Everyone saw March and Hollis together on Halloween night. They’re common knowledge now, discussed in the deli aisle of the Red Apple market and in the reading room at the library. They were sitting beside each other all through their dinner at Dimitri’s, not across from one another like normal, civilized people. The waitress over there, Regina Gordon, doesn’t like to tell tales, but honestly, they couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. They were practically doing it right there at the table, and several customers noticed when he reached his hand under her sweater. Why they had bothered to go out to dinner at all was a mystery to Regina, since it was clear all they wanted was each other.
Ed Milton is the one who finally informs Susanna Justice of her friend’s affair. He tells Susie right after they make love, at her place, a cottage so small he can talk to her from bed while she fixes them hot fudge sundaes. Susie’s dogs, Chester, the golden Lab, and Duffy, the black one, watch her every move, drooling onto her bare feet.
“Bullshit,” Susie says when he tells her about Hollis and March. “I’d be the first to know.”
“Well, you’re probably the three hundredth to know,” Ed informs her. He’s a big, good-looking man who moved up here from New York City, and his only complaint about small-town life is that there isn’t a decent bagel or a good cup of cappuccino to be found. He misses his daughter, an ill-tempered twelve-year-old, who comes up from New York for one weekend a month, legal holidays, and all of July. Ed has great blue eyes, and he cries at sad movies-God, even Susie’s dogs are wild about him. If she let herself, Susie could get involved with him. And this is the reason she’s ready to argue whenever she has a chance-to ward off anything deeper than what they already have.
“You know what I’m going to do?” Susie says, half in jest. “I’ll call them both and get the real story.”
Ed gets out of bed and stands between Susie and the phone. He’s one of the few men Susie has known who look better without clothes than with them.
“Stay out of it,” Ed says. “That guy is trouble.”
The hot fudge is ready, but Susie doesn’t bother with it, even though the ice cream she’s scooped has started to melt. “You sound like you know something.”
“I’ve heard rumors, that’s all.” Already, he’s starting to back off. This often happens when Susie is reporting on local issues, whenever a source realizes he’s said too much. “It’s your friend’s business, not yours,” Ed adds. “Besides”-he really did have a great smile-“love is strange.”
Susie has always wondered where Hollis was during those years he was away, but nobody else has ever seemed interested. Out making money, people usually joked. Or, I don’t know, but when you find out tell me-I’d like to be as rich as that bastard.
Susie finds herself thinking about Hollis all that day, and into the next. She’s got him so much on the brain, in spite of how she dislikes him, that she ignores her daily chores to focus on him instead. He’s like some terrible puzzle, made up of equal parts flattery and contempt, and she’s still trying to figure what bothers her most about him-the way he’s manipulated the town fathers, with his wisely placed donations that have allowed him to buy up and redistrict most of Main Street, or the way he’s maneuvered March back into his life-when she pulls up to her parents’ house the following evening. It’s a Wednesday, the night when Louise Justice roasts her famous rosemary chicken. Susie kisses her father hello, then goes into the kitchen, to watch her mother cook. She steals bits and pieces from the salad on the counter, then gets herself a cold beer.
“Hear any good gossip lately?” she asks her mother.
Louise has begun to fix plates of chicken and rice. “What are you after?” she asks drolly. “A good murder? Financial ruin?”
“Love,” Susie says. “Or maybe it’s more like insanity. I’ve been hearing all sorts of things about March.”
Louise Justice spoons out the snap beans. When she’s upset her hands always shake slightly, as they do now. “Tell March she’s making a mistake,” Louise says. “He’s not worth it.”
“Geez,” Susie exclaims. “Did everyone in town know about this before I did?”
“Maybe you didn’t want to know.”
This statement from her mother brings Susie up short. Louise is right, of course. It’s simply that Susie had no idea that her mother could be so insightful.
“You seem extremely sure that March is making a mistake,” Susie says now.
They’ve brought the plates over to the table; any minute the Judge will come in from his study.
Again, Susie is surprised, this time by her mother’s certainty.
“For one thing,” Louise says, “he killed Belinda.”
“What?” Susie says. She tilts her head to search her mother’s expression so quickly she can feel the vertebrae in her neck pop.
Louise has gone to get a glass of club soda for the Judge, which he always takes with a slice of lemon. Susie follows on her heels.
