For however long Eva looks at it, she still believes that the house on Salt Lane is the most ordinary house in town. It sits neatly between the pull of every possible pair of extremes: neither the biggest nor the smallest, neither the oldest nor the newest, neither the gaudiest nor the simplest. Ninety-one years have crawled up its scrubbed shingles, around its porch pillars, and have settled upon its turreted roof to gnaw at the rheumy blue paint and smooth wooden frame. The windows slouch uselessly within their settings. The thick coat of grime on the glass hints at a dark interior.
But Eva knows, like everyone else does, that no one cares – dares – to look at the house at all. She thinks that’s a shame. It’s not as if the house is empty, even after the Madden family abandoned it back in 1923. So she stands on the sidewalk across the house today (of all days). She’s hoping she’ll feel better among the only people who don’t ask, who don’t speak, who don’t know. And lingering on the margins of the house’s tableau du jour, she realizes she may have been mistaken.
The mannequins in front of the house are boasting new outfits today, as they are wont to do everyday. The matronly mannequin rests against the side of the house, face to the sun and satin skirts ballooning. The thin-lipped old woman on the porch is dressed in a gown that might have once been a dove-gray scrubbed to a watery pale hue. Despite her monochromatic palette, there’s a ruddiness on her cheeks that her pose cannot hide. She holds court over the porch today amid four other young women in a titillating congregation. The rejected others are scattered about the porch but Eva can tell that at least three heads are turned toward the old woman’s circle.
There is no sign of the scene’s architect – there never is – but for the impression of merriment. The scene wouldn’t look out of place in a town hall event. It’s ordinary. It’s not what Eva needs.
She swallows back a scream, a wide and grainy wad of a feeling that slides its way down her chest. The whole day so far has been an exercise in ordinariness – at least, a hollow sort of ordinary in which all the fleshy, rooted details of reality have been scooped out.
It’s a relief when she spies the oddity, just there, half-crouching behind the crone’s boxy petticoats. It’s beautifully vicious in its defiance. The barest flutter of the mannequin’s white dress is enough to quash the knotted strains of your poor sister and beautiful girl and so sorry beating against her eardrums, and Eva wants more of that blessed silence.
She scrambles to the left to stand on tiptoe, where she can better see the addition to the traditional host of mannequins. The new one isn’t crouching after all; she’s standing at four and a half feet tall. Even though this mannequin is the only one resembling a child, she is turned out in all her bridal perfection. The frothiness of the whipped chiffon of her skirts tumbles from the sheen of her satin bodice and an embroidered wedding veil hides her face, but not enough to obscure the shadow of a profile. Eva knows that profile.
She sinks onto the curb, ignoring the protesting crunch of her black crepe skirt. She does not go to her sister’s funeral.
Summer 1958, Before the Event.
8:45 is the telltale tickle of Roxanne’s hair on her cheek, the prickly brush of the wayward strands pulling Eva into waking. Even with sleep-blurred eyes, Eva can see the black of Roxanne’s hair buttered by the new daylight.
9:28 is all the softness of the morning congealing into something firmer: the blunt graze of Roxanne’s fingers down the small of her back as she buttons down Eva’s dress and the lazy drift of hairspray about her shoulders that skim her neck like kisses.
11:13 is the chipped ridge on the radio knob. Eva’s forefinger wears at it in rapid strokes, enjoying the sharp point as she watches Roxanne twirl between the kitchen counter and the oven. They are both laughing, even if their mother is not.
2:30 is the flutter of Roxanne’s full skirt as they skip down the curb, the flash of fingers against the sun as Eva and Roxanne wave to Mrs. Cross in her garden next door.
4:56 is the delight of their full, aching bellies, because the afternoon milkshakes and the diner’s rock music have become secret twinkles in their eyes that don’t fade until they arrive home for dinner. Sometimes, Mr. Cross from next door has the same twinkle when he waves at them from his car, but Eva knows that has nothing to do with her. His “how pretty you look!” has nothing to do with her either.
5:05 is the laughter that shrinks into fevered whispers under the slanted shadow of the Madden House. Roxanne is never ready to cross the street and set foot on the house’s front yard, but if Eva tells her to, she will. So Eva doesn’t tell her to.
