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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Children

A Novel

Ann Leary





One August morning in 1956, Whit Whitman sat down to a breakfast of soft-boiled eggs and toast with his grandmother Trudy. They dined outdoors on the wide front porch of Lakeside Cottage. Whit’s father had an early golf game that morning. His mother and sister had gone for a sail on the lake. Although he was only eight at the time, Whit would always remember what he and his grandmother talked about during their breakfast. First, Trudy had described her displeasure at finding the family cat on her bed when she awoke. She had thought it was her sweater and was alarmed when it sprang from her hands. Then they had discussed the weather.

“Isn’t it cold for August?” Trudy asked.

“Not really,” said Whit. He wanted to go sailing and was bitter about being left behind to look after his grandmother.

“Won’t you and your father want to plant bulbs this afternoon? Or is it too soon for bulbs? Didn’t we just plant the tomatoes?”

Whit answered in a dull monotone. It was a bit soon for the bulbs. The tomatoes had been planted in May.

“Oh, didn’t we have the loveliest tomatoes last night?” Trudy asked.

“Yes, Gran.”

“Weren’t they perfectly ripe, dear?”

“Yes, they were.”

“The roses, have they been cut back?”

“I don’t know, Gran,” Whit said, squinting out at the lake in search of his mother’s boat. (Here’s the point in the story where I always see the two white birches, gone now, against a flat blue sky, and the lake spread all around them like a pool of shimmering silver.)

“It’s too soon to cut them back. They’re still blooming,” Trudy scolded, as if it had been Whit who suggested cutting the roses back in the first place.

“Would you like to walk down to the garden, Gran?” Whit asked.

“No, dear, thank you,” Trudy said. “But if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll just go upstairs and die now.”

“Gran, not die,” Whit corrected her. “You mean lie, not die.”

But Trudy had meant die. She walked up the back stairs to her bedroom. She used the servants’ staircase behind the kitchen because she found the carpeted front stairs harder to manage. Then she folded back the quilt on her bed, pressed herself against the cool sheets, and died.

“It was her time. She was eighty-nine years old,” Whit would explain years later, his eyes sparkling and sometimes streaming with tears in the telling. (Whit was unable to laugh properly without crying.) “Still, it was the way she did it—so polite. Well, she was a Farmington girl, after all. One doesn’t just die.”

Whit was my stepfather. My sister, Sally, and I grew up in his house, and we often begged him to repeat this story to us when we were little girls, usually interrupting him with demands for details.

“Did she really try to wear the cat?”

“Was her body stiff when you found it?”

“Did it smell?”

Trudy Whitman wasn’t the first to die at Lakeside. Her mother-in-law, Ruth, died here twenty years prior. According to family legend, Ruth had spent much of her ninety-third summer in bed because she had some kind of heart problem. One night, a rabid raccoon ate its way through the window screen and leaped up on her bed, snarling and spitting blood-tinged foam everywhere, so old Ruth Whitman beat it to death with her book. Ruth didn’t contract rabies from the animal, but instead enjoyed several weeks of renewed vigor, dressing each evening for dinner with very little help from the maid. One night, after tasting her dessert, she said, “That German cook has finally stopped using too much sugar in the rhubarb. It’s quite good.” Then she astonished her family by appearing to forgo utensils and eat her pie from the plate like a dog. In fact, her heart had stopped. She had died, and that’s just where her face had come to rest, there in the German cook’s rhubarb pie.

Whit loved telling family stories, their general theme being that Whitmans are gritty and combative, they live long and then die when they’re good and ready—not a moment sooner. So it must have come as a shock to him to learn that he had cancer at age sixty-five, though it was anybody’s guess how he reacted, as he kept the diagnosis to himself until just a few months before he died. Then he told only our mother, Joan, who neglected to inform any of us kids until after he was gone.

“It’s what Whit wanted,” she had said at the time. It seems that he didn’t think he was going to die as soon as he did. Perhaps he thought the rules of cell division, malignancies, and whatnot, like so many other boring rules, simply didn’t apply to him. Maybe he thought he could opt out of the whole cancer scheme that his doctor had laid out before him. In any case, he did die, less than a year after his diagnosis, leaving Lakeside in a sort of limbo.

