When Josey woke up and saw the feathery frost on her windowpane, she smiled. Finally, it was cold enough to wear long coats and tights. It was cold enough for scarves and shirts worn in layers, like camouflage. It was cold enough for her lucky red cardigan, which she swore had a power of its own. She loved this time of year. Summer was tedious with the light dresses she pretended to be comfortable in while secretly sure she looked like a loaf of white bread wearing a belt. The cold was such a relief .
She went to the window. A fine sheen of sugary frost covered everything in sight, and white smoke rose from chimneys in the valley below the resort town. Excited, she opened the window, but the sash stuck midway and she had to pound it the rest of the way with the palm of her hand. It finally opened to a rush of sharp early November air that would have the town in a flurry of activity, anticipating the tourists the colder weather always brought to the high mountains of North Carolina.
She stuck her head out and took a deep breath. If she could eat the cold air, she would. She thought cold snaps were like cookies, like gingersnaps. In her mind they were made with white chocolate chunks and had a cool, brittle vanilla frosting. They melted like snow in her mouth, turning creamy and warm.
Just before she ducked her head back inside, she looked down and noticed something strange.
There was a ladder propped against the house, directly underneath her window.
She leaned back in quickly and closed her window. She paused, then she locked it.
She turned and walked to her closet, distracted now. She hadn't heard anything strange last night. The tree trimmers from yesterday must have left the ladder. Yes. That had to be it. They'd probably propped it against the house and then completely forgotten about it.
She opened her closet door and reached up to pull the string that turned on the light.
Then she screamed and backed away, stopping only when she hit her desk and her lamp crashed to the floor.
"Oh for God's sake," the woman sitting on the floor of her closet said, "don't have a cow."
"Josey?" She heard her mother's voice in the hall, then the thud of her cane as she came closer.
"Please don't tell her I'm here," the woman in the closet said, with a strange sort of desperation. Despite the cold outside, she was wearing a cropped white shirt and tight dark blue jeans that sat low, revealing a tattoo of a broken heart on her hip. Her hair was bleached white-blond with about an inch of silver-sprinkled dark roots showing. Her mascara had run and there were black streaks on her cheeks. She looked drip-dried, like she'd been walking in the rain, though there hadn't been rain for days. She smelled like cigarette smoke and river water.
Josey turned her head as her bedroom door began to open. Then, in a small act that changed everything, Josey reached over and pushed the closet door closed as her mother entered the room.
"Josey? What was that noise? Are you all right?" Margaret asked. She'd been a beautiful woman in her day, delicate and trim, blue-eyed and fair-haired. There was a certain power beautiful mothers held over their less beautiful daughters. Even at seventy-four, with a limp from a hip replacement, Margaret could still enter a room and fill it like perfume. Josey could never do that. The closest she ever came was the attention she used to receive when she pitched legendary fits in public when she was young. But that was making people look at her for all the wrong reasons.
"My lamp," Josey said. "It attacked me out of nowhere."
"Oh, well," Margaret said distantly, "leave it for the maid to clean. Hurry up and get dressed. My doctor's appointment is at nine."
Margaret closed the bedroom door. Josey waited until the clump of her cane faded away before she rushed to the closet door and opened it again.
Most locals knew who Della Lee was. She waitressed at a greasy spoon called Eat and Run, which was tucked far enough outside the town limits that the ski-crowd tourists didn't see it. She haunted bars at night. She was probably in her late thirties, maybe ten years older than Josey, and she was rough and flashy and did whatever she wanted--no reasonable explanation required.
"Della Lee Baker, what are you doing in my closet?"
"You shouldn't leave your window unlocked. Who knows who could get in?" Della Lee said, single-handedly debunking the long-held belief that if you dotted your windowsills and door thresholds with peppermint oil, no unwanted visitors would ever appear. For years Josey's mother had instructed every maid in their employ to anoint the house's casings with peppermint to keep the undesirables away. Their house now smelled like the winter holidays all year round.
Josey took a step back and pointed. "Get out."
"You most certainly can."
"I need a place to hide."
"I see. And of course this was the first place you thought of."
"Who would look for me here?"
