Just then the aunts both tilt their heads at the very same time and make a very little noise low in their throats, a kind of click so close to silence that anyone who wasn’t listening carefully might mistake it for the faint call of a cricket or the sigh of a mouse beneath the floorboards.
“It’s time,” Aunt Frances says.
“We have family business to discuss,” Jet tells Ben as she leads him to the door.
Aunt Jet’s voice is always sweet, yet the tone isn’t one someone would dare to disobey. Ben grabs his rain slicker and waves to Gillian.
“I’ll call you in the morning,” he declares. “I’ll come over for breakfast.”
“Don’t screw this one up,” Aunt Jet tells Gillian after she’s closed the door behind Ben.
“I won’t,” Gillian assures her as well. She goes to the window and takes a look at the backyard. “It’s awful tonight.”
The wind is tearing shingles from the roofs, and every cat in the neighborhood has demanded to be let in or has taken refuge in a window well, to shiver and yowl.
“Maybe we should wait,” Sally ventures.
“Bring the pot around back,” Aunt Jet tells Kylie and Antonia.
The candle in the center of the table casts a circle of wavery light. Aunt Jet takes Gillian’s hand in her own. “We have to see to this now. You don’t put off dealing with a ghost.”
“What do you mean, a ghost?” Gillian says. “We want to make certain the body stays buried.”
“Fine,” Aunt Frances says. “If that’s how you want to look at it.”
Gillian wishes she’d had a gin and bitters herself when the aunts did. Instead, she finishes the last of her cold coffee, which has been sitting in a cup on the counter since late afternoon. By tomorrow morning the creek behind the high school will be deep as a river; toads will have to scramble for higher ground; children won’t think twice about diving into the warm, murky water, even if they’re dressed in their Sunday clothes and wearing their best pair of shoes.
“Okay,” Gillian says. She knows her aunts are talking about more than a body; it’s the spirit of the man, that’s what’s haunting them. “Fine,” she tells the aunts, and she swings open the back door.
Antonia and Kylie carry the pot out to the yard. The rain is quite near; they can taste it in the air. The aunts have already had the girls bring their suitcase over to the hedge of thorns. They stand close together, and when the wind rustles their skirts the fabric makes a moaning sound.
“This dissolves what once was flesh,” Aunt Frances says.
She signals to Gillian.
“Me?” Gillian takes a step backward, but there’s no place to go. Sally is right behind her.
“Go on,” Sally tells her.
Antonia and Kylie are holding on to the heavy pot; the wind is so strong that the hedge of thorns whips out, as if trying to cut them. The wasps’ nests sway back and forth. It is definitely time.
“Oh, brother,” Gillian whispers to Sally. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
Antonia’s fingers are turning white with the effort she needs not to drop the pot. “This is really heavy,” she says in a shaky voice.
“Believe me,” Sally tells Gillian. “You can.”
If there’s one thing Sally is now certain of, it’s how you can amaze yourself by the things you’re willing to do. Those are her daughters, the girls she wanted to lead normal lives, and she’s allowing them to stand over a pile of bones with a spaghetti pot filled mostly with lye. What has happened to her? What has snapped? Where is that logical woman, the one people could depend on, day after day? She can’t stop thinking about Gary, no matter how hard she tries. She actually called the Hide-A-Way to ask if he’d checked out, and he has. He’s gone, and here she is, thinking about him. Last night, she dreamed of the desert. She dreamed the aunts had sent her a cutting from an apple tree in their yard and that it bloomed without water. And in her dream the horses that ate apples from that tree ran faster than all the others, and any man who took a bite from a pie Sally fixed with these apples was bound to be hers, for life.
Sally and Gillian take the pot from the girls, although Gillian keeps her eyes closed as they turn it over and pour out the lye. The damp earth sizzles and is hot; as the mixture seeps deeper into the ground, a mist appears. It’s the color of regret, it’s the color of heartbreak, the gray of doves and early morning.
“Step back,” the aunts tell them, for the earth has begun to bubble. The roots of the thornbushes are being dissolved by the mixture, as are stones and beetles, leather and bones. They can’t move away fast enough, but still something is happening beneath Kylie’s feet.