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9

Since her return to Fox Hill, all March has accomplished is an orderly mess. There are currently twenty-five boxes in the kitchen, all labeled to go to the Library Associations booth at the Harvest Fair, which is always held in the basement of Town Hall. Most of the objects March has packed, she knew by heart: The cake pans Mrs. Dale seemed to collect, dozens of them. The lace curtains, the throw pillows, the ceramic candlesticks from England. Marchs fathers law books have already been donated to Deny Law School, carted there by Ken Helm, whos been running all Marchs errands, since she decided not to replace her rental car. Eight silver place settings, brought out only on holidays, have been mailed home to California, where they will most likely never be used.

Judith, who didnt care much for jewelry, had only three good pieces: A gold necklace, which March has given to Harriet Laughton, one of Judiths dear friends. A pair of heavy gold earrings, rarely worn, has been presented to St. Bridgets Hospital, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder at the next fund-raising drive. The lovely, square-cut emerald Judith never took off, March now wears on her right hand. Luckily, March found the emerald in an envelope stuffed into a night table drawer she was clearing out. March studied that ring so often, as Mrs. Dale folded laundry or planted mint or tucked her in at night, that she cannot help but wonder if the emerald has affected her career choice. The jewelry she fashions is simple in design; as with this ring, the overall effect often depends on small, but perfect, stones. She favors green and blue in her work: topaz and tiny sapphires, crystals and aquamarines, Chinese jade and emeralds, of course, although none has appealed to her as much as the stone she now wears.

Today, while March works on organizing the house, Judiths little dog sits by the window, waiting for rabbits. Each time the dog spies one, out in the orchard or calmly chewing mint by the back door, it goes completely berserk.

Will you stop that? March complains, because whenever the dog barks, shes startled all over again.

Aside from the dog, the house is amazingly quiet. Theres no TV switched on, no radio, no sound of traffic. And theres definitely no Gwen. March had expected shed have to argue constantly with her daughter; shed imagined Gwen would want to sleep until noon or one, when shed rise only to throw herself in an easy chair to complain, grouse, whine, and threaten, all the while eating cookies or frozen pizza, spreading crumbs on the rug and talking about teenage suicide statistics.

None of this has happened. When March wakes in the morning, Gwen is already gone, her bed in the sewing room neatly made, her cereal dish washed and drying on the dish rack that March will have to pack up today. Shes been out for a walk, Gwen explains when she returns later in the day; shes been running, getting herself in shape. March wouldnt believe a word of it-Gwen is usually the most sedentary creature on earth; getting off the couch to search for the remote is often the most movement she manages to accomplish-but theres a rosy cast to the girls skin when she comes back to the house, and a fine film of sweat on her forehead, all of which seems proof of her honesty.

With no distractions-no Gwen, no car, no one other than Susie calling on the phone-March should be done clearing out the house, but the work is going slowly, as if each trinket and kitchen utensil, every sweater and scarf were stuck in molasses. Now and then, March comes across some item which truly surprises her, and then she gets completely side-tracked. This morning, for instance, she found a box of matches from a restaurant called the Blue Dolphin, a small, family-run place down by Lambs Cove, less than ten miles away. Seeing those matches, she remembered a night nearly thirty years earlier, an evening Mrs. Dale had off, but because taking care of children is not a job thats easily compartmentalized, as soon as Judith came home she went upstairs to check on March.

When she came to sit on the edge of Marchs bed, Judith Dale smelled of garlic and cologne, a combined scent that was both lemony and pungent. She had appeared so dreamy and young that March had scrambled to her knees to get a better look. Mrs. Dales hair was curled, from the damp salt air at Lambs Cove. Shed shown March this box of matches, with its smiling dolphin logo; shed said this restaurant had the best shrimp scampi and the most fabulous cheesecake, and some grown-up drink called a mimosa that March has had a fondness for ever since hearing its beautiful name. Now, March realizes it was love that made the menu so special, and that Mrs. Dales dinner partner that night was probably Bill Justice.

