The door was locked. Or rather, Amelia’s key no longer worked. He must have changed the locks on her. It was dark and the porch light, though on, was dim. She could barely see. Yet it was clear that her key—the same one she’d always used—was powerless.
“Charles?” she called, stepping back down the front steps, so she could see up to the second story where dim light was visible in the otherwise dark old house. It was his room. Outside on this March night in Rocky Mountain, Colorado, Amelia was cold and starting to get impatient.
“Charles!” she repeated, this time not a question at all. A shadowy light flickered behind the curtain as if coming from a TV. Had he moved one into that room in the last three weeks?
She stepped back up to the front door, set her red leather tote bag down on the porch, and took off the misshapen wool mittens her mother had knitted in the months before she died. Amelia curled her left fist into a ball, and began to pound. In five or six beats, the soft part of her hand, between pinky and wrist, was red and aching.
Amelia picked up her bag, fished out her cell phone and turned on its flashlight. She put her mitten back on and threaded her way through the tall hedges toward the back of the house. She covered her face with her scarf so the sharp ends of the branches wouldn’t scratch her exposed skin.
In the back, she first tried the cellar door at the bottom of four concrete steps. It too was locked. She never had a key to that door, so she didn’t linger. The back-porch light was off but she climbed the old wooden steps anyway. They were icy. She made a mental note and then, with the help of her flashlight, tried her backdoor key. It didn’t work either. Out of frustration, she shoved hard on the door, which surprised her by opening. It must not have latched when he closed it. She went in through the dark kitchen and set her bag down.
“Charles?” she called again, gently this time. She heard nothing except the yewing of the cat, Frito. Frito’s bowl, which she noticed in the milky light of a moon mostly occluded by clouds, was empty. “Aww, Frito, how’ve you been, mister?” she asked, offering her fingertips as a scratching post.
Amelia turned on the single pendant light that hung over the kitchen table. In the sudden shadow, she noticed a half-empty fifth of whiskey and a glass among the table’s piles of papers. She nearly lost her balance when she realized that Charles was there too, leaning on the doorframe next to the table, in a bathrobe and unshaven, arms crossed.
“Christ, you scared me! Why didn’t you answer the door? I almost froze to death,” she said.
“I didn’t think you were coming back,” Charles said, moving not one muscle other than those necessary to form the words.
“Of course I was coming back. I told you that. I needed to spend some time getting my shit together in Oregon but then I was coming back. And here I am. Am I not allowed in?”
He said nothing.
“Jesus, Charles, I know you’re having a hard time but come on. It’s not like we’re married.” Amelia was immediately sorry, but not enough to apologize. “I’m your sister, after all.”
“Are you?” he asked, his body rigid. “Because you’re not acting like it.”
She considered his accusation.
True, she had missed the first three weeks of his AA meetings. He had wanted her to delay her trip, but she couldn’t. Once she had decided to resign—and she had to, if she was going to keep her promise to their now-dead mother—the lab insisted she come in to wrap up her experiments and prepare them for her replacement. She had to go.
And Charles was a grown man. Only after his ex-wife left did he develop an affinity for whiskey, and more often than not, he had it under control. Like when their mother, whom they both had always called by her first name, Faye, was first diagnosed with cancer. Charles had moved back home to look after her, and Faye had become, once again, the most important thing in his life. But as Faye’s illness progressed, so did Charles’s relationship with whiskey.
Last June, Amelia had put her own life on hold, temporarily she had hoped, to come back home and help Charles with Faye. Charles had surrendered his life to Faye by then, which seemed inevitable given Charles’s trajectory. Not so Amelia’s, but she freely gave her summer over to the cause, which took everyone’s attention and turned it toward the horizon.
Amelia was glad she had come. Not long after she arrived, Faye took a turn for the worse. By July, she had decided to refuse further treatment for her cancer, allowing only hospice care at home. By August, nights in this house were dark, and long.
Like the night Amelia had pulled a chair next to the hospital bed in the living room, moved there when Faye got too weak to climb the stairs. It was one of many nights she had spent sitting with Faye. Amelia recalled studying her mother’s winnowed frame then. She could see her, nearly immobilized and hanging on as if to a cobweb, struggling to let go. She read the worry on her mother’s lined face and knew what to say.
“Go, Mom, it’s ok. Go be like the wind. I’ll make sure Charles is ok. I’ll stay until he’s on his feet, I promise. It’s ok. You can go.”
In twenty-four hours her mother was gone.
Amelia’s chest ached at the memory, while Charles simply leaned on the doorframe, and stared at her. “I said, you’re not acting like it.”
“I don’t think that’s fair, Charles.”
“Fine. You’re not acting like my half sister, then. Is that better?”
With Faye gone, Charles was, at fifty-five, once again on his own, except for Amelia. Charles’s father, Sam, was long gone, having died suddenly when Charles was only fifteen. Entirely coincidentally, or so Amelia had always hoped, she had been born three months after Sam’s death. Only Sam wasn’t her father. Sam had agreed to raise Faye’s baby as his own, but had not lived to meet Amelia, let alone raise her. He died of a massive heart attack just as Faye was entering her third trimester.
Faye and Sam had meant to keep the fact of Amelia’s father between themselves, but early in the pregnancy, Charles had heard his parents arguing late at night. When he himself became a fatherless teenager, Charles had no qualms about using his knowledge of Amelia’s father as if it were a knife that could shear Amelia away from their family at his command. Amelia caught a glimpse of that old knife in the dim kitchen light, and, surprising herself, she turned toward it.
Gently, she said, “That’s mean, Charles, and you know it.”
For a while, no one moved except the cat, who paced back and forth between them, still yewing.
Finally, he spoke, but softly, so that she almost missed it. “I thought you were going to Mark’s when you got back.”
“I said he offered but I also said I wasn’t sure.” And then, after another moment, “And I’m still not.”
“I don’t like that guy.”
Charles spent his life convinced that Mark Otterman, an English professor at Rocky Mountain College, had been hired into a faculty slot that, years earlier, had been meant for Charles. Faye had taught at the College, in the art department, and Charles had always wanted that life for himself. Years after successfully defending his Ph.D. in literature, having already become an established author, a slot had finally opened up in the English department. But the College, citing a new policy against nepotism, refused to consider him. They hired Mark instead.
Neither said anything for a few long, dark moments.
“How’s the draft?” Amelia finally said.
Charles didn’t respond.
“Ok then, Charles.” Amelia took a large manilla envelope out of her red leather bag and offered it to him. “Here. I took it with me. I had some time to read while I was sitting around waiting for the cable guy and the water guy and the gas guy and moving guys . . .”
Charles said nothing.
