Esther knew something was going on, but didn’t know quite what. Princes started figuring even more prominently in the “fables” Bunny told the Tomlinson children. And there was one prince who taught a shy young princess to breathe underwater with the help of a reed. Which was impossible. Esther had tried it, herself, in the tub. Maybe she was doing it wrong, but she wasn’t about to ask Bunny, not after the dispute they’d had over the title.
“If she’s just a princess, why is it ‘The Reed Queen’?” Esther had asked.
“It’s not done yet.”
“You’re not a princess, or a queen,” Esther said.
“It’s not about me,” Bunny said.
It was exasperating, and less for what Bunny said than for the things she made Esther say—about princess and queens and everything else—which made Esther feel silly, as silly as Bunny should have felt for her new practice of wearing lipstick on their nighttime excursions.
Esther wasn’t certain of the lipstick—it was hard to tell in the dark—but that only emphasized how ridiculous Bunny was being. So Esther said nothing.
Another example: Bunny didn’t want to leave their old house, “not yet.” Two blocks below the Tomlinsons, the twins’ house sat on a lot that sloped back to front. So while the water was almost to the bottom step of the front porch, the kitchen door in back was high and dry. The electricity and gas were off. They ate and bathed at the Tomlinsons’; they would start sleeping there soon.
Why they weren’t already, Mrs. Tomlinson professed not to know. And neither did Esther: a room was waiting for them on the Tomlinsons’ top floor. Mrs. Tomlinson checked its every corner each day for dust.
Meanwhile, at their old house, the twins had to use candles. Of course Bunny liked them—she loved telling stories lit by candlelight, she loved characters whose lives were lit by candlelight—but candles dripped, candles attracted moths, candles did not make one look at all attractive, Esther decided as she studied herself in the bathroom mirror. Behind her, in the bedroom, Bunny slept. Esther stared. Lipstick? Was that Bunny’s secret? There wasn’t any hidden in their bedroom, not that Esther been able to find. She opened the medicine cabinet. Nothing. She picked up a package of cotton swabs, and then a bandage tin, rusted at its base.
It was heavy, too heavy.
So Bunny had hidden it in here.
And she had. Not lipstick, but a small velveteen box, and inside that, a ring, an engagement ring, set with a freckle of a diamond. Tiny, and yet the candle loved it. Moths, too, and one so startled Esther she dropped the ring into the sink, where it bounced from one side to another before skittering to the very lip of the wide open drain.
* * *
“That was close,” Sam said the next morning as they pulled away from the twins’ house in his canoe. The water had been reliably rising just inches each night, but that morning, when the twins swung their feet to the floor, the carpet was damp. For a moment, Esther thought that it had rained and the roof had leaked. It had and it hadn’t; it had poured, the roof had held, but that hadn’t mattered to the water, which had climbed the stairs steadily all night. Sam claimed they’d been lucky, and Esther could only nod while Bunny gripped her small suitcase tight against her chest.
Despite its sudden rise, the water that morning was dawn-still, smooth and black. Esther asked Sam to slow the boat down. He did, and she looked back at their house, its dim outline hovering just beneath the surface like an unfinished thought. Gone was the stoop where, at 6, Esther tripped and cut her forehead: “now we can tell you apart!” her mother had said after the stitches. Gone was the front living room, so small a Christmas tree always filled half of it. Gone were the painted cabinets above the sink, and between them and the ceiling, the narrow gap where Esther, too curious, discovered birthday presents often hid. Two cakes. Her mother always made two cakes. Esther watched the house for some time, waiting to be sad, and then, just waiting.
* * *
It didn’t take long.
Sam’s father sent word: a new house had been found. He’d be home that weekend to finalize the move. The packing began in earnest now, and the Tomlinson children caromed constantly down through the house, the countless boxes, like pachinko balls. It was almost time to go.
Specifically, it was late Friday night, about eight hours before Mr. Tomlinson was due in from Boston. Esther slept fitfully, despite Bunny’s story having been particularly brief that night. Esther’s bed at the Tomlinsons’ was more comfortable than her old one had been, but the house was more noisy. At the old house, the rising waters muffled most everything. Here, children coughed or padded to the bathroom. Stairs creaked. The screen door flapped once in the wind, gently.
And then twice.
And then Esther opened her eyes, looked across to see if Bunny was having trouble sleeping, too, and saw that she was gone. Esther got to the window just in time to see Bunny’s white form running up the road, alone.
Esther dressed, and tried to find a silent path down the stairs. An impossible task, and yet no one roused, so accustomed were they to the old house’s constant creaking and settling at night. Or, Esther thought, to Sam’s constant coming and going at night. Bound for the priesthood, Sam. And so Esther went straight to where he’d told her that, the park, the picnic shelter, the place where he had kissed her—Esther—that one and only time. She knew his landmarks.
“It’s just—it’s just a ring, sweets,” Sam was saying as Esther arrived out of the shadows.
Esther tried to work her face into one of concern or confusion but was only halfway there when Bunny cried and flew into her arms.
“We were going to get married,” Bunny sobbed. “We are going to get married. But—we were leaving tonight. Because his father—and—Esther, he—” Bunny pulled away to explain: “Sam gave me a ring, but now—now I’ve lost it.”
“You’re—what?” Esther asked. Surprise came more easily than she thought, perhaps because they really were here. And so was she. Unless—
“You can’t leave,” Esther said, to Sam. “We’re not done packing the house. Your father’s not home. Our parents are in Albany.” All irrelevant reasons, and she seemed to have a limitless supply. “The water hasn’t reached your house yet. The reservoir’s not full. We’ll be seniors in the fall. Homecoming is in October. It’s okay if your date’s from another school. Another state.” Esther wasn’t crying. “We’re only 16.” Bunny stared at her. Esther stared at Sam. She’d delivered this speech to the back of his head; he was staring at the water. Esther said one last thing: “You—were going to teach me how to swim.”
Sam turned now. To Bunny. “Are you sure? Because with all that water, we had to get out of there so fast. Are you sure you took it when you left your parents’ house? I told you—I told you to leave it be, not to take it out all the time.”
“I didn’t!” Bunny cried. “Ask Esther!” He didn’t. Esther didn’t move. “I mean, I did,” Bunny said. “I didn’t much—but sometimes—but I always put it back. Always. And I know I took the box with me that morning.”
“You’re sure?” Sam asked.
“I know, because I thought, I should check it, but I couldn’t—Esther was right there.”
Neither Bunny nor Sam would look at her.
“Now,” Esther said, “I’m here.” At some point, Sam would have to talk to her. Tonight, tomorrow, in Boston, in Albany. Inside a church. Outside. Somewhere. Someday.
“I’m—I’m so sorry, Esther,” Bunny said. “I shouldn’t have—it was just that—I know—I’ve never—I wanted to tell you, so much. And show you the ring. But I couldn’t—he—we—agreed that, just until—”
“I don’t remember you carrying around anything like a ring—” Esther said.
“Oh, of course you don’t, I was afraid you’d—and I—I—well, I’m certain, I’m certain I—” Bunny looked at Sam, the water, even, finally, Esther. “I looked everywhere today, Sam. Everywhere. It’s not at your house, it’s not in the yard. I even checked the kids’ rooms—I think it’s still there, back at our old house!”
“We’ll just—just get another one,” Sam said. Esther studied him. That tiny ring. It had cost him everything. “Not right away, no, but another one.”
“Sam,” Esther said. She could feel her heart breaking for him, but when he looked up, she felt something else, something like nothing.
Sam looked down again at his watch, and then back down the road toward the flooded town.