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2

He arrived like a bundle of mail, on a gray and windy day. March remembers it perfectly well: It was a Saturday and her father had been away for nearly a week, at a conference in Boston. For much of that time March had been slightly ill. with a low-grade fever and sniffles, and Mrs. Dale had kept her supplied with orange juice and mint tea. March had woken late that day, something she rarely did at the age of eleven, when it seemed that the whole world was right out in front of her, waiting and ready for her alone.

On that Saturday, Marchs brother, Alan, normally the late sleeper in the family, was already in the kitchen drinking coffee when March traipsed in, searching for breakfast. Alan, who was ten years older than March, had graduated from Boston University, but he hadnt done well. Hed registered to audit a few courses at Derry Law School, still hoping to follow his father in his profession, something he would never manage to do.

Weve got a boy, Alan said.

No we dont. Even at eleven, March knew that her brother was a braggart, and was careful not to believe much of what he said.

Really, Alan insisted. He had just begun dating Julie, the girl he would later marry, and was more good-natured than usual. He didnt call March an idiot or a moron the way he usually did, or refer to her by her given name, Marcheline, for spite. Dad brought him back from Boston. He found him wandering the streets or something.

Yeah, right, March had said. Liar.

Want to make a bet? Alan said. How about your allowance for the rest of your life?

Judith Dale came in with a basket of laundry she had taken off the line. She wore her hair caught up in those days, and she favored slacks and cardigans, along with peace and quiet.

People cant just get people, March said. Can they? She always turned to Judith to back her up, but now Judith shrugged. She was hazy about details, but she admitted she had made up the guest bedroom with clean sheets and a quilt that was usually stored in the attic.

March went to the window, but she couldnt see a thing. Alan came up behind her, eating a piece of buttered toast and flicking the crumbs from his chest.

Hes right there, Alan said, pointing toward the orchard.

And true enough, there he was, just beyond the gate. He was thirteen and skinny, with long, dark hair that hadnt been washed for weeks.

What a prize, Alan said, with his usual disdain.

The boy must have felt himself being watched, because he suddenly turned and glared at the window. The clouds were thin and wispy that day, blown about by the wind.

When March waved, the boy was so surprised that he just stood there, blinking. March would have laughed at his discomfort if she hadnt realized, all at once, that she did not want to stop looking at him.

Do we get to keep him forever? March could sense, deep inside, that it was better to whisper.

God, I hope not, Alan said.

Out in the orchard, the boy continued to stare at her. The grass hadnt yet been mowed that season and all the daffodils were closed up tight, to protect themselves from unpredictable weather.

Ill take him, March volunteered.

Get serious, Alan had said, but when he walked away March stayed precisely where she was.

I am serious. she said out loud, although there was no longer anyone who could hear her. Nearly thirty years later she can still recall the way those words felt in her mouth, how delicious they were, how absolutely sweet. From now on, hes mine.

Everything she knew about him, she learned from Judith Dale. Hed been an orphan in Boston, so poor hed eaten nothing but crackers and whatever else he could steal. Few people would give him the time of day, let alone a dollar for his supper, but Marchs kindhearted father had brought him home.

And thats all we know? They were sitting out on the porch on a fine, blue day, filling up the bird feeders Judith liked to hang from the chestnut tree. What about his parents? His religion? Does he have brothers and sisters? Are we sure hes thirteen?

You are so nosy, Judith said. His name is Hollis and hes here to stay. Thats all you need to know.

At first, the new boy wouldnt eat dinner-not even when there were lamb chops and asparagus, then strawberries for dessert. He wouldnt look anyone in the eye, including Henry Murray, whom he obviously respected, for Mr. Murray was the one person to whom Hollis didnt talk back. He was certainly fresh enough to most people, but in an edgy, self-contained fashion. It was the way he looked at you that could make you nervous. It was everything he didnt say.

After three months, Hollis was still avoiding them all. The less he revealed, the more interesting March found him. She kept wishing shed run into him, but when she did-once when he was throwing rocks at some invisible target beyond the orchard, and again when they all but crashed into each other in the hall one night en route to the bathroom-she was completely mute in his presence. Since March had always been a great one for talking, this behavior was particularly puzzling.

