There is always a time when Sally knows they have to leave. Each August, a night comes when she wakes from a deep sleep, and when she goes to the window she sees that her daughters are out by themselves in the moonlight. There are toads between the cabbages and the zinnias. There are green caterpillars munching at the leaves, preparing to turn into white moths that will fling themselves at screen windows and at the lights that burn brightly beside back doors. There is the same horse’s skull nailed to the fence, bleached white now and falling to dust, but still more than enough to keep people away.
Sally always waits until her girls come inside the house before she crawls back into bed. The very next morning, she will make her excuses and take off a day or two earlier than scheduled. She will wake her daughters, and though they gripe about the early hour and the heat, and will surely be sullen all day, they’ll pile into the car. Before she leaves, Sally will kiss the aunts and promise to phone often. Sometimes her throat closes up when she notices how the aunts are aging, when she sees all those weeds in the garden and the way the wisteria is drooping, since no one ever thinks to give it water or a bit of mulch. Still, she never feels as though she’s made a mistake after she drives down Magnolia Street; she doesn’t allow herself a single regret, not even when her daughters cry and complain. She knows where she’s going, and what she has to do. She could, after all, find her way to Route 95 South blindfolded. She could do it in the dark, in fair weather or foul; she can do it even when it seems she will run out of gas. It doesn’t matter what people tell you. It doesn’t matter what they might say. Sometimes you have to leave home. Sometimes, running away means you’re headed in the exact right direction.
CROSSED knives set out on the dinner table means there’s bound to be a quarrel, but so do two sisters living under the same roof, particularly when one of them is Antonia Owens. At the age of sixteen, Antonia is so beautiful that it’s impossible for any stranger seeing her for the first time to even begin to guess how miserable she can make those closest to her. She is nastier now than she was as a little girl, but her hair is a more stunning shade of red and her smile is so glorious that the boys in the high school all want to sit next to her in class, although once they do, these boys freeze up completely, simply because they’re so close to her, and they can’t help embarrassing themselves by staring at her, all googly-eyed and moon-faced, infatuated beyond belief.
It makes sense that Antonia’s little sister, Kylie, who will soon be thirteen, spends hours locked in the bathroom, crying over how ugly she is. Kylie is one inch short of six feet, a giant, in her book. She’s as skinny as a stork, with knees that hit against each other when she walks. Her nose and eyes are usually pink as a rabbit’s from all the sobbing she’s been doing lately, and she’s just about given up on her hair, which has frizzed up from the humidity. To have a sister who is perfect, at least from the outside, is bad enough. To have one who can make you feel like a speck of dust with a few well-chosen mean words is almost more than Kylie can take.
Part of the problem is that Kylie can never think of a smart comeback when Antonia sweetly inquires whether she’s considered sleeping with a brick on her head or thought about getting herself a wig. She’s tried, she’s even practiced various mean putdowns with her one and only friend, a thirteen-year-old boy named Gideon Barnes, who is a master at the art of grossing people out, and she still can’t do it. Kylie is the sort of tender spirit who cries when someone steps on a spider; in her universe, hurting another creature is an unnatural act. When Antonia teases her, all Kylie can do is open and close her mouth like a fish that has been thrown onto dry land, before locking herself in the bathroom to cry once more. On quiet nights, she curls up on her bed, clutching her old baby blanket, the black wool one that still does not have a single hole, since it somehow seems to repel moths. All up and down the street the neighbors can hear her weeping. They shake their heads and pity her, and some of the women on the block, especially the ones who grew up with older sisters, bring over homemade brownies and chocolate cookies, forgetting what a plateful of sweets can do to a young girl’s skin, thinking only of their own relief from the sound of crying, which echoes through hedges and over fences.
These women in the neighborhood respect Sally Owens, and what’s more, they truly like her. She has a serious expression even when she laughs, and long dark hair, and no idea of how pretty she is. Sally is always the first parent listed on the snow chain, since it’s best to have someone responsible in charge of letting other parents know when school will be closed in stormy weather, rather than one of those ditsy mothers who are prone to believe life will work itself out just fine, without any intervention from somebody sensible. All over the neighborhood, Sally is well known for both her kindness and her prudent ways. If you really need her, she’ll baby-sit for your toddler at a moment’s notice on a Saturday afternoon; she’ll pick your kids up at the high school or lend you sugar or eggs. She’ll sit there with you on your back porch if you should find some woman’s phone number written on a slip of paper in your husband’s night-table drawer, and she’ll be smart enough to listen rather than offer some half-baked advice. More important, she’ll never mention your difficulties again or repeat a word you say. When you ask about her own marriage, she gets a dreamy look on her face that is completely unlike her usual expression. “That was ages ago,” is all she’ll say. “That was another lifetime.”