Emily let her palm hover half an inch from the frying pan. The danger was tantalizing. Half an inch from a burn. From peeling flesh. From changing life as she knew it. She used to do the same thing as a kid, imagining she had magical powers. Look Mom, I’m making it hot!
Emily flicked water onto the nonstick surface; it beaded and sputtered. She poured the batter in. As the bubbles oozed toward the edges of the batter, she flicked through the stack of mail on the counter. It was all for her parents. Bill, spam, spam, bill. Two for a dollar eggplants at Shoprite, woohoo.
Then at the bottom of the pile she found a square, off-white envelope sealed with a round black sticker. Or wax. She ran her finger over its glossy surface, feeling the impressions of the strange symbols, like runes or hieroglyphs. She turned the letter over. There was no return address, no postmark. In the middle of the envelope, in thin, slanting letters, was written:
111 Redgrove St. Hoboken
Over the Seam
Emily’s throat caught in her chest. It was for her neighbor, the tall, handsome, mysterious Mr. Fox.
It had all started when Brett Guffy hadn’t asked Emily to the homecoming dance last fall. She had been sure he would. She would be sixteen in four months, and she still hadn’t had her first kiss. Now Allison had a boyfriend, and Becca had gone to the winter formal with Matt Pierce. And Emily’s sister Jenny was engaged, at 22! Emily was falling behind. And it was stupid Brett Guffy’s fault.
Of course her mom, the worldliest woman to come out of the South, had had something to say about it.
Just wait, honey. You have your whole life ahead of you. You don’t need Brett. Someday you’ll find the right man, just the man for you.
Emily hated when people told her to wait. But something about Mom’s spiel had lodged in her brain. The right man.
And that was when Mr. Fox had moved in.
Her parents had rented out the basement apartment since Jenny left for college. It was completely separate from the rest of the house, with its own front and back doors. After the Fowlers moved out six months ago, Mr. Fox was the first to answer the ad in the paper. He was in his twenties, and he had that manly look about him. Like a lumberjack, minus the beard, with a flannel shirt and weathered boots. Just the man she was looking for.
But he wasn’t an easy target. Since he had moved in, with nothing but a black duffel bag and a fluffy gray and white cat, she had seen him exactly three times. The first time, she had seen him through the front window. He was walking home along Redgrove Street, carrying several gallon jugs of vinegar. Emily had never seen anyone use so much vinegar. Then months later, on her walk to school, she had seen him in the park. He was crouched down in the grass, looking at mushrooms and writing in a journal. She called to him, but he didn’t notice.
The third time, only a few weeks ago, she had seen him up close. Even talked to him. It was magical. He had knocked on the front door one evening. Dad was at book club and Mom was in the kitchen rolling out a pie crust.
“Honey,” she called, “can you get the door?”
Emily set her pencil in the crease of her geometry book and trudged down the hall. She opened the door to find Mr. Fox huddled in a blanket, shivering and pale.
“Hi,” was all Emily could think to say. She blinked at him. “Are you okay?”
Mr. Fox bobbed his head. “Pardon me… May I borrow some sugar?” His voice was soft and fatigued.
“Sure.” She motioned him inside. “Do you have the flu or something? We have medicine…”
“No, no,” said Mr. Fox. “I’m fine. I just need sugar.”
Mr. Fox coughed into his blanket. “To cook a cake.”
Emily frowned. Had he ever “cooked” a cake before? She led him to the kitchen and pulled a bag of sugar from the cupboard. Tiny white crystals trailed from a crack in the bag’s corner as she handed it to him. She remembered the fragment of touch between them, her hand brushing his, the jitters it sent down her spine. And she remembered his beautiful olive green eyes. There was something odd them, the way they reflected the light. She had held eye contact, perhaps longer than she should have, trying to put her finger on it. And Mr. Fox had held eye contact too.
Emily often went back to that moment. At night when she lay in bed waiting to fall asleep. Or in history class, when she stared at the puddle of sunlight by the window until her head started to nod. She would take out that treasured memory, holding it lightly in her mind, polishing it a little more each time. She imagined that Mr. Fox had looked at her eyes the same way she had looked at his.
When her pancakes were done, Emily pulled on a sweatshirt and took her plate and water bottle out to the porch. A lively breeze whipped strands of brick-red hair across her eyes. It was almost to her shoulders; she would need a trim soon. Chewing on a hunk of syrup-soaked pancake, she leaned back against the cold metal bars of the chair and looked out over the backyard. The neglected white swing set, blistering with rust. The single oak tree in the center of the lawn, casting its long shadow over the house in the setting sun. She spied a couple of rubbery pink buds against the gray flesh of the oak. Spring was coming to New Jersey.