8:30 is the sliver of their father disappearing behind the study door. It is the leaden breath their mother takes before she nudges Roxanne and Eva up the stairs, the breath that precedes a single word: “Bed.”
10:00 is the double beat of Roxanne’s hushed footfalls as she makes her way to her own room. The ghost of her fingers through Eva’s damp curls lingers, and it is only when Eva imagines Roxanne’s fingers snared in her hair that she can finally sleep.
Sometimes, Eva wishes Mr. Cross is ugly. It’s easier to hate ugly things after all, and she needs the ease of loathing to endure the evening. The Crosses’ dinner table, sagging beneath the weight of lurid-looking dishes, becomes a despoiled altar her parents insist on exalting. Isn’t it sacrilege to break bread with the Crosses only a week after Roxanne’s funeral?
So she forgoes high socks to bare her bruised knees, the only testament to the prayers of Mr. Cross is a monster grooved over and over under the contours of her mouth. But she ought to know that prayers are always lost. Monsters snatch your prayers from the air and gulp them down. Monsters wear slippery smiles and sugary words, bound in tall suits of graying hair and broad shoulders.
When her parents pay for the monster’s quips with their laughter, Eva realizes that Roxanne has already stopped existing for them. How easy would it be to raze their mirth with all that she knows and all that she remembers, to stomp upon the searing embers of their forgetting!
But that’s not what Roxanne deserves. So Eva cauterizes the seam of her lips before words gush forth, and instead swishes her dinner round and round inside. The limp fibers of the pot roast tangle with the staid taste of baked potatoes, and she swallows them before they can smear her prayers.
Mr. Cross is a monster.
“So I told the man he was crazy for wanting one, but I can see I’m wrong,” continues Mr. Cross. “The man’s up to his neck in frills and milk bottles but I’ve never seen him happier. I suppose little girls are just magical that way.”
Mr. Cross is a monster.
The silence is an itch that burrows under everyone’s skin, but no one dares to scratch it. Instead, there’s a tight smile pinching at Eva’s mother’s face and a rigid blankness in her father’s unblinking eyes. New words shoot up to the back of her throat, thick and acidic, but then she realizes it’s just bile. Her throat closes up and she forces it down.
Mr. Cross is a monster.
It’s Mr. Cross who smothers the itch. “Just look at your daughter!”
Mr. Cross is a monster.
He winks at her. “Only fifteen and already so pretty!”
He doesn’t say “as pretty as your sister.” He doesn’t see a voluptuous dark coif, or a pair of pink-stained cheeks, or a flash of long nymph legs when he says “pretty.” He doesn’t see Roxanne when the word takes shape within his mind – it’s Eva he sees.
Too late, her lips grant him a smile.
Too late, she suspects that the prayers have been scrubbed clean out of her mouth.
Too late, she wonders if the monsters are the ones who have to fight to remember.
Summer 1958, After the Event:
8:45 becomes the rasp of skin against wood in harmony with the rattle of the doorknob. Even from behind the door, Eva can hear the surprise in Roxanne’s voice when she calls out to her. Eva’s never locked the door before.
9:28 becomes the even line of the matchsticks on her floor. She counts them in time with the third hand on her clock: fifteen, sixteen, seventeen (always only seventeen, like Roxanne).
11:13 becomes the pliant paste of the dough she kneads for the dinner pie. It’s pale and warm enough that Eva sees how it would resemble Roxanne’s neck if her neck was stretched out and crushed against the counter. She ignores the inquiring brush of Roxanne’s hip against hers.
2:30 becomes white. It’s an insolent blankness that only empty walls can achieve, but it’s thankfully louder than Roxanne knocking at her door. Words like need to talk and let me in and please, please are deafened by white. Eva does not uncurl into her full length. She does not rise from her bed or open the door. She can’t stand to have Roxanne enter and drown out the white.
4:56 becomes the lonely patch of sunlight on the dusty worktable of the pool house. The motes scatter into the air when Eva’s hand sweeps them off the surface. She wonders if she will find the outline of her sister on the splintered wooden planks if she looks closely, but she doesn’t.
5:05 becomes the bustle of stillness on the Madden front yard, the impression of breath and movement within each mannequin. It would be the simplest thing to step over the confines of the sidewalk, to inch closer toward the house, but she won’t upend another code. Roxanne has upended the world enough already.
