I loved them all.
Sweet Amelia, pouring warmth into the world the same way she served a meal; her portions generous even when resources were scarce. Those bright children, running through creation like they thought it was as new as they were, their eyes not yet hung with the shades of the weary. Not like their poor aunt Alice.
I never found out what Alice’s eyes saw, what cast a shadow darker than her rouge and stronger than her drink, but she was always kind to me. I remember how her clothes hung off her small frame and how Mr. Duffy, our boarder, hung on her words. They forgot me, or seemed to, on those long evenings when I watched the reflection of the fire ghost the edges of their vice – the curve of his pipe and the glint of her glass – the light touching them not unlike the way he thought of touching her. People think I don’t notice these things, but I do.
It was sad to watch. Unkind wagging tongues would say was not adverse to men, or touching, and they would point (without truly understanding) to her time with Mr. Hastings, Mr. Ardin or the others as evidence of that. Her sister never knew, of course. Had Amelia even an inkling of such things – under her roof no less – she would have lost her senses, but I knew and did not judge. Alice was like a creature with limb caught in a trap, gnawing off the wounded flesh to save the rest, over and again, just to prove to herself that she could. And Mr. Duffy just watched her do it. Men came and went, but he could still be found sitting with her in the evenings, smoking his pipe and dreaming his dreams while her voice flowed by like sand through an hourglass.
Some people thought she was toying with him, but they couldn’t have been more wrong. What existed between them wasn’t a distraction or an attempt to prove the past hadn’t left her broken, and she knew it. He wasn’t a trap she could get out of or someone she wanted to run away from, so she chose never to get close enough to feel the need to run. Until he left.
It was a Sunday morning, she came down the stairs too late and perhaps too hungover for church, and found the note he left for her. That night she sat by the fire alone, her red eyes retracing the lines until she could no longer make them out. I think that was when she realized that you can live inside a trap for years – your whole life even – without seeing it for what it is. She tried to find him, sent letters and drove that chattering motor car of Mrs. Grant’s as far as it would go, but he had caught a train east long before she learned his plan.
That’s what made it such a fine surprise when he showed up that Christmas. Mr. Ardin acknowledged him with a mere nod, but Amelia’s joy spilled over in jubilant declarations and tight embraces. Alice’s joy was complicated; it made no sounds. Instead the turn of her head asked why he was there, and the white-knuckled hands behind her back wrestled with the unanswered question of the letters she’d sent to where she thought he had gone. The blood that fled and then doubled back to flame her cheeks wanted to know if some things were the same, and if others had changed. Because she had – she changed rather a lot.
After that grand Christmas breakfast Amelia hurried everyone out front so Mrs. Grant’s nephew could come take their picture. “The whole family!” she said, wrapping her arms about the children. As Mr. Grant set up his camera and fiddled with things I didn’t understand, I saw something that I could. While everyone’s eyes were pinned upon the cameraman and his gadgets, Mr. Duffy very slowly, and while gazing very resolutely off into the distance, stretched out his hand. And Alice, very carefully, took it. Her eyes shifted nervously down at nothing in particular, but I saw the same small smile bloom on both their faces.
I do not know how their story ends, because a moment later the largest, cockiest squirrel you’ve ever seen came tearing across the yard, and I tore out after it. I ran through the snow faster and farther than I ever had before – perhaps it was that damn maniacal squirrel, or perhaps it was just too long a winter spent inside – but I ran until I couldn’t find my way home. I have a new family now, an older couple and a young girl, and a cat that I’m growing accustomed to. I am happy here, but I still think about the old boarding house, about Amelia and the children, and especially Mr. Duffy and Alice. I hope her wounds have healed and her running days are over. I loved them all, but she was always kind to me.
[Note: The back of this photo reads “Amelia her sister and the two children”]