Lilli Niles planted her handbag on the ceramic elephant in the front hall of her Hampstead flat, hung her mac on the peg above it, and locked the door. Exhausted after a long day at her Whitechapel gallery, she changed into silk lounging pajamas, put on La Traviata, poured herself a large glass of a crisp Pinot Grigio, and began ladling chicken stock into a risotto on the AGA. So mesmerized was she by the fat bubbles rising and popping beneath her wooden spoon that, when the telephone rang, she actually jumped, then cursed silently, and, keeping one eye on the risotto, checked to see who was calling her. She would answer only if it was her assistant, Geoffrey, who knew never to bother her at home except in an emergency—defined as the gallery, or someone in it, being on fire. She had no intention of speaking with chatty Cybil Winslow from the London Association of Art and Design Education, or the depressive Minnie Mortimer from the Kensington Science Museum board, but she would happily have spoken at length with either when she saw the familiar overseas telephone number of her sister, Bea.
Lilli hadn’t been back to her childhood home in White Head, Massachusetts, where Bea lived still, or seen her eldest sister since 1969, and always preferred to keep their conversations as brief as possible. They talked on holidays, birthdays, and when a friend or relative died. Bea, self-appointed archivist of the Niles family, not only knew all their cousins, first, second, and once removed, but kept in touch with most of them and would place them reverently on the family tree, much as she would the Christmas ornaments each year, each in its assigned spot, regardless of the size or shape of the tree. For Lilli, the names of those whom Bea would call and report as having passed on—Cousin Eugenia, Uncle Parker, and former neighbors in distant White Head, Massachusetts—were like characters from a barely remembered Victorian novel. She’d moved away from all of that, and from all of them—first to Chicago for most of a year, and then to New York City for art school, and finally, in 1978, to London.
Lilli considered not answering Bea’s summons. She’d had a long day, and doubted that whatever news Bea had to impart would affect her much. Besides, they had just spoken the week before, on Bea’s birthday. But, as Lilli was held hostage by her risotto, she would have been forced to stand there and listen to Bea deliver her news through the answering machine. Bea would begin, as she always did, “Lilli, you know how I hate talking into these things,” and then, intuiting that Lilli was standing beside the phone, would add, “Lilli, I know you’re right there. Pick up.”
Lilli reached with her free hand for the receiver and said, “Hello, Bea.”
“Lilli? It’s Bea.”
“Yes. Hello, Bea,” Lilli repeated, and then waited. When Bea offered nothing further, Lilli asked, in an off hand way, just to move things along, “Who died?” and drizzled another ladleful of stock into the risotto. She scraped stuck rice from the bottom of the pan as she waited again for a response from her sister. Conversations with Bea were always awkward. There was too much between them: too many years, too many miles, and much too much history. Glancing up, she caught her reflection in the bottom of a stainless steel pot above the AGA. She looked tired and every minute of her fifty-eight years. Lilli gave her reflection a sympathetic smile.
“Randall,” said Bea.
Lilli dropped the ladle.
“Brain aneurysm. It was very . . . sudden. Very, very . . . fast. Here one minute, gone the next.”
Lilli heard amazement in Bea’s voice. Whether it was due to Randall’s sudden and wholly unexpected death, or the fact that he’d taken this momentous step without Bea’s say-so, Lilli wasn’t sure. Probably some of both.
Perhaps realizing that the situation called for a greater degree of delicacy and tact, neither of which had ever been her long suit, Bea then added, “I suppose I should be thankful. Not that he’s gone,” she quickly amended. “I didn’t mean that. But that he didn’t suffer. How could he? There simply wasn’t time . . .” As she trailed off, Lilli stared at the broth and bits of rice now splattered across the stovetop, as though they might hold a clue about how to respond to this startling news. She looked up at her reflection. It offered no help. Lilli wished for the foghorn that bellowed through the soot-colored mist that would settle over White Head. When she was a girl, after the accident, she would go down onto the rocks, pick her way carefully along their slick surface, and shout her grief and guilt into the deep bass notes of that foghorn. Her kitchen, all stillness in pools of white light, offered no such camouflage.
