Home > Tighter

Tighter
Adele Griffin

ONE

The last thing I did before I left home was steal pills.

“Wait!” I raised my finger and did the oops smile, then sprinted back inside while Mom stayed in the car to take me to the train station. First to Teddy’s bathroom to swipe painkillers—we were an athletic family, prone to sports-related injury—and then to my parents’ stash. Mom’s allergies, Dad’s insomnia.

Maybe fifty, all in. A good haul, but would it be enough?

Pills were new for me. I’d been sucked in innocently enough, after a track hurdle that ripped some tissue. A major lower-lumbar strain, the doctor had diagnosed. When the pain persisted, I’d started therapy at the Y, which just became another thing to skip. And pill filching was easier.

Now here it was late June and I wasn’t an addict, not at all, but the heat packs and aspirin hadn’t been getting it done for weeks.

The pills also helped me not think too hard about Mr. Ryan. Sean. I’d called him Sean, a couple of times, in the end. And I was so tired of thinking about him. I gripped a small fantasy that the moment I set foot on Little Bly, he’d evaporate from my memory.

Mom honked. I wavered in the doorway of my bedroom, so safe and familiar. I shouldn’t be leaving home. I was worse than anyone knew—not my parents, not my best friend, Maggie. Maybe I needed more than pills, but I’d already swiped such a haul.

I stepped inside, gravitating toward my bookshelf. What to take? What would help? The book of poems Tess gave me last birthday that I’d skimmed and liked. My old Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes, which I’d read so many times in childhood that the cover was unhinging from its spine.

On impulse, I popped them both into my satchel. Not much, but comforting, a double shield to protect me from homesickness. Then I stood, helplessly searching—what more had I forgotten? Surely there was something else, something better—before the horn jounced me from my trance.

“Everyone falls in love with Little Bly. The beaches, the houses.” Mom had been nervous-chatting the whole ride. Now we stood by the tracks, waiting for the train to pull in. “This’ll be so relaxing! I wish I could come along. At the very least, Jamie, I bet it will be therapeutic for you.”

I nodded and yawned. These past weeks, Mom had been big into telling me what Little Bly would be “at the very least.” I’m not sure either of us had a clue what it might be at the very most. But a yawn or a “you said it” were my best conversation stoppers in this summer of limited energy. Not that anything was stopping Mom.

All I really knew, at the very least, was that I’d be farther from Maplewood than I’d ever been, outside of a chorus trip to Vienna three years ago, in eighth grade.

“A nice change for you, Jamie.”

I nodded again and flattened my hand against my satchel, where my Ziploc bag was stashed. Nice change or not, it was happening. Mom had moved pretty quickly, too, rearranging my life one night while she and Dad were out at a dinner party. She’d made it seem like luck, but her secret motive—her trial kick out of the nest for her youngest, her hang-around-the-house kid—wasn’t lost on me.

And I couldn’t discount that this was my dullest summer on record. Maggie was off with her family touring a handful of national parks, all of them gone cold turkey off wireless networks as they hopscotched from Appalachia to Yosemite in their TrailManor RV. The twins were gone, too—they’d left right after graduation. Teddy, for college football training in Orlando, while Tess was in Croatia teaching English in a one-room schoolhouse. She sent postcards that told us the weather (broiling hot, every day) and what she was eating (beef on a stick, every day). We stuck the cards on the fridge next to pictures Teddy emailed of himself as a dot in a helmet.

So maybe it was my turn to be a body in motion. Specifically, a blur on the Jersey Transit to Penn Station, then all aboard Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor bound for Providence, Rhode Island, where I’d catch another local train and then a ferry to the island of Little Bly. My last major trip this week had been my hour at the Y, and then into town to drop off some movie rentals. I felt unsteady and out of shape, and maybe not totally prepared for the direct thrust of a voyage out.

As the train approached, I could feel myself collapsing. No, no, this was a bad idea. I was scared to be jerked out of my orbit like this; I wasn’t steady in my head. But I couldn’t find the right words to explain any of it to my mother—especially since she was so hopeful that Little Bly was my cure.

A cheery smile, a confident bound up the train steps. I went for the window seat so I could wave as I watched Mom turn miniature. And then with sweating fingers, I sank back and took a pill from the Baggie, swallowing it dry and tasting its bitter silt in the back of my throat. Okay, okay. One step at a time, and I’d be okay. I settled in, rechecking my books, my notebook, my wallet, then unfolding the printout of Miles McRae’s email that I’d slipped into my journal. Even though I’d looked at this note so many times I could have sung it.

Dear Jamie,

Great talking to you on the phone the other day. You must hear it from everyone, how much you sound like your mom. I’m glad you’ve agreed to stay at Skylark for part of the summer, and want to confirm by note our agreed dates, 28 June–7 Aug.

A few punch points. Little Bly is a small island town (about a thousand year-rounders, but the population septuples in summer season). We’ve got cars, but half the time folks hoof it or bike—help yourself to mine, in the garage. Most of the land is nature reserves or private tracts, and landowners don’t care about friendly trespassing (I don’t). Walk any direction and you’ll hit the beach. Blyers are a kick-back bunch, and you’ll see that people aren’t “snobs” once they know who you are.

Connie has an ATM card. Tell her what purchases she needs to make. Please don’t use any of your own money on Isa.

On that, I set up an automatic pay transfer every other Friday. It should hit your account same day.

One Last Thing. The time zone in Hong Kong is exactly twelve hours different from Little Bly. If you need me, I’m only a call or text away, but don’t alert me to crises that I can’t control—example: “Where are the beach passes?” Not only won’t I know, but I’m too far to hop a plane and hunt them down. It’ll only make me feel like a Bad Dad that I’m not around to micro-engineer. Your mother assures me you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. I’m relying on that.

This should work out perfectly, right? Still can’t believe that I’m writing freckle-nosed Sandy Henstridge’s daughter. Everyone tells me you’re the spitting image of her. Lucky you.

Regards,

M.M.

In my mind, I pictured Miles McRae as a martini-sipping, tuxedo-wearing “Bond, James Bond” type. Maybe because I knew he was rich, and because Mom’s face turned as pink as a peppermint when she mentioned him. Presumably, Miles didn’t know I existed until last month, when Mom ran into him at the Wolfingtons’ dinner party.

“McRae, Miles McRae” might have been surprised to hear that I’d always known about him. Mom had dated Miles a hundred years ago, but she’d kept tabs, the way women do. The way I might on Sean Ryan though he’d left New Jersey to teach high school chemistry in Telluride. No forwarding email—although I’d chased him down online and found him in the school directory.

But Mom’s relationship with Miles had always sounded sweet. Also, his wife had died many years ago, of leukemia, and this had been the sad fact percolating in my mind after Mom had arrived home that night, squeaking with a girlishness that made me feel embarrassed for her.

The widower Miles, “still so good-looking,” had been seated right across the table from her, and at some point between the salad and the blackberry tart, Mom won me my job.

“He hasn’t changed,” Mom had assured me, as if I’d have a clue how to tell the difference. “He’s in Hong Kong overseeing a hotel project, and he wanted to find an au pair—a young person, not his housekeeper—to look after his daughter. To take her to tennis and the beach. Isn’t it perfect? You’d stay at their summer home—they’re in Beacon Hill during the school year.”

The tiniest note of grandeur had crept into Mom’s voice as she exhaled these words: au pair, summer home, Beacon Hill. She’d grown up richer than we were now, in that toity world of summering, and the Wolfingtons were friends from her youth—which was why that night Mom had crunched her toes into heels and salon-styled her hair into a first-lady flip.

“You just want me out of the house,” I’d complained.

“Of course I do. You’ve been mopey, Jamie. And now here’s a job—a paying one, a fun one—that’s dropped right in your lap. At the very least, it’s an adventure.”

“You said it.” While Mom didn’t push it right there, I knew the plan was all but tied up in ribbons. Mopey was Mom’s determinedly cheerful shorthand for the thick-walled depression I’d been trapped behind all spring. A taste of her old life, those carefree days when she’d been freckle-nosed Sandy Henstridge, might be just what the doctor ordered.

Time away. Sea air. No parents. I’d return suntanned and worldly. Pussy cat pu**y cat, where have you been? Maybe Mom was onto something. Maybe that’s how the mopeys got zapped. Of course, my other Atkinson relatives hadn’t exactly mastered solutions for moping. My dad’s brother Uncle Jim had hanged himself on his twenty-first birthday, and my second cousin Hank Wilcox had put a bullet in his brain three years ago after the bank repossessed his house. And what neither of my parents knew was that Uncle Jim and Hank had started to appear to me, claiming me in secret hours as one of their own. My eyes would open into darkness—not in terror, not yet—to find them right there, in my room. The rope skewed around Uncle Jim’s neck and Hank staring blankly, the bullet wound black as a cigarette burn at his temple.