“Do you have any proof of that?” Susie’s adrenaline is going like crazy. She is a reporter, after all, even if it’s only for The Bugle.
“If I had the proof, don’t you think I would have gone to the police?” Louise pours a glass of club soda for Susie as well. A good thing because Susie’s mouth is now parched; as dry as dust. “But I don’t need proof. I know. He did it.”
Louise’s hands are shaking badly as she returns the club soda to the refrigerator, but thankfully Susie doesn’t see. Louise has always kept her suspicions to herself, which hasn’t been easy, and which, she now realizes, was a mistake. People used to do more of that-look the other way-and Louise is as guilty as anyone else. The last time she saw Belinda was almost twelve years ago, only a few months before she died. They were both on the board of the Library Association back then, and there had been a meeting to discuss the coming year’s cultural series. It was late when the meeting finally ended-Harriet Laughton had chosen to be difficult, insisting that her son, a rather boring botanist, be asked to lecture-and people were hurrying to get home. Louise was on her way to her parked car, when she noticed Belinda headed for her truck. It was a bitter, windy night, and the shutters which framed the library windows were banging against the bricks. Belinda was carrying an armful of papers and proposals, since she was then the association secretary.
“What a meeting,” Louise said as she approached Belinda from what must have been her blind side.
Belinda was so startled that she dropped her pile of papers.
“I’m so sorry,” Louise had said.
“It’s nothing.” Belinda was always polite; she’d been carefully trained by her mother, Annabeth. Why, you could probably wake her in the middle of the night and she would say please and thank you. “I got spooked.” Belinda smiled gamely.
“Well, it’s that kind of night,” Louise had granted.
They’d both crouched down to gather the notes and proposals and that was when Belinda’s sweater was pushed up above her forearm. She quickly tugged her sleeve back down, but it was too late. Louise had seen the line of bruises.
“I need iron tablets,” Belinda had declared. “Anemia’s the problem.”
Once they’d gathered the papers, they both stood up. Louise remembers the chill she felt down her spine. Something is not right, she was thinking. She recalled seeing other bruises; although Belinda had the sort of pale, freckled skin which was susceptible to chafing and injury, there were too many instances when she’d been hurt. At a meeting the month before, Louise had noticed a mark in the shape of a butterfly on Belinda’s cheek. The little boy, Cooper, had hit her with a toy truck, by accident, or at least that had been the explanation. When she sprained her wrist, and Harriet Laughton asked how it had happened, Belinda said her horse had bumped against her, and all that summer her wrist continued to pain her as she took the minutes for the association’s meeting. Belinda had taken to wearing long-sleeved shirts in August; she had stopped looking her friends in the eye. All at once, in that parking lot, Louise was certain that she knew what the problem was, and what it had been all along. It’s him.
“Well,” Susie Justice informs Louise after hearing this story. “You have no proof whatsoever. Maybe she did need iron. Maybe she really was anemic, and bruised easily.”
“All right,” Louise says, as she goes to call the Judge in for dinner. “Fine. Think what you want to think.”
“Mom,” Susie says, following after. “You can’t know for sure.”
“There was the imprint of a hand on her arm. It might not have been clear, but I saw it. Do you want me to believe she did that to herself?” They can hear the Judge’s footsteps on the stairs. “I know Hollis did that to her.”
All through the meal, that story of Belinda nags at Susie, and when she leaves, she doesn’t go straight home, but heads for Fox Hill instead. The trees wave their branches at her; the last leaves are falling, so many that Susie has to switch on her windshield wipers. Pulling up in front of her friend’s house, Susie continues to have a sinking feeling. She should probably go home and mind her own business; only a fool listens to unfounded denunciations. After all, she wouldn’t take one person’s version of an incident if she were writing an article for The Bugle. But that one person is her mother, and Susie can’t shake the feeling that Louise is right.
Susanna Justice is so deep in thought that she doesn’t hear Gwen approach until the girl knocks on her window.
“Jesus, you scared me.” Susie laughs. She swings her door open and gets out. Gwen has been walking Mrs. Dale’s little terrier. “Is it a pain for you to have to take care of Judith’s dog?” Susie asks as they head for the house.
“Sister’s okay,” Gwen says. She bends down and unclasps the terrier’s leash once they’re inside the hallway, then pats the dog on the head. “My mom’s not here.”