“Well I read it,” she said, “and I loved it. I had only a few questions . . .” When he didn’t step forward to take it, she placed it on the kitchen table next to the whiskey and the glass.
“Never mind,” Charles said. “I submitted it yesterday.”
“Really? I thought you were shooting for next month,” Amelia said.
“I had the time.”
Her head cocked ever so slightly to the side, and her eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. Charles spent so much time alone and felt so far removed from the vibrancy of life that Amelia had come to regard him as an exhibit in an old Victorian museum. She sensed now, in retrospect, that he simply asked much less of the world than others, and in return, he must have considered himself immune to the world’s calls to give. At least, to anyone other than Faye.
Charles had tried to leave Faye, or at least her house, twice before. At eighteen, he went away to college, but even then, he refused to cede his mother to her daughter. The literature and poetry he dedicated himself to fed him stories that only made him more possessive of his mother, more suspicious of the baby. Charles made it a point to come back for every holiday and summer vacation, through graduate school. He moved back home immediately after and carried it off as though that had always been his plan.
Frito began playing with the hem of his bathrobe. Amelia found this oddly amusing. “Hey, was the character the narrator called ‘The Woman’ supposed to be Lisa?”
Years ago, in his mid-thirties, while still living at home, Charles had met Lisa at a summer writers’ conference. He fell for her immediately. Eventually he persuaded her to relocate to Rocky Mountain, and they got married soon after. Charles had seemed happy for a few years until Lisa, who had been unable to get pregnant with his child, became pregnant with her law partner’s. She and her law partner left Rocky Mountain before the baby was born.
“Yeah,” Charles said. “It’s Lisa.”
After Lisa left, Charles eked out a few more years on his own. That period ended shortly after Faye was diagnosed with cancer. He moved back for good then, even though the cancer was caught early and Faye was able to lead a normal life for a good long time. His world, however, continued to shrink. He never remarried. He continued to write and publish fiction, short stories, and a few essays, but cut back on travelling to teach workshops in order to be close, should Faye become unwell.
“I don’t think she’ll recognize herself,” he said.
“No!” Amelia permitted herself a small laugh. “I don’t think she will either.”
A fragile détente arose in the space created by that small agreement. From that place, Amelia dared to study her brother’s face. It was clear that the divorce, followed by the years back in this house and taking care of Faye—not to mention the whiskey—had aged him.
“Hey, have you heard from Becky?” she asked.
“You mean Roger? No, I won’t for a while,” Charles said; Roger, his longtime editor, was notoriously slow in reading drafts.
“No, actually, I meant Becky—the real estate agent.” What Amelia needed to know now was that: when were they both going to be free of this big, old, decaying house?
“I haven’t heard from her.”
“What? Really? When I talked to her two weeks ago, she said she’d reach out to you right away to schedule a walk-through.”
After Faye’s death, the siblings’ job had become managing Faye’s affairs: selling the house and doing something with Faye’s unsold art. Neither of them wanted the house—it was too big and too much work for either of them, and they both needed the money that would come from its sale. What to do with the art remained a question, seven months after her death, still unasked. Charles simply could not bring himself to face the tasks that needed to be done, let alone attend to them with the urgency that Amelia felt was warranted. This sense of urgency had grown slowly inside her, week by week, like a fetus.
The loss was what grew for Charles. It had hit him harder than Amelia. Despite being raised essentially as an only child, Amelia never felt she had her mother’s full attention. Instead, she had always felt two or three steps removed. There was no obvious reason why—on the surface she and Amelia got along unusually well. Perhaps the memory of her real father had taken up residence in the place in Faye’s heart that should have belonged exclusively to her. One night in this very kitchen, after one too many glasses of wine, Faye had almost confessed as much. She had whispered to Amelia that she and her father had loved each other, secretly and wildly, for exactly one week, and then agreed never to speak again. Or perhaps Amelia’s birth reminded her too much of Sam’s death. Amelia didn’t know. Amelia did know, or at least she suspected, that Charles never felt the same distance from Faye. It seemed to Amelia that Charles stepped right into the gap Sam left when he died, and closed ranks.
From age three, when Charles first left Faye’s home, to fifteen, when he moved back in after graduate school, Amelia experienced life as an only child. Even more: an only child in the middle of her mother’s sophisticated, ephemeral academic art world. Faye had entertained both faculty colleagues and local art patrons at home frequently when Amelia was young. Amelia had learned quickly that if she could be useful to the adults—if she could replenish the ice in the ice bucket, the cocktail peanuts in their small bowls—then her mother would forget that she’d told her to go to bed an hour earlier.
Amelia used that extra time to study the workings of adults, especially her mother. She watched how her mother gave each guest her full attention, but never let herself get cornered; how she flirted, just so, with everyone there, even the old ones, even the women; how she intuited the exact moment to say how nice it was everyone had come, sending everyone off wanting to return. Amelia drank these lessons down in gulps.
She learned early that these skills carried a certain degree of power that could be used a bit like a lever, to guide, ever so gently, the people around her. An early experiment: in eighth grade, she decided it was time for a boyfriend. From then on, she was only without one when she wanted to be. Amelia understood that she did, in fact, want to be without one from time to time, if for no other reason than to not alienate the other girls in her grade. She found that her lever worked both ways. She could attract people, and she could also repel them.
Sometimes this power got out ahead of her. During her senior year of high school, Amelia piled into the backseat of a car with a friend and the friend’s boyfriend on the way home from a concert. The boyfriend sat in the middle. All three were mildly high, laughing and belting out songs from the concert. Amelia was genuinely stunned when she felt the boyfriend’s hand start to work its way up her inner left thigh underneath the blanket that covered all three of their laps. As she considered what to do, her eyes grew wide, his smile morphed into a smirk, and her friend remained oblivious. Days later, when the boyfriend, not hers, didn’t stop flirting with her, Amelia had to tell her friend what had happened. No matter how much she tried to explain, her friend never believed that Amelia hadn’t initiated it. She lost the friend but learned another lesson: expect the unexpected.
The test on this lesson began just before the start of her senior year at the College. Amelia’s last year at Rocky Mountain College was Mark Otterman’s first. He arrived on campus that fall with his wife, Holly. She was to be the new Admissions Director. Although she and Mark had been a couple since high school, they had never before managed to find jobs in the same town. They had lived separately until then, so being together in Rocky Mountain was going to be a first for both of them.
Amelia met them at a Labor Day faculty picnic hosted by her mother. Though she lived on campus with friends, she still liked to help her mother entertain. She had become almost an unofficial co-host by that point, sometimes challenging Faye for life-of-the-party status. But at this party, it was Mark’s wife who stole the show.
