“I look awful, right?” Gillian says. There’s a catch in her voice. A minute ago she was eighteen and climbing out her bedroom window, and now here she is, all used up.
The aunts cluck louder and come to embrace Gillian. It is so unlike their usual cool style that a sob escapes from Gillian’s throat. To their credit, the aunts have learned a thing or two since they were snagged into raising two little girls. They’ve watched Oprah; they know what can happen when you hide your love away. As far as they’re concerned, Gillian is more attractive than ever, but then the Owens women have always been known for their beauty, as well as the foolish choices they make when they’re young. In the twenties, their cousin Jinx, whose watercolors can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts, was too headstrong to listen to a word anyone else said; she got drunk on cold champagne, threw her satin shoes over a high stone wall, then danced on broken glass until dawn and never walked again. The most beloved of the great-aunts, Barbara Owens, married a man with a skull as thick as a mule’s who refused to have electricity or plumbing put into their house, insisting such things were fads. Their favorite cousin, April Owens, lived in the Mojave Desert for twelve years, collecting spiders in jars filled with formaldehyde. A decade or two on the rocks gives a person character. Although she’d never believe it, those lines in Gillian’s face are the most beautiful part about her. They reveal what she’s gone through and what she’s survived and who exactly she is, deep inside.
“Well,” Gillian says when she’s done crying. She wipes at her eyes with her hands. “Who would have thought I’d get so emotional?”
The aunts settle in, and then Sally pours them each a small glass of gin and bitters, which they always appreciate, and which they particularly like to get them started when there’s work to be done.
“Let’s talk about the fellow in the backyard,” Frances says. “Jimmy.”
“Do we have to?” Gillian groans.
“We do,” Aunt Jet is sorry to say. “Just little things about him. For instance—how did he die?”
Antonia and Kylie are gulping diet Cokes and listening like crazy. The hair on their arms is standing on end; this could get really interesting.
Sally has brought a pot of mint tea to the table, along with a chipped cup her daughters gave her one Mother’s Day, which has always been her favorite. Sally can’t drink coffee anymore; the scent of it conjures Gary up so completely she could have sworn he was sitting at the table when Gillian was pouring water through the filter this morning. She tells herself it’s the lack of caffeine that’s been making her lethargic, but that’s not what’s wrong. She’s been unusually quiet today, moody enough to make Antonia and Kylie take notice. She seems so different. The girls have had the feeling that the woman who was once their mother is gone forever. It’s not only that her black hair is loose, instead of being pulled away from her face; it’s how sad she looks, how far away.
“I don’t think we should discuss this in front of the children, ” Sally says.
But the children are riveted; they’ll die if they don’t hear what happened next; they simply won’t be able to stand it.
“Mother!” they cry.
They’re almost women. And there’s not a thing Sally can do about it. So she shrugs and nods to Gillian, giving her the okay.
“Well,” Gillian says, “I guess I killed him.”
The aunts exchange a look. In their opinion this is one thing Gillian is not capable of. “How?” they ask. This is the girl who would scream if she stepped on a spider in her bare feet. If she pricked her finger and drew blood she’d announce she was ready to faint and then proceed to fall on the floor.
Gillian admits she used nightshade, a plant she always had contempt for when she was a child, pretending it was ragweed so she could give it a good pull when the aunts asked her to clear out the garden. When the aunts ask for the dosage she used and Gillian tells them, the aunts nod, pleased. Exactly as they thought. If the aunts know anything, they know nightshade. Such a dosage wouldn’t kill a fox terrier, let alone a six-foot-tall man.
“But he’s dead,” Gillian says, stunned to hear that her remedy could not have killed him. She turns to Sally. “I know he was dead.”
“Definitely dead,” Sally agrees.
“Not by your hand.” Frances could not be more certain of it. “Not unless he was a chipmunk.”
Gillian throws her arms around the aunts. Aunt Frances’s announcement has filled her with hope. It’s a silly and ridiculous thing to possess at her age, particularly on this awful night, but Gillian doesn’t give a damn. Better late than never, that’s the way she sees it.