“Oh?” Susie says, taking off her coat anyway.
“She probably won’t be back for a while,” Gwen says. “She’s out with you.”
“Ouch,” Susie says, following Gwen into the kitchen. “Sorry.” She accepts the Diet Coke Gwen offers. “I hope I had a good time. Where was I, anyway?”
“She said you and she were going to a restaurant down in Boston. French and Cuban. You read about it in The Globe.” Gwen gets some ice for their sodas. “My mother is getting to be a really good liar. She knows I know, but she won’t admit anything. They’re really good friends. They grew up together. I’m supposed to fall for that.”
“If it makes you feel any better,” Susie says, “she hasn’t told me about Hollis either.”
“It doesn’t make me feel any better. But thanks for trying.”
Gwen goes to the sink and spills out her soda. This morning, when she went to the Farm to take Tarot out to the fields, Hollis was leaving his house. When he saw her, he stopped in the driveway and stared, his distaste perfectly evident. He hates her, that much is obvious. He wishes she didn’t exist. It’s a bother to have March be concerned about a thankless daughter, but there’s more-Gwen realized this when she came home and caught sight of herself in the mirror. She could see how much she resembles her father, in the angle of her cheekbones, her thin, long nose, the set of her jaw. Those are his blue eyes which look back at her from the glass, pale as the sky.
Gwen has been phoning her father nearly every evening. They talk about the weather, about frost and rain, daylight and current constellations. They talk about the field trips he’s been taking with his graduate students, the latest up to Oregon in search of Psoid beetles, which are decimating some orchards in that area. They discuss Gwen’s schoolwork and joke about the decrepit tomcat who lives in their garage and eats the tins of food they leave out for him, but coolly pretends not to know them. They speak of anything and everything, except what is happening to their family. They manage, however, to talk around it.
Are you happy there? her father has asked Gwen in a puzzled tone. Do you want to stay? Do you want to come home? How is your mother? he asks, always.
She lies to her father. Apparently lying must run in their blood, because it’s getting easier for Gwen as well. Don’t worry, we’ll be home soon. Definitely by Thanksgiving. That’s what she says, when in fact she knows her mother has already accepted Louise Justice’s invitation for the holiday. What should she tell him? That she wants to stay on as much as her mother does? That the boy she’s crazy about is her first cousin?
Yesterday when Gwen spoke with her father, she had an idea that he knew what was happening in spite of her lies. He listened, all right, but when she was done telling him how they’d be back before long, he asked if he should come see them. He could get reservations and be there by tomorrow, or the next day, or early the following week.
Gwen thought about the look on her mother’s face that time she saw her kissing Hollis in his parked truck. She thought about the way her mother’s eyes had closed, and how she’d arched her neck.
“I don’t think so, Dad,” she said to her father. “This might not be a good time.”
Tonight, Gwen goes to her room at ten-thirty, to bed she says, but really to phone her father, and after that, to call Hank. She leaves Susie waiting in the kitchen, and she can’t help but feel a tinge of satisfaction when she thinks how surprised her mother will be to find good old Susie parked in their house. It’s nearly midnight by the time March does get home. There’s a full moon out, and frost on all the fields. March lets herself in the door quietly, but the damned dog barks to greet her.
“Be quiet,” March tells Sister.
March’s face is flushed from the cold. They’ve stopped checking into that awful motel, and have begun to go to that funny little room off the kitchen March never even knew existed when she used to visit the Coopers. The room must have been meant for a maid or a cook; maybe it was Antsy-the cook responsible for all those delicious meals-who lived there. It’s a dingy, chilly place, but that doesn’t stop them any more than the knowledge that Hank is upstairs finishing his homework.
