In the Blackmore family’s two hundred and seventy-eighth year in America, Elizabeth’s fifteenth year of life, and the third year since her mother’s departure, Blackmore House began to sink. This seemed to Elizabeth all the proof she needed that there was no longer any solid ground left in the world.
She had by then already earned her reputation as the family’s most animated tour guide, though her tours seemed to her pale reflections of the house’s mythic truth. Elizabeth’s tours began to depart from her father’s or her brother Jed’s on the very first stop, the living room. There were things they all covered: The characteristic ceiling beams, the wide floorboards of American Chestnut (now almost extinct), the beehive oven, the open hearth where there was a statistical probability that at least one woman had leaned too low over the stew pot and lit herself up like a dry pile of leaves. But for Elizabeth the living room was a gateway.
“We,” she would tell her tour groups, “are in the oldest section of the house. Originally constructed in 1732 by Jedediah Blackmore, who arrived on this spot in the middle of a blizzard, refused to heed the advice of his neighbors, and insisted on beginning to build anyway.” This much was true, at least according to the handed-down story. But no more of the story had survived, and these meager facts did nothing to show Jedediah Blackmore, as Elizabeth saw him, to the listening people. The man was mountainous in her mind.
She would look at the tired, half-interested faces of the group, tipped up to the ceiling beams or turned toward the oven, mere details they were mistaking for the whole point. She felt she had no choice, really, but to go on.
“Jedediah was fresh off the boat, and his sister, his younger and very beautiful sister, had died on the voyage. Picture it,” she would command. Their eyes were back on her by now. “He’s sacrificed so much to come here. He arrives at last, and the snow is swirling, he can’t even see his own land. It’s like God is telling him he should give up. So what does he do? He takes a shovel. He says, ‘I am going to use my own two hands and I am going to build my house.’” She would pause, not just for effect: she was watching Jedediah Blackmore, his fingers white-tight on the shovel’s handle, his eyes lit up like a preacher’s. “He lost two toes to frostbite, but the house was built by the end of the spring. That’s where you’re standing now.” Sometimes she would be able to hear her listeners take in a united breath and release it, and she would think I am making them breathe.
Elizabeth’s father had tried to speak to her about all of this. “The flair of it is great. You can’t just make things up, though, honey. We don’t know that, about his sister dying, or the frostbite. Let alone what he said. Just tone it all down some. Okay?”
Yet Elizabeth knew in her bones that none of it was a lie.
* * *
The year of the sinking was also the first year of Elizabeth’s father’s marriage to Dora, née Skiller, who was the first to notice something was wrong.
“Everybody!” Dora called up the stairs. “Come on out here a minute, would you?”
They found her on the front lawn, two shopping bags at her feet like loyal terriers, a line of puzzlement between her eyebrows that Elizabeth hoped, viciously, would stay there forever. “Maybe I’m bonkers,” Dora said, “but does it look lower to you?”
All of them turned to look at their ancient, rambling white home, Elizabeth’s father with his hand at Dora’s back now — that hand on her always somewhere. Blackmore House had settled wearily over the centuries until its lines weren’t quite straight anymore, but instead looked like natural continuations of the lines of the land around it, so it took the Blackmores a minute to decide.
Then Elizabeth’s brother Jed said, “Dora, I think you’re right.” And she was, though even through her alarm Elizabeth wished Jed hadn’t phrased this as Dora’s achievement.
Their father said he would get somebody out to look at the problem. Everyone dispersed. Elizabeth went inside and into the kitchen so it would seem like she was just getting something to eat, but really she headed right out the back door again. She wondered what kind of somebody her father meant. Who did you call when the ground started to swallow a building? She knelt by the edge of the house, in the wet spring mud. This part of the yard never got any sun and the plants here were pale, floppy things, perpetually moist, that looked and smelled like what might grow in a pond. Elizabeth parted them with her hands to reveal the seam where the house’s white boards met black dirt.
“Thought you might be out here,” Jed said behind her.
Elizabeth let the pond-plants flop closed in a hurry and rocked back on her haunches to face him. “Witchy is imagining things,” she said—her name for Dora, unkind homage not only to the fairy-tale idea of a stepmother but also to a certain sharpness of feature in her particular stepmother’s face.
