Helen Evett dropped a log into the jumpy flames of her cozy hearth, then went over to the sitting room window and closed the heavy drapes of faded rose, muting the sound of sleet tapping against the panes.
This March will be different.
She poured herself a shot of brandy, settled into a deep-cushioned chair in front of the fire, and cracked open the cover of a brand new biography of Freud that she'd been meaning to read since Christmas.
It's been four years now. Long enough.
Five minutes into the book, Helen looked up and began staring at the flames--unable, after all, to shake herself free of the mood. March in Massachusetts was long, cold, and cruel, full of false hope. March was a liar. March couldn't produce a damn thing except April first, the anniversary of her husband's death.
For four years in a row, Helen Evett had tried to convince herself that spring would be less painful. She had planted hundreds of snowdrops and burned cords of wood--and yet here she was, facing April again with dread. The memories of that fateful day had burned deep and left scars: the somber troop Commander standing at her front door; the slow-motion ride to the hospital in a state police car; the shocking sight of Hank's gray, lifeless face.
She hadn't dared pull the sheet farther back than his face; part of his chest, she knew, had been blown away.
Helen sighed heavily. Things would get better after April first. But tonight it was March.
"Mom! I'm home!"
In the hall outside the sitting room, Helen heard the satisfying thunk of the heavy oak door falling into place. One child back; one to go.
"How're the roads?" she called out. Becky had good instincts and a level head; but her driver's license was so new it still smelled of plastic.
"No problem," the girl said in a voice that Helen knew was being deliberately upbeat. Becky was as aware of March as her mother was, but she had her own system for dealing with it: she shopped.
"Look what I found at Filene's Basement." The girl strode into the room, still in her black hooded trenchcoat, and nudged the cat off the hassock with her shopping bag. "Cashmere. And dirt cheap."
She flipped the hood of her coat off her head, revealing straight gold hair that took its glow from the fire, and beamed at her mother.
Helen, still marvelling at the whiteness and straightness of Becky's teeth despite the fact that her braces had been off for over a year, frowned and said, "Cashmere? Since when can you afford cashmere on a babysitter's wages?"
"Well, it's not all cashmere. Just twenty percent."
"I hope you put gas in the car."
"Five dollars worth," Becky said, wrinkling her nose. "I'll put in another five when I get paid."
"Becky, this won't do. You can't go spending money like there's no tomorr ...." Instantly Helen regretted having said it. Who knew better than they did that sometimes there was no tomorrow? For Trooper Hank Evett, writing out a routine speeding ticket, there had ended up being no tomorrow.
Becky was shrugging out of her rain-spattered coat; she let it fall where she stood on the worn oriental carpet. When she faced her mother again the look in her green eyes was as calmly agreeable as the smile on her face. "You're right, mom. This is the last thing I'll buy for a while."
It's March, Helen reminded herself. Let her be.
Rummaging through a wrap of tissue, Becky pulled out a smart turtleneck sweater for her mother's perusal.
Helen smiled ironically. "Oh, good. More black. Just what you need."
"It's not black. It's blackish charcoal."
"It's charcoalish black."
"It'll look terrific on you, too, mom. With your black hair and gray eyes--"
"I'd look like a lump of coal. Why all the black, anyway?" Helen added, unable to keep the protest out of her voice. The color of mourning held no allure for her.
"It's just cool, mom," said Becky with an edge in her voice. "For no other reason."
Helen had to leave it at that. She stood up, automatically retrieving her daughter's crumpled coat from the floor. On her way out to the hall clothes tree, she asked, "Did your brother say when Mrs. Fitch was picking them up?"
She heard Becky mumble something about Mrs. Fitch's car being at the mechanic's.
Surprised, Helen said, "So how are Russ and Scotty getting home?"
She turned around in time to see Becky sprinting for the stairs. Without pausing, the girl said, "Russ told me a friend of Scotty Fitch was gonna meet them at the mall and drive them both home."
"Rebecca!" Helen said, more angry with her daughter than with her son. "How could you leave him to come back on his own?"
Becky was taking the stairs two at a time. "We live in Salem, mom," she ventured over her shoulder. "Not Sarajevo."
"You know what I mean! He's fourteen," Helen snapped. "All feet, no brains! I don't want him hanging around with kids who drive."
Turning at the top of the stairs, Becky looked down at her mother and said quietly, "I don't see how you can stop him, mom."