It has come to this: They don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves. It’s true, so March will just have to admit it. It’s always been this way when they’re together, and it’s happening all over again. Why, at this point March isn’t even certain she exists without Hollis. When she leaves their bed, in an attempt to get home and pretend to her daughter that their lives are still normal, that’s the time when she feels as if she’s entered into a dream. Everything seems gray and she’s unsteady on her own, as if a strong wind could tip her over. If she stopped to think about what she was doing, she wouldn’t believe it. Less than an hour ago, while Hank was studying for a math exam, and her daughter was left alone with a lie, March was down on her knees in that small room off the kitchen, not caring about anything but pleasing Hollis. The floor is old pine, and rotting, and now March feels tiny splinters in her palms and her knees. Hollis is a different kind of lover than he used to be. He was always sure of himself, but now he wants to be completely in control, and March doesn’t fight that. In a way, it’s a relief. March doesn’t have to think when she’s with him, or make a decision, or state a preference. She can tell, from the way he touches her, that he’s been with a lot of women, too many, but she’s the one he wants, and she always has been, and that alone makes her forget all reason.
“Stop it,” March whispers to the dog when it jumps up to greet her.
Susanna Justice has been standing in the hallway, watching as March gingerly removes her boots.
“Good Lord,” March says, clutching at her chest. She’s wearing jeans and a pale blue sweater Judith Dale sent as a birthday gift years ago. “You almost gave me a heart attack.”
“Here’s the thing I’m upset about. Why is it that everyone in town knew about it before I did?”
“Knew what? That I was having a heart attack?” March takes her coat off and hangs it in the closet. By now, every word she says feels like a lie.
“That’s not what you’re having,” Susie says.
So, March sees that Susie still has the annoying habit of judging others.
“Whatever I’m doing is my business.”
“Don’t you realize everyone is talking about you? Your love life is the main topic of conversation in town.”
“And have you been defending me?” March says, with a bitter edge.
“I defended you to your daughter. Sort of.”
“Oh, shit.” March’s cheeks are now flushed bright pink. “I told her I was out with you.”
“Do you think she’s an idiot?”
“Do you think I am?” March says.
They both grin at that notion.
“I think you’re insane,” Susie hastens to add.
March’s grin widens, the big smile of someone who no longer cares about sanity.
“I’m serious,” Susie says.
“Overly so,” March agrees.
March insists on making some tea; once they’re in the kitchen, she fills the kettle, sets it on the stove, then grabs a bag of chocolate chip cookies and brings them to the table.
“You don’t know the things people say about Hollis, March.”
“Please.” March bites off half a cookie. “They’ve always disliked him.”
“I’m not talking about silly remarks about how he made his money.” It’s all so unsubstantiated Susie knows she shouldn’t say more. As a reporter she should kick herself for passing on unfounded suspicions, but this is her oldest friend. In good conscience, she can’t keep her mouth shut. “My mother thinks he may have had something to do with Belinda’s death.”
March looks at Susie, wide-eyed. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
“Well, I’m not. She told me so at dinner.”
“It’s ridiculous. Does she have any proof? Did the police ever suspect Belinda’s death was anything but normal?”
“My mom saw bruises on her.”
“Come on. And for all these years your mother never said anything? And what if she did see a bruise? For all we know, Belinda could have had a boyfriend on the side who beat her.”
“So you think she might have been beaten?”
“I think people hate Hollis-your mother included-just because he won’t put up with their bullshit. Can you understand why he’s so suspicious of everyone?”
Susie bites into a cookie. Louise Justice doesn’t usually make false accusations, and Susie still feels something grating at her. “I’m worried,” she says.
“You’re always worried.”
“I still wish you would have told me,” Susie says.
“Well, I would’ve.” March grins. “But I thought you’d disapprove.”
They both laugh. No one, after all, could disapprove more.
“Stop worrying about me,” March says. “You don’t have to.”
A friend is someone you tell the truth to, but Susie stops herself from doing that because the truth is, she’s not going to quit worrying.
“I wish I could be happy for you,” Susie says later, after they’ve finished their tea, along with the entire bag of cookies.
“Try to be,” March says, as she walks Susie to the door, then out to the porch.
March throws her arms around her old friend, and they stand there for a while, even though the weather has taken a turn and is much colder than had been predicted. All along the stone fences, the bittersweet berries have become orange. People will soon be covering their beds with their heaviest quilts, their warmest blankets. Cats won’t be forced out for the night, and those people in town who take their dogs for a late walk will see their breath form into clouds. Susie Justice will have to clear the frost off her windshield with the palm of her hand before she gets into her truck. As she drives away, she’ll roll down her window. She’ll bite her tongue and say no more; she’ll simply wave to March, who’s out there on the porch, dressed only in her jeans and her sweater, with no coat and no gloves and no protection from the cold.