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Sarah, lit up by the fridge light, hand hovering over a jar, flinches when she sees him. Her nightgown hangs in front of her, round and empty. A corroded soul, she straightens as he steps through the doorframe. Something like a smile curls across her face.
His wife has always been a woman who hobbled along on brief moments of bliss, the low slanting sunlight through a picket fence on an evening walk, a giggle coming from the baby's room, the first tiny yawn. The moment she saw him for the first time in the parking lot, she always said.
“You’re trekking it into the house.”
She lets the fridge close. They stand facing each other in the dark.
“It’s nearly four. Late-night gardening?”
Little sparks are now only the routine absurdities of her daily life, robbed of their lightness. Fourteen weeks later, she had made no movement he could perceive to climb her way out of the well she had fallen into, or had stepped into with a silent scream: circles of sorrow that at once toughened her and laid her bare only to herself. No rivers stealing down mournful cheeks, only circles of sorrow that fell down and surrounded her in a stack.
“You were in the attic,” she winces.
He counted three lives now ruined by the brutal efficiency of chance. The small shoes with soles too soft to hear from the house. The unseen shadow on the road.
“We were going to give it to the Windsley girls,” Sarah says.
He fidgets for the dimmer switch.
“It shouldn’t be put away,” she objects.
She can hear him scrambling in the dark, opening drawers. She is surprised that she is not afraid, leaning casually against the fridge, its dull cold fogging through her thin nightshirt. She scrapes her wedding ring on its white plastic ridges back and forth. A drawer slams with finality, and she hears tape stretching and snapping, footsteps slipping away on the linoleum.
She follows him, pausing in the doorway.
The hole, the pile, the dollhouse, a careful replica of her own he calloused his hands making — she inhaled it all quickly, and it did not seem strange to her. It is, at least, not out of place in the forest of nightmares he and she had walked through since they heard the horn from that very spot. He strides towards it, now a yawning hole, and the aluminium teeth on the narrow cardboard box glint at her. Knowing he does not want the porch light on, she steps down onto the grass. As the night air surrounds her, she feels as if she were stepping into milk. Their favourite oak seems to radiate cold.
It begins to rain, on cue. For the first time since his infancy, Amus feels rain on his scalp, his increasingly hairless head. He runs his hands around it, and discovers entire new continents on his skull, already worn smooth. A newly bald man burying his dead daughter’s dollhouse in their backyard. No, she could not stop him. She thinks she sees a Rice Krispies square perched on the miniature coffee table through one of the little house’s six-paned living-room windows, but said nothing.
She watches her husband carefully: he surgically attaches squares of saran wrap across the windowpanes, chimney hole and doorways. When it was finished, he went still, startled by her presence beside him. He was thorough — the muscular soil would not burst through and drown the family inside.
She sits on the edge of the dark hole, and slips in, imprints of her soles immediately cast in the clay. The grass tickles her arms as she reaches towards the house.
She slips her hands under the house — its weight and size, like a small birthday cake, familiar to her — and begins lifting it. She backs up before kneeling, listening for the slightest rattle or shake. As she lowers the house past her face, she sees, for the last time, the three smooth dolls still in each other’s arms. The stabbing pains she expects when the man, the woman, and the girl pass out of her sight do not come. The back of her hands meet the earth without incident, and she slides them out from under the house. The black circles come down around her again, around them both. She lifts herself away, kneeling beside him, hips touching.
Her eyes can’t watch his hands sink slowly into the soil, clay and small roots he unearthed. Nearly losing his wedding ring, Amus withdraws the first handful of dirt and scatters it across the house’s red wooden roof — a familiar sound. A second, third, fourth white-knuckle fistful — he rises up on his knees, dropping the earth gingerly around the house. The dreaded cracking sounds she expected do not break through. When only one more handful would cover the chimney, that’s when he stops, waiting.
Sarah stretches into the disordered pile of earth, clasping light clumps of roots between her hands before separating them over and over and over the house, covering the lone chimney spout, slipping the wooden family from their view forever. She feels an old sensation as Amus lays his hand on her back, she feels the familiar rounded gold wedding ring running across her shoulder blade.
She presses her hands into the mound, and nearly, nearly feels a smaller pair of hands meet the pads of her fingers on the other side. Closing her eyes she can see a glimpse of the doughy hands, playing a handclapping game together with a “Freeze!” at the end, or maybe a double high-five after a particularly impressive attempt at captaining an empty box like a ship, or laughing up from the grass, tiny, like her shadow stretched out on the grass in the late afternoon, a whisper of a taller girl. Sarah clasps her hands hard around the dirt, searching for those small fingers. The ring runs down her back again. She withdraws her hands slowly, empty, but not shaking.
In the morning, to the sound of sprinklers and bicycle bells, curled around the still place where their daughter’s dollhouse is buried, Sarah and Amus will wake up, naked to the world, out of the well.