The day the painting arrived, Gillian came home from work smelling of french fries and sugar. Since Sally had chopped down the lilacs, every day was better than the one before. The sky was bluer, the butter set out on the table was sweeter, and it was possible to sleep through the night without nightmares or fears of the dark. Gillian sang while she wiped off the counters at the Hamburger Shack; she whistled on her way to the post office or the bank. But when she went upstairs and opened the door to Kylie’s room to find herself face to face with Maria, she let out a screech that frightened all the sparrows in the neighbors’ yards and set the dogs howling.
“What a dreadful surprise,” she said to Kylie.
Gillian went as close to Maria Owens as she dared. She had the urge to drape a towel over the portrait, or to replace it with something cheerful and ordinary, a brightly toned painting of puppies playing tug of war, or children at a tea party setting out cakes for their teddy bears. Who needed the past right there on the wall? Who needed anything that had once been in the aunts’ house, up on the gloomy landing, beside the threadbare drapes.
“This is way too creepy to have in the bedroom,” Gillian informed her niece. “We’re taking it down.”
“Maria is not creepy,” Kylie said. Kylie’s hair was growing out, leaving her with a brown streak half an inch wide in the center of her head. She should have looked odd and unfinished; instead she was growing even more beautiful. In fact, she resembled Maria; side by side, they might even appear to be twins. “I like her,” Kylie told her aunt, and since it was her bedroom, that was that.
Gillian claimed she would be too nervous to sleep with Maria hanging above them, she’d have nightmares and perhaps even the shakes, but that’s not the way it’s turned out. She’s stopped thinking about Jimmy completely and no longer worries that someone will come looking for him; if he owed money or had cut a bad deal, the men who’d been wronged would have been there by now, they would have come and taken what they wanted and already been gone. Now that the portrait of Maria is on the wall, Gillian has been sleeping even more deeply. Each morning she wakes with a smile on her face. She’s not as frightened of the backyard as she used to be, although every now and then she drags Kylie to the window, just to make certain Jimmy hasn’t come back. Kylie always insists she has nothing to worry about. The garden is clear and green. The lilacs have been cut so close to their roots it may be years before they sprout again. Once in a while something casts a shadow across the lawn, but it’s probably the toad who has taken up residence in the roots of the lilacs. They’d know if it was Jimmy, wouldn’t they? They’d feel more threatened and much more vulnerable.
“No one is out there,” Kylie has promised. “He’s gone.” And maybe he really is, because Gillian isn’t crying anymore, not even in her sleep, and those bruises he left on her arms have disappeared, and she’s started to date Ben Frye.
The decision to take a chance with Ben came upon her suddenly, as she was driving home from work in Jimmy’s Oldsmobile, which still had beer cans rattling around somewhere under the seat. Ben continued to call several times a day, but that couldn’t go on forever, even though he had amazing patience. As a boy, he had taken eight months to teach himself to escape from a pair of iron handcuffs. Before he mastered the art of putting a match out under his tongue, he burned the roof of his mouth, again and again, so that for weeks afterward he could consume nothing but buttermilk and pudding. Illusions that lasted only seconds on a stage took months or even years to understand and execute. But love was not about practice and preparation, it was pure chance; if you took your time with it you ran the risk of having it evaporate before it had even begun. Sooner or later, Ben was bound to give up. He’d be on his way to see her, he’d have a book under his arm in order to pass the time while he waited for her on the porch, and he’d suddenly think, Nope, just like that, out of the blue. All Gillian had to do was close her eyes and she could see the expression of doubt that would spread across his face. Not today, he’d decide and he’d turn around to head for home and he probably wouldn’t ever come back.
Speculating about the time when Ben finally stopped chasing after her made Gillian sick to her stomach. The world without him, without his phone calls and his faith, didn’t interest her in the least. And who was she protecting him from, really? That careless girl who broke people’s hearts and asked for nothing more than a good time was gone. Jimmy had seen to that. That girl was so long ago and so far away that Gillian couldn’t even remember why she’d thought she’d ever been in love before, or what she’d thought she was getting from all those men, who never knew who she was in the first place.