I've never had a nine-year-old well up on my couch. I feel inadequate; I feel like crying myself. Nick would know what to say. Nick would know
what to say.
Polly dabs the corner of her mouth with a cloth napkin. “Mmmm.”
I grab the remote and click off the television; Polly disappears in a silver blip.
“Ingrid?” I say.
She doesn't answer.
This is not good. The last thing I want is for my new neighbor to spend a teary night here because I thought her a liar. I have no idea what to do. I need to distract her.
“Want to play a game?” I ask.
She shakes her head. Her auburn braids swing alongside her face, and the beads click together.
I can't think of anything else to suggest. A bribe seems like a powerful option, maybe my only option.
“What would make you stop crying?” I ask. “What could I do
to make you stop crying?”
Ingrid's shoulders slacken. She mutters something into her hands that sounds like “A blee bab run mass feelah.”
“What? I can't understand you. Look at me.”
Her hands slide from her face. Her cheeks are moist. She takes a deep breath. “To see Ahab run almost as fast as a cheetah.”
“You want to take Ahab running? Like, now?”
She nods and backhands some snot off her chin. “Can he run really, really fast?”
“Your dad will be home soon.”
“No, he won't. He doesn't come home until wicked late.”
I glance at Ahab dozing with his head on Ingrid's lap. His whiskers twitch in his sleep. Is this how little girls are, I wonder, or is Ingrid a special case? A drama queen? Was
“Maybe some other time we can watch him run,” I say. “When you don't have to go to school the next day.”
Her eyes seem greener now. A single tear spills over and streams down her cheek.
“Okay?” I punch her shoulder the way Russ punches mine.
You asked me what I wanted. And I told you.” She coughs and snuffles.
She's right, of course. And for some reason I think of Nick's present. Nick's g.d. present. The human-head-size cube. It's sitting upstairs in my hallway, in front of my g.d. attic door.
“I'll make a deal with you.” I slap my thighs. “You do something for me, and I'll take you to see Ahab run almost as fast as a cheetah.”
Ahab lifts his head as Ingrid slides toward the edge of the couch. “What do you mean?” Her lips and nose are swollen from crying.
“Well, you know how you're allergic to peanuts?”
“I'm allergic to my attic.”
“For real. I have an attic allergy. It's severe.”
She pats my arm. “I
attics. They're full of secrets and history, and sometimes even hidden treasure.”
“They certainly are. You're a hundred percent right about that.”
“Woman, I'm a
percent right about
“THAT THING?” SAYS INGRID, pointing to Nick's present.
I lean against my bedroom door.
“Last time I touched that thing, you sort of flipped on me,” she says. “Remember?”
“I know. But I'm over it. Now I
you to pick it up. Don't shake it, though. Just carry it up to the top of the steps and set it down.”
She notices the Magic Marker stains on her hands, licks a thumb, and rubs at them. “That's it?”
“Because that's where it belongs,” I say.
“Everything has a place.” She nods. “That's what my dad always says when he wants me to clean up my messes. He's a neat freak.”
“That's right: Everything has a place. And that thing”âI point to the cubeâ“belongs in the attic. Which I'm severely allergic to.”
“It was in your oven, wasn't it? You were trying to burn it up in your oven.”
to burn it. It was an accident. I didn't know it was in my oven.”
“How could you not know something was in your oven?”
“I don't bake much, okay?”
“Okay. But you're learning, right? For the contest.”
“So, let's see this attic.” She crosses her arms. “Probably looks just like mine.”
“I doubt that, actually.”
In the hallway the glass doorknob reflects tiny me and, beside me, tinier Ingrid. I put my hand over tiny me and tinier Ingrid. I shove the door with my elbow and hip. It opens one inch.
Shove. Two inches.
Shove. One foot.
She pokes her head inside and looks up the steps. “It's wicked dusty in here.”
“It smells totally weird.”
“I know. Sorry about that.”
“This is, like, wicked, wicked creepazoid, Zell.”
I reach in. I feel the wall for the light switch. My heart does its crazy danceâthump-thump-thump-thu-thu-thu-thuâand as the light flickers on I crash back against my bedroom door.
“You okay?” she asks. “You really
“I'm fine.” I force a smile, and the beats stop altogether. Then my heart goes back to normal.
The extra light makes the doorknob twinkle. The floor in front of the first attic step looks not just rubbed raw but scraped away, scraped to the core.
Ingrid exhales mightily.
“Listen,” I say. “You don't have toâ”
“I do love me an adventure. Promise you're not going to flip on me if I pick that thing up?”
“Promise. No flipping.”
“And you swearâpinkie swearâthat all I have to do is carry it upstairs and leave it there, and we'll take Ahab running? Right now?”
“Even though it's sort of late?”
She stares into my eyes. She grabs my wrist, yanks my pinkie upright, and locks her own pinkie over it. Then she scoops up the present, cradles it, and pounds up the steps.
“What is all this stuff up here?” she calls. “What are all theseâ”
“Just put the cube next to that other box on the floor and come back down here. Don't touch anything.”
“Careful,” I say.
“Sorry. I'm coming down.”
I hear her place both feet on each step before she takes the next. “Hold the hand railing, okay?” I say.
“I am. Why are you so nervous?”
Because I'm the angry town widow? Because I'm a quivering mess who can't bake and who makes young children cry?
The attic door makes an awful screech as I pull it shut. Ingrid brushes invisible dust from her clothes before she takes my hand and leads me down the hall.
