As I grab my car keys from the dresser, I ask myself why I never confronted Severn once I discovered who she’d gone to see at the bookstore. Maybe I figured the only thing I’d get from her was an impenetrable scowl. Deep down, though, I knew the opposite was true; I was afraid she’d tell me exactly why she’d had him sign his new book for me. It was my nightmare scenario come to life.
I sink to the bed, overcome with exhaustion. The bedcovers are still twisted into the same knots I left them in yesterday morning. My pillow is mashed and herniated from its case. Helen’s pillow is plump and undisturbed. Even during my roughest nights, I avoid her half of the bed like it’s a foreign land from which I’ve been deported without appeal. It’s the same bed that Severn used to come to in the middle of the night, seeking refuge from the monsters in her closet. She’d curl up, the warmth from Helen and me sheltering her on either side. Snug as a bug in a rug. Was it ever really like that? I begin to wonder. Or is nostalgia playing tricks on me, colouring my memories in warm sepia tones?
“I hear that Jack Livingston goes through wives like he goes through ballpoint pens,” Will told me. “Word is he’s shacked up with some bohemian painter with a thing for older men.” According to him, Livingston still lives in Toronto.
Severn doesn’t have a driver’s licence. The train and the bus cost money. Avery would have offered to take her to Toronto for free, although he likely would think himself entitled to payment of a different kind.
I get back up, but the axis of the room slips in my brain, and the floor suddenly pitches under my feet like the deck of storm-tossed ship. I steady myself against Helen’s dresser, leaving finger tracks in the veil of dust that’s settled on it over the months. I wait for the gyroscope in my head to stop malfunctioning and swear at my body for failing me. I’m forced to stare at Helen’s knick-knacks, her jewellery, her old perfume bottles—things I’ve never had the energy or courage to clear away. I notice the footprint left behind in the dust by the framed photo that I now realize is gone. It’s the one of Helen jubilantly raising a glass of ouzo to the camera on the day we celebrated the acceptance of her first short story for publication. A day she’d imagined for twenty years and had despaired would never come. Her smile was transcendent, bursting from inside her, joy and vindication fused together. She had no way of knowing that the magazine that had accepted her story would fold before printing it, or that by then she’d be struggling to make it through a day without throwing up. Severn obviously thought this memento of Helen was rightfully hers. She’d assumed I wasn’t using it, didn’t want it, didn’t deserve it. I wasn’t to be trusted with her mother’s memory any more.
My equilibrium finally returns, and I venture back into Severn’s room. Among the clothes, books, and CDs strewn about, I spot the family photo albums. Severn had always hated having her picture taken as a child, but lately I’d caught her mooning over old photos of herself with Helen: at the church when she was christened, at the beach when she was four, in the backyard making a snowman when she was nine. Severn had slapped the album shut when she noticed me spying on her from the hallway, then pointedly closed the door on me.
I pick up one of the albums and open it now. The pages are blank. She’s taken the pictures with her. At my feet, I notice the ones she’s discarded, scattered across the floor. They’re all ones with me in them.
I waste fifteen minutes finding the Costellos’ house. Avery’s mother’s directions prove indecipherable, and I end up trolling their convoluted subdivision in the pre-dawn until I finally stumble on the right street. Fordwich Place. Not to be confused with Fordwich Drive or Fordwich Crescent or Fordwich Court. Their house is the only one with the front porch light on. It’s a raised ranch, built in the days when houses had single-car garages because families had only one car and Mom stayed home to look after the kids. It even has one of those little square recesses where the milkman used to leave milk bottles twice a week. I remember telling Severn about milkmen once. She looked at me as if I had grown up on some backward planet orbiting a very dim sun.
As I pull into the driveway behind a rusty minivan, the porch light switches off and the front door opens. Avery’s mother descends the front steps like a shadowy wraith. The glow of my headlights bleaches her features, turning her long hair silver and her skin translucent like a bean sprout. In her anorak and insulated boots, she seems more prepared for an Arctic expedition than a drive to Toronto. I get out of the car. She pulls off a mitten and extends her hand to me.
“I suppose we should know each other’s first names,” she says. “I’m Marla.”
We shake. She has a firm, bony grip, more like a man’s than I expected. This close to her, I realize that I’ve overestimated the intensity of the headlights. Her hair really is silver, not the blond I’d assumed it would prove to be in a truer light, and her skin has lost none of its spectral sheen. We stand there for a moment, steam seeping from our nostrils in the cold morning air, waiting to see who’ll speak next.
“Well,” I say, extending my arm towards the passenger door like a reluctant maître d’ guiding a patron to an open table.
She hesitates. “You okay to drive?” she asks. She’s noticed the bags under my eyes.
I tell her I’ll be fine once we drop by a Tim Hortons and get a coffee. This doesn’t reassure her much, but she sees that I’m determined to get going, so she doesn’t press the point. It takes her forever to get settled in the passenger seat. She’s brought a knapsack stuffed with God knows what. She can’t decide whether to leave it by her feet or hoist it to the back seat. The car suddenly feels cramped. I back out of the driveway before she gets around to fastening her seat belt.
“So where does Avery’s father live?” I ask her.
“I’ll give you directions once we’re in Toronto,” she says. Per- haps she thinks I’ll leave her at the side of the road if she tells me too soon. A wise precaution, under the circumstances.
The next time we say anything to each other is when I ask her what she’d like as we’re going through the Tim Hortons drive-thru on the way out of town. She tells me she has a bottle of water and some oranges in her bag. I order a large coffee for myself and set it in my cup holder.
“I hear you’re a teacher,” she says, the impulse to make small talk finally overcoming her.
“That’s right,” I say, offering her no more details.
“What subjects?” she asks. “History and geography.”
“Ah,” she says. “I was never very good at remembering dates or capital cities.”
I make no comment, even though hearing someone sum up the subjects I love as a bundle of sterile facts never fails to annoy me. Flecks of snow speckle the windshield. The wipers smear them, so the lights of the occasional oncoming car bleed across the road ahead.
“Did you major in history?” she asks.
“Listen, Marla, I don’t mean to be rude, but I really need to concentrate on the road.”
“Sorry,” she says, miffed but trying not to show it. She stares out her window at the passing strip malls and gas stations. A few blocks later, she grows uncomfortable with the silence again. “So does Severn know anyone in Toronto?” she asks.
I cast a quick sideways glance at her. “Why do you ask?”
She looks down her nose at me, feeling no compulsion to defend what she obviously considers a perfectly reasonable question.
“No,” I say. “I don’t know anyone she’d want to see there.”
“Ah,” she replies, as if she knows I’m lying but is far too polite to call me on it. At least not yet.