Elaine wakes late in Jon’s apartment, dresses in a cerise jogging suit, and reads the paper to kill time. She thinks of the gallery as something to get through without disaster. When she leaves the apartment, she takes the route that used to be her route home from school and sees all the houses that have existed since her childhood, and wonders what time period they belong to—their own, or hers. She watches girls playing on the streets, and even though they wear blue jeans, she thinks they aren’t nearly as loud or as rowdy as when she was younger; she wonders if it’s because of her presence, because the presence of an adult has some power.
Elaine’s thoughts about the gallery cement the sense that the public side of her art career is not important to her—she creates art not as a lead-up to these social events, but out of some other internal drive. The more time Elaine spends in Toronto, the more she seems to blend the past and present together and draw comparisons between the two. She is particularly interested in the buildings, which have stood since her time, and the young girls, who serve as a mirror for her own childhood. She wonders if her presence has quieted the girls, because she has such distinct memories of the secret cruelties of youth. People behave differently depending on their contexts and who is watching, and there is a whole universe of cruelty that girls would not undertake publicly, which Elaine cannot forget about.
Stephen died five years ago, and Elaine tries to think of it as a natural disaster rather than a murder—he was killed on an airplane held by a group of terrorists, shot after being held hostage en route to give a talk in Frankfurt. She knows that he had a window seat and that he had been traveling with his briefcase that carried a talk on the probable composition of the universe, because there were passerby whose accounts Elaine heard later.
This revelation about Stephen’s death comes as a real shock to the narrative. Elaine has only foreshadowed it very sparely across the novel, and now she tells the story in a relatively emotionally neutral, matter-of-fact tone, which reflects her ability to move on from trauma. Elaine has pieced together this narrative from the other people who were kept on the plane and from her own narrative reconstructions, and it shows how important building a coherent story can be to process trauma.
The hostages had been given very little to eat, except weird sandwiches, and water four hours before. The women and children had already been allowed off of the plane, and the men remaining on the plane had their passports confiscated. A new man entered the plane and made Stephen stand up, and Elaine pictures to herself what it might have been like. She knows that he was made to exit the plane, and that he was killed immediately after that. Elaine had to identify his body; now, when she thinks of him, she thinks about how she will grow older and he will not, just like the story about the twin who goes into space that he had told her all those years ago.
Stephen’s death brings in the theme of war and catastrophe, and helps illustrate the distinctions between the two—his death is actually caused by an ongoing war, which means that it’s manmade and could have been prevented. Elaine prefers to characterize it as a natural disaster, as that removes human agents as well as a sense of predictability or blame. Natural catastrophes are consuming, but that can be easier to process than wars, which are supposed to center on values and have some kind of meaning ascribed to them. In the end, Elaine processes the death using a story Stephen had told her about a twin sent out into space, who gets frozen in time while his sibling ages on earth—it shows a perspective on death detached from any religious or mystical speculation on the afterlife, and focused on the fact that upon death, a person is frozen, while their friends and family must continue to live and age.
Their parents never recover from Stephen’s death. Elaine’s father grows thinner and stiller, and he eventually dies of natural causes—her mother follows a year later. Before Elaine’s mother dies of a slow illness, Elaine visits to help her in the house. She sneaks in frozen TV dinners and takes her mother to movies and Chinese restaurants to try to break her out of her routine. Elaine’s mother is put on stronger and stronger painkillers, and she usually wants to talk about Stephen.
The narrative focuses on other tragedies after the death of Stephen in the form of Elaine’s parents’ deterioration and eventual death. Elaine’s father just fades out of the narrative, which suggests the distance that had grown between them at the end of his life, but she does have the opportunity to connect with her mother again.
One day, Elaine’s mother brings up the “bad time” in Elaine’s childhood, which Elaine has completely repressed. She wants forgiveness that Elaine cannot give. On another day, she feels stronger so they go through the house in order to clean it. They sort garbage in the cellar, and then move on to the old steamer trunk, where Elaine finds her old drawings, photo album, and the red purse. Her mother reminds her of when they gave her the photo album along with the camera for her ninth birthday, and she looks at an old picture of Grace Smeath wreathed in flowers. When she looks into the red purse and finds the marble still inside, she “sees her life entire.”
Elaine’s mother knew about the bullying, which she still downplays as a “bad time,” and in doing so she reveals that the situation was never as secret as Elaine had imagined it to be. At the same time, Elaine still cannot connect with her mother about this, because here silence is a form of betrayal. Elaine’s mother’s inaction enabled the bullying to continue, making silence a form of cruelty in itself. Their spring cleaning triggers Elaine’s repressed memories, as she sees old objects like the photo album and the marble. This marble had always been associated with a certain amount of clarity of thought, and seeing it again forces Elaine directly back into the past, as it is a relic of the past itself. Finding the marble indicates how difficult it can be to escape the past, especially in the form of traumatic memories.
In the present, Elaine walks towards the location where her old school was. It has been replaced by a new school, cleaner, without separate doors for boys and girls. She feels tired and “locked in”; she wants to be released, to no longer stand still, to not “be nine years old forever.”
Elaine’s reflections at the school elaborate on the novel’s main conflict, which is being trapped by the past. Though the school stands as evidence that times have changed, that gender equality is closer, and that the neighborhood has improved, it still holds the ghosts of Elaine’s childhood. The fact that Elaine cannot escape her memories makes her feel as though she hasn’t aged, which shows that time exists on multiple platforms—there is the literal passage of time, which is linear, as well as the subjective experience of time, impacted by memory.