Chapter 2 (Scene 4)

“Oh.” Anni stared at her feet in black tights but no shoes. “Oh,” she said again, this time with the same panic she felt.

Lena waved her hands as if fanning a bad smell out of the room. “Go and get your shoes. Your good shoes.”

The doorbell rang again.

“Just a second,” Anni yelled.

Lena shushed and clasped her hands together as though praying, while Anni looked around the floor. “Oh good,” she said and shoved one foot and then the other into her mukluks, still waiting where’d she’d left them earlier. She tied the laces fast. “There. Okay. Go ahead.” She nodded in the direction of the door, but Lena stared with wide eyes at the puddle Anni’s boots had left on the floor. “What did—”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Just . . . answer the door.” Anni stepped in front of the puddle and smiled, her arms folded across her plaid vest.

Lena opened the door. A tall man with dark blonde hair, blue tired eyes, and an unshaven face looked back at them. He wore a wool navy topcoat, collar turned up, over a white shirt, blue tie, and gray pants.

Lena brought her hand to her throat, her eyes wider now than when she’d discovered the puddle.

Anni took the man in all at once, as did, it seemed Lena, though she looked as though someone had hit her between the eyes with a ball-peen hammer. He gave the impression of a stranger in a strange land, a traveler passing through with his large duffle bag slung over his shoulder and brown trunk sitting like a faithful dog at his feet. But a handsome traveler not much older than Anni who smelled like musk and Juicy Fruit gum.

“Hello,” he said and when he smiled his teeth flashed. At least, that’s how Anni would tell the story from that day on about meeting her first boarder. “I’m Mr. Enns. Perry.”

Like Perry Mason, Anni thought watching him from behind Lena who had not moved an inch since she opened the door.

“I hope I’m not too early.” Mr. Enns frowned and turned his wrist, revealing a silver watch. The outside air blew past him into the house, carrying with it his scent.

Lena stood as if in cement, staring, her hand still at her throat. Anni stepped to the door. “I’m sorry. We didn’t mean to be rude did we Lena you’re right on time I’m Anni Albach and this is Lena Wimmer welcome.” It all tumbled out like gumballs from a penny machine and he smiled again. “Please come in,” Anni said taking a breath and grinning like a pubescent teenage girl. “It’s freezing out there.”

Mr. Enns picked up his trunk by one handle then he and his smile stepped into the foyer. Lena moved for the first time and closed the door, but her face hadn’t changed since she first saw him on the porch. Stunned? Surprised? Smitten maybe? Anni nudged her hard with her elbow.

“You look familiar,” Lena said. She examined him like a new car she might consider buying. It wasn’t like her to be so personal; direct, but not personal, and never with strangers.

He studied Lena’s face. “Where are you from?”

“Near Berlin, Germany,” she said.

“Oh. I meant after the war. Here. In the U.S.”

“Brighton Beach. In New York City. ” Lena looked at his hands and bit her lip. Anni tried to insinuate herself between Lena and Mr. Enns before he noticed her staring.

He looked at the floor and rubbed the dark stubble on his chin. “That couldn’t be it, then. I’ve never been to New York.” He shifted the duffle on his back and looked around the room.

Lena studied his face, his hands, his clothes.

Anni clapped her hands together. “Maybe you’re long lost cousins. I guess that’s one mystery we can’t solve. Mr. Enns, you can leave your things here in the foyer,” she said, hoping to snap Lena back into place. “We’ll help you take them to your room later, after dinner.”

“Thank you.” He set the trunk and duffle on the floor. “I go by Perry. Mr. Enns makes me sound like an old man.”

Anni nudged Lena and mouthed “Stop it” to which Lena responded by blurting out, “Come with me. We’ll have dinner in here, when everyone has arrived.” She lumbered forward and waved her arm toward the kitchen like a novice magician’s assistant. Whatever spell she had been under was broken at last but she hadn’t shaken off the weirdness.

Mr. Enns looked at Anni as she rolled her eyes. “I haven’t eaten since early this morning, so I’m pretty hungry,” he said, glancing at the ceiling as he walked toward the kitchen door. “Nice texturing.”

“That is good,” Lena said and followed after him, chattering non-stop now about the dinner she had prepared.

Anni covered her face with her hands. Spectacular first impression. She hoped their first and so far only boarder wasn’t terrified that he’d stepped into a sort of Arsenic and Old Lace scenario. She lept up the steps toward her room to kick off her mukluks and put on her flats when the doorbell rang again, forcing her to turn around in mid-staircase.

