The girl’s knock was so gentle that if Harriet hadn’t been listening she wouldn’t have heard it. The door unlatched; the girl might have walked in, but she didn’t. She cupped her hands around her eyes and pressed her face against the screen. Harriet sat very still. The house was dark, and if she didn’t move, the girl wouldn’t see her. The girl stepped back and looked up at the windows. Harriet wanted to speak, but if she did—if she said one word—then she would have to say all the other words. She’d said them so many times in her head that it would be odd hearing them spoken aloud.
The girl’s car was parked in the sun. It was going to be hot, so hot the girl wouldn’t be able to touch the steering wheel. Harriet had never met the girl, but knew who she was. She knew the moment she heard the gravel popping under the tires, heard the crunch of boots on the drive. The girl walked back to her car. She wasn’t a girl, she was a young woman, but there was girl enough to see what she had been like—tall, with the slight stoop tall girls use to hide their height. Her hair was bleached—in fact the whole girl looked bleached. She reached the car and looked back once before opening the door. “Hello,” Harriet called out from the kitchen window. She heard herself speaking the words. The girl raised a hand and shielded her eyes.
“Were you looking for someone?”
“Bret, Brill, or Constance Banks?”
“Bret and Brill don’t live here anymore. Constance is visiting friends. I’m sorry, you should have called.”
“I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by.” The girl climbed into her car.
“Do you know them from school?” This was Harriet’s first improvisation, the first thing that she said that was unrehearsed.
“No, not from school,” the girl said. “I thought I might catch them in. Sorry to bother you.”
“No bother. Is there a message?”
The girl looked down. Harriet had to smile. They were both being so artless, both pretending not to know who the other was. “I’m just making coffee,” Harriet said. She didn’t want the conversation to end. In her imagination, they had talked longer.
“I don’t drink coffee.”
“Tea then.” Harriet pushed open the screen door.
“What kind of tea?”
“The kind in a bag.”
As the girl wrote, she tapped the chair leg with her boots. The sound of the thick soles on the wood went up Harriet’s spine. The girl stopped writing, stared at the paper and crumpled it into a ball. She walked onto the porch and lit a cigarette. Harriet gathered the teacups and rinsed them in the sink. The smell of the cigarette drifted back into the kitchen mixed with another, sweet smell. “Give up?” Harriet asked.
“I can’t spell at all.”
“They won’t mind.”
“Yes, they will. They’ll think I’m stupid.”
“Keep it simple.”
“Simple words from simple minds.”
“Not at all. Best things are always said simply.”
“You sound like a teacher.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Only a teacher would say something like that.” The girl tipped her head back to look up at the house. “But that can’t be right. What teacher could afford a place like this?”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. The house belonged to my mother.”
“You do all the work?”
“Mostly. Everyone thinks I should sell. I got one offer, but they wanted to pull the house down and divide the property into lots.”
The girl dropped her cigarette and crushed it with her boot. She bent over to pick up the butt and her shirt rode up exposing a black patch on her back, like a birth mark. She studied the crushed butt and pocketed it. There would be no evidence she’d been there but the smear of ash on the flagstones.
“Could I have one of those?” Harriet said.
The girl looked back. “I didn’t take you for the type.” She shook a cigarette out of the pack. “Take two. You’ll want one later.”
“I am a teacher.”
“Must be nice, having the summers off.”
“I like work. My sin is idleness.”
“What do you teach?” The girl flipped open a lighter and struck the flint. “No, let me guess—poetry.”
Harriet bent down to catch the fire. “Why do you say that?”
“You look the part.”
“My clothes—you’ll have to excuse me. I wasn’t expecting company.”
“No, it’s not the clothes.”
The girl put out her hand. “Sylvie.”
Harriet shook Sylvie’s hand. “Harriet. Don’t worry about the spelling, Sylvie.”
