DAWN ZUKOSKI WAS SCARED of lots of things—spiders, lightning bolts, the way New York cabbies drove—but only once in her life had she known true terror.
She was eight years old back then, and visiting her elderly neighbor. Mrs. Rita’s home was cluttered with gold-framed photos of her long-grown children and towers of Reader’s Digest magazines, and it smelled of dog pee from her two yippy terriers. But Dawn loved going there because the cookie jar was stocked with Nilla wafers, and the television was always tuned to game shows.
Lacy curtains over the windows hid the sight of other kids on the street playing kickball or hide-and-seek on summer mornings, but Dawn could hear their shouts and cheers. She didn’t care, though; she and Mrs. Rita were busy competing in their own games of Plinko or One Away.
“You’re overbidding by a thousand!” Mrs. Rita would admonish the contestants. “Dawn, we would’ve walked right off with that camper!”
Dawn would nod and reach for another cookie, savoring the sweet crumbles on her tongue and the feeling of safety she never experienced at school, where her classmates put two straws in their mouths to imitate her buck teeth, or held their noses and giggled when she walked by, no matter how hard she willed herself to become invisible.
It happened when a young guy spun the big wheel at the end of the first half of The Price Is Right. Dawn was sitting cross-legged on the maroon wall-to-wall carpeting that itched her bare legs. A plate of cookies rested on her lap, and the dogs—who enjoyed Nilla wafers as much as she did—were watching her from a few feet away. Staring, really.
Dawn stared back. It was funny at first. The dogs, who were usually hyper, had become as still as statues. Dawn locked eyes with one of them. It was just like the no-blinking contests the boys in her class loved to hold. How long could she last? Five seconds . . . ten . . . Then Mrs. Rita let out a whoop and clapped her hands sharply—“He landed smack-dab on the one dollar! Did you see that, Dawn?”—and at the sudden noise, the spell was broken and the dogs charged.
Dawn fell backward, cookies spilling all around her. “No!” she could hear Mrs. Rita yelling from what seemed like a great distance away. Dawn thrashed and screamed, but every time she pushed one dog away, the other found its way forward, raking her face with its teeth. The attack seemed to go on forever.
Mrs. Rita finally managed to get up and whack at the dogs with her cane, and then Dawn was flying out the door, past the cluster of kids in the street. The kids stopped playing and turned to stare at her, too.
Her vision grew blurred, but she managed to run up three flights of stairs and get inside her apartment and slam the door before collapsing into her mother’s arms. Her mother was a nurse’s aide, the one neighbors called when their children spiked a high fever or their elderly parents tripped on the stairs.
Her mother didn’t scream or hesitate. She lifted Dawn up and carried her to the sink and cleaned her face—luckily the dogs had small mouths and their bite marks weren’t deep, and it was blood running into her eyes, not trauma to them, that had impaired her vision—and then she took Dawn to the hospital to get a half dozen stitches.
Even though her father explained that the dogs had thought Dawn was issuing a challenge by staring into their eyes and that they were only trying to protect their home, Mrs. Rita’s living room never felt safe for her again. But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was being trapped under the snarling, biting mass, terror weakening her body as her heart threatened to explode. The inability to escape; that was the sensation that still haunted her.
So much had changed for her since that long-ago day, though. She was twenty-seven now, and gone was the girl who sat at the last table in the lunchroom, at the end closest to the bathrooms, so she had a ready place to hide. Braces had pulled her teeth straight, and even though the rest of her hadn’t transformed—her thighs were still a little pudgy, her dark blond hair remained lank despite the fact that she’d put misguided faith into every shampoo in CVS that had the word volumizing in its description, and she had two slim, silvery scars forming parentheses on her right cheek—she felt beautiful for the first time in her life.
All set for tonight? her boyfriend, Tucker—her boyfriend!—had texted her that morning as she’d waited for the bus to take her uptown to her job at the investment firm on Sixth Avenue.
All set, she’d texted back, giddiness welling up inside of her. It was a rainy, dreary morning, yet she felt as if she were standing beneath a sunbeam. Tucker was the reason why she felt beautiful; he told her she was, every single day, while she drank up his words like a parched plant taking in water.