She hurried to open the door, and staring at her from the other side was an older man in a brown hat and worn brown overcoat holding a suitcase in each hand. Beside him stood a petite forty-something woman with shoulder-length red hair wearing a smart ivory and gray wool coat with a fur collar. She held a small gray handbag and smiled a quivering peach-lipstick smile.

“Hello,” Anni said. “You must be Walter and Charlotte.”

Walter Otis fit the image Anni had formed of him from their one brief phone conversation. Short and thin, a face as set and hard as his opinions, impatient mouth, muddy brown eyes. Charlotte Denning, though, looked nothing like she had imagined. Neither did Perry Enns. But then, who could imagine Perry Enns?

“That is correct. But you may call me Mr. Otis.” His eyes behind black-framed glasses narrowed to m-dashes. “I assume you’re Anni?”

“Oh, yes. Anni Albach. It’s nice to meet you in person, Mr. Otis.” The lie stopped in the air and fell like a rock to the wood floor. But Anni’s smile was still polite.

The woman held out a white-gloved hand. “Charlotte Denning. Charlotte. How do you do.” Anni caught her fingers in a bird-like grasp before Charlotte pulled her hand away and left Anni’s hanging in the air.

Anni realized with some fear that she didn’t know much about the three people who would be sharing her home night and day. They gave her a personal reference, first and last month’s rent in advance, and a six-month commitment. Nothing more.

“Is there a reason we’re standing out here in the freezing cold?” Walter said leaning forward a bit toward Anni as if about to share a secret. His breath was as sour as his tongue.

Charlotte’s smile quivered even more and Anni thought she might cry. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to make you . . . Please come in.” Anni opened the door wider.

“Welcome to my home,” Anni said with forced enthusiasm as they stepped into the foyer. She closed the door behind them. “I guess I should say, our home. You can leave your bags here, Mr. Otis.” She emphasized “Mr.” but he didn’t seem to notice and he’d already set his suitcases next to Mr. Enns’ duffle and trunk anyway.

“We’re not the first ones here, I see,” Mr. Otis said. He unbuttoned his coat and pulled it off.

“You can hang that on the coat tree. No, you’re not. Our other boarder, Mr. Enns arrived right before you did. He’s in the kitchen with Lena. I thought we’d get to know each other over a nice meal before I take you around to see the house.” She motioned toward the kitchen.

“It smells delicious.” Mr. Otis surprised Anni then by smiling. A thin-lipped smile, but still. “In there?” He pointed to the open doorway down the hall and disappeared into the kitchen before Anni could answer.

Charlotte reached out and ran one gloved hand up the bannister. “Such a lovely place. Lovely.” Her voice sounded far away.

“Thank you,” Anni said. “Are your bags in the car?”

“One bag.” She turned and Anni noticed her eyes, warm and kind but also sad. “Thank you.” Charlotte pulled her into a tight embrace.

“Eh . . . um . . . okay. You’re welcome.” Anni stood still like a department store mannequin at first, but then patted Charlotte’s shoulder like she would tap a desk with a rolled newspaper.

The Albachs were not a hugging family. They loved each other but they didn’t touch a lot, and Charlotte sprang on her before she could give off the usual signals and create a safe buffer between them. So now here she was, being hugged.

Anni shifted from her left mukluk to her right mukluk as Charlotte sniffled into her shoulder. “We should join the others before they come looking for us.”

Charlotte let go and stepped away. “Darn it. I’m sorry. I’ve made you uncomfortable.” She took a handkerchief out of her purse and wiped under her eyes.

“No . . . well, yes a little. It’s not you, it’s . . .” Anni trailed off when she noticed Charlotte’s dangling false eyelash. “Your, um, eyelash has come loose.” She pointed but then folded her arms.

“What?” Charlotte felt her right eye.

“The left one.” Anni motioned with her chin.

Charlotte felt her left eye. “Oh.” She pulled off the eyelash and stuffed it in her handbag. “Stupid things. You know, I think they’re alive.” She blinked at Anni with one bald eye and one lashed one.

Had the bell not rung at that exact moment, Anni might have laughed herself right out of a boarder, though she was sure she saw Charlotte smirk before she turned to answer the door.

