Authors: Anne Rivers Siddons
Tags: #Romance, #FIC000000, #Adult
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Anne Rivers Siddons
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: August 2008
The House Next Door
John Chancellor Makes Me Cry
For Cynthia and David,
who know why, or should
After the first death, there is no other.
rom where you leave Interstate 95 at Bangor to trace the jumble of state and county roads over to the coast around Sedgwick, your driving time can range from an hour or so in fine, bright weather to an anxious, creeping three and a half in dense fog. On this day in early July, I made it in just over an hour, a shorter time than, if I remembered correctly, Cam ever had.
“See there,” I said to him in the backseat. “You always drove because you said I poked along, and I did better today than you ever did on your best one.”
He did not answer, of course, because he was dead, was now fine, silvery dust in the dark bronze urn I had chosen, nestled between piles of books and old Silas’s basket, which was lined with the rotting old sweater Silas guarded fiercely. It smelled of salt and pine and wood smoke and now, of course, Silas.
Silas answered, though.
When are you going to stop this damned car and let me out? I’m hungry. I need to take a piss.
It was Cam who’d invented Silese, swearing that it was possible to tell what was on the cat’s mind by listening closely to his rusty grumble. Silas had never, to my knowledge, purred. On this strange afternoon of sun and flying cloud-shadow and whipping wisps of fog, I felt I could translate him as well as Cam ever had. Or at least it amused me to think so. Probably neither one of us had it right. Silas could have been cursing us vilely in Esperanto, for all we knew.
I’d been talking chattily and often giddily to Cam all during the two-day drive from Virginia. In fact, I had been doing so ever since the last of the guests left the—what would you call it? a reception?—my daughters and best friend, Kitty Howard, had put together while I was at the short service at the crematorium. I literally had had to push Betsy and Alice out of the house and into their husbands’ rental cars to go back to their motel and have a shower and some dinner. Betsy claimed she was allergic to Silas, but I knew her bond lawyer husband did not want cat hair on his four-hundred-dollar khakis. Both of my girls were puffed and smeared with tears, and clearly terrified that I did not wear the stigmata of widowhood. “Denial” and “Doesn’t know what she’s doing” hung in the air like room deodorant.
I was sure they were right, and just as sure that the gut-wrenching grief and corrosive tears and lassitude all lay ahead, waiting just out of sight. But for now the witless chatter to a dead man and a cat served me well. Neither was likely to fuss or hover.
“I’ll call you both the minute the meltdown starts,” I said, and in the end it was staunch Kitty who had taken them by their New York–thin arms and pulled them along after her.
“Let her be,” she drawled in the Tidewater lilt I had always loved. “If she wants to burn incense and dance naked around the urn, it’s her business. Wait till you get here yourselves before you start quoting proper widowhood protocol.”
They left, I am sure, to sit around their motel table with pomegranate martinis and discuss who would take on dear old mum if she flipped out totally, and what to do with that monstrous old pile of a house on McCall’s Point and the Maine house that, though not old by Maine cottage standards, was sinking deeper into the piney earth and leaf mold every year. And, of course, about Silas.
“Don’t you even
,” I yelled at the door that had slammed behind them. And then I began to laugh, maniacally, until my breath stopped and the laughing slid over into sobbing. It was what I had been doing ever since Cam died, although mercifully in no one’s presence, except for Silas. Once or twice he got up from his fetid sweater and trundled over and gave my face a usually peremptory lap, reeking rankly of Kitty Rations seafood dinner, the only kind of food he will eat. But usually he just sat there regarding me as I laughed and wept and finally slept.
“Seems like as good a way as any,”
he said in Silese.
I think I made the decision to drive up to Edgewater, the Maine cottage my family had owned since before I was born, after one of these middle-of-the-night explosions. These last few days I had been muffling them with my pillow because Betsy had come back with her two children “to stay for a little while and help cheer Gammy up,” which I think consisted of lurking silently around corners and outside my bedroom door to see if a stray whimper, sob, or howl could be heard. That and the children chasing Silas until he turned at bay and bit one of them soundly. After the ensuing hysterics and the trips to the doctor over in Reston, and the mutterings about “that monster is not safe,” my way seemed clear as cool water.
The next morning at breakfast I told Betsy that I was going up to Edgewater for the summer to see to some things up there and get my bearings, and would be home in the early fall. And there were to be no uninvited guests.
I could have recited beforehand what she said: “Who’ll look after you? You can’t just isolate yourself way up there in those woods and not see anybody. What if you fell or something? How would anybody know?” (For that, read “What if you set fire to the place; you could burn it and you to a crisp and then we couldn’t even sell it.”) “You know Daddy said he never wanted you to be up there by yourself.”
Betsy was not a selfish child, or even a thoughtless one; she adored Cam and had not yet learned that there are many, many ways to hurt and grieve, although few to mitigate either.
