“Come with us,” Kylie says to her.
“Go on,” Gillian advises the girls. “I’ll be right here.”
Kylie and Antonia hurry to the driveway and throw themselves at the aunts. They hoot and holler and dance the aunts around until they are all flushed and out of breath. When Sally phoned and explained about the problem in the yard, the aunts listened carefully, then assured her they’d be on the bus to New York as soon as they set out food for the last remaining cat, old Magpie. The aunts always kept their promises, and they still do. They believe that every problem has a solution, although it may not be the outcome that was originally hoped for or expected.
For instance, the aunts had never expected their own lives to be so completely altered by a single phone call in the middle of the night those many years ago. It was October and cold, and the big house was drafty; the sky outside was so gloomy it pushed down on anyone who dared to walk beneath it. The aunts had their schedule, to which they kept no matter what. They took their walk in the morning, then read and wrote in their journals, then had lunch—the same lunch every day—mashed parsnips and potatoes, noodle pudding, and apple tart for dessert. They napped in the afternoon and did their business at twilight, should anyone come to the back door. They always had their supper in the kitchen—beans and toast, soup and crackers—and they kept the lights turned low, to save on electricity. Every night they faced the dark, since they could never sleep.
Their hearts had been broken on the night those two brothers ran across the town green; they’d been broken so hard and so suddenly that the aunts never again allowed themselves to be taken by surprise, not by lightning, and certainly not by love. They believed in their schedules and very little else. Occasionally they would attend a town meeting, where their stern presence could easily sway a vote, or they’d visit the library, where the sight of their black skirts and boots induced silence in even the rowdiest book borrowers.
The aunts assumed they knew their life and all that it would bring. They were well acquainted with their own fates, or so they believed. They were quite convinced nothing could come between their present and their own quiet deaths, in bed, of course, from pneumonia and complications of the flu at the ages of ninety-two and ninety-four. But they must have missed something, or perhaps it’s simply that one can never predict one’s own fortune. The aunts never imagined that a small and serious voice would phone in the middle of the night, demanding to be taken in, disrupting everything. That was the end of parsnips and potatoes at lunch. Instead, the aunts got used to peanut butter and jelly, graham crackers and alphabet soup, Mallomar cookies and handfuls of M&M’s. How odd that they would be grateful to have had to deal with sore throats and nightmares. Without those two girls, they would never have had to run down the hall in their bare feet in the middle of the night to see which one had a stomach virus and which one was sleeping tight.
Frances comes to the porch to better assess her niece’s house.
“Modern, but very nice,” she announces.
Sally feels the sting of pride. It’s as high a compliment as Aunt Frances would ever give; it means that Sally’s done it all on her own, and done well. Sally’s grateful for any kind words or deeds; she can use them. She was awake all night because every time she closed her eyes she’d see Gary so clearly it was as if he were there beside her at the kitchen table, in the easy chair, in her bed. She has a tape that keeps playing inside her head, over and over, and she can’t seem to stop it. Gary Hallet is touching her right now, he has his hands on her as she leans to grab her aunt’s suitcase. When she tries to lift this piece of luggage, Sally is shocked to discover she hasn’t the strength to do it alone. Something inside rattles like beads, or bricks, or perhaps even bones.
“For the problem in the yard,” Aunt Frances explains.
“Ah,” Sally says.
Aunt Jet comes over and links her arm through Sally’s. During the summer that Jet turned sixteen, two local boys killed themselves for her love. One tied iron bars to his ankles and drowned himself in a quarry. The other was done in on the train tracks outside of town by the 10:02 to Boston. Of all the Owens women, Jet Owens was the most beautiful, and she never even noticed. She preferred cats to human beings and turned down every offer from the men who fell in love with her. The only one she ever cared for was that boy who was hit by lightning when he and his brother went tearing off across the town green to prove how brave and daring they were. Sometimes, late at night, Jet and Frances both hear the sound of those boys laughing as they run through the rain, then stumble into the darkness. Their voices are still young and filled with expectation, exactly as they sounded at the moment they were struck down.