On Saturday morning, Gwen hurries to meet Hank at the coffee shop, so rushed for time that she forgets to touch the Founder’s knee for luck as she runs past the statue. Hank left a note taped to Tarot’s stall for her to find when she went to feed and groom the horse earlier, inviting her to meet him for breakfast.
He’s at a rear booth, and Gwen tosses herself into the seat across from him. “What’s the occasion?” She grins. “Is it your treat?”
“For once.” Hank hands her a menu. “He’s actually paying me to do some work, so I figured I’d take you out.”
Gwen notices then, there’s a cardboard box on the floor beside the booth. Inside are cans of paint and rollers.
“He’s fixing up the house,” Hank explains.
“Mr. Cheapskate? Hard to believe.” Gwen peruses her menu. “Ooh,” she says. “Banana-nut pancakes.”
“He wants to impress someone.”
Gwen puts her menu down. This is more than a date for breakfast. Hank has something he wants to tell her. “My mother?”
Hank nods, then orders for them both when Alison Hartwig, their waitress, comes over.
“He wants your mom to move in with him,” Hank says when the waitress moves on. “He’s planning on it.”
“She won’t.” Gwen sounds sure of herself, but she has a funny feeling in her stomach.
“I’m painting the upstairs bedroom today,” Hank says. “Linen white.”
“Fuck him,” Gwen says.
“Yeah, well,” Hank murmurs, torn between the two of them.
“I’m glad you warned me,” Gwen tells him.
Of course she can’t eat when their food is served; the idea of living in Hollis’s house makes her completely sick. She wanders through town when Hank goes back to finish painting, and sits on a bench in the town square beneath the bare linden trees. She has the feeling that she’s on a train that’s going full speed, and whether she stays on board or jumps off doesn’t matter. Either way, she’ll crash.
When Gwen gets back to Fox Hill in the afternoon, she finds her mother working at the kitchen table. It’s cold in the house, and March is wearing two sweaters and two pairs of wool socks as she sets flat pieces of turquoise into a bracelet she plans to use as a sample piece at the crafts store in the village, and perhaps show to some jewelry stores down in Boston.
“It is freezing in here,” Gwen says. She keeps her ski jacket on and zipped.
“I know. Something’s wrong with the heat. Hollis came over to check it out, and the whole system may need to be replaced.”
He probably broke it himself, Gwen thinks. Just the first of many good reasons for them to move in with him. “Maybe I should call that guy Ken and see if he can fix it,” she suggests.
“No, don’t,” March says. “Hollis thinks Ken charges too much. He’ll fix it himself.”
Gwen bets he’ll do precisely that. He’ll fix it so they’ll freeze to death in their beds if they stay.
“We’re happy here, aren’t we?” Gwen asks suddenly.
“Of course we are,” March answers, startled by her daughter’s serious tone. “We’re fine,” she insists.
Funny that Gwen asks if they are happy in this house; Hollis, after all, has been trying to convince March to move in with him. It makes sense of course, and yet she’s hesitated. Mostly, it’s true, because of Gwen, the same reason she hesitated all those years ago, in her garden. Maybe she hasn’t been the best mother lately, maybe she’s been thoughtless and selfish, but she still knows right from wrong. Or would it be so wrong to move in with him? Wouldn’t it be more honest? More up-front?
Today when Hollis came to look at the oil burner, he didn’t have time to stay. He told March he was fixing up the house at Guardian Farm, that she’s certain to change her mind, and that he was, at that very moment, expecting a stonemason to arrive at his door. Already, he’s had a cleaning service come out from the village to vacuum the rugs and wash the windows and polish all that old furniture Annabeth Cooper bought in New York. He even sent the dogs to the kennel to be bathed, and when they returned their clean coats were so red it was easy to understand how those rumors insisting they’d been bred from foxes had first begun. The refrigerator has been stocked with cream and salmon, fresh fruit and juices. Hollis hired Dr. Henderson’s youngest daughter, Miranda, who runs a catering service, to bring him a month’s supply of dinners that can be kept frozen until needed.
In truth, those dinners aren’t all Hollis plans to freeze. He has removed the thermal coupling from the oil burner in the basement of the house on Fox Hill. No big deal, he merely wants to cut off the heating output and help make the place more unattractive. It’s his house, and he would be well within his rights to insist that March move out, but he wants her to come to him of her own free will. Sometimes, however, free will requires a little intervention. Which is why Hollis is waiting at the barn the next morning when Gwen arrives. It is five-thirty when she gets there and she hasn’t slept well; she doesn’t even sense Hollis’s presence until she’s already given fresh water to Tarot, as well as to Geronimo and that stupid pony who always tries to bite her.
“What are you doing here?” Gwen asks when she notices Hollis in a comer.
“I own the place,” Hollis says. “After all.”
Gwen can’t help but note how restless Tarot is with Hollis in sight. As soon as Hollis approaches, Tarot kicks at the wall.