8:30 becomes the dense sting of water skimming over her eyeballs. The lines of the bathroom tiles quiver and billow over her watery screen, and the fact that the lines resemble Roxanne’s offered smile during dinner digs deep into her gut. She closes her eyes tightly, counting until she has to rise to breathe again.
10:00 becomes the minute the sour yellow lamplight beneath Roxanne’s door blinks black, the minute Eva can let her body unfold against the door. Roxanne, Eva’s lips are moving against the cool expanse of the wood. She wants to say good night.
She looks for Roxanne everywhere. It doesn’t matter that her sister has been forced into the earth for nine days already; Eva will find her here. Maybe here is the diner. It’s the happiest place Roxanne’s been in, and Eva hopes she’s found the reliquary of her sister’s brightest laughter at last.
It’s not Roxanne’s laughter she hears with the jangling of the bells when she pushes the door open. Eva’s presence strips the patrons of sounds and words; the clusters of their silence collide with each other like agitated atoms. They don’t look at Eva, but somehow she feels their stares more keenly for it.
For a moment she wonders if she can still enter. The principle of custom is a force within the diner’s orbit that repels her, but Eva has learned to push back. She marches in, chin lifted to meet each patron’s not-stare.
Eva has to work to make it seem as if she chose to seat herself by the counter all along. It’s clear this isn’t the best choice. Eva finds herself sitting amidst a poor parody of the Madden House mannequins: this cultivated immobility, this fear of looking, this unease of breathing. A shudder crawls from the deepest pit of Eva’s core. She can’t look at anyone anymore.
Suddenly she can’t stand to be here, in this place where there’s nothing left. But where can she bear to be? The whole town has already exorcised Roxanne from every corner and surface, like downing milk after a bad taste. After all, they’ve already glutted themselves to bursting on the scandal and thrill of Roxanne’s accident; now they’re bored with picking at the bones of yesterday’s news.
Eva has to remember just what she’s looking for, but the jaunty song from the jukebox reaches down her throat and yanks at her ribs. Pries her open leisurely. She closes herself with her arms, unsteady as she stands. Nobody reacts when she flees.
She runs and runs and runs, leaves the warm afternoon behind her, and doesn’t stop until she’s back where she realizes she can still find Roxanne. When Eva closes her eyes, teetering on the lip of the sidewalk, she breathes in the vestiges of Roxanne’s voice. Her eyes lift open, skipping past the mannequins in front of the house to lock upon the child bride. Her dress and veil remain unchanged. That’s all Eva needs.
She does not go back to the diner. Instead, she cradles the last of Roxanne’s laughter within her ribcage and deposits it on Roxanne’s pillow that night. Then Eva delves into the creamy lavenders and milky pinks of Roxanne’s bed, learning to sleep again.
Summer 1958, After the Funeral:
8:45 no longer exists. The morning sunlight crumples in the spaces between the matches that Eva lines up and counts on the bedspread. She counts seventeen, seventeen, seventeen as the pad of her forefinger presses down the red bulb of the matchstick. Funny how it looks like a splinter drawing blood.
9:28 no longer exists. The rounded collar of the blouse prickles on the skin of her chest, relentless with every breath. But Eva doesn’t scratch.
11:13 no longer exists. It doesn’t matter that her hands have been engulfed under the heavy spray of water from the kitchen sink for an hour already. It doesn’t matter that her palms and fingertips are creased and bleached white. Her hands remain dry.
2:30 no longer exists. The granules of the stone rim feel bigger on her cheek than they appear. She can’t see the dramatic blue of the chlorinated water because of the tarp spread over it, so she imagines that, as she lies on her belly by the pool, her hand finds Roxanne’s beneath the water.
4:56 no longer exists. The hot sun is yanking out the sweat from her pores, stringing them in slow trails down her face and back. She’s soaked through, but she does not move from her seat on the curb. The little mannequin bride is facing her, and Eva is not afraid to say her name.
5:05 no longer exists. The nooks and cavities of her body are sawdust and sand. She’s still sitting on the sidewalk across the Madden House.
