Everywhere Chris went, he opened windows. He drove with them rolled down, even though the air conditioning was on. He opened them in every room of the house. Even at night, when it grew cool, he piled blankets on his bed, preferring those to a small square of air that did not circulate.
But sometimes, even with all the fresh breezes, a scent would carry on the wind. He'd wake up suddenly from his sleep, fighting to get away from it, suffocating. And his parents would find him the next morning sleeping on the couch, or on the living room floor, or once even at the foot of their own bed.
What's the matter? they would ask. What happened?
But there was no way to explain it to someone who had not been there; for absolutely no reason, he had suddenly smelled prison.
It came one Saturday in June, a long white truck with the world on its side, backing into the Golds' driveway and spitting out six men who would carry away their belongings. Gus and James watched from the porch as boxes were hauled and mattresses settled, as lamps were noosed with their own cords and bicycles ridden into the belly of the truck. They did not say a thing to each other, but they both found outdoor tasks to occupy themselves, so that for the entire day they were able to bear wit-
Neighborhood gossip said that the Golds were moving across town- not a long-distance move, but certainly a necessary one. The house had been put on the market and a new one purchased before it even sold.
People said that Michael had wanted to go far, Colorado, maybe, or even California. But Melanie had refused to leave her daughter behind, and where did that leave them?
The new house had an office, again, for Michael's veterinary practice, and was by all accounts a lovely, secluded place. It was a rumor, of course, but someone had heard that it had three bedrooms. One for Michael Gold, one for his wife, and one for Emily.
BEFORE Gus COULD STOP HERSELF, she walked to the end of the driveway. She watched the long van slip over the crest of the road, followed by Melanie's Taurus. And then, some way behind, came Michael's truck.
The windows were open in the truck; it was too old for the air conditioning to work with any regularity. Michael slowed as he came to the Hartes' driveway. She saw that he was going to stop. She saw that he wanted to talk to her. To take her apology, to offer absolution, to simply say good-bye.
The truck rolled to a near stop, and Michael turned, his sober gaze meeting Gus's. There was a flash of pain; the weight of possibility; and on its heels, the flat, square stare of understanding. Without saying a word, he drove away.
CHRIS WAS IN HIS ROOM when the moving van began to pull out of the Golds' driveway. Long and white, it groaned its way through the trees that lined the gravel strip, narrowly missing the mailbox.
Melanie Gold's Ford, and finally Michael's truck. A caravan, Chris thought. Like the gypsies-off to find something easier, or better.
And then the house was empty, a yellow clapboard monolith. The windows, bare of curtains, seemed like vague and distant eyes, willing to stare but unable to remember. Chris leaned out the sill of his open window, listening to the buzz of cicadas, the settling heat of summer, and the quiet crunch of the moving van making its way down Wood Hollow Road.
Curious, he craned his neck out the window, trying to see the edge of the sill that curved around the top. It was still there, the pulley that had been one end of the tin-can message system he'd had with Emily when he was a kid. There was another one, he knew, on the top edge of Emily's old window.
Chris stretched up his hand, twanging the fishing line that was moldy, but still intact. It had long ago caught in one of the pine trees between the properties, tangling up the can and whatever message had been inside it, and they'd never managed to get it loose.
Chris had tried, but back then he'd been too little.
He twisted himself so that he was sitting on the still, his hands stretching up along the shingles outside the house. He was able to snag the string with his fingers, and he felt a disproportionate amount of accomplishment, as if getting it on the first try meant something. As the rotted string gave way, Chris watched the rusty can fall from its threaded perch between the houses.
With his heart pounding, Chris ran down the stairs, taking them two at a time. He headed toward the spot where he'd seen the can go down, his eyes tracking back and forth until he saw a winking of silver.
The trees grew tall and narrow here, shading away the sun. Chris fell to his knees beside a high pine and jammed a finger into the can, drawing forth a piece of paper. He could not remember what this final message had been about; could not even remember whether he had been sending it to Emily or Emily had been sending it to him. His stomach knotted as the paper slid free of the tin.
Carefully, feeling the fragile folds give, he opened it.
The paper was blank.
Whether it had always been that way, or if years had erased whatever was written, he did not know. Chris tucked the note in the pocket of his shorts and turned away from Emily's house, thinking that maybe it really didn't matter one way or the other.