The man standing before Anni in a black suit and gray wool coat had the effect of a punch in the head. He had a sharp chin and high cheekbones above his red plaid winter scarf. His light brown hair was cut short beneath his black fedora and even though he wore dark glasses, she could feel his eyes on her. It wasn’t his face, though, that chilled her or his size because he was a broad man. It was what trailed him, something Anni felt but couldn’t see, that brought back the dread she’d felt for days, now with greater force.

“Madame.” He tipped his hat. “I understand you may have a room to let?”

Charlotte stepped up beside Anni. “Another boarder?” she said.

Anni shivered. “An unexpected one.”

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Chapter 2 (Scene 3)

The tick tick tick of the wall clock reminded Anni that one o’clock wasn’t far away and she hadn’t cleared the snow off the front steps and sidewalk. Or showered. “After we finish the dishes, I’ll shovel the walk.”

“No, I can do these on my own. You go ahead and get dressed.” Lena’s s’s sounded like z’s—her accent tended to appear when she was tired or preoccupied or out of sorts. Like this morning. She set the plates in the sink.

“No, I’ll stay and help,” Anni said. “I’m not anxious to go out into the freezing cold just yet anyway. Besides, work takes your mind off things.”

Lena nodded. She ran hot water in the sink and squeezed in a green stream of Palmolive. “Arbeit macht frei,” she said, her face hard, her jaw set. Her mood darkened without warning and she said the words as if in a dream, like someone talking in her sleep.

It startled Annie. She had grown up with her grandparents speaking German so she understood the meaning of the phrase—and the genocidal cruelty behind it. What had this morning of possibilities become to Lena, she wondered, to pull that out of her? Dread seemed to dim the light around them both.

They stood at the sink, Lena washing and Anni drying, and after a few minutes of silence Anni suggested they go over their meeting with the boarders. Lena brightened and took a step into the day’s tasks; before long she was out of whatever fog she had wandered into. First, they’d all eat lunch and get to know each other, she said. She washed the dishes with increasing energy as she talked. Then they’d take a tour of the house and talk about room assignments. When it came time at the end to hand out keys, Anni would review the rules of the house.

The inevitable awkwardness of explaining the dos and the don’ts made Anni uncomfortable and she did not relish the fall out. After all, these were emancipated adults who might balk at restrictions. But it had to be done to avoid embarrassment later on; both she and Lena agreed on that. Still, she had edited and softened The Rules so no one would take offense—she hoped. Lena listened as Anni read them out loud one more time.

The Rules

  1. You have an assigned parking slot along the front curb (So sorry but the driveway is not wide enough for more than one car. We apologize.)
  2. Breakfast, Dinner, and Supper will be served at 7:00 a.m., noon, and 6:00 p.m. (It’s all right if you’re a little late, though.)
  3. The kitchen closes after meals (But if you miss a meal, you’re welcome to make a plate of leftovers for yourself or have a snack from the pantry.)
  4. The front door is locked after ten o’clock (No curfew, though. You will have your own key. Just be sure to lock the door behind you.)

At first, she and Lena had decided to open the house only to women. But when no more than one woman responded after two months, they revised the plan; to make a profit they would need at least three boarders. Lena suggested Rule #5 when two single men answered the ad right away.

  1. No guests in the bedrooms, except for family members.

A nice, parenthetical aside could not make that less awkward. Anni didn’t disagree with the rule, just its assumption. She’d known plenty of girls in college who broke the “bedroom rule” in the student code of conduct.

“It’s good,” Lena said. “The message is clear enough for the men, I think.” She smiled. “You are a pushover, Anni. Everyone will love you.” She took the ham out of the icebox and wrapped it in tin foil.

“Thank you, Lena. But they won’t love either one of us if they slip and break their necks on the front walk their first day here.” Anni hung the damp cotton t-towel over the small rack on the wall and hurried up the stairs to her room.

Lunch would look simple to their new roommates, but it was anything but. Glazed ham, potato salad, homemade rolls, apple pie for dessert. Lena had been hard at it since yesterday morning; she wanted to make a good impression, she said, but Anni thought maybe she wanted to make up for Rule #5.

After her shower, Anni pulled on her heavy cable knit sweater, wool pants, and brown leather mukluks and walked out the back door to the garden shed for the metal snow shovel and rock salt. Her boots crunched on the thick hard snow that blanketed the backyard; her fingers froze through her mittens and the winter air stung her nose and cheeks. But the cold seemed to numb her fears and so she welcomed it.