Rough women had rough ways. Was Della Lee trying to tell her that she was in danger? "Okay, I'll bite. Who's looking for you, Della Lee?"
"Maybe no one. Maybe they haven't discovered I'm missing yet." Then, to Josey's surprise, Della Lee reached over to the false wall at the back of the narrow closet and slid it open. "And speaking of discoveries, look what I found."
Revealed now was the large secret space behind the closet. There were stacks of paperback romances, magazines and catalogs on the floor, but most of the secret closet was occupied by shelves piled with food--packaged snacks, rows of sweets, towers of colas.
Josey's entire body suddenly burned with panic. She was supposed to be happy. And most of the time she supposed she was, in an awkward, sleepy kind of way. She'd never be the beauty her mother was, or have the personality of her late father. She was pale and plain and just this side of plump, and she accepted that. But food was a comfort. It filled in the hollow spaces. And it felt good to hide it, because then she could enjoy it alone without worrying about what others thought, or about letting her mother down.
"I need to figure some things out first," Della Lee said, sliding the door back in place, her point made. She was letting Josey know that she knew her secret. Don't reveal mine and I won't reveal yours. "Then I'll be moving up north."
"You can't stay here. I'll give you some money. You can stay in a motel." Josey started to turn, to get her wallet, to get Della Lee away from her food. But then she stopped. "Wait. You're leaving Bald Slope?"
"Like you don't dream of leaving this stupid town," Della Lee said, leaning back on her hands.
"Don't be ridiculous. I'm a Cirrini."
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't those travel magazines in your secret closet?"
Josey bristled. She pointed again. "Get out ."
"It looks like I got here just in time. This is not the closet of a happy woman, Josey."
"At least I'm not hiding in it."
"I bet you do sometimes."
"That's it. I'm calling the police."
Della Lee laughed. She actually sat there and laughed at Josey. Her front teeth were a little crooked, but it looked good on her, offbeat and sassy. She was the kind of woman who could get away with anything because she had no boundaries. "And what will you say? There's a woman in your closet, come get her out? They might find your stash."
Josey thought about calling Della Lee's bluff. It would serve her right. It might even be worth everyone knowing about the food in her closet. But then her heart began to beat harder. Who was she kidding? It was embarrassing enough being such a sorry excuse for a Southern belle. Her weight, her unfortunate hair, her secret dreams of leaving her mother who needed her, of leaving and never looking back. Respectable daughters took care of their mothers. Respectable daughters did not hide enormous amounts of candy in their closets.
"So you stay, you don't tell anyone, is that it?"
"Sure," Della Lee said easily.
"Add it to my list of sins."
"I don't think there's room left on that list," Josey said as she took a dress from its hanger. Then she closed the closet door on Della Lee.
She went to the bathroom down the hall to dress and to pull her very curly, licorice-black hair back into a low ponytail. When she walked back to her bedroom, she stared at her closet door for a moment. It looked completely innocuous. The door and its casing were painted an antique white set against the pale blue of the room. The corner blocks at the top of the casing were hand-carved in a circular bull's-eye pattern. The doorknob was white porcelain, shaped like a mushroom cap.
She took a deep breath and walked to it. Maybe she'd imagined the whole thing.
She opened the door.
"You should wear makeup," Della Lee said.
Josey reached up and grabbed her lucky red cardigan off the high shelf, then closed the door. She put the sweater on and closed her eyes. Go away, go away, go away .
She opened the door again.
"No, really. Mascara. Lip gloss. Something."
Josey sighed. The sweater was probably just rusty. It had been sitting there all summer, after all. Della Lee wouldn't be there when she got home. Good things happened when she wore this sweater. She'd had the best haircut she'd ever had while wearing it. When she'd slept in it once, it snowed for three days straight.
And she'd been wearing it the day she first met Adam.
She closed the door, paused with her hand on the knob, then opened it one last time.
"Eyeliner?" Della Lee said.
Josey turned and walked away.
The Cirrinis' new maid spoke very little English.
She was hired earlier in the year to help Margaret bathe after her hip replacement. But Helena could never quite grasp what was required of her. She would sit on the lowered toilet lid, her eyes averted, anxiously wringing her hands while Margaret sat in the tub and played charades to get her to understand soap. So Josey ended up doing it.