Holly did not feel like a typical college administrator. First of all, she was young: she and Mark couldn’t have been thirty-five, which was not that young for an English professor, but very young for a senior administrator. Perhaps her training in musical theater had helped her get the job, training which she carried with her still. She had an ebullient voice, an unreserved laugh, and seemed to never need a break from eye contact. She charmed everyone, and as a result, wasn’t alone for an instant that afternoon. Even as she tried to make her way inside, presumably, to use the bathroom, Amelia noticed the head of the chemistry department trying to keep up with her, unwilling to let his part of the conversation go, unwilling to lose her attention.
Consequently, Amelia had the chance to talk to Mark more than his wife. They exchanged notes on local music venues and state park hiking trails. She said she’d email him some recommendations after the party, which she did. He replied with gratitude, and added that she seemed familiar to him—had they possibly met before? Strangely, this did not feel in the least like a line. No, she said, she didn’t think so. She was a science major and had studiously avoided all things humanities, so she didn’t see how they could have.
And as it happened, by the second week of September their paths had crossed enough that it became a joke. “We’re going to have to stop meeting like this!” he emailed her, after they ran into each other four times in one day. Amelia did not let herself think much of this casual, but developing, back and forth, but she thought enough about it to keep it from her friends. She intentionally didn’t talk about it with them. If she had interrogated herself about this decision, she would have told herself that most of the faculty at Rocky Mountain treated her a little differently, more familiarly, than they treated other students, which made sense given that she had practically grown up with them.
Except she hadn’t grown up with Mark. He was new to her, and she was terrifically curious about him. During that fall term, she began to notice herself looking forward to running into him as they each crossed the quad, going opposite directions, which happened precisely and regularly at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She began noticing if he wasn’t at the coffee and cookie cart in the library at 3 p.m. on Wednesdays. She was aware that his wife was also on campus, and aware that she didn’t see Holly much. She was curious about Holly, too, of course, but for some reason she couldn’t quite pin down, she was content to let her be out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps she understood that Holly already had her share of attention.
Unexpectedly, at a fall meeting with her advisor to go over graduation requirements, Amelia learned that she had missed one: writing. She then enrolled in Professor Otterman’s spring creative writing course. When he emailed her to say he saw her name on the course roster, she replied, “Pretend you don’t know who I am. It will be fun.”
When classes began, Mark seemed to play along with her request, and indeed, it was fun. Tired of being known as a faculty brat, Amelia enjoyed being treated as just another student, at least in appearances. But a few weeks in, something seemed a bit off, as if she had just been named the winner of a competition she hadn’t entered.
It started when she noticed him looking at her more often in class than he had before. She wanted to dismiss it. But when it started happening at what seemed like key moments in class, she knew for sure something was up. Once, discussing a turning point in a plot, he said to the whole class, in his genuinely professorial way, “And he wrote to her, confessing everything, despite the gap between them. . .” but he said it looking directly at her. And his look remained on her, for two beats too long.
Could this be happening? She thought to herself. He knows my mother. He’s married. We all know his wife—in fact if she turned around in her seat, she could have seen the Admissions Building across the quad from the English Department at that very moment.
You’re being ridiculous, she said to herself. You’re making this up. This is not how the universe works.
But it continued. Just when she convinced herself that she was imagining this spin on his attention, it would happen again. A searching look across a room, a holding open of a door, and then finally Amelia realized what she was actually worried about: she was worried it would stop.
She became hyperaware of every interaction. Once, she didn’t understand some feedback he had given on an assignment and it quickly got under her skin. Something about the tone felt off—sexist, or gendered at least, if not sexist—and she didn’t understand. This hadn’t happened before, and he didn’t seem like that kind of . . . person. Guy. Man. Whatever he was to her: Professor. So she did something she hadn’t let herself do before. After class, she waited in line to speak to him, and when it was her turn, asked to meet with him.
“Come to office hours,” he suggested.
“No, not in your office. Somewhere more . . .” public, she thought, but “spacious,” she said. “I’d like to be able to spread everything out.”
“How about the library? The main reading room?” he asked.
“Yes, the library. But not that spacious. I’ll get a small group study room.” When he looked back at her, genuinely puzzled, she said, “I just don’t want everyone hearing you rip me to shreds, ok? Those comments were kind of harsh,” she said. He smiled at her. They would meet at 5 p.m., and she left. Other students were waiting.
She waited inside near the library entrance. She had already signed out a room for them, despite the fact that there were very few students in the library at that hour. The term’s end was near, the weather was warming, and studying had moved outside—on blankets spread on grass or in hammocks hung between trees. Regardless, she didn’t want to risk—she wasn’t sure what. She genuinely did not understand his comments, and that bothered her. She wanted to know what he meant. Study rooms were private, but not too private—each door had a window of its own—and a table for spreading out pages. That seemed like the right place.
“Hi,” she said, when she saw him come in the main entrance.
“Hi,” he said, as if it were a question.
“I’ve gotten us a study room.”
He nodded. She noticed a very slight smile.
“Follow me,” she said, in a dramatic voice. Like commentary on a scene, she thought, only she was also in this scene, which suddenly struck her as odd.
“I shall indeed.”
As he followed, she suddenly became very conscious of what she was wearing. She hadn’t been so self-conscious before. Just a sweater and jeans. A thin sweater, yes. A thin white sweater. But so what? It was spring and she was a girl. She had sweaters. Some of them were white. And thin. Is that a crime? Come on now, she thought to herself. Let’s be grown-ups here.
But by the time they wound their way through the stacks and reached the study room, Amelia felt her nerves glowing like a neon sign. When he closed the door behind them, she found herself gripping the back of a wooden chair. Feeling into its solidity and coolness, she began to spread the pages out on the small room’s large center table. “Ok then,” she said, taking a seat in the sturdy chair. “These pages all have comments I don’t understand.” Which is, she thought to herself, quite the understatement.
“Hmm,” he said, sitting down as well. “Where should we start?”
“Well,” her mind expanding and tightening like a digital camera lens unable to settle on a focal point, “um, here. How about here,” she said. “This says, ‘the narrator “pirouettes” around her feelings for the protagonist.’ What did you mean by that, ‘pirouettes’?”
He looked at her, implacably. He had been smiling so much at her recently, this change, and his silence, made her nervous.
“It just seems,” she said, “that ‘pirouettes’ is a little . . . ambiguous,” she chose. Then, she rested. She sat back. She waited.
“Side-stepping,” he said. Then, nothing.
“What?” she asked.
“I meant that the narrator was, well,” his voice broke just a half step, “side-stepping a bit. Not directly addressing her feelings for the protagonist.”
She looked at him. “Go on?” she asked, tentatively.