Though March is trying to divest, she has kept the box of matches, just as she has held on to one of her brothers blue ribbons from his high school debating team. She went out to the Marshes to visit him, but, exactly as the Judge had warned, Alan wouldnt open the door. In all honesty, she was relieved. What would she say to him after all these years? Why presume that she knows him? If youre disconnected from someone for a long enough time, does blood still commit you to one another? Does history, or fate? Alan is not the only one March has attempted to contact. Twice, she has phoned Hollis. Shes embarrassed about it, shes mortified, yet she couldnt seem to stop herself. Both times she called, she felt completely possessed-some demon held the receiver, and dialed, and waited, and then, thank goodness, hung up. If she was giving herself a test, she has failed. Now that shes gone this far, she wants to keep calling. His voice is deeper than she remembers, and much more interesting than it should be.

Take my advice, Susanna Justice had recommended when they went out to the bowling alley, which serves the best burgers, last night. Go home before anything happens.

March had vowed she wouldnt tell Susie about the calls, but as soon as Gwen wandered off with two local girls Susie had introduced her to, March admitted shed been phoning him.

Its nothing, March vowed. Its like a game.

There are no games, Susie had insisted. Other than Monopoly.

Susie is a big fan of Richard Coopers, and she always has been. Shes told herself that if she could find a man as good as Richard, shed marry him tomorrow. But of course, she may have found exactly that in Ed Milton, the new police chief, and what does she go and do but cancel a date with him in order to have dinner with March at the bowling alley. As they dined, they had a perfect view of Gwen and the two girls from town, whose mothers March and Susie went to school with about a million years ago. The girls rolled one gutter ball after another, and from the look on Gwens face, she was the only one who cared.

Hollis is bad news, and he always has been, Susie said. How Hollis manages to get his way in this town never fails to amaze her, but he knows who to charm and who to pay off, and in the end, if he wants something-whether its business zoning at the end of Main Street or the DPW to plow his properties first-he gets it. Youre going to be sucked in all over again.

Hes a whirlpool, is that what youre saying? March had laughed. Dont worry so much. Im married, remember?

I remember, Susie had said, pointedly.

Dont say the rest of that, March had warned.

Fine.

Because I do too, Susie. I remember real well.

Today, to spite Susanna or to prove something to herself, she phones Richard three times. But Richard is busy and distracted, and really, all he wants to know is when shes coming home.

The end of the week, March promises, but already shes thinking shed like to stay for Founders Day, which celebrates the night when Aaron Jenkins ran over Fox Hill more than three hundred years earlier.

Gwen has heard all about Founders Day from the girls who have befriended her, and now when they go for sodas at the Bluebird Coffee Shop, Lori and Chris assume the Founders celebration is the reason Gwen is so intent on staying in Jenkintown. Those girls would never guess that Gwen rises before dawn so she can visit the horse down the road. They think she doesnt meet them in the evenings because shes afraid to walk across Fox Hill in the dark, but in fact, she has better things to do. Shes down in the pasture when darkness falls, feeding a beautiful old horse some fallen apples and the sugar cubes she steals from the coffee shop.

Gwen has no idea that the man who owns the fence she sneaks under, who owns the grass beneath her feet and the horse whose mane she likes to braid, always knows when someone has trespassed. Hollis has found a piece of frayed rope, a makeshift rein he supposes, kept beside the tree stump. He has seen footprints in the frost. He never likes anyone on his property-whats his is his, after all-although when he first saw these signs he thought March might be his trespasser, and he felt truly exhilarated. He felt the way he used to when hed play cards down in Florida and bluffed someone into letting him win.

Ever since March arrived, he has been keenly aware of her proximity. He goes to stand outside in the dark, cold morning with the knowledge that she is just down the road. Whenever he drives into town he is mindful that he could run into her anywhere-at the hardware store or waiting for a red light to change on Main Street. However it finally happens, she must come to him. Thats the way it has to be; thats the way it will be. This is the reason Hollis is biding his time, no matter how difficult this is for him; its why he stands there in the morning with his desire locked inside of him rather than rushing to knock on her front door. Hes not some beggar. Hes not some fool. Its the night that causes him problems; that is the time when he can no longer bear the way he feels. Thats when he drives over to the hill. He makes sure to cut his lights and engine before she can notice his presence; he parks there and watches the house, the way he has, every now and again, for all these years.

