They met Nora by accident.
During their first months together, Heather and Danny adjusted to each other’s styles. Danny, seven years younger than Heather, liked to collect new friends and bring them home.
“I’m with people all the time at work,” Heather said. “When I’m home I like some space to myself.” Heather was a vocational rehabilitation counselor for workers injured on the job. She had a caseload of 25, about three times as many as she could reasonably help.
Danny’s lean face appeared stricken, like that of a child. “Or time just for us,” Heather said.
“That’s not the way we do things in Texas,” Danny said. “Can’t you loosen up?” He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a little shake. Heather folded her arms across her chest.
“You’ll love Jeff and Linda,” he said.
“That’s what you always say.”
“We have tons in common with them.”
“Well, Linda’s almost thirty too.”
“So are millions of other people,” Heather said. “You mean she’s old and her boyfriend’s young?” Danny dropped his hands from Heather’s shoulders.
“I’ll tell them to forget it,” he said. Heather gnawed the loose cuticle on her index finger and scraped it across her lip. Danny pulled her hand from her mouth and kissed her fingers and then her lips.
“I just wish we had more friends who were couples,” he said.
“Okay,” Heather said. “Let’s have them over. Do you want to pick some blackberries, and I’ll make a pie?”
Over dinner Danny told Jeff and Linda about the 14-room house he and Heather had just purchased and of their plan to ride their motorcycle to Texas so he could introduce Heather to his family.
“If you know anyone who needs a place to rent for the summer, let us know,” he said.
A week later, just as they were feeling edgy about finding a renter and wondering if they should postpone or cancel the Texas trip, Linda called.
“Your place still for rent?” she asked. Heather was excited, as though everything might fall into place after all. Danny was right. It was better to meet new people, let them into your life.
“It’s not for me,” Linda said. She lowered her voice. “It’s my ex-sister-in-law. She’s had a little trouble, and my brother can’t know where she is.”
“Is she a good tenant?”
“Excellent. She keeps her place immaculate, and she always pays her bills. She has a thousand dollars to put into your hands right now.” Heather pressed her cell phone against her chest.
“Should I ask about a damage deposit?” she said to Danny.
Linda overheard. “Oh, Nora can’t afford that,” she said. “Don’t worry. I live right here in town.”
After Heather hung up she turned to Danny. “What do you think?”
“See if she shows up,” he said.
They bought the farmhouse almost on a whim. They were riding the motorcycle around back country roads one day, and they saw the for-sale sign rising from the unmown grass and broken flowerpots. The owners had tacked additional rooms to the original house as their family or whims dictated, and it stretched in a multitude of directions like a maze or labyrinth. It even had a hidden cellar filled with dubious-looking homemade wines. It was a lark to explore the 14 rooms, the greenhouse, and all the nooks and crannies. The owners took a liking to them and offered the house for monthly payments no more than what they paid, individually, for rent.
The down payment was another story. Heather’s grandfather, proud of her as the first of the family to complete college, loaned her half the down payment, but she felt Danny’s family should contribute as well. She called Danny’s father, whom she had never met.
“I’d be glad to loan you the money,” he said, “on one condition.” Danny’s father was a Southern Baptist minister. “Y’all have to come to Texas for a visit.”
Heather, innocent in most regards despite her degree in social work—or perhaps because of it—had no idea how crafty Texans could be. Now the visit loomed—Heather’s first vacation since completing graduate school. The new house still seemed unreal, cluttered with furniture the previous owners left behind and with the combined debris from Danny and Heather’s rentals as college students. The antique rocker Heather had spent months refinishing was piled with Danny’s books. She laughed and Danny held her face in his hands.
“What are you feeling?” he asked.
“It’s all happening so quickly. I mean, I’ve been on my own all these years, and now we’re moving in together. I’m meeting your parents.”
“Don’t worry,” Danny said. “Everything will work out.” As they moved between the rooms, they sang a silly fugue of alleluias.
The purchase contract was filled with unfamiliar terms. Heather skimmed the stack of pages and passed it to Danny.
“Heather Jensen and Daniel J. Dixon, two single persons,” he said.
The agent added a stipulation the sellers hire someone to scour the house from top to bottom. When Danny and Heather arrived at the house, still in shock to own their own home, the housekeeper, who looked about 16, was already there. She gave Danny the appraising glance Heather had almost come to accept.
“Howdy,” Danny said. “We’re the new owners, I guess.” As the girl unpacked cleaning materials, Heather ran up the stairs to her favorite part of the house—the master bedroom, with its raised wooden bed overlooking an unmowed field—and Danny followed.