A guy holding a cup with the Starbucks logo was waiting beside her, and Dawn smiled, remembering how Tucker had taken her to the coffee shop after he’d dropped a huge pile of papers on the floor directly outside her cubicle on his third day of work.
“I’m such a klutz!” he’d said when she rushed to help him.
“So am I!” she’d said, feeling her cheeks heat up. Maybe that wasn’t her most flattering confession, but looking into his navy-blue eyes made her dizzy. She’d noticed him the moment he’d walked through the etched-glass doors of the investment firm. What female wouldn’t? His hair was sun-streaked and slightly rumpled, his nose was long and thin, and when he smiled, twin dimples flashed. He looked like a J. Crew model, or a Kennedy, like the type of guy who was born knowing how to sail and play croquet, who drove a zippy red convertible, who was always throwing barbecues on the beach. He wasn’t just a man—he also carried the promise of a golden life.
Dawn had been working at the firm as an assistant to a vice president ever since she graduated from Queens College. She lived in a studio apartment next to a couple who drank, fought, and made up with equal enthusiasm—then kicked off the cycle all over again. She bought her suits at Macy’s and her pink lipsticks at Duane Reade, and she ordered tuna-salad sandwiches or chicken Caesar salads at the corner deli for lunch. A lot of people came to New York for excitement—nightclub hopping and Broadway shows and shopping sprees—but Dawn followed the city’s quieter rhythms: weekend walks in Central Park, trips to the grocery store, girls’ nights out with the other administrative assistants. Before Tucker Newman blasted into her life, twirling it upside down, her biggest excitement was debating whether she should join Match.com.
Tucker was, without a doubt, the sweetest and most considerate man she’d ever met. The last guy Dawn had gone on a date with had watched the Knicks game on a television above her head at the bar the whole time, but Tucker wanted to know all about her. He asked lots of questions about her job and her boss, and leaned in to hear the answers. What do you see in me? Dawn wondered as she watched his long, elegant fingers encircle his coffee cup. She stopped herself from asking the question because she could practically hear the women’s magazines she subscribed to chastising her: Don’t sell yourself short! He’s lucky to have you! Now sit up straight and project confidence!
Maybe those magazines were onto something, because after they’d had coffee, he’d invited her to dinner that very same night.
“I’m sorry, you probably already have plans—” he’d started to say, just as she’d blurted, “I’d love to!”
They’d both laughed and had quickly become inseparable, at least in the evenings and on weekends. At work they still kept up a façade of barely knowing each other, because Tucker’s father was a founder of the firm and Tucker didn’t want him to know. “He’s too controlling. And your boss might not like it either,” Tucker had said.
“Controlling?” Dawn had repeated, hungry to know more.
Tucker had sighed, then he’d told her everything: the harsh spankings his father had administered when Tucker was a little boy; his dad’s insistence that Tucker learn lacrosse, because that had been his sport, even though Tucker yearned to play the piano instead; the hefty donation to Yale during Tucker’s junior year of high school to ensure the college’s acceptance letter. Tucker’s life had never truly been his own.
“He wanted a son who was exactly like him. That’s why I changed my name to Tucker Newman when I turned twenty-one,” Tucker had confided as Dawn stroked his hair and made sympathetic noises. “I couldn’t bear being John Parks Junior.”
Then he’d kissed her, and swooped her up to carry her into the bedroom—she prayed his back wouldn’t give out from her weight—and later, as they gobbled cold cereal for dinner, he’d answered the question that had been buzzing around in her mind: Why had he decided to come work for his father?
“I want his respect,” Tucker had said. “I’m going to show him I’m not the screwup that he thinks I am.”
“Of course you’re not!” Dawn had said, her voice loud. “And he’s an idiot if he thinks that.”
Tucker had started to laugh—it was such a beautiful sound—and he’d pulled her close, giving her a kiss that tasted sweetly of Cap’n Crunch. “Do you know you’re the first person to ever take my side against him?”
