Tacy had known Betsy for so many years she'd almost lost count. First
they'd been little girls together, and Betsy's laughter had been as common
a sound in the Kellys' slant-roofed parlor as Paul's or Katie's. Then
they'd grown up and gone off to high school together, and Betsy had traded
her braids for a pompadour and walks down the Secret Lane with Tacy for
parties in the High Street house with the whole Crowd.
Now, at eighteen, all those years pressed down on Tacy's life like the snow that weighed heavy on the maples each January. They blanketed her with a soft, white quiet; they lodged cold into the crevices of her heart.
"I wonder what it's like in North Dakota at this time of year," Betsy said, tracing the wooden pattern along the edge of the Kellys' kitchen table. Her eyes had a faraway look to them. "Do you suppose there's still snow on the ground?"
Just a day since Joe had left, and already Betsy was pining. Tacy swallowed a sigh. "June is a bit late for snow, even up north," she said matter-of-factly. "Don't tell me you're worried that his train will hit a storm?"
Betsy shook herself, and the carefully formed curls at her neck loosened a bit. "It's silly, I know. It's just that it's so far away, and it will be so long before he's home again."
Tacy cupped her fingers around Betsy's hand, patting it. "You'll have your letters. You said it yourself, reading his letters is as nice as having him here, it's just different."
Betsy's shoulders perked up a little. "It's true, I do love the way he writes. It's not even spoony, it's just so...Joe." She cocked her head. "Do you remember when I went visiting at the Taggarts' farm, and you and I wrote every day?"
Tacy couldn't suppress her smile. "See, that's what I'm talking about." There really had been something grand about that time, when the mailman would come just after noon each summer's day and bring a brand-new letter addressed in Betsy's big loopy handwriting, just for her.
"Goodness, we're awfully old," Betsy said with a shake of her head. "I mean, just imagine, we're completely done with high school. It seems like it was hardly yesterday that your mother would have spent an evening like this fixing dinner for a house filled with children."
The enormous table did look queer with just the two of them sitting there. Mother was shopping in town, and Father was off fishing with Paul. Only three children were left in the Kelly house, anyway. For that matter, Katie and Tacy were both grown up now, when it came right down to it, so that left just Paul. Tacy swallowed around the burr in her throat.
"And now your older brothers have their own children." Betsy craned her neck to see into the parlor.
Tacy's eyes followed Betsy's through the doorway to the parlor floor. Gerry's youngest had leaned the sofa cushions against each other to form a makeshift house. A piece of string marked what looked like the front door, and a hand mirror was propped up against one of the cushion-walls.
Betsy and Tacy had done that sort of thing themselves, back when imaginary lives were still more real than everyday ones. But Tabitha was playing alone, and Tacy had never been alone, not in those days.
"You know, your niece is really pretty," Betsy said suddenly.
Tacy laughed. "Shh, don't let Tabby hear you say that! Gerry says she's got the kind of vanity rarely seen in a Kelly."
But Betsy didn't even crack a smile. She chewed on her bottom lip, turning it white at the edges. "Tacy," she said hesitantly, "do you think I'm pretty enough for him?"
"For Joe Willard?" Tacy sucked in her cheeks, suddenly cross. "Now you're talking nonsense."
"I know you hate it when I say things like that, but—"
"I certainly do." Tacy surprised herself with the force behind her words. "In fact, I won't have it!" Betsy's hand hovered at the nape of her neck, her fingers sleek and white against the blue ruffles of her dress. Tacy's gaze tumbled unbidden down the front. "With a waist as tiny as yours, he could hardly do better."
Betsy looked down at herself, her face flushing a vivid pink as a smile crept across it. She leaped from her seat and wrapped her arms around Tacy's shoulders in a tempestuous hug. When Tacy rose to meet her, her tall frame slid against Betsy's smaller one in a perfect fit.
"You know, you are truly the best friend I could ever imagine having," Betsy marveled. Her eyes were dancing. "You always know just exactly the right thing to say."
"We're old, remember?" Tacy said, hoping her grin disguised the way her stomach was starting to shiver. "I've known you a long time."
For a long moment they just stared at each other, beaming.
Betsy threw a glance out the kitchen window. "I should run home, actually. It's almost dark, and Joe wanted to call me on the 'phone when he arrived in Wells this evening." Her lips graced Tacy's cheek. "Will I see you tomorrow?"
"Anytime after breakfast."