Jed hitched his swim-practice bag higher on his shoulder. His proportions made the bag looked like a purse. He seemed to be taller and skinnier every time Elizabeth looked at him, taller than most real adults now. Next year he would be off at college, a thought that made her feel like her throat was closing. “I don’t think so,” he said. “And anyway you need to give her a break, okay?”
“Why should I?”
“She’s nice. And,” Jed said, pointing at the house, moving again, “don’t worry. We’ll figure something out.”
“She isn’t a Blackmore!” Elizabeth called after him furiously.
“She is now.” And he rounded the corner, leaving her alone with her afternoon. She and Jed had had a version of this exchange often enough to reveal to Elizabeth that they meant something very different by the word.
The distinction of being a Blackmore was something she had learned from her father, who — until Dora, at least — had seemed to consider his name his true calling. A resentful pride in the family legacy had been fostered all his life by the fact that although Blackmore House was a National Historic site, most of its visitors were only stop-ins on their way to Hartland Village, forty minutes up the road. Elizabeth’s father understood that it was thus fortunate for him that Hartland Village existed. He didn’t try to dissuade any of these people from their plans. He contented himself with a single line, delivered with dignity, during every tour: “We provide authentic insight into eighteenth-century New England life.”
Elizabeth’s father’s loathing of Hartland Village and its many costumed employees, with their rehearsed speeches and reenactments of blacksmithing, had been passed down whole from his own parents and so was older than he was. He lectured his children sometimes on the condescension of the Village’s living museum project, which he saw as the worst kind of affront to the imagination. “Nothing looks less like a real eighteenth-century man than a modern man shoved into shoddy eighteenth-century-style pants. It is impossible to look at such a man without envisioning his stop at the gas station on his way in that morning.” Then, leaning toward them, “The past is more alive when we do not trot out its corpse and jigger it around like a puppet.” Elizabeth was proud of him in these moments, sure that he was shepherding them through the present world’s equivalent of old Jedediah’s blizzard.
Yet Dora, not even a month after she had married their father, had come home with a large cardboard box pinned between her arms and the shelf of her prominent hipbones, the Hartland Village logo—line-drawing of jaunty horse and carriage, stamp of betrayal—proud on its side. “I had an idea!” Dora had said, and set the box down on the kitchen table, between Elizabeth and Jed and their father. “I was doing some shopping up by Hartland today, and on my way back I stopped by—”
“You stopped by,” Elizabeth said, to underscore this. She felt a rising glee.
“—and it turns out they sell costumes second-hand. I got the best deal. I was thinking we could all wear them, you know, when we give the tours.” She was taking clothing out of the box and draping it over the extra chair at the table — a dress, a pair of trousers and a shirt, a second pair of trousers with shirt and vest, another dress —l ayering them one over another like people who’d been deflated for easy stacking. Only when she had finished did she seem to register their silence. “I wasn’t sure about the sizes,” she said shyly. She tucked dry blond hair behind her ears.
Elizabeth stood and reached for the dress on top, the one that was shorter and wider and so, she figured, was meant for her. It was a bright Christmas red and had a faint oniony sweat smell. She pulled it up against herself, hardly able to keep the triumph from her face. “Well, Dad?”
But Jed spoke first, Jed who never could stop himself from helping people when they got themselves into these sorts of situations. “It’s a good idea, actually, Dora,” he said, though he was looking at their father. “It couldn’t hurt, right? We should give it a shot.”
Something seemed to flicker behind their father’s eyes, the release of a previous tightening. “Right,” he said. He stood and kissed Dora. “Thanks for thinking, sweetheart. Of course we can try it.” Dora beamed.
“You’re kidding,” Elizabeth said. Her cheeks heated, and she threw the dress back down on the chair. Her hands, she suspected, would carry its smell for days. “No way am I wearing that thing.”
“Elizabeth,” her father said, but Dora put out a hand to stop him. She landed it right in the middle of his chest: a hand of ownership.
“No, it’s all right,” she said. “Of course, Elizabeth, if you don’t want to, obviously we don’t have to.” Her voice had taken on the sweetness it often had when she addressed her stepdaughter. She put on a smile big enough to turn her chin into a shining knob. Jed opened his mouth, but Dora kept going. “Really, it’s fine. Like I said, I got a good deal. No big loss. It was just a thought.”