8:30 no longer exists. The water in the glass traps the streak of moonlight from the window. The argent prisms flit and wink before her eyes. As Eva lies facing Roxanne’s nightstand, she thinks, this must be the last thing Roxanne ever saw.
10:00 no longer exists. So what is left?
She should never have smiled at him.
Two weeks after the funeral, Eva can finally stand to touch color again. Yellow is a universe of innocence spattered with the clean-cut nebulae of white polka dots. Eva does not mind that Roxanne’s dress pinches and tugs in all the wrong places. She does not care that the bateau neckline that used to skim Roxanne’s collarbone sweeps too high across her own throat, or that the sloped short sleeves bite into her upper arms. This dress is Eva’s victory.
Her mother’s words still cling to her like nettles, so Eva takes her time in plucking them off.
Get rid of these drops to the floor, joining no use for them anymore and it isn’t practical. She takes a particular glee in tossing she’s gone into one of the open boxes against the wall. Fine, fine, fine and they’re yours are a little more difficult to detach, so Eva picks at them before they, too, fall away.
Her mother must be downstairs by now. The door is closed. Eva delights in her new hoard, hands skimming over the straight piles of folded clothes on the bed. And as she straightens and smooths down Roxanne’s dress, she wonders if she has enough of Roxanne to be called “pretty” again. Her eyes flutter shut before she steps in front of the mirror.
Slow, slow, and her image blooms before her. The dress emphasizes the way she has stolen Roxanne’s dark hair and firm mouth, but everything else Roxanne has kept for herself and taken with her to her grave. The word that Eva spends minutes grappling for in front of the mirror is almost. Almost pretty. Almost Roxanne.
The bed is more forgiving than the mirror, welcoming her in all her almostness. Her weight shifts the piles on the mattress and the stack of Roxanne’s underwear spills across her lap. Eva is still for a moment, riveted by the scrunch of floriated nylon over her knees. It isn’t different from anything she owns.
Distantly, she remembers that she owns a duplicate folded in the side of her dresser drawer.
But the next moment finds her laying the pair she wore aside before slipping into the pair that isn’t hers. The cloth is cool and stiff, but it yields to the warmth of her skin. The way it stretches down her waist and swaddles the softness between her legs becomes the best secret she knows she will ever keep.
She doesn’t feel like an almost anymore, so her eyes are open when she steps in front of the mirror again.
This is what Eva knows:
Thursday – July 10, 1958. The morning casts a long scream into Eva’s room that snags clumsily on her brain to reel her back into waking. It’s nothing she has ever heard before, and she struggles to identify it before she hears, “Madeline, get help! Call for help!”
But the scream unspools faster and louder, until her father’s voice snips it. “Madeline! Calm down and call for help. I’m going in to get her – no, it’s possible she isn’t yet –”
A splash – then Eva is on her feet and out. Roxanne is not in her room when Eva peers in. Roxanne is not in the kitchen with their mother either, who whimpers as her fingers fumble on the rotary dial of their telephone. Roxanne is not standing out back. She is not watching their sodden father shift away from something by the pool.
Roxanne is on the knobbled surface of the poolside. But Roxanne looks nothing like Eva’s sister: all the soft parts of her are distended, the open ring of her lips is a dark scribble against her blue-tinged face, and her chest is still. The water droplets appear encrusted on her body instead of running down to gather on the ground.
Eva is on her hands and knees beside Roxanne, gasping out her name. She folds her sister’s cold hand in her own and refuses to let go. Not even when her father tugs at her shoulder. Not even when her mother tries to force their fingers apart. Not until a mass of hands and arms crawl over Eva’s body, wrapping around her to wrench her away.
Friday – July 11, 1958. Their house is transformed into an agora of inquiries and sentiments. Neighbors, friends, relatives, strangers offer my condolences and did you hear? and such a tragedy, but the currency of gossip and counterfeit sympathies is too foreign for Eva to accept.
Still others demand more than give. The swarm of police officers and medics has not left since they arrived yesterday. They bring a different kind of foreign when they measure and label and dissect her home and everything in it. Roxanne’s body is measured and labeled and dissected. Her mother is measured and labeled and dissected. Her father is measured and labeled and dissected. When Eva is measured and labeled and dissected, all the right things threaten to spill out and make a new mess.
