From across the street Rae can see the front door is sturdy, made of solid wood, with a bronze doorknob and three small, decorative, diamond-shaped windows near the top. It is dated, 1950s modern, Paul’s taste exactly. Rae stares at it from her hot car, willing the entrance to open. She watches and waits, licking the sour lemon Popsicle she bought up the street at the corner market, using her tongue to catch the juice as it drips down her fingers and onto her hand. She feels sick, but that is nothing new. The dull nagging in the pit of her stomach never quits.
Rae considers getting out and looking around while she waits for Nadine, her Realtor, and Paul, her husband. She had thought she might check the perimeter, but her sluggish body can’t move in this midsummer heat. From the car the street appears calm and quiet, leafy with well cared for, sensible gardens. She squints to picture herself here. Herself and, yes, the baby. The baby. A queasy tremor passes through her belly.
Next to her the cell phone vibrates. It’s Paul. He tells her he is stuck at work and will be a little late. The thought of looking at the house without him makes her head pound. “Come soon.”
“I will. Promise.” He takes a deep breath just as she is about to click closed the phone.
“I have a good feeling about this,” he says, excitement clear in his voice. She pictures his eyes brightening, his smile widening. “This is it. I knew when I saw it the first time. How does it look?”
“Empty,” she says before she can stop herself. “I mean good. Great.” Just as she says this, the garage door opens to reveal an old sedan and a guy in tan pants and a short-sleeved button-up shirt. “Wait. There’s someone here. I’ll see you soon.”
The man looks out at her sitting in her car, eating the last of her Popsicle. He has thinning hair and an awkward, lonesome stoop. She opens the car door and puts her hand up in a half-wave. He raises his arm tentatively, then smiles. Rae puts the Popsicle stick down on the dash board and gets out of the car. The baby is still a slight swirl, nothing more. It is impossible to detect from the outside; still, she wishes she could use it as an excuse for everything: why there is no butter in the fridge, why the bed is unmade, why her armpits are unshaven, her hair uncombed.
She will tell Paul. She will tell him and he will swallow hard and push up his eyebrows and say something like, “Well, this is it!” She will tell him. She will tell him and he will sign on to do the grocery shopping, clean the cat box, pick up his own heavy armload of dry cleaning. She will tell him. She will.
“You here for the house?” the man says and she nods. He is younger up close. His voice is shaky and she notices his hands are shaking, too. Rae wonders if he is nervous or having second thoughts about selling the place. He leads her through the garage, empty but for the car, into the house. The house, also empty, waits quiet and open. The recently refinished hardwood floors shine in the summer sun. The windows, minus coverings, let in plenty of light. The fumes from the floors and the heat in the stuffy house make Rae feel faint. She follows the man in, who introduces himself as Ted and tells her to go ahead and look around.
She pauses in the large living room. She can tell he is trying not to follow her around but he can’t help himself. He starts talking.
“The, uh, fireplace works real well in the winter. Pretty much heats up all the rooms down here.”
“That’s nice,” she turns to look at the red brick fireplace, noticing the empty mantle. She wishes the sellers — Ted and his sister, according to Nadine — had staged the place with skirted couches and decorative floral pillows, generic framed art. Here, in the empty hot room the house seems sad and deserted. Bored.
“The roof is relatively new; Dad did that three years ago. You’ll need to replace it about ten years from now. You can redo the kitchen, then.” Ted points to the patterned linoleum. He tells her the appliances work but he won’t be surprised if the new owners replace them. He coughs, nervously, acknowledging everyone wants stainless steel and granite these days. He turns to look at Rae, who gazes past him out the window into the small backyard. He stops and says, “Well. Look around.”
The house she grew up in backed on to an open space of golden hills. At the very top of the ridge she could sometimes see horses grazing. She imagined they were wild steeds, ready for an adventurous escape. This house is boxed in on two sides by close neighbors. There is a small, paved patio and back fence covered in thick green ivy. It is not pretty, but she can make something of it with potted plants and window boxes if she tries.
