I have no idea who this even is until he looks me over with Mrs. Ellington’s piercing brown eyes.
Henry Ellington. Whom I barely remember and who just caught me reading virtual porn to his elderly mom.
He reaches down to hug Mrs. E. “I had a meeting in Hart-ford this morning. I’ve only got a few minutes before heading back to the city for another one, but I wanted to check on you.”
“Poor boy—you work too hard.” She pats his cheek. “Even when you’re on vacation here. I cannot imagine how anyone can think of numbers and balance sheets and the stock market with the ocean only a few feet away.”
“That may be why I hardly ever vacation.”
I stand up, slide The Shameless Sultan discreetly, cover side down, onto the table next to the glider, and edge toward the screen door. “Mrs. Ellington—I’ll give you two some time to . . . um . . . catch up. I’ll just go—”
Henry immediately straightens up and holds out a hand.
“It’s just Gwen.”
“Gwen, then.” He sweeps his arm to one of the wicker chairs.
“Please, sit, make yourself comfortable. You look like your mother—I’m sure you hear that all the time. A fine woman.”
I smooth my hands on my shorts, which suddenly seem really short, especially when I see him glance quickly at my legs, then away.
“Mother,” he says suddenly. “Would you be so kind as to give me a private moment with Gwen?”
I blink, but Mrs. Ellington doesn’t seem remotely surprised.
“Certainly, dear heart,” she says, reaching for her cane. “I’ll be in the parlor.”
Listening to the slow scrape and thump of her receding, I sense I’m losing an ally. Henry looks at me somberly from under lowered brows.
“Um . . . the book . . . Your mom picked it out. I wouldn’t have chosen it myself. I don’t read that kind of thing. Well, not a lot, anyway. I mean, sometimes you just need . . . that is . . . Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of book, I mean, they’re actually really empowering to women and—”
He cuts me off with a raised hand and the ghost of a smile.
“I’m well aware of Mother’s taste in literature, believe me. You don’t need to worry about that.”
His tone’s flat. I try to interpret his last sentence. What do I need to worry about?
He shifts back in the glider, looking out at Whale Rock. Lift-ing a hand to his forehead, he slides it down to pinch the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
“We’re all grateful—my sons and I—that you’re available to look out for her. She’s always been very capable. It’s hard for her to accept that things change. Hard for all of us.”
I can’t tell if he’s simply speaking thoughts out loud or wants some answer from me. “I’m happy to help,” is all that comes to mind.
I wait for him to continue, but he doesn’t; still gazes instead at the waves flipping over the top of Whale Rock—high tide— where a cormorant is angling its dusky wings to dry.
Eventually, I look out too—at the grass running down to the beach plum bushes, which part to make way for the sandy path to the water. Then there’s Cass, kneeling, edging the weeds away by hand from the slated path, about ten yards from the porch. He’s now wearing a—it can’t really be pink?—shirt that sticks to his back in the heat. I watch the muscles in his back flexing.
After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, Henry seems to pull himself back from some distant place, clearing his throat. “Well then, er, Guinevere, tell me a little about yourself.”
Flashback to my conversation with Mrs. E. I get this awful, familiar tingle, like a sneeze coming on, but worse—a sense of terror about my impulse control. Like when it’s incredibly still in church and your stomach rumbles loudly, or you just know you won’t be able to suppress a burp. I dig my nails into my palm, look Henry in the eye, and desperately try to give appropriate answers to bland questions about school and career plans and whether I play a sport, without offering that my most notable achievement so far appears to have been becoming a swim team tradition.
The questions trail off. Henry looks at my legs again, then out at the water. Over by the bushes, Cass swipes his forearm across his forehead, then his palm against the back of his pants, leaving a smudge of dirt. I count one, two, three waves break-ing over the top of Whale Rock.
Then Henry leans forward, touches his hand, rather hard, to my shoulder. “Now listen carefully,” he says. Up till now he’s been shifting around in his seat, kind of awkward and ill-at-ease. Now his eyes spear mine, all focus. “This is crucial.
Mother needs her routine kept consistent. Always. I’d like to be able to count on knowing that you will give her breakfast at the same time every day, make sure she gets out in the fresh air, eats well, and takes a nap. It was in the evening that she had her fall, and she hadn’t rested all day. She managed to get herself to the phone, but she was very confused. If one of the neighbors hadn’t come by . . .” He rubs his chin. “Mother will just go and go and go. I need to make sure these naps happen like clockwork from one to three.”
“I’ll look out for that, Mr. Ellington. Um . . . sir.” It actually isn’t that different from Em . . . he too goes till he can’t, gets overwhelmed and overtired. Although I doubt “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and the Winnie-the-Pooh song will do the trick for Mrs. E.
He flashes me his mother’s smile, incongruous in a face that seems like it was born serious. “You appear to be a sensible girl. I imagine your life has made you practical.”
I’m not sure what he means, so I have no idea how to respond. Inside the house, Mrs. E.’s cane taps close, up to the screen. “May I come out now, dear boy?”
“A few more minutes. We’re nearly finished,” Henry calls.
The tapping recedes. Catching my raised eyebrows, he says, “I didn’t want to discuss Mother’s fragility in front of her. She’d be embarrassed—and angry.”
Back still to us, Cass stands up and stretches, revealing a strip of tanned skin at his waist. His shirt, definitely pale pink, clings to him. He shades his eyes and looks out at the water for a moment. Dreaming of diving in and swimming far out beyond Whale Rock? I know I am. Then he sinks to his knees again and continues weeding.