“Ahab time,” she says. But she stops at my office door. It's open a crack, just enough to show Hank's fingertips and toes.
“Zell?” She approaches Hank.
“You might not want to go in there,” I say, envisioning Garrett's horror when he learns that a model human skeleton hangs in my office. I reach to shut the door, but it's too late: She now stands opposite Hank. He seems to tower over her.
“Um, why is there a skeleton in front of me?” Ingrid flicks the light switch and looks all aroundâat the spinal column attached to the brain that hangs from the wall, at the scraped-up heart on my shelf. The sight of the heart sends me spinning into a Memory Smack: Nick gave it to me right after our graduation from Wippamunk High. As EJ and France posed for pictures, Nick grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me under the bleachers.
He produced a paper bag from his gown. “I didn't have time to wrap it. It came in the mail this morning.”
I inspected the heart, holding it up in the crack of light that streamed between the bleachers. I welled up at his thoughtfulness; he knew I wanted to study medical illustration. In fact, we both knew from a very young age what we wanted to be when we grew up. That's probably why we grew so close in high school.
“You might be the only girl in the world who cries tears of joy when handling a model heart,” he said.
I threw my arms around him and whispered, “I love you.” It was the first time I said it. I remember the feel of his arms around my hips, his lips on my earlobe, as he said, “I know. I love you back.”
The heart's pretty scuffed now, having traveled with me to college and graduate school and beyond.
Pointing, Ingrid marches to my desk. “Is that a big huge eyeball? Okay. That's an
Like, on your
“Let's go,” I say. “I don't want you to have nightmares about all this stuff.”
She wags her head. “What kind of freakazoid are you?”
“I draw body parts. It's my job.”
“First all that weirdness in your attic. Now all
weirdness. Show me?”
“Show you what?”
“Show me what you draw.”
“Are you sure you want to see it? It's all sort of . . . graphic.”
“I like graphic. I think.” She straddles my stool and wheels it over to my desk. I take a seat at my laptop and show her my most recent scan: the cross section of the healthy artery. I explain that blood can flow freely through your arteries if you exercise and eat nutritious foods, but otherwise, all sorts of junk clogs them up, and that makes your heart sick.
She studies the illustration on the screen and recites the layers I labeled, sounding out the words: tunica intima, tunica media, tunica adventitia. “This is your job?” she asks.
“That's pretty fly.”
I close the file, and an e-mail remains open underneath it, one I started a while ago but never finished. Ingrid glimpses it before I minimize it. “Was that a letter?” she asks.
“Yeah. An e-mail.”
“To my husband.”
“Why?” she asks.
“Because when people love each other, they write each other letters,” I say.
“But I thought your husband was dead. That's what my dad told me when I asked him if you were married.”
“That's right,” I say. “He
dead.” I'm not surprised Garrett knows the story. Nick was somewhat of a local legend, even before he died.
I reach for my big plastic eyeball and caress the nerves that run atop the choroid. I have to change the subject somehow, but I feel a knot forming in my throat, and I'm afraid to open my mouth.
Ingrid hops from the stool and climbs into my lap. Her arms ring my neck. I'm surprised by her familiarity, her seemingly instant trust of me. Was I so open as a child?
Her green eyes search my left eye, then my right. “You don't lie to me, do you?”
That stings a bit because I
lied to herâlittle white lies, about my attic allergy and liking to cook. I rub my thumb on the clear cornea. “Life's hard enough,” I say.
“Trudy doesn't lie to me either. I can tell.”
“My step-grandmother.” She sticks a finger into the plastic eye's pupil. “There's a hole in your eye? For real?”
“For real.” I replace the eye and close my laptop. “Come on. Ahab's got some running to do.”
INGRID, AHAB, AND I HALF TROT, half slide down High Street. The blue faux fur on the hood of Ingrid's coat rings her round, freckled face. She laughs at Ahab's form-fitting fleece jacket and neoprene booties. I shush her as we slip and slide down the hill.
“What's his full name?” she asks.
“Captain Ahab's Midnight Delight.”
“I don't get it.”
“We didn't pick it.”
“Me and Nick.”
“Is Nick your dead husband?”
“Yeah. Look, just call him Ahab. Or the Captain. Or Cappy or Cap'n, for short.” In Ahab Voice, I add, “Avast, me hearties!” which makes Ingrid laugh even harder. I don't even know what that phrase means, but Nick always said it, and it does sound piratey.
She asks me endless questions about Ahab.
What I don't tell her:
1. Nick was one of those guys who always knew he'd get married, buy a house, and get a dog. He accomplished all three tasks in exactly in that order.
2. We used to joke about “Captain Ahab's Midnight Delight” sounding like the title of a whaler-themed porno.
3. Nick took hundreds of black-and-white photographs of Ahab's first few years with us. Ahab chasing his tail, eyes wild. Ahab squinting in the sunlight. Ahab, Ahab, Ahab, as if he were our firstborn child.
What I tell her:
1. Ahab is a retired champion who came to live with me when he grew tired of racing other dogs around a track after a mechanical rabbit.
2. When he was a puppy, mean men tattooed his ears for identification purposes.
3. I brush his teeth every night with chicken-flavored toothpaste because greyhounds have horribly soft teeth.
4. He's supposed to be that skinny.
5. He doesn't catch Frisbees, fetch sticks, or sit.
Ingrid tests number 5. She stops him in the street and yells, “Sit!” and pushes his low back with both her hands.
He doesn't sit, just stands there.