The air in the garden was green. That’s what I remember most clearly: the air hanging between the trees, so thick I could have reached out and touched it. At the edge of the garden, tendrils of roses stung one another in the breeze.
“Come on, lazy!” Albie called to me. “It’s your turn!”
I took my shot, but it went wide.
“Bad luck,” Albie said. His strike was as loud as a tree snapping in half. His ball hit mine, sending it flying over the grass and out of bounds. “Roquet!” he cried. “Bonus shot for me!” He struck again, sending his ball through the last two wickets in one shot. “Poison! Better watch out!” Albie always wanted to be poison instead of finishing the game. Why should he want it to end? He was having such fun.
“Can’t we just say you won?”
Albie’s expression went severe. Then, just as quick, it softened. “Just this once, I suppose.” He flung his mallet away and flopped onto the ground.
The grass was soft under my cheek when I lay down next to him. “Thank you, Albie,” I said, more to the clover than to him.
I called him “Albie”, or “Percival”, his middle name, or “brother dear” or “my white knight”, and he called me “Evelyn”, because that’s my name. I used to call him “my turtledove”, a pet name someone had given him once, but I stopped after he told me that doves were really just ugly old pigeons, anyway. Besides, Albie is more like the kind of white doves people keep as pets—very pale. His hair is so pale it has a slightly pinkish cast. Even his eyelashes are almost transparent. His eyes are the only part of him that isn’t pale. They’re like a dove’s, too—black-black, so black it’s hard to tell them apart from the pupil.
“It looks like rain,” I told him. The clouds were gathering big and sickly grey.
Albie snorted. “It won’t rain.”
And it didn’t. We lay watching the clouds crawl by for an hour or more. I tried to remember the names of all the different types of clouds—cirrus, nimbus, cumulus, stratus. Nimbostratus for steady rain and towering cumulonimbus for thunder. Altostratus, a grey transparent haze, and cirrostratus, which makes a white ring around the sun. Albie pointed out one cloud that looked like a dragon, another that looked like a water buffalo. The sky darkened and I held my breath for the rain, but Albie just kept talking—there’s a castle, he said, and there’s a dog—and finally the storm passed without becoming a storm at all. Just as he knew it would, the air thinned out and the sun appeared. I never should have worried about the rain, not when Albie said it wouldn’t come.
“Which one is your favorite?” Albie gestured up toward the sky. “Pick one.”
I looked for a long time. I’ve often wished I could rise up and walk amongst the clouds, so soft and fine and stretching on forever beyond the horizon. It would be like going along an endless corridor. With the storm banished, all the clouds that afternoon were fresh and very clean. They were all so lovely, it was hard to pick just one, but the one I liked the best was a soft, fat cumulus with a vulnerable pink underbelly. “That one,” I told Albie.
“Then that’s the one we’re going to keep,” he said. “I’ll carve our names in it, ‘Albie and Evelyn forever’, and it will stay with us always.” He gave me a swift kiss on the cheek and sprang to his feet. “Let’s go have supper, I’m starving!”
We ate at the kitchen table—ham sandwiches and milk. Then we went out onto the veranda and ate ice cream from Albie’s favorite silver bowls. We were celebrating, he announced—celebrating just the two of us, the garden, and our very own cloud. “Why shouldn’t we celebrate?” he said.
After ice cream, we played several games of Snap on the veranda, then watched the stars come out. When we were both yawning too much to talk, Albie declared it to be bedtime.
Albie lay down next to me in our little bed in the old nursery and pulled the humid sheet over our heads. I lay still, watching him in the half-dark, waiting for him to tell me about all the things we were going to do the next day. He would always rehearse every last detail, deciding what we’d eat for breakfast and the color of the sky. Once he said there would be fireworks and there were, just visible over the horizon, pure sparks of color flaring up over the trees.
“We’ll wake up early tomorrow,” he said, “and have oatmeal with strawberry jam, and then we’ll play blind man’s bluff. Our cloud will stay put and the hellebore will start to bloom. After luncheon, we’ll go swimming, and there will be roast chicken for supper.”
His steady recitation of the events of the day to come reminded me of a song someone used to sing to us at bedtime. When his predictions were done, Albie made the light go and we fell asleep.
