we come in?” Susannah tenses but steps aside. “Your husband, Charles—”
“My husband isn’t Charles. He’s Charlie.” Susannah seizes on their mistake; whatever they think their mission here is, they have gotten it all wrong. And she isn’t Mrs. Miller anyway. She kept Gilmore, her maiden name, the one her grandfather Isaac Goldblatt decided would help him move more easily through the world.
“There’s been an accident. It was in Queens and—”
“What kind of accident?” Susannah is aware that Cally and Jack are standing close behind her.
“Bicycle.” The word is delivered by the young blond officer. “Your husband was thrown off. He sustained a serious head injury.”
“Queens? What would he be doing in Queens?” Charlie barely knows where Queens is; they joke about this occasionally. But the words “head injury” send her panicked glance over to the row of hooks by the door. Suspended from one of them is the expensive, glitter-flecked helmet she bought Charlie for his last birthday, the one he swears up and down that he’ll wear—and then almost never does.
The two officers look at each other, and in that look Susannah knows everything. She will not let herself believe it; still, her gaze is pulled almost magnetically back to the helmet. Charlie thinks it is an encumbrance; he wears it only when she reminds him. But today she didn’t remind him. Today she’d been busy and wanted to get back to work.
“I think maybe you should sit down,” says the female cop.
There is a sickening numbness gathering around her, a horrible, this-can’t-be-real feeling that she desperately wants to swat away. But Susannah allows herself to be led to the table. Cally and Jack silently follow. “How bad is he?”
The officer shakes her head. “I’m sorry. The injury was fatal. By the time the ambulance got there, he was already gone.” There is a pause before she adds, in a low voice, “We’ll need you to identify the body.”
Jack starts sobbing. Cally emits a single, strangled sound. But Susannah cannot speak. Identify the body? Charlie’s body? It’s just not possible. He was standing there, in her office, mere hours ago. It’ll be more fun with you, he had said. Why hadn’t she gone with him? Why?
Jack is crying noisily but Cally marches over to the row of hooks, takes down the helmet, and thrusts it in front of her mother. “He wasn’t wearing it.”
“No,” says Susannah. “He wasn’t.” The helmet has a reinforced safety strap and an impervious, mocking gleam. She turns her head away so she doesn’t have to see it anymore.
“You didn’t remind him.” There is recrimination in her words. Also, a cold, adult-sounding fury. “It’s your fault. You let Daddy get killed!” And with that, she bolts from the room. The officers stand with their heads bowed, and Jack continues to sob. Susannah cannot move, and the sounds of Jack’s continued weeping, the blond officer’s abashed cough, recede. All she can hear, in a relentless, repetitive loop, are her husband’s last words: Are you sure?
One year later
They were driving on I-95 and had just crossed the state line into New Hampshire when the snow started falling. Hitting the windshield like cats’ paws, the fat white flakes seemed to outpace the wipers, which had a wonky, syncopated rhythm—click, click CLACK, click CLICK, clack. The sound was mildly alarming and Susannah knew she had better get them looked at—soon.
The snow was pretty, picturesque even, the kind of snowfall that made her want to curl up under a blanket and get comfy with a cup of cocoa and a Jane Austen novel. Or a shot of bourbon and a rerun of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But Susannah was not at home, where she could choose her opiates: chocolate or alcohol, nineteenth-century literature or twenty-first-century crime drama. No, it was New Year’s Day and she was on the road with her two fatherless children, heading toward Eastwood, New Hampshire, and a house she had not been to in more than twenty years. They had already been on the road for over four hours and had another hour to go. Which, with this weather, might very well turn out to be more.
“Do you think it will be snowing when we get to Eastwood?” said Jack.
“I’m not sure,” Susannah said. The small town where they were headed was midway between coastal Portsmouth and the state capital in Concord; she had not heard a local weather report.
“I hope it snows, like, ten inches,” he said. “Then we can build a fort. Dad used to build the best forts . . .”
“Well, Dad is dead.” This zinger was delivered by Cally, who at sixteen had cornered the market on snark.
“I know Dad is dead,” Jack said. He turned to look out the window, where the snow kept falling from a numb gray sky. “Lavender is the state flower of New Hampshire,” he said. “The state bird is the purple finch. Of the thirteen original colonies, New Hampshire was the first to declare its independence from England—six months before the Declaration of Independence was signed.”
“What are you talking about?” Cally asked.
He showed her his phone. “I’m on the New Hampshire Fun Facts Web site. Want to hear more?”
“There’s nothing fun about them,” said Cally. “Could you please stop?”
“The first potato planted in the United States was at Londonderry Common Field in 1719. Alan Bartlett Shepard, Jr., the first American to travel in space, was from East Derry, New Hampshire. The New Hampshire state motto is Live free or die.”
“I said stop!” Cally punched his arm and Jack fell silent.
“Cally!” Susannah abruptly pulled over to the highway’s shoulder, causing a volley of honks from the cars behind her. “Are you okay?” she asked Jack.