She reached a tentative hand out to her reflection above the AGA, both seeking and offering comfort, thinking, as she did so: Randall’s dead. And then: Will his death change anything? The tiniest tendril of hope began to unfurl inside Lilli then, like the morning glories that her mother used to plant beside the back door in White Head. The vines began as impossibly slender shoots, like silken threads, blindly seeking something on which to haul themselves up toward the sunlight. Where did they find the strength, the reserves to do this? By August, the whole shingled wall would be covered in blue trumpet-shaped blossoms and shiny green leaves. All from those tiny, tender shoots.
Randall Marsh had spent summers in White Head when Lilli was growing up. He’d stayed next door with his aunt and uncle and would appear at the Niles house just as the beach roses at the edge of the cliff began to bloom, string the hammock between two birch trees at the foot of the yard, and spend hours swinging Lilli and her younger sister Dori higher and higher, until they squealed with delight and terror, begged him to stop, and then pleaded with him to begin again. He would set up their badminton net and play all four sisters left-handed. Charlotte, five years older than Lilli, a terrific tennis player—good enough to turn pro, some said—was the only one who could get the shuttlecock past him. After their father died, it was Randall, although then only fifteen, to whom their mother turned for advice about how much to inflate the tires on the Country Squire and when to change the oil. Each September, as the roses began to fade, he would take down the hammock and the net and return to Maryland, a place then as unknown and exotic to Lilli as Marseilles. Lilli stood in the sterile stillness of her London flat, clutching the receiver to her ear, afraid if she loosened her grip she would drift away.
“Lilli?” Bea’s voice jolted Lilli back to the present, where she smelled scorched risotto. She turned off the heat, crossed her kitchen, and sat down, straightening the knife, fork, and small salad at her place. A large blue-glass vase filled with yellow sunflowers stood at the center of her table. Lilli shifted it and reached up to a small shelf where a dried starfish leaned against several photographs and a small silver cup, tarnished and bristling with paint brushes. The starfish, still, after so many years, smelled faintly of the sea. She pressed it to her cheek and stared around her compact kitchen at the gleaming cappuccino machine, pasta maker, and food processor, each in its place; at the pans and whisks dangling by size from polished chrome hooks, and the knives nestled into slots in their wooden holder. She compared it with the kitchen of her childhood, with its red Formica-topped counters rimmed with metal strips that snagged your sweater if you weren’t careful, and with its towering glass-fronted cupboards, which held the best china, with its sprays of pink rosebuds. The windows were always filmed with salt spray and were hung with yellow caf. curtains patterned with green ivy that matched the stenciling on the walls, a project their mother had started and never completed. Blythe had mixed her paints on a little white enameled table that stood under a north-facing window. Lilli wondered where that table had gone and how the room looked now, pictured granite counters and Mexican tile, or perhaps highly polished hardwood, replacing the old linoleum—
“Hello?” Bea’s voice, querulous and tentative, crackled across the miles. “Lilli, are you there?”
“Randall’s dead.” Lilli wondered if saying it aloud might make it seem more real. The full impact of Randall’s passing was beginning to settle over her, subtly changing the landscape of her life, the way a snowstorm used to fill the yard and gardens in White Head, until the bench and sundial became transformed into soft white mounds. “I’m so sorry, Bea,” Lilli said. He was her husband, after all.
There followed another long silence, and Lilli, having nothing else to say and wanting to be alone to examine the possible implications of Randall’s death, was about to ring off, when Bea said, “I thought you might come for the service.”
Lilli clutched the starfish so tightly that a tiny piece broke off one of the legs. “Oh, no,” she whispered, staring down.
“No?” Bea sounded surprised and a little hurt.
“No, I . . . I didn’t say no.” Lilli cleared her throat. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Charlotte tells me that you’re selling the gallery.”
Lilli put the starfish on the table and fit the broken piece precisely back in place. She would need to navigate this next bit of water carefully. “When did you talk with Charlotte?” Lilli kept her tone casual and checked the time: six p.m. Which would make it what in Santa Barbara? She couldn’t think. Numbers flew from her mind like spindrift in a stiff breeze.
“I should think, with so much time on your hands, you’d be bored silly. I know a number of working people and they all say the same thing. I thought you might . . . stay a few days.”
