Del lay on the floor, her legs straight up against the wall, imitating a pose she’d seen on a relaxation video months before. The woman on the video had breathed deep, gazed at her feet, and smiled faintly, as if her toes were murmuring secrets, whispering how to be calm. Del could hear Ellen and Zoë in the backyard, shrieking like witch children speaking in tongues.
The girls were playing together this summer—really playing, not as equals, of course, but as captain and sailor or master and servant. They’d built a fort in the shade of a cluster of backyard trees, where they sat cross-legged on the dirt and ate yogurt and bananas for lunch, with juice boxes and Cheerios, or peanut-butter sandwiches on the plastic plates that the owners had left for the summer tenants, not trusting them with anything nice. The girls had invented their own language out there, and when they came inside speaking it, Del was bothered that she couldn’t understand—and relieved, also, at not having to join in.
She was breathing in slowly, trying to focus on the air moving into her lungs, when the doorbell rang. She pushed herself away from the wall and walked to the door, where Shannon was waiting, holding one small bundle in each hand.
“Hi,” she said with a shy smile when Del opened the door. “How are you?”—and then, in a rush, before Del could answer—“This is awkward, but—” and she stepped in to set the bundles on the small table in the hallway—“Ellen and Zoë brought my girls these things.” She unwrapped two of the checkered cloth napkins that Del recognized from the linen closet: a china dog in one bundle, stale potpourri from the bathroom, five marbles from the bagful in the cupboard, and two crumbling Oreos. In the other bundle, game pieces and tiny plastic cars from a board game, a small silver spoon (and where had they found it among the plastic forks and spoons and knives?), Del’s lipstick, and a ten-dollar bill that could only have come from her purse.
“I didn’t know—” Shannon continued, “the little dog—the ten dollars—I didn’t know if Zoë and Ellen should have them, or give them away. If maybe you didn’t know what they’d taken. It was very generous, but—” Shannon looked sympathetic, hopeful, as if waiting for Del to save her from saying that Del hadn’t watched her own daughters, that the girls were thieves and no-goods. A few seconds of silence, and then Shannon again: “I just thought I’d check.” And she tilted her head, shrugged, then lifted a hand and tucked her hair, brown streaked with early grey, behind her ear, as if to say, That’s all. Your turn.
“Thank you,” Del said. “I knew they were making something,” and she looked out the window quickly, to hide any flash of confusion that would say she hadn’t known—“but I didn’t realize they were taking—” She picked up the tiny china dog and breathed, tried not to talk in fragments: “These aren’t their things. They belong to the owners. And to me. Thank you.” She wondered if she should send the Oreos back for Lisa and Mandi, or the potpourri, since the flowers were broken now anyway, but she thought that would only seem worse, a paltry gift stolen from the owners or from last summer’s tenants, strangers in a line of summer ghosts.
Shannon left and Del closed the door behind her, crossed her arms and squeezed them tight so her shoulders rose high enough to touch her ears. She wouldn’t call the girls in; there was nothing, really, to do. Let them talk in their incomprehensible tongues and keep turning into the witch children they’d become since arriving here—greedy and wild, Del thought. Greedy and wild and horribly, enviably free. The Gloucester women’s children wouldn’t do things like this, she was sure of it. They’d hand their mothers spoons for the kettle; they’d tend the fire and make beds, spreading quilts as far as they could reach; they’d wring seawater out of laundry, then pin it to clotheslines where it would dry into stiff silhouettes.
“Girls, these aren’t yours,” Del told Ellen and Zoë when they came inside. She was angry now and trying not to scream, trying not to shake them, trying to focus on the treasures—crap, actually, it was all crap—spread on the table. (Would they take the table next? Pull together on a leg until it broke?) “These things aren’t yours, they aren’t yours. What were you doing?” To them, this was a literal question, and they looked at each other. The answer was on the table, obvious, before all of them: They were making treasure bundles. They were trading off parts of their lives.
“We got things back,” Ellen said. “We got good things—a brownie and chalk and stamps. A matchbox with a flower inside. And Lisa’s old doll. We don’t have enough dolls here.” Then louder, more plaintively, “There are not enough dolls here,” as if this would make up for stealing—or, no, make up for something worse: for stealing and making gifts of stolen things, for acting generous when what they’d done was the opposite of kind.
“Put these things back,” Del said. She didn’t know what else to do. No dinner? Send them to their rooms to paw through the closet and pilfer other things? Send them to their fort outside, and tell them it was jail? “Just put everything back,” she said, and sighed, and turned away. She would tell Frank. “Wait until your father comes,” she said, her back still turned, hardly believing her words, her voice, herself. The girls—her girls; they hardly felt like his—would not even know what she meant.
“Okay,” Ellen said uncertainly, pulling a bundle from the table, and Del heard something (the tiny plastic cars? the game pieces?) clatter against the linoleum. She didn’t turn to look.
