Read The Why of Things: A Novel Online

Authors: Elizabeth Hartley Winthrop

The Why of Things: A Novel

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For my sisters

Prologue

T
hey stand at the quarry’s edge: Joan, Anders, and their youngest girls, Eve and Eloise, who will not go to bed. The water below them is black and looks thick as tar; reflections of light from the house are wavering rectangles on its surface: window, window, door. Now and then, debris will bob through the light. An empty beer can. A flip-flop. A plastic bag.

“A bubble,” Eve says suddenly, and Joan has seen it, too, a single bubble breaking through the surface. “A bubble!” Eve says again, louder this time. She looks at her parents, demanding, expectant.

Joan touches her daughter’s arm. “Shhh.”

Behind them, in shadow, a handful of policemen lean against an ambulance and mutter, not about the tire marks that lead right to the quarry’s edge, not about the gasoline slowly spreading across the surface of the water, not about flip-flops or beer cans. Joan hears the words
cheese steak
, and
cold one
, and then a snuffle of muted laughter. She grits her teeth and digs her elbow into Anders’ side. “This is taking forever,” she whispers.

“Shhh,” Anders hushes her.

“But no one is doing anything.”

“What can they do, Joan? All anyone can do at this point is wait for the divers.”

“It’s been an hour and a half.”

“And it’s nine o’clock, and the dive team is coming from Beverly.” Anders looks at his watch. “Give them time.”

“Time,” Joan murmurs. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other. The day as it had passed seemed nothing but a blur of last-minute packing, of traffic jams and drive-throughs and tollbooths and endless highways that in her mind as the day of departure neared had come to symbolize escape. Now, though, looking back, Joan remembers the day as a detailed series of moments that at the time she hadn’t known she was aware of, and this sudden clarity both surprises and unnerves her, as if these details were presenting themselves now for a reason, for examination.

There is an image in her mind of Eloise standing inside their house in Maryland, silhouetted by the stark sky outside, her little face pressed against the screen door as she watches Anders load the car. Their summer things had been piled on the porch above the driveway, and Anders had carried them down to the car, box by box, bag by bag, one load at a time. All that is left to be carried to the car, in this image, is a dry-cleaned suit, hanging against a column of the porch.

There is an image of Eve sitting sullen on the steps with headphones on, her hair with a hot pink streak that last week was red, the bangs she’s growing out hanging in her face.

There is an image of the Sherpa cat bag by the door. Two bright green eyes blink slowly in its darkness.

There is an image of mist rising from wet pavement.

There is an image of traffic shimmering on the highway, Anders’ hand draped over the steering wheel, and her daughters in the backseat of the car, side by side despite Anders’ attempt to separate them with a duffel bag, which Eve had pushed into the
window seat. That was still Sophie’s seat, the girls had said, and both refused to sit there.

Thinking back on the day like this, this morning and Maryland seem like a lifetime ago. Today, as Eve has reminded them several times, is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year; truly, to Joan, it has felt like it.

“Bubble!” Eve says, pointing. “If someone’s down there, time is running out!”

“Evie,” Joan says. “Hush!” though the same has occurred to her, too.

“You hush,” Eve says, and she swivels on her toe. Joan watches her go: she stalks toward the policemen leaning against the ambulance. The doors of their cruisers, which they have driven onto the grass, are open, and radio voices crackle from within. Eve passes through the beam of the headlights and then pauses before the policemen, as if considering whether to speak to them. But she continues past, around the quarry toward the house, which is a large, dark shape among the trees, only a few of the downstairs windows aglow. They hadn’t yet even made it upstairs. Their car is parked beside the house, its tailgate open and the inside lights still on. She imagines she can hear the chirpy
ding ding ding
of the open door starting to whine as the battery slowly dies, but she is too tired to really care. Anders had been just about to start unloading an hour or two ago, after they’d finally arrived here for the summer, when Eve had called out from over here, where Joan is standing now.
Someone drove into the quarry!
she called, and of course it had seemed unlikely, impossible, even, but then Eve pointed out the tire tracks that ran over the lawn, and the bubbles, and the things slowly surfacing even as they watched from the shore: a gas can, beer cans, a piece of Styrofoam.

Eve disappears into the shadows by the house, and Joan returns her gaze to the quarry. Another bubble surfaces.

*  *  *

T
HE
tire tracks that lead directly to the quarry’s edge run between two trees so closely spaced together that Eve would never think a car could fit between them, but the tracks are there, and recent; the flattened grass seems to have lifted itself a bit in the short time since she first noticed them. Eve squats before the larger of the trees, where each summer she and her sisters have upon arriving at the quarry carved their initials and the year. After they arrived tonight, as her father began unloading the car, Eve had gone directly to the tree, as if she thought that perhaps she would find this year’s date already carved, Sophie’s initials fresh in the bark. As if she thought that somehow Sophie would be waiting there inside the house for them.