She began shoveling where the driveway met the front walk and skimmed the soft new snow all the way to the porch steps. As she chipped away at the hard ice underneath, she thought again about what Lena had said in the kitchen—Arbeit macht frei. As a journalism student, she’d studied articles about World War II in which that particular phrase played a central and sinister role. There was so much about Lena that she did not know, and so much it seemed that Lena kept hidden.

The hard ice underneath the new snow was immovable and after chipping away at it for half an hour, Anni gave up and threw rock salt on it. The three steps cleared easier than the walk, but in spite of that and the below-thirty-degrees temperature she’d broken into a sweat. The snow on the street next to the curb had been piled up by the plow, but she had to clear space for parking and so she dug in. By the time she finished, the salt had done its job on the walk and the thick sheet of ice broke into soft pieces as she shoveled it once again.

When the snow was cleared, she leaned on the shovel and looked at her watch. Twelve thirty. She had just enough time to dress and help Lena set out lunch before their guests arrived. She left the shovel and rock salt by the back steps and forgot to slip out of her mukluks until she reached the staircase inside, where she left them, hoping Lena wouldn’t notice notice them before she had time to put them on the porch.

The smell of glazed ham had filled the house and she became a little girl again, here, at Christmas time. Her grandparents were still alive and the tallest tree they could buy filled the corner of the drawing room, decorated and glittering with white lights. The smell of pine and ham and rolls and pumpkin pie made her stomach growl. She sat next to Grandpa and turned the pages of his music as he played carols on the baby grand piano, while nearby Dad and Henry stared across a game table from each other playing chess. Mom, Grandma, and Alice cooked and laughed in the kitchen. So much had happened since then.

Anni slipped her straight yellow plaid skirt on over her black tights and black long-sleeved body suit. She wanted to come off relaxed and comfortable but dressed up for this first meeting—a person had one shot at a first impression, after all—so she added the matching plaid vest. Jacquie Kennedy was her role model: a suit makes a statement.

The doorbell rang and Anni froze in front of her bedroom mirror. Her legs would not move until the doorbell rang again and she ran out the door and down the stairs.

Lena beat her to the foyer. “Where are your shoes?” she said, looking down at Anni’s feet.

Chapter 2 (Scene 2)

Anni stared back at Lena. “Have what?” She sipped her hot chocolate right then on purpose, buying a few seconds to weigh her options. Even if she mentioned the premonition, a word Lena did not like to hear and Anni wasn’t crazy about either, nothing would change. The boarders would come for lunch at 1:00 p.m. and that was that.

“You are still bothered. The feeling hasn’t gone away.” Lena’s eyes were intent on Anni, her face set like cement. Anni had seen that stoic expression before. She would back away from their plans and start from scratch, if that’s what she had to do.

Anni leaned forward, hoping that before she opened her mouth she would think of something to say that would turn the USS Lena around. “Yes, okay. I feel uneasy. But—”

“We will be wise, then, and change our plans.”

There might have been the weighty thud of a mind locking in place had Lena’s mind been open even a crack. Anni knew her friend to be practical, yes, but now she wondered if Lena was even more superstitious.

“But, I said, but.” Anni grabbed Lena’s arm. “You don’t understand what a pessimist I am. How could you? You must not set your course by my emotional whims.” Anni almost coughed the words out. It was true—she was a pessimist. But what she experienced was much more than emotion or fear or anxiety or hysteria or a hundred other possibilities that her parents had come up with over the last almost thirty years. When she had one, her premonitions were as reliable as the sunrise. Lena could not know that, however; an advantage Anni counted on now. “We’re not changing our plans because sometimes I become my mother.”

Lena tilted her head a bit, like a parrot eying a cracker. “What do you mean?”

Anni waved her hand in front of her as if to shoo the question away. “Mom can be . . . cynical. Negative. No. Apocalyptic. Doesn’t matter.” What Anni didn’t mention was that her mother was a woman who could see a full, white moon—the symbol of spiritual power, wholeness, strength, and feminine power—and describe its dark side as if she’d been there. If she were a tarot reader, her clients’ cards would all show the Tower, Devil, Hanged Man, or Death. And the guy with the ten swords in his back. On the other hand, her mother read Max like an ad on a billboard. “I have a bad feeling about that young man, Anni. He smiles too big. His gums show. He’s hiding something.” Anni had rolled her eyes then, even though her mother was right about Max’s gums. Turned out she was right about more than that.

Lena sighed and gazed ahead at nothing while she drank her hot chocolate. Anni cut her bacon into pieces and mixed it with her scrambled eggs and took small bites. Neither said a word. The kitchen was warm and cozy but quiet with the two of them not talking.