The girl wrote half a page and sat back. Her eyes drifted out of focus. It was the first thing she had done that was like her father and it was startling to watch. Harriet would often find him sitting alone with that same far-away look. She left the girl alone to finish, went upstairs and lay on the bed. The room was hot from the day. Harriet opened her blouse and brushed her hand over her stomach. The skin was buttery, like chocolate. She kicked off her shoes and felt the air cool her feet. She lay still. The green man was just outside in the hall. She let him wait. He usually came in after the third vodka, his nails scratching the hardwood floor Harriet’s mother had waxed every spring and protected with hook rugs and rubber casters. The spring on the screen door twanged and the car pulled away, tires popping on the gravel. Harriet waited to feel the green man’s cool breath on her face.
One day, her daughter Constance had come in unannounced and saw her mother laying naked on the bed, drinking. She backed out of the room and closed the door. At dinner she had a funny look on her face. When the funny look was still there at breakfast, Harriet said, “I’m sorry if I shocked you.”
“If you’re lonely, why don’t you get a boyfriend?”
“Why would I want a boyfriend?”
“I mean it’s all right with us. Dad’s gone, we know he’s not coming back.”
“Why does everything have to be all right with you?”
Later, the funny look passed to Harriet’s sons, then to the oldest son’s wife.
The green man wasn’t coming today. The air had the smell of rain. Harriet looked down at the lawn. The grass was brown and bald in patches where there was no shade. The leaves on the maple were curled with heat. They need three good soakings at least. It had been a hard summer.
The colors in the photographs looked like vegetables—the yellows were summer squash, the reds were beets. Bret, Harriet’s oldest son, passed a photo to his wife Debby who handed it to Harriet without giving it a glance. “This is a shot of the glacier from the waterline,” Bret said. The glacier was dirty, like snow pushed into the corner of a parking lot. Harriet had always thought of glaciers as white and clean.
“See any bears?” Brill, Harriet’s middle child, asked.
“No, they migrate north in the summer.” Bret pointed to another picture. “This is a lake on top of the glacier. We took our kayaks up there.” He pointed to a black spot on the water. “There’s Debby.”
“It’s huge,” Constance said.
“Our guide said that if the glacier ever lets go it’ll make a new bay.”
“Weren’t you scared?” Constance asked.
“It only happens every thousand years.”
Harriet picked up the platter from the center of the table. Bret and Debby’s dog had been sniffing around the table.
“Leave it, Mom,” said Constance, yet she didn’t move from the table. Harriet carried the platter into the kitchen and dumped the bones and fish skin into the trash. “Who wants coffee?” she called into the living room.
“I’ll have some,” Debby said. Harriet realized this was the first thing she’d said all evening.
“Make it a quick one,” Bret said. “I want to get home before dark.”
Harriet turned on the water and waited for the steam to rise.
“I just remembered something,” Constance said. “I saw someone in the drive when I was coming back from the store.”
“Someone?” Bret asked.
The dog sniffed at the trash. Harriet edged him away with a foot.
“You mean here,” Bret said, “at the house?”
“Yes. She was parked behind those big bushes we used to use as a clubhouse.”
“Blonde?” Debby asked.
“You’ve seen her?”
“What was she doing?” Bret asked.
“Nothing, just looking at the house.”
Harriet looked out at the clump of boxwoods along the drive. She could see through the leaves to the field beyond.
“Mother?” Bret called into the kitchen. “Do you know anyone with a black car?”
“This girl was young,” said Constance.
“Maybe a student? Mother . . . blonde . . . black car?”
“We have to have those bushes taken out,” Constance said. “Anyone could be sneaking around and we wouldn’t know it.”
“Our ghost,” said Brill. “Remember, we used to say we had a ghost?”
“Ghosts don’t drive cars,” said Constance.
“Why not? They move furniture; they sail ships; they hitchhike.”
“We’ve got to convince her to get out of here,” Bret said. “Some nutcase is going to get a bad grade and come over here to settle the score.”