Dawn hadn’t told Tucker that she’d once been walking behind him in a hallway, and she’d seen his dad pass and give him the briefest of nods. How painful that must have felt, as if Tucker was somehow beneath him. Tucker’s father seemed to be much harder on his son than on his other employees—despite the fact that Tucker had a degree from Yale, he’d insisted that Tucker begin work as a mail clerk.
Tucker had asked about her family then, and when she’d told him that her parents had died in a car crash several years earlier, she could’ve sworn she saw tears fill his eyes.
“So you don’t have anyone?”
“Just a few aunts and uncles and cousins, but we’re not close,” she’d said. “Most of my parents’ families are back in Poland. They got married really young and immigrated here when they were both nineteen.”
Tucker had brushed her hair away from her face and looked at her as if she was a movie star. “Let’s be each other’s families from now on,” he’d whispered. Happiness had buoyed her like helium.
They’d been dating only four weeks. How could someone like him fall for someone like her? It was a miracle. Her secret lover, Dawn thought, a smile playing on her lips. It was a title snatched from the romance novels she adored but never had the chance to read anymore because she was actually living the story. Tucker brought her red roses every single week, even though she protested that they were too expensive, and he kissed the insides of her wrists. He winked whenever he passed her cubicle at work, then showed up at her apartment hours later, pressing her against the wall and kissing her hungrily.
Her iPhone was buzzing again: Nine hours and thirty-eight minutes to go until I see you . . . and then in four days, we make it official.
Tucker loved to divide time into segments like an orange; he was a whiz with numbers. She could see him taking over the entire company someday. Dawn knew his father would regret doubting Tucker.
Where was the bus? Dawn ducked out of the shelter and peered up the street, but she could see only a snarl of yellow taxis. The rain was picking up, soaking through the bottoms of the blue Keds sneakers she wore for commuting. Dawn was tempted to take a cab, but she always rode the bus to work and it was important that she go about her usual routine, that she act as if this was a normal day.
She’d pick up a triple espresso for the vice president on her way in, filter his calls, send his faxes, manage the stream of visitors to his office, and order a tuna-salad sandwich for lunch, though she doubted she’d be able to eat a single bite. Then, at precisely 2:00 P.M., she’d take a stack of clients’ checks to the bank. Simple.
She heard something that made her blood freeze: a bark. A German shepherd was straining against his leash, bearing down on Dawn. She froze and averted her eyes while the dog sniffed at her.
The owner finally seemed to notice Dawn’s fear. “Hey, he’s friendly,” she said.
Get him away from me! Dawn wanted to scream. She always kept an eye out for approaching dogs and managed to evade them; how had this one slipped through her vigilance? Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. The giant, hairy beast was still there, sniffing all around her, when the bus finally pulled up, its brakes squealing. Dawn almost slipped on the steps in her haste to board. She took a deep, shuddering breath when she was safely in a seat. It was as if that dog had sensed her anxiety, had been drawn to it. Hadn’t she heard somewhere that dogs could smell fear?
Four days, she repeated. She only needed to get through the rest of the week, and then it would all be over. No one would be harmed, no one would be upset with her. And her golden life with Tucker could officially begin.
She leaned her cheek against the cool glass of the window and watched the heavy raindrops slide past, turning the city into a blur.
• • •
Heavy raindrops pelted down on Kira Danner as she grabbed her purse, her briefcase, and two bags of groceries out of the trunk of her Honda Accord. She felt one of the brown paper bags begin to slip out of her grasp as she hurried toward her apartment building and climbed the steps to her second-floor walk-up.
She twisted her key in the lock and pushed the door with her shoulder just as she lost her grip. It had to be the one with the eggs, she thought as she watched the contents tumble to the floor.
“You know how to make an entrance,” her husband, Peter, joked as he walked into the living room.
Kira rolled her eyes at him and wrestled her phone out of her purse as it began to buzz. She checked the caller ID: It was Peter’s older brother, Rand. Rand didn’t phone often, but he had a sixth sense when it came to picking the worst possible moments. The last time he’d called, he’d interrupted the first nap she’d managed to take in three years, and the time before that, she and Peter had been in the middle of repainting the living room.
She pushed her wet hair out of her face before answering. “Hi, Rand,” she said, keeping her irritation out of her voice.