* * *
Frank arrived Saturday morning, and they drove to Rockport to walk around. Del hadn’t wanted him in Gloucester, tracing their life and having a place in which he could imagine the girls. But Rockport was nearby. Zoë and Ellen held Frank’s hands and tugged him forward, on and off sidewalks, with an eagerness that sickened Del. They squealed when Frank strode toward a candy store, and Del followed and closed the door behind her—softly, gently, because she didn’t want to hear the damn bells.
The store was dark, with a low ceiling, its walls lined with shelves of perfect white boxes tied in bright blue ribbons—covering up for something, Del thought—and plastic bags heavy with salt-water taffy, the tops twisted and tied with purple bows. The girls pointed to oversized lollipops, garish swirls of color that Del knew wouldn’t taste good, would just leave them begging for squares of fudge.
But Frank grabbed the lollipops, as greedy as if he’d be sucking them himself; he grabbed a bag of salt-water taffy, too, and Del didn’t protest, because now these decisions seemed like his, his money his, and not a thing to negotiate. Then, too, the cluelessness of his spending pleased her. He was a tourist in their lives this summer, not realizing what an eager, silly stranger he seemed. He’d become, in a flash, the visiting father who let his children gorge themselves on candy and plastic toys. And there the girls were, gathered around him at the cash register, pawing at his arm, his waist, as they grinned up at him, pointing to piles of rock candy and cotton candy and stick candy, to trays of every sort of fudge. Del felt disgust seep through her—disgust at Frank, yes, but also a dim loathing of the girls.
Del drifted to the window, not wanting to see their gratitude or Frank’s pleasure in their first giddy licks. Del knew how the girls were with lollipops: They’d get tired of so much work—all that licking, like cats with rock-hard milk. She stared out through the wide window at the wood-planked walkway and the boats in the harbor beyond. None of it was what it should have been: Instead of a coastal postcard, there were bare masts and old buoys, rusted chains, piles of rocks where she’d hoped for a wide, sandy shore.
They got dinner at a small place with a green awning and the thick, heady smell of fried food, ate at a wobbly plastic table on the sidewalk in front. “Fish and chips,” Frank said, “the perfect seaside meal.” Del smiled at him, a smile she could afford because of her pleasure that Frank wouldn’t know this about them: They’d eaten fish and chips at least twice a week this summer, and it was no more perfect than spaghetti or peanut butter; the girls liked it no better than frozen fish sticks at home. Ellen and Zoë sat there chewing, trading fish and fries, leaving Del and Frank to wipe grease from their own fingers, trace the red and white lines of the plastic tablecloth, and avoid each other’s eyes. Frank had left a few French fries untouched, and when some seagulls wandered over, he tossed one fry, then another, towards the birds.
“Don’t do that,” said Del, a vague and startling panic rising like vomit in her throat. “Those are terrible birds, they’re filthy and mean. They eat each other, Frank.” Beside Del, Ellen squirted ketchup onto her food, and the bottle gasped, as if desperate not to let the ketchup go.
“Del,” Frank said, “relax.” And he tossed another French fry—nearly whole—to the sidewalk. A seagull scrabbled over and grabbed it in its beak, then swallowed the fry in a single sickening bite. Del imagined him pecking at the wounded seagull in the ocean, snipping out a hunk of flesh with feathers still attached and flying away with it dangling from his beak, or—worse—swallowing the chunk of bird whole and then going in for more. “Girls,” Frank said, “did you see the birds? They like the fries almost as much as you—and they like fish even better, I bet. I bet they like the fish a lot more.”
“Stop,” Del said, but the girls were already tossing scraps of deep-fried cod, laughing in real delight as Frank egged them on. Del rose and walked inside for the bathroom. It was better, she thought, to simply turn away.
They got home late, after spilled ice cream and Zoë’s tears and screeches that Del go back for a new cone, which she had. They were circling creatures of want, Del thought—the girls and Frank and the seagulls, and maybe even her. Candy, ice cream, dolls, those dirty birds fighting on the sidewalk for torn-up fish and fries. And here she was, nothing more than a squatter in someone else’s house this summer, wanting both more and less than her life at home.
In the living room, Frank stretched awkwardly, turning his torso from side to side, and Del wondered if this was a move he’d tried in front of mirrors at the gym. He’d been working out, and this repulsed her—the notion of him grunting, lifting weights, his own reflection grinning and grimacing back. He wouldn’t be staying, he said. He had a meeting at 8 a.m. She didn’t care about the meeting, or care if he was lying about it, but she hated him for what he could get away with: slipping between two worlds that seemed impossibly distant to her now—a house and a marriage from another life, and then their dark kitchen in Gloucester, as strange and impermanent as a dream.