We woke at the cusp of dawn. Breakfast was waiting for us when we went down—oatmeal with strawberry jam, Albie’s favorite. He licked the back of his spoon and grinned at me, his teeth red. I ate around the jam because I don’t like the way the seeds feel between my teeth.
As soon as he was done, Albie ran out to check on our cloud. Just as he promised, it was waiting right where we left it. It swayed slightly on the breeze but did not stray from where Albie had fixed it, as surely as if it were anchored by some invisible thread.
And just as Albie had predicted, there was hellebore blooming in the garden, its flowers reddish-purple, so dark they were almost black. I made a promise to look hellebore up in the encyclopedia later, so I would know everything there was to know about it.
Albie handed me a strip of cloth and said, “You’re it.”
In the gauzy dark behind the blindfold, I stumbled across the uneven ground with my arms outstretched. The garden seemed so big with my eyes closed. Albie could have been anywhere. I imagined him standing just out of reach, watching me.
Albie was always watching me. He was always warning me back when there was something sharp on the ground, telling me to watch my step on the stairs. They’re very steep, the stairs, and I have a fear of falling down them. I did once, the winter I turned six. I broke my arm in three places and the bone stuck out of my skin like a new tooth. Albie was watching me then, too. Even now I know he’s watching.
I have never been even half as good as Albie at noticing things. Whenever it was my turn to be It, I took ages to find him, but whenever he was It, he found me in a heartbeat. He said he could hear me breathing, or that my dress made a certain sound. When I was It, though, I couldn’t hear anything but the wind in the trees and the mourning doves cooing in the distance somewhere.
Before long, Albie got tired of blind man’s bluff. “It’s too easy,” he said. I wondered if it was so easy for Albie because he peeked, but I couldn’t bring myself to believe that he would ever cheat. Now I think maybe he didn’t have to.
I was hoping Albie would forget about going for a swim that day, but sure enough, after luncheon he announced it was time to go swimming.
“Can’t we do something else?” I asked.
I hate the pool. It’s too deep, too still for me to trust it completely. Albie loves swimming but hates to swim alone.
“If you really loved me, you wouldn’t make me swim by myself.” Albie narrowed his eyes at me. “What if I drowned? Then you’d be all alone and it would be your fault I was dead.”
In the end, Albie let me sit on the edge of the pool and trail my legs in the water while he swam laps. With his pale, pale hair and green bathing suit, he looked like a calla lily cutting the water. It made me nervous how long he could go without coming up for air, and also how the water made the edges of him indistinct.
“Why don’t you come in?” he asked, leaning his thin, white arms next to my knees. His hair was slicked back against his scalp, smooth as a polished skull.
“I don’t have to if I don’t want to,” I said.
“Yes, you do.” He reached out and pulled my ankle, jerking so hard that I almost fell into the water. I screamed and flailed, trying to resist. “Just kidding,” he said, releasing my leg. He pushed back from the wall of the pool and coasted away, laughing.
The backs of my thighs were all scraped up from the slate tile along the edge of the pool, but I knew if I told Albie, he’d call me a baby for complaining. And anyway, I reasoned, Albie didn’t mean to hurt me. He liked to play rough sometimes, that was all.
When Albie was finished swimming, he climbed out of the pool and lay down in the sun to dry. I sat beside him, twisting clovers between my fingers and watching the slow rise and fall of Albie’s chest. It was hot, as if the day was trying to squeeze in all the heat it could before it had to concede to evening. The clouds were moving across the sky with elaborate languor. Never had clouds moved so slowly. I tried to count the number of breaths it took one of them to cross the lawn, but I lost count.
“You’re getting pink,” Albie said, and all at once I could feel the tightness of sunburn across the tops of my cheeks. “Why don’t we go inside until supper?”
“Can we go to the library?” I asked.
“All right, if you like.” Albie never cared about books, but he was willing to indulge me.
Before we went inside, he made me brush away the tiny blades of grass scattered across the planes of his back. They stuck to his skin, leaving little impressions like inverse welts once they were gone.
The library is my very favorite room in the house. Now it feels like the only room, but it has always been the best, in my opinion. It’s always sort of twilight inside and the bookshelves go all the way to the ceiling. It reminds me of someone tall sitting beside me, a soft voice helping me sound out a difficult word.