Sometimes in difficult moments, Elizabeth would conjure her namesake, her many-times-great grandmother, the Elizabeth Blackmore who had been Jedediah’s granddaughter and a famed beauty. Elizabeth understood by now that although she shared this previous Elizabeth’s name and even slept in the room that had been hers centuries earlier, she herself would not be a beautiful woman. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t stand like one, wound like one. She made her shoulders very straight; she tried to hold her whole body like a shiny weapon. “You aren’t part of the tour anyway,” she told Dora, and then she sat down to resume eating her cereal.
After Jed left for practice, Elizabeth found herself wondering if the ground-floor perspective might be somehow exaggerating the problem. She ascended the main staircase, whose slight crookedness, due to minor warping, she always pointed out to her tours. At the top she took a right into the house’s biggest bedroom, the room that her parents had shared until her mother left and that Dora and her father shared now. She went straight to the big window that overlooked the front lawn and evaluated. The ground, she thought, looked no closer than usual, but then it was pretty hard to remember just how close it had looked before.
Elizabeth turned around again. The room was tour-ready. Dora seemed to have adjusted without complaint to having a bedroom that was part of a historic site, one of the realities of life at Blackmore House: All furnishings and linens had to be as authentic as possible, irrespective of comfort, and all markers of post-eighteenth centuries had to be squirreled away in drawers and cubbyholes like shameful secrets. No sign of a present-tense day had been left this morning, and the bed was neatly made. Elizabeth sat on its end and bounced, as she remembered doing years ago while her mother tried to read to her. Often she sat right here to deliver the part of her tour that corresponded to this room. While she surveyed her listeners, she would think about the workers who might even then be beeping their cars locked in the parking lots of Hartland Village and spinning their butter-churning arms through the air to loosen the muscles, and a shiver of superiority would pinch her shoulder blades together.
“In this room,” she would say, “in this very bed, is where Jedediah Blackmore’s wife, Sarah, died in childbirth.”
Again, both true and not true. Sarah Blackmore certainly had died in childbirth — so proclaimed the ancient Blackmore family Bible that sat in its case in the living room, a fragile spread-winged bird entombed in glass. Exactly where Sarah had done this had not been set down for posterity. The bedroom did seem a logical guess, but odds on the bed were low; though it dated from the right period, Elizabeth’s father had bought it at an auction only ten or so years earlier. She just felt that a few props gave the past’s pageantry a more powerful effect. Neither was there any record of what she would say next: “This took place during a torrential downpour. A violent thunderstorm.”
“Those poor people had bad luck with the weather,” somebody sometimes joked. But nobody ever laughed, and whoever had spoken would stay quiet from then on.
“The baby was not in the correct position. Jedediah was desperate. He loved his wife so much — beyond life itself. He summoned the town physician, who examined Sarah and understood that there was a choice to be made. The life of the baby, or the life of the mother.”
She could see in her mind the doctor’s solemn expression, Jedediah’s face childish with anguish as he implored the doctor to save them both, both — a thing that surely could be no more impossible than besting a blizzard.
“Sarah told them that the baby was all that mattered to her. The doctor delivered her son, Thomas Blackmore, and then she died, knowing that she had given her life to insure the Blackmore line would continue. Jedediah was beside himself.” Weeping at the bedside of his wan dead wife who had let the current of motherly devotion take her whole, clutching fast the boy who would bear the whole weight of the Blackmores on his shoulders, while rain blurred the windows. Learning at such high cost that some blizzards are different from others.
Sara was Elizabeth’s mother’s name. Elizabeth had always taken this as a sign of the destined quality of her parents’ love — the dropped h like the alarm clocks and batteries they all kept tucked into drawers, small concessions to a new and more streamlined time.
* * *
Two days later, an architect from town came to render judgment on their problem. He walked around the house, which seemed to be several inches lower in the ground than the day before. He blew air upward toward his eyebrows. He propped some puny-looking planks against one side of the house and said he’d come back the next day with a consult.
Elizabeth called her mother in Pittsburgh. “The house is sinking,” she said. The drama of this announcement helped to ease, just a little, the dread building and building within her, like letting out the waist of a too-tight dress by a single stitch.
Elizabeth’s mother sighed before she said anything at all. Then, “What? What do you mean, honey? Remember what we’ve talked about, about being clear with your words instead of fancy.”
“I mean it’s sinking, right into the ground. Nobody knows what’s happening.”
A pause in which Elizabeth heard a discreet clatter and knew that her mother was unloading the dishwasher again. She did this every time Elizabeth called, multitasking, crossing two things off her to-do list at once. In the little kitchen in the house where she’d moved after leaving all of them, the cabinets’ order was unimpeachable and all flat edges met at perfect ninety-degree angles. “No more dust,” Elizabeth’s mother had said in describing this house, which looked just like all of the other houses on her street. Jed and Elizabeth had visited her there once, the year after she’d moved out — a visit that hadn’t gone very well for anyone — and when Elizabeth had gone out to take a walk, she’d accidentally tried to come back into the house two down from her mother’s.
“Well, I’m sure it’s just settling, Elizabeth,” her mother said. There was the sound of a shutting cupboard. “It’s been there for an awful lot of years. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“You wouldn’t worry?”
Her mother sighed again. “So tell me, how’s school?” One of her usual questions, asked with long-suffering hope.
“How do you think?” School had always been pretty much the same for Elizabeth. She was a good student, but none of her teachers and certainly none of the other kids seemed to like her very much. The pattern had been established on the first day of first grade when her teacher kept trying to call her Liz. She’d explained that she preferred Elizabeth, and the teacher had said “But sweetie, what a mouthful!” Elizabeth pointed out that it was only four syllables, and the teacher gave her a suspicious look that lasted the rest of the year. It didn’t help that every teacher Elizabeth had ever had seemed to expect at first that she’d be something like Jed, whom they all remembered fondly even though he wasn’t all that good at anything except swimming and only did his homework about two-thirds of the time, because he was the kind of kid who conjured classroom peace for them.
“People are so nice when you give them a chance,” her mother said now. Elizabeth didn’t see why her family felt the need to keep throwing people’s niceness at her, as if it were worth something. “Just try a little harder.” Since starting her job as a bank teller in Pittsburgh, Elizabeth’s mother had made three different friends who all referred to her as the sister I never had, even though one of them had a sister.
“Mom, a group’s coming in. I have to go,” Elizabeth said, and hung up.
By Wednesday the house was easily a foot lower in the ground than it was supposed to be. Rain hit the roof with the hushed, woody murmur Elizabeth had always loved, but she found herself wondering if the water would soften the ground and hasten descent. The planks that the architect had used to prop up the house had fallen aside like toothpicks tipped off a palm. The architect and his consult came, then went. Afterwards, Elizabeth’s father weeded the garden, uprooting things so energetically that his arms made alarming flourishes in the air. Elizabeth watched through the living room window as Dora walked to him, knelt in the dirt, mussing the knees of her pants, and began to yank at weeds herself. She said something to Elizabeth’s father. He looked up, then reached out to smooth a piece of hair off Dora’s forehead, and Elizabeth turned away. The light in the living room was changing, taking on a subterranean feel.
In the afternoon, a woman their father had called from the Historic Preservation Society arrived. Elizabeth stood with her father in the driveway while this woman shuffled and teetered around the periphery of the house; her skirt seemed too snug at the bottom for real walking. When she’d made the full circuit she told them gravely, “Something unusual must be happening with the ground here.”
“You think?” Elizabeth said. Her father put a restraining hand on her shoulder.
Elizabeth had two theories, which contradicted each other but seemed to her equally plausible. The first was that the past was tired of watching the present sport with this piece of itself, and had decided to reclaim its rightful property. The second was that the house just couldn’t bear up anymore under the weight of all that it had to contain — that over the years it had been taking on lives and stories like water and that the foundering point had at last been reached. Either way, Elizabeth supposed, this couldn’t be stopped unless it stopped itself. She began to hold onto things tighter than she intended. When she sat down, she forced herself upright in her chair and refused to yield to the urge to fidget, believing this would give her a calm air.
On Friday morning, though, en route to school, Jed took one look at her in the passenger seat of his car — arms crossed over her seatbelt — and said “Let’s take the long way.”
“We’ll be late.”
But he was already making the wrong turn, if they wanted to get there on time. “I think we need some morning refreshment.”
They drove through their downtown, such as it was, with its two craft shoppes and three empty storefronts, to the flattened and deforested area with all the functional stores, and turned into the parking lot of Denny’s. Inside was a fascinating, plastic-covered foreignness. Their father didn’t believe in chains; Elizabeth hadn’t been to a Denny’s in years. Her legs stuck to a film of spilled syrup on the seat of the booth. Her eggs, when they came, were a little too perfectly circular—either they were artificial or Denny’s had some special egg-cooking mold—but they were hot and salty. She shoveled them in, gorging herself on the guilty deliciousness of the present.
Across from her Jed downed a stack of pancakes, then began drawing something on his napkin with his eyes closed and trying to get her to guess what it was. It turned out to be a man wearing a top hat inside a submarine, at which point Elizabeth declared that she was not going to play anymore if the game was not going to make sense.
The waitress cleared their plates. Elizabeth swished her last sip of orange juice, straining bits of pulp through her teeth and trying to taste each one.
Once they finally arrived at school, Jed told Elizabeth to wait and strolled into the attendance office. It was the passing time between first and second periods; she’d missed all of math. The halls were clogged with people who walked by without seeming to see her. She couldn’t hear what Jed was saying to Mrs. Masters, behind the glass wall of the office, but she could see Mrs. Masters laughing, wagging a finger at him, with a pink forehead.
He emerged a minute or two later. “All set,” he said.
“How’d you do that?”
But then someone said “There you are!” Both of them turned to look at the girl, a junior with dark brown hair who Elizabeth recognized but whose name she didn’t know. “I saved you a seat in Government. Where were you?” Either this girl had an unusually high voice or talking to Jed just made it like that.
“We had a stop to make. This is my sister. Elizabeth, this is Carrie.”
“Hi,” the girl said, smiling over her books. It took Elizabeth a second to place that smile. Then she realized: it was the same one Dora used on her, full of that same cloying niceness that had nothing at all to do with Elizabeth.
She reminded herself that the first Elizabeth Blackmore would have ground a girl like this into nothing with a single glance. “Hi,” she said crisply, but they were already turning. Elizabeth noticed that Carrie wore very high heels. Just let her try to wear those into Blackmore House, which would swallow them up in its knotholes and in the spaces between its floorboards; it still had its defenses against those who did not belong. Jed’s palm cupped Carrie’s elbow chivalrously as he steered her through the crowd.
* * *
Elizabeth found her father, that afternoon, dusting the furniture in the living room on the newer-addition side of the house. The air smelled of Murphy’s Oil Soap (Pledge ruined finish). “Dad, shouldn’t we be doing something?” she said.
“Hello to you, too,” her father said. “And my day was fine, thank you for asking. And I am doing something. I’m dusting.”
“Something to help, though. Why are you just letting this happen?”
“Well, Elizabeth, what would you recommend? I’m open to suggestions,” her father said calmly. He waited. “All right then. I have an idea. How about you finish dusting, and I’ll go help Dora get dinner ready? Which, by the way, is something you might have offered to do yourself, since you must have walked right by her.” He handed Elizabeth his rag and went.
Her eyes stung, but she wasn’t going to cry. No, she was going to dust. She was going to dust so thoroughly she’d be dusting right through dinner and they’d have to come get her. And when she strode to her seat with all of the first Elizabeth’s superior grace, her father was sure to apologize. Even if he wasn’t prompted to do it by his own conscience, the look on Jed’s face would make him — if Jed was home for dinner, and not off somewhere. Maybe with Carrie.
Elizabeth set to work first on the mantle, always thick with fingerprints. She stood before it to give her talks in this room. She would tell the groups how Thomas Blackmore, son that Sarah had died bearing, had built this addition when he decided to run Blackmore House as an inn. How he had shown incredible trust in lodging perfect strangers in rooms right alongside the ones where his own family slept, yet there was no record of a single theft or incident of violence in all the years of Thomas’s business; his guests must have heeded the obligation they’d have felt when he turned his open face on them (a face that deep down Elizabeth knew she had borrowed for Thomas from Jed). How by the time Thomas’s daughter Elizabeth came of age, her beauty was so legendary that every room in the Inn was full, each housing a hopeful suitor. After their horse-shit smelling carriage rides at Hartland Village were over, after they’d broken the Jacob’s ladders and wooden ball-tosses they’d buy at the Village gift shop, they would still have these stories.
The mantle finished, Elizabeth moved on to the windowsills. In the kitchen, Dora said something, too low to hear, and Elizabeth’s father laughed.
