Cage of stars, p.1
While great care has been taken to depict the Mormon way of life with accuracy, this is a work of fiction and some elements have been altered. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2006 by Jacquelyn Mitchard
All rights reserved.
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First eBook Edition: May 2006
Other Books by Jacquelyn Mitchard
THE BREAKDOWN LANE
TWELVE TIMES BLESSED
A THEORY OF RELATIVITY
THE MOST WANTED
THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN
THE REST OF US
For Jane Gelfman
How many stars in your bowl?
How many shadows in your soul?
—D. H. Lawrence
“The Stars Stand Still”
I am first and always grateful to my assistant, Pamela English. Pam, you’re not just the brains of the outfit, you’re the heart. Thanks to my new and gleaming editor, Jamie Raab, and the splendid team at Warner Books (I hope to do you proud), and always, to my agent, Jane Gelfman, who must promise that when she is one hundred and I am ninety-five, she will still be my friend and counselor. For her help in my understanding of a paramedic’s life, I thank my friend Crystal Fish. For her twenty years of friendship, her prayers in this and other endeavors, her gentle help in leading me to an understanding of the Mormon religion, I thank Kahlil Kelly and her wonderful family. Gratitude goes to Dr. M.I., for giving me perspective on schizophrenic illness, its tragedy and hope; and to Shane Baker for his dear friendship and for answering a batty mom’s basketball questions. And as ever, to my pals who share e-tea and sympathy, at home and from afar, Jeanine, K.J.A.M., Anne, Jodi, Clarice, Arty, Chris, Steve, Karen, Pam, Josh, Judy, Joyce, Eliz J., Stacey, Mikail, and Melanie. I’m surprised and gratified that my majestic family hasn’t left me on an ice floe. It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that incidents not unlike those in Cage of Stars do happen in the world; but this is entirely a work of fiction, and whatever mistakes made in it are mine alone.
When I set out to find the killer Scott Early, I didn’t realize I was a foolish kid trying to stand in the great shoes of God.
After it was all over, everyone asked why had I done such a thing? I didn’t know how to explain. Everything had gotten all turned around and confused in my mind. It had once been so clear to me that there was a way, and that I must walk in it.
It seemed so obvious. Then, not so obvious. And then, it was too late.
I opened the door that last morning, and there were the reporters, buzzing like a hatch of mosquitoes. They asked me, Did you plan this all those years, Ronnie? How did you hold on to that anger for so long, Ronnie? And I thought, How could anyone think that four years was a long time to “hold on to anger,” given what had happened to us? Four years was a moment. People stay angry longer than that over someone stealing their boyfriend! With a few vivid exceptions, those four years, basically my whole life as a teenager, passed like a movie with the sound turned off. If those reporters had lived the way I lived, every day looking at that shed between the house and the barn, the shed Papa had been meaning to fix up for years before Becky and Ruthie died, to give Mama a better studio for her work, that sturdy old building with its gray paint beaten into powder by the punishment of the sun and the dusty wind, and the thick purple weeds bunched tight up against its walls, how would they have felt? What would they have done? Nothing ever changed the sight of that shed. It never looked different. I saw it every day, whether the pink ice plants and the rock roses were blooming in Mama’s garden or the Christmas lights were up. It never went away. And it was just desolate. Like our lives were, for the longest time. No one else had been through it. So they could ask stupid questions with all the tactfulness of a big bulldozer. Another guy yelled out to me, Did you plan in advance to kill Scott Early? He said—and he was serious—Because maybe you felt it was blood atonement. Mormons believe in blood atonement . . . don’t you?
I was so tired. I was so hungry and alone. Like a fool, I answered, “I bet you think my father has five wives, too.”
The guy’s eyes widened and he flipped over to a new page in his notebook. “Does he?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “He has sixty-five wives, just like in ‘The King and I.’”
The reporter’s face got all pouty then. He knew I was messing with him. I sat down on the curb and put my head on my knees, and I didn’t say a word until my father came with my uncle Andrew, who told me to say nothing at all. Blood atonement? I kept thinking. My word! It was one thing to believe that the price Scott Early paid was too small for the evil he did. I still believe that. And yes, I didn’t agree with my parents that forgiving Scott Early would stop the shuddering of my heart that woke me from all those frightful dreams, my T-shirt in sweat that smelled metallic and dirty, like old pocket change. But to think I was after Scott Early’s blood? Just because I was a Mormon? That was purely ignorant. Half the time, even good people think all Mormons are nuts in a cult where the church leader marries you off at the age of thirteen! Maybe some of that stuff used to go on a hundred years ago; but a few hundred years ago in Europe, Catholics went around stretching people on the rack, too. They’re not doing that anymore, either!
All “blood atonement” means to regular Mormons is just that shedding someone else’s blood is the most terrible thing, and “atonement” is making up for your sin. It’s a metaphor, like the kind you learn in English class. Mormons think you have to do good to make up for your sins, not just say you’re sorry. When I set off for California, I didn’t think that Scott Early had atoned for his sins. But I didn’t really know what I would do about that; I thought it would be revealed to me. I never thought about violence.
What happened . . . happened . . . just because of the tiniest mistake.
I had that to live with.
And I would always know how much I’d let my family down. My parents trusted me completely. And I betrayed their trust. I lied, and I’d never lied before. I told them only part of the truth. I told them I needed to be away from Utah. To be away from the shed. I was going to San Diego, a sunny city of young people and young dreams, to go to a good community college, where I could train to be an EMT—the work I planned to do to pