October 16, 2010 Rockland, Vermont
Imagine that your house is on fire. You have exactly one minute to grab what you can. What do you choose? Tara turned over the little hourglass full of pink sand. Her fingernails were painted cyanosis-blue, chipped in places. Her face was pale, her lips bright red as she smiled, breathed the word, Go.
Reggie tore down the front hall, skidding as she rounded the corner to the narrow oak stairs, galloping up, one hand on the curved snakelike rail, the other on the cool wall of damp stone. "Your lungs are filling with smoke!" Tara called from down below. "Your eyes are watering."
Reggie gasped, jerked open the door to her room, her eyes moving over the crammed bookshelves, the desk covered in her sketches, the neatly made bed topped off with the quilt her grandmother had made. She skimmed over all of this and went right for the closet, moving toward it in slow motion, feeling her way through the invisible smoke, stinging eyes clamped shut now. She reached for the sliding door and eased it open, the little metal wheels rattling in their tracks. Reggie stepped forward, fingers finding clothes hung on hangers. She reached up, felt for the shelf.
"Hurry," Tara whispered, right behind her now, her breath warm and moist on Reggie's neck. "You're almost out of time." Reggie opened her eyes , took a gulp of fresh, cold, October air. She was at home in Vermont. Not back at Monique's Wish. And she was thirty-nine - not thirteen. "Damn," she said, the word a cloud of white smoke escaping her mouth. She'd left the windows open again.
Wrapping the down comforter around her like a cape, she slid out of bed and went right for the windows, pulling them closed. The trees, vivid with oranges, yellows and reds just last week, were losing their brightness. The cold and wind of the last three days had brought many of the leaves off the trees. Out across the lake, a V of Canada geese headed south.
"You don't know what you're missing," Reggie told them. Then, in her next breath, she muttered, "Chickenshits." She squinted down at the lake, imagining it three months from now, frozen solid and snow covered; a flat moonscape of white. It wasn't all that different from Ricker's Pond, where her mother had taught her to ice-skate. Reggie could see it so clearly: her mother in her green velvet coat and gold chiffon scarf soaring in graceful circles while Reggie wobbled and fell, the ice popping beneath them. "Are you sure this is safe?" she'd asked her mother, each time the ice made a sound. And her mother had laughed. "Worry girl," she'd teased, skating right into the middle where the ice was the thinnest and holding her hands out to Reggie. "Come on out here and show me what you're made of."
Reggie shrugged off the memory, along with the heavy down comforter. She quickly threw on a pair of jeans and a sweater and headed down to the kitchen, her bare feet cool on the wood floors.
She'd laid out the house so that she'd have a view of the lake from almost any vantage point. As she descended the stairs, she faced the large bank of windows on the south side that looked out over her yard and meadow and down to Arrow Lake. It was a little over half a mile from her house to the water's edge, but when she came down the stairs, she felt as if she could just step out into the air and float across her living room, through the windows, over the yard and field, and down to the lake. Sometimes she caught herself almost trying it - leaning a little too far forward, putting her foot too far ahead so that she nearly missed the next step down. These were the moments that defined her success as an architect: not the prizes, accolades, or the esteem of her colleagues, but the way coming down her stairs made her believe, just for a second, that she could turn into a bit of dandelion fluff and float down to the lake.
For a building to be successful, it had to be connected to the landscape in a seamless way. It couldn't just look like it had been dropped there randomly, but like it had grown organically, been shaped by the wind and the rain, cut from the mountains. The rooms should flow not just from one into the other, but also into the world beyond.
4 Walls Magazine had just named Reggie one of the top green architects in the Northeast, and called the Snyder/Wellenstein house she'd designed in Stowe "a breathtaking display of integrating architecture with nature; with the stream running through the living room and the 120-year-old oak growing up through all three floors, Dufrane has created a sustainable dwelling that blurs the lines between indoors and out."
Blurring the lines. That's what Reggie was good at -indoors/ outdoors; old/new; functional/ornamental - she had a gift for merging unlikely ideas and objects and creating something that was somehow both and neither; something greater than the sum of its parts.
Still foggy headed and desperately in need of caffeine, Reggie cleaned out the little stainless-steel espresso pot, then filled it with water and coffee and set it on the gas stove, turning the knob to start the flame. Her kitchen was a cook's dream (though honestly, Reggie didn't do much cooking and subsisted largely on raw vegetables, cheese and crackers, and espresso) - right down to the huge counter-hogging Italian espresso machine that Reggie only used when she was entertaining. She preferred the small stove top pot she'd owned since college. It was simple to use and quietly elegant - the epitome of good design.
The water came to a boil. The coffee bubbled, filling the kitchen with its rich, earthy scent.
Reggie checked her watch: 7:15. She'd go out to the office, do some brainstorming for the new project, go for a run around the lake, shower, and do some more sketches. She looked back at her watch, catching it change to 7:16.
Imagine that your house is on fire. You have exactly one minute to grab what you can. What do you chose?
Reggie glanced around the house, feeling that old panic rising up inside her. Then she took in a breath and answered her old friend out loud. "Nothing, Tara. I choose nothing." Her chest loosened. Muscles relaxed. Tara didn't have that kind of power over her anymore.
Reggie wasn't thirteen. She understood that objects could be replaced. And she didn't own all that much. Losing the house would be a crushing blow, but it could be rebuilt. She owned very little furniture. Her closet was only half full. Her sometime boyfriend Len teased her: "It isn't normal for a successful adult to be able to fit everything they own in the back of a pickup truck." He'd say it with his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his worn Carhartts, a boyish smirk on his face that brought out the little dimple in his right cheek. Len lived alone in an old rambling farmhouse, every room stuffed full of books and art and furniture that didn't quite match.
"It's the gypsy in me," she'd tell him, leaning in to kiss his cheek.
"Gypsy, hell," he'd scoff. "You live like a criminal on the run." Triple espresso in hand, Reggie went back upstairs, slid her feet into her clogs, and opened the door to the bridge that led to her tree house office. She took in a breath of cool, sharp air. She smelled woodsmoke, damp leaves, the apples rotting on the ground in the abandoned orchard on the east side of her property. It was a perfect mid-October day. The fifteen-foot suspension bridge swayed slightly under her, and she walked slowly at first, the yard and driveway below her, Arrow Lake off in the distance. Charlie's Bridge, she called it, though Charlie didn't even know it existed. And she'd never told anyone the bridge's secret name or the story behind it. What would she say? I named it after a boy who once told me building a bridge like this was impossible.
The phone in her office was ringing. She raced across the last couple of yards, the espresso dangerously close to spilling. She opened the door, which was never locked - the only way in was to cross the bridge from the inside of her house or to scale twenty-five feet up the oak tree the office was built around. The office was twelve feet across and circular, the tree trunk at the center and windows on all sides. Len called it "the control tower."
She had a computer desk and a wooden drafting table. There was a small bulletin board with notes for her latest project, a reminder to call a client, and the astrology chart Len had done for her pinned to it. She didn't believe in clutter or in holding on to things that didn't have significant meaning, so her bookcase held only the books that she referred to again and again, the ones that had influenced her: The Poetics of Space, A Pattern Language, The Timeless Way of Building, Design with Nature, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, as well as a small collection of nature guides. Tucked here and there among the books were Reggie's other great source of inspiration: bird nests, shells, pine cones, interestingly shaped stones, a round paper wasp nest, milkweed pods, acorns, and beechnuts.
Reggie went for the phone on her desk, stumbling and splashing hot espresso over her hand.
Shit! What was she in such a hurry for? Who did she expect to hear on the other end? Charlie? Not very likely. The last time they'd spoken was when they bumped into each other accidentally at the grocery store just before they'd both graduated from separate high schools. Tara, maybe, teasing her, telling her she had sixty seconds to gather everything she cared about? No. What she really thought was that it was Him again.
She'd been getting the calls for years, first at home, then college, then in every apartment and house she'd ever lived in. He never said a word. But she could hear him breathing, could almost feel the puffs of fetid moisture touch her good ear as he inhaled, then exhaled, each breath mocking her, saying, I know how to find you. And somehow, she knew, she just knew, that it was Neptune. And one of these days, he might actually open his mouth and speak. She let herself imagine it: his voice rushing through the phone like water, washing over her, through her. Maybe he'd tell her the one thing she'd always wanted to know: what he'd done with her mother, why she was the only victim whose body was never found. The others had been displayed so publicly, but all they ever found of Vera was her right hand.
What was it that made Vera different?
"Hello?" Reggie stammered.
Say something, damn it, she willed. Don't just breathe this time.
"Regina? It's Lorraine."
"Oh. Good morning," Reggie said through gritted teeth. She set down the small ceramic cup and shook her stinging hand, pissed that she'd burned herself hurrying for Lorraine. Why the hell was her aunt phoning at this hour? Usually she called each Sunday at five. And Reggie often managed to be out. (Or at least pretended to be - lurking in a corner, glass of pinot noir in hand, hiding like a child, as if the red eye on the answering machine could see her as she listened to her aunt's disembodied voice.) "I just got a call from a social worker down in Massachusetts." This was typical of Lorraine - getting right down to business - no useless preamble about the weather or any silly "all's well here, how are you?" There was a long pause while Reggie waited for her to continue. But she didn't.
"Let me guess," Reggie said. "She heard what a disturbed and traumatized family we were and was offering her services?" Reggie could almost see Lorraine rolling her eyes, looking over the top of her glasses and down her nose, disapproving. Lorraine standing in the kitchen with its faded wallpaper, her hair pulled back in a bun so tight it pulled the wrinkles from her forehead. And she'd be wearing Grandpa Andre's old fishing vest, of course, stained and reeking of decades of dead trout.
Reggie picked up the cup of espresso again and took a sip. "No, Regina. It seems they've found your mother. Alive." Reggie spat out the coffee, dropped the cup onto the floor, watching it fall in slow motion, dark espresso splattering the sustainably harvested floorboards.
It wasn't possible. Her mother was dead. They all knew it. They'd had a memorial service twenty-five years ago. Reggie could still remember the hordes of reporters outside; the way the preacher smelled of booze; and how Lorraine's voice shook when she read the Dickinson poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death."
At last Reggie whispered, "What?"
"They're quite sure it's her," Lorraine said, voice calm and matter-of-fact. "Apparently she's been in and out of a homeless shelter there for the past two years."
"But how can ... How do they know?"
"She told them. She's missing her right hand. Finally the police took her fingerprints - they're a match."
Excerpted from The One I Left Behind by Jennifer McMahon. Copyright © 2013 by Jennifer McMahon. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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