Albie slumped in a chair, leafing through an old magazine while I looked up hellebore in the encyclopedia.
I love flowers, and pictures of flowers even better. That’s why I like the illustrated encyclopedias best. I like animals, too, but I don’t prefer pictures of animals to the real thing. No drawing I’ve ever seen of an animal has ever remotely resembled the creature it was supposed to be. They always seem mangled, misshapen. Drawings of birds always look like their necks have been wrung, and I hate even to think of dead animals. That’s why I prefer flowers, because even though cut flowers die in time, for a while they’re still as lovely as when they were alive.
“Did you know,” I told Albie, “that hellebore is a member of the buttercup family?” The encyclopedia’s pages were slippery-smooth under my fingers, the writing so small it was difficult to read.
Albie flipped a page in his magazine, pretending he couldn’t hear me.
“And did you know it’s winter-flowering?”
Albie looked up then, annoyed. “So?”
“Nothing.” I turned the page idly. Several pages later was an entry on hematite, or ferric oxide. “Albie,” I said, “who do you think writes encyclopedias?”
“Why does it matter who writes them?” I could tell he was getting impatient with me.
I tipped my head to the side, considering. “Do you think it’s one person who knows everything about everything in the world, or is it lots of people who only know a lot about one little, particular thing?” Albie didn’t answer, only slumped lower in his chair. “I wish I knew everything about everything. I think that would be better than just knowing a lot about one thing, don’t you?”
“You know everything about the garden, and the house, and me. What else could you possibly want to know?” Albie’s voice was sharp and I felt as though I’d betrayed him somehow, and betrayed the garden, too.
“Nothing, Albie.” My eyes were pricking with tears. “Nothing, never.”
Albie was silent and still, his expression dark—jealous, I realize now, though then I believed I had hurt him. I fell at his feet, clinging to his legs like I used to when we put on stage plays and he was the knight and I was the maiden he’d saved from a dragon. “Oh brother dear, please forgive me,” I cried. “Please don’t be cross with me. I’ll never leave you, I promise.”
He was smiling despite himself. “Swear?”
I clasped my hands to my chest. “Upon my life!”
He laughed then. “Come on, silly, it’s time for supper.”
And just like that, his temper was over. He let me hold his hand on the way to the kitchen. I always hated it when Albie was angry with me and would do just about anything not to be in a fight with him. I thought we should never be divided, that it was supposed to be the two of us together always.
We found roast chicken and buttered rolls waiting for us in the kitchen. We ate with our fingers.
“Aren’t we supposed to eat supper in the dining room?” I asked.
Albie frowned. “When did we ever do that?”
I tried to recall. For a moment, I had been so certain that we had—with the good china and candles on the table and the cut crystal cruet set. I thought I remembered someone telling me to put my napkin on my lap. But when I tried to picture it, it seemed half-realized, as if I were just inventing it. “I don’t know.”
Albie put a piece of pale pink meat between his teeth. “I don’t think we ever did that,” he said, chewing delicately. “Now finish up your milk.”
At bedtime, Albie promised we’d have my favorite for breakfast and in the morning there was orange marmalade. We ate it right out of the jar and Albie said, “See? What did I tell you?” I didn’t tell him that orange marmalade only used to be my favorite, and my new favorite was honey on toast. After all, orange marmalade was still my second favorite and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
After breakfast, we checked on our cloud. I wondered whether it minded staying with us. Maybe, I thought, it would rather go somewhere else, but when I asked Albie, he said, “But where else would it go?” I couldn’t think of an answer.
“I just think maybe we should do something nice for it,” I told him. “So that it knows we love it.”
Albie agreed, and we had a special tea in its honor, with lemonade and candied violets for appetizers and potted shrimps for the main course. Albie composed a poem about how much we loved the cloud and I sang it a song.
We were just finishing up when the sky went dim and it began to rain. Albie hadn’t predicted the rain, but when I pointed that out, he went all still and wrathful.
“Why don’t we play hide and seek?” I said. Water was pearling in Albie’s hair and I had the feeling that if we didn’t get inside soon, something terrible would happen.