Hollis no longer believes March is the trespasser who is wandering through his pastures. Whoever does leaves cigarette butts on the road and candy wrappers in the weeds. Shes careless and thoughtless, nothing like March; a teenager probably, with some silly notion that fenced beasts should be set loose. Hollis is even surer of his theory when he notices that Hank has a flushed, distant look to him when he comes in for supper. On this day, Hank seems to be hurrying with his chores and he turns down an offer of food-a dead giveaway that somethings wrong.

Someones been riding Tarot, Hollis says.

Hank is at the refrigerator, getting himself a can of soda; a pinkish tint spreads across the back of his neck as soon as Hollis mentions the horse. Bingo.

Know anything about it?

Hank opens his soda and waits for his pulse to slow down. Nope, he says.

Really? Holliss voice sounds flat; he doesnt give much away.

Want me to check it out? Hank doesnt even know why hes lying, except that he feels Hollis will ruin this for him if he finds out about the girl. He knows he owes Hollis. The fact that hes here at all, eating three meals a day at this kitchen table, is a measure of Holliss charity. And yet he keeps his secret. He has, in fact, been watching the girl every evening, and each time he does, he falls for her a little bit more. What he feels for her is tearing him apart and keeping him together and, it appears, it is also turning him into a liar. I can hang out tonight, and see if anybody shows up.

Hollis finishes his dinner-a bologna and cheese sandwich and a bag of chips-and brings his plate to the sink. Im impressed, he says coldly. I didnt think you could lie right to my face.

I dont know who she is. The one time Hank is dishonest, and hes caught-well, it figures. That really is the truth.

Im not surprised, since you dont seem to know much of anything. Hollis washes his plate and stacks it on the drain board. Does she come from the village? From Route 22?

Hank shakes his head. From over the hill.

Then Ive got news for you, Hollis says. If Hank were paying more attention to Holliss tone, hed hear something rare-Hollis is actually pleased. I know who she is.

They go up to the hill together. Twilight is coming earlier, and the dusk is no longer purple, but is instead that inky blue which is always a sign of colder weather to come. When they get to the very top, which looks out over all the pastures below, Hollis crouches down. Everything he sees, he owns. Theres only one thing left, and hes about to get that too.

Ill bet your little friend is staying at the house on Fox Hill.

Theres something strange in Holliss voice, but Hank is too wound up to notice. Hank nods at the road; sure enough, here comes the girl. Thats her.

Shes wearing her black ski jacket and tight black jeans and heavy boots that make a clumping noise. This girl may be Marchs daughter, but she didnt inherit much from March, at least not in Holliss opinion. Shes nowhere near as pretty, and shes stupid as well. There she goes, ducking under the fence, heading for the old stump, where she searches for the rope Hollis confiscated and now has in his pocket. Its Richard she resembles, and maybe thats why Hollis feels such immediate distaste. Here is the reason March would not come back to him. Frankly, Hollis isnt impressed.

Gwen seems puzzled when she cant find the rope, but she climbs onto the stump anyway, then whistles.

Jesus Christ. Hollis snorts. She thinks shes calling a fucking dog. Look at her.

Down in the pasture, Gwen is unaware that shes being watched, but for some reason she feels nervous. This is her secret, and she doesnt want to share it. She needs to come up with a good excuse to stay on here. Shell say shes heard the high school in Jenkintown is great, so much better than the one shes been attending, or shes been involved with drugs back at home. Shes already decided-shes not going back to where she was a major nothing, inside and out. Tonight, its even colder than usual, but Gwens made sure to wear the leather gloves she found in one of those boxes her mother is packing. She claps her hands and whistles again and the horse appears from the woods and trots right to her, as he always does. She leans close and whispers a greeting, while the horse, supremely pleased at being told how wonderful he is, noses for the carrots she keeps in her coat pockets.