The sun was at the tops of the trees. The yard was in twilight. This was the hour for ghosts. Sylvie’s car was black and it would be difficult to see no matter how thin the trees got. Harriet felt water on her leg. The sink had filled and was overflowing. She reached her arm through the steaming water and pulled up the stopper. Water slopped onto the floor. The dog sniffed it. Harriet opened the cupboard above the sink for a fresh sponge and saw the packages of green Jell-O lined up in neat rows. She could never see them without thinking of her husband propped up in bed when the nurse changed his drip to full morphine. He’d been eating the Jell-O and as soon as the morphine hit, up it came, bubbling and fluorescent, slipping from between his lips and over the cotton smock onto the steel tray.
“Mother, we’re talking to you,” Constance called out.
The car was different. It was big and tan. It had once had a cloth top but all that remained were bits of glue and ragged fabric. The car didn’t suit the girl. The small black car was her. She lifted a white box from the seat and walked to the house. From above, she was foreshortened, blond hair and bony shoulders. The spring of the screen door twanged, like someone running a fingernail on a piano string. “Hello,” Sylvie called into the kitchen. Harriet tried to pick out the girl’s footsteps from the other sounds of the house—the fan in the attic, the motor of the refrigerator. The screen door creaked again and slammed shut. Harriet looked out the window and saw the girl walking back to her car. “Hello,” Harriet called out. The girl looked up at the windows and shielded her eyes. “Hello, yourself.”
“You missed them again. They were here two days ago.”
“Perfect timing, as always.”
“What happened to your car?”
“You had a black one before.”
“Oh that, it gave up. This one’s borrowed.”
“It was brave coming up here in that thing.”
“No sacrifice too great.”
“You should try Sundays.”
Sylvie leaned against the car and studied her boots.
“Was there something else?” Harriet asked.
“I was hoping you were going to make tea.”
Harriet carried the teacups to the sink while Sylvie studied the chocolates. “Stop me before I eat them all.”
“Don’t worry, it’s not going to show on you.”
“I was going to bring flowers, but that seemed crazy, bringing flowers up here.”
“It was nice of you to think of it.”
“But you can’t eat chocolate.”
“You didn’t know that.”
Sylvie went onto the porch to smoke. She sat on the steps and looked out onto the parched yard. The sunlight rimmed her hair, making it almost too bright to be looked at. She turned her wrist over and watched a daddy longlegs crawl up her arm. Harriet shivered thinking of the insect on Sylvie’s skin. “Sorry I didn’t warn you,” Harriet said. “The steps are plagued with those things.” Sylvie bent down and let the insect crawl back onto the porch. Her shirt rode up and Harriet saw the dark spot again. It wasn’t a birthmark; it was too regular. “What’s all that on your back?”
“No, that mark.”
Sylvie craned her head back. “Souvenir from my old life.”
“Is it a tattoo?”
“Yeah.” Sylvie pulled her shirt up showing more of the mark. “Sometimes I forget it’s there.”
“Funny place for a tattoo.”
“It was against the rules. If I had been caught, I would have lost my privileges.”
“Was your mother very strict?”
“My mother was out of the picture by the time I got this. Did you ever pledge to someone that you’d remember them forever?”
“I’m sure everyone makes promises like that.”
“But they didn’t stick needles in their backs to prove it.”
“You must have been close.”
“It’s funny. We said we’d all be friends for life and as soon as we got out, we got as far away from each other as possible.”
“Was it a reformatory?”
“That’s one word for it.” Sylvie picked at the skin with her fingernail. “The ink’s spreading. I can hardly make it out anymore.”
“What is it?”
“Moon and stars. I was pale so I was called Moon Girl.”
“Why were you there?”
“’Cause I was bad. I took my grandmother’s money and ran away—stupid kid thing.”
“And she couldn’t forgive you?”
“I don’t blame her. She worked hard for that money. It would have been different if I could have given it back.”
“I’m making an omelet for dinner. I can never finish one myself.”
“I should get going.”
“What happened to the money?”
“Hotels, boys, cigarettes. What kind of omelet?”
“One with eggs.”