“I’m okay.” He rubbed the place where Cally had hit him.
“I can’t believe you punched him,” Susannah said to her daughter.
Cally was silent, but her expression—blazing, furious, accusatory—said it all. Looking at it, Susannah felt her anger drain away, leaving her utterly defeated.
Cally really thought her mother was partially responsible for her father’s death and that their move to New Hampshire was something she had designed specifically as a way to ruin her life. Susannah understood her daughter’s need to lay blame. The alternative—that the world was an unpredictable place in which random and terrible things could and did happen—was too scary. “There’s no need to attack your brother,” she said more quietly.
“Fine. Whatever.” Cally put in her earbuds and retreated to the cocoon of her iPhone.
Susannah waited for a break in the stream of cars to get back to the road. “Go on—read me more fun facts about New Hampshire,” she said to Jack.
“That’s okay. Maybe they’re not as much fun as I thought.”
“Please?” she wheedled, but Jack didn’t respond. Sometimes that ever present affability of his could be a problem. Sometimes he was too easy, too willing to give in.
Then Cally asked, for what might have been the tenth—or hundredth—time: “Why do we have to move up here in the middle of winter? Why couldn’t we have at least waited until school let out?”
“Because the buyers for the house were offering all cash, Cally.” Susannah tried to keep her tone even; she’d explained this before. “Do you realize what that means? No waiting for a bank to approve a mortgage or not. Just all the money—ours. And in the bank for the future. Your future.”
“My future in the woods,” muttered Cally. “Big whoop.”
They continued along I-95 without speaking for a while, the snow on the car piling up faster and faster and the road getting icier and icier. Susannah had to slow down; at this rate they wouldn’t be there until after dark, a panic-inducing thought since she did not know if she could find the house at night, even with the GPS. Then she noticed that the needle on the fuel gauge was low; she’d have to stop for gas. Another delay. As soon as she saw the Shell sign, she eased the minivan onto the exit ramp, pulled up to the gas pump—maybe someone could have a look at those wipers—and gave the kids each a ten-dollar bill to use at the convenience store.
“Can I buy a Heineken?” Cally said.
“You’d drink beer in the car? With Mom right there?” Jack was incredulous.
“I was making a joke.” Cally’s contempt was obvious.
“Go,” Susannah ordered. “Before I take back my offer.”
The gas station attendant made some minor adjustments to the wipers—“I’d have those checked out when you get home, ma’am”—and filled the tank. Cally and Jack emerged from the store, and they were on the road again in minutes. Jack had bought an outsized bag of licorice and some chips; he was alternating between them. Cally had bought no food, only a couple of fashion magazines. She had already been plotting out a life as a hip, urban-inspired designer. But she was convinced her plan would be thwarted by a move to Eastwood, New Hampshire, a place, she took great care to inform Susannah, where there would be no street fashion, because there were no streets.
The traffic thinned out and, to Susannah’s great relief, the snow began to taper off. As Cally pored over the glossy, bright pages, Jack settled into one of his marathon naps; he might sleep until they got there. Susannah actually shared Cally’s distaste for the Granite State; she had no desire to sell her Park Slope brownstone and move. But without Charlie, she had to concede that selling the house—whose value had increased astronomically in the years they’d lived there—made a lot of financial sense. Charlie’s ninety-year-old father lived in a retirement community in Florida; he could not be of much help. Her own parents had died, within a year of each other, when Jack was a baby, and they had left her the mortgage-free house in Eastwood. Apart from a single summer when she was a teenager, Susannah had never actually lived in it, though; it had always been rented out to a series of tenants.
All that was about to change; the last tenants had moved out two weeks ago and Susannah and her children were about to move in. Living was much cheaper in New Hampshire and state taxes were nonexistent, which meant that Charlie’s modest pension and life insurance policy, along with her even more modest income as a writer of historical fiction for Out of the Past Press would go much further.
It was almost five o’clock when they drove into town. Nothing looked familiar at first. She peered out the window, trying her best to make out the row of small brick buildings that made up the main street. A darkened storefront with a big window kindled a memory. That was the ice cream shop where she had gone with Trevor Bailey. Trevor had been her sort-of boyfriend the only summer she’d spent here. They would often drive into town and sit in front of that shop with their cones. He always ordered the same flavor—coffee—which used to irritate her; didn’t he ever want to try anything new?
As she slowed the car, she saw the shop no longer sold ice cream, but frozen yogurt. Sign of the times. She kept driving. The drugstore where she’d bought Tampax and tubes of Bain de Soleil tanning lotion—with a mere SPF 8 back then—was now some kind of exercise studio, and the office of the Eastwood Journal, the local paper where her mother had once worked, was now a store that appeared to sell healing crystals and scented candles. There was a pizza place, open, and she stopped in quickly to get a pie. The kids munched on their slices in the dark, but her own oily, congealed wedge sat untouched beside her.