“What are we going to do with all these rooms?” Danny asked.
“Have lots of babies, I guess.”
Danny stopped smiling and Heather said quickly, “Just kidding!”
When they returned downstairs the girl was scrubbing the woodstove. She rubbed the same spot again and again with a rag dipped in furniture polish. Heather wondered if she should say something. She was no more accustomed to having a housekeeper than she was to owning a house. She had decided to stay quiet when her attention was caught by a motion at the door. A woman stood in the entryway. She had shoulder-length blond hair, with dark roots showing through. She wore a short dress and heels, and she held a child by the hand.
“Tanya and I have been living in our car for a week.” She gestured with perfectly painted nails as she took another step inside the room. Heather glanced outside. The car looked too small to hold a doll, much less a woman and child. “My ex-husband is after us.”
“But who are you?”
“Oh, didn’t you know? I’m Nora.” She dug into her purse and extracted a wad of bills. “Here’s your first month’s rent.” She thrust the bills toward Heather.
The child looked feral. She appeared to be seven or eight years old, and she was scrawny, with roughly combed hair and green eyes. Her skin was flabby, without tone, as if she’d been living in a cellar. Her eyes were somehow flat, like a trapped animal, without brightness or light. It was a look Heather was to know all too well.
Now everyone was staring at Heather—the housekeeper with rag in hand, Danny, Nora, the child.
“I was wondering,” Nora said, her voice so soft, Heather had to lean over to hear, “if Tanya and I could move in right now.”
“Danny and I haven’t even unpacked our own stuff,” Heather said. “The house isn’t clean.”
Nora straightened her shoulders. “I’m an excellent housekeeper,” she said. “I’ll clean. Please. Tanya and I have no other place to go.”
In her dirty jeans and work boots, Heather felt sturdy and solid beside this tiny woman. She wished she could speak with Danny alone, but she thought she knew what he would say. How had she transformed into a matriarch, forced to make decisions to impact the lives of strangers? Nora was so beautiful and fragile.
“Okay,” she said at last, “if you don’t mind helping out.”
“I’ll get our stuff.”
Heather thought she could feel Danny’s approval, but she did not look at him. Soon Nora had arranged two sleeping bags and a lacy pillow on the window seat.
“Is she our landlord?” the child asked.
Heather told Nora she could use their furniture. “It makes the house seem less empty,” she said. She told Nora to mail the checks directly to the bank, which bills to pay, and how to reach them should she have any problems.
“Have a good trip,” Nora said as they left.
As they rode along the Oregon Coast Highway before veering inland, Heather asked Danny what he thought, really, about Nora.
“She repulses me,” he said. Heather was surprised.
“But she’s so beautiful,” she said.
It was dusk on a Sunday evening in August when Danny and Heather arrived back at their new home. Nora’s car still sat in the driveway. Heather glanced at Danny.
“Stay here,” he said.
Danny was now Heather’s fiancé. The moment they arrived in Galveston, Danny’s mother, Arlene, took Danny into one room, and Daddy Bob, as everyone called the preacher, took Heather into another.
“She’s very pretty,” Heather heard Arlene say. “But what do you want with this woman?”
Daddy Bob’s remonstrations were gentle. “People who love each other must marry,” he said.
Arlene, evidently mollified by her son, produced a rack of polyester print dresses, and soon Heather found herself dressed in one of them. With Heather transformed into a Galveston matron and Danny in a fresh white shirt, Daddy Bob shot image after image in the harsh Texas sun. Heather didn’t know about red stinging ants, and soon her legs were covered with bites.
Danny marched into the house as though expecting armed intruders. He emerged quickly, his expression neutral.
“I don’t want you to see,” he said. Heather brushed past him and ran into the house. It had not been clean, of course, when they left. But during the months away, watching the sky arc in 180-degree splendor overhead as they camped their way across the country or making love beneath the sparkling ceiling of the guest room in Galveston, Heather often returned to the house in her mind. There the house was always clean and shining and ready to greet them.
This was just plain destruction. In the bay window, where Nora’s sleeping bag was so neatly arranged when Heather and Danny left, four panes were smashed. The shards were ground into the window seat and carpet, which was gray with ash from the woodstove. When Heather opened the stove door, she found broken bottles and glass. Remains of cardboard packing boxes were stacked in the corners amid dolls with smashed faces and a torn blouse. Danny’s books were scattered around the fireplace, their backs broken, pages ripped out. The kitchen counters were lined with cans half filled with soup, a brown scum growing on each. A reddish film coated the floor. A stream of water from the kitchen faucet had caused the sink to overflow, congealing rotted food, scraps of tinfoil and tissue, and cigarette butts. The back door was torn from its hinges and lay on the ground outside.