“Well,” he began. He stopped. “Look,” he said, with authority in his voice now—authority that scared her. “When the narrator,” he looked up at her for a half second, then back down again to the page, “when the narrator teases the reader like this, like she’s doing here,” he pointed again to the page, directly this time now, “it’s frustrating. She’s obviously dancing around her point, you know?” he said firmly, gathering momentum. “And stringing along both the protagonist and me. I mean the reader. I mean the protagonist.” He paused. He looked at her. “Ah, hell, Amelia, I mean me.”
He looked up to the ceiling, inhaled, and then exhaled slowly. He closed his eyes for a second, then opened them. He looked toward her. She held her breath; said nothing. He seemed very determined, but to what end she was unsure. Instead of making any movement, he just closed his eyes again. For eternity, it felt to her. Then he opened them again, and looked right at her.
“Amelia,” he said. “Can I be honest with you?”
Her heart had begun to race; she felt its beating like the wings of a moth frantic to escape an enclosed glass cell. Not this, no please not this. Not him. Not him, please. God, how had she misjudged this so badly? Wasn’t he happily married? It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. This was just a fantasy, that’s all, a game! Wasn’t it? It wasn’t supposed to become a thing! Why was it becoming a thing?
She filled her lungs with air and willed herself calm, at least for the moment. “If it’s about my writing, then by all means—please, yes, be honest. That’s why we’re here anyway,” she said. She forced herself to look at him and hoped he didn’t notice the way her arms moved rhythmically as she wiped the sweat from her palms onto her thighs under the table.
He said nothing, but something in the tilt of his head did.
“Uh, ok then,” she said, after a moment. “Maybe you better not.”
“Well,” he said quietly, measuredly, “perhaps you’re right.”
She froze. When she realized she’d been holding her breath, she started to collect the pages. “I should go.” Amelia stood, her movements not just piercing the stillness but accelerating the very passing of time. “I’m sorry about this,” she said, gesturing to the room. “I’m sorry; I just didn’t realize . . .”
“Wait, Amelia. Please. What I said before, it came out all wrong. I just meant that . . .” She didn’t wait. She continued to gather her papers from table. She shoved them into her bag and headed for the door.
Without turning around, she said, “Thanks for your time, Professor.” And she let the door close behind her. She felt him watching her walk away through the thin rectangular window.
After she graduated, Amelia was ready to leave Rocky Mountain behind. She had committed to graduate work in physics on the West Coast and was never more sure that she had made the right decision. A week after graduation, however, Mark emailed her to apologize for his comments on her paper, but also to tell her that he was thinking about her all the time. He said he wanted to see her before she left, that there were things he needed to say. Before she could talk herself out of it, she deleted the email and then permanently deleted everything in the trash folder.
For days that decision taunted her. As soon as she let herself imagine taking him up on his offer—following a storyline that seemed, from this vantage point, both tender and, oddly, natural—she’d be overcome with a tsunami-sized wave of inner criticism. When that wave had nearly drowned her, she fought her way to the surface and once there, wanted desperately to lash out at him. To perhaps drag him down under with her, or, even better, instead of her. And then she’d forget and find herself back at the start of that same path, where the air was clear and the grasses were new. After only a few days of this she’d had enough: she either needed to enter the space that his email had reopened, or drop the curtain on it. Walk away.
It was late afternoon when she sat down and opened her laptop. She told herself this was it: she would either write and send a response or she wouldn’t, and if she didn’t—if she closed the laptop without actually sending him anything—then she was going to treat it as if it had never happened. That it had all been just another story, not real, a myth. Making sure to leave the “to” field blank, she let herself act out a full range of fantasized replies, composing and deleting, composing and deleting. Around her, daylight faded. When the only light in her room came from her screen, she realized she was done. Having settled on nothing, having sent nothing, she closed her laptop.
She barely noticed her life over the next few weeks as she packed her things and finally headed northwest to graduate school. On the way, she drove with all the windows down. The swirling, wild wind and the dry summer heat touched her skin. She couldn’t get enough of it.
Once settled just off-campus in Northern California, she immersed herself in her new life. She told herself it was exciting, all this starting over, until, one morning, opening a newly unpacked cupboard for a mug for coffee, she felt a deep chasm open up inside her chest. She tried to ignore it but it did not go away; not that day, or the following day, or the day after that. On the third day, she sensed the faintest hint of something down at the bottom of that chasm. Finally, another morning, barely awake, she realized: it was her childhood. At the very dark bottom of that stubborn chasm in her chest was the childhood she had traded away years ago, in order to belong in her mother’s world. At this realization, Amelia succumbed to herself. She cried for nearly two full days.
Finally, six hours passed, then one day, then two days, then three, without tearing up again. By then her entire body felt vacant; her spirit, hollow. In this state, she accepted that she couldn’t get back what she had lost, but she also realized that she could stop rushing into her future.
She decided to take a break from relationships. Not men—just relationships. She refused to date any men in her program or with whom she had any other connection. She let herself date only total strangers, and never for longer than a few hookups. These arrangements—nearly anonymous, always temporary, no boyfriends—suited her for quite a while.
As did the intensity of her graduate work. Following completion of her master’s, Amelia stayed on for a doctorate, which she gave herself over to exclusively. Following her dissertation she began a two-year fellowship at a government aerospace institute not far from campus. There she met Bruce, another research scientist, whose aloofness appealed to her. It meant he wouldn’t get too close, so she let him in, but just a little. Not too much.
During these years, Mark emailed her exactly two more times: first, to see how she was adjusting to graduate school, and later, to congratulate her on completing her dissertation and being hired into her first research position. After each email, she checked: Mark and Holly were still married. Amelia did not delete these emails, but she didn’t respond to them either. Instead, she archived them. Each time, she felt irritable and distracted for several days, but she did not reply.
At the end of her fellowship, she was hired by a research lab in Oregon, this one run by another government agency affiliated with the state university there. When she left California, Bruce followed her, but they didn’t live together. They stayed like this—arms-length-semi-exclusive—for a few years. By the time Charles asked her to come home for the summer to help with Faye, Amelia was ready for the change in scenery. Bruce stayed behind.
At her mother’s funeral in late August, Amelia saw people she hadn’t seen in fifteen years, but in the fog of grief, few of them interested her. She thought she recognized most everyone. Though a few faces were new, she wasn’t terribly interested in them. Many in the crowd were current faculty from the art department, some were former students, another handful, academic administrators. And then, to her surprise, she saw Mark Otterman. In the heavy haze that a death lowers onto a family, she hadn’t stopped to wonder whether he’d be here. Seeing him drained what little color her skin held. When Mark noticed her noticing him, he excused himself from the conversation and crossed the room to her. She was, at that moment, standing alone.