As Susannah turned off the main street, the road started to look more recognizable; there was a huge old oak tree she remembered, and soon she came to a three-story house, mint green clapboard, with black shutters and a sloping garden off to one side and a meadow with a barn on the other. Another landmark.
The minivan rounded a curve and then there was a turn down a pocked and bumpy dirt road, now covered with packed snow and chunks of ice. The road had been plowed, but badly; she was glad she’d thought to have snow tires put on the minivan before the trip. At the very end of the road was the house on Primrose Pond.
Dark brown, two finished stories with an open attic room under the shingled roof. There was a screened-in porch on the pond side, not visible from the road. God, it looked so small. Dreary too. Why had she ever thought it would be a good idea to come up here in the dead of winter? That all-cash offer had blinded her to every other consideration. But she couldn’t share any of this with her kids; she felt compelled to be a cheerleader for the new life she’d dragged them into. She pulled up, and Cally jumped out of the car even before Susannah had switched off the ignition.
“Where are you going?” Cally ignored her and kept walking. As Susannah and Jack unloaded the minivan, Cally rapidly circled the house once, twice, a third time. Susannah, digging in her purse for the keys, let it go. The lights downstairs were off and she silently upbraided Mabel Dunfee, who’d been hired to clean after the tenants left, for not remembering to leave them on as she’d asked.
The door creaked slightly; it would need to be oiled. Or something. Susannah and Jack went inside with their bags; the movers would be here with the rest of their things tomorrow. Cally, who had reappeared, followed behind. Susannah didn’t even realize how uncomfortable her daughter’s pacing had made her until she’d stopped.
“The kitchen is so big,” Jack said. “Bigger than our kitchen in Brooklyn.”
“But it’s a dump.” Cally looked around with palpable distaste. “No dishwasher. That fridge—it’s ancient. And look at the sink—does it even have running water?”
“Of course there’s running water.” Susannah walked over and turned on the tap. After a gurgle and some spurting sounds, some brownish liquid trickled out. Linnie Ashcroft, the Realtor who had been in charge of renting the place, hadn’t mentioned this. Neither had Mabel Dunfee. Yet another thing Susannah would have to deal with. Jack walked over to the fridge and opened the door. Even though he was just thirteen, that legendary teenage-boy appetite had started to kick in. “Look—there’s food. Where did it come from?”
“Mrs. Dunfee, I suppose.” Susannah walked over to inspect. A dozen eggs, a stick of butter, milk, bacon, orange juice, and a loaf of bread. She closed the refrigerator door, making a mental note to reimburse Mabel when she saw her next.
“Mom, I’m still hungry,” said Jack.
“There’s not a whole lot here, but I can make some toast.” She looked over at Cally. “You too?” Cally shook her head and wandered off, presumably to inspect the rest of the house. Susannah moved around the kitchen. As Jack had pointed out, it was certainly big. But she didn’t like the table, and the chairs were even worse. Well, her own things would be arriving soon and the room would look better then.
She took out the bread and butter, then rooted around the cupboards until she found a bottle of cinnamon sugar. Decidedly crusty around the rim, but still serviceable. She’d make the kids a snack and they would feel better. And if they felt better, she would feel better too. What was the line? A Jewish mother was only as happy as her least happy child. And despite the name that obscured her origins, Susannah was a Jewish mother.
The toaster had four slots; she adjusted the dial and filled them all. But just as she pressed the lever down, the kitchen—and all the rest of the rooms on that floor—went suddenly, totally black.
“Mom?” Jack’s panicked voice cut through the darkness. “What happened?”
“I must have blown a fuse; maybe it was the toaster.” Susannah fumbled around with the cord and managed to unplug the damn thing.
“What’s going on?” Cally had come into the kitchen, her irritation obvious.
“Mom blew a fuse,” Jack reported.
“Oh, great,” said Cally.
“It’s not a big deal.” But Susannah did not know where the circuit breakers were, and finding them was not going to be fun.
“Maybe there’s a flashlight,” Jack said.
“Flashlight! Of course!” Susannah smiled in the dark. That was Jack all over. Don’t bitch about the problem; find a solution. She began opening cupboards and drawers, her eyes gradually adjusting. And under the sink was a high-powered flashlight; to her relief, its batteries were intact. “Now we’re cooking!” she said. Then, looking at the unplugged toaster, she added, “Well, not exactly cooking . . .” Using the beam of the flashlight, she managed to butter several slices of bread and sprinkle them with cinnamon sugar. Standing in the darkened room, she crammed a slice into her mouth; she had not eaten any of the pizza and was now ravenous.
Once she was sated, Susannah could focus on the circuit breakers. Maybe she and Jack could look for them. He was hunkered down in the living room, gobbling a slice of bread in front of the fireplace. The fireplace! Of course. Why hadn’t she thought of it sooner? There were logs stacked neatly on the hearth, and another trip to the kitchen yielded a box of matches. Pretty soon she had a decent little blaze going, and the primal warmth exerted by the dancing flames lured even supercilious Cally back into the circle. For the next few minutes, they all sat gazing at the popping logs as they polished off the rest of the bread.