Rae smiles politely and walks upstairs. She loves the spacious three bedrooms, each with a good sized closest. She stands in the center of one room, then walks to the window and looks out. She leans her head against the glass; the single pane radiates heat and she withdraws her head quickly. She looks down on the small concrete yard and wonders what haunts, what mischief her own child could possibly find. No soft earth waiting and ready, aching for a shovel or small hand to dig right in.
She had loved that as a young girl. The summer she turned ten the band of neighborhood kids she played with ventured into the hills. With bare feet they followed a small creek to a cluster of large boulders unearthed by the electric company years before.
Michael, the riskiest boy, scouted out an opening under one of the large rocks and the kids joined in to dig deeper. Soon they had made a cave. It was dark and cool, empty and open and Rae had the idea to have a seance — to whisper with eyes closed, chanting the name of a dead grandpa or beloved pet. It lasted only a few minutes; when no spirit appeared the other kids dispersed, leaving Rae alone in the dark hole, waiting for a sign.
She backs away from the hot glass. She could use some of that cool, damp relief about now. She can’t breathe in this stuffy house. She is losing focus; she should be opening cupboards, asking Paul’s usual questions about electrical outlets and smoke alarms, heater ducts and plumbing.
Ted coughs. Rae turns to find him leaning against the door frame, hands in his pleated pockets, elbows out.
“The large bedrooms are a real asset, don’t you think?” he says, sounding like a Realtor himself. She pauses a minute before opening her eyes. Even from a distance she catches the musty release of his sweat and deodorant mixing sickeningly with the wood finish. Rae nods, holding her stomach.
Eventually the other kids came back to the cave, goading her with spooky ghost sounds. She climbed out of the hole and ran as fast as she could back to the house where her mom, as always, waited safely inside, washing vegetables at the porcelain sink, looking out at those hills as she prepared dinner.
Rae turns to Ted with a house-related question at last: “The kitchen sink. Is it metal or porcelain?”
In the back bedroom Ted opens the closet to show her rows of built-in shelves. With his shaky hand he points up at the attic.
“No roof rats, I can assure you.” She hadn’t even thought of that.
Ted’s unsteady hands and slow breathing make Rae nervous. She can see he is unwell. She can see that this is hard for him — that with every detail he reveals about the house he is giving more of it away.
“What do you think?” Ted moves toward her, sweeping his arm to include the entire contents of the empty room. “Do you like it?”
She turns away from his odor and the hopeful pleading in his eyes.
“My husband does,” she says. “I do. Yes. Of course.” Paul said they will make an offer today if Rae likes it as much as he does. Rae knocks on the wall the way she has seen him do at countless open houses. Solid. Firm. Empty? Hollow? She doesn’t know what to listen for. She wonders why Nadine is so late. Nadine would know what to say.
“My parents were happy here. Forty-five years.”
“Really?” Rae looks inside the empty closet. She and Paul have been married for 18 months. She can’t imagine anything beyond that.
Ted’s polite smile is followed by an expectant slack half-look that makes her turn away. The look reminds her suddenly of her friend Jayne White’s older brother growing up. Cameron White spent hours lounging on the couch in his white tube socks and sweat shorts watching sports recaps while Jayne and Rae worked on their homework. He was 19 and seemed to have no desire to leave his childhood bedroom covered with taped posters of basketball stars. She felt sorry for him and wondered what he was waiting for, why he had no place to go.
She often mistook Cameron’s trembling hands for excitement. She saw the tremors as an unspoken compliment; it made her feel interesting, intimidating even, that her presence triggered such a response. But once, when Jayne left the room Cameron meandered over to the table where Rae was working on an essay. He leaned in close, without a word, to finger her dangling turtle-shaped metal earring. She spun around quickly to avoid his tainted breath and pasty, moist skin. He held out his long shaking finger and looked at her with his eager eyes. She got up to find Jayne and they studied in the kitchen from then on.
“This next room was my sister’s,” Ted says, and Rae jumps at the sound of his voice. She is careful to lag behind a little as they walk down the hall, feeling suddenly uneasy. “God! All the fun she had in here . . .” Ted looks out at the low bit of roof just outside. “Out this window, she would . . . ha! Well, your kid won’t do anything like that.”
