Block: DEFINITION OF WIND
Anneal ( n¯el´), v.t. 1. to heat (glass, earthenware, metals, etc.) to remove or prevent internal stress. 2. to free from internal stress by heating and gradually cooling. 3. to toughen or temper. 4. Biochemistry: to recombine (nucleic acid strands) at low temperature after separating by heat. 5. to fuse colors onto (a vitreous or metallic surface) by heating.—n: 6. an act, instance, or product of annealing. [bef. 1000; ME anelen, OE an¯ælan, to kindle, equiv. to an1 ¯ælan to burn, akin to ¯al fire]
There was a word for what Abigail Harker had.
She’d been looking forward to the summer on Chapel Isle since moving there nine months earlier. Quiet strolls on the beach, spectacular sunsets, balmy evenings—those were some of the principal reasons she’d settled on the remote island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. To her dismay, by the last day of June the pleasant weather had been replaced with a heat wave so intense that the thermometer was inching toward eighty degrees by daybreak. Abigail’s fantasy of a season full of fun in the sun had turned into a total scorcher.
She awoke to a humid breeze drifting through her open bedroom windows. Yawning and already sticky with sweat, she padded into the bathroom to discover that there was barely any water in her toilet and it wouldn’t flush.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
Abigail jiggled the handle, then removed the tank’s lid and tinkered with the inner workings, clueless about what was awry. Despite her best efforts and a few mumbled pleas, the toilet refused to work.
From the very moment she’d taken up residence at the caretaker’s cottage attached to the island’s lighthouse, the property had had its issues. There were the outdated appliances, the squeaky floorboards, the faulty wiring, and, most notably, a supposed resident ghost. But in the time she’d been renting the place, Abigail had acclimated to the home’s eccentricities. At least, most of them.
She’d weathered the fall and winter well, not an odd noise or bump in the night to be heard. Though the power went out occasionally when a bad storm would barrel in off the Atlantic and the brick front stoop was crumbling after its tenure exposed to the elements, life on the isle’s southern bluff had been relatively uneventful. That was until the toilet went on strike.
Downstairs, Abigail rummaged around for her landlord Lottie Gilquist’s phone number. She thought she’d put it in a drawer in the cherrywood end table in the living room. The end table, along with the rest of the home’s handsome antiques, had belonged to Wesley Jasper, the former caretaker rumored to haunt the property. After Abigail had renovated the house with paint and elbow grease, she carted his possessions up from the basement, where they’d been languishing for decades, covered in sheets like fun-house ghosts. The tufted settee, the mahogany dining set, the comfortably worn-in wingback chairs—she enjoyed having them around. They spoke to the true character of the house, to its history. She thought Mr. Jasper must have appreciated them too. Why else had he left her alone all these months if not as a thank-you? That was what she told herself on the days she believed the gossip. More often than not, she didn’t give it much thought. Her mind was occupied with other matters.
Lottie’s number wasn’t in the end table, so Abigail tried the console by the door. The drawers were wedged shut, the wood having expanded with the climbing temperature, which was confirmed by a haze of condensation glazing the windowpanes. Outside, the overgrown grass was a dewy emerald, the ocean in the distance an electric azure, as if the water molecules in the air refracted the colors. The brochure Lottie had sent before Abigail came to Chapel Isle didn’t mention how steamy it got in the summertime. Abigail would have come anyway, but a little forewarning would have been nice.
Advance notice wasn’t Lottie’s forte. Petite, plump, and preternaturally cheery, she appeared to be the essence of sweetness and innocence. Her pastel tracksuits and white-blond hair, always combed into a tall bouffant to give her a couple of extra centimeters in height, were the perfect disguise. Under her floating heart pendant and bedazzled bosom lay the soul of a pint-size master manipulator.
