“Come with us,” Gillian said.
“No,” Sally said. “Impossible.” Certain facts of love she knew for certain. “Only two people can elope.”
There were dozens of stones falling on the roof; there were a thousand stars in the sky.
“I’ll miss you too much,” Gillian said.
“Go on,” Sally said. She’d be the last one in the world to hold her sister back. “Go now.”
Gillian hugged Sally one last time, and then she disappeared out the window. They’d fed the aunts barley soup laced with a generous amount of whiskey, so the old women were asleep on the couch. They never heard a thing. But Sally could hear her sister running down the bluestone path, and she wept all that night and imagined she heard footsteps when nothing was moving outside but the garden toads. In the morning, Sally went outside to collect the white sheets Gillian had left in a heap beside the wisteria. Why was Sally the one who always stayed behind to do laundry? Why did she care that there were dirt stains in the fabric that would need extra bleaching? She had never felt more alone or lonely. If only she could believe in love’s salvation, but desire had been ruined for her. She saw craving as obsession, fervor as heated preoccupation. She wished she had never sneaked down the back stairs to listen in while the aunts’ customers cried and begged and made fools of themselves. All of that had only served to make her love-resistant, and frankly, she thought she’d probably never change.
For the next two years postcards from Gillian would occasionally arrive, with hugs-and-kisses and wish-you-were-heres, but without a forwarding address. During this time Sally had less hope that her life would open up into something other than cooking meals the aunts didn’t want and cleaning a house where the woodwork never needed polishing. She was twenty-one; most of the girls her age were finishing up college, or getting a raise at work so they could move into their own apartments, but the most exciting thing Sally did was walk to the hardware store. Sometimes it took close to an hour for her to choose between cleansers.
“What do you think? What’s best for a kitchen floor?” she’d ask the clerk, a good-looking young man who was so confused by this question he’d simply point to the Lysol. The clerk was six-foot-four, and Sally could never see the expression on his face as he directed her to the preferred cleaning product. If she had been taller, or had climbed up on the stepladder used for stocking the shelves, Sally would have noticed that whenever the clerk looked at her his mouth was open, as if there were words he wished would spill out of their own accord to convey what he was too shy to speak of.
Walking home from the hardware store, Sally kicked at stones. A band of black birds took to following her, screaming and cawing over what a laughable creature she was, and although she cringed each time the birds flew overhead, Sally agreed with them. Her fate appeared to be set. She would forever be scrubbing the floor and calling the aunts in from the garden on afternoons that were too chilly and damp for them to be down in the dirt on their hands and knees. In fact, the days were seeming more and more similar, interchangeable even; she barely noticed the difference between winter and spring. But summertime in the Owens house had its own delineation—that dreadful bird who invaded their peace—and when the next midsummer’s evening arrived, Sally and the aunts were ready for their unwanted guest, as they were every year. They were waiting in the dining room for the sparrow to appear, and nothing happened. Hours passed—they could hear the clock in the parlor—and still, no arrival, no flutter, no feathers. Sally, with her odd fear of birds in flight, had tied a scarf around her head, but now she saw there was no need for it. No bird came in through the window or through the hole in the roof the handyman hadn’t managed to find. It did not fly around three times to announce misfortune. It did not even tap at the window with its small sharp beak.
The aunts looked at each other, puzzled. But Sally laughed out loud. She, with her insistence of proof, had just been granted some powerful evidence: Things changed. They shifted. One year was not just like the next and the one after and the one after that. Sally ran from the house and she kept right on running until she got to the front of the hardware store, where she crashed into the man she would marry. As soon as she looked at him, Sally felt dizzy and had to sit on the curb, with her head down so she wouldn’t faint, and the clerk who knew so much about washing a kitchen floor sat right beside her, even though his boss yelled for him to get back to work, since a line had already formed at the cash register.
The man Sally fell in love with was named Michael. He was so thoughtful and good-natured that he kissed the aunts the first time he met them and immediately asked if they needed their trash taken out to the curb, which won them over then and there, no questions asked. Sally married him quickly, and they moved into the attic, which suddenly seemed the only place in the world where Sally wished to be.