“Well, I won’t be by myself, will I?” I said mildly. “Daddy will sure as shootin’ be with me every minute of the day. You know that is where he wanted his ashes to be spread, and we’ll do that at the end of the summer, and everybody can come up then. Meanwhile, I’ll have him closer to me than I did lots of times . . . before.”
“That’s sick,” Betsy wailed. But when she saw that she was only annoying me, she packed her clothes and her children and left for New York in a well-bred huff.
“I’ll have to make it up to her sometime,” I said to Silas.
“Let her work it out.”
And so in a couple of days I had loaded the car and given the keys to Deeanne, our heartbroken housekeeper, and to Kitty, and now here I was, almost within sight of the turnoff into the dense spruce and pine and ash woods that blanket this stretch of coast, about to turn left onto the dusty, unpaved lane that led deep into them and down a steep small hill. Here I was, about five minutes from the moment I could stand beside the old green house in its clearing in the forest, the lawn trimmed neatly by Toby or Laurie, and look down from the top of the piled-stone seawall and watch the bay playing about the rocks, creaming and swelling and falling, glittering far to the west where the afternoon sun was lowering. I would smell the clean, fishy, kelpy sun-on-dried-rocks smell, and I would hear the sea breathe.
On the outer shores of Maine the sea howls, and roars, and smashes itself on its cliffs; it booms and shouts and sings. But our bay is protected by the bulk of Little Deer Isle and Deer Isle, and below on the rocks of Edgewater, it breathes. In and out, in and out, sighing, hushing, soothing. Soon, I knew, my own breathing would fall into its rhythm, and I would be one with it. Again, I felt tears of joy well up in my eyes, and my throat tighten with it. I had wept, I think I remember, with this same joy every time we had come to Edgewater since I was very small.
“Why are you crying?” my mother might say.
“I want to hear the ocean breathing.”
And somehow, always, the sea breathed to me.
I pulled the car into the unkempt driveway and skidded to a stop, spurting gravel, and was out of it and on the path around the house before I remembered Silas. I could hear him moaning spectrally from his nest in the sweater and started back, then I trotted on.
“I’ll die from thirst and hunger, and this is how I’ll sound to you in your dreams every night.
night—don’t think I won’t.”
“You weigh too much already,” I shouted back at him. “The vet says you need to lose five pounds. Good a time as any to start.”
I didn’t hear his reply because I came abruptly to the seawall, took a deep breath, and looked down. Edgewater is built on a small cliff, the last petulant spasm of the last great glacier in the Pleistocene Age. It tumbles down to the water in a crazy quilt of fierce black and gray stone outcroppings, smooth boulders both small and enormous, petrified trees, and a skimpy apron of beach. A headland of red Maine granite guards the left side of the crescent; when the setting sun touches it, it looks primeval, supernormal, on fire inside. There are two enormous kelp beds that float on the water, making for slimy swimming at high tide and a stinking miasma at low tide. I love all of it.
But all I saw now was a solid wall of cold, wet white fog, one of the impenetrable summer fogs that haunt this coast and dampen bedclothes and shoes and tempers. This one stopped, as they almost always did, just at the seawall, and it was eerie, I thought, not for the first time, that you could stand on firm, sun-warmed grass and look into empty, piled-up white eternity.
Worst of all, I could not hear the sea. The fog hushed its breathing as totally as if the bay were comatose and someone had just pulled the plug. I felt something near panic clench my stomach, and my chest began to tighten as in the beginning of an asthma attack. For a moment I could not breathe.
I turned, suddenly cold and afraid, grabbed Silas, sweater and all, and floundered up the fog-slimed wooden steps to the porch that wrapped around Edgewater, and pushed open the heavy wooden door and the screened one behind it, and stood still, listening to silence and looking at darkness.
“Ngow!” Silas growled.
“Get some light and heat in here!”
I dumped him, sweater and all, onto the faded old tartan sofa that had sat in front of the big stone fireplace since I could remember, dug out the matches that were always kept in a weatherproof tin on the mantel, and lit the fire. It was a fine one of sweet, dried wood—birch, I thought. I knew Toby had come in earlier in the day and opened the house and laid the fire. It gave a kind of booming burp and a great whoosh, and then a small cave of room was flooded with light and the sweet smell of wood smoke. Silas muttered a grudging thanks and found his hollow at the end of the sofa, glared at me until I laid the old sweater down, turned around three times, and settled lumpily in for a nap.
“Wake me when there’s food,”
I was sure he said.
I should have turned on the electric lights and brought in the suitcases and put away the perishables and thought about dinner. But I didn’t. I wasn’t breathing well. I picked up Cam’s urn and put it on the stone mantel and sat down on the rump-strung sofa to regard it. It looked well there, catching the firelight, looking as if it might have been there as long as the house had stood.