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“What was that noise?”
“There’s a, it’s a trap door sort of, up to the attic. I tipped it closed by accident. It’s fine. I didn’t break anything. It’s huge up there.”
She watched his face in the mirror, the half smile, the widow’s peak, the tuft of gray at his throat. The glass warped in the center, so his body bent when she moved, one arm crumpling, the other warping outward.
“You’re just like Brian,” she said.
She meant that he was incorrigible, but the grin widened. A toddler’s grin. There were snapshots in the baby book like that, the same calculating innocence, that certainty of forgiveness. Brian once swung a garden brick against Helen’s temple and then played in his sandbox while she pressed rag-wrapped ice cubes against the gash. He was only two. She lied to Hank afterwards, said she had tripped on a rake he’d left out.
He chattered about the relative shapes of the rooms, how theirs was largest because of the oblong floor plan, and then he brought up renovating Brian’s room again, adding that exterior staircase he was obsessed about, and cutting off the extra bath, installing inexpensive kitchen appliances and making a private apartment to rent. Helen thought Brian should live at home after graduation, for a year or two, so they could help him save money, keep an eye on him.
“You seriously think he would go for that?” Hank asked.
Helen said that she needed lunch, that her head hurt, low blood sugar.
The tavern in the restored mill was not open—Hank pointed at the creek and said the waterwheel wasn’t moving anyway—so they ate across from the ritzy resort in a restaurant decorated with golf memorabilia. He joked loudly with the waitress, who was large-breasted but not especially pretty. Helen complimented the zigzag part of her blonde braids while debating whether Brian would be attracted to her. She was college-aged, trapped here catering to tourists. Or she might still be in high school. Helen couldn’t remember the name of Brian’s prom date, Linda or Laura. She didn’t know if he was a virgin when they unloaded the trunk outside his freshman dorm. That was Hank’s job.
When Hank splattered himself with Tabasco, the girl brought a half-tumbler of soda water and a fresh napkin. She hovered, empty-handed, watching him dab his chest as the fabric darkened. Maybe she was pretty, beautiful even, though only in the way that all young people are beautiful. Helen did not want to imagine her having sex, eyes clenched, Brian’s white hips shoving into her. The girl waited until Helen thanked her before trotting away. A stain dotted the center of each dark circle.
“Leave a nice tip,” Helen said. “Twenty percent.”
He agreed, but they squabbled over the addition, Hank insisting that rounding up would mean almost twenty-five. Helen grabbed her purse as she stood. “My god,” she said. “My god.” Her face was hot. “Why do you have to be so cheap about every little thing?”
She wove to the back of the restaurant, searching for the women’s room, but it was a maze, bricked windows, split hallways. A waitress, another teenager, looked up from behind a metal kitchen shelf. Helen didn’t need to pee anyway. She didn’t need to see her make-up and wrinkles under a whining row of fluorescent bulbs. She found a cushioned chair in front of a blocked doorway and perched on its edge, knees tight, purse dangling. Brian wouldn’t have dated the waitress, but he would have flirted with her. There were always girls giggling in the parking lot when Helen came to pick him up from whatever team he had made that season. Sometimes Helen sat for minutes, car idling, waiting for him to look up, to notice her staring through the fogging windshield.
Hank was chewing a toothpick beside the cash register.
“I’m sorry,” said Helen. “I guess it’s that headache. I’m sorry.”
Hank nodded, then held out his hand. “Want one? They’re peppermint.”
There were two individually wrapped toothpicks in his palm, and she took both, one for her and a second for him whenever he asked for it later. She slid them into the front of her purse.
The resort was all red bricks and white pillars and shorn green grass, a place for rich people to golf and play tennis and bathe. Hank asked if the water was really hotter than the pools near their B&B, which he would have known if he’d read the e-mail she had sent him at his work. They strolled through a row of bungalows renovated into resort shops, with a day care and playground at the far end. Steam rose through quarter-sized circles cut into a sewer lid.
“Think that’s natural?” Hank asked. “Because of the springs, I mean?”
Helen was watching a young couple with a toddler playing on the bright yellow slide. A stroller stood abandoned at the edge of the grass, the front wheels mired in mulch chips. Brian had hated his, had shrieked and scratched whenever Helen buckled him in, the full force of her hand on his tiny chest. School drop-offs were worse. The aides would eventually pry his fingernails from the meat of Helen’s arms as he shrieked in the doorway, and then Helen would have to sit in her car checking her face in the rear view mirror until she stopped crying. It was hard on him, taking turns, sitting on rugs, not punching, not biting. Teachers want girls who play tea at stunted tables and finger picture books one page after the next. Sometimes Helen had wanted that, too, but Hank would never have known what to do with a girl.
The walking trail branched from the top of the resort parking lot. Helen handed Hank the camera and her purse and knotted her sweater around her waist before they reached the woods. It wasn’t as rustic as she had imagined. Power lines crisscrossed overhead, and a highway hummed through the tree line. They could walk like this at home.
“Did you pay the Sprint bill?” she asked.
Hank stopped speaking to look at her. He had been debating aloud whether the fence around the horse pen was as old as it appeared or whether the resort had imitated the design from colonial sketches.
“I was going to go through them when we got back.” He was angling his head, trying to catch her eye. “Is there something on your mind?”
If when they arrived home Helen snuck the postcard back into the mailbox while Hank lugged the suitcase to the bedroom, she could pretend that she had never seen it when he fished it out with Saturday’s deliveries. She would get to be cool-headed, composed, laugh away Hank’s panic. Of course Brian hadn’t raped anyone.
It took nearly two hours to complete the loop, then another fifteen to drive back to the B&B. She tried to nap in the room, in the smaller back room, with the door mostly closed, while Hank read something. She wasn’t sleepy. Brian’s prom date had been named Linda. Laura was the girl he dated in tenth grade. Helen had walked in on them kissing on the old couch in the rec room. The girl was on her back, knees spread, Brian on top of her, only their shoes off, the TV on. Helen stammered and struck the doorframe backing out. She found Hank in the garage and sent him in, but the girl was jogging red-faced to the hall bathroom. When Brian swerved around Helen on the stairs, his cheeks were dark too, his fists clenched. Helen pressed her spine against the wall as though pinned.