I felt a little easier once we were inside, although it didn’t last.
“Close your eyes and count one hundred,” Albie said, and then I was left in the dim foyer, hiding my eyes behind my hands. I couldn’t even hear his footsteps receding across the marble foyer.
I counted to a hundred, and then a little further. It was very quiet and a shiver ran through me to think of the whole house empty save for the two of us.
I started looking for Albie in the hall, where all the paintings are. Most of them are portraits of people but some are landscapes or pictures of horses. Some of the people in the portraits look a little bit like me. I wish I could remember their names.
Albie wasn’t in the coat closet or behind the big chesterfield in the parlor. He wasn’t in the dining room, either, its table laid with delicate blue-and-white plates. I checked the library, but even before I opened the door I knew he wouldn’t be there. The study, on the other hand, was just the sort of place he’d hide, because he knew how much I hate it. It smells of tobacco and there’s a taxidermied fox on one of the shelves that I can hardly bear to look at, let alone stay in the room with.
But Albie wasn’t in the study, either. I trailed my fingers over the newspaper folded on the desk, and the glass ashtray and the letter opener. Trying not to look at the dead fox, I uncapped the fountain pen and scribbled a little nonsense shape on the blotter, feeling as though I was doing something I ought not. I checked under the desk and behind the curtains, but no Albie.
I took the stairs two at a time, because I thought Albie must be getting sick of waiting for me to find him. I looked in the nursery first, just to be sure, but I knew he wouldn’t hide there. The other bedrooms were much more likely. We hardly ever went into them.
I searched the red room with the gold wallpaper and the blue room with its squeaky mattress and the yellow room with the doll arrayed on the bed. I could have sat all afternoon admiring the doll’s soft mohair curls and her big silk skirt spread out like a fan. The yellow room is my favorite, or next to it. The best room of all is the big bedroom, with its green silk wallpaper and curtains embroidered with flowers and fruit. A silver hairbrush and mirror stand on the vanity, and cufflinks rest in a little silver bowl on top of the dresser. The clothes in the wardrobe smell familiar, a spicy, sweet tangle I can never clearly recall once I’ve left the room.
It occurred to me then that Albie might not be in the house at all. Of course he would hide in the garden, I thought, when that would be the very last place I’d look.
I rushed along the hall, past the door to the attic and down the stairs so quick I didn’t have time to loose my footing. I cut through the kitchen—he wasn’t there, of course—and dashed onto the veranda. The rain was pelting down by then, striking-hard, so heavy it was like fog in the air. I could hardly see the woods beyond the garden.
A noise resolved itself above the tumult of the storm—Albie’s voice. I could hear him shouting, but I couldn’t tell where.
I ran out onto the lawn, far out into the middle of the grass, turning, turning, trying to follow his voice, and then I saw him. He was up on the widow’s walk, his hands curled tight around the iron rails. The wind was trying to toss him to the ground.
I know I screamed, but the sound was swallowed up by the rain, and anyway Albie wasn’t listening. He was shouting into the storm, calling out to it, his expression wild.
Then the rain stopped so abruptly it seemed to sting. In the silence it left behind, I could hear Albie laughing triumphantly. The sun came out, turning the garden gleaming bright.
Albie noticed me then. Chest heaving, he looked down and smiled wide enough to bare his teeth. “Looks like you found me.”
There were things growing in the garden that had never grown there before. I hadn’t noticed until then, or maybe I did notice and simply forgot. But once I started to mark the differences, they were impossible to ignore. Foxglove and fumitory had insinuated themselves in amongst the lavender and bee balm and chamomile. Around the base of my favorite dogwood, big and gangly and good for climbing, clusters of sweet pea gathered, strained upward around its trunk like an anxious crowd. In the kitchen garden, bleeding-heart and lily of the valley rose out of the beds of mint and basil and sage.
The garden was blooming all out of season, I realized. Hellebore is winter-flowering, but there it was, not far from the lily of the valley, which blooms in spring. Sweet pea and fumitory are annuals—but nobody had planted any seeds. Was it Albie, I wondered, digging furrows in the dirt when I wasn’t looking? I had a vague memory of someone, a kind-faced boy in a soft-brimmed hat, who helped tend the garden.
