The Summer House
Something was not right. Throughout the night, driving spring rains had battered against the windowpanes, and flashes of lightning illuminated their bedroom in tumultuous bursts. But now the house was eerily silent. Turning over, she reached for the alarm clock on her bedside table: 7:15. She’d never get the kids ready for the school bus on time. Groaning, she slid back beneath the warmth of the down comforter.
Outside, the morning light was gauzy. The storm, having dissipated, had given way to slender fingertips of sunlight that stretched across the hardwood floors of her bedroom. Clem turned and pressed her palm to Ben’s empty pillow, still creased from where his head had lain. He must’ve risen early and gone for a run, which surprised her. The Darby case, which had consumed him for the last several weeks, was finally going to trial next week. They’d barely held a conversation outside of household business and the kids because when Ben arrived home, which was almost always late, he was depleted—something Clem understood. This was the way things were before a big trial, but she still missed him—the simple rituals of filling
him in on George and Maddy’s days while he stood at the bathroom sink brushing his teeth before bed, or curling up on the couch together with Thai takeout on a Friday night. Ben seemed just beyond her reach. Which was why she was both taken aback and suddenly aroused when he’d crawled into bed sometime after midnight and pulled her up against him. They’d made love hungrily, like they had not done in some time, and it had filled her limbs with a loose, sweet relief that had led to a dreamless sleep so deep she hadn’t heard the remnants of the storm. Or Ben when he’d apparently risen that morning. She pressed her nose to the cool surface of his pillowcase and inhaled contentedly.
From the hall came the sudden patter of footsteps, and Maddy peeked around the door. “Morning, baby,” Clem said, pulling the covers aside. George would be in his own bed down the hall, still blanketed in slumber. But not Maddy. She scuttled across the toile duvet like a little animal, all tangled hair and elbows and kneecaps as she tumbled up and over Clem until they were nose to nose.
“Pancakes?” she whispered.
Downstairs, the new coffeemaker burped and spit. It was a hulking stainless-steel contraption, and Clem was in love with it. The newly renovated kitchen of their Cambridge house positively hummed, and Clem would not apologize for the contentment she found in the cool stainless-steel glint of her Viking range and the marble countertops. It was not about the quantifiable substance of the chef-grade haven. Rather, it was the familial refuge she made there: rolling out pastry dough with the kids or plucking a bottle of wine from the rack to pour into her grandmother’s Old Galway Claret glasses when friends
gathered for one of her casual, leisurely dinners. In this kitchen, she nourished the people she loved most, and from that, she fed herself.
Clem had known this was their house since that windy autumn day they’d driven by on the way to a doctor’s appointment when she was newly pregnant with George. They were lost and late, and she was annoyed with Ben for taking what he had promised her was a shortcut through Cambridge’s perplexing street network. She’d squealed at first sight of the old Victorian row house, causing Ben to stomp the brakes and pull over, after which she dragged him up the front stoop to peer into the empty first-floor windows.
“This is it,” she’d breathed. Ben had shaken his head, but she’d felt it just as certainly she would soon feel that unborn baby shifting inside her womb. Eight years and another child later, it was finally renovated. The warm honey-hued hardwoods complemented the understated gray-and-white palette she’d chosen alongside their Newton designer, with whom Ben had joked about the kitchen, “As long as Clem’s happy . . . and saves me whatever she whips up in here when I finally limp home from the office.” He’d been right; it was the heart of their home, in the heart of their tiny Boston neighborhood. And Clem had never been happier.
Now she stood at the churning coffeemaker, mug poised in midair. “Slower than a wet week,” she mused.
“But it stopped raining,” Maddy replied around a mouthful of pancake. The kids sat at the kitchen island, in differing stages of school-readiness. A glob of syrup dropped onto Maddy’s purple skirt. George grimaced and handed her a napkin.
“I know, baby. It’s just an expression.”
The empty lunchboxes gaped at her from the countertop like two hungry mouths. She riffled through the fridge, grabbing American cheese, bread, and two apples. They were out of yogurt.
“Can you pack me some chips?” George asked, coming to inspect her progress. His breath smelled like toothpaste. Clem planted a kiss on his neatly combed hair.
“Sure, but eat the fruit first.”
Maddy considered this. “I like to save my fruit for later.”
“You mean for the squirrels,” George said.
“Not true!” Maddy protested. Then, emphatically, “I save it for the birds.”
“Fruit first,” Clem repeated to both of them as she tossed a small bag of chips into each lunchbox. She glanced at the wall clock. Five minutes until the bus. “Maddy, finish your pancake. And go brush your teeth!” She grabbed George’s sticky plate and set it in the sink.
The smell of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe filled the kitchen. Clem quickly filled her coffee mug and then filled one for Ben, setting it aside on the island. He was late, and she silently willed him to make it home before the bus came. Maddy didn’t like to leave for school without saying good-bye to her daddy first. And Clem hadn’t had enough coffee to navigate a tantrum this early in the day.
“Shoes!” she called, filling their thermoses. What was she forgetting? She checked the calendar over the small kitchen desk that Ben had dubbed her “command center.” It was strewn with bills and school projects. She squinted at the calendar. George—Home Game: 4:00. And there, in red pen below it: Kids—Dentist: 4:15.
“Shit,” she muttered under her breath. She’d have to reschedule. Again. She was one reschedule away from having to change dentists all together. Hell, they were probably hoping she would. But she hadn’t known that he’d have a game when she’d made the appointment, and Ben was one of the coaches. Coaching George’s team was about the only thing Ben managed to leave the office early for.
“George,” she called into the foyer. “I’m picking you up after school for soccer. It’s a game day.”
“Okay, Mom. But I’ll need a note. And my uniform.”