Speak up, Judith Dale would have to tell March whenever Hollis was near, but March couldnt oblige. She even took to drinking rainwater, which she had overheard Mrs. Hartwig, a matron who worked in the school cafeteria, vow was a sure cure for a tongue-tied child.

Still, Hollis and March hadnt spoken, not even to ask the other for bread and butter at suppertime. And then one day in the summer, she got her wish. It was July, March believes, or maybe the first week of August. At any rate, it was brutally hot and had been for ages. March had been going bare-foot and the soles of her feet were black. She was pouring a glass of Judiths mint iced tea for herself when she saw the dragonfly pass by overhead. It was larger than the ones you usually saw skimming over the flat surface of Olive Tree Lake, and so blue March had to blink. She followed the dragonfly into the living room, where it perched on the drapes, and there was Hollis, in her fathers chair, reading one of Henry Murrays textbooks, a complicated treatise which concerned homicide.

I want to catch that dragonfly, March said.

Hollis stared at her. His eyes were absolutely black. Well, good for you, he finally answered.

The dragonfly was beating its iridescent wings against the fabric of the drapes.

You have to help me. March was amazed at how sure of herself she sounded, and maybe Hollis was as well, because he put his book down and came over to help.

In a panic, the dragonfly tried to get away; it banged into the window glass, and then, truly desperate, twisted itself into the long strands of Marchs hair. March could feel the dragonfly, almost weightless; she could still feel it after Hollis had plucked it from her tangled hair. Hollis shoved the window open and let the dragonfly outside, where it disappeared immediately, as if swallowed by the sky.

Now are you happy? Hollis asked March.

He smelled quite strongly of soap, since Mrs. Dale had insisted he take a shower each day, but also of some other scorching scent, which March would later come to believe was anger.

No. But I will be soon, March told him. She took him into the kitchen and got out two tubs of pistachio ice cream. They consumed a pint apiece, and by the time they were done they were shivering, even though the heat was as sweltering as ever. March can still remember how cold her tongue felt, from all that ice cream.

Youd better stay away from him, Alan warned March. He relayed some ugly rumors: That Hollis had murdered someone and had then been released into their fathers custody. That his mother was a prostitute whod been murdered herself. That March had better lock away what few valuables she had-a silver comb left to her by her mother, and a gold-plated charm bracelet-since Hollis was most definitely a thief.

March knew it was jealousy that drove her brother. When Henry Murray introduced Hollis as his son, Alan always turned pale. Alan had never gotten along with his father, and had disappointed him in every way, and now hed been replaced by someone who hadnt known what shampoo was and still didnt have the faintest idea of how to behave in company. At dinner parties or on holidays, Hollis would sit there reading from one of those miserable law texts, and he wouldnt answer when spoken to; the only people he paid any attention to were Henry Murray and March.

Why dont you go someplace where youre wanted? Alan asked Hollis.

Why dont you shut up? Hollis said right back, and he didnt even bother to look at Alan, who was eight years older and a full-grown man, despite his foolish ways.

Alan took every opportunity to humiliate Hollis. In public, he treated Hollis as though he were a servant; at home he made certain the boy knew he was an outcast. Often, Alan would sneak into Holliss room, where hed do as much damage as possible. He poured calves blood into Holliss bureau drawers, ruining Holliss limited wardrobe, knowing full well Hollis would rather wear the same clothes every day than admit defeat. He left a pile of cow manure in the closet, and by the time Hollis figured out where the stench was coming from, everything Henry Murray had given him, the books and the lamps and the blankets, had been contaminated by the smell.

The kinder Henry Murray was to Hollis, the more bitter Alan grew. During that first winter when Hollis was with them, Henry Murray came home from a conference in New York with gifts for all. He presented March with a thin gold necklace and both boys with beautiful pocketknives, made of steel and mother-of-pearl. Alan had botched his classes at the law school, and now the fact that he and this creature hed had foisted upon him were being treated equally, like brothers in fact, sent him sulking. By the time they sat down for dinner that night, Alan was steaming with rage.