“Well, hello, Amelia,” he said, quietly. “I’m so sorry for your loss. Your mother was quite a force of nature.”
“Hello, Professor,” Amelia said out of habit. And, without thinking, “Thank you for coming.” She felt the color coming back, all over her body, quickly. Too quickly.
“Mark,” he said, looking directly at her. “Please.”
Amelia steadied herself. “Yes, well, of course. How are you?” she asked. “How are the English students these days? How’s your wife? Is Holly here?” Amelia studied his face. He had aged some, of course, but it didn’t bother her. Not in the least.
“Holly?” he said, looking momentarily confused. Then something flashed across his face. “Oh, you haven’t heard. We divorced two years ago. She traded up to the same job at a bigger school in Michigan and I just didn’t want to leave the College, or Rocky Mountain. And, well, you know, we’d been together for so many years, and honestly, we’d been growing apart for far too many of them. . .”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Amelia said.
Mark raised his shoulders, put his hands in his pockets, and said, as if he was still getting used to it, “Bachelor.” Amelia was stunned. She snapped out of it when Mark asked, “And what about you?” For a second she didn’t understand. “Married? Partnered?” he asked.
Amelia’s face warmed. “Uh, partnered, I guess you’d say.” She noticed Mark scanning the room, and realized that he must be looking for someone who looked like her partner. “Bruce didn’t come with me. He couldn’t. He’s also a scientist and in the middle of a long-term experiment.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Mark said. The weight of what he didn’t say hung in the still air of the overheated funeral home room, thick with the smell of lilies. Amelia hated lilies.
“How about the students?” she forced herself to ask. “How are they?”
“Mostly they are solid—you know Rocky Mountain College kids. But,” he paused, “sometimes they get lazy. Not like you.” His voice was soft. He looked down at his hands.
“Really,” she said, but she couldn’t help it. She couldn’t help how easily she fell back into his orbit, drawn in by just the barest hint of a simple compliment. His compliment felt sincere, and in that sense, also familiar. He had always seemed sincere to her. Which she found more than a little confusing.
“Some things don’t change, do they?” she said to herself.
“No, no they don’t. Not much, anyway, in my experience,” he said. She realized then she had spoken aloud. Her eyes grew wide, but she recovered quickly.
“Except, well,” she said, “all this . . .” and motioned around the room, which was filled with people who had in fact changed a great deal since she last saw them. And, of course, there was her mother’s coffin. That was new. Amelia felt only a tiniest twinge of guilt at using her mother’s coffin as a momentary prop, one that did, in fact, prop her back up.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “I’m so sorry again.”
“Thank you,” she said, more sincerely this time. She held out her hand, and he took it in both of his. Their eyes met for a moment, and then he excused himself to let the next person greet her.
With Faye gone, by mid-September Amelia knew she needed to stay in Rocky Mountain for at least the next six months, maybe longer—long enough to get the house sold and Charles back up on his feet. To be safe she asked the lab to extend her leave to a full year. That would give her until the next June. The lab had reluctantly agreed, and now Amelia needed to make a quick trip home to collect some fall and winter clothes, and spend some time with Bruce. So a few weeks after the funeral, she boarded a plane for Oregon.
She made her way to her seat, and when she got there, sighed with resigned exhaustion at the figure she had to confront. She gathered her energy before she spoke.
“I’m sorry but you’re in my seat,” Amelia said to the man occupying seat 14C, hers.
“No, I can’t be,” he said, before looking up. And then he did. It was Mark.
“Mark,” Amelia said, the energy reserve of a moment ago vacuumed out of her as if she were a part of the plane’s hydraulic plumbing.
“Oh, you two know each other?” said the broad-shouldered man in the middle seat. “Here, I’ll be happy to move.”
“Oh, no, that’s okay,” both Mark and Amelia said at the same time, but it was too late. The man had already unbuckled his seat belt and pushed the call button for the flight attendant. The surprise of their unexpected synchronicity embarrassed them both, like getting caught peering into each other’s medicine cabinets. The unison triggered a mini-but-mutual surrender. They both laughed.
By then the flight attendant was upon them; Mark got up to let his former seatmate out, which caused him to press himself into Amelia, who was pinned in place by another passenger still struggling with her overhead-bound bag. This proximity put Amelia right back on edge.
The flight attendant directed the Middleman toward the exit row, back toward the front of the plane. The other passenger, having now successfully jammed her bag into the overhead compartment, sat herself down in the aisle seat behind the one Mark had occupied. Mark slid into the newly vacated middle, and then gestured to Amelia that the aisle seat was hers. Amelia could think of nothing to do but take her seat.
“Well,” he said.
“Well,” she said.
“I didn’t expect to see you on this flight.”
“Neither did I,” she said. “Expect to see you, I mean. I mean I knew I was going to be on this flight, but I didn’t expect to see you.”
Did he pause to let the air absorb her extra words? Amelia wasn’t sure.
“I remember hearing that you were going to Oregon after the funeral, but I thought you’d be driving.”
“I was,” she said, noticing, but not yet processing, what Mark said he knew. “I had planned to drive. Except I’m not, as it turns out. Not driving, I mean.”
Mark permitted himself a small smile. “I see.”
“I was going to drive,” Amelia began again, “but the clutch went out on me. Actually on the way over to the lawyer’s office the day after I saw you—after the funeral. They’re still working on it,” she said.
“Ah right,” he said. “I remember.” Then he paused. “Really?” he couldn’t quite bring himself to say it, but she heard it anyway.
“Oh Christ,” she said, snapping back into herself. “Yes, the clutch! I’ve only ever owned manuals, you know?”
Mark did not know, but he nodded affirmatively, as if he had just remembered this intimate detail. Amelia might have imagined it, but the way his body turned toward her at that moment suggested that he wished he had known, because he wouldn’t have forgotten.
“Oh right, of course!” he said. “Well, that’s terrible timing.” He sat back in his seat but continued to look at her, like a first-chair violinist looks to the conductor. She didn’t move. “So what now?” he asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” she said. “I’ll have to see what state things are in when I get there. I haven’t been home since June, you know.”
“Of course.” He paused. Then he said, “Well, when’s your flight back?”
“I’m not sure about that either,” she said. “I left the return open.” She looked at him as if he had just spoken in a language she had never heard before. “Why are you on this flight, anyway?”
“Ah. I’m headed down to Corvallis.”
“That’s where the lab is?”
“Yes. And my house. And Bruce.”
At that moment, the flight attendant’s safety instructions began, which gave them both permission to withdraw from each other. But once they reached cruising altitude and the pilot turned off the seatbelt sign, Mark turned toward her again.