For a while the Blackmores persisted in telling each other that the sinking would have to stop eventually. Instead its pace seemed to accelerate as weeks passed, as if, once the ground had made its decision, it wanted to gulp the house down as quickly as possible and have done. Elizabeth’s father made more phone calls, and more people came to stand around with their hands in their pockets. Soon the first-story windows were eye-level with the garden beds. The front door opened in and not out, thankfully, but entering now involved a leap down, an embarking: present into past. The house had begun to list some, so that a pen dropped in the downstairs hall might roll into the kitchen. It wasn’t so noticeable walking around, but in the mornings Elizabeth often woke pinned to the corner where her bed touched the wall.
Though their tours were more popular than ever, Elizabeth knew that now people were coming for different reasons. Word of the sinking had begun to spread, giving Blackmore House a cheap celebrity. She had trouble getting these new visitors, so many of them that it was often hard to fit them all in the living room, to focus on her when she talked. They whispered amongst themselves when her back was turned.
Sundays, tour-less days, were the worst, full of long hours to be lived through in spaces that were starting to seem like partitions of a single basement. One Sunday in May, over breakfast, a strip of sun crept through the top corner of the kitchen window at a new angle, striking Elizabeth’s father full in the face. He shaded his eyes with his hand as if he were sighting his family at some vast distance and proposed that they all go watch Jed swim. This didn’t make much sense, as the season was over and there was no meet or even official practice to be seen, just Jed, practicing on his own, as he did most days. But the plan was offered with a manic cheer that made it difficult to point out its strangeness. The four of them piled solemnly into the car, not Jed’s car but their father’s. While they drove, Jed tapped his fingers on his kneecaps in a way that made Elizabeth feel she’d stepped back into one of the car trips they used to take, years ago, to see their grandparents — but with parts of the picture, like Jed, elongated, and Dora added like a wrong-shaped plug to fill a hole. Jed let them in (his coach had long ago given him his own key). Then he went down to the locker room to change while the rest of them filed into the humid pool room and sat on the bleachers. The pool’s surface rippled a little in some air current that couldn’t be felt. Every time Elizabeth turned her head in Dora’s direction, Dora gave her one of those wide smiles, so Elizabeth assigned herself a project: fitting Blackmore House, mentally, into the different depths of pool water, to judge just how far sunk it was.
Jed appeared and waved to them before he dove off the starting block. He began, as usual, with the crawl. When Jed swam, it became clear that all the parts of him that gangled on land weren’t clumsinesses at all, but attributes he needed to move efficiently through his true medium. The Michigan coach who’d come to see him at one of the first meets of the year hadn’t even stayed for the whole thing, and Jed had been disappointed until he got the phone call: Saw all I needed to the first five minutes. Elizabeth put her elbows on her legs and her chin in her hands. The thick warmth of the room was making her feel sleepy and separate from things, like she’d been wrapped in cotton.
They were so out of place in this chlorine-smelling pocket of Jed’s world that the sound of the door opening made all three of them flinch. And there was Carrie, eyes on Jed in the pool, moving into the room with an ease that showed she’d done this before. She slid into one of the topmost rows of the bleachers without seeming to notice the rest of the Blackmores.
“Hello there!” Elizabeth’s father called.
Carrie turned, her smile all ready. “Oh hi!” She made her way down to their row. High heels again, which rang the metal bleachers. “You must be Mr. and Mrs. Blackmore? I’m Carrie. Hi Elizabeth.” The pitch of her voice cut right through the air and Elizabeth’s nice muffled feeling. Elizabeth gave her a nod. Her father was beaming at Carrie with naked appreciation, as if she were a prize Jed had won. He put out his hand, and Carrie shook it over Elizabeth’s head.
“Great to meet you,” Dora said, leaning over to give Carrie her fingers to press.
“Jed didn’t tell me you all were coming.”
“He didn’t tell us about you either.” Elizabeth’s father grinned; he seemed to consider this a great joke.
“I just like to watch him sometimes.”
“Well, have a seat.” He slid down to make a space, and Carrie sat right next to Elizabeth — who thought maybe if she kept her eyes fixed forward and did her best to ignore her peripheral vision she could pretend that Carrie and Dora were not beside her, though the combined strength of their perfume was even now swallowing the smell of the chlorine.
That night as she slipped into sleep, the scene came back to Elizabeth. Except this time she sat cross-legged on the bottom of the pool. She gazed up at her father and Dora on the bleachers, their faces bending and stretching savagely with the moving water, while Jed glided back and forth on the surface above her and Carrie walked to the pool’s edge. There, at his next turn, he would raise his eyes and see her, hoist himself from pool into air to meet her, and no one would spare Elizabeth another glance, so far submerged.