“Hey, K, is Peter around? He didn’t answer his cell.”
“Sure, he’s right here.” Kira handed Peter the phone and scooped up the carton of eggs—miraculously, none had broken. That was probably the best thing that had happened to her since she’d left for the law firm fourteen hours earlier, she reflected as she set down her heavy briefcase.
“Hey, man, long time,” Peter was saying. Then: “Vermont? Whoa.”
Kira left the rest of the groceries for Peter to collect while she went into their galley kitchen. She loved cooking, but she was too exhausted to find anything inspiring in the vegetable drawer or on the condiment shelf tonight, so she reached for a Tupperware bowl of puttanesca sauce in the freezer.
“Looks like pasta and pellets tonight, Fred,” she told the goldfish circling the glass bowl by their tiny window. “Don’t get too excited, though. You’re the one getting the fish food.”
She salted a pot of water and put it on to boil, then shook a bit of food into the fish tank. Fred ate quickly, then kept circling, moving quickly but going nowhere. She watched him for a moment: How had it come to this, that she felt such a deep kinship with a thumb-size vertebrate?
She was julienning a carrot for a salad when she heard Peter’s footsteps approach.
“So what’s in Vermont?” she asked.
When he didn’t answer, she turned around to see him leaning against the doorframe, his tall, lanky body nearly filling the opening. His sandy blond eyebrows were tightly knit above his clear blue eyes.
“Is everything okay with Rand?” she asked quickly. Rand had a magnetic attraction to risk—he rode motorcycles too fast, quit jobs before he had new ones lined up, and, until he’d met his wife, Alyssa, had chatted up pretty girls without checking to see if they had jealous boyfriends nearby. Somehow he always landed, catlike, on his feet.
“He’s fine,” Peter said. He cleared his throat. “He and Alyssa are moving to Killington.”
“Sounds nice,” Kira said. “Actually, it sounds a little menacing. What’s in Killington?” All she knew about the area was that it was a big draw for skiers.
“Remember that lawsuit from when the moving truck rear-ended him?” Peter was saying. “Rand finally got a settlement.”
Kira nodded. Rand’s luck, she thought. He’d been stopped at a red light when the brakes on the truck behind him had failed—brakes worn so thin that they should have been replaced months earlier. Rand’s Jeep was totaled, but when a fireman wielding the Jaws of Life cut him out of the crumpled metal, Rand had emerged with only a broken arm, two cracked ribs, and a bump on his forehead. He’d walked out of the hospital four hours later with a fiberglass cast and the card of a personal injury lawyer.
“He wants to use the settlement to open a bed-and-breakfast near a ski slope,” Peter said.
Of course he does, Kira thought, stifling a laugh.
“Does he know anything about running a B-and-B?” she asked. “You have to keep books and do marketing and build a website and cook fancy breakfasts every day . . . I can’t see Rand and Alyssa doing all that stuff.”
She glanced at Peter, whose eyebrows seemed to have inched even lower, which meant he was contemplating something. Peter, her tech-savvy husband, whose start-up company aimed at providing mobile technology services was faltering. She glanced down at the container of homemade puttanesca sauce she’d cooked the previous Sunday.
“Oh, no,” she said involuntarily.
“Hear me out,” he said. “Don’t say no yet.”
I think I just did, Kira thought, but she nodded.
“You hate your job—” he began.
“I wouldn’t say I hate it,” she interjected. “It just . . . Well, it isn’t what I thought it would be. Whoever invented the concept of billable hours was a sadist. I work all the time, Peter, and it isn’t ever enough . . . They want me to pad my time, to—to lie to clients to make the firm even more money, and it’s disgusting—”
Peter reached over and began massaging her neck with one hand. For such a thin guy, he had fingertips of steel. “Oh,” she sighed, feeling the tight cords along the sides of her neck yield. A headache she hadn’t even noticed began to ebb away.
“My business hasn’t taken off the way we’d hoped,” Peter continued.
“It hasn’t been that long . . . ,” she began loyally before her voice trailed off. Peter was a whiz with computers. The problem was, so were a million other people who were willing to work more cheaply, like college students.