“That was delicious.” Jack burped. “Sorry!”
“I hope we’re not going to have to live in the dark all winter. It’s like the Stone Ages in here.” Cally, who had not eaten any of the bread, was pressing her fingertips to the sugar-dusted plate and licking them.
“Of course not.” Susannah’s tone sounded sharper than she’d intended. But things were difficult enough, and Cally’s unending bad attitude only made them worse. “Why don’t you get your jackets?” she said in a gentler tone. “I want to show you something.” There was still that circuit breaker she had to find, but she needed to do this first.
They tossed their balled-up napkins into the fire, got their jackets, and followed her out onto the screened-in porch. She knew that beyond the winter storm window was the silent, black expanse of Primrose Pond. “What are we looking at?” asked Cally. “I don’t see anything.”
“Primrose Pond,” Susannah said. She had good memories of this pond, but Cally was right: it was barely visible. It would be different in the summer. She had to keep telling herself that. Though, at this moment, the summer seemed a long way off. “Once it gets warm enough, we can swim,” she said. “And boat too—there’s a rowboat and a canoe on the property.”
“Can we water-ski?” Jack asked.
“If we meet someone with a motorboat,” Susannah said. Jack seemed satisfied and Cally didn’t have any other negative comments to make, which in Susannah’s view constituted a small miracle. They went back inside to the glowing embers of the fire. Susannah added another log and watched the flames leap up again. It felt so strange being back here; she hadn’t anticipated that.
“Are there, like, snakes or eels in there? What about leeches? Aidan Shenk went to a camp on a lake and he said it was crawling with leeches.” Jack abhorred all creatures slippery or slithery.
“No snakes, no eels,” Susannah said firmly. “And no leeches.”
“Good. If there are leeches, I’m not going in.”
“You’re not going in now anyway,” Cally pointed out. “It’s January.” And then, more quietly, “Moron.”
Jack looked whipped. Susannah could only guess what he was feeling. Those two had been so close for so long; now they seemed to be spinning in wholly different orbits. Instead of bringing them closer, their father’s death seemed to have splintered the bond.
“Your sister is tired and cranky,” she said. “She doesn’t want to be here and she’s taking it out on you. It’s not fair and it’s not nice and I am counting on her to cut it out right now.” She was looking at Jack but speaking to Cally. And it seemed to have an effect—sort of.
“Sorry.” She stood there with her fists clenched, firelight playing across her sullen face.
“It’s okay. I know you didn’t mean it.” Too-easy Jack, always the peacemaker, never the grudge holder.
Susannah stood up. “I’m going to try to find the circuit breakers. Anyone want to help?” Cally remained by the fire, but Jack, eager puppy that he was, followed along. They bumped and bumbled in the dark, the flashlight illuminating a bright but narrow path through the living and dining rooms. Susannah shone the beam into the kitchen, and there, near the side door, was a metal panel with a ring in its center. When she pulled the ring, the panel opened to reveal the circuit breakers, all their switches in a row—except one. She was just about to flip it so that it would be in line with the others when Jack put his hand on her wrist. “Don’t!”
“You have to flip it down first. Then back up.” In the flashlight’s bright pool, he demonstrated. Immediately, the lights returned.
“How did you know to do that?” Susannah was impressed.
“Dad showed me,” he said.
The phrase hung there for a few seconds. Susannah could just imagine it—Charlie, Mr. Fix-It, explaining how the circuit breakers worked, Jack nodding seriously, taking it all in—and her eyes welled. But all she said was, “You saved the day. Or night.” Jack smiled. His deep-set brown eyes and long lashes (how he hated them, thinking they made him look like a girl) came from her, but she had not passed on her small, neat chin or her sun-loving olive skin and dark brown hair. Jack had lighter hair and his father’s freckles. And his smile—tremulous and heartbreaking—was pure Charlie.
Cally came into the room. “I want to go to bed.”
“Let’s all go up,” said Susannah. “The movers will be here first thing.” She headed up and they followed. At least things were ready for them up here. Susannah helped Cally settle in the bedroom with the rose-sprigged wallpaper and brass bed where she had stayed that long-ago summer. Jack took the room that had been her mother’s study—her father had been relegated to the porch—and Susannah decamped to the largest bedroom, the one where her parents had slept.
Alone for the first time in hours, she felt herself sagging under the weight of the day she’d just spent and the knowledge that the next day would be no easier. But she had gotten them here safely, hadn’t she? They were okay. Sort of. She walked over to the window. Through the parted curtains, she could see the pond, illuminated by the cool, silvery light of a winter moon.
Susannah had been seventeen when her mother announced she wanted to spend the summer in New Hampshire. Yes, she had known about the house, but her parents had always kept it rented out and neither one had ever expressed any interest in going there. So everything had been brand-new for her, the pond most of all. She was raised a Jersey girl; her experience of water meant pounding surf and a seemingly unending shoreline.