Hes too young for a knife, Alan told his father. Youd never let me have one at his age. He cant be trusted with it.

Youll be fine, Henry Murray said warmly, ignoring Alan in order to address Hollis, who sat to his left.

God, you are blind, Alan proclaimed. It was Judith Dales day off, but she had left them their dinner. They were having roast chicken and potatoes and green beans, but now Alan pushed his plate away, upsetting his water glass. No one in his right mind would give him a weapon. You have to be crazy.

If there was one thing Henry Murray couldnt stand, it was a man who was not fair, and that was what his son seemed to be. Hollis said nothing in his own defense, and thats what March couldnt bear to see: The way he wouldnt meet anyones eyes. The way he seemed to fold up inside himself, going farther and farther inside, until the part of him having dinner at their table was only the smallest comer of his soul.

Shut up, Alan, March said. Youre the one whos crazy.

March was sitting to her fathers right, and he now put his hand on her arm. I dont want you to talk like that, he told her. Not to Alan. Not to anyone.

Hollis still hadnt touched his food. He was staring at his plate, but March had the sense that he was watching everything. Youre just jealous, she told Alan.

Alan gave a short trumpeting laugh. He nodded toward Hollis. Of that?

Henry Murray put down his knife and his fork. Leave the table, he said.

Me? Alan truly was shocked. You want me to leave?

Come back when you can act decently, Henry Murray said, and it was clear, from his tone, that he didnt expect such an occurrence anytime soon, certainly not that evening.

Alan got up so hastily that his chair fell with a clatter behind him, sideways on the floor. March had been staring at Hollis all this time, so she noticed that he now proceeded to eat his supper. He cut his food carefully; he looked back at her and didnt even blink. March was possessed by the giddiest feeling. She would make Hollis laugh; she would see if she could. She crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out at him.

What do you think youre doing? her father said to her.

March hadnt imagined her father catching her. Nothing, she quickly told him.

When she looked at Hollis, she saw that if she hadnt gotten a laugh out of him, then at least shed gotten a grin.

She wasnt doing anything, Hollis agreed.

Thats good to hear. Henry Murray finally turned his attention to his food. One rude child is more than enough.

Alan should have been too grown-up for games of revenge, he should have set his mind to finding a job or studying for his classes, but after that dinner he went after Hollis wholeheartedly. He waited for the time to be right, and at last, on a cold winter day, when a beautiful light snow was falling, Alan and some of his cronies captured Hollis on the path which led to Olive Tree Lake. Staked out long enough to have ice form around their nostrils, fueled by six-packs of beer, these friends of Alans were ready to beat someone senseless. They tackled Hollis and spat in his face. They held him down and took turns hitting and kicking him, usually in the ribs, carefully aiming with their fists and their boots.

The horizon was gray that day, and crows were circling in the sky. Alan and his friends hit Hollis until his nose and mouth gushed with blood. They wanted him to call for them to stop, to beg for mercy, to cry, but he did none of these things. He closed his eyes, so that he wouldnt accidentally be blinded by one of their punches. He cursed them so deeply inside his mind that his expression revealed nothing. There was blood seeping into the snow, and from the other side of the lake came a droning sound, as Mr. Judson, who owned so much land up there, rode his snowmobile through the woods.

Finally, when they had tired of beating him, Alan and his friends tied Hollis to a tree, where he stayed until dark, never once calling out. When he didnt show up for dinner, Alan took the opportunity to call him irresponsible and thoughtless. When he still hadnt shown up at nine, March went looking for him. By the time she found him, Hollis was burning with fury and embarrassment. March cut the ropes with the mother-of-pearl pocketknife she knew he kept in his pocket, while Hollis kept his face averted.

Dont feel sorry for me, he said when she was through.

There were bloody, red marks on his wrists where theyd tied the knots too tight.

I dont, March had said. and that was the truth. Even then, it was Alan shed felt sorry for; for Hollis she felt something entirely different from pity. I know Alan did this. Tell on him. Ill say I saw it all.

But you didnt, Hollis said. He wiped the blood from his face with the back of his hands, then rubbed snow on his cheeks and hands. His coat had been ripped off, and now he tore at his shirtsleeve. You didnt see this either. He motioned for her to hand back the knife; he took it in his left hand. Quickly, deeply, he cut a long gash up his right arm.