Sylvie lifted one of the chocolates wrapped in foil and studied it. They had eaten, washed and dried the dishes as if they did it every night. In the kitchen, Sylvie was all business. She didn’t speak. Harriet wondered if it was training from the school. She imagined the matrons watching the girls, waiting for secret signals to be passed. There was a smear of chocolate on Sylvie’s lip. “You’ve got a . . .” Harriet said, and pointed to Sylvie’s lip. She watched Sylvie’s eyes lose focus.
“I’m a liar. I didn’t come to see them—the first time I did, but not this time.”
“Are you afraid of them?”
“I’m afraid of everything.”
Without makeup, Sylvie’s eyebrows and lashes were the same pale color as her skin. “Pick a room,” Harriet said. Sylvie rubbed cream into her hands and Harriet recognized the scent she’d been smelling all day—coconut.
“How many rooms you got?”
“Five—if you include the tuck-away bed in the den.”
“Which is your room?”
“When I was little, I slept up in a dormer room.” Harriet pointed above her head. “After my mother died and we moved back here, I slept here, in her old room—the master bedroom. Now that I’m alone I sleep wherever.”
Harriet nodded at the master bedroom. “When the children visit I sleep here. It’s what they expect.”
Sylvie sat on the bed. “You don’t like it?”
“There’s an ash tree outside the window. I’m told they bring bad dreams.”
“Think I’ll skip this room.”
“Don’t listen to me. It’s got the biggest bed, and it’s closest to the bathroom.”
Sylvie bounced up and down. “Feather bed?”
“It was but we got rid of it.”
“Your father was allergic to feathers.”
Sylvie walked over to the dresser and lifted a snapshot of a man holding up a salmon by the hook of its jaw. She swept her hair away from her face and studied her reflection. “It’s there,” Harriet said.
“Not so much in your face, but your walk, your voice, that place you go when you drift away.” Sylvie put the photograph down and rubbed dust from her fingers. “I’d love to be able to do that. Where do you go?”
“No place special.”
“When I’d ask your father, he’d say the same thing.”
“You miss him?”
“Yes, I miss him. I can’t understand why he did what he did, but I miss him.”
“What did he do?”
“I mean what he did to you, and your mother, and me.”
“He didn’t do anything to me, he gave me life.”
“That’s true, he did that.”
“You had no idea?”
“None. I sat with him for two months—first the hospital, then here—and he never said a word. We had nothing but time, but he never said a thing. Two days after the funeral I was handed a letter by his lawyer. I couldn’t believe he was such a coward.”
“I keep wondering what other secrets he kept from me, things I’ll never know.”
Sylvie tucked her feet up under her. “I used to tell people I had a sister. I wanted one so bad I used to make up stories about her. Everyone knew I was lying.”
“You told your bad girl lies?”
“We only told each other lies.”
“What do you think, now that you really have a sister?”
“At first I was happy. Now I don’t know.”
“They’ve seen you. They haven’t made the connection, but it’s only a matter of time.”
“You didn’t give them my note?”
“They don’t know we’ve met. They think I should hate you—you and your mother. But they don’t know me very well. What’s it like, that place you go to?”
“It’s not like anything.”
“I used to get angry at your father when he’d do it. I suppose I envied him.”
“An apartment, three flights up.”
“A real place?”
“No—at least not a place I’ve ever been to. There’re big windows, lots of light. Across the street, I can see a man practicing a saxophone—don’t laugh.”
“I’m not laughing.”
“He plays a little—then packs up. As he takes the saxophone apart the metal shines on his skin. The case has a green lining.”
“Where’s he going?”
“I don’t know. It’s always that same moment, just before he leaves.”
“Yes, but not hot, nice.”
“Can you hear traffic?”
“I’ve never thought about it before. From now on I’ll hear traffic and think of you.”
“If you want to sleep in this room, I better get you a blanket. It gets chilly here at night.”
“I’m not chasing you out?”
“I told you I never sleep here given a choice. Take the picture.”
“Of course for keeps.”
“I told you I don’t want it anymore. Take it.”
“No, I mean what you’re doing, it’s wrong.”
“What am I doing?”
“Why not be nice?”