“We’d live in a beautiful home,” Peter said, his voice deep and soothing. His fingers kept digging into new spots of tension, and it was hard for Kira to remember why she’d been arguing. “No more crappy apartments. Rand is offering us a one-third share if we help get the B-and-B off the ground. And if things go well, we could hand it over to a professional innkeeper in a year and keep making money.”
Kira tried to think of what to say next. “I’ve never even been to Vermont” was what she finally came up with.
Peter let go of her neck and wrapped his arms around her waist. She could feel the heat coming off his body, and the steam rising up from the boiling water, and the humid Florida air filtering in through the window. It seemed, suddenly, as if she’d been hot for her entire life, her thighs always sticking to the vinyl seats in her car, her hair forever matting against the back of her neck.
Vermont, she thought, testing out the word, envisioning snowflakes drifting onto her cheeks and pine trees spreading open under an enormous blue sky.
Peter was right; she hated her job. She worked so hard, arriving at her windowless office by seven every morning, writing long, excruciatingly detailed reports, gobbling a Cobb salad at her desk, poring over documents until her eyes felt gritty and her entire body ached. She lived in the Sunshine State, yet she sometimes went days without ever glimpsing the sun.
And instead of being grateful, the firm had punished her. She’d been put on a kind of probation—her partnership delayed for a year—because she didn’t beef up her hours like the other associates, and had spoken the truth to a client and embarrassed the partner who’d overbilled him. She was still reeling from the injustice. Wasn’t the law supposed to be an honorable profession? When she entered law school, she’d envisioned taking on pro bono cases for persecuted immigrants and abused women. She’d thought she’d change lives—stand up in a courtroom, her voice ringing with passion as she fought for truth and justice. Instead, she was the one who’d been changed. At thirty years old, she felt as brittle and worn-out as an old cornhusk. And she had yet to help a single pro bono client.
“You could hand in your notice and we could leave in a couple weeks. I’ll teach you to ski. We could spend some time together for a change,” Peter was saying. “If we don’t like it, we can always move back.”
Her left-brained, sensible husband—so different from his spontaneous, irresponsible brother—had already made up his mind. How had that happened so quickly?
“I don’t know,” she said. For some reason, tears filled her eyes. Peter was offering her the escape she’d been yearning for, and now that she was standing on its brink, it felt terrifying.
“It’s such a big decision,” Kira said. And they saw Rand and Alyssa only once a year or so. Wouldn’t it feel strange to suddenly be with them constantly?
“Sleep on it,” Peter said as he carried their plates to the little wooden table in their dining nook. “We can talk more tomorrow.”
But as he came back into the kitchen and slid past her to get the salad, he whispered words that spilled into her mind like blue ink into clear water, clouding her thoughts. She knew their echo would keep her awake for the rest of the night.
“We’d both be home all the time,” he’d whispered as she instinctively stiffened, somehow knowing what he’d say next. “Maybe we should have a baby.”
• • •
The rain had finally tapered off, and gauzy clouds hung low in the sky. Alyssa stepped out of the Jeep, stretched her back, and took her first look at the B-and-B. The A-frame house sat perched atop acres of sprawling land like a pioneer surveying uncharted territory and deciding that yes, this would be the perfect place to settle. Alyssa was a firm believer that houses had personalities, and she liked this one’s style; it looked strong and welcoming. She lifted the Nikon hanging on her neck, framed the shot, and snapped.
In a few months, the panoramic vistas would be transformed when a white coating erased the vibrant summer colors. But the view would still be every bit as spectacular. Just imagining it made Alyssa’s lungs expand and her heart feel lighter. Back in D.C., where Rand had worked as a carpenter and part-time guitar teacher at a kids’ music school and she’d photographed weddings and babies and family reunions, she’d often felt as if everyone were trying to rush her along—brushing past her with an impatient exhalation on the sidewalk or honking when she didn’t step on the gas the second the light turned green.
Out here in the minty air, under a sweeping sky, she probably wouldn’t hear a car horn for weeks at a time.
Rand slung an arm around her shoulders. “Tonight we’re gonna uncork a bottle of wine, grab a blanket, and hit the hot tub. This”—he used his hands to draw an invisible square around them—“is an unpacking-free zone until tomorrow.”