“I didn’t sell it. I took on a partner. In fact . . .” Lilli paused. Did she want to tell Bea that her new partnership with Felicity Grummage included a second gallery in Boston? Not really. Not at all. Lilli wanted to end the conversation. She needed time to think.
“Didn’t sell it?”
“And I’m still painting. More now, that was why I—” She stopped. Why am I telling her this? She never listens to me. She doesn’t care.
“I see. But you’ll have some spare time. Won’t have to paint every minute. Come for the service. At least.”
Come for the service. Lilli regarded this invitation as she might an unusual piece of art she was considering for her gallery, studying it from various angles, holding it up to the light, trying to picture how, and if, it would fit. She had been back in the United States many times since moving to Europe, many more times, certainly, than Bea was aware of. There’d been art shows and installations, vacations and residencies, but she had never gone back to that small coastal town on its rocky promontory south of Boston, or to the house in which she’d grown up. With Randall gone, was now the time? She fingered the broken starfish. Was there anything to gain?
“I don’t know what kind to have,” Bea was saying. “Randall would never talk about death. Th ought it would bring it on. Fat lot of good that did.”
“Maybe he didn’t think it mattered what he wanted,” Lilli said.
“Perhaps not,” Bea said, missing, or ignoring, Lilli’s sarcasm. “After all, it’s not as though he’ll have to sit through it. I don’t suppose you have any thoughts on that.”
“What kind of service we should have.”
“Obviously, Bea, I haven’t given it much thought.”
“Point to you. But could you give it some thought now? Perhaps you could come on a Sunday, and then we could have the service on Monday. That would give us time to get settled. Or we could have the service on Tuesday, if that worked better for you.”
“Who said I was coming?” Lilli glanced at the red file folder on her desk in the alcove off the kitchen. It held the itinerary and travel documents for her trip from London to Boston the following month for the celebration of the gallery merger. Felicity had mailed invitations to Grummage Gallery’s best customers, who would sip champagne, nibble fancy hors d’oeuvres, and admire Lilli’s watercolors of English gardens. She hadn’t intended for Bea to know about this trip or the gallery merger; Lilli’s half-interest in the Grummage Gallery offered her a reason to spend more time in the United States. “When did you talk with Charlotte?”
“Just now. I called to tell her about Randall.”
Lilli stared at the red folder, which seemed to intensify in color. She shifted her gaze back to the shelf and to the photograph that had been hidden behind the starfish. A Kodachrome print: Lilli and her three sisters, arranged by age and seated together on the bottom of an overturned rowboat on the beach below their house. Little Dori—her blond hair uncharacteristically curly that day from the Spoolies Bea had set it in the night before—holding up the starfish she’d just found; then Lilli, dark and serious (“Gypsies,” her mother would tease when Blythe and Lilli, with their dark hair and eyes and their firm features, gazed together into a mirror); Charlotte, next, sturdy and grinning in her tennis whites; and finally Bea, the eldest, straight-backed, chin lifted, as though facing off with the future. Behind them, up on the rocky bluff, stood their large, shingled house with its multiple gables and octagonal sunporch wreathed with wisteria.
Next to that photograph stood Charlotte’s wedding portrait: she and Graham Bottomley, with their arms linked beneath a rose-covered arch, were flanked by Lilli, Bea, Randall, and several bridesmaids and groomsmen. To the casual viewer of the photo, Lilli would seem to have an odd, glassyeyed expression and forced smile. Randall, she remembered, had grabbed her hand and held it, hidden, behind the folds of her dress. There were a dozen tables scattered about the lawn behind them, all draped with white cloths that the sisters had anchored with rocks that afternoon.
She studied the photograph of herself and her sisters, wishing she could see more of the detail hidden within the snapshot—its colors had intensified but the details had faded, giving it a garish, surreal appearance—wishing she could see the beautiful gardens her mother used to tend from morning to night. In Lilli’s earliest memories, her mother was always laughing, organizing games, and holding tea parties for her two youngest girls and their dolls. And she was full of pranks, like raising the small-craft warning flags whenever her mother-in-law came to visit. It was understood by those in White Head, and enunciated by the girls’ grandmother, Lydia Niles, who lived in Charles River Square, that her son, George Osborne Niles III, had stepped outside his prescribed social circle when he’d married Blythe Giardino. She was clever, artistic, and eccentric. All the things George wished he were. And then George died young, leaving Blythe to raise four daughters, when all she really wanted was make her odd sculptures of driftwood and flotsam, and to garden.
