In the half-light of early morning, Martha can see Tim across the bedroom, his dark form bent against the brightening window. She can see him fumbling to dress, smell his soapy skin, hear his raspy breath over the crush of the ocean outside. But when she reaches out to pull him back into bed, her hand is met by an empty blast of heat from the radiator. He has been gone for three days.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Martha finds her sister Alice cross-legged on the counter, eating from a bowl of corn flakes that rests in her lap. She is wearing one of their mother’s faded flannel nightgowns, the pink flowers so faint they look dirty.
“They’re forecasting thunderstorms tonight.” Alice nods to the newspaper splayed on the kitchen table.
“That’ll flush him out.” Martha believes that Tim has gone on another one of his impromptu hikes in the White Mountains. The note he left blew away or was never written; that would be nothing new.
“He might not be up there you know. He was supposed be back yesterday.” Alice is the only one who thinks Tim is missing. In this fishing town, people fear water. If a man disappears on dry land, they figure he’s gone for good reason.
“So he took an extra day,” says Martha. “Like he hasn’t before?”
She puts the kettle on the stove and lights the pilot with a long match. The blast of heat into the cool morning air gives her a shiver. She stares out the window across the rise and fall of dune grass to the ocean, a solid edge of blue. For once the water seems limited, ribbon-thin, like something she could trip over.
“But he never misses class.” Alice is finishing her degree in marine biology at the community college where Martha once taught Art History, where Tim still teaches microbiology. After graduation, she plans to study whales in Woods Hole.
“Then why don’t you report him?”
Martha’s glad that Tim and Alice get along well—since their mother’s death she and her sister had become a package deal—but she finds it unsettling that her sister is so unconcerned about Tim’s disappearance. Alice has started borrowing his clothes, old neckties she uses as belts and fraying oxfords she knots at her navel.
The kettle whistles and Martha takes a mug from the cupboard and a teabag from the Mason jar. As she sits down, she pulls one of Tim’s wool socks out from under the refrigerator. It is warm and tufted with dust. Martha wonders if Tim was the last person to wear it. She puts it to her nose and inhales, but can smell no trace of him, only the tart echo of turpentine on her own fingertips. She stuffs the sock in her pocket. Later, she’ll look for its mate.
Alice nods toward the newspaper. Milk dribbles down her chin.
“Page 10. They’re auctioning off the Cary Anne.”
“Alberto wouldn’t stand for it.”
“He doesn’t have a choice. The bank’s taking it. Tim didn’t tell you?”
He had not told her. Martha can’t remember what they had talked about before he left. She hadn’t known it would be their last conversation.
Martha reads the fine print at the back of the local news. Five boats would be sold that afternoon, including the Cary Anne. Tim had worked on the boat, his father’s boat, all through college, but since his father’s stroke last winter, the boat has sat idle in the harbor, growing a dark seaweed skirt.