Heather ran from room to room. Each was filled with garbage, the chaotic remains of someone else’s life. Upstairs were more smashed windows, mildewed towels and panty hose, and the scent of ashes and rot.
“Are you furious?” Danny asked. “Do you feel like crying?”
Heather shook her head. She did not rage or turn to Danny for comfort. All her life she had met crises alone. She was numb and blank and empty.
“Let’s go to bed,” Danny said.
He led her on to the balcony overlooking the field. As if undiscovered by the tenants, the balcony was free of garbage or broken glass. The air smelled sweet.
“I’ll get our blankets from the bike,” Danny said. Heather stared across the field, the grass still rising crazy and high to the lowest branches of the plum and apple trees, until Danny returned with their bedding and made a little nest. Heather crawled into the blankets but did not permit herself the comfort of his arms.
She woke to Danny’s hand touching her cheek. The sun was just rising over the cedar trees that towered beside the house.
“What?” Heather asked.
“I have to show you something.”
“I’ve seen everything.”
“This is something you can’t see.”
As if she were a child, Danny wrapped her in one of the blankets and then he took her hand and led her through the house. Heather saw the same ashy emptiness that greeted them the previous evening. Gradually, she became aware of something else. Their furniture. The antique rocker, Danny’s easy chair, the dining room table, and all their boxes were gone.
“Why don’t you call your friend Linda?” Heather could not resist the jab, but she injected a lilt of confidence. She remembered Linda’s reassuring voice as she told them about Nora.
Danny picked up the phone.
“Still connected,” he said. Everything would be all right. Nora moved out, perhaps in the confusion taking their things along with her own, but she would return, perhaps this afternoon, to help clean. They could all work together.
“We rented our house to Nora?” Danny’s voice was shaking. “Fine,” he said. “Great, thank you. We just arrived home last night.” He gripped Heather’s hand.
“But there’s just one thing,” Danny said. “Nora’s gone.”
He listened for a moment. “The house is a mess, and our stuff is gone.” He started to list the missing items. “No, I’m not saying Nora’s a thief.”
Heather stared at the shattered bay window.
“I’m sure it’s an accident,” he said. “I’m sure she worked like a slave to clean the place.” He gestured around the room as if Linda could see it. “But you should see it now.”
Heather picked up the extension in the pantry off the kitchen. The smell of rotted food was stronger here, and the spilled liquids looked like blood.
“Don’t tell me your problems,” Linda said. “I know I’m the one who told you about her, but just because she married my brother doesn’t mean I answer for her now. Go tell your troubles to Nora.”
“We would,” Danny said, “only we have no idea where she is. You’re the only person we know who knows her.”
“That’s right,” Linda said. “I’ve known her for a long time. I’ve never known her to steal or leave a messy house. I’m sure she’ll be back. After all, you only gave her three months before you forced her to move out.”
Linda hung up.
Danny turned to Heather but then the phone rang again. Maybe it was Linda, repenting of her brusqueness. But it was a man from the bank calling to say no mortgage was paid for July or August, and could they please bring it in at once.
“Maybe her ex-husband kidnapped her,” Heather said. “Maybe the little girl got sick.” Danny looked stern and Heather felt somehow bound to defend their vanished tenant. “I’m sure she’ll be back. I can’t imagine anyone just leaving a place like this. Let’s go buy some cleaning stuff, and maybe she’ll be here by the time we get back.”
They returned bearing bottles of the foul-smelling liquids and powders that are supposed to purify and redeem. They also had a stack of mail. It contained the late notices from the bank, unpaid balances for electricity and gas, and a letter from the phone company saying they owed three hundred dollars.
“Look at this,” Danny said. “She made thirty calls to directory assistance in one month.”
“What are we going to do?” Heather asked.
He lifted a bottle of cleanser. “I’ll start on the kitchen,” he said. “You sort through this junk on the floor.”
Heather had returned from their motorcycle trip more relaxed than in years. Maybe ever. Their ability to travel long distances together, their cooperation as they made camp each night, and even the meeting with Danny’s family left her certain she was making the right choice.
Now she felt she was sinking into a dark pit.
