Frank told her to wait, he’d be right back. He went downstairs and got his clothes from the dryer. He dressed right there in the laundry room, then went out the back door. He remembered that his brother always stole his best clothes. It was easy enough; they’d been the same size. Frank had never cared; he’d felt honored that Jesse wanted something he had. That was back when they were brothers. Now he walked three blocks and made a left on Main Street. He kept going until he got to the house where René had grown up, and as fate would have it, she was waiting at the door.
THE RED GARDEN
BLACKWELL HAD ALWAYS HAD A PROBLEM with flies. They appeared every spring, swarms rising up from the cold water of the Eel River and the rushing eddies of Hubbard Creek in such great numbers that some of the women in town covered their windows and doors with garden netting during the first two weeks of April, the kind you throw over blueberry bushes to protect the fruit from bears.
Louise Partridge didn’t remember that there’d been so many while she was growing up. Living away from home for a few years had changed her perception of just about everything—animal, vegetable, and mineral alike. Louise had come home from Radcliffe in her junior year to nurse her ailing mother until Mrs. Partridge’s death that past winter. Louise hadn’t really liked Cambridge, all those know-it-all girls, the smart-aleck pot-smoking boys who thought no one had ever had an original idea before they came along. But she missed the libraries, and the classes, and the bookstores. She missed Cambridge, as a matter of fact.
Louise was a fixer; she didn’t throw up her hands when confronted with a problem, she took charge. She got to work on her grandmother’s ancient sewing machine and made a hooded cloak out of mosquito netting. She had decided to replant the back garden, the half acre of land her mother and great-aunt Hannah had always told her was of no use. They’d always insisted that whatever was planted there would grow into the opposite of what anyone expected, almost as if the earth had a mind of its own. But the old garden was on higher ground, and the blackflies weren’t as plentiful there, so Louise decided she would find out for herself.
She was the closest blood relative to the town’s founding families, related on her mother’s side to Hallie Brady, as well as to the Partridges, who had also been among the first settlers. There were still plenty of Partridges around. Louise’s own father had been a long-lost Partridge cousin, one of the ones who’d gone off to California, probably driven off in the first weeks of spring, unable to think straight because of all those flies buzzing around. Louise’s father had come back east to go to Harvard and had fallen in love with her mother. He’d died when Louise was ten, and not long after, her beloved aunt Hannah passed on. Their Thanksgiving dinners, at which the traditional Brady Indian pudding was always served, had shrunk from four to three, and then there was only Louise and her mother, Kate. Now, when next November rolled around, Louise would be eating Indian pudding alone. She’d been practicing the recipe—cornmeal, milk, molasses—and had scalded it every time. Fixing the pudding made her miss her mother, who had died far too young, and she wished she had paid more attention to details. While she was growing up there were times when she would glance out her window at night to spy her mother out in the garden amid the green shadows. Louise had never even asked her why she was out there at such a late hour.
Louise had inherited the Brady house, the oldest in town. If she hadn’t been her mother’s sole beneficiary, she might have gone back to Cambridge and finished her classes. She’d been studying biology and had even considered med school, but after her mother’s long illness, a ferocious battle with bone cancer, she never wanted to enter a hospital again. Her mother had been delusional at the end. She insisted she was in the wrong life, that someone from her other, truer life came to sit beside her late at night when the hospital corridors were empty and yellow light spilled across the parking lot.
“I’m the one who’s here for you,” Louise would say then, taking her mother’s frail hand. “It’s just me.”
“Oh, I know,” her mother would murmur. “That’s why I love you so.”
Love had never been discussed before. Louise’s mother had tended to be undemonstrative, and hearing her speak so tenderly of love made tears well up in Louise’s eyes. Now that her mother was gone, Louise always stepped down hard on the gas when she passed the Blackwell Community Hospital. She had the feeling that if she didn’t, she’d be trapped. She’d never get away.
Louise planned to leave town as soon as she came up with a plan. Until then, she had nothing but time on her hands. The house was far too big for one person. The original structure had been added on to in a crazy quilt of rooms over the years. There were rooms where you least expected them—under the staircase, off the breezeway, through a crawl space into the eaves of the roof. There was a shed out back that had been a house at one time, rented out to schoolteachers, and was now home to shovels and peat moss. People in town said the big house had a buried history, just as they swore that Johnny Appleseed himself had planted the twisted old tree out in Band’s Meadow—a local variety known as the Blackwell Look-No-Further, perfect for cider and pies. In the old days people had called this apple tree the Tree of Life and had insisted that the town of Blackwell would last as long as the tree did. There were still several cuttings, now grown into tall trees, all over town. They were extras, just in case the original should suffer from blight or be struck by lightning. No one in Blackwell was taking any chances.