It occurred to Anni that she knew little about Lena other than that her family were all gone, and after the war she immigrated from Germany to New York to live with her mother’s sister. That was all, which was strange since they’d been living in and remodeling the same house for three months. The work had consumed them both so by the end of each day they were exhausted, too much so to pry into each other’s past perhaps.

Lena set her cup down, and leaned her arms on the table. “What are they like? These feelings you get?” Her face held an open expression. No forced interest or patronizing mask. At least, not so that Anni could see.

“Unrelenting.” Anni smiled and rested her chin in her hand. “Okay, that sounded sinister and they’re not. More like being hungry but not knowing for what until you eat just the right thing, and the hunger disappears.”

Lena’s eyebrows arched. “Ah,” she said. “That’s something I know. They are not so terrible, then?”

“No, not terrible.” Intense enough, though, that Anni boarded the train and left Chicago two hours after the initial warning slammed into her. She threw up in the bathroom somewhere after the train passed Aurora.

“That’s good, then.” She seemed satisfied, or if not she didn’t say. “You can’t suffer. I would call off the boarders if these feelings of yours gave you pain. You would tell me, Anni?” She didn’t look at Anni as she said it but stood and gathered the dishes and breakfast condiments into neat categories on the table.

“Yes, I promise.” Anni would ignore the growing darkness in her mind. She would breathe deeper to hold it back, muscle through the day, and throw up later. Depending on what later looked like; she’d never done this before.

Chapter 2 (Scene 1) “The Unexpected Boarder”

Anni opened her eyes to darkness. At first she could not fix her mind on where she was or even the day until the smell of Lena’s fat slabs of bacon cooking on the stove in the kitchen downstairs brought her back to Monday morning in her bedroom. She stared at the long bank of curtained windows looking out over her half-acre backyard and could just make out the yellow glow of the back porch light. In truth the yard didn’t end at the half-acre mark but joined a horse pasture, which joined acres of farmland beyond that. Hence the dense, unlit darkness that stretched out from the house to the hedgerow that bordered her property to miles and miles of wheat, sorghum, and cornfields.

She pulled the chain on the lamp waiting for use in the middle of her bedside table; the darkness gathered in shadowed pillars at the four corners of her spacious master room. The curtains, heavy with large blooming roses on a pale green background, began almost at the ceiling and ended in folds on the short looped carpet. Anni pushed back the down comforter and sat up, her legs dangling over the side of the bed. A cold blanket of air enveloped her and she reached for her pink robe draped over the footboard. Her grandparents’ generous four-poster bed was elevated and she had to slide down to touch her feet on the floor. She pulled on the robe and her thick gray socks and smiled remembering her grandmother’s stepstool, the one she kept under her bed so she could climb up into bed at night. Like Anni, Grandma Grace was a small woman.

When Anni stepped into the kitchen, the heat from the gas fireplace and the comfortable smells of breakfast cooking warmed her. Lena hummed and moved from sink to counter to refrigerator and back, whisked eggs, forked fried bacon onto a paper sack to drain, wiped her hands on her yellow apron, and flipped pancakes on the long griddle. Her movements were seamless and smooth like choreography.

Anni watched, out of the way and in quiet, taking in the performance with appreciation but glad to be the spectator and not the dancer. Her anxiousness from the night before had returned, expanding inside her like yeast bread rising, but she said nothing to Lena and tried to look casual.

“You look tired,” Lena said. She played her utensils like instruments.

So much for looking casual. “Thanks.”

Lena smiled. “This is a good day. A day of possibilities.”

Anni nodded. She felt guilty for not helping, for sleeping in. This morning of all mornings. “Why didn’t you call me? You’ve been up for hours.” She yawned into her hand and felt guilty again for wanting to go back to bed.

Lena glanced at the round red clock that hung on the wall above the kitchen doorway. “Only an hour. I did peak in but didn’t have the heart to call you out of your warm bed.” She poured the frothy whisked eggs on the skillet and chased them into the middle, mounding them in a fluffy yellow pile as they cooked. “Breakfast is almost ready.”

Anni scooted across the wood floor in her socks and pulled two cups out of the cupboard. “How about hot chocolate?” At least she could do that. She poured milk in a small pot, set it on the stove, and lit the burner underneath without waiting for an answer.

