Antonia, who loved the aunts and had always been their favorite, refused to be consoled. She was wearing one of the black dresses they’d sewn for her at the dressmaker’s on Peabody, and her red hair stuck out from her head in angry wisps. She gave off a sour, lemony odor, which was a mixture of equal parts rage and despair.
“I despise you,” she informed Sally as they sat in the cabin of the ferry that took them across Long Island Sound. It was one of those odd and surprising spring days that suddenly turn nearly as hot as summer. Sally and her children had been eating sticky slices of tangerine and drinking the Cokes they’d bought at the snack bar, but now that the waves had grown wilder, their stomachs were lurching. Sally had just finished a postcard she planned to send to Gillian, although she wasn’t certain whether her sister was still at her last address. Have finally done it, she’d scrawled in handwriting that was looser than anyone would have expected from someone so orderly. Have tied the sheets together and jumped!
“I will hate you for the rest of my life,” Antonia went on, and her little hands formed into fists.
“That’s your prerogative,” Sally said brightly, though deep down she was hurt. She waved the postcard in front of her face in order to cool off. Antonia could really get to her, but this time Sally wasn’t going to let that happen. “I do think you’ll change your mind.”
“No,” Antonia said. “I won’t. I’ll never forgive you.”
The aunts had adored Antonia because she was beautiful and nasty. They encouraged her to be bossy and self-centered, and during that year when Sally had been too sad and broken to speak to her children, or even take an interest in them, Antonia had been allowed to stay up past midnight and order adults around. She ate Butterfingers for dinner and smacked her baby sister with a rolled-up newspaper for fun. She had been doing just as she pleased for some time, and she was smart enough to know all that had changed as of this very day. She threw her tangerine down on the deck and squashed it beneath her foot, and when that didn’t work she cried and pleaded to be taken home.
“Please,” she begged her mother. “I want the aunts. Take me back there. I’ll be good,” she vowed.
By then, Sally was crying too. When she was a girl, the aunts had been the ones to sit up with her all night whenever she’d had an ear infection or the flu; they’d told her stories and fixed her broth and hot tea. They were the ones who’d rocked Gillian when she couldn’t fall asleep, especially at the start, when the girls first came to live at the house on Magnolia Street, and Gillian couldn’t sleep a wink.
There had been a rainstorm the night that Sally and Gillian were told their parents weren’t coming back, and it was their bad fortune that another storm struck when they were in the plane on their way to Massachusetts. Sally was four, but she remembers the lightning they flew through; she can close her eyes and conjure it with no trouble at all. They were right up in the sky alongside those fierce white lines, with no place to hide. Gillian had vomited several times, and when the plane began to land she started to scream. Sally had to hold her hand over her sister’s mouth and promise her gumballs and licorice sticks if she’d only be quiet for a few minutes more.
Sally had picked out their best party dresses to wear for the trip. Gillian’s was a pale violet, Sally’s pink trimmed with ivory lace. They were holding hands as they walked through the airport terminal, listening to the funny sound their crinolines made every time they took a step, when they saw the aunts waiting for them. The aunts stood on tiptoe, the better to see over the barricades; they had balloons tied to their sleeves, so that the children would recognize them. After they hugged the girls and collected their small leather suitcases, the aunts bundled Sally and Gillian into two black wool coats, then reached into their purses and brought out gumballs and red licorice, as if they knew exactly what little girls needed, or, at any rate, exactly what they might want.
Sally was grateful for all the aunts had done, really she was. Still, she had made up her mind. She would get the key at the realtor’s for the house she would later buy, then get hold of some furniture. She would have to find a job eventually, but she had a little money from Michael’s insurance policy, and frankly she wasn’t going to think about the past or the future. She was thinking about the highway in front of her. She was thinking about road signs and right turns, and she just couldn’t afford to listen when Antonia started to howl, which set Kylie off as well. Instead, she switched on the radio and sang along and told herself that sometimes the right thing felt all wrong until it was over and done with.