"Oh, really?" Helen answered in a crisp, dry voice. "Wait 'till he gets home, then, and watch."
"Oh-h ... don't take it out on Russell," Becky pleaded. "It was my fault. I'm the one who let him." In self-defense she added, "When I was fourteen you let me get chauffeured around by girls older than I was."
"That was different. You were level-headed. I could trust your judgment--up until tonight, anyway," Helen said with a dark look. "And besides, times are-"
"I know, I know: totally different," Becky said with a roll of her eyes. "Even though it's--what?--a year or two later?"
"You don't know who's out there, honey," Helen said, ignoring the sarcasm. "There are nutcases ... madmen ... psychos ...."
The expression on the girl's face was wise and tender and weary all at once. She knew, and her mother knew, that the one madman who mattered most had rolled his car in a fiery, fatal end to a spectacular police chase on Route 95. He was out of the picture, out of their lives.
But that didn't mean there weren't other madmen out there.
"Hey," Becky said, more cheerfully. "I almost forgot. This is for Russ." She reached into her shopping bag and pulled out a Pearl Jam baseball cap. "It's wool. Ninety-nine cents. Can you believe it?"
She tossed the cap down to her mother with a last, quick smile and beat a retreat to her bedroom at the end of the wallpapered hall.
Helen sat the cap on the newel post and sighed. Becky was rolling through the tough teen years so painlessly that she'd almost managed to convince her mother that fathers weren't all that critical. It was Russ who was the reality check: the boy was angry, moody; sloughing off responsibility right and left.
"Pretty typical," Helen's friends all said.
But no one else could pin down, to the day, exactly when her son had begun the transformation from nice kid to beast in the jungle. Helen could. On the evening of his father's funeral, Russell Evett had withdrawn into his room, and when he came out three days later he wasn't Russell Evett any more. It was as plain as that.
Helen was roused from yet another replay of that time by the piercing ring of the hall phone. The voice that answered hers was fearful and tentative and had the effect of jangling her nerves still more.
"Mrs. Evett? You don't know me--I'm sorry to call you at home--but I have an important request, more like a favor--no, wait, let me start over. I got your name from a friend who has a little girl in your preschool, Candy Greene ... that's the mother's name, not the little girl's ... the girl is called Astra? You remember? A little blonde girl, very fluent?"
"She's not in my Tuesday-Thursday class, but--may I ask who this is?" said Helen, impatient with the meandering voice at the other end of the line. What if Russ were trying to call?
The woman sucked in her breath in a broken gasp. "Oh! I'm sorry ... it's this vicious headache ...." She took a deep breath, obviously trying to organize herself.
"My name ... is Linda Spurr," she said with new deliberation. "I've heard such good things about your school, yes, and I want my daughter to go there. Yes. She's so bright. She gets along well with children and she's pretty good about sharing, yes, and taking directions. She doesn't bite." Hurried and edgy despite herself, she added, "Is there anything else you need to know?"
"Well, yes," said Helen, surprised by the woman's naivete. "We like to sit down with the parents and the child--"
"Oh, but my husband couldn't possibly be available for that!" the woman said at once. "He's so busy!"
"One parent would be fine. I'll tell you what, Mrs. Spurr. Why don't you come visit the school tomorrow at about five o'clock with your little girl, and we--"
"But I can't. Don't you see? That's why I'm calling. From my bed. That's the favor I'm asking. Couldn't you possibly come here instead?"
Her voice betrayed rising panic. Helen, wishing to reassure her but mostly in a hurry to get off the phone, said, "There's no urgency, Mrs. Spurr. If you're not feeling well, we can certainly meet on another day. Registration has only just opened for the fall term. You have plenty of time--"
"I don't! Candy said you fill up overnight!"
Helen laughed reassuringly and said, "Mrs. Greene was exaggerating. Really. Why don't we agree on a day next week--"
"Please ... next week won't be any better," the woman said, suddenly weary. "I've been so ... I have to nail this down ... this one thing, at least. I can't go on like this ... drifting ... please won't you come? We live on Chestnut Street, not all that far from your school. It wouldn't take long ... really ... I don't see why you can't ...," she argued, practically in tears.
If Linda Spurr was trying to make a good impression, she wasn't succeeding. She had a top-drawer address, but she sounded like the kind of spoiled, idle woman who routinely takes to her bed when things don't go her way.