Alyssa turned in to him, feeling the rasp of his chin stubble against her forehead. “Perfect,” she whispered, thinking again of how lucky she was to have found this man. Chance had been their Cupid: She wasn’t supposed to be waitressing at the diner that morning six years ago, but someone had asked her to trade shifts. Five minutes after she arrived at work, Rand had walked in.
Yummy, she’d thought, taking in his thick, dark hair and a face that belonged to a hero on an action-movie poster. He was dressed in a T-shirt and old jeans, which she vastly preferred to an Armani suit.
“Coffee?” she’d offered. Granted, not her most seductive opening line ever.
“Yeah,” he’d said, then he’d looked up and their eyes had met. She’d instinctively reached to smooth down her hair, not because it was messy but because she felt certain it was standing straight up from the sudden jolt of electricity running through her body.
She’d been saving up her tips, planning to leave the next week for Portugal, the latest in her string of traveling adventures. Instead, she and Rand had gotten married within three months and her life’s real adventure had begun.
“Admit it,” Rand was saying now. “You thought there was a Wal-Mart next door.”
Alyssa laughed. “Was it wrong not to tell Peter and Kira we didn’t see the place before we bought it? Technically they didn’t ask. And the real estate agent sent us lots of photos.”
But Kira had e-mailed them a dozen times, asking questions that had never occurred to Alyssa. Do you have a business plan? she’d written. Could the B-and-B be considered an investment property when filing taxes? What’s the square footage of the structure?
That was far from the only difference between her and Kira. Kira was barely five foot two and slender, with the cornsilk-blond hair of a child and dainty features. A pixie, Alyssa had thought the first time she’d seen her. Alyssa was seven inches taller and curvy, with a one-size-too-big hook of a nose that had been the bane of her adolescence, until the rest of her face filled out to blunt its impact. Their family’s bloodline, her mother used to laughingly say, could rival any mutt’s at the pound: Latin American mixed with Italian ancestry, topped off with a dash of Native American blood, which revealed itself in Alyssa’s olive skin and high cheekbones.
While Kira was plowing through college, Alyssa was dropping out, reasoning that she’d get a better education by slinging a camera around her neck, shrugging into a backpack, and hopping aboard trains to cross Europe and Asia. She rode elephants in Chiang Mai, slept on a sidewalk in Budapest when she couldn’t find a room, ate a boiled frog in Shanghai, and sunbathed nude in Corfu. Whenever she ran out of money, she returned to the States and worked as a nanny or waitress until she could afford another airplane ticket. Her life was glorious in its simplicity, her focus always on the next train, the next country, the next adventure. There were men along the way—plenty of men—but none who captivated her the way traveling did, until she met Rand.
Now her husband reached into his pocket and pulled out the big brass key the previous owners had mailed to them. “Could be dead bodies inside,” he whispered. “No one has lived here for what, three years?”
“The guests who never checked out,” Alyssa intoned.
Rand swung open the door to the house and they stepped inside. The entrance hallway took a sharp right turn and spilled into a large living room with a giant stone fireplace. Aside from dust and spiderwebs, the room was perfect, with its wide-planked, honey-wood floors, a nook that would work well as a dining area, and built-in bookcases.
“Tell me the rest of the place looks this good,” Alyssa said, walking past the dining nook and pushing through a swinging door to the kitchen. Rand followed, and they were silent for a moment.
“Tell me the rest of the place doesn’t look this bad,” Rand said. He ran a shoe over the peeling linoleum floor.
“It’s not that awful,” Alyssa lied.
She squinted, envisioning a fresh coat of paint on the scarred wooden cabinets and a new floor. “Guests probably didn’t come in here, so they didn’t keep the kitchen up as well as the rest of the place.”
“Let’s check out the rooms,” Rand said. They retraced their steps through the living area and climbed the steps to the four guest bedrooms. The smallest one had twin beds, a big picture window, and its own bathroom. Two others held queen beds and private bathrooms, and the largest boasted a king-size bed and Jacuzzi tub. The ivory paint on the walls had dulled with time, but there were bureaus, beds, and curtains that the previous owners had left as part of the settlement agreement.