By contrast, this finite, tranquil body of water had seemed dull. But gradually she grew to appreciate it. Instead of waves, there were subtle ripples or eddies. Instead of stinging salt, there was liquid so pure she could have bathed in it. There were frogs and toads that lived at its perimeters, silvery minnows that rose to its surface in search of bread. Loons swam and hunted in the pond and geese used the wooden rafts to congregate. The ocean, with its potentially treacherous tides and mercurial changes, was exciting, but not to be trusted. The pond, in comparison, laid all its secrets bare.
Susannah got into the bed that Mabel had made up with flannel sheets and a down quilt. Yet, as tired as she was, she found she could not sleep. The energy of the house, or the spirits of the people who’d lived here—her parents; the younger, innocent version of herself—were too present, too noisy even. The internal clamor was keeping her awake.
That had been a strange, intense summer. Her mother had been even more moody than usual, crying a lot, or awash in a kind of manic joy; her normally even-tempered father had seemed preoccupied and, at times, morose. Swimming in the clear, cool water of the pond, Susannah was relieved to escape the drama of whatever her parents were going through; the pond had been her refuge. She hoped it would still be true, and that she hadn’t made a huge mistake in uprooting her kids and dragging them up here.
Yanking back the covers, she got out of bed and padded down the hall. Quietly, she opened the door to Cally’s room. Her daughter was on her side, curled in on herself; even in sleep she was guarded. The magazines she’d bought earlier were splayed on the floor. Susannah knew that she was largely indifferent to the features and bodies of the models who cavorted across the pages; instead, she was mentally ripping apart the garments, trying to understand their inner architecture, the scaffolding that held them together. Cally’s face had lost its habitual scowl, the one she’d assumed when Charlie was killed and that had not faded since. Her red hair was fanned out on the pillow around her. Susannah had the urge to kiss that smooth, untroubled forehead but did not want to run the risk of waking her, so she stepped out and closed the door behind her.
When she went to check on Jack, she found him flat on his back, arms stretched out and one leg hanging off the bed. His clarinet case was propped in a corner; he would not trust it to the movers. Susannah stood there listening to the light rasp of his snoring. He slept like his father—with complete abandon.
• • •
Susannah and Charlie had met when she was sixteen and he was eighteen; they had both been working at a summer camp in the Poconos. There had been no romance between them, but they’d become instant best friends and spent hours dissecting everyone at the camp, from the director to the littlest kids. They remained friends too, and would get together a few times a year in Philly. It wasn’t until they had graduated from college—she from Vassar, he from Bard—and were trying to make their way in New York that things between them changed.
Charlie had a job doing merchandise display for Macy’s and Susannah worked at a small educational publisher where she typed, filed, answered phones, and obsessed about an on-again-off-again romance she was having with an older, and tantalizingly elusive, coworker. She had a standing once-a-month date with Charlie when they caught up on each other’s lives.
One of these dates took place at a noodle shop they favored in the East Village, where, over tiny cups of sake, Susannah was lamenting her romantic situation—yet again. Charlie listened for a time, nodding or offering the occasional comment. But after about fifteen minutes, he put down his cup, leaned across the table, and took both her hands in his. “Forget that guy,” he said. “He doesn’t appreciate you and he doesn’t deserve you. I’m the guy who loves you. The guy you’re going to marry.” Then he kissed her. Susannah’s eyes did not close, but opened very wide. This was Charlie, her familiar, adorable, loyal best friend forever. But the kiss—it was totally brand-new and more wonderful than she could have imagined.
They had a giddy dating spree—so much lost time to make up for—and within a year they were married. Charlie retained his boyish charm even through marriage, two kids, the ups and downs of their respective careers, a couple of health scares, the deaths of parents and, in his case, an older brother. And now he was gone.
After a few seconds, the memories subsided, and Susannah stood, breathing hard, in the hallway. Then she trudged back to bed, where she prayed she could salvage at least a couple of hours from what promised to be a ruined minefield of sleep.
A scant few hours later, Susannah was jolted awake by the insistent chime of the doorbell. Hastily grabbing the flannel bathrobe that had been Charlie’s—try as she might, she could no longer detect his scent in the soft plaid folds—she flew down the stairs to find a young bearded guy in a ski cap and down vest. Behind him, a huge red truck with the word SCHLEPPERS emblazoned across the side hulked like some enormous animal.
“Morning,” he said. “We’ll start moving it in whenever you’re ready.”
Damn. She’d overslept. Now the movers were here, the kids were still asleep, and she hadn’t showered, dressed, or had so much as a sip of coffee. “Come on in.” She stepped back to give him access. “I’ll just run up and throw something on.” When she returned, dressed but still frazzled, a few boxes had already been unloaded and carried into the house.
“You’re sure you’re going to have room for everything?” He seemed doubtful.