Lena carried their plates trailing hot steam to the table. “Oooh. Yes. That would be nice. I believe it is even colder this morning than last night.” Her face seemed to Anni like cream, her blue eyes clear and shining. Of course, she thought. She’s about to be the proud mother of three new boarders. She’s in her element.

Anni stirred cocoa and sugar by teaspoons into the milk and worked at ignoring the tightness in her chest. I am so pitiful, she thought. She had planned and labored for months, had spent more of her inheritance than she could afford getting ready for her first boarders, the only three who answered her Rooms for Rent ad in the town newspaper. At last the rooms were beautiful, the cupboards stocked with food, the house ready for guests. Lena was ready, too, and committed to this new venture. Anni could have peace again and make a new life for herself after Max and the terrors of Chicago . . . if she could let go of the nagging feeling that something was not right. But even if she couldn’t, she and Lena would not survive another month on what they had left in the bank. The plans would have to go forward. Regardless.

Lena laid out the silverware and cups and napkins. Set the salt and pepper shakers in the middle of the table. Filled the glass syrup dispenser. “Careful not to scorch it,” she said glancing at Anni who stared out the window.

“Oh, gosh.” Anni fumbled with the burner, turned it to low and stirred. She could feel the texture of browned milk skin stuck on the pot when she scraped the spoon along the bottom. Fine. Fine fine fine.

            She poured the hot chocolate into the cups, her body blocking Lena’s view of the pan. Anni did not think of herself as a bad cook but she didn’t have the passion or the care required to be a good one, a fact Lena noted from time to time. Her mind seemed to want to jump over the task at hand and race ahead.

Once they both settled down at the table, the sun was up and shining into the kitchen. They ate without talking. Anni wrestled her anxiousness; Lena watched out of the corner of her eye until, it seemed, she couldn’t anymore. She put down her fork, leaned back in her chair with her hands folded in her lap. “All right. Let’s have it,” she said.

Chapter I (Scene 4)

“Almost ready,” Lena said when Anni appeared in the doorway.

While Lena busied herself heating the water in the silver kettle and gathering the necessary accouterments for tea, Anni sat at the white breakfast table that had belonged to her grandmother. She traced the Japanese country scene painted in black on the porcelain top and tried to remember the names she had given to each figure when she was a child. They all had names–the woman holding the giant fan, the man standing nearby looking out over the lake. Even the cranes standing in the tall grass next to the pergola.

Lena poured the hot water over the teabags in both their cups. “Cream?” She held out a small stoneware pitcher.

“Yes,” said Anni and Lena set it on the table.

Anni loved this room but more so the other living areas in the house, like the sitting room and the drawing room with its massive fireplace and rich wood paneling and wool carpets. After rigorous polishing and a lot of repair, the house looked almost as it had when her grandparents were alive. Her grandfather’s books still filled the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the library. But she knew the kitchen with its delicious smells and promise of nourishment from food and conversation would be the gathering place for themselves and their boarders, as it had been for her when she was a child.

Lena hummed and smoothed the white tiled countertops with her hands as she brushed passed them. She sat at the table across from Anni.

“We’ve done good work,” she said.

Anni smiled. “I hope so.”

The large rectangular kitchen was Lena’s masterpiece and where she had invested most of her time and creative energy. The hardwood plank floor had needed the most work and Anni suggested covering it with vinyl, but Lena wouldn’t hear of it. She said “These floors are a treasure” and set about sanding and staining and massaging them back to their original deep walnut beauty. She painted the old wood cabinets white, replacing the fronts with glass on a few to show off her favorite dishes, and gave the room some color with a coat of barn-red paint on the pantry door. Stretches of countertops ran beneath the cupboards on the long walls, interrupted by the stove, the icebox, and the built-in china cabinet. White lace curtains hung across the middle and at the top of the large bank of windows over the kitchen sink, allowing light to pour in from the morning sun.

Anni bowed to Lena’s vision. Even so, she couldn’t shake a nagging uneasiness. “I’m feeling funny about tomorrow. Are you feeling funny, Lena?” She sipped tea out of a pink teacup and held it with both hands to warm herself.

“No,” Lena said. She dropped a sugar cube into her cup, waited, then dropped in two more and stirred. She frowned at her friend and tasted her tea. “Don’t do this, Anni.”

“I’m not doing anything.” Anni rolled her head back to ease the tension and took another sip of tea.

“You are. You’re having one of those hallucinations.”