When Elizabeth’s father brought her what he already knew would be the Blackmores’ final tour group, he ushered the people into the living room with the air of offering her something on a plate. “This one’s all yours, honey,” he said, and in the same breath, “last one for a while, I think.”
“What?” But she knew from his averted eyes that it had been no accident to tell her this way, that he was counting on her professionalism to forestall any hysterics. Maybe he’d made this plan with Dora ahead of time, had a low-voiced discussion with her about Elizabeth’s moods, considering the least troublesome way to accomplish this last treachery. The thing she didn’t understand was why her father wasn’t in hysterics himself, he from whom she’d learned her love in the first place. She looked at him beseechingly.
He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Be with you in a second, folks,” he said in his tour-voice, and pulled Elizabeth into the hall. “This isn’t forever necessarily. It’s just — we can’t have people trooping through, under these conditions. You see that, don’t you? It isn’t safe. We’ll do this tour, and then you’ll go ahead and get packed up, and we’ll get an extended-stay place for a while. Until we can figure out what’s going on. Some people are coming by on Tuesday to move out the furniture, put it in storage.”
“We’re never going to figure out what’s going on.” If they left, Elizabeth knew, they would never come back. “I’m not going.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Elizabeth.”
But she was ridiculous, as he ought to have known; she was not the one who had changed, after all. She could not fit herself into this plan of his. She would run into the woods, hide somewhere until they gave up trying to find her. Once they drove off she would emerge from behind her tree or rock and return to her own front door.
Then she would jump down into Blackmore House. She would descend to its lowest point, down the stairs into the dirt-floored basement, where surely she, the only one who had proved true in the end, would find them waiting: Jedediah with his shovel, and Sarah restored to health, and kind-eyed Thomas squinting at her. Welcome, one of them would tell her — which? We’ve been trying to get you down here for so long. Didn’t you feel us pulling?
The restless hum of the tour group’s voices filtered through the door. “We can talk more about this when you’re done,” her father said.
For the first time in her life, Elizabeth found that she didn’t have much to say on her tour. She led the people from place to place and stood, watching them. Nobody seemed too put out by her silence — after all, who had come there to learn about history? “What do you think is making it happen?” one woman asked as she peered out the dining-room window at a cross-section of Massachusetts dirt, wetly clumped like old blood against the glass, dappled with rocks. “How should I know?” Elizabeth said. The woman directed her husband’s attention to a worm traversing the pane. On a whim in her father and Dora’s bedroom, Elizabeth opened a drawer and found that it had already been emptied. She wondered how long they’d known the exact moment of the end: known that tomorrow, though Hartland Village would light up its imitation past as usual, Blackmore House would stay dark, occupied only with its sinking. She slammed the drawer shut. A boy in a red baseball cap looked at her. “Just showing you how daily life would have operated!” she said. No one else had noticed, transfixed as they were by the ground below and its nearness through the window.
Upstairs in Thomas’s new addition, she led them into her own sunny, slanting bedroom. Here there was no need to check the drawers. Nothing had been emptied. No choice had yet been made. She let the people scatter around her and went to sit on her bed. She had always loved sleeping in the room where the first Elizabeth had slept the night before Thomas chose her husband, lying still, trying to imagine the power of knowing that every surrounding room held a man who had come there for nothing but her.
But then Elizabeth supposed that if the others were down in the basement waiting for her, the first Elizabeth Blackmore would be there, too. It was strange, since her visions of the first Elizabeth had always involved a sort of inhabiting, to think of meeting her.
The first Elizabeth would really have no reason to be welcoming. She would look up at the sound of Elizabeth’s feet on the stairs, thinking perhaps that someone had come for her at last. When she saw who it was she would turn away in disgust, as Elizabeth herself turned from Dora’s smile, from Carrie’s voice, proof of love no good to her. Down there the second Elizabeth would be the interloper, unbearable to her predecessor for the freshness of the air still hanging in her hair and clothes, for the reminder of what existed above the damp ground that was closing over all their heads. It’s a divide, Elizabeth might tell her; the ones who make it through are never the ones you want. Your suitors aren’t coming for you. They’re long dead now, every one. And anyway not even the most ardent among them would have had love enough to tunnel down through so many years.