But of course Eve had found on the tree no new markings other than a nick where she now imagines the side-view mirror bumped against the tree as it passed, and then she had noticed the tire tracks, and followed them to where they ended at the quarry’s edge. No one believed her until they saw the tracks for themselves, of course, probably because they didn’t want to. She wasn’t surprised.

She traces their initials from last year with her finger now. It had been raining when they carved them, she remembers, and the bark had been slick. Sophie had gone first, and then she’d guided Eloise’s small hand with her own. Eve, when it was her turn with the knife, had managed to cut her finger, which though it didn’t hurt her began to bleed so heavily and immediately that Sophie had ripped a strip of material from her frayed cutoffs to wrap around it. Eve can see her sister clearly in her mind’s eye, her thin shoulders hunched as she tied the denim as tightly as she could, her inqusitive expression when she was finished, asking Eve with
her eyes,
is this all right
? Sophie hated pain, her own or anyone else’s.

Eve examines her finger now, the pale indentation of the resulting scar, then stands up. Across the water, her parents and Eloise stand staring into the water, backlit by the headlights of the cruisers. The policemen behind them are vaguely familiar to Eve from encounters in past summers: the breakers-up of beach parties, the dispersers of crowds of kids gathered in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven. Those are the kinds of things they are good at, Eve thinks bitterly; when it comes to anything serious, like cars in quarries, they stand around uselessly waiting for someone else to do the dirty work. She casts an anxious glance in the direction of the driveway, wishing the divers would hurry up and get here.

Eve sighs, returning her attention to the tire tracks beneath her. She follows them back from the trees away from the water to where they disappear on the driveway, which leads out to one of the many dirt roads meandering around the various quarries on Cape Ann, theirs only one of the many silent scars of the granite days, filled with the rain of years, sometimes hundreds of feet in depth. She and her sisters have spent many summer hours on the sunbaked slabs along the quarry’s edge, hazarding gruesome guesses as to what over the years may have accumulated in the deep. Now, their worst imagining has come true, and Sophie isn’t even here to witness it.

Eve wanders down the driveway away from the house, and turns onto the road. She is barefoot, as she makes a point to be in summer, and though the grass of the lawn had felt cool and smooth beneath her feet, she walks gingerly on the road, wary of the pebbles and sticks that have not yet toughened up her soles. Only yards from the house, she finds herself in total darkness. It is not that there are no moon or stars, tonight; as she’d stood at
the quarry’s edge moments ago she had noticed Cassiopeia reclining on the horizon, and above it, the moon, and she’d wondered whether it was on the wax or the wane—and she should know this, she thinks now, widening her eyes against the darkness, blinking as if to blink it away. Sophie knew this. But it is one of those things that Eve herself can never remember. When the moon is facing left, is it growing, or has it already been full? She looks up; she can see nothing through the canopy of trees.

Tonight is the shortest night of the year, today the summer solstice. It is Eve’s favorite day, because it’s the longest, and it marks the start of summer, but it carries with it also just a tinge of sadness, because from here on out the days are only going to get shorter, start their slip-sliding decline into winter. This year, the actual solstice, the very moment the sun climbed to its farthest point north of the equator, and, for just a minute, stood still, was at 7:09 p.m. Eve had been anticipating the moment all day, urging her father to drive just a little faster so they’d get here in time to see it, but then, amid the excitement over the tire tracks and the stuff in the quarry and calling the police, she’d entirely forgotten. And now she’s going to have to wait a whole year to have the chance to see it again. She sighs now with frustration, annoyed with herself for being so easily distracted.

It is dark, but she knows this road by heart; she doesn’t need light to walk it. She imagines to her right the boulder that years ago someone painted as a frog, to her left the rusted chain that marks the entrance to a path through the woods. Soon, she knows the road will curve to the right and begin to slope downhill, past the Bakers’ driveway and the edge of the Carvers’ lawn. Eve pauses in the darkness when she hears the growing sound of an engine. The divers, she thinks, pleased at the thought of intercepting them and immensely relieved that they are finally here, but the headlights growing out of the darkness are accompanied
by the sound of thudding music, and Eve steps out of the road, into a safe nook between a triangle of trees. Teenagers, she thinks nervously, as if the carload of kids had earned the title through something other than age. She herself will be fifteen this summer, but would never consider herself a teenager in that way.

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