The room was already furnished in an amiable if generic fashion—a beige sofa and two matching chairs around the fireplace, faux Navajo rug on the floor, various end tables topped with various lamps and vases. Susannah did not remember any of this stuff; it looked like it had been purchased from a catalog, and all on the same day. Sometime after that summer they’d spent here, her mother had come through and taken almost everything of theirs out, replacing it with these characterless pieces.
“Most of this stuff downstairs is going. And upstairs there’s a lot less.” The bedrooms, sparsely furnished as they were, contained pieces Susannah did remember, like the brass bed and the maple four-poster in her parents’ room.
Ski Cap looked around. “Do you need any help getting rid of it? I know some people in Brooklyn who were flooded a couple of months ago and lost most of their furniture. We could load anything you can’t use back onto the truck and take it down to them.” Susannah had planned to call the Salvation Army to cart off what she did not want, but he was saving her a step. And she was glad the stuff would go to people who could really use it. “Sounds good to me.”
Ski Cap smiled and inclined his head; his big beard touched his down-clad chest. For the next several hours, the crew unloaded furniture and lugged boxes. Cally and Jack emerged from their respective rooms; Susannah just hoped Cally could keep it together while the movers were here, and so far she was getting her wish.
When everything was in the house, Ski Cap, whose name was Sean, asked the guys to take all the beige-and-bland pieces out and to set up Susannah’s own eclectic assortment of furniture—the wing chair covered with a gaudily patterned curtain panel from the 1940s; the midcentury sofa and coffee table, the latter shaped like a kidney bean—in the newly emptied space.
“It looks good.” Jack settled into the sofa.
“Not exactly good,” said Cally. “But better.”
“We’ll make it ours,” Susannah said. “You’ll see.” She tipped the movers generously and stood waving in the open doorway as the Schleppers truck rumbled off.
Once they had gone, Susannah turned and went back into the house. From the living room she could see the porch, and beyond that the pond. It had been such a big part of her life that summer. Except when it rained, she was in that water every single morning, wading out until she was waist deep and then diving in. Then she would swim a steady path along a shoreline that was ringed in pines and birches, past the same eight or ten houses and back again. She passed several wooden floats tethered to weights below the surface, warped, weathered things coated in slime and moss. She had liked to stop at each of them in turn, hoisting herself onto the surface and plunging cleanly back into the water again. During these long swims, she almost never saw another soul. The people who lived there year-round had no kids, and she never mingled much with the people who came for only a week or two. The pond had seemed hers, and hers alone.
After her solitary morning swims, Susannah would spend the day hanging out with the crew of kids she’d met, like Trevor Bailey. Sometimes they went boating, but mostly they lolled on the floats or the pebbly strip fronting the water. Susannah’s place within the group was not well established, which was why she’d so quickly paired off with Trevor: he was her ticket in. He was nice enough, but she secretly found him dull, and his hand on her thigh or under her shirt—overtures she had rejected—elicited no response in her at all. He’d had a brother, though. Corbin. Now he was interesting, but he was three years older, a gap that at the time had seemed enormous.
A small crash brought her back to the present and she went hurrying in the direction of the sound. “What broke?” she asked, standing in the kitchen.
“I dropped a glass,” Jack said. “Sorry, Mom.”
“No biggie,” she said, hunting for a broom and dustpan. There was still so much to do; taking the contents of one life and fitting it into a new vessel was not going to be easy. Susannah helped Jack with the broken glass, lifting the jagged bits from the floor. Then she went upstairs to begin unpacking some of the boxes that now lined her bedroom.
The first box contained summer clothes. She wouldn’t need them for a while. Same with all her sandals, the round hat box containing her straw panama, and her two black bathing suits. Unlike her Brooklyn home, this house had an attic—the perfect place to store her out-of-season wardrobe. She mounted the flight of bare wooden boards that were concealed behind a door adjacent to the bathroom. When she pulled the cord dangling from the ceiling, a single bulb lit the room.
The attic was a pretty raw space: wide-plank floors, a pair of windows at one end, and a circular window at the other. Exposed beams bisected the ceiling. There were three large boxes stacked against one wall and an old iron bed on the other. Also a harp with several shot strings—one of her father’s crazy finds that summer—and, sitting alongside the boxes, a black Singer sewing machine that Susannah did not recognize but may have belonged to her mother.
Depositing the clothing on the bed, she walked over and put her hand on its dusty surface. Cally had been asking for a sewing machine. Then she turned to the boxes, whose contents were unknown to her. When her mother died, she had just given birth to Jack and she couldn’t deal with the house; her father had died the year before, and so her mother’s best friend, Linda Jacobsmeyer, had kindly packed up whatever personal effects had been left and brought them up here.
The first box was crammed with yards and yards of fabric. All of it was old.
Had it belonged to her mother? She had no idea. She found spools of trimming tucked between the folds—velvet and satin ribbon, lace, and rickrack. There was a bag filled with embroidered appliqués, another bag of buttons, and still another of beads. The more she pawed through the box, the more puzzled she became. As far as Susannah knew, Claire had never used anything here. But Cally would love this stuff, and Susannah badly wanted to find something about this house, and the life they would be leading in it, for Cally to love.