“Albie,” I said, meaning to ask about the boy.
He turned his head to look at me, fixing me in his dark gaze. I remember I had a dream once that I was walking in a dark room, and the dark of the room was the dark of Albie’s eyes.
“Nothing,” I said.
Albie flopped over onto his side and said, “Come on, I’ll push you on the swing.”
The cherry tree was in full flower and heavy with fruit so ripe it was dropping from the branch. The birds were doing their best to eat it up, but the grass was clotted with the red pulp of crushed cherries and buzzing with intoxicated wasps.
The swing creaked as I climbed onto it, bowing the branch above. The wood of its seat had grown porous and soft, the varnish all peeled off. I could remember someone—a woman—telling me something as I sat on the swing.
Albie rushed up behind me and shoved me hard, and the swing jolted forward, flying into motion. My legs lifted as the swing rose, and rose, and rose. And then, finally, my momentum changed and I was pulled back.
“Albie, you startled me,” I said.
Albie didn’t answer. He was too focused on pushing me forward with all his strength. We settled into a rhythm—flying forward then reeling back.
I was trying to remember what the woman had said to me that day, but I couldn’t. I remembered her dark hair, and the lean shape of her hands, which made me think of the silver hairbrush in the green bedroom. The woman and I were talking about my going somewhere, a trip, or some other place I was meant to stay. The memory was charged with excitement, but reflection, I was only confused. Where else could I have been going?
Albie shoved at me again when I drew close to him, casting me back in the direction that I came. His palms pressed against my shoulder blades, forcing me higher and higher. The air whipped around me, lifting me.
It was somewhere I would go to have lessons, I thought. I remembered then that we used to have lessons, Albie and me, but then they stopped. I used to like them, but Albie didn’t.
I could sense the branch of the cherry tree above me, so close I might have hit my head. “Albie,” I said, wanting to warn him.
Albie only pushed harder, throwing his whole weight behind me.
Every time I changed direction, the branch shook, aching to snap. “Albie,” I said again, louder this time, but he didn’t listen.
I gripped the ropes tight and held my breath. I tried closing my eyes, but that only focused the seasick feeling in my stomach. Every time I swung backward, I could feel my body pulling away from the swing, threatening to send me toppling to the ground. I wasn’t in contact with the tree anymore or even hardly the swing, only with the air and Albie’s hands.
“Albie, stop!” My voice was shrill, scraping at my throat. “I want to get down.”
The pressure of his palms fell away and a knot of relief welled up in my throat.
Then the swing leaned back in his direction again and there was a sharp tug—his hands grabbing the ropes. The swing pulled up hard and dumped me on the ground.
My whole body seized up when I went down, paralyzed by the shock of the fall. I lay there in the grass, my chest jerking in panicked circuits as my lungs tried to work. I could feel Albie standing over me.
I tried to shape his name without any air.
He tipped his head to one side, his black eyes bright. I could feel him committing every detail to memory—the sprawl of my limbs, the red-dark stains on my dress. I wished I could hide from him. I wished I could make myself invisible, but there was nowhere he couldn’t find me.
“I decide when you stop,” he said.
I watched him walk back to the house, taking tiny sips of air while the wasps hovered inquisitively around me.
I knew I couldn’t go back to the house yet, not when I might run into Albie. I thought I could just wait a little, until his temper had subsided and he was ready to let me apologize.
Until then, I wandered the garden, cataloguing all the changes I saw. The tall privet hedge along the edge of the property, I noticed, had lost its boxy shape and fallen into bloom, exuding a froth of white flowers. Yellow jessamine grew thick along the stone wall at the front of the house, almost entirely obscuring the gate. The front lawn was grown over with Queen Anne’s Lace, so dense I could hardly wade through it. I reached down to pull a fistful of them from the dirt, and it felt good to clear the way ahead of me. But the more I pulled up, the hotter they stung my skin, until my palms were pricked red and blistering.
All at once, I was certain Albie was watching me. He was gone from the window by the time I turned, but I know he was there. I know he saw everything, his dark eyes wide and eager.
I wanted to cry, but not anywhere Albie might see me. I wanted to hide from him, and so I went to the only place I knew for certain Albie wouldn’t be.