Tacy saw Betsy through the parlor to the door. She closed it behind her, pausing with a hand on the door handle. Betsy's perfume faded from the air like the wail of a train whistle disappearing into the distance.
The world always seemed so much quieter after Betsy had left it.
"And this is a—here!" Tabitha's voice from behind her on the parlor floor snagged Tacy's attention. The hand mirror was face-down on the floor inside the little house now, and a tiny plate and cup were perched on top as if it were a table.
Tabitha's face was screwed up in concentration, the tiny freckles that crowded her nose folding onto themselves. Her blue ribbon stood out starkly against her fire-red Kelly hair. She looked like her father. Maybe even a little like Tacy herself.
"What are you building?" Tacy asked. She sat down on the cushionless sofa, right next to where Tabitha was playing. The top of Tabitha's head came up to Tacy's knees.
"A house," Tabitha said, standing. "See, this is the front door." She traced the scrap of string on the floor with her foot. "And back here is the kitchen," she said, jumping over the little wall.
Tacy patted the spot next to her on the sofa, and Tabitha climbed up. Tacy twirled one of the girl's curls around her finger and wetted it to make it stay. She looked up at Tacy with a mixture of adoration and curiosity.
"Is Betsy your best friend?" she asked.
"She is," Tacy said, nodding. "Do you have a best friend back at home in Eagle Lake?"
Tabitha looked suddenly bashful, and she dropped her eyes like they held a secret. "I have two."
"Two! That's wonderful."
"Well..." Tabitha's voice trailed off, and she hunched her shoulders. "Charlotte's my friend from school, and she thinks she's my best friend. But my real best friend is Amy."
"And who's Amy?"
Her eyes rose again and met Tacy's. "She lives next door. She was born only three weeks after me. We've always been friends."
Tacy nodded. "Betsy and I were like that. We were littler than you are now when we first met."
Tabitha's mouth turned up in a little smirk. She giggled.
"Do you know what we used to do sometimes when we were little girls?" Tacy grabbed the mirror from the floor and held it up. "We used to visit the Mirror Palace."
"A real palace?" Tabitha's face lit up with a mischievous glimmer.
"As real as this house here," Tacy said, tilting her head at the sofa cushions. "Look."
Tabitha peered into the mirror. "See," Tacy said, "the ceiling isn't the ceiling anymore, it's the floor of a room in the Mirror Palace." She tilted the mirror just so.
"The Mirror Palace has a funny brown carpet," Tabitha said, eyeing the wallpaper on the ceiling.
Tacy laughed and let the mirror fall to her lap. "I suppose it does."
Tabitha tilted her head at Tacy. "Do you still play with Betsy?"
"I suppose we've gotten a little bit old for playing," Tacy said, trying to sound sensible. "Besides, Betsy has a special friend now. His name is Joe."
"Is she going to marry him?"
"I suppose she might."
Her own words hit Tacy with a burn, like a hand on the isinglass window of a coal heater. She's going to marry him. This wasn't the King of Spain, where love meant huddling with Betsy on the bench and sighing as they pored over the newspaper. This was the kind of love that meant weddings and babies, and houses built from sturdier stuff than sofa cushions.
A heavy, sick feeling formed in the pit of Tacy's stomach. "What's wrong?" Tabitha's voice was a squeak of alarm.
Tacy blinked back the tears that were suddenly pricking her eyes. She cleared her throat, but it came out as a cough.
"Did you and Betsy quarrel?"
"I just have—something—in my eye," Tacy said with a wobbly voice, wiping at one with a knuckle.
Tacy steadied herself with a hand against the arm of the sofa. This was how it always went, she told herself firmly. This was how it was supposed to go. You grew up, you got married, and you made yourself a grown-up life. And Joe wasn't so bad, really, by comparison. He was certainly smarter and kinder than two of Dave Hunt, Tony Markham, or that awful Phil Brandish.
In the mirror, Tacy's face was red. She lifted the edge of her skirt and dabbed at the freckles under her eyes.
Was this the face of a girl who would someday be kissed by Harry Kerr?
He really was quite handsome in his own funny way, and of course he looked at her as if she'd hung the moon. But most importantly of all, he was already a man, not one of the little tin boy-gods Betsy and Tib had always worshipped, of which Joe Willard was only the most bearable specimen. Now that it was time to grow up, Tacy could do a lot worse than to end up with Mr. Kerr.
But behind her in the mirror, Tacy could still see a world where up was down, where the floor wore the ceiling's patchy beige wallpaper, and where childhood kept marching on, long past Commencement Day.