Lilli sagged back in her chair. She should go see Bea, who’d just turned sixty-seven, because, who knew? Here was Randall dead at sixty-two, and Lilli hadn’t said good-bye, hadn’t said . . . so much. Perhaps, if they had a little time together, she and Bea could set things right. Lilli doubted it. A visit might bring some closure, but she knew it would take more than one quick visit to close all the doors ajar in her past. Still, she would like to see the house—it held so many memories—and the cove and her mother’s gardens. “I could see about . . . driving down for a day.”
“You must spend a night at least. I’ve got your room all ready.”
Lilli immediately wished that life had a rewind button, much as she had the previous week when she’d locked her car door with her keys inside. She wanted to see the house, it was true. but she did not want to spend a night there. It would be too much. “Is that motel by the harbor still there?” she asked, all she could think of in the moment. Stupid. She didn’t want to spend a night anywhere in White Head.
“You’ll be much more comfortable here.”
“Harbor View, wasn’t it?” Lilli asked, feeling as though she were standing in a queue and being drawn forward, not sure how she’d gotten there, what she was in line for, or how to break free.
“Still is. But—”
“Is Charlotte coming?” Lilli demanded more than asked, her voice rising. Then, more quietly, she added, in what she hoped was a casual and off hand way, “Or Izzy?”
Lilli’s imaginary queue suddenly seemed to stop. There was silence on the other end of the line. Lilli waited. Then Bea said, “All the way from Santa Barbara? I doubt it.
Charlotte’s having trouble with her hips, or knees, or something. Anyway, she doesn’t like to fly. And Izzy . . . Well, Izzy wasn’t really all that close to her Uncle Randall, was she? I mean, she visited from time to time as a child, but she hadn’t seen him for ages. I don’t see why she’d come.”
Lilli would have pointed out that England was at least as far as California, but Bea was saying, “So it’s settled then? That’s wonderful. I’ll see you next month. Good-bye, Lillianne.” And, before Lilli could either deny or confirm her plans, Bea had hung up.
Good-bye,” Lilli said to her silent kitchen with its gleaming appliances and ruined risotto.
After she hung up, Bea sat for a moment at the wooden table set against the ivy-stenciled wall in her kitchen, smiling. She stood, using the table for support, stepped over to the counter, took a glass from the cupboard, and filled it with water from the faucet. She reached for one of a half-dozen pill bottles lined up in front of the battered aluminum canisters stamped with the words Flour and Sugar, and squinted at the label. She replaced it and selected another, popped open the lid, and peered inside. She tried the label again and, still unable to make out the words printed there, scanned the room for her reading glasses. Where had she left them this time? Honestly, she was getting more forgetful by the day.
She set the pill bottle down and spied a pair of men’s glasses on the windowsill. She put them on and peered again at the label, moved it varying distances from her face, and then held it to the light filtering in through the window and tried closing one eye. Seemingly satisfied, she pried open the lid, grimacing a bit as she did, tipped one of the white tablets into her palm, and considered it for a moment before popping two into her mouth and swallowing them with a long draft of the tepid water.
She stood a while, gazing out the salt-filmed window toward the greenhouse, picturing Lilli running up the driveway in tears all those years earlier. Poor child. Bea had thought so often of saying something. But how could she? What was there to say? She turned and considered the dirty dishes stacked beside the sink. “They won’t get any dirtier,” she muttered. “Maybe my fairy godmother will stop by and wash them for me.” She chuckled softly, then sighed and headed out of the room, massaging her hip with one hand.
Lilli phoned Charlotte as soon as Bea hung up. Graham answered and, after exchanging brief pleasantries about the weather in Santa Barbara and London, gave the phone to his wife. “Lilli! Hi! I’m putting you on speakerphone.” There was a click on the line, followed by the sound of running water, the clatter of pots and pans, and finally Charlotte’s voice again. “Are you there?”
“Yes, still here,” Lilli said.
“Has Bea called you?”
