Jeremy takes a seat next to me and picks up one of the pictures of Chastin.
“Why did Harper never smile?”
Jeremy leans over, taking the picture of Harper from my hand. “She was diagnosed with Asperger’s when she was three. She wasn’t very expressive.”
He runs a finger over her picture and then puts it aside, pulling another from the box. This one is of Verity and the girls. He hands it to me. The three of them are dressed alike, in matching pajamas. If Verity didn’t love the girls in this photo, she was certainly good at faking it.
“Our last Christmas before Crew was born,” he says, explaining the photo. He pulls a handful out and begins flipping through them. He pauses every now and then on pictures of the girls, but flips past pictures of Verity.
“Here,” he says, pulling one out of the stack. “This is my favorite picture of them. A rare smile from Harper. She was obsessed with animals, so we had a zoo come in and set up in the backyard for their fifth birthday.”
I smile down at the picture. But mostly because Jeremy is in the photo with a rare look of joy spread across his face. “What were they like?”
“Chastin was a protector. A little spitfire. Even when they were young, she could sense Harper was different from her. She mothered her. She’d try to tell me and Verity how to parent. And God, when Crew came along, we thought we were going to have to hand him over to her. She was obsessed.” He puts a picture of Chastin in the pile of pictures he’s already looked at. “She would have made a great mother someday.”
He picks up a picture of Harper. “Harper was special to me. Sometimes I’m not sure Verity understood her like I did, but it’s almost as if I could sense her needs, you know? She had trouble expressing her emotions, but I knew what made her tick, what made her happy, what made her sad, even when she didn’t quite know how to reveal that to the world. She was mostly happy. She didn’t have an immediate interest in Crew, though. Not until he turned three or four and could actually play with her. Before that, he might as well have been another piece of furniture.” He picks up a picture of the three of them. “He hasn’t asked about them. Not even once. Hasn’t even mentioned their names.”
“Does that worry you?”
He looks at me. “I don’t know if I should be relieved or worried.”
“Probably both,” I admit.
He picks up a picture of Verity and Crew, right after Crew’s birth. “He went to therapy for a few months. But I was scared it was just a weekly reminder of the tragedies, so I pulled him out. If he shows signs that he needs it when he’s older, I’ll take him back. Make sure he’s okay.”
He looks at me again. “What about me?”
“How are you?”
He doesn’t break eye contact. Doesn’t skip a beat. “My world was turned upside down when Chastin died. And then when Harper died, it ended completely.” He looks back down at the box of pictures. “When I got the call about Verity…the only thing left in me to feel was anger.”
“Toward who? God?”
“No,” Jeremy says, his voice quiet. “I was angry at Verity.”
He looks back at me, and he doesn’t even have to say why he was angry at her. He thinks she hit the tree on purpose.
It’s quiet in the room…in the house. He’s not even breathing.
Eventually, he scoots back in his chair and stands. I stand up with him because I feel like that’s the first time he’s ever admitted this to anyone. Maybe even to himself. I can tell he doesn’t want me to see what he’s thinking, because he turns away from me and clasps his hands behind his head. I place my hand on his shoulder, and then I move so that I’m standing in front of him, whether he wants me to or not. I slip my arms around his waist and press my face against his chest and I hug him. His arms clasp around my back with a heavy sigh. He squeezes me, tight, and I can tell it’s a hug he’s needed for no telling how long.
We stand like this longer than a hug should last, until it’s obvious to us both that we shouldn’t still be clinging to each other. The strength in his hug eases, and at some point, we’re no longer hugging. We’re holding each other. Feeling the weight of how long it’s been since either of us has probably felt this. It’s quiet in the house, so I hear it when he tries to hold his breath. I feel all of his hesitation as his hand moves slowly up to the back of my head.
My eyes are closed, but I open them because I want to look at him. There’s a pull in me, tilting my head back into his hand as I lift my face from his chest.
He’s looking down at me now, and I have no idea if he’s about to kiss me or pull away, but either way, it’s too late. I feel everything he’s been trying not to say in the way he holds me. In the way he’s stopped inhaling.
I can feel him bringing me closer to his mouth. But then his eyes flicker up and his hand falls.
“Hey, buddy,” Jeremy says, looking over my shoulder. Jeremy steps back. Releases me. I grip the back of the chair, feeling as if I weigh twice as much now that he’s let go of me.
I glance at the doorway, and Crew is staring at us. No expression. He looks a lot like Harper right now. His eyes fall to the box of pictures on the table and he rushes toward them. Lunges, almost.
I step back in a hurry, shocked by his movements. He’s picking up the pictures, angrily slamming them back into the box.
“Crew,” Jeremy says, his voice gentle. He tries to grab his son’s wrist, but Crew pulls away from him. “Hey,” Jeremy says, leaning down closer to him. I can hear the confusion in Jeremy’s voice, as if this is a side of Crew he’s never seen before.
Crew starts crying as he’s slamming all the pictures back inside the box.
“Crew,” Jeremy says, unable to hide his concern now. “We’re just looking at pictures.” He tries to pull Crew to him, but Crew rips himself out of Jeremy’s arms. Jeremy grabs Crew again, pulling him to his chest.
“Put them back!” Crew yells toward me. “I don’t want to see them!”
I grab the rest of the pictures and shove them into the box. I put the lid on it and pick it up, clutching it to my chest as Crew tries to wrangle himself from Jeremy’s grip. Jeremy picks him up and rushes out of the kitchen with him. They go upstairs, and I’m left standing in the kitchen, shaken, concerned.
What was that?
It’s quiet upstairs for several minutes. I don’t hear Crew putting up a fight or yelling, so I think that’s a good sign. But my knees feel weak and my head feels heavy. I need to lie down. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken two Xanax tonight. Or maybe I shouldn’t have brought family pictures out and put them on display in front of a family who still hasn’t recovered from their loss. Or maybe I shouldn’t have almost kissed a married man. I rub at my forehead, suddenly feeling the urge to bolt—flee—and never come back to this house of sadness.
What am I still doing here?
Even at the height of day, when the sun is keeping watch over this part of the world, it still feels eerie inside this house. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon. Jeremy is working on the dock again, and Crew is playing near him in the sand.
An unsettling energy buzzes throughout the house. It’s always here, and I can’t seem to shake it. It seems to be getting worse at night, nocturnal and intense. I’m sure it’s mostly in my head, but that doesn’t put me at ease, because the things lurking around inside the mind can be just as dangerous as tangible threats.
I woke up last night to use the restroom. I thought I heard a noise in the hallway—footsteps lighter than Jeremy’s and heavier than Crew’s. Then, shortly after, it sounded as though the stairs were creaking, one at a time, as if someone were creeping up them with a deliberately light foot. It took me a while to go to sleep after that because in a house this size, noises are inevitable. And with the imagination of a writer, every noise becomes a threat.
My head jerks toward the office door. I’m jumpy, even now, and all I hear is April in the kitchen talking to someone. She uses the same calming tone when she speaks to Verity, like she’s trying to coax her back to life. I’ve never heard Jeremy speak to his wife. But he did admit to being angry at her. Does he still love her? Does he sit in her room and tell her how much he misses the sound of her voice? That seems like something he would do. Or would have done. But now?