She was hired to do the grocery shopping. But the first day she was sent off to the market with a grocery list, she spent two hours crying on the front porch, her tears falling into the flower pots where mysterious South American tropical flowers later sprouted without explanation. So Josey ended up doing that too.
Basically, Helena's duties now were light housekeeping, preparing meals and learning English by gossiping with Margaret. Her bedroom was on the first floor, and she anxiously popped her head out of her door every time Josey happened to venture downstairs after bedtime.
When Josey and Margaret arrived home from Margaret's doctor's appointment, Josey heard the vacuum cleaner humming upstairs. That was a good sign. If Helena was still doing housework, that meant she hadn't found Della Lee in the closet.
Josey helped her mother into her favorite chair in the sitting room, then she went upstairs, where Helena was vacuuming the runner in the hallway.
Josey approached Helena and tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention. She got her attention, all right. Helena screamed and ran down the hall without even turning around to see who it was. The vacuum cleaner, still on, fell to the floor and started eating the fringe of the runner.
"Helena, wait!" Josey called, running after her. She caught up with her before she reached the corner at the end of the hall that led to the narrow kitchen staircase. "It's okay! It's just me!"
Helena stopped and turned. "Oldsey?" she said dubiously, like she'd expected someone else.
"Yes. It's me. I didn't mean to scare you. Are you okay?"
Helena put her hand to her heart, breathing heavily. She nodded and hurried back to the vacuum cleaner. She unplugged it, then knelt to pull the runner's fringe from where it had wrapped around the vacuum's beater bar.
Josey followed, saying, "Helena, did you, um, clean up the broken lamp in my bedroom?"
"I clean." She stood and crossed herself, then she kissed the crucifix on her necklace. "Oldsey's room strange today."
"Strange? Did you see anything . . . unusual?"
"See, no. Feel . Cold in Oldsey's room," she said.
Josey sighed in relief. "Oh, I opened my window earlier, that's all." She smiled. "Don't worry about vacuuming up here. Mother is downstairs in the sitting room."
"Yes. Margaret is downstairs."
That would keep them both occupied and away from Josey's room for a while. Margaret liked to watch Helena clean. And Helena, as far as she was able, liked to spread the latest gossip from the east side of town, which included the Catholic community center, a place Margaret found simply fascinating in a what-can-the-Baptists-do-that's-better kind of way.
As Helena started wrapping the cord around the vacuum, Josey went to her bedroom. For breakfast she'd eaten what her mother always wanted, a modest bowl of rolled oats and blackberries. Her stomach growled as she stared at her closet. Her food was there. All her lovely food.
The secret closet was the closet in the adjoining room. That bedroom had a huge armoire in it, a ridiculously heavy old Cirrini heirloom. It took up most of one wall and hid that closet. She'd found the door between the two closets by accident, when she would sit in her closet and eat candy she hid in her pockets when she was young. Back then she used to hide from her mother in the secret space just to worry her, but now she stocked it with magazines, paperback romances and sweets. Lots and lots of sweets. Moonpies and pecan rolls, Chick-O-Sticks and Cow Tales, Caramel Creams and Squirrel Nut Zippers, Red Hots and Bit-O-Honey, boxes upon boxes of Little Debbie snack cakes. The space had a comforting smell to it, like Halloween, like sugar and chocolate and crisp plastic wrappers.
Josey took off her coat and put it and her purse on the chaise, then went to the closet. She pulled her lucky cardigan tightly around her, made a wish, then opened the door.
"Did I just hear your maid call you and your mother Oldsey and Oldgret?" Della Lee asked, laughing.
Of course Della Lee found that funny. Some people liked to call Josey and her mother the Cirrini Sisters. Margaret had Josey late in life. Josey was only twenty-seven, so they were essentially calling her an old woman, but they were comparing her to Margaret, who was once the belle of Bald Slope, the woman married to the late, great Marco Cirrini. There were worse things to be called. Margaret didn't like the nickname and discouraged it whenever possible. Margaret was small, fair and ethereal. Josey looked like a thick dark blob next to her. Sisters? Margaret would say. We look nothing alike.