Up on the hill, Hollis rises to his feet. He watches the girl pull herself onto the horse with no reins and no saddle and no idea, it would seem, of any danger.

Well, there she is, he says. March Murrays daughter. That makes her your cousin.

Cruelty never loses its flavor, at least not for Hollis. The look on Hanks face is exactly what Hollis expected: pure confusion.

Thats what she is to you, Hollis goes on. Your first cousin.

They go down the hill in the dark. What is Hank supposed to do now? Stop thinking about her twenty-four hours a day because they are somehow related? Well, he cant do that. Hes not going to do that.

Get off, Hollis calls when they get to the fence.

Gwen and the horse, who have been walking through the meadow, stop dead when they hear his voice.

Right now, Hollis shouts.

Startled, Gwen quickly swings her legs over and gets down. The horse hovers behind her.

Hollis tosses the rope to the girl. Put it around his neck and lead him out. He swings open the gate.

As far as Gwen is concerned this guy has a lot of nerve to boss her around, but the horse seems to belong to him, so she does as shes told.

Thats dangerous, Hank says. She cant lead Tarot.

Gwen shoots Hank a look of what she hopes is contempt, but says nothing. Hes gorgeous, she sees that-shed have to be dead not to. If she was at a mall with her friends back home, theyd probably follow him anywhere. But its different here, and Gwen feels as if something major were at stake.

Take him down the road, then into the barn. Its too cold to keep him out all night anymore.

Now that her ability has been put in question by the boy, Gwen ignores the way the older, bossy guy is ordering her around. Shes dealt with bullies before, and she knows you cant win an argument with his type. She leads the horse down the road, and Tarot follows, mild as milk, all the way back to Guardian Farm. The air is silvery and sharp; Gwen is shivering, but she wouldnt think of complaining, not about the cold and not about how far they have to walk to reach the Farm.

All the dogs begin to bark when they reach the driveway.

If you want to ride this horse, thats fine, Hollis says. But make sure you use the right equipment, and put him back in his stall when youre done.

Hank is shocked by this magnanimity, its not at all like Hollis but he isnt about to ask any questions. Gwen is trying her best to keep her euphoria in check. It will be just as if the horse really belonged to her.

Show her where to put him, Hollis tells Hank.

Gwen follows Hank to the barn, and waits while he opens the door to the first stall.

Hes hard to get in there, Hank warns. He broke one of the dogs backs last year, so watch out.

Gwen pats the horse, and Tarot goes into his stall, as calm as any lamb.

How did you do that? Hank asks, following her out of the barn.

Wouldnt you like to know. Gwen uses her snippiest tone.

Thats why I asked, Hank says, confused. I would like to know.

Gwen laughs. Are you for real?

Shes ready to laugh again, but then she sees the way hes looking at her. Hes extremely real, she sees that now, and hes not like anyone shes ever met before. Most people are so guarded, but what he feels is right there in his face. Hes not hiding his interest in her, and what Gwen doesnt know is that he couldnt hide it even if he tried.

Lets go, Hollis says. Hes in the truck with the engine running, that same old pickup of Mr. Coopers Hollis refuses to get rid of, though he could surely afford far better. Ill give you a ride home. Hank and Gwen both approach the truck, which gives Hollis a chuckle. This boys got it bad. You dont need a ride home, Hollis tells Hank, whos hanging around this girl like a lovesick pup, and is left to mope in the driveway when they make the turn onto the road.

The truck smells like gasoline and it rattles when it goes over inclines and through ditches. All the way to Fox Hill, Hollis asks Gwen questions. She figures its like an interview. After all, shell be responsible for his horse. No, she doesnt know how long theyre staying, and her father isnt with them. hes a professor with too many deadlines to be here, and all her mothers been doing is looking through mementos from the past.

The way Hollis sees it, this girl is going to assist in keeping March in town until theyre together again. Shes going to be his little helper, and she wont even know it. She wants that old horse? Fine. Let her have it, if thats what it takes to get March to stay.

When they get to the top of the hill, and the house is in sight, Hollis pulls over. Id appreciate it if you gave your mother a message from me, he says, in that strange, inhuman voice hes got.