“Kind of a waste to keep this old man,” Hollis says. The contempt in his voice makes Gwen take a step closer to Tarot. Hollis and the horse are staring at each other. “Every once in a while I think about putting him out of his misery.”
Gwen feels a chill. She can recognize a threat.
“He’s not in misery,” Gwen says.
“I’ve been thinking that we could help each other out. You and me. Believe it or not.”
“Really?” Gwen’s throat is dry. He wants her to become an accomplice to something.
“I’d like your mother to move in with me, and I don’t want you to screw it up.” Like the last time, that’s what Hollis is thinking. When you fucked up our plans without even being born. “In fact, I want you to think it’s a great idea.”
“Good luck,” Gwen says. “Because that’s never going to happen.”
Gwen is totally freezing, but she couldn’t leave if she wanted to. Hollis is blocking her way, standing in the doorway of the barn. There’s a lamp right above him that casts a particularly harsh light. At this hour, he looks his age; he looks like an old man himself. He’s the one who should be put out of his misery.
“All you have to do is be positive. Tell your mother you want to move. In return, I won’t shoot him.”
Gwen takes a deep breath. She hopes she can bluff him. “Not good enough.”
Hollis stares straight at her.
“I want the horse,” Gwen tells him.
Hollis laughs at that.
“I mean it. I want it on paper. A legal document that says I’m the owner.”
Hollis can’t help but smile. She’s smarter than he would have guessed. Too bad she has no idea who she’s dealing with.
“Fine,” Hollis says. “My lawyers will draw up the transfer of ownership. I’ll have it to you by next week.”
“Fine,” Gwen agrees, hoping only that she won’t start to cry until she gets out of there. When she leaves, she runs. She’s done it. Tarot is hers. She runs and she runs, but it seems to take forever to get away. She feels as if she’s done a terrible thing, selling out her own mother for a horse, but she’s done it, and she’s not going to cry about it, at least not for long.
By the end of the week, they’re ready to move. They have so few possessions the old Toyota’s rear seat is not even filled. Like explorers in the New World, they travel light. Hank is waiting for them over at Guardian Farm, to help unload the car.
“I painted your room blue,” he tells Gwen. It’s the little room off the kitchen, which Hollis won’t be using anymore.
“Thanks,” Gwen says, gathering together her school-books. “But I would have preferred you bombed it.”
Gwen reaches for Sister, who’s in a panic. The red dogs are all barking, and although the terrier yips right back, it’s hiding behind a box of shoes and clothes.
“Come on,” Gwen says to the dog. “Be prepared to enter hell.” She shoos away the annoying mutts and carries Sister up to the house.
While March unloads the trunk, Hollis comes up behind her and circles his arms around her waist. March can feel the heat from his body, even in places where he isn’t touching her. Funny, but she’s thinking about the lemon tree in her backyard at home. She’s thinking about the sound of gunfire all those years ago when the hunting ban was lifted; how you could find a trail of blood every time you went for a walk in the woods.
Hollis kisses the back of her neck and holds her against him.
“You’re not going to regret this,” he tells her, and March lets herself sink back against him.
When she follows Hollis up to the door, March doesn’t dwell on how empty the house on Fox Hill looked when they left. She doesn’t let herself get all caught up in guilt about how Richard will react when he comes home tonight and finds her message on his answering machine: She and Gwen will no longer be at the same number. Her words replayed on his machine will be calm, but there is no way to disguise their new phone number. It is, after all, one Richard has memorized; it was his when he lived at Guardian Farm.
There are lace curtains on all the windows in the bedroom where Mr. and Mrs. Cooper used to sleep, and the fresh white paint Hank hurried to finish on time is luminous in daylight. But daylight is not what matters here. They have their meals at the old kitchen table, they go about their business, but all the while, March is looking out the window, waiting for dusk, when she can go upstairs with Hollis. The blue satin duvet cover on the quilt is one Annabeth Cooper ordered from France, hand-stitched and amazingly silky beneath the skin, and the bed is larger than the old wooden bed March has at home.
On this bed, you dream things you can’t discuss with anyone. Nights last longer on this bed; they begin before a suitcase is unpacked, before dinner is served, before morning, before noon. Always, she dreams she is falling and there’s no way to stop. It’s dream fucking that goes on here, the kind that overtakes you so that you don’t bother to lock the door or make certain the window shades are pulled down. It’s the kind of fucking that makes you cry out loud, makes you beg, then dissolve, that urges you to do what you’ve never done before. If someone knows you inside out, he knows when to start and when to stop. Don’t think about the other women he’s been with. Don’t care if these women have felt absolutely certain they were the only ones, if he’s told them he’s never had it so good, not like this; if he’s done it again and again. You know it’s always been you, that’s what he tells you, and that’s what you believe. It’s the way it was, isn’t it, when you were so young the future seemed limitless, and it was impossible to tell where you ended and he began.