Lottie made a habit of dropping by unannounced on the pretense that she had an urgent issue to discuss. In reality, she was conducting spot inspections of the caretaker’s cottage, ironic given that the house had been practically uninhabitable at first. Abigail had refurbished most of the place with no assistance or gratitude from Lottie, so when she’d questioned the motivation behind these surprise visits, Lottie simply laughed her signature high-decibel chuckle, then waved away any insinuation like a pesky gnat.
“A single lady out in the middle of nowhere all by her lonesome? Heck, it’s my civic duty to check on you, Abby. Make certain you’re A-OK.”
Like many of the locals, Lottie had checked Abigail’s left hand for a wedding band as soon as she arrived. The absence of a ring told people she was unmarried. It didn’t tell them the whole story.
A house fire had claimed the lives of her husband, Paul, and their four-year-old son, Justin, a year earlier. After recuperating from injuries sustained during the blaze, Abigail had retreated to Chapel Isle and told no one of her past. Better to be considered single than to divulge the painful truth. While apt, the noun widow didn’t feel befitting of her. As a former lexicographer and lover of words, Abigail understood the effect language could have on a person, how it could define someone. Even she didn’t call herself a widow. Then again, she didn’t refer to herself as a brunette, label herself a lefty, or consider herself a Capricorn, yet she was all those things. Certain traits in her life were a given. Widowhood now figured prominently among them.
Lottie’s phone number was buried under a stack of papers in the console drawer, which had taken five minutes to coax open. Anxious to get her toilet problem resolved, Abigail dialed the antiquated rotary-model telephone, numbers spinning backward slow as syrup. By the seventh digit, she was growing impatient. The outdated aspects of the caretaker’s cottage exasperated her only at moments such as this, when the speed and ease of the modern world felt a million miles away.
“I’m sorry,” a computerized voice droned. “Your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and try again.”
“Not you too,” Abigail said, reprimanding the phone. “Maybe the heat toasted the wires.”
The third time she hung up and redialed, she finally got a connection. Static flared as Lottie answered, drowning out Abigail’s voice.
“Lottie, it’s Abigail. Can you hear me?”
“Barely. Sounds like you’re fryin’ bacon.”
“I’m not cooking, Lottie. It’s the phone. Something’s wrong with the line.”
“You’re doing fine? Is that what you said?”
“No, never mind about the phone. My toilet is clogged. Can you send a plumber?”
“A plumber ain’t gonna fix your phone. Do you have a cell?”
“Yes, I have a cell phone, Lottie. That’s not the point. My toilet won’t flush. That’s why I need a plumber.”
“Mercy me, Abby. I got six summer renters with pipe, drain, and crapper woes, and this here island’s got only two plumbers to its name. I’m afraid you’re at the bottom of the pecking order. Summer folks come first.”
“I’m a renter too,” Abigail protested. “Those people are here for only a week. I’m here all the time.”
Abigail had become a fixture on Chapel Isle, a known quantity, notwithstanding the fact that she’d been holed up at the cottage for months. All the progress she’d made since the fire had slowly ebbed away before she even realized what was happening. Staying inside one afternoon and reading turned into hunkering down for days and reading, her coping mechanism of choice. Abigail hadn’t merely lost track of time. She’d lost track of months.
Turning over a new leaf, making a fresh start, beginning a new chapter—the idioms allowed her to categorize what she was trying to do, yet they didn’t help her do it. Her husband’s life insurance and a pending payment from the lawsuit against the company that installed the defective oven responsible for the fire meant she didn’t have to get a job, so actively ignoring reality had become Abigail’s preoccupation as much as her occupation. Flexible as this “career” was, she was consumed by it. There were no weekends off, no vacations, no sick days. She ventured into town only to get groceries or to stop by to see her friend Ruth Kepshaw, the waitress at the Kozy Kettle café. Otherwise, she stayed at the caretaker’s cottage, alone, plying her new trade.
“You certain the toilet’s broke and not being finicky?”