The library was cool and dim. I drew the shutters and curled up in one of the velvet armchairs and then finally I cried—for the garden, grown poisonous and wrong, and for the man and woman who used to sleep in the green bedroom, and for the lovely cumulus cloud Albie caught for me that would never get to drift off on its own, held as it was in Albie’s sway. I cried until I cried myself asleep.
When I woke up, I was too hot and my mouth tasted thick, but my hands didn’t hurt quite as much. I sat there poking at the blisters on my palms in the gloamy quiet of the library. All the shadows had expanded. Over the tops of the shutters, I could see it was the end of sunset.
Pushing open the door to the corridor, I stood on the threshold listening for Albie. I couldn’t find the faint tap of his footsteps or the creaking of a door or the clatter of knife on plate.
“Albie?” I whispered, just to see.
There was no reply.
In the kitchen, I found the remains of Albie’s supper still on the table: a tin of smoked oysters and a package of saltines, along with the browning core of an apple, picked clean. There wasn’t much oil left in the tin, but it tasted rich to me. Standing at the table, not even bothering to sit down, I dipped one cracker after another into the oil, cramming them into my mouth as quickly as I could swallow them.
I didn’t dare stay in the kitchen too long, lest Albie appear. Instead, I slipped back into the garden. Some part of me hoped that all the changes I’d noticed earlier would be gone, some cruel trick Albie had decided to play on me. I hoped he’d come laughing around the corner saying, “Ha ha, fooled you! You didn’t think I was really angry, did you?”
Out on the veranda, the garden was draped in the last light of the day, whatever was left after the sun had disappeared below the horizon. Just beyond the rose arbor, I thought I saw a tall, dark shape approaching, and my heart caught in my chest. I was halfway down the lawn before I even knew I was running.
When I got there, it was only a willow sapling bending in the wind. For a moment I had hoped—I don’t know what, but it was nothing.
That’s when I noticed the smoke. It came crawling up out of the grass, clinging to the trunks of trees and obscuring everything it touched in a thin grey film. It had a sickly cold smell like ash, and my stomach turned just being close to it. The woods were filled with it, I realized, the trees choked with smoke, and I knew that Albie had put it there just for me.
“There’s nothing else,” said Albie’s voice behind me, and I startled at his closeness, at his silent approach. Before I could turn, he wrenched my arm behind my back and pushed me forward into the smoke. I could feel it burning my bare legs. I was crying, but he didn’t stop. “Want to leave?” His breath hissed into my ear and I tried to twist free. “Go ahead. Just see how far you get.”
He dropped me then onto the cold grass, and I watched his shadow-shape disappearing across the darkening lawn.
Now I try to avoid Albie altogether.
It’s hard to do, because he always seems to know where I am, and I can never predict when I’ll come around a corner to see the white shape of him out of the corner of my eye. He seems like a stranger to me, his eyes the black, impersonal eyes of an animal. Often when I enter a room, I have the chilly certainty that he’s just left it. But if I keep to the library during the day and I’m careful to lock the door and secure the shutters, I can pretty reliably stay out of his way. He knows where I am—he always knows—but he leaves me alone for the most part.
There are exceptions, of course. Most recently, he left a row of dead mourning doves across the threshold of the library, so that I had to step over them to get out. I cried for hours when I found them—their poor twisted necks. I didn’t go out to look for food that day at all.
There isn’t much to eat without him, but I manage pretty well. Sometimes all I can find are Albie’s leftovers, chicken carcasses and half-eaten sandwiches he just abandons when he’s finished, although often they’ve vanished by the time I can get to the kitchen. I’ve had some luck with the dusty shelves at the back of the larder, too—I found some dried apricots and tinned sardines there the other day—and there’s a jar of Jordan almonds that someone kept here in the library.
Albie, on the other hand, has been eating nothing but ice cream. I know because I find his empty bowls in the kitchen sink, the pink residue of melted strawberry still sticky when I come in.
Going hungry while Albie gorges himself on sweets doesn’t bother me so much, but now all the books have started losing their words—or maybe it’s that I can’t remember how to make the letters into words anymore. They linger just out of reach. If only looking at them were enough to absorb their meaning, like reading in a dream. At least I can still look at the pictures. Often these days I lie under the big table in the library and run my fingers over the heavy vellum pages of the atlases, trying to feel the contours of the continents with my fingertips, to sense the color of the oceans through my skin.