Lilli could now hear chopping. “Yes.”
“Yes, Bea called,” Lilli said, louder.
“I’m sorry, Lilli,” said Charlotte, her voice distant, as though she’d moved away from the phone, then louder, “Quite a shock, wasn’t it? Did she invite you to the service? I told her not to bother.” Chop, chop, chop. “I said you’d never go back, so not to—”
The chopping stopped. “Lilli. You’re not.” Her tone was half astonishment, half command. Lilli could hear Charlotte telling Graham, “Lilli’s going to White Head,” and Graham telling Charlotte that he could hear Lilli every bit as well as Charlotte.
“Are you coming, too?” Lilli asked, already knowing the answer.
“To Randall’s service? Hardly. My knees have been getting steadily worse. Too much tennis as a girl. Bea always said. Probably looking at one, maybe two replacements this summer. But Lilli, why are you going?”
“I want to see the house again.” Lilli said. It wasn’t an outright lie; that certainly was part of the reason. She pressed the broken piece back onto the brittle leg of the starfish, wondering if the glue would hold. “And, I was thinking, with Randall gone . . . maybe now is the time . . .” Lilli wished Charlotte would take her off speakerphone so they could talk privately. Lilli wanted to ask Charlotte what, if anything, Randall’s death might change. What, if anything, she could say to Bea.
“The time for what, Lilli? No, now is not the time. Now will never be the time. We agreed. Hand me that jicama, will you?” Charlotte said. “No, let’s use the plastic plates and eat by the pool. Over the microwave. Cloth napkins.”
“Sorry, Lilli, what did you say?”
“Nothing. Sounds like you’re busy. I’ll call you next week. Let you know how it goes.”
“Yes. Please do. And, Lilli, promise me you won’t say anything. Take it all out on one of those trays. It’ll be much easier. Bye-bye!”
A month later, Lilli stood in the doorway of the Harbor View Motel in White Head, Massachusetts, hugging her jacket against a sharp east wind. It was past eight o’clock and the sun, settling toward the horizon, was burnishing the landscape so it resembled an old photograph or, thought Lilli, a half-forgotten memory. Had she arrived earlier, she and Bea could have had dinner together, maybe shared a bottle of wine, something to help bridge the breach between them. She was anxious about this first meeting with her sister after so many years, unsure of what to say and how to say it. As it was, Lilli had called from the airport and told Bea not to wait. It had been a challenging day, arriving at Heathrow early, the inevitable delays, the long flight, a harrowing drive down from Logan Airport, with cars speeding past her in the breakdown lane. She stepped out onto a paved pathway that divided the lawn from the white-clapboarded motel and stared toward the parking lot, past the Adirondack chairs, painted in bold primary colors, facing the harbor.
Below the motel was a stony beach, where two girls were playing. One had dark hair, the other blond. She and Dori had often played past sunset on the beach at Sandy Cove, and then raced up the steps that their grandfather had carved into the boulders beneath their house, plunged into a hot bath, and pretended they were captured explorers, being boiled alive. They’d shriek as the scalding water enveloped their cold feet, hands, and bottoms. Bea would rush in to make sure they were all right, and the girls’ faces, already red, would turn even redder from trying not to laugh. Bea would sprinkle some of her prized Jean Naté. bath salts into the water and tell them not to soak too long or their skin would prune, which was precisely what the girls wanted. They would then pretend they were two old ladies taking the cure at a hot spring in Arkansas, something Lilli had read about in Life magazine. Lilli’s stomach tightened as she remembered the vivid, sweet scent of Jean Naté. Her muscles clenched further as she thought that soon she would be walking up those very rock-steps, be in that very house. The sensible thing, the safe thing, would be to climb right back into her rental car and drive back to Boston, she told herself. Lilli didn’t think she had it in her. But she could call Bea, say she was too tired to come by this evening, and suggest they meet somewhere for breakfast before the service . . .
Lilli considered this as she watched as the dark-haired girl on the beach below gather stones and hand them to her friend, indicating where to place them in the trench they’d dug. The fair-haired girl was smaller, as Dori had been. But Lilli wasn’t convinced that these two were sisters; their interactions were too careful, too intentional. Not like girls who share a bedroom—many nights a bed—and drift off to sleep whispering to one another, until the whispers become dreams and, in the morning, it is unclear who dreamed what and who whispered what to whom.