“Everything in this house is finicky. I wouldn’t know the difference. That’s why I need a plumber, Lottie.”
“Okay, okay. Try Duncan Thadlow,” she suggested over the fizzing static. “He might be able to lend a hand.”
Abigail hadn’t heard that name in ages. She’d helped paint his house with Nat Rhone last year, a trade for Nat moving Mr. Jasper’s antique furniture up from the basement with her. She and Nat had argued bitterly throughout the painting process, racing to see who could finish slapping coats onto the home’s exterior first. Days later, Nat was arrested for the murder of his best friend, Hank Scokes, but Abigail had gotten the bogus charges dropped after learning Hank’s death was actually a suicide. She and Nat had barely spoken since then. The heady memory of those events drained Abigail’s focus for a second.
“Doesn’t Duncan repair boats for a living?”
Lottie clucked her tongue admonishingly. “A boat and a toilet are more similar than you’d imagine.”
It seemed Abigail’s imagination was as useless as her logical nature on Chapel Isle, a place where common sense wasn’t exactly common, especially for Lottie.
“Of course. How narrow-minded of me.”
“Bring him a brownie or a muffin and the man’ll bend over backward for you. On second thought, Duncan wears his pants kinda low on account of how much he fancies his desserts. You may want to skip the bending-over part.”
“That’s an image I’ll cherish,” Abigail grumbled.
“And if the phone’s giving you a pain in your posterior, least you have your cell.”
“It doesn’t work either. I’m too far away to get reception at the lighthouse.”
Because the majority of Chapel Isle’s stores were dedicated to fishing or souvenirs, Abigail had been forced to order a new cell phone from a catalog. Along with the phone, she’d ordered a slew of other items for the house, including drapes, a microwave, new towels, bedding, and a steady stream of books. Of her many cata- log purchases, the striped cotton-duck window dressings looked great and the extra housewares were a boon, but the phone was a waste.
“Try standing outdoors, dear. The cell ‘waves’ travel through the air. I know technology can be confusing. You have to try to stay abreast of these innovations, dear.”
With that, the line went dead. Either Lottie had hung up or the phone had disconnected, as if even an inanimate object couldn’t take that much of Lottie’s talking.
“I feel your pain,” she told the receiver before setting it in the cradle. “So now I’m the one who’s behind the times? Typical Lottie.”
Hoping to fix the telephone herself, Abigail unplugged the cord from the handset and attempted to reinsert it for a tighter fit— except one of the tines on the connector snapped off and she couldn’t get the cord back in. She felt as if she broke everything she touched.
Worse off than before she’d called Lottie and needing to go to the bathroom, Abigail dressed to go into town. Her khaki shorts and cream tank top were her most recent mail-order acquisitions. She’d had no warm-weather clothes when she moved to the island, only a selection of bland basics her mother had bought her after the fire, while Abigail recovered in the hospital. Getting new summer clothes should have been an enjoyable experience. It turned out to be a downer. The shorts were too loose. The cotton Ts and tanks hung tentlike off her shoulders. Everything was the wrong size. Abigail had lost a lot of weight. She hadn’t noticed.
As she fussed with the baggy tank top in the bathroom mirror, she said, “First the toilet. Now the phone is on the fritz. What next?”
Abigail half wished she hadn’t asked that aloud. Not because she didn’t want to invite more difficulties but because she hadn’t thought about her “housemate” in quite a while. Could the ghost of Wesley Jasper be tampering with the home’s archaic plumbing and wiring? She hated that the question sprang to mind.
“The average person doesn’t automatically think a ghost is responsible when things go wrong around the house,” she chided herself. “It’s significantly more plausible that the telephone needs to be repaired, as do a multitude of things in this house.”
After living in the rustic cottage as long as she had, Abigail understood that plausibility didn’t carry as much weight as she wished it did.
Excerpted from The Definition of Wind by Ellen Block. Copyright © 2011 by Ellen Block. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.