And then I’d wake up for real, in a gasp, my heart beating fast as rain, my newly identified lumbar muscles—extensor, flexor, oblique—pulsing the nerve roots of my spine.

By then, they’d be gone.

Maybe they wouldn’t follow me to Little Bly. It was another hope to hold on to.

The pill and the rock of the train lulled me old mother goose when she wanted to wander would ride through the air and I slept.

TWO

Connie was awful.

She was also my first bad news of the day. Until then, I’d been caught up in the Bly mystique—the water slapping the sides of the ferryboat, the brine-y cup of chowder I’d purchased minutes before boarding and sipped while leaning over the rail, the mineral sweep of ocean and breeze full in my face.

Then there was the Kindly Old Salt who’d helped with my bag and told me I reminded him of a young Audrey Hepburn. On impulse, I’d dressed nostalgically, in an outfit that teenage Sandy Henstridge might have worn, white camp shirt and capris and my ballet flats. Better than pretty, the Salt had made me feel legitimate—bonjour! I summered!—as I popped my nylon wheelie suitcase along the dock, maneuvering around baby strollers and straw bags and ice coolers.

She saw me first. She was short, with a gray poodle perm and matching gray, wide-set shark eyes. “Linen panth,” she said, her voice lisping on her s, a speech impediment I instantly disliked. “One way to tell you’re not a local.” Beneath what she seemed to think passed for a charming opener, I detected an annoyance that she’d had to drive out here and fetch me.

When adults suck, as Connie clearly did, it’s been my experience that you’ve got two choices. You can spend all your time buttering them up, plaster-casting your grin and molding your body language so that it silently exclaims like me, please—I am harmless. Or—and I promise, this is the better idea—you detach. Let them be their own drippy selves, and don’t try to win them over, because you never will.

I slung my bag into the trunk and allowed Connie the full embrace of my small-talk-free silence as we drove along the harbor and then up the rocky coastline. She herself didn’t speak until we turned inland onto a stretch of road bordered by sea grasses long as hula skirts. “Buhth Road’th the main artery of the island,” she told me. “Nearly everything runth off it.”

Not a question, no need to answer. Though I did wonder about the road’s actual name. Both Road? Booth Road?

We stayed silent a few miles.

“Thkylark’th the highetht point on the island,” was her next fact. “Everyone knowth it by name.” Stated with pride. Connie was probably one of those creepy locals who’d never been on an airplane, or, for that matter, had ever left Little Bly.

But Skylark was astonishing. Mom had mapped it online, and then estimated its property worth based on other prime oceanfront real estate, but I still wasn’t prepared for its beauty, its fanciful gables and turrets, its crisp white latticework and trellises of climbing roses. The flat emerald sail of lawn complemented the pressed pearl-gray sheet of ocean behind it. Everything ironed smooth to suit the view.

“Holy crap.” The words fell out before I could stop them, and shamed me. I didn’t want Connie to think I was some loser townie who’d never seen a mansion. But I hadn’t, not one like this, and I actively repressed speaking my next thought—and this is just their friggin’ summer house!

Connie said nothing, but I sensed she enjoyed my awe. She seemed to be driving extra slow, allowing me time to marinate in Skylark’s splendor versus my comparative irrelevance. I braced myself as the tires ground hard against the bleached crushed-shell drive, then strained against gravity as we shifted gears and rumbled up.

I never stopped looking at the house. It reminded me of a ship. A ship that had been tossed clean from the sea by some monster storm to survive intact on the cliff above.

From a third-floor window, I saw the shadow of someone observing us drive in, but once the car stopped, the curtain twitched and the figure moved off. It’s never a good feeling, that prickle of being watched. Who was it? I frowned up. Then yawned, fake and on purpose—as if to ensure that whoever was looking down on me didn’t think that I cared.

We got out, and I followed Connie up the planked steps that led to a wraparound porch, and through the front door, which looked too big to spring open at the turn of the knob, though this is exactly what happened as Connie made it clear that she was Top Dog by bullying in ahead of me. The foyer—a term with which I was now familiar from Mom’s reading off the Little Bly real-estate sites—was big enough that you could park a couple of cars inside it, and was decorated in a harmony of tropical Life Savers colors: banana, melon, fruit punch. Walnut floors buffed to glowing bordered the carpets, and the living and dining rooms were filled with delicate antiques. Painted vases crowded every surface and bloomed with arrangements of starflowers, baby’s breath and elephant’s ear. One thing was obvious: Connie was nuts for this house. Every room she showed me was immaculate. All it needed was a bride descending the stairs.

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