So she holds herself closed when she’s locked in with the police inspector. The way he looks at her hurts, because his eyes hold the conviction that she can take his iron-toned questions and give back fine golden truth. But that’s not in her power. All she gives Inspector Moore, after the polish of silence, are pyritic pieces that satisfy him.
They satisfy him enough to offer his own note of condolence before he finally leaves. When he does, Eva has to remind herself why she cannot direct him to the house next door.
Saturday – July 12, 1958. They rule it as an accident. The jagged hole in the Crosses’ living room window (the rock is beneath their sill, surrounded by glass shards like fairy lights) must be an accident too.
Sunday – July 13, 1958. They take Roxanne to the place where they bury and forget.
The Madden House looks smaller today. None of the mannequins face Salt Lane; Eva can see their backs from her spot across the street.
There is something off about the placement of the mannequins. They have not been dispersed to their own devices: the perfected barrier they form around the perimeter of the porch signals something wrong to Eva. She has to walk further down to the corner of Salt Lane and Tarus Boulevard to spot the gap between the mannequins.
It’s the little bride. She stands in front of the Madden House door like a queen in the center of the porch. Pushing herself up to her toes and craning her neck, Eva finds something else that startles her.
A candle is wedged between the child bride’s clasped hands, the flame a bead of light in the dimness of the porch. But what pulls the heels of Eva’s feet back down to the pavement is the unmistakable sight of the mannequin bride’s entire body turned toward Eva – as if the bride has followed her progress down the block. Eva shuts her eyes and spins in her spot. The child bride still faces her – and has the bride hoisted the candle higher to cleave her veiled face in half?
The light reveals a dark outline of the mannequin’s head. The name rolls out from Eva’s gut up to her lips, just about to tumble out –
She whirls around and jumps back. Mr. Cross stands a few feet away from her. Her joints lock in place and she becomes a mannequin herself.
“So is this where you go? We all wonder where you run off to these days.”
Her voice is a frozen lump stuck to the walls of her throat. She cannot tell him to leave. She can only watch as he steps closer, his shoes beating a staccato rhythm against the pavement – tmp, tmp, tmp – before he stops in front of her.
“Sweet little Eva, always running around and hiding nowadays,” he continues, his voice soft. “Pretty girls like you are always keeping secrets, hmm?”
Her heart is thrashing against her bones. His face is close – so close she can count the stray black hairs on his brows and chin. The sinking sun’s grip on him is slipping: one half of him stands in shadow and the other in the lustiest blare of color. Handsome in the dark and in the light, far away and up close.
She doesn’t understand why she does it. She just does.
Eva raises her face to his. Her eyes and his eyes, her nose and his nose, her mouth and his mouth in a perfect parallel. The breath she struggles for swirls down, rubbing against the untouched spaces of her body to become heat. It curls languidly under her hips.
“Don’t worry, darling.” The words skate across her chin. “I’m good at keeping secrets.”
He winks before he turns on his heel and leaves. The heat burrows inside her for the rest of the evening.
Right left front – he encloses her, presses down, and Eva realizes that this must be what lying in a coffin is like. But she does not scream. She does not fight. She does not tuck the splayed parts of her back into their niches and seal herself closed again.
Eva lets the night pry her open, lets the slippery, burning parts of her throb against the dark. The dark has fingers, palms, lips, and teeth that reach and bore into her, that furiously claw and claim the way Eva tells herself she wants.
The skin of her belly and hips are gouged pink by his appetite but Eva can forgive him this; after all, she knows hunger too. She’s known it for countless nights now; that niggling, beating clot inside her that has made her want to peel her skin and muscles off to still. When his hands move between her legs and smooth out the snarls of heat hidden beneath, so near, Eva thinks: finally.
Finally, maybe, she can be sated too. Finally, maybe, she can be good again. So she chooses to touch him too. She chooses to lay her hand on his head, but her fingers don’t curl around graying hair.
Surprise pushes Eva off Roxanne’s pillow to sit up. She stops, because it’s not Mr. Cross. The mannequin bride, faceless, displays no reaction to Eva’s hand scrunched on her veil. Eva forgets to breathe, forgets her own body.
But the little bride doesn’t forget. The fingers move and Eva collapses back on Roxanne’s bed, a haphazard heap of frenzied limbs and organs and nerves. She needs to find – needs to hold – needs a solid pressure on her, so she pulls the moving mannequin against her.