On the other hand, something in her tone sent a shiver of sympathy through Helen. Whatever the reason for her headache, it was obvious that Linda Spurr was in real agony. No one could fake that kind of pain in her voice, not even a prima donna.
"All right. I can make time tomorrow evening. Shall I come by before dinner? Say, five o'clock?"
"Oh yes; thank you," Mrs. Spurr said, her voice becoming suddenly faint. "Peaches will be so pleased."
She gave the number of her house and hung up, leaving Helen somewhat bemused over the whole thing.
Peaches. In Helen's mind the name conjured up everything from a bunny rabbit to a strip-tease. She'd never taught a toddler by that name, not once in the fifteen years she'd been in day care. From the cozy groups of six she'd cared for in her home to the larger classes who'd passed through the preschool she later founded, Helen had never come across a single, solitary Peaches.
In any case, Helen's plan was to present herself to little Miss Peaches and--with any luck--to talk Linda Spurr into visiting the preschool before she signed up her child.
Helen was immensely proud of The Open Door, proud of the way she'd risked a modest inheritance on an old building in need of rehab and, with tax credits and a lot of sweat equity--hers and Hank's--turned it into a stimulating center for creative kids. She didn't need to chase down Linda Spurr's business; the class would be full by May first, tops.
She didn't need Linda Spurr's business. But oddly enough, she seemed to want it.
Helen was debating whether to throw one last log on the fire or call in the militia when she heard the front door being slammed nearly off its hinges.
"Russell Evett, get in here!" she yelled. "Now."
After what Helen knew was a deliberate delay, she heard Russ shuffle into the sitting room. She herself was smacking the last of the fire into helpless embers with the poker, trying to get her relief and anger under control. When she was done, she turned to confront her son.
The boy-man who faced her looked like any other fourteen-year old: baggy clothes, scary haircut, a zit or two on his chin to be followed someday soon by stubble. He was tall, as tall as she was, and still growing. He'd got an ear pierced--twice--recently without her permission; she knew he always took out the earrings or safety pins or whatever they were before he walked through the door, and tonight was no exception.
She searched for signs of remorse or hints of fear in his face; it had been so long since she'd seen either. He'd inherited Hank's green eyes and her black hair, a pleasing combination. But somehow, neither Hank's self-discipline nor her hypersensitivity had got passed on. If Russ had either, he wouldn't be standing on the carpet in front of her right now.
"The mall's been closed for an hour and a half," she said quietly. "Where have you been?"
Russell shrugged and looked away. "Hangin'."
"Well, I don't want you 'hangin,' young man. When we agree on a plan, I expect you to follow your end of it."
He shrugged. "Mrs. Fitch couldn't come."
"Your sister was there."
"That wasn't the plan either, ma."
"Well, she was the obvious alternative."
"Becky said it was okay," he threw out sullenly.
"Becky is not your mother. You know the rule: no cars. You had plenty of time to reconsider."
"How was I even supposed to find her?"
"Filene's Basement is some big secret? Listen to me: I don't want you driving around with kids older than you. Not without my permission, and don't hold your breath for that. Do you understand?"
His answer was a defiant look of boredom.
"That's it!" Helen snapped. "You're grounded for the weekend."
The boredom turned to instant indignation. "Grounded! Why? I didn't blow a gasket!"
Helen wasn't sure whose gasket he was talking about, and in any case she didn't want the bickering to drag on any further, so she said "Good night, Russell," in the calmest possible voice and left him to stew in his own teenage hormones.
The last of the sad thoughts that drifted through Helen's head that night was that "ma" didn't sound nearly as winsome as "mommy."
Little Peaches Spurr lived on a street that was not only the jewel in the crown of Old Salem, but arguably one of the finest avenues in America. Less than half a mile long, Chestnut Street was lined with perfectly preserved three-story mansions dating from 1800, many of them built for Salem's early aristocracy: the merchants and sea captains who reaped mind-boggling wealth from whaling and the China Trade.
The entire avenue, east end to west, was now a National Historic Landmark and a mecca for history and architecture buffs. They could stroll virtually alone along its brick-lined sidewalks and cobblestoned gutters in the imposing shadows of the mansions, and dream about the Clipper ships who braved high seas to bring back unimaginable treasures.