She turned to the next box. Inside it she found papers belonging to her father; he’d been an economics professor, first at the University of New Hampshire and later at Rutgers, in New Jersey. There were also a few small oil paintings, mostly of the pond, house, and the surrounding woods. Susannah remembered how her father had had a sudden urge to try his hand at painting that summer, and she’d driven with him to an art supply store in Concord to pick out materials. “Your mother always says I have no appreciation of the arts. But I’m going to surprise her!” He’d kept his project hidden at first, clearly hoping to surprise and delight her. That was how it had been between them: her quiet, bookish father perpetually amazed that he’d captured—and married—his beautiful bird of paradise. It seemed like he’d always been trying to appease and charm her, a process of wooing that never ended. What she had seen in him Susannah had never really known.
She took the paintings out and laid them on the floor like a patchwork quilt. The last one was not a landscape, but a portrait of her mother, painted from a photograph of her as a young woman. The photo was in the family album; Susannah had seen it many times. Her mother had indeed been surprised by her father’s artistic output. She’d exclaimed over the paintings of the house and pond, praising the colors and the composition. But when she saw the portrait, she’d seemed upset.
“Something’s off about the expression,” she had said. “I look dazed. Or terrified.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” her father said. “I used a beautiful photograph of a beautiful woman. That’s what I saw. That’s what I painted. Or tried to.”
Nothing more was said, but the painting went up to the attic and, as far as Susannah knew, her father had never painted again. Nice try, Dad, she had thought at the time. Too bad it didn’t work out.
The last box was heavy and, when opened, looked to contain books, mostly on economics, with a few biographies and historical books in the mix. But here was an anomaly: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Had this belonged to her father? She doubted it. And when she turned to the flyleaf, it was her mother’s name she saw there. So Claire read Yeats? Who knew? And from the look of this tattered volume, with its loosened spine and torn cover, she had read him often.
Susannah brought the book over to the bed and moved the clothes aside so she could sit. Here were poems her mother had wanted to single out, tiny penciled checkmarks near the titles. Occasionally a word or phrase was lightly underlined. In one instance, three exclamation marks stood at attention in the margin. Not only had Claire read Yeats, she had clearly been engaged by what she read. Susannah turned another page and a piece of paper, folded in thirds, slipped out of the book and into her lap. She opened it. There was no date and no signature, only these lines:
I know it’s crazy, I know it’s wrong, I know we shouldn’t. You don’t want to hurt him and I don’t want to hurt her. But, Claire, you are “my lovely lizard/my lively writher” and I can no more give you up than cut out my own hot, beating heart. Please “say yes.”
Susannah read the note over several times without fully understanding it. Or rather, she understood it, but only in the most literal way. This was a love letter, and although it was clearly written to her mother, it was not from her father; she knew his careful, tidy penmanship as well as she’d known his patient, perpetually resigned face. So these bold, looping lines had been written by someone else. Who? There was passion in them. And guilt. I know it’s crazy, I know it’s wrong, I know we shouldn’t. Could her mother have had a lover? An affair? If so, when? And if it had happened during her parents’ marriage, had her father known? Oh God. Oh. God.
She remained on the bed for several minutes and then abruptly got up. She stacked the paintings in a neat pile, repacked the box of fabric and trimmings, and pushed it, along with the other boxes, back against the wall. The only thing she took was the Yeats, and the note, which she tucked between its pages once more. Then she pulled the cord dangling from the ceiling and went back down the stairs.
All the while that she was cracking the eggs and frying the bacon, Susannah thought about the note. Even though she had read it only a few times, the words were fairly pulsating—tiny, hot points of light—in her mind. Lovely lizard/lively writher. That came from Theodore Roethke, a poet she had studied in a modern poetry course. I don’t want to hurt her. So he was married too. Please say yes. Yes to what? Loving him back? Leaving her husband? Clearly that had not happened.
“Jack, Cally!” she called. “Come and get it!” Susannah’s own farmhouse table and set of ladder-back chairs had been moved in and the room was beginning to assume her imprint.
The note was now in an empty shoe box on the shelf of a closet, safe for the time being. She couldn’t just leave it there, though, with the mystery unsolved. She wished she could drop everything and go immediately back to those boxes in the attic. Maybe there were more notes—or other clues—inside them.
Instead, while Jack and Cally cleaned up the kitchen, she drove to a nearby supermarket. Densely packed snow lined the sides of the road, and snow, mostly white but sometimes gray, covered the ground, trees, and roofs of the houses. Susannah wasn’t used to seeing such an accumulation; in New York, streets were plowed in a matter of hours, and snow was a vestigial, not dominant, feature of the winter landscape. She would have to get used to it.
After driving fourteen miles—yes, she was counting—she parked in the nearly empty parking lot of a Hannaford market, got her cart, and began to cruise the aisles. Back in Brooklyn, Charlie had done the bulk of their grocery shopping; he actually enjoyed the task. Once in a while he made questionable choices, like the six outsized boxes of Lucky Charms he had brought home, gleefully explaining that they were on sale. “But the kids don’t even eat Lucky Charms,” she’d said.