Lakeside Cottage is still owned by the Whitman estate. It was left to my stepbrothers, Perry and Spin Whitman, but Whit requested that Joan be allowed to live here for the remainder of her life. It’s all part of a family trust. Sally and I aren’t part of the trust, being Maynards and not Whitmans.

Sally lives in Manhattan now, but I live at Lakeside with Joan. I’m twenty-nine. I know—I’m a little old to live in my mother’s house. I like it here, though, and not just because it’s free, as my stepbrother Perry is always hinting. I work at home. I have a blog, and I’m also thinking of writing a book about Laurel Atwood. Maybe a sort of memoir.

It’s hard to understand what attracted Spin to Laurel, and vice versa, without understanding the Whitmans. You need the whole picture. I stupidly told Joan about the book idea the other day, and now she keeps insisting that she doesn’t want me to write about her. “Go ahead, tell the story, just keep me out of it,” she’ll say, and then she’ll remind me of the time she ran the Boston Marathon, or the time she won the regional women’s amateur open tennis championship.

“Whit’s marriage was over when we got together. People forget that,” she’ll announce suddenly, as if I had asked. “In any event, if you’re going to write about me at all, I think it’ll give a more rounded perspective if you include the fact that I went to Princeton.”

“Okay, well, I’m really focusing on Whit now,” I told her the other day after she offered another writing prompt involving her triumphant goal in a field hockey match sometime in the 1970s.

“Whit? What on earth has Whit got to do with it? He was already dead when Spin met Laurel.”

*   *   *

I don’t leave our property in the day much anymore, but when I do, I stay close to home. I often walk in the woods. I like wooded paths. I like the dark. I can go anywhere in the dark, I just don’t go to strange outdoor places during the day very often. Fields, roads, parking lots, open places like that make me anxious. Vast indoor areas like shopping centers are tricky because of all the people, but at least there you can grab a wall or a railing or something. In open outdoor places, there’s nothing you can hold on to, nothing to anchor you to the earth’s surface. I was always a homebody, a “house mouse,” as Whit used to say. I think it’s just part of my nature, but over time it’s gone from a quirk to something more.

Three summers ago, not long after Whit died, I stood on the town beach of this lake one afternoon and was suddenly undone by its vast, yawning strangeness. I think that’s when I first got this sense of needing to grab hold of something. The ground would have been fine. If I could have crawled back to my bicycle from the lake’s edge, I would have. But there were people at the beach, watching me with all their eyes. I walked away slowly, looking down, each footstep placed deliberately, heel-toe, heel-toe, so as not to scuttle sidelong before the entire group like a crab with no shell. I walked back to the cool shade of the tree where my bike was resting. Once I caught my breath, I pedaled home.

Another thing—I don’t drive, but I’ve always been able to ride my bike on roads that I wouldn’t dream of walking along, especially during the day. Of course, at night, it’s different. I can ride anywhere at night, as long as the weather’s not too cold.

Joan says I need to learn to adapt. I think she’s wrong. I think my problem is that I’m too adaptable. Have you ever seen a large cat fold itself into a tiny shoe box? Or the way a bat wraps its vast wings around its torso until it’s no bigger than a prune? A grown rat can squeeze through a hole the size of a dime. I’m like that. I’m like a contortionist that way. I must have softer bones than most people. I can deflate myself into the tiniest recesses and be quite comfortable there.

“It’s a beautiful day, Charlotte,” Joan said this morning. “Why don’t you go outdoors and enjoy the nice weather?”

I don’t have to go out to know that it’s a beautiful day. I don’t have to walk on the grass to feel it cool and damp beneath my feet. We had a thunderstorm an hour ago, and the lake is almost black. In a moment, the light will shift and it’ll be steely and blue. I don’t need to go out to know that; I can see the weather from here. Now the evenings are getting warmer. I’ll be able to walk down to the lake in the moonlight tonight. I’ll watch my legs sawn off at the ankles, calves, knees, and finally the thighs as I wade into the dark water. When I’m cut off at the waist, I’ll lie back and float like a spirit. I swim only at night now.


Copyright © 2016 by Ann Leary