“About that time in the library,” he said, “and my email after graduation.”
“Please,” she said. “It’s water under the bridge. Ancient history. Totally forgotten.”
“Is it?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, it is.” It was more a request than a statement.
“Ok,” he said. “If you’re sure?”
“Yes,” she said, “I’m sure. I’m just so tired. I’m sure,” she said.
“Ok,” he said. “But,” he added, after a moment, “if you ever want to talk about it, we can, you know.”
She put her head back on the headrest, and turned her face toward him. He looked like he meant it. “I know,” she said. “Thank you.”
They didn’t say much for the rest of the flight. When they landed, they wished each other well and went their separate ways.
Late one October night, almost two months after the funeral, Amelia sat alone in her dead mother’s dark kitchen. She couldn’t sleep. What was she doing? The lab was starting to pressure her: was she coming back next June, after her leave? If not, they wanted to post the position. She didn’t know. It had been only a few months since her mother died and Charles still needed her help—he wasn’t stable yet and she was, and they both knew it. But deep down she knew if she didn’t have a plan for her own life, she could easily fall into this one and never get out. The idea was intolerable.
She liked her work at the lab but she hated the lead scientist on the grant. And while she didn’t hate Bruce—God, it would be so much easier if she did—some part of her knew it was over with him, too. Sitting in the dark and reflecting on their time together in September, it became clear to her. The desire she had for him was, from the start, more about herself than about him. It was a desire born out of the need to protect, not share, herself. She had never longed for him, perhaps because when she met him, she was uninterested in herself.
She realized she loved Bruce but had never been in love with him, and the difference was a terrible one. She never felt so distant from another person, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to try to close the gap. It didn’t feel like the kind of gap that could close.
She was going to have to tell him. It was not going to be easy. She suppressed the urge to take out a notepad and pen to make notes for the conversation she would have with him, maybe tomorrow. She knew she was going to need some sort of crutch for that call, and making notes was the best she could do. But she was too tired, even for that. “That’s enough for one night, Amelia,” she told herself. “Go back to bed.”
The next night: a repeat. Amelia, unable to sleep, back in the dark kitchen. Her brother, upstairs, sound asleep or maybe writing or at least otherwise quiet. Who knew what a grieving, unmarried, depressed, hopefully not alcoholic fifty-five-year-old man did late at night? Especially one so stuck? But how could he be so stuck? she wondered. Unlike him, impatience greeted her first thing each morning. Sleeplessness, each night. Each day, these companions suggested to her with increasing intensity that her life was happening without her, out there, somewhere. Not back in Oregon, but not in Faye’s house either.
It seemed the opposite for Charles. For him, the pull was to statis. For her, the pull was from deep in the unreachable atmosphere. It felt diffuse but it was concentrating, she could tell. Try as she might she could not catch a clear glimpse of its source or its destination, let alone its path. She just felt it; she knew it was there.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” she said out loud, into the darkness. “Let’s go,” she said again, to herself. She was met with the silence of indifference.
She then noticed moonlight glinting off some shiny gold lettering running along the spine of a cookbook across the room. She knew it was a cookbook because it was coming from the shelf where her mother had kept the cookbooks. Which should be boxed and donated by now, she thought, her critical mind engaged without hesitation.
“Ok, what now?” she said out loud, perhaps to Frito, who had hopped up into her lap. Or perhaps she was simply speaking to herself, or maybe even to Bruce, to whom she had spoken earlier in the evening. He had refused to accept her position.
“You’re just tired,” he had said. “You need some sleep.” She couldn’t argue with the fact of being tired, and in fact she was too tired to try to convince him again that it wasn’t just that. So she had hung up, leaving it unresolved.
She got up from the table and crossed the quiet kitchen to the cookbooks. She took hold of the slim, small, glimmering one; the one that had called to her, like a lighthouse. She was surprised something so small had reflected so much light—she barely felt any weight when she pulled it from the rest of the volumes—heavier ones—buttressing it on the shelf. She carried it back to the table.
She put it down. “The Art of Southern Cooking,” by Mildred Evans Warren. She ignored Frito as best she could, giving her attention to the worn, yellowed volume. Opened in front of her, she noticed some pages stained with old grease or sauce—evidence, she thought, of her mother’s presence. She tried to remember Faye using this book but she couldn’t. She picked it up, carefully studying its title, sensing its physical properties, willing some memory to come to her. None did. She realized: this must be from Charles’s time, not hers. She checked the publication date. 1969. Yes, before her time.
She set the book down again and flipped it open to a random recipe. A casserole. Not knowing why, because she had zero interest in anything casserole, she read on. “Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. . . add the flour, and whisk until thickened and bubbly. . .”
She recalled running into Mark on the flight to Portland. She had seen him again, once since then, at an art auction that the college had held in Faye’s honor. There, as at the funeral home, he had approached her.
“I might get used to seeing you around here again,” he’d said.
“Oh, please, don’t,” said Amelia. He looked hurt. “Emphasis on around here,” she added, “not on you. I mean me. I mean you. Oh you know what I mean!”
“I’d laugh if it weren’t so painful,” he said.
“That was terrible. I didn’t mean it that way,” she said. “I meant I just can’t get stuck here. I just can’t get stuck.”
“Now that I get.” They both looked down at their feet.
“Hey,” she said, looking up again, “you know what I was thinking about the other day?”
He shrugged, but with wide eyes.
“No, of course you don’t,” she said. “But it was about our class. One particular day, actually.”
He was searching her face, or so it seemed, which she took as evidence of curiosity. So she continued. “Do you remember that day in class when—I think we were doing a Jane Austen thing—”
“Well that I definitely remember,” he said.
“And you were talking about . . . now which book was it . . .”
He looked at her expectantly.
“Was it Pride and Prejudice? No wait! Actually, it was Persuasion. It must have been Persuasion. You were talking about the point in the plot when Wentworth writes to Anne and . . .” She stopped, and looked to him for some sign.
“I remember that point, of course. It’s pivotal,” he said. “When Wentworth confesses everything to her.”
“Yes. And do you remember what you did?”
“What I did?” he looked confused. She nodded. He thought. “Well, hmmm. I am sure I should say yes but I’m pretty sure I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You looked right at me.”
“Right at the moment you said something like, ‘And he wrote to her! Confessing his abiding love, despite everything, he wrote to her,’ you looked right at me. You stopped scanning the class and stayed with me.”
“You did. It felt like forever.”
“Well I . . . I guess I can’t say one way or the other, but I don’t think I meant to.” He looked both a little embarrassed and also unsure of himself, but he was smiling.
“Oh, you did,” she ventured. “In fact I know you did. I felt it.” She put her shoulders back, just a little, and waited.