“My kid?” She turns to him, touches her stomach, wonders how he can tell.
“You must have kids. Big house like this.”
“We don’t. We will.” Rae feels dizzy. She wishes she had something to grab on to: a bedpost or dresser, bag or purse, something to clutch at least. “We want to.” She says, finding the wall, leaning her back against it and bending her knees slightly.
“Of course. My sister’s gettin’ it back now. Her own daughter — just turned 12. You should hear the two of them. Sounds just like Mom used to. Funny how that is.” He lets his face sag and she sees the way the lines around his mouth turn down. “Yes . . .” he says, drawing out the s into a sigh. “Yes.” Again. And then the saddest silence ever.
Ted pulls his harmless hands out of his pockets and clasps them behind his back. His face and neck are shiny with sweat. She worries for him. She tries to remember if his parents are dead, if that’s why the house is for sale. She wants to offer a kind of condolence, but when she steps forward he turns away, frowning with furrowed brows.
“Are you okay?” Rae says finally.
Ted recovers by leading them across the hall.
“So, there are two bathrooms. This one could easily be made into a master suite, I know that’s a desirable thing for buyers. Good selling point and all that.”
Rae walks into the brown and mauve tiled bathroom. It has a small square shower on one side and a regular sized tub on the other. The window, thank god, is open. The fresh air feels good.
“Linen closet over here,” Ted says, pointing to a small cabinet beside the toilet. The toilet, like the sink, is a smooth colored mauve. The hue makes Rae gag. When she does, the whole room tips to one side. She closes her eyes and tries to find her balance, but it is no use. Blackness starts at the corner of her eyes and slowly masks her vision. She sinks down, catching herself on the tub. Leaning her torso over the side she rests her head on the cool edge.
When she opens her eyes Ted is next to her, holding her wrist, feeling for a pulse.
“You passed out,” he says.
She pulls her hand away, touching the front of her head, but the room starts to tip again and she clutches at his arm to steady herself.
“You may need a doctor. Let me get help.”
“No, I’m okay.”
She looks right at him, his auburn eyes and mottled skin. She can see him as a young boy in this bathroom, watching his sister getting ready to go out, spraying her feathered hair with Aqua Net, applying pink plush lipstick. This girl, now a woman, a mother, and Ted, still here, anchored to their childhood house.
This house will soon be hers to fill.
Hers and Paul’s.
The three of them (three!) is too much to consider. She puts her head back down on the cool tub and says without conviction: “Everything is going to be fine.”
Ted’s slackened face falls even further.
“No. I mean it. It is.” That’s the way it is in the world, she thinks. Somehow it all works out. People grow up, grow bigger. She brings her hand down gently to her stomach. Bigger.
Ted looks at her with concern. “You’re very pale. Almost green.”
“I am . . .” she stops.
Rae feels the blood drain from her face. She tries to stand but can’t. Ted reaches to help her, but she shakes her head. He looks confused and unnaturally worried. There is no reason to tell him. And no reason not to. Not to say it even though it has nothing to do with him. She will tell him. And she will tell Paul. She will tell him when he gets here today. She has no big secret, no dark mystery. There is nothing wrong with her.
“I’m okay,” she says at last. “I’m actually fine.”
“Oh no, I don’t think . . .” Ted starts.
“I’m pregnant,” she blurts, cutting him off. Hearing it out loud makes her laugh. She still can’t believe it is true. “I’m pregnant,” she says again more slowly and with ease, instantly feeling the color return to her face.
“Oh! Oh . . . congratulations!” Ted claps his hands to his face, genuinely thrilled. “Let me get you some water,” he says, leaving her alone.
She watches him shuffle out. He touches the side of the wall and finds the stair’s railing familiarly, a rote action, habitual and easy. Rae wonders what’s next for Ted. She stands up and steadies herself at the bathroom counter, looking in the mirror. Her red face shines with perspiration. She pulls her fingers through her limp hair and lets the sweat hold her bangs back. She is not sick. She can feel her blood pulsing, rushing under her skin, her heart pounding in her ears. Her heart. Or the baby’s. Her mouth curves into a sudden smile and she closes her eyes to listen for the second beat.