“If you’re being nice to be nice, that’s okay. But if you’re doing it to make up for what he did, that’s wrong.” Sylvie’s face collapsed like a pumpkin girl. Harriet crossed the room and held the hard head against her stomach. “Oh, Sylvie, you’re not bad at all.”
Sylvie pushed Harriet away. “Don’t make fun of me.”
“I’m not making fun of you. I wonder how you’ve kept so much that’s good after what you’ve been through. Then I look at your brothers and sister, and the way they are.”
“How are they?”
“They’ve had everything, but they want more. They think you’re after money. That’s why they haven’t answered your letters—I know about the letters. They talk about you like you’re some sort of con artist—you and your mother. I wonder how much of me is in them, if I’m like that.”
Harriet’s old dormer room was hot. A geranium on the window had dried to a stick but it smelled strong. She unbuttoned her blouse, kicked off her shoes, and lay flat on the bed, stretching her arms her above her head until the muscles cramped. A gust of cold air passed over her body. The skin prickled with goose flesh. She remembered she hadn’t gotten the blanket for the girl.
The room was dark and the girl was asleep, or pretending sleep. She looked small in the room. Harriet had never noticed how bare it was, like a barracks. Harriet covered the girl and she didn’t stir. She was warm and asleep in Harriet’s house and nothing could hurt her. If Sylvie was aware Harriet was in the room, she wasn’t giving anything away. Harriet would give the girl the house, she would and nothing her children could do would stop her. She smiled imagining their reaction.“Mother! The house!”
The dormer room was cool by the time Harriet came back. For the first time in her life she was aware of falling asleep. She closed her eyes and people she didn’t know—maybe had only seen in the street—were standing shoulder to shoulder in a ballroom as Harriet passed out umbrellas. She opened her eyes and saw the dormer windows, the waxed floor and the hooked rug, closed them and was back in the ballroom, handing out umbrellas.
Sylvie cracked one egg after another into a mixing bowl. She’d poured juice into two glasses and floated a mint leaf on the tops. “Sleep well?” she said when she saw Harriet.
“I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course I don’t mind. Where did you find the mint?”
“Your garden.” Sylvie beat the egg with a whisk. Harriet was about to point out the electric mixer on the counter, but it was obvious Sylvie didn’t need one. As Harriet noted the night before, Sylvie’s awkwardness disappeared in the kitchen. Harriet drank the juice. The mint leaf tickled her lip. Sylvie grated cheese into the bowl.
“What are you making?” Harriet asked.
“Rustic pie—one of my specialties.”
“Have everything you need?”
“That’s the beauty of rustic pie, whatever you have is what you need.”
“You’re quite the cook.”
“It’s what I do.”
“And I thought you were an artist.”
“Everyone I know is selling a script or making a video.”
“But not you.”
The women sat at the dining room table while the pie bubbled in the stove. Everything they needed to say had been said. After they ate, more then half the pie was left but Sylvie wouldn’t take any. She said that like all peasant food, it was even better the next day. As they walked to the car, Harriet hugged her sweater against her dirty body. The driver’s door was riveted shut and Sylvie had to climb in from the passenger’s side. Harriet tapped on the window. Sylvie cranked it down. “I can’t let you drive back in this thing.”
“What are you talking about?”
“This car, I can’t let you go back in it.”
“How am I supposed to get home?”
“I only have to go back and forth to the store.”
“What am I going to tell the owner?”
“I forgot. It’s borrowed.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“Next week we’re getting you a car.”
Sylvie got a funny look on her face. “I’m not coming up next week.” Harriet was prepared to not see Sylvie for a week, but two weeks, a month? “Call me when you get home,” she said. The funny look hardened. It was the look so often seen on the faces of her brothers and sister. Sylvie turned on the radio, lit a cigarette, and left in a shower of stones.
Most of the turkey was uneaten. The meat that remained was pink and bloody. No one had brought wine and Harriet had not thought to buy any. Bret was angry but trying hard not to show it. Harriet smiled, thinking how upset he was, having to drink water on Christmas Eve. She picked up the platter and carried it into the kitchen. A pink jelly had formed under the carcass and it slid back and forth as she carried it. “Guess who I met the other day?” Brill asked. No one said anything. “Our little sister.”