He looked at her. This time neither of them looked down. “Then I’m sure I did,” he had said, finally. “I guess I’m not all that surprised.”
“Ok then,” she said. “Well.” She had felt so vindicated at that moment she could hardly contain herself, but she knew she should. “What now?” she had asked. “Do you want a drink? Let’s get a drink. I think the bar has wine over there,” she had said.
Back in the darkened kitchen, Amelia began to let herself fully absorb the idea of this Mark, this man, not the one she thought she knew, or the one she thought she didn’t know. After some time, how much she could not say, Frito jumped up onto the open cookbook on the table. Amelia shooed him away and back down to the floor. The cat protested with a sour meow but then jumped back up on her lap.
“You stay there,” she told him, and turned her attention back to the recipe.
“Add the milk . . . continue whisking while the broth thickens.” There it was again. She closed the book. She was aware that it wasn’t Bruce she was thinking of. And yet, she tried not to think about Mark, either. Old professor—it was too cliché—too ridiculous. Stop. Bruce was reliable, dependable. . . boring. “Face it, Frito, Bruce is boring.” The cat had jumped back onto the table and was pawing at the edges of the cookbook.
Amelia pushed aside images of Bruce. Mark had invited her to coffee as the auction wound down. She hadn’t committed to going. She still wasn’t sure what had happened between them years ago, but whatever it was, it was still with her, and it seemed with him as well. She didn’t want it to be; she really, really, really wanted to have put this behind her. But when she could no longer think of anything but Mark, she decided perhaps she could try to find out, over coffee. Not casserole. And she decided she would call Bruce back, and make it final.
Amelia and Mark met on the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving at the coffee shop with all the couches, each one with its own side table and fake Tiffany lamp. She arrived first and sat down in the corner of a brown leather couch, angling herself toward the shop’s front door. Except her nerves drove her to her phone, and she missed him coming in. He missed her too, realizing only after he walked past her. He came back, looking at her tentatively.
“Hi,” he said.
“Can I sit down?”
“Of course,” she said, gesturing to the other end of the couch.
They made a bit of small talk about the upcoming holiday—he and another professor were co-hosting the international students who had nowhere to go for the American dinner; she and Charles were hosting a few cousins and some random friends at Faye’s house.
“No Bruce?” Mark asked.
“No Bruce. I broke up with him a few weeks ago.”
“Don’t be. It was a while in coming. Sometimes you need a jolt to get you moving, you know?”
“I do,” he said. A few moments passed in silence.
“So what about you? What got you moving after Holly left?”
“I’m not sure I am moving,” he said, his attention seemingly held by a mounted deer head on the wall opposite them. “It was rough with Holly for a long time. Funny how you think that will make the end easier, but it doesn’t. Or at least, it didn’t for me.” He looked back to her, and she became aware of the way time had grooved his skin.
“And then, when we finally gave up, I was just spent.”
“I’m sorry,” Amelia said.
“Thanks,” he said. “It’s ok. Turns out we are better friends than lovers, you know? It’s not so bad, now that we’re no longer constantly disappointing each other.” Mark’s desire to put her at ease with his discomfort was palpable. It made her restless; it energized her.
“Hey, here’s an idea. You still hike?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, “but I haven’t been out in a while.”
“I haven’t either. So let’s do something about that,” she said. “Do you have any favorite trails around here?”
“You know, I used to love that trail at Bear Paw State Park. You suggested it to me when we first met—do you remember?”
“Of course,” she said, then wished she had sounded less sure.
“Well, are you stuck in town this weekend too?” Her idea had now become his, it seemed. She nodded.
“Ok good. Well me too. Since we’re both stuck, let’s start hiking off the turkey and stuffing on Friday. If I remember right, that trail takes about three hours in this weather. What do you say?”
The lines on his face softened. At that moment, he looked about sixteen years old. “I say ‘what turkey?’ I’m a vegetarian.”
His sixteen-year-old expression was immediately replaced with one of the professor’s: eyes slightly narrowed, bringing back the lines. “Fine. We’ll hike off the pie. You eat pie, don’t you?”
“Oh yes,” she said, still studying his expression. “I eat pie.”
“Pecan or pumpkin?”
Professor, she thought. “This is a trick question,” she said.
“How did you know?” he asked.
Amelia undid the scarf around her neck, and pulled her hair out from where it had been held in by the scarf. Her neck was warm. She remembered that he had been born in South Carolina, so that answered the question of pie. “Ok fine,” she said. “Let’s go hiking on Friday. Meet you at the trailhead at, what time? 9 a.m.?”
“Can it be 10?” The teenager was back.
“Ok, meet you at the trailhead at 10,” she said.
“For being here."
In January, Amelia felt it: a quickening. The inevitability of more change. Big change. The irreversibility of it. Yet the art and house remained unsold, and Charles remained a deconstructed heap. With no ability to prod him to action, she finally accepted that she needed to be in Rocky Mountain for longer than the year. She was going to have to officially resign and relocate. That would be easier now, without Bruce. But she refused, however, to stay in Faye’s house indefinitely with Charles. The longer she did, the longer it would take him to pull himself together.
By February, they had made a deal. She would resign her position in Oregon and look for a new one in Rocky Mountain, on one condition: that Charles begin therapy. Charles had always been a brooder. But having lost his mother—the one woman he had forgiven for betraying him, unlike Lisa—he was inching closer to finally admitting to his depression. It had lived within him as long as Amelia could remember. He finally agreed. Amelia went with him to his first few appointments. It wasn’t long before the psychiatrist, a man named Dr. Michaels, put him on antidepressants, and started to talk to him about AA.
“How long will you stay with him? Your brother, I mean,” Mark asked her, one late February day as they hiked the trail at Bear Paw State Park, for the fourth time since Thanksgiving. She had just told him about her decision to resign her position at the lab for good and, at least for the foreseeable future, relocate to Rocky Mountain. She had told him how much Charles needed her.
“But I’m not sure I can stay in that house much longer,” Amelia said. “I promised Faye I’d look after him, but I didn’t promise to live with him. It’s making me crazy.”
They walked on silently for a while, the only sound coming from the crunch of the snow’s crust under their boots, and their breathing, which was visible, as well as audible, in the cold.
“You know, Amelia,” Mark said, after a while, stopping in his tracks.
“You could always stay with me.”
She said nothing.
“Temporarily, of course, or whatever you want,” Mark offered. “Whatever works.”
“Mark,” Amelia said. He waited. “I’m in no place to . . . for . . . making plans or commitments or . . .”
“I know,” he said, and then paused. They walked on. “Amelia.” He saw her turn toward him. “Whatever you need.”