But then, that was not true of all sisters, Lilli was reminded, as the dark-haired girl abruptly marched off up the beach, the blond girl calling after her. “Jessie,” it sounded like. But Jessie—if that was her name—kept right on walking, trudging through the soft sand above the high tide mark. She hoisted herself onto the retaining wall and hurried down the street toward the center of town. The one left behind simply watched her go, and then resumed her project, selecting more stones, laying them carefully in place, digging here, reinforcing there, before standing back to assess her efforts, seemingly unmoved by Jessie’s abrupt departure. Lilli thought of Bea. She’d never once pressed Lilli to visit. Not that Lilli would have come.
Lilli struck out across the parking lot of the motel, not intentionally following the dark-haired girl, but curious. She decided that her jacket would be warm enough if she walked briskly. She wanted to get this initial meeting over—no need to stay long, a quick visit to assess the situation—and be back before dark. She glanced over at the beach, where the fair-haired girl sat, hugging her knees, chin on arms, surveying her handiwork, waiting, Lilli knew, to see if her channel would hold with the incoming tide.
Lilli quickly lost sight of the girl and became disoriented in the streets of White Head, which seemed to have grown much narrower over the forty years she’d been away. Some streets seemed even to have disappeared. Gone was the lane she expected to find behind the old florist, now a dog spa. Gone was Finch’s Market, where their mother had “traded” for groceries, replaced now by an unattractive steel-and-glass restaurant. Gone was the Simmons Block, a large brick building that once housed a Woolworth’s, where Bea used to buy Slinkies and yo-yos for Lilli and Dori, and small metal watercolor sets, and where she outfitted them each September with five new pairs of knee socks and seven new pairs of Carter’s underpants each. There’d been a hardware store too, with smooth wooden floors, where Lilli’s father had taken her on Saturdays in the winter. They would rummage through bins of different-sized nails—Lilli could still recall the chalky, solid feel of them—and come home with dozens in small sacks for projects that George intended but never quite managed to undertake the following summer.
She walked past the large, mostly Victorian houses that still lined the street leading down to the harbor. Some of the changes in this town were subtle: the shrubs bracketing the front doors of the houses a little larger, the shutters painted a different shade. Others were more blatant. The Wakeman place, for instance, had been converted into a retirement community called Beacon House, which also offered “progressive care.” Lilli pondered this adjective as she studied the massive white structure, the one building in town that was easily as big as she remembered. Progressing toward what, exactly? Then she realized that it didn’t only seem larger, but was. They’d added a whole new wing out back. She and Nancy Wakeman used to play jacks and pick-up sticks on the house’s wide front porch, and later smoked cigarettes that Lilli had pinched from Bea’s secret stash, beneath the very same porch. She could see several women chatting at a table in front of the bay window in the living room, where the Wakemans’ Christmas tree once stood.
She continued toward the weathered-shingled yacht club, which seemed unchanged, except for a rusting gas grill at the edge of the parking lot. Lilli considered asking one of the young people on the front porch if she might look around inside, but she wasn’t quite ready to confront the memories that might linger there, nor quite willing to discover that they’d moved on.
Beyond the clubhouse she found the shortcut that she and Dori used to take through the woods. The feathery branches of the tall cedars strummed a familiar melody in the wind. Halfway in, Lilli closed her eyes.
“What about skunks, Lilli? I’m afraid. Let’s take the road.”
“No time. We’re already late. Just make a lot of noise. Skunks hate surprises, but they won’t bother you if they know you’re coming.”
“All skunks go to Hell,” Lilli whispered and smiled, hearing Dori’s laughter in the call of gulls as she continued through the glade to Sandy Cove, thinking about the tensile nature of promises.