“The word is premonition,  and I’ve told you I don’t get premonitions. I have a gut feeling, that’s all”

Lena rested her forehead in both her palms. “Please don’t ruin this for us.”

“Okay, okay. Forget I mentioned it.” Anni breathed deep and looked out the kitchen window. The first handful of snowflakes floated down from the night sky. A storm was coming tonight—maybe the strange turning in her gut was no more sinister this time than weather. After all, changes in the barometric pressure made her left knee and the knuckle on her left thumb swell. Maybe it could make her anxious as well. I left Chicago because of a gut feeling. It was snowing then too.

“How about some cinnamon toast?” Lena got up and opened the tin breadbox. She reached for the cinnamon shaker in the spice cabinet and dropped the bread in the toaster. “Hot buttered bread with cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top will help you sleep better. You won’t even dream.” She opened the butter dish and pulled a knife out of the silverware drawer.

Lena deserved a verse dedicated to her alone etched on a plaque—“Give me your nervous your tired your angry your sick your sad your afraid your underdressed and embarrassed who I yearn to feed. I lift my tea and toast at their hungry door.”

Anni set her cup down on its matching saucer and accepted the toast. “Thank you. And thank you for always looking out for me. I don’t do change well, even good change, and I’m sure that’s all this is—fear. I’m sorry, Lena.”

“No,” Lena squeezed Anni’s arm. “Don’t be sorry. What could I say about your premonition when it was your gut that told you to take me on. I am grateful for that.”

Anni nodded. “So am I.”

Lena sat down and looked in Anni’s eyes. “Let’s see what happens tomorrow. One step at a time, all right?”

They finished their tea and listened to the hum of the icebox as they watched the snowflakes fall faster from the kitchen window.

Chapter I (Scene 3)

Lena’s shadow crossed in front of a closed blind in the bedroom at the end of the upstairs hall. Anni smiled. She could picture Lena smoothing a wrinkle out of the light blue chenille bedspread, blowing flecks of new dust off the chest-of-drawers, stepping backward toward the door as she inventoried the room for the last time. The light went off, then on, then off again. She was an artisan and a crazy woman for order and perfection.

Anni leaned over and picked up the paint can by its thin metal handle and carried it up the brick walk way and onto the front porch. She tucked her free hand into her coat pocket. The air blew tiny ice crystals that needled her cheeks, though she didn’t give it much attention because in Kansas the air was cold but clean, and she was grateful for that gift. Anni drew in a deep breath and opened the door to the marshmallow blanket of radiant heat escaping from inside; she turned to take in her last night as an unemployed woman. Tomorrow she would begin a life.

The hall at the top of the long mahogany staircase creaked a bit under the stress of Lena’s purposeful steps. “You are letting in the cold,” she said as she padded down the stairs in her deep red crocheted slippers.

“The cold let himself in,” Anni said. She set the paint can down and pushed the heavy door closed, then pulled her coat off and hung it on the hall tree. “The house is perfect. Stop fretting.”

Lena stood at the bottom of the stairs. “I am not fretting.” She folded her arms over her bulky flannel housecoat.

Anni turned to her. “You are.”

They looked at one another, exhaustion covering them both like a heavy carpet.

The green Chelsea clock on the hall chest chimed the half hour. Nine thirty.

“You’re right. I am.” Lena let her arms drop. “So let’s have some tea. I’ll make it while you move that mess—” she pointed at the paint can, “—somewhere else.”

Anni grabbed the can and headed for the back porch. “Still fretting,” she said.

But Lena had already rounded the corner into the kitchen and the rattles and clinks of Fiesta Ware began.

The back porch felt to Anni like a walk-in freezer. The floor-to-ceiling screens kept the flies out in the summer, now that the holes were patched, but not the cold. She set the can on the gardener’s bench and poured turpentine in it and over the brush. The wind blew through the porch and carried with it the smell of smoke. Cigar smoke. Anni wondered if the next-door neighbor, Mr. Baumgartner, had a secret habit he kept from his sweet little sargent of a wife. She laughed to herself and scanned the darkness from behind the screen looking for him crouched among the trees, but the night cloaked whoever might be there. Poor old man, she thought. He has to hide in my bushes. She shook her head and went back inside.

Before Anni pulled the door closed and hurried to sample Lena’s tea, something cracked from behind a tree in the backyard—a branch, brittle leaves, a forgotten toy? Crushed beneath a heavy shoe perhaps. She looked over her shoulder into the shadows of the backyard, and shivered. Now who’s fretting? she asked herself. It’s only an embarrassed old man sneaking back home. But she bolted the door before peering out one last time. A chill followed her down the hall to the light flooding out of the kitchen.