Amelia considered this.
“Well. What I would need before anything else is to talk about what this would look like,” she said finally. “Like, it would only be temporary, okay? A month or two. Just so I can get out of Faye’s house. I mean, this can’t be some big dramatic white horse rescue thing, ok?”
“Whatever you need,” he said again.
“Huh,” she said. She caught sight of a red-tailed hawk soaring off in the distance. She turned from him to follow its flight. She had felt so trapped—almost feral in her need to run, to chase her impatience away, to scratch out a new place for herself. But she didn’t feel that now. Here, in the snow, on the ridge in the mountain in the cold, for just a moment, she relaxed. When she could no longer see the hawk, she turned back to Mark. “Then maybe we should have dinner and really talk about this.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” he said. “How about tonight? I can cook, you know.” Amelia nodded, and they continued their hike.
“Charles? Did she call you?” Amelia asked again when Charles continued to say nothing about the real estate agent.
“I’ve been busy.” Charles cocked his head back toward the piles on the dining room table.
“Of course,” she said. “But maybe now that the draft is in Roger’s hands. . .”
“Stop it, Amelia, please,” Charles said. “I’ll call her back in a few weeks. I need to see Dr. Michaels again and get this medication worked out first.”
She braced herself. She knew how long it could take to get the medication just right, and by now—seven months after her mother’s death—she could not wait any longer. In that still point, she recalled being at the pharmacy at the center of town, just an hour ago, picking up prescriptions for him. She remembered signing the credit card receipt, the way she had a million times before. But this time, she had noticed how her signature hovered just over the line, as if it had been offered a chair but couldn’t quite bring itself to sit down. It dawned on her that her signature always looked that way. It always hovered above the line. It never made itself comfortable.
And then she remembered: she didn’t have to wait. She had told Charles before she left three weeks ago that she was going back to Oregon to put some things in storage, put her house on the market, and come back to Rocky Mountain, but that she was considering her options, one of which was Mark. Temporarily, she had told herself. A month or two, she had said to Mark, and Charles, and herself. Maybe long enough to get Faye’s house on the market, or better yet, sold, which would give her enough money for a place of her own. Charles had been, then, unmoved by her threat. “That guy?” was all he had said.
“Look,” she said. She retrieved her tote bag from where she had set it down. She pulled out a white paper bag and handed it to Charles. “I got your prescriptions refilled for you.” She took three orange plastic pill bottles with big white lids out of the white paper bag, and set them down on the kitchen table next to some stacks of mail and the bottle of whiskey. In the shifting light of that March night, she noticed that the dried liquor at the bottom of the glass was coated with a thin layer of dust. That dust spoke volumes.
“You need to change your address,” Charles said, nodding toward the table. Leaving the prescription bottles on the table, he turned and walked out of the kitchen and into the dark hallway that led to the stairs. Frito started to follow, but reconsidered. “You may as well leave your keys when you go,” he called back to her, not turning around. “Try calling ahead next time.”
Amelia started to say, well try answering the damn door next time! but she stopped, and hung her head, lost in the increasingly unfamiliar atmosphere in the house where she had grown up. In earlier years that house had been the scene of countless art department events and faculty parties. But since Faye’s death, it had taken on the feel of a monument with no visitors. And worse: at night, an abandoned one, when even the security guards had gone home.
She listened as Charles climbed the stairs to the second floor. Each fading step seemed to mock the fleeting feeling of hope she’d had moments before. Hope that, with some sobriety and the correct medication, Charles would—oh please let it be true—he would turn the corner and then they could finally get on with their own lives. She closed her eyes and tried to release it all.
An oddly cool feeling of warmth spread across the back of her neck. She looked up and realized she had been standing under the kitchen skylight, and that the moon, full that night, had just come out from underneath a thick cloud cover. She sighed, a long, deep, audible sigh, and put her hands on her hips.
She could go back to the car, get her things, and head back up to her old room, down the hall from Charles. Or, she could go to Mark’s. She had been noncommittal when he first offered, and remained so when they talked about it again. But she had been intrigued—no, more than intrigued—and the thought now of following Charles up those steps was too much.
She thought of the night she had spent with Mark, just before she left three weeks ago. Next to him, late that night in his bed, skin-to-skin and side by side, she felt his hand on her hip. No, she felt the curve of her own hip under his hand. Not until that moment had she become so aware of the contour of her own body. In that moment, she felt substantial. She felt herself. She felt like she existed.
The realization both comforted and deeply unsettled her. She didn’t want it to be true: another person’s—Mark’s—hand on her hip unlocked her body to herself. His skin touching hers gave her access that she didn’t realize she had, until then, been denied.
She also realized that, no matter how she felt about that, it was true.
Scanning the kitchen for her coat, she remembered the mail. Sifting through the stacks on the table was the least she could do. Unsure where her next permanent address would be, from now on her mail would go to a post office box she would rent in town.
She took the few envelopes addressed to her that weren’t junk and put them into her bag, recycling the rest. Partially cleared, she noticed something new on the table: a small, flat, brown paper bag, about half the size of a letter. She picked it up and looked inside.
“Bingo,” she said to Frito. Two new keys. She turned the bag over, and there, in Charles’s slanty, tight script, read “front door.” She pulled out one of the new keys and held it out to Frito, who swatted at it with a paw.
“Maybe this one was for you!” she said.
Amelia took that key and put it in her pocket. She placed the bag back underneath another stack of mail on the table and hoped Charles wouldn’t notice the missing key for a few days. She picked up her tote bag, put on her coat, grabbed her mittens, and headed for the back door.
“I’ll be back Thursday to take you to Dr. Michaels, ok, Charles?” she called into the darkness.
A door, somewhere on the second floor, closed.
“Yeah, ok,” Amelia muttered to herself. “You’re welcome. Don’t mention it.” She looked at Frito, and realizing how hungry he was, decided to feed him. As he ate, she told him, “Really, it’s no problem, Frito. I’ll let myself out. And yes, dear Frito, I’ll be careful on the ice.” Frito never looked up from his bowl.
As instructed, she left the useless keys on the kitchen counter and closed the back door behind her. She double-checked to make sure it latched.
As she made her way through the darkened hedges to the front of the house, she heard a window open.
“Amelia?” It was Charles.
She stopped, turned, and looked up again to the window with the flickering light.
“Bring some orange juice when you come, will you?”
“Pulp or no pulp?” she asked her brother’s figure in the window. He could never make up his mind on the issue of pulp.
“No pulp.” He closed the window. It was still frigid outside.
“Right,” she said, and walked back to her parked car, which she then drove over to Mark’s.
Temporarily, she reminded herself, as she stood before his front door, and rang the bell.