“We don’t have a little sister,” Constance said.
“What did she want?” Bret asked.
“Nothing, just to have lunch.”
“How did she find you?”
“How many Brill Banks can there be?”
“I suppose I’m next.”
“Don’t worry, she’s not going to bother you if you don’t want her to.”
“There’s no proof,” Constance said. “I don’t believe it. It’s not like Dad.”
“You will when you meet her. She’s exactly like him—cries at the drop of a hat—pretty too. Looks like Aunt Carol.”
“I asked her to come by tomorrow, if Mom doesn’t mind.”
“Tomorrow!” Bret said.
Harriet felt a wash pass through her gut, like a wave of cold brine. She gripped the counter, steadying herself.
“Mom,” Constance called into the kitchen. “Are you listening to this?”
“Of course,” Bret said. “Christmas. Presents.”
“Mom,” Constance said. “Did you hear that?”
Harriet closed her eyes and tried to make her voice steady. “Why should I mind? She’s your sister. She has a right to know you.”
“That’s interesting,” Brill said, “that’s exactly what she said you’d say. She said no presents. She was very insistent on that. She makes fruitcakes over the holidays and she wants to bring one.”
“Fruitcakes!” Constance cried out.
“The funny thing is she’s been here,” Brill said.
Harriet stood very still. The nails of the green man’s feet clicked on the kitchen floor behind her.
“Been here?” Bret asked.
“Yes, several times.”
“She’s our ghost. Remember the girl in the black car? That was her. She just never had the courage to come up and knock.”
Harriet could feel the brush of the green man’s whiskers. Constance came into the kitchen carrying a stack of plates. The nose of the green man traveled across Harriet’s shoulder like a cat sniffing something unfamiliar. Harriet went up to her room. The green man followed.
Harriet watched the snow hit the window and slide down the glass in fat drops. It melted on the grass but stuck to the cars. Bret and Debby’s dog ran up and down the lawn, carrying a stick and sliding on the grass. Brill led Sylvie along the drive, pointing to the house and the trees. She scooped snow from her brother’s car with her bare hands and packed it carefully.
When Harriet was introduced to Sylvie, neither woman gave anything away. Sylvie called her Mrs. Banks. Harriet smiled and accepted the fruitcake wrapped in cellophane. Everyone raved about the cake. Harriet was sure it was delicious, but she couldn’t taste it. She couldn’t taste anything.
Sylvie ducked behind the car and threw the snowball at her brother. He scooped snow from the windshield of his Jeep and the snowballs began flying. Bret ran up to Debby and they squared off, boys against girls. Constance bolstered the female ranks, but there was no need. Sylvie’s arm was as good as Brill’s, and better than Bret’s. Brill tried a rounding attack, but slipped and fell flat on his back. Debby bent over laughing. Harriet had never seen her laugh before. The children’s hands were pink from the cold, but they kept scooping up snow, dodging and throwing. The dog ran back and forth, biting at the snowballs.
Harriet lay down on the bed. Around her were the things she had bought so the room wouldn’t look so empty: the bookcase, the rocking chair she’d found and refinished. Why had she thought a young woman would want a rocker in her room? She heard the children come in the kitchen stamping their shoes on the floor laughing and shouting.
“Who started throwing ice balls?”
There was a shriek. “Not down my back!”
Harriet listened as the door slammed shut, once, twice, three times and cars pulled away one after the other. She smelled coconut. It was strong and distinct as if Sylvie were in the room with her. Harriet got up and walked around trying to locate the smell. She looked out in the hall but there was no one there. She must have imagined the smell but it was so vivid. Maybe it had been left behind hours before when Brill took Sylvie on the tour of the house or the time Sylvie slept in the room. A single molecule might have been hanging in the air waiting to travel up Harriet’s nose and trigger the sensation. She pressed her forehead against the window. Her breath frosted and shrank. The green man was just outside the door. She’d let him wait.