Several children were playing in the soft sand high up on the beach, their nannies on blankets, plastic coolers at their side. A large contemporary house occupied what used to be an empty field where her father, uncles, and male cousins— strangers when they arrived each year, inches taller than they’d been at the last visit—played football on Thanksgiving. The Niles house would fill with laughter and with Uncle Parker’s sweet, earthy pipe tobacco, his tweed coat infusing the closet for weeks with the scent. Lilli scanned the bluff of pink granite at the far end of the cove for her old house: the rambling, comforting presence that once anchored her world, worried that it would be so greatly changed she wouldn’t recognize it, or it wouldn’t recognize her. But it was hidden behind a wall of vegetation, which struck Lilli as odd. Why block the million-dollar view?
Big-big, the name given to the immense rock formation at the center of the cove by those who lived around it, appeared less grand but still imposing, and so familiar that Lilli half-expected to see Dori waving to her from its top. The tide was out, and Lilli was tempted to walk across the narrow stretch of sand and climb up onto it. But when the tide came in, Big-big would become an island—or an ocean liner or battleship if you were young and had a very good imagination— and the water was very cold here, even in summer. She made her way across the cove, the smell of low tide stirring memories buried deep and sealed tight, like the clams they used to dig from the mud. Lilli had always admired clams’ ability to dig themselves in so quickly. You don’t expect much of a clam; they do only a very few things, but they do them surprisingly well. She spotted, at her feet, a lucky stone, which was what the girls called rocks with white bands of quartz running through them. The luckiest, they’d maintained, were those bisected with the widest swaths precisely at their centers. This one was blue-gray with just a sliver of quartz cutting diagonally across one end. She picked it up—she could use some luck, she thought, even if minimal and off-center—and pocketed it, palming its smooth surface as she continued along the sand at the water’s edge, her pale footprints trailing behind.
As she walked along the beach, she occasionally glanced up, hoping for a glimpse of the house. At one point she caught the glint of sun on glass, the window in her mother’s room. She pictured Blythe leaning out and calling to the girls, “Time for tea!” The girls would race each other up their grandfather’s steps, the smooth, pinkish boulders warm beneath their bare feet, to find—standing on the wide lawn—a table, draped with a linen cloth and set with their grandmother’s rosebud china. Several of the girls’ dolls would be seated on chairs brought out from the dining room. Their mother, wearing a big floppy hat, a gown, and long gloves would billow out of the house, bearing a tray of lace cookies, baked by Charlotte, and a teapot—one of her colorful scarves trailing behind.
Lilli climbed the granite steps slowly. At the top, her way was barred by bittersweet, blackberry bushes, and spindly maple saplings. She pushed through, thorns on the rugosa roses snagging her jacket. Her mother and Mr. Sylvia, the family’s gardener, had kept all this cut back; there’d always been a wide path open to the steps. She couldn’t imagine why Bea and Randall had let it grow. Until she saw the house. Perhaps the idea was not to block the occupants’ view out, but to block anyone else’s view in.
In Lilli’s youth, the Niles house had stood on a lawn large enough for tea parties and games of tag, badminton, and croquet; large enough to have had easily accommodated tables for the more than seventy guests at Charlotte and Graham’s wedding. It had been edged with gardens filled with foxglove, roses, iris, daisies, lilies, and peonies, with pansies, begonias, phlox, lantana, nicotiana, columbine, and feverfew. The peonies, Lilli remembered, harbored ants that she and Dori would grow faint trying to blow off before Bea allowed them into the house. The lawn was now reduced to a narrow band of mostly crabgrass trapped between the house and the tangled morass she’d just struggled through. Peering back into it, Lilli spotted a few pale irises, stunted and fighting a losing battle, all that was left of the garden. To her right, a wall of honeysuckle, birch saplings, and overgrown cedars blocked what was once a clear view to the opposite point, where the Chapins’ house had stood, probably still did, although Lilli doubted any Chapins lived there now. Lilli could see the remains of the wooden arch that had once been covered with red roses. Something was growing up over it still, threatening to take it down.
Of the big house itself, the only part clearly visible was the many-chimneyed and -gabled roof. Wisteria shrouded the octagonal sunporch (Lilli couldn’t imagine it got much sun these days), and junipers the size of lorries blocked the dining room and living room windows. Lilli passed through the narrow opening in the lilac hedge and up to the kitchen door, partially obstructed now by forsythia. She knocked. Silence. She knocked again, louder, and listened. She could hear the sound of a television or radio coming from the rear of the house. The door was unlocked, so she let herself in.