“Thank God that’s over,” she heard James say.
“Small towns and small people,” Charlotte crooned, slipping off her black lace dress.
The men leapt into a deep pool, shouting at the cold.
“Holy mother of God,” James Scott cried. “It’s pure ice.”
“Will you miss your little friend?” Hannah heard Abbey ask Charlotte.
“I have no idea what you mean,” Charlotte said.
Charlotte waded into the water now, up to her knees. Abbey followed suit.
“Don’t give me that,” Abbey protested. “You think I don’t know you by now?”
“She wasn’t so little,” Charlotte remarked. “She was taller than I.”
The women laughed and waded farther. There were mosquitoes and gnats, which they slapped away, hitting their own naked bodies. Together they dove right in.
In the dark, standing in the tall weeds, Hannah felt her heart bumping against her chest. What would happen if she ran to the river? What if she threw her arms around Charlotte, packed up all her worldly belongings? Before she could think any further, she spied a spot of blue moving along the riverbank. It was a little girl, heading toward the water. She was there, and then she disappeared, as if swallowed by the dark river.
Hannah ran toward the far bank. People had faltered here, carried away by the currents, but thankfully Hannah was a strong swimmer. She went right in, chasing after the child, but no one was there. The blue dress Hannah wore spread out in a circle as she paddled to stay afloat, shivering. All at once she knew what had happened. She felt she had witnessed a miracle, a moment so private it could never be shared. Hannah could hear the actors joking with each other, but she didn’t listen to what they were saying. She was convinced she had seen the Apparition, the child who’d drowned so long ago.
WHEN AZURINE CAME home that autumn, Hannah went to the train station in Albany to pick up her sister. Azurine had been gone a long time, and she hadn’t come back alone. Hannah was so overjoyed, she nearly sank to her knees when she saw the little girl. Azurine admitted that she planned to tell everyone that she’d been married in France, and that the father of her child had died in battle. In truth she didn’t know who he was. She’d been in love a dozen times or more, but she was giving all that up now. Hannah laughed and said she was doing the same. Love was for fools and dreamers. On this they agreed.
The sisters were glad to be together. They had the easy sort of relationship where they didn’t have to speak to be understood. For as long as the weather held they took their meals on the porch, looking out toward Hightop Mountain. They moved the kitchen table and chairs outside. Lunches often lasted an hour or more as the weather continued to be fine even after the maple trees were already turning. Little Kate was already a charmer. Her red hair was tufted and shimmery in the daylight.
“What do we want for her?” Azurine wondered as they watched her, both sisters ready to dart over should she begin to fall.
Hannah was about to answer true love, but love alone was never enough.
“She’ll have us,” she told her sister. “That should do.”
They were finishing the last of the summer’s tomatoes. They’d picked them that morning, just after breakfast, scrambling into the garden barefoot, racing to see which sister could collect the most. Now, when Kate came skittering back to the table, they let her take a bite, even though some people might say it was best for children to eat only simple things. In their experience, nothing was simple.
THE MONSTER OF BLACKWELL
HE WAS NOT FROM BERKSHIRE COUNTY or from anywhere in Massachusetts. He didn’t know where he’d been born or who his parents were. He lived with an aunt in Albany, near the railroad tracks, but he didn’t expect to be there for the rest of his life. He was convinced that something else was out there for him. He’d decided he would be ready, whatever his future might bring, whenever it might appear before him. He was prepared to vanish, take chances, disappear if need be. He thought perhaps he was enchanted. He was exceedingly ugly, so ugly he couldn’t look at himself. He’d always known this. People had told him so often enough, and, although he avoided mirrors, he’d glimpsed himself and had come to the conclusion they were correct.
He expected the reaction he caused. People ran from him, and he didn’t blame them. If he could, he would have gotten as far away from himself as possible. His features didn’t go together; they were misshapen, large and broad, pushed in as if the doctor had made a mistake during his birth and tried to throw him back into the place where he’d originated, pushing in on his nose, and ears, and mouth. His shoulders were broad and his arms muscular, but he seemed twisted and tended to be hunched. His eyes, however, were dark and beautiful. People didn’t notice. They didn’t look him in the eye. They were gone before that.