He closes the car door, but he stands there watching. Even if she doesn’t look, Sally knows he hasn’t walked away. This is the way it has to be. She’ll be removed forever, distant as stars, unhurt and untouched, forever and ever. Sally steps on the gas, knowing that if she turned to see, she’d find he was still standing in the parking lot. But she doesn’t look back, because if she did she’d also discover how much she wants him, for all the good it will ever do her.
Gary does watch her drive away, and he’s watching still when the first bit of lightning cracks across the sky. He’s there when the crab apple on the far side of the parking lot turns white with heat; he’s close enough to feel the charge, and he’ll feel it all the way home, as he’s high above them in the sky, headed west. With a close call like that, it makes perfect sense that he’ll be shaking as he turns the key in his own front door. As Gary understands it, the greatest portion of grief is the one you dish out for yourself, and he and Sally have both served themselves from the same table tonight, the only difference being that he knows what he’s missing, and she has no idea of what’s causing her to cry as she drives down the Turnpike.
When Sally gets home, her dark hair loose, her mouth bruised by kisses, Gillian is waiting up for her. She’s sitting in the kitchen, drinking tea and listening to the thunder.
“Did you fuck him?” Gillian says.
The question is both completely startling and totally commonplace, since it’s Gillian who’s asking. Sally actually laughs. “No.”
“Too bad,” Gillian says. “I thought you would. I thought you were hooked. You had that look in your eye.”
“You were wrong,” Sally says.
“Did he at least make you a deal? Did he tell you we’re not suspects? Will he let it slide?”
“He has to think it over.” Sally sits down at the table. She feels the way she would if someone had smacked her. The weight of never seeing Gary again descends like a cloak made of ashes. She thinks about his kisses and the way he touched her, and she gets turned inside out all over again. “He has a conscience.”
“Just our luck. And it only gets worse.”
Tonight the wind will continue to rise, until there’s not a single trashcan left standing on the street. The clouds will be as tall as black mountains. In the backyard, beneath the hedge of thorns, the earth will turn to mud, and then to water, a pool of deception and regret.
“Jimmy’s not staying buried. First the ring, then a boot. I’m afraid to guess what’s going to come up next. I start to think about it, and I just kind of black out. I listened to the news, and the storm that’s coming is going to be bad.”
Sally moves her chair closer to Gillian’s. Their knees touch. Their pulse rate is exactly the same, the way it always was during a thunderstorm. “What do we do?” Sally whispers.
It’s the first time she’s ever asked for Gillian’s opinion or advice, and Gillian follows her example. It’s actually true, what they say about asking for help. Take a deep breath and it hurts a whole lot less to admit it out loud.
“Call the aunts,” Gillian tells Sally. “Do it now.”
ON the eighth day of the eighth month the aunts arrive on a Greyhound bus. The minute the driver hops down, he makes certain to get their black suitcases from the luggage compartment first thing, even though the larger of their suitcases is so heavy he has to use all his strength just to budge it and he nearly tears a ligament when he lifts it out.
“Hold your horses,” he advises the other passengers, who are all complaining that they’re the ones who must have their suitcases now in order to catch a connecting bus or run to meet a husband or a friend. The driver just ignores them and goes about his business. “I wouldn’t want you ladies to wait,” he tells the aunts.
The aunts are so old it’s impossible to tell their age. Their hair is white and their spines are crooked. They wear long black skirts and laced leather boots. Though they haven’t left Massachusetts in more than forty years, they’re certainly not intimidated by travel. Or by anything else, for that matter. They know what they want and they’re not afraid to be outspoken, which is why they pay no attention to the other passengers’ complaints, and continue to direct the driver on how to place the larger suitcase on the curb carefully.
“What have you got in here?” the driver jokes. “A ton of bricks?”
The aunts don’t bother to answer; they have very little tolerance for dim-witted humor, and they’re not interested in making polite conversation. They stand on the corner near the bus station and whistle for a taxi; as soon as one pulls over, they tell the driver exactly where to go—along the Turnpike for seven miles, past the mall and the shopping centers, past the Chinese restaurant and the deli and the ice cream shop where Antonia has worked this summer. The aunts smell like lavender and sulfur, a disquieting mixture, and maybe that’s the reason the taxi driver holds the door open for them when they arrive at Sally’s house, even though they didn’t bother to tip him. The aunts don’t believe in tips, and they never have. They believe in earning your worth and doing the job right. And, when you come right down to it, that’s what they’re here for.