It was a great street--but nobody really cared. Not the bread and butter of Salem's tourist economy, anyway; those people were far more interested in Salem's darker, uglier past. The witch trials of 1692, in which nineteen innocent victims were hanged and the twentieth was pressed to death under a crush of rocks--that was the story that busloads came to hear.
Who cared if the Peabody Essex Museum contained a priceless slant-top desk carved entirely of ivory? It was much more fun to stand with a cluster of tourists in a pitch-black room around a luridly lit pentagram and hear the tale of Salem's shameful, sinful past.
Helen Evett ought to know: whenever visitors came to see her--depending on their ages--they wanted to go to the Witch Museum or the Witch Dungeon Museum or the Wax Museum or the Witch House. If they were the pensive type, they sometimes wanted to sit and reflect at the witch-trials memorial.
Rarely did they wish to take a walking tour of Chestnut Street.
Helen drove slowly down the one-way street, searching for the Spurr mansion. She hadn't been on Chestnut Street in over a year, long enough to be impressed all over again by its magnificence. Salem had plenty of historic houses, of course; but there was something about the way Chestnut Street's mansions stood shoulder to shoulder, united against the outside world, that seemed exceptionally exclusive. Chestnut Street did not permit slaggards. No peeling paint, no sprawling privet here, by golly.
Stuffy little street, Helen decided. Automatically she sat up straighter in the seat of her Volvo.
She had dressed in keeping with the neighborhood, pinning her hair in a knot at the back of her head and wearing a suit much more tailored than her usual soft, flowing dresses.
The preschoolers had noticed the change the minute they saw her. One of them, whose mother was a lawyer, had looked up at her and said, "Do you hafta go to court, Mrs. Evett?"
Helen didn't, but she felt as nervous as if she were appearing in her own defense. It was an illogical, bewildering response to the telephone plea of the night before.
Just who was this Linda Spurr, anyway? She sounded too disorganized, somehow, for such a formal neighborhood. And what about Mister Spurr? Had he been surprised to realize that he'd married a dysfunctional neurotic?
Now, now, Helen told herself. Give the poor lady a break. Headaches can be paralyzing.
The problem was, Helen had never had the luxury of dropping everything to nurse one. Like most other working women, she could only pop a couple of pain relievers and keep on moving.
She pulled up in front of one of the grandest of the grand houses, a brick three-story mansion with an Ionic portico framing a door painted the deepest of greens. Like most of the houses on the street, the Spurr mansion was set back only a few feet from the brick sidewalk and was fronted by an elaborate painted fence; this one curved back to two urned pillars on each side of the portico.
From the copper downspouts to the fittings on the deep-green working shutters, everything about the house suggested taste, discretion and affluence--and a severity that Helen found strangely off-putting. This was no charming ramshackle cottage; no rambling, whimsical Victorian like her own. The painted ivory shutters on the inside of the windows facing the street were all closed, as if the place were put up for the season. Obviously the owners weren't fond of sunshine.
If Helen had seen a rosebush about to leaf out, or a pot of early pansies on the step, then maybe she would've felt less wary. But except for the ivy tumbling discreetly through the spokes of the fence, and the thick, gnarled branches of an old tree nodding close to the second-floor windows, she saw nothing that seemed relaxed or welcoming. If houses reflected their owners, then Helen wasn't sure she'd like these owners.
She got out of the car and slammed the door. It was a simple, mindless act.
But it changed Helen's life forever.
The noise of the car door spooked an owl that apparently had been roosting in the tree: the bird swooped down in front of Helen, then headed directly for her, locking its gaze on hers. Helen froze. Her heart jumped to her throat. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. Suddenly the owl broke away and bounded off erratically.
It had happened so fast, in the blink of an eye. Helen was left shaking and weak-kneed, as if a mugger had jumped out of nowhere and grabbed her purse. She tightened her grip on her shoulder bag, not altogether convinced that the owl wouldn't be back for it, and hurried up the three steps to the door of the mansion.
Before Helen could lift the heavy brass knocker, cast in the shape of a square-rigged ship, the door was swung open for her. An attractive, thirtyish woman stood in the doorway, oblivious to the raw March wind.
"Ah! You made it!" she said to Helen with a warm, vivacious smile.
Helen was caught off guard at the sight of the slender, auburn-haired beauty. "Mrs. Spurr?"
I knew it, she thought. There's nothing wrong with her.
The woman laughed and shook her head as she stepped aside. "No, no, I'm just the nanny. Peaches Bartholemew. Come in. Mrs. Spurr is dressing to come down. In the meantime, come and meet Katherine. She's been so excited all day."