Chapter I (Scene 2)

Anni dropped the brush in the empty can and looked around once more at her future. She conjured glimpses of her childhood spent on this quiet street hidden away on the outskirts of an old Kansas town. She never thought she’d come back, but Max had given her little choice. Her shoulders felt the weight of his memory and what he had done to her. To them.

A light flicked on in one of the upstairs rooms. Lena. Making one last round, checking to make sure nothing had been forgotten, herding all the ducks into a row for tomorrow morning. Like Anni’s grandmother, Lena would be the rock in this house of hungry souls. She would feed them, clean their rooms, make them tea and tuck them in at night. The mother of 28A Street. For Anni she was that and a friend too.

Lena had appeared at the open door one morning in August. She stood on the front steps, blonde curls escaping from her pink cap, blue-eyes, broad shoulders beneath a rose-print cotton dress, and well-worn, low-heeled shoes. A brown suitcase sat on the porch beside her. She wasn’t much older than Anni, about thirty-five, but fresh off the bus it seemed.

“Hello,” she said and pushed the folded paper, open to the classifieds, out in front of her. “I’m here to help you.”

For a month Anni had ripped out crumbling carpet and broken cabinets, sanded layers of paint off baseboards, and pulled wallpaper from uneven 19th century plaster walls. By herself and with no skills—unless a BS in journalism from Northwestern University, class of ’53, counted. Turned out it didn’t. She’d made a mess of the place, and that morning she’d dropped down in the middle of the rubble and cried. Until she heard Lena’s voice calling from the doorway.

Anni greeted her in overalls dusty with sanded paint, a bandana tied around her short brown hair, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. She was surprised by the big German girl who stood up straight despite the Kansas wind at her back, a tentative smile on her full lips. She needs this job, Anni thought. And heaven knows I need her. She would have hired Lena without a question but thought maybe she ought to at least pretend to interview her.

Lena was so different from Anni, whose small frame and flat chest made her look like a teenager; well, almost. Anyway, she was sure she hadn’t gained a muscle since she turned fifteen—not at all strong, but determined. Lena was both. She had a soft face but hard-work hands, and when she walked into the large torn out kitchen and dining room that first day, her eyes shone. “This will be a beautiful gathering area,” she said and touched every space in the room as though knighting it, describing what must go here and must go there. Instead of interviewing or even leading the tour Anni followed her through the house, scratched out notes on a paper bag of how the various rooms should be situated and hired Lena straight away. That was three months ago and they had been together for most of every day since.

Chapter I (Scene 1) “28 A Street”

The orange clouds gathered to the horizon as if a trumpet had blown, calling nature to a close for the day. A freezing winter wind pushed across the plains, blowing in strong and then dying down like waves rolling in to the shore and retreating again.

Oletha, Kansas stood still against the shadows of the November evening, a quiet suburb to the large rambling city of Overland Park. The city was fat at its heart with businessmen in white shirts and dark blue suits and women in pastel dresses with matching hats and coats but thinned out to American Gothic, salt-of-the-earth farming families and frozen wheat fields at the edges of Oletha.

All that was Kansas met here—flat still earth, the sweat and stoicism of long dead German immigrants, eternal wind from some hidden primordial canyon, Bible-belt Christians, and halting modernity. While below and beneath and through it all seethed the same itching unrest that walked the streets of towns like Dodge City and Abilene.

Toward the outskirts of Oletha, between small town and farm, the windows of a Victorian two-story brick house stared out with blind eyes. A cold breeze sent dying leaves spiraling down from two giant Oaks to join the other causalities of fall, spread out like the Red Sea across the yard.

Anni stared up at her new home from the front sidewalk and buttoned her coat against the night’s chill. She breathed deep, exhausted but satisfied. The house was finished after four months of hard work, much of which she had done with her own hands. Her grandparents’ house hadn’t been cheap to fix up, and her dwindling bank account made the night seem even colder. Still, all was ready for her three boarders the next morning. She bent down and dipped the paintbrush into the black can of paint, then wondered at the bare mailbox, the last remodel left to do. “Widow Alber” painted in script might encourage sympathetic boarders, if she could be certain that she was a widow. But all she had for proof were the rumors she had left behind in Chicago.

In the end, she decided against any name at all and hand painted “28 A Street” on the side.