“Shit,” she muttered under her breath again, as she recalled seeing his blue-and-white uniform rolled up in the back of the SUV. “Maddy, did you put on shoes?”
Maddy appeared in the doorway in a pair of strappy yellow wedge sandals, a hand-me-down pair from a neighbor that Clem had deemed the “ankle breakers.”
“No, sorry. Not for school,” Clem said.
Maddy crossed her arms.
Clem tossed back her coffee. This was a battle she’d have to wage, and win, in the next three minutes. “Come on, your Mary Janes are in your cubby.” She grabbed the lunchboxes and thermoses from the counter. “I’ll help you.”
“Mary Jane is ugly,” Maddy mumbled.
Clem tried to stifle her laugh. “Come sit.”
Maddy plopped obediently on the antique hall bench but tucked her feet beneath her where Clem could not reach them. Clem wrestled one foot out and pried a scuffed wedge off. By now Ben should not only have come home from his run but be showered and downstairs to help her ferry everyone out to the bus stop. Where was he?
Outside, she heard the crunch of tires in the pea-gravel drive. It couldn’t be the bus, which pulled up to the curb. But she didn’t have time to look to see who it was.
“Hey, Mom,” George said, peering out the front door, “is Mrs. Cleary okay?”
Mrs. Cleary, their elderly neighbor, was known to knock on the door at the most inopportune times, like when one of the kids was spiraling into full-blown meltdown. Or, like now, as she was trying to shepherd everyone out the door and running late. Clem groaned. “Is Mrs. Cleary here?”
George shook his head. “No, but there’s a police car in her driveway.”
Clem finished buckling Maddy’s shoes and hopped to her feet. Sure enough, a cruiser was parked in the driveway next door.
“There’s no siren or lights,” George noted solemnly, echoing Clem’s thoughts.
“She probably called them about Rufus again.” Mrs. Cleary’s terrier, nearly as ancient as she, was prone to wandering out of her yard and up the sidewalk—something that sent them all outside: the kids on the hunt for Rufus, and Clem to prevent Mrs. Cleary from falling down on the uneven sidewalk as she tried to catch him. “I’m sure he’s fine. Now quick: coats! Backpacks!”
She hurried into the kitchen, jotted a note for George on the school’s monogrammed notepad, and scooped up Maddy’s coat as she raced back through the foyer.
Outside, she was relieved to see the bus rolling up to their mailbox. They’d made it! She tucked the note hastily into George’s backpack and kissed each of her children good-bye. “Love you!” she called.
Halfway up the bus steps, George stopped and pointed past her. “Look.”
Clem turned, thinking it must be Ben jogging up the sidewalk toward them. But it wasn’t her husband.
The police car was pulling into their driveway now. Clem blinked. Mrs. Cleary stood on her front porch in her bathrobe. Rufus, she was relieved to see, stood at her feet.
The car stopped and an older officer stepped out from behind the driver’s seat.
Behind her the bus engine hummed impatiently. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” Clem said, turning back to George. “I’ll pick you up after school. Have fun today!” She waved at the bus driver for good measure and stepped back as the yellow doors slapped shut and the bus moaned, heaving itself back onto the road. Maddy made a silly face from the window, making Clem smile and momentarily forget the squad car parked behind her.
When she turned, there were two of them. A petite female officer with her hair pulled back in a ponytail had joined the older officer, who now stepped toward her.
“Excuse us, ma’am. I’m Lieutenant Esposito.” He flashed his badge and gestured to the young female officer beside him. “And this is Officer DeLuca.”
Clem met them in the middle of the grassy yard, extending her hand to each. “Good morning. Can I help you?”
Lieutenant Esposito paused. “Do you know Benjamin Edward Dwight?”
Clem squinted at them in the early morning light. “My husband? He went for a run, but I’m expecting him home any second.” She paused. “Is everything all right?”
Officer DeLuca glanced up at the house, but Lieutenant Esposito met Clem’s questioning gaze. His own was gray and watery. “Perhaps we could go inside, ma’am?”
Mrs. Cleary was still watching them from her porch next door. Clem felt a flutter of panic in her chest. What was happening?
Officer DeLuca placed a gentle hand on her arm. “Mrs. Dwight? We’d really like to talk to you inside.” And then she understood.
Clem’s knees buckled. When she put out her hands to signal stop, please stop, the female officer stepped forward and grasped them. “It’s all right, Mrs. Dwight.”
But it was not. It was her Ben. Found half an hour ago on the leaf-strewn shoulder of Brattle Street. An ambulance had been called, and he’d been transported to Auburn Hospital. They would take her there now. Was there anyone she wanted to call first?
An hour later, standing in her sweatpants and the same T-shirt she’d slept in, Clem was met by an attending ER doctor in the fluorescent-lit waiting room. She noticed the gold wedding band on his finger, the reassuring sprinkle of gray hair behind his ears. “Mrs. Dwight? I’m Doctor Sanford.”
Clem rushed toward him. “How is he?”
“Please, come with me.” The doctor invited her back through the swinging doors to the long hallway of examination rooms. Clem peered nervously into each sterile doorway they passed. They continued past the first room, then another, until they stopped at a small alcove at the end of the hall, where Dr. Sanford, clipboard in hand, indicated one of several upholstered chairs and asked her to have a seat. She could not.
So he stood with her and cleared his throat.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Dwight.”
Ben was gone. The EMTs had tried, to no avail, to resuscitate him on the ambulance ride in. It appeared he’d died from a traumatic brain injury incurred by the impact of the car that had struck him on the road that morning. An autopsy would be done to confirm those findings, but Dr. Sanford wanted to reassure her that it was his medical opinion Ben had not suffered.
Clem sat down hard. Her first thought was: But he’s coaching George’s team at four o’clock.
And then the waiting room went dark.