“These are for me,” he’d answered.
Mostly he did a good job of it, though, and she was glad to be spared the crowded stores and long lines. But here in New Hampshire, the terrain was clearly different. The parking lot should have been the clue, because the aisles were nearly empty too, almost spookily so. Where was everyone? Also, the cart was so large, it was hard to maneuver, and as she moved from baked goods to frozen foods, she felt like she was battling with it. And when she crashed into a large display of stacked soup cans, sending tomato bisque and split pea rolling all over the aisles, she knew that the cart had won.
“Are you all right?” The store manager, a young man with slicked-back hair and very ruddy cheeks, came hurrying over.
“I’m so sorry.” Mortified, Susannah knelt and began gathering cans; the cans, like the cart, were thwarting her and began to roll toward the dairy case at the back of the store. God, but she wanted to get out of there and back to the familiar cramped aisles of Brooklyn!
“Don’t even worry about it,” said the manager. He helped her up, and when he discovered that her cart’s wheels were malfunctioning, he brought over another cart and helped her transfer her groceries into it.
• • •
Back at the house, she got a pot of chili going for dinner. That had been one of Charlie’s favorite dishes and she had not made it since he died. With the voices of the kids floating down to the kitchen—Did you find a box marked ‘Sewing Stuff’? Where did Mom put all the towels?—she wept silently as she diced the celery and the onions.
The loss had been brutal at first. She cried constantly, trying her best to hide it from the kids. That sharp, raw edge had softened, though, and she was able to get through first days, then weeks without crying. But the move had opened the wound; in leaving the old house, she was forced to say good-bye to Charlie all over again.
Once the chili was simmering, she rinsed her face in the kitchen sink and blotted the mixture of tears and tap water with a paper towel. The voices upstairs had been replaced by the sound of music; Jack had clearly taken his clarinet out of its case and was practicing. He wasn’t the most technically proficient player, but he was certainly a passionate one. “He really feels the music,” his clarinet teacher back in Brooklyn had said. Jack had been happy to find out that his new middle school had a band and a jazz ensemble; he’d be able to try out for both.
He was playing an arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and the familiar tune traveled down to where Susannah stood. Even though the melody was simple and not quite confident, it seemed to contain a message just for her: You’ll get through this, warbled the plaintive notes. You’ll survive and they will too. She made her way up the stairs toward the music. Jack’s door was open, and she could see the concentration on his face, his hands carefully placed on the instrument, body inclined slightly back. If he saw her, he did not register it, and she moved by the room without saying anything.
The door to Cally’s room was closed. Susannah stood in front of it. She wanted to go up to the attic; she’d been itching to do it all day. And it now occurred to her that she even had a pretext: the box of fabric and the sewing machine, both of which she wanted to show Cally. Jack was lost in his music; if Cally showed an interest in the fabric, Susannah would have a little time to do some more poking around. “Cally?” Susannah knocked tentatively on the door.
“What is it?” She sounded guarded, but not antagonistic.
“There’s something I want to show you. Something that you’ll like.”
A silence, and then the door opened. Cally had shot up recently, was now taller than her mother. Charlie’s genes. She was slender like her father too, and had his wide-set green eyes, his red hair, and the smattering of freckles he’d had as a boy. Today Cally wore cut-off overalls on top of a boldly striped sweater and patterned tights; on her feet were red Keds high-tops, not too practical a choice for snowy, icy Eastwood. Susannah added Boots for Cally to her mental to-do list.
“Tell me what it is.”
“It’s better if I show you.” Susannah gestured for Cally to follow her. “Look,” she said when they had entered the attic room. “I found this sewing machine.” Cally immediately went over to inspect. Susannah watched as she ran her hands over the machine’s graceful black lines and touched the gold lettering.
“It’s beautiful,” Cally said at last. “But I didn’t know Grandma sewed.”
“Neither did I,” Susannah said. “In fact, I’m not even sure it was hers.”
“Well, I don’t care who it belonged to—I’m just glad it’s here, because I love it.”
Just hearing the word “love” emanate from Cally’s mouth made Susannah inordinately happy. “Wait,” she said. “There’s more.” And she brought Cally over to the box, where, as she had hoped, Cally began eagerly pulling things out. “Look at this paisley!” she said, clutching it to her chest. “And these brocades—Vivienne Tam uses fabric like this.” She looked up at her mother. “Can I have it, Mom? Can I, please?”
“Of course,” Susannah said. “It’s all for you.” She and Cally made several trips to bring all the fabric, trimming, and the sewing machine to Cally’s room. Jack was still playing the clarinet now but had switched to something jazzier; maybe a swing tune? The chili, which Susannah could smell, had another hour to go. “I’m going back up to the attic,” said Susannah. She waited, almost expecting to be challenged.
“Sure,” said Cally. “Whatever.”