Eva’s not afraid. Her hands tug the veil back. Roxanne grins at her, and when Roxanne leans in, Eva wakes up to the prickle of hot stardust under her skin.
This is what Eva remembers:
A wave of awed shouts sweeps across Eva’s backyard before the crackle and boom above flattens the mantle of human voices back to the ground. Eva’s voice doesn’t join theirs. The tails of fading sparks and multicolored starbursts against the night sky look too much like the cosmos is tearing itself apart.
With all the house and yard lights off, she can’t find Roxanne. And it isn’t right, because Roxanne loves the fireworks. She waits all year in anticipation of July just for them.
Eva drifts away from the spellbound spectators and calls for her sister. She hopes that her voice carries even amid the noise, but she has no way of knowing. Roxanne doesn’t answer. Maybe her sister has gone back into the house, so Eva makes for the back door to check when a clatter from the pool house stops her. It’s only a few steps away from the door – she can still count how many. (Seventeen.)
To anyone else, the pool house door appears to be closed. But Eva finds a thin slice of an opening and suddenly knows, before she sees anything, that someone is inside.
Mr. Cross. He leans at an odd, uncomfortable angle over the rickety table that he shakes in a cruelly brisk rhythm. Eva hears it rattling in her sleep every night after, feels it scratching at the surface of her brain in the dark.
Because she sees the ruddy spots his fingers press into the thighs hanging over the edge of the table.
Because she sees the speckled yellow dress pooled around the waist that twists and writhes on the wooden surface. Eva doesn’t see her face, but she doesn’t need to.
Eva has already heard him grunt out her name.
The weight of her entire being drops to her feet, anchoring her to her spot. She can’t blink. She can’t make a sound.
But the rest of the world can. A deafening firework jolts her, pulls the weight and movement back to the correct places of her body. Eva stumbles back, under the rain of gold and red, her heel kicking at something nestled in the grass.
It’s a matchbox. Mr. Cross is supposed to be among the men who light up the sparklers.
She can still hear the table creaking and rocking inside the pool house. Scrambling into the house, she collapses onto the floor when she reaches her room. She doesn’t rise or go back out. The matchbox remains in her hand the whole night.
* * *
Each house along Eva’s street rests within its own plot languidly. By all rights, they’re lovely houses – so Eva gives them all the ugliness they deserve.
It is this: this is the air being shredded from the sky. This is the monstrous squall of the forgotten and the wronged. This is all of Eva in one sound. This is Eva screaming.
The street does not stir – the gravel is dead under the bare pads of her feet. The night sky has always been blind and the world has wrung out her voice from her.
She’s no longer Fury and wings. Eva is just a girl who has lost something she hasn’t found yet.
When Eva runs, the silence rakes at her skin, her hair, her hem, struggling to pull her back.
The first lie Eva ever told was to her sister. Roxanne asked if Eva was okay. Eva remembers her answer.
Now Eva needs to tell Roxanne the truth.
Tell us: where have you lost her?
Their words emerge singed and brittle from the cresting blaze of the Madden House. The heat presses the ashes deeper into the grooves of Eva’s hands, and she finds the glyphs of her name within the sooty imprints.
She doesn’t need the matchsticks anymore, so she counts them as they fall.
(One, two, three, four, five, six…)
Tell us: how have you lost her?
Their voices – the hiss and the spark and the roar –
Her mind – the overlapping spiral of must find must be here come back Roxanne Roxanne RoxanneRoxanneRoxanne –
She’s there. She stands on the porch in the eye of the infernal vortex, the cream of her veil tarnished by the smoke corroding Eva’s bones. She’s been waiting for so long, for as long as Eva has.
(Seven, eight, nine, ten…)
Tell us: will you lose her again?
So Eva lurches up to the porch. Lands on her knees before the mannequin bride.
Flames are snagging on the tatters of her nightgown. Blackened hands on the veil.
Thorny heat is grating over her skin. Trembling hands wrench off the veil.
(Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen…)
Tell me: have you found me yet?
It’s the fires that catch her when she tumbles down – under the sight of her own face looking back at her.
Tell me: will the world lose you too?