“We just need sheets and comforters . . . maybe a few throw rugs,” Alyssa said as she wandered around. “And Pledge. A truckload of Pledge.”
“Your photos on the walls, too,” Rand added. He gave her ponytail a tug and led the way back downstairs, to a door off the living room. Rand leaned against it and pretended to push against something heavy.
“The bodies must be stacked behind here,” he said, and she swatted his butt. He swung open the door and it creaked—“Gotta oil that,” he said—and they ventured down a narrow hallway to where the final two bedrooms awaited.
“Oh.” Alyssa gasped when they stepped into the first doorway.
One entire wall was composed of windows, and a love seat faced a gas fireplace. She looked in the bathroom, which was tiled in sea green and featured a huge, glass-walled shower with five spray nozzles. “You know how I’m not really into material things?” she said. “This shower just changed my mind.”
“Room for two,” he said with a leer. He began opening windows, letting fresh air chase out the musty smell as Alyssa walked over to the corner across from the fireplace.
She and Rand had lived in six different apartments and homes since they wed, and in every single one, Alyssa had known where a rocking chair would go.
She stood in the empty space, thinking of a long-ago scene: the doctor in his white office, wearing a white coat, staring out at them from underneath heavy white eyebrows. By then, Rand’s sperm had been scrutinized and deemed perfectly shaped, mobile, and robust in number. They were practically supersperm. The problem, it was clear, lay somewhere deep within her.
Yes, they told the doctor, they’d been trying for more than a year. No, she’d never been pregnant. Although she had irregular periods, she’d never had an abortion or miscarriage. No sexually transmitted diseases either, other than a brief bout with chlamydia that was a parting gift from a guy she’d met in Spain. And she’d never had any major surgeries.
“Well, other than a ruptured appendix,” she’d added.
The doctor had been scribbling something on his pad, but his hand had suddenly stilled.
“I was only fifteen,” she’d said.
“Abdominal diseases can cause scarring in fallopian tubes,” the doctor had said. He’d cleared his throat and reached for a cartoonish-looking plastic replica of the female reproductive system. “Eggs travel down the tubes from the ovaries to the uterus, but if they’re blocked—”
Alyssa had held up a hand. “I know how it works,” she’d said. “Or doesn’t work, as the case may be.” She’d made a noise that was meant to be a laugh but had turned into a kind of bark. The doctor had mentioned dye tests, an ultrasound, and laparoscopic surgery.
“Would that fix it?” Alyssa had asked.
“It can, in some cases,” the doctor had said. “If indeed a blockage is preventing you from getting pregnant. It could also be stress—”
“We’re probably the least stressed people you’ve ever had in your office,” Rand had interrupted.
Well, not anymore, Alyssa had refrained from saying. Appendicitis. And to think her biggest worry after waking up in the operating room all those years ago was that her scar would show when she wore a bikini.
The doctor had cleared his throat. “Successful surgery depends on the location of the blockage, and the severity of scarring . . . IVF may be an option, too.”
They’d left his office half an hour later and had walked silently to Rand’s Jeep. Rand had slid inside and started the engine. But he didn’t pull out of the parking spot.
Does he blame me? The thought had seemed to rip apart all the muscles in her chest, and she’d nearly gasped. She might be able to live without having children, but she couldn’t live without Rand’s love. She’d twisted her hammered silver wedding band around and around on her finger while she waited for whatever would happen next.
“All those tests,” Rand had finally said. “And then what? I have to go jerk off in a cup, and we’ve gotta come up with the money, and maybe that doesn’t work either . . .”
“I know,” she’d whispered. I’m sorry, she'd thought.
“Fuck it,” he’d said and finally turned to look at her. When she saw his smile—a real one that made the corners of his dark eyes crinkle—she’d felt weak with relief. “Who needs kids anyway? Diapers stink, and I don’t want to spend every Saturday coaching soccer. If the kid got any of my genes, he’d drink all my liquor. Why does anyone reproduce?”
She’d never loved him more than at that moment, she’d thought. True, she was the one with a much stronger longing to have children. Rand had been a little resistant at first—more scared than anything else, Alyssa had thought—but he knew how much it meant to her, and so he’d come around.