By the end of the day, they filled 20 garbage sacks with trash. They found a police shrieker, the kind you blow into the ear of an assailant or intruder, and a plastic man you could squeeze to make the eyes and tongue bulge out. Behind the bed was a torn silk negligee. It was pink, with scalloped sleeves and hem, and the neckline plunged to the waist. In the yard Heather found a gold hoop earring, a child’s necklace of seeds and fake pearls, and an empty bottle of hair rinse called “Demure Mist.”
They discovered why Nora abandoned the car. Danny bought a can of gasoline, and when he poured it in, it spilled straight through onto the ground.
The neighborhood kids gathered around.
“Those people were weird,” a boy said. “That girl threw rocks at us.” Three days earlier, the boy said, a moving van arrived.
“Who loaded the van?”
“A man and that lady,” the boy said. “Hey, do you think my dad could have that car? That lady said he could have it for fifty dollars.”
By the end of the week, Danny and Heather completed the cleaning and set up the downstairs bedroom as an office for Heather. They both needed to return to work. Danny worried about leaving Heather alone in the house.
“I’m fine,” Heather said. But that afternoon, with only one client scheduled, she finally decided to call the police.
The officer wrote down everything Heather told him, but when she finished he said, “There’s nothing we can do. They don’t pay us to search the state for lost furniture.”
“What about the rent?”
“That’s a civil offense,” he said. “Take her to small claims.”
“We don’t know where she is.”
“Well, if you find her, you better tell her taking your furniture is a felony act.”
“What about the car? Can we sell that if she never shows up?”
The officer frowned. “That would be illegal,” he said. “It’s her property. You have no right to it.”
When the telephone rang that evening, Heather and Danny were out in the yard. Heather rushed inside to answer. An unfamiliar voice came over the line. “Is Tanya Sue there?”
“No, she isn’t.”
“Has something happened to my Tanya Sue?”
“I don’t know,” Heather said. “Not really, I guess.”
“My dear, my instincts tell me something is bothering you about my grandchild. If something terrible has happened, I have the right to know.”
Heather explained briefly what she and Danny had found.
“Oh, how awful for you,” the woman said. “I’ve known Nora since my poor son married that waif of a girl. Now he’s dying of a disease unknown to medical science. I won’t say it’s her fault, exactly, but I will say she broke his heart, accusing him like she did.”
“Did you hear from her over the summer?”
“That’s why I’m calling. She said she was moving to a new apartment, but when I stopped by the place, they’d never heard of her. Oh, you poor dears. I can tell you’re such a nice person.”
“I can tell you’re nice too,” Heather said.
“Oh, I am nice! Our family is nice.”
Heather exchanged a look with Danny. He made a slicing motion with his hand.
“You must promise not to tell the police about this. They’ve been hounding him ever since that woman reported him. I’ll make it good.”
“Reported him,” Heather said. “Accused him. Of what?”
“There’s no way my son would hurt his own child,” the woman said. “When Nora was that age, her parents were killed in a plane crash. Nora saw the rescue crew sifting through the wreckage. Ever since, that poor girl’s just drifted about. She gets confused. Now you listen to me. I want to send you a check. I can’t let this pollute our family name.”
“I feel sorry for her,” Heather said. “How would you feel if your parents were killed when you were eight years old?”
“I would have dealt with it by now.”
That night Danny dragged the blankets inside. He made their bed on the raised platform in the master bedroom. They made love but afterward, Heather could not sleep. She slipped from the bed and crept out to find the box in which she had stored Nora’s abandoned possessions. Even in August, the big house was cold. She slipped the pink nightgown over her naked body and then crept back upstairs. She stood on the balcony, and the moonlight shined on Nora’s abandoned car. Somewhere in the woods an animal howled. It sounded like the moaning of a child. She stood beside the bed, gazing down at Danny. His eyelids moved and she thought how he always surprised her. As if sensing her, he opened his eyes and smiled.
“What the heck are you wearing?”
“It was Nora’s,” Heather said. “I thought if I wore it, I’d be young and beautiful, like Nora.”
“You’re the prettiest girl in town,” Danny said. “Get back into bed.”
“Wait,” she said. It was coming to her now. Something about Nora’s child. In the morning she would set off in search of that child, and she would find her. She would raise her here in the house of 14 rooms.
If only she could stop shaking.
“Hold me,” Heather said. “I need you to hold me.”
He lifted the blankets to create a cave for the two of them. He wrapped himself around her, cradling her body.