Stop that! March said.

Ignoring the wound hed inflicted, Hollis stood up and threw the ropes Alan and his friends had tied him with as far as he could, so that they disappeared into a distant drift of snow. After that, they walked back home, a trail of blood behind them. Halfway home, Holliss teeth started chattering, even though his coat was thrown over his shoulders; when they reached the front door and were at last safely inside the warm hallway, he collapsed.

Henry Murray drove them to St. Bridgets Hospital, where twenty-three stitches were needed to close up the gash in Holliss arm.

Who did this? Henry Murray demanded to know as he and March sat in the waiting room. Was it Alan?

March stared at the floor and could not bring herself to answer, and this response her father took to be a definitive yes.

That night, Henry Murray informed Alan that if he wished to continue living in his house, he would have to treat Hollis with respect. Moreover, he would have to write a letter of apology, and, out of his own funds, he would have to pay for the hospital bill, along with a new coat, since Holliss had been ruined. Alans knife, of course, was confiscated, in spite of his many denials.

Dont add liar to your list of credentials, Henry Murray said, and after that Alan stopped proclaiming his innocence.

That night, March couldnt sleep. She went to the kitchen for a glass of milk, and on her way back to her room, she stood outside Holliss door, then knocked and pushed the door open. He was in bed, but not yet asleep. March stepped inside and closed the door behind her. She could see by the moonlight reflecting off the snow in the yard. Holliss arm was bound with white cloth.

You know why I had to cut my right arm? Hollis asked. He had carefully thought it out while tied to the tree. So no one would think I did it to myself.

How did you make yourself do it? March asked. She sat on the bed to get a better look at his arm. Didnt it hurt?

Thats a stupid question.

Hollis had that mean edge in his voice, and March might have turned and left, if she hadnt then realized that he was crying. She stretched out beside him, her head on the pillow, while he cried. She stayed there a long time, watching him, and that was how she found out just how much it hurt.

She remained with him until he fell asleep, and although they never spoke of that night, or the fact that she had been there beside him in bed, they became allied in all things. Whenever some schoolmate wanted March to come visit, or if her father insisted she spend time with girls her age-his partners daughter, Susanna, for instance-March suffered through the social engagement, counting the minutes until she could be with Hollis. Sometimes she made excuses, she said she was feverish or sick to her stomach, and she ran all the way home to Fox Hill.

She especially remembers the summer when her father died, when she was fourteen. At night the moon seemed huge, the silver moon of August that rises when the hermit thrush begin to appear in gardens. That year, the peepers in the woods had gone wild. They called from the far-off shores of Olive Tree Lake and from every puddle in the yard. They clambered into the garden, where Judiths mint grew, and sang all night long, a muddy refrain that made it difficult to sleep. Whenever March closed her eyes, she heard the peepers, like a living pulse, the background of hot August nights so black and deep they carry you far from peaceful rest and dreams.

Hollis would already be out there, on the flat part of the roof, whenever she climbed through her window. They had to be quiet, so as not to wake anyone. They kissed with their eyes closed at first, as if that would make for more silence and secrecy. March told no one, not Mrs. Dale whom shed always confided in, or pesky Susanna Justice who always demanded to be apprised of the most intimate details of everything. It was the sort of summer when it was not possible to notice the existence of anyone other than yourself and the one you loved, and so March was doubly stunned when Alan woke her one morning, shaking her by the shoulder, announcing that their father had died.

Although Henry Murray had drawn up hundreds of wills for his clients, he hadnt redrafted his own since before March was born. Alan, therefore, inherited all of Fox Hill. Mrs. Dale stayed on, of course, and Marchs expenses were all paid for, but Hollis was sent to live in the attic. Now Alan had his chance to do as he pleased, and he began by writing up a weekly bill which charged Hollis for board and lodging. It took Hollis two years straight after high school before he could pay Alan Murray back, but he did it. He worked at the bakery on Main Street, putting in a full day before noon, and then headed over to the Olympia racetrack, where he learned that a man had a chance to double his money if he was willing to wager what he already had. On evenings and weekends, he drove a truck for the Department of Public Works, spreading salt on the roads in winter, cutting down branches and gathering trash from Route 22 when the weather was fine.

