The women are exchanging the numbers of party entertainers. I let their voices float past me. Through the window behind Michaela I can see into Karen's garden, where the brown light of evening is draining down into the wet, heavy earth. The shape of the tree house where Lennie and Sylvie play in summer is sharp as though cut with a blade against the luminous sky. It's so still today—not a breath of wind, not a sigh. When we came here, Sylvie and I, when we parked and got out of the car, the stillness fell over us, a stillness like a garment, unbroken and entire. Even the wind chimes hanging from someone's apple tree were silent, no sound at all in the wide, parked-up street but the clear, sweet pipe of a bird. There was a rich smell of October, of earth and rot and wet leaves. Sylvie ran on ahead of me. I'd put her in her white summer sandals to match the snowflake outfit, and they have hard soles that made a clear click click in the stillness. I called after her, "Be careful, Sylvie, don't get too far ahead." She turned to face me, standing on tiptoe, reaching her arms out to either side, her face intent with concentration, as though she were balancing in a tricky, difficult place. As though she could fall off.
"I can hear my feet, Grace. I can hear them."
"Yes," I said.
"I've got noisy noisy feet. I could be a dancer. Listen, Grace. I'm a dancer, aren't I, Grace?"
"Yes, you're a dancer," I said.
She did a neat pirouette, pleased, self-aware in her elaborate dress, then ran on again, white as a wisp of smoke or mist against the gray of the pavement, at once so pale and so vivid, like she was the only living thing in the whole still, darkening street.
A few doors up from Karen's house, someone came out with a pumpkin and put it on their windowsill and lit the candle inside. We stopped to admire the pumpkin. The face was carved with panache: it had a toothy, rakish grin.
"He's smiling, Grace, isn't he? He's smiling at us."
"Yes, he's smiling," I said.
She was happy for a moment, trusting, feeling the world to be benign. I wrapped my hand around hers. Her skin was cold, but she nestled her hand quite firmly into mine. I love it when she's happy like that.
The magician is building to his grand finale. He wants a volunteer. All the children have raised their hands, urgent and eager, frantic to be chosen. Sylvie too has put up her hand, though not so keenly as the other children. There's often a little reserve about her, something held back. I will him: Please don't choose her, please please don't choose Sylvie. But he does, of course, drawn perhaps by her reticence. He beckons to her, and we watch, all the mothers, as she walks out to the front and he seats her on his chair.
Karen glances toward me with a quick, reassuring smile. "She's doing great," she murmurs.