Sure, Gwen says. This guy gives her the creeps, but she supposes that the least she can do in return for riding his horse is to deliver his stupid message.

Tell her Ive been waiting. Hollis nods at his own words. Sometimes he feels as though hes been waiting forever, as if it were his occupation or his trade.

You being?

Shell know. Just tell her.

Gwen nods and opens the rusty truck door. She doesnt like this guy one bit, plus shes freezing; once shes out of the car she races up to the house.

Dont tell me youve been running all this time, March says when Gwen comes through the door. Shes been worried sick and has already called Loris and Chriss moms, and has had to hash over old times from their school days even though all she wanted to know was whether or not theyd seen Gwen.

Actually, Ive been riding.

Dont get funny with me.

Down the street. At that farm place. Theres a horse Ive been riding.

March has been sitting on the rag rug in front of the fire, sorting through old picture postcards her father mailed home from business trips. Now, she stands to face her daughter.

Youve been going there? Without permission?

I got permission. Gwen doesnt know why her mother has to be so upset about this. The guy over there said I can ride whenever I want.

Oh, really. March has the funniest feeling along the backs of her knees, of all places. Its as though she has pins and needles, only worse. She felt certain he would never come to her, he has too much pride for that. She told herself all she had to do to be safe was avoid him, but maybe that isnt the case.

He told me to say hes been waiting.

Gwen watches her mother carefully. After all, March could forbid her to go see Tarot-she knows the horses name now, and it suits him-and then shed have to have a major temper tantrum, which shes really in no mood for. But for once, March doesnt seem concerned about possible dangers.

Did he say anything else? March asks.

Yes, and all of it was boring.

For as many questions as March asks, Gwen does nothing more than shrug; finally she excuses herself and goes up to bed. Sister is at the door, scratching to be let out, refusing to be ignored, so March goes to the closet for the leash and clips it on. Dont you dare bite me, she warns the dog, when it curls its lip.

By now, the moon is in the center of the sky. She made her choice years ago, didnt she? She left and didnt come back, not even when he called her, and yet here she is, on this dark night; here, and noplace else. There are still bullet holes in some of the apple trees in the orchard from the time open hunting was declared, the year that Hollis left. Six hundred and fifty-two foxes were killed in a single season. Boys hung fox tails from the handlebars of their bicycles and Hal Perry, who owns the Lyon Cafe, offered a free draft and a photograph taken and hung on the wall to anyone who brought in two pelts in the same day. Every once in a while, a fox is sighted and people get all fired up; the story always gets printed up in The Bugle, and for a night or two, the rabbits may tremble, but the very next evening theyre back, fearless as ever.

Tonight, for instance, theres a rabbit calmly chewing chives, who doesnt budge when March comes out of the house. Sister starts barking and tugs at the leash. When the dog realizes it cant get to the rabbit, it sits down and whines. The dog sounds pitiful, and so March. whos been cooped up all day and now feels light-headed just thinking about Hollis, docs something she really shouldnt. She reaches down and unclasps Sisters leash. Sister looks up at March, then takes off after the rabbit, who darts into a thicket of wild raspberries.

Looking up, March feels as though shes never seen the moon before, or at least, not for a very long time. She walks along the road a bit, but its only when she reaches the crest of the hill that she sees a truck pulled over onto the side of the road. March holds the dogs leash in one hand. She can still hear Sister running after the rabbit. She can hear branches snapping in the woods.

Hollis would never sit in a beat-up old truck with the headlights turned out. He would never come to her like this. Hed wait for her; he always did. It must be a stranger parked there, and knowing shes being watched makes March turn and hurry back into the yard. Sister is already up on the porch, yipping to be let in. It wont be until tomorrow that March will find the rabbit on the far side of the garden, its neck bitten through by the terriers sharp teeth. Thats when shell have the nerve to walk up and inspect the roadside, but of course in the morning the truck will be gone, and there wont be a single sign to show that hes ever been here, except for the tire tracks which lead directly to Guardian Farm.


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