Sally offered to pick them up at the bus station, but the aunts would have none of that. They can get around just fine on their own. They prefer to come to a place slowly, and that’s what they’re doing now. The lawns are wet, and the air is motionless and thick, the way it always is before a storm. A haze hangs over the houses and the chimney tops. The aunts stand in Sally’s driveway, between the Honda and Jimmy’s Oldsmobile, their black suitcases set down beside them. They close their eyes, to get a sense of this place. In the poplar trees, the sparrows watch with interest. The spiders stop spinning their webs. The rain will begin after midnight, on this the aunts agree. It will fall in sheets, like rivers of glass. It will fall until the whole world seems silver and turned upside down. You can feel such things when you have rheumatism, or when you’ve lived as long as the aunts have.
Inside the house, Gillian feels twitchy, the way people do before lightning is about to strike. She’s wearing old blue jeans and a black cotton shirt, and her hair’s uncombed. She’s like a kid who refuses to dress up for company. But the company’s arrived anyway; Gillian can feel their presence. The air is as dense as chocolate cake, the good kind, made without flour. The ceiling light in the living room has begun to sway; its metal chain makes a clackety sound, as if somewhere a top had been spun too fast. Gillian yanks the curtains back and takes a look.
“Oh, my god,” she says. “The aunts are in the driveway.”
Outside, the air is turning even thicker, like soup, and it has a yellow, sulfury odor, which some people find rather pleasant and others experience as so revolting they slam their windows shut, then turn their air conditioners on high. By evening, the wind will be strong enough to carry off small dogs and toss children from their swing sets, but for now it’s just a slight breeze. Linda Bennett has pulled into her driveway next door; when she gets out of her car, she has a bag of groceries balanced on her hip and she waves to the aunts with her free hand. Sally mentioned that some elderly relatives might arrive for a visit.
“They’re a bit odd,” Sally warned her next-door neighbor, but to Linda they look like sweet little old ladies.
Linda’s daughter, who used to be Jessie and now calls herself Isabella, slides out of the passenger seat and wrinkles her nose—through which she has taken to wearing three silver rings—as if she smells something rotten. She looks over and sees the aunts studying Sally’s house.
“Who are those old bats?” the so-called Isabella asks her mother.
Her words are carried across the lawn, each nasty syllable falling into Sally’s driveway with a clatter. The aunts turn and look at Isabella with their clear gray eyes, and when they do she feels something absolutely weird in her fingers and her toes, a sensation so threatening and strange that she runs into the house, gets into bed, and pulls the covers over her head. It will be weeks before this girl mouths off to her mother, or anyone else, and even then she’ll think twice, she’ll reconsider, then rephrase, with a “Please” or a “Thank you” thrown in.
“Let me know if you need anything during your visit,” Linda calls to Sally’s aunts, and all at once she feels better than she has in years.
Sally has come to stand beside her sister, and she taps on the window to get the aunts’ attention. The aunts look up and blink; and when they spy Sally and Gillian on the other side of the glass, they wave, just as they did when the girls first arrived at the airport in Boston. For Sally to see the aunts in her own driveway, however, is like seeing two worlds collide. It would be no less unusual for a meteorite to have landed beside the Oldsmobile, or for shooting stars to drift across the lawn, than it is to have the aunts here at last.
“Come on,” Sally says, tugging on Gillian’s sleeve, but Gillian just shakes her head no.
Gillian hasn’t seen the aunts for eighteen years, and although they haven’t aged as much as she, she never quite took notice of how old they were. She always thought of them together, a unit, and now she sees that Aunt Frances is nearly six inches taller than her sister, and that Aunt Bridget, whom they always called Aunt Jet, is actually cheerful and plump, like a little hen dressed up in black skirts and boots.
“I need time to process this,” Gillian says.
“Two minutes had better be enough,” Sally informs her, as she goes outside to welcome their guests.
“The aunts!” Kylie shouts when she sees they’ve arrived. She calls upstairs to Antonia, who rushes to join her, taking two steps at a time. The sisters make a dash for the open door, then realize that Gillian is still at the window.