“Maybe this is one of those signs you’re always talking about,” he’d said.
“Or maybe it’s another kind of sign,” she’d replied. “Would you . . .” Her voice had failed and she’d begun again. “What would you think about adopting?”
He’d stared at her for a moment, then shrugged. “I dunno.”
“I thought I could look into it . . . Okay?”
“Okay,” he’d said, and she’d let out her breath.
So she’d found an agency that connected prospective parents with little girls from China and had put together a packet of information, including photographs of her and Rand together. They’d met with a social worker who was young and anxious and had spilled the glass of water they’d given her all over the couch. They’d filled out forms—actually, Alyssa had filled them out, because Rand had a moderate case of dyslexia and paperwork was torture for him—and had accepted a generous check from Alyssa’s father to cover the cost of the adoption, which they never could’ve afforded on their own.
Rand had accepted the change in their course so easily that Alyssa was ashamed to tell him she still harbored a small, secret hope that she’d become pregnant. That maybe the blockage in her tubes had a sliver of an opening.
But as the months and then years passed and her period continued to show up despite the fact that she’d taken up meditation, swallowed daily doses of the herb chasteberry, and switched to a vegetarian diet, her hopes had withered. She was thirty-five now, and her age was yet another enemy of fertility. Rand never seemed to mourn the child they wouldn’t have together, but she couldn’t shake the image of a son. Sometimes she even dreamed about him, a little boy with Rand’s eyes and plump cheeks. He was always in her arms, always laughing as she spun him around in circles.
She walked away from the empty corner. She didn’t think about their phantom son quite as much these days; the passage of time was dimming his image, like the reverse of a Polaroid photo forming. Maybe someday, he’d fade away for good.
She headed into the bedroom next door. It was much smaller, and darker, but sliding glass doors led to a little patio framed by hedges for privacy.
“It’s . . . cozy,” Alyssa said as Rand followed her in. She opened the curtains on the single window. “Do you think Peter and Kira will like it, if they decide to move here? I feel kind of bad that our room is so much nicer.”
Rand shrugged. “They’re getting a sweet deal. We’re covering the down payment and two-thirds of the mortgage.”
“True,” Alyssa said. “So do you think they’re going to do it?” Peter and Kira were supposed to give their decision that day.
“Let’s find out,” Rand said. He reached for his phone and dialed.
Alyssa suddenly felt nervous. She knew Rand wished he was closer to his brother—they’d fought a lot growing up, and there had been a deep rift around their mother’s death nearly a decade earlier that had never been fully repaired. Alyssa still didn’t know the full story, but she knew Rand regretted whatever had happened. When Rand had suggested inviting Peter and Kira along, she’d said yes quickly. Embracing new experiences was a reflex for her. But now it hit her: She’d spent so little time with her in-laws. Was this a mistake?
Alyssa liked Rand’s younger brother. When she and Rand had driven to Florida for Thanksgiving a few months after their wedding, Alyssa had watched Peter chase a spider across the kitchen, capturing it in a paper towel before shooing it out the door, and when he’d noticed her, he’d shrugged and said, “I figured the little guy probably has a wife and kids at home who were getting worried about him.”
Kira was trickier. She was friendly enough, but she seemed stuck in high gear. She’d fluttered around, making sure they had extra pillows and their preferred kind of juice for breakfast. Alyssa had noticed Kira kept a grocery list on her refrigerator with items divided into sections labeled “Produce” and “Dairy,” and during dinner—which rivaled some of the best meals Alyssa had ever eaten in restaurants—Peter had mentioned that Kira was one of the smartest associates at her law firm.
“She’ll be running the place in another ten years,” Peter had said, as Kira blushed and passed around a bowl of her roasted root vegetables spiked with fresh herbs grown in little pots on her fire escape. Kira had skipped the second grade, she’d broken a local track record in junior high school, and she’d worked part-time in college to pay for her expenses while pulling in straight A’s.
It was a little intimidating, frankly.
Alyssa watched Rand’s face as he listened to Peter talk. Then Rand smiled.
“Awesome,” he said.