In this excerpt, Eleanor is nearly seven years old. She and her mother and her twin sister are late to pick her father up from the airport.
Eleanor sits alone in her father’s workshop, studying the tiny, unfinished house. It’s dim in the attic. The rain has turned the world outside to pleasant gray. She prefers days like this to any other kind of day. There is no sunshine, just rain. At age six, her favorite word is ‘inclement’. She uses it whenever she can, having learned it from her first school closure of the year. Today can certainly be described as inclement.
But the light spilling through the circular window at the far end of the attic is too pale, too removed from the work bench, and Eleanor cannot see the details of her father’s latest project. Reluctantly, she reaches up to the lamp and snaps it on. A warm orange glow floods the workspace, and the small house before her casts a long brown shadow across the table.
She can see it clearly now, and can almost pick out the last part her father painted. There’s a hardened dollop of blue paint beneath one tiny window sill. She can picture his careful, deliberate brush stroke. He would have realized that there was too much paint on the brush. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have dabbed the excess paint on the mouth of the small bottle, but he had probably been in a hurry, in which case she could imagine him stroking the exterior of the house this way, then that way, and working the extra blob of paint into the narrow crevice beneath the window sill, where it was mostly hidden from view, a secret that only she can share with him.
The rest of the house is well-constructed. She thinks it is probably her father’s best work yet. The floor plan is creative and different from the houses that she draws during art hour at school. Her houses are single-room blocks with leaning doors and lumpy rooftops. Her father’s are split-level constructions, sometimes with elaborate windows that reach from the floor to the ceiling of a room.
Her favorite days were spent in the attic with him, perched on the stool on the other side of the table. She would be careful to stay out of his light. He would pull the lamp to his eye and peer through the magnifying lens at the house, delicately pressing the skeleton bones of the structure into the styrofoam foundation with tweezers.
“Why do you make little houses?” she had asked him, once.
“Well,” he had answered, slowly, drawing the words out as he fit a miniature chimney stack into place, “because I’m not a very good architect.”
“What’s an architect?”
He’d smiled at her without looking up. “Someone who designs buildings. They say where everything goes and what it looks like.”
“Why aren’t you a good one?”
“I’m not a very good student,” he confessed. “You have to be a good student to be a good architect.”
“Oh,” Eleanor had replied. Then she said, “But you make pretty houses.”
“Well, thank you, sweetheart.”
She’d watched him a little longer, then asked, “What’s your work instead?”
“You know the answer to that,” he said. “What does Daddy do for a job?”
Eleanor bit her lip. “Real cheese.”
“Realty,” he corrected.
“I know,” she said, then laughed. “Real cheese is funnier.”
But she had sensed his discomfort with the topic. At six years old, she wasn’t able to parse the subtext of that conversation, but years later she would understand that her father had failed at achieving his dream, and that he comforted himself by getting as close to it as possible. Instead of designing homes, he helped people sell them. And at night and early in the mornings, he built tiny homes in the attic of their house.
She studies the unfinished house on the table now and marvels at the microscopic detail — the insect-sized staircase leading to the front door, the little brass knocker on the door itself. Her favorite part is the lawn and trees, something her father’s houses didn’t always include, but which this one does. The lawn spreads wide around the roofless home, rolling with little hills and small trees. The driveway is empty, but a perfect little mailbox stands at the end of it.
Down the attic stairs, the second-floor door bangs open. Eleanor jumps, jostling the little house in her hands.
Her mother calls upstairs. “Ellie! You better be ready!”
“I’m ready, Mom,” she shouts back.
“Good,” her mother answers.
Eleanor hears the door creak as Agnes begins to close it again, but then the sound stops.
“You shouldn’t be up here without your father,” her mother adds. “Come on down, now.”
Eleanor jumps down from the stool. It rocks under her bottom, and she takes a moment to steady it before heading downstairs.
That’s when she notices the mailbox, its post snapped clean in half.