So. Wrong on two counts. Well, one of them was an honest mistake: Peaches Bartholemew looked and acted like the mistress of a mansion. She was beautifully dressed in a calf-length skirt of fine-spun wool and a sweater that had a lot more cashmere in it than poor Becky's. The apricot color highlighted the delicate flush of her Meryl-Streep cheekbones; it was easy to see how she'd got the name Peaches.
A poor but distant relation was Helen's first, old-fashioned thought as the two women made their way down the soaring hall, lit by a wonderful chandelier, to one of the reception rooms. Helen stole a glance at the nanny in profile and realized how artless her beauty was: straight nose, high cheekbones, delicate brows and lashes, all without a hint of makeup. Her auburn hair was pulled back in a French braid, more elegant, somehow, than the cleverest cut.
Helen responded to the woman's pleasantry about spring being just around the corner, but she was thinking, I wonder if I would've had the confidence to hire a nanny this pretty.
They entered a room of lofty proportions which clearly served as a music room: a grand piano was strategically placed beside full-length windows that opened to a view of the garden; a deep, well-thumbed assortment of sheet music was scattered across the top of an obviously valuable Federal sideboard with a serpentine table-edge.
"Katie ...? Come see who's here!" Peaches said gaily. She had a beautiful voice, rich and musical. No doubt she accompanied the pianist in the family, whoever that was.
"Katherine?" Peaches said again in apparent confusion. It was obvious that a game was being played. "For goodness' sakes ... I thought she was in here ...."
Suddenly a brown-haired moppet in Osh-Kosh overalls popped out from behind a Queen Anne armchair and shouted "BOO!"
The child broke into a fit of giggles as Peaches reached down and wrapped her arms around her, half-tickling, half-turning her to face Helen. "Do you know who this is?" said Peaches to the child.
Without looking up, Katherine giggled again and said, "Yes. Mrs. Evett. She teaches preschool," the child added, in case there was any doubt.
Helen crouched to the little girl's level and said, "Hi, Katherine. I'm glad to meet you. Your mommy said that you're a very smart little girl."
Katherine fixed her bright blue eyes on Helen's gray ones. "I know my A-B-C's, and I can count to twenty," she said. This she proceeded to do on the spot, except for seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen.
When she was done, Peaches ruffled her hair and said, "We've been practicing a lot, haven't we, honey?"
"Yes. And I know how to draw. Want me to show you?"
Helen said yes and Katherine ran to the other end of the room where she'd been coloring at a low table, then fell to her knees and began sorting through her pile in search of her best pieces.
"She's determined to make a good impression on you," Peaches whispered to Helen. "I'm not sure what Linda told her, but Katie seems to think she may not get into the class."
"Oh ... no, I wouldn't say that," Helen said vaguely. It was awkward to be put on the spot that way, which is why Helen preferred to do the interviews at school.
The reference to "Linda" rather than to "Mrs. Spurr" did not escape Helen. Over the years she'd met hundreds of nannies picking up their charges at the end of the day; very few of them referred to their employers by their first names. Maybe Peaches was a relation after all.
To fill the void while they waited for the child to make up her mind, Helen said softly, "Does Katherine have many friends to play with?"
Peaches pursed her lips thoughtfully, cocked her head in the little girl's direction, and sighed. "I wish I could say yes. But all the children in the neighborhood are in preschools, getting ready for Harvard and Yale. Linda was determined to hold out, but after Katherine's very best friend signed up .... well, the pressure got to be too much."
"Oh, good, Katie," said Peaches to the girl as she came skipping back with a crayon-drawing in her hand, "that was my favorite, too."
Without a word the child handed the sheet to Helen, apparently preferring to let her work speak for itself.
Helen didn't have a clue what the brown and red scribbles were supposed to be. Nonetheless, she was impressed with the little girl's command of shapes. "Oh my," she said enthusiastically. "You must come sit next to me and tell me everything that's in it."
Helen took the girl by the hand and led her to a small camel-back sofa opposite the piano, glancing at the entrance to the room as they passed it.
The nanny took the hint. "I'm sorry for the delay," she said at once. "I'll just go see--"
She never got to finish the sentence. A man's voice--loud and urgent and somehow ghastly--cried out from a floor above them, "Peaches! For God's sake, up here!"