The weather happened to be exceptionally fine on the day that he left. March would soon graduate from high school, and she remembers that while she and Judith Dale were talking about her future, which seemed completely wide open back then, they had decided to clean the windows, the better to see the gorgeous blue sky. No matter how many possibilities March came up with-college, travel, a job in Boston -all futures included Hollis, that much was certain.

When Hollis came in to announce he had quit all his jobs, he felt he had never before been free. He had worked off his debt to Alan with the help of a gelding named Sandpaper who had run a race with twenty-five-to-one odds at the Olympia track, and who had amazed all bettors, including Hollis, by managing to win. Now, he could walk away, clean and clear, ready to start over. It was the most important day in Holliss life: the moment hed been working toward ever since Henry Murray had died, but March didnt realize this. Lately, Hollis had been working so much shed gotten used to missing him; shed begun to look elsewhere for companionship. She was going next door to the Coopers for dinner; shed become friendly with the daughter, pale red-haired Belinda, and was thinking about nothing more than what she might wear that evening. Her blue dress came to mind, and so she didnt have room to pay as much attention to Hollis as she might have.

Would you rather be there with them or here with me? Hollis demanded to know.

His question had taken her by surprise as she was choosing a pair of earrings from her jewelry case, and she answered too slowly-she must have, because he grabbed her, something hed never done before.

Stop it, she said to him. Hed always been jealous of her friendship with the Coopers, but shed never paid much attention, until now. He was twisting her wrist; as soon as she shook free, she backed away. Leave me alone, she said.

March had never spoken to him this way, and her irritation came as a shock to both of them. It was just that he wanted so much from her; she never had a minute to think.

Are you making a choice? Hollis said to her then.

No, March had spat back, not considering how easily hurt he could be. You are.

It is always a mistake to tell someone, Dont you dare walk out that door, and a far worse mistake to actually cross the threshold and walk out on someone you love. Ever since that day, March has wondered what she could have done differently: Stayed home from the Coopers? Thrown her arms around him? Admitted that all day long shed been planning her future with him? Halfway through dinner, she sensed how wrong shed been; she left and ran all the way home, but it was already too late.

After hed gone, she waited upstairs at her window, day after day, week after week. There were no letters, not even a postcard, and by the time March graduated from high school, she no longer bothered to walk down the drive to check the mailbox. Still, each spring the doves who nested in the chestnut tree in the yard returned, and March took that as a sign of Holliss loyalty and his love. The girls shed gone to school with went off to college, or took jobs in the village, or married boys they loved, but March stayed by her window, and before she knew it the pane of glass had become her universe, the empty road her fate.

After three years, she no longer recognized herself when she looked in the mirror. She wasnt certain how it had happened, but she no longer seemed young. At last, on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, March Murray did not go to her window. She never found out whether or not the doves returned that year to nest in the chestnut tree. She didnt hear the peepers call that spring or smell the mint which grew beside the door. Instead, she packed her suitcase and waited while Mrs. Dale called for a taxi to take her to the airport. Alan had lent March the money for a round-trip ticket to California, but while she was waiting to board, March went into the rest room and tore the return section of the ticket into pieces, then tossed it into the trash.

March had spent a lifetime up in her bedroom, waiting for Hollis, trying to figure out what shed done wrong. Shes spent another lifetime since as a wife and a mother; she is a completely different person now. Here she is, making up the beds in this cold, empty house on Fox Hill where she hasnt been for so long. Her hands are quick as she pulls the clean bed linen over the mattress. It was a young girl who came to this bed, one who cried easily and counted stars instead of sheep on nights when she couldnt sleep. March doesnt cry now; shes far too busy for anything like that. Still, there are mornings when she wakes with tears in her eyes. Thats when she knows shes been dreaming about him. And although she never remembers her dreams, theres always the scent of grass on her pillow, as if the past were something that could come back to you, if you only wished hard enough, if you were brave enough to call out his name.


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