Everything is slipping away, everything changing.
The smoke presides over the garden. It pours out of the cups of poppies and seeps up from the covered well, roiling just above the grass. I can hardly go outside, because even when it’s not near enough to burn me, the smell of it scalds my lungs.
Albie doesn’t seem to mind it, or even notice. I’ve seen him playing out on the lawn, his arms flung wide like a hawk’s wings, and he cuts through the smoke as if it weren’t even there. He knows the smoke won’t hurt him because the smoke is just for me.
Being away from him leaves me feeling thin, as though being separated from him has made me less substantial. Sometimes I think it’s only a matter of time before I’ll dissipate like fog. But even if that’s true, I wouldn’t take it back. Apart from him, I’m free to spend my days how I please—no more swimming or croquet or games of blind man’s bluff. And even though some things are fading—the words in the dictionaries, the faces of people in pictures—other things become clearer, the longer I stay away from him.
I can almost remember the man and woman who slept in the green bedroom. More and more details about them come back to me every day. I remember her handwriting on my history lessons, the quick, sure stroke of her correcting line. And I remember his laughter, the smell of his pipe at night. And I remember Cook, who used to let us taste whatever we were having for supper—the most wonderful roast beef and chocolate cake and strawberry lemonade. They are coming back to me, but too late. They’re all of them gone.
Albie has discovered he can control the light.
At first, I thought it was just another storm, but it was darker than that. When I went to the window, I saw Albie standing in the grass, poised like a conductor, and I watched as he made the sun set and the night roll past and then it was dawn. He laughed in sheer delight, and as he made it day and night again, I thought of those kings go mad with their own power and no longer recognize their loved ones for themselves.
I try to imagine how I might leave the garden. There’s a road beyond the front gate, long and straight and leading through the trees—though to where, I can’t recall. Albie knows, I’m sure, but he doesn’t want me to. It goes away, in any case, if there is such a place anymore.
But even if I could cut through the thick vines that’ve grown up over the front gate, there would still be the smoke. The one time I tried to endure it—just to see if I could—I only managed to go a few feet before my skin started to blister. That afternoon, Albie willed the Northern Lights into the midday sky.
Lying under the library table, I try to remember the War of 1812. We had a lesson on it once, I’m sure, but I can’t remember what it was about. Even as details of our old life become clearer, I’ve started forgetting other things at an alarming pace, not just words but places and people and dates—entire taxa of animals gone, entire countries. It’s Albie, I know, slowly eroding little pieces of the world beyond the garden. I’m trying to hold on to as much as I can, but no matter what I do, it goes.
I mouth the words to myself, trying to sense their import: the War of 1812, the War of 1812. There is nowhere left to check. The narrow printed columns of text in the encyclopedias are, at best, faint smudges. The War of 1812.
That’s when stones start tapping at the windows. Cracking the shutters open, I peek outside. There are stones falling from the sky—not white hailstones, but flat, smooth river rocks, grey and brown and heavy. Albie’s standing in the garden with an umbrella. The stones punch right through the black cloth, but they don’t hit him.
Closing the shutters again, I turn off all the lights so that it doesn’t matter what Albie is doing outside. I think he’s forced the stars to change their places in the sky, but it’s hard to be sure, because I can only remember half the constellations.
Even in their mutilated form, the books still keep me company. The field guides and atlases haven’t lost their pictures yet. I still have the wren and the waxwing and the tufted titmouse like a small drop of silver water. I still know the Hudson Bay and the Straits of Gibraltar. These, at least, Albie hasn’t taken from me yet.
I know he’ll make those places go, too, eventually, just like he made the sun and the stars and the light in the nursery disappear. Some day, all the world beyond the garden will simply wink out of existence at his behest—just like the gardener’s boy and Cook and the man and woman who slept in the green bedroom. He erased them, the same way he erases his dirty dishes after he’s finished with a meal. I’ll never see them again—I’ll never see anything beyond the trees and smoke. Before long, it will be just the two of us, Albie and Evelyn, forever and always, on and on.