Don’t think about the crows calling from the trees, or the sound of the front door slamming. What does it matter anyway? Let the dogs bark; let the hours pass by. It’s all a dream, and it’s yours, and it always will be. Give in to it, that’s what he whispers. Don’t bother bathing or combing your hair. Just do what he tells you, do it all night; go down on your knees and do it the way he likes it. Let it last an eternity, because, in all honesty, there’s no going back. Doors have been shut, suitcases unpacked; days have come and gone and you’re still here.
In the mornings, when March goes downstairs to make coffee, she doesn’t say much. If she sees Hank or Gwen before they leave for school, she might offer to fix breakfast; she might stand at the window to wave goodbye, but her attention is limited. She cannot make sense of Gwen and Hank’s conversations, or maybe she just doesn’t want to. She stays in the dream. She used to be so orderly, but now she has to hand-wash her underwear, since she’s run out of clothes. She’s lost count of what day it is; she hasn’t even bothered to change the sheets on their bed. And yet, she’s convinced she needn’t worry. Outside, there is wind and dreadful weather, but it can’t hurt her. He’ll tell her what to do and what to think, and after a while, if she stays here long enough, what to dream as well.
Since they’ve moved in, Gwen is the one who never sleeps. If she does happen to nap for a short time, she never has dreams, only black pools of unconsciousness. In the little bedroom painted blue, Gwen is camped out like a woman at war, ready to move on to the next battleground. She keeps her clothes in her backpack and her other belongings-books and makeup, even her alarm clock-in an orange crate beside the bed. She sleeps fully dressed on top of her blanket. There are circles under her eyes, and in only a few days, she’s had so many cigarettes behind her closed door that the room stinks of smoke in spite of the recent coat of paint. Sister is holed up in the room with Gwen; the terrier only goes outside to pee, and even then Sister continually growls at the band of red dogs, who are far too curious and ill-mannered.
As it’s turned out, this place is hell. Oh, Gwen would have said to Minnie, her old friend, if they were still talking, what have I done to deserve this? Chris and Lori think she’s so damned lucky, to be living in the same house as her boyfriend. Wouldn’t they love to be in her shoes? Well, as implausible as it might seem, not only have Gwen and Hank not taken advantage of the situation-in spite of how easy it would be to sneak into each other’s bedrooms-Gwen has not even kissed Hank, not once, since she moved in. It’s not that Gwen doesn’t love him any longer, she does, more than ever. But she wants something pure. She wants the opposite of what her mother has, and, Gwen is well aware of what that is.
She hears them going at it, upstairs, on the other side of the house. At first she thought she was imagining the sounds. Shouldn’t it be impossible to hear in a house as grand as this? Shouldn’t the plaster walls be well insulated? Shouldn’t there be some privacy? But she hears them, each and every night. Her mother’s cries of ardor. His disgusting noises. When she can’t stand it anymore, she gets out of bed and goes outside. She lets the screen door close behind her, but Sister usually noses the door open to chase after her. The nights are now so cold that all breath becomes smoke. In the barn, Gwen checks to make sure the horses’ water hasn’t turned to ice. She pats Tarot, and he nudges her sleepily, snuffling at her pockets for sugar. Sister hates horses, but despises the red dogs stretched out in the driveway even more, so the terrier follows Gwen into Tarot’s stall. When Gwen pulls up a stool, so she can sit down and have a cigarette, Sister lies at her feet.
“Poor Sister,” Gwen says to the dog, who wags its tail at the cadence of a friendly human voice. “You’re not the bitch you once were, are you?”
There are pieces of straw in the dog’s fur, and the creature flinches whenever Tarot shudders in his sleep. Tarot’s lungs are watery and old and he makes a rushing sound when he breathes out. For two weeks running, Hollis has sworn that the purchase agreement will arrive at the end of the week, but Gwen is starting to get nervous. As soon as she finally does get ownership, she plans to get a safety-deposit box at the bank so she’ll never lose the papers. She runs her hand over the horse’s soft nose. She has the strongest sense that she needs to keep him safe, and for some reason, this gives her courage. When she has legal ownership, she’ll leave. That’s what she’s decided, and although she hasn’t had the heart to tell Hank, she believes that he knows. It’s the way he watches her, as if she were already gone.
When Gwen can’t keep her eyes open any longer, she carries Sister out of the stall and closes up behind her. There’s a light on in the kitchen, and relief washes over Gwen. Hank has been waiting up for her with a fresh pot of coffee. They sit in silence. at two in the morning, as if they were an old married couple, drinking coffee and holding hands. They’re trapped by circumstance. They can feel their situation chipping away at what they might have had.
Hank knows that if it weren’t for the horse, Gwen would have already left. Her intention to leave Hank behind is not because she doesn’t love him; it’s because she knows he can take care of himself. On this night, however, they don’t talk about how their future is unraveling; they don’t think about all they have to lose. They go into that small bedroom off the kitchen and curl up together on the single bed, on top of the woolen blanket, arms entwined. If she could, Gwen would whisper that she loved him. If he could, he would vow that everything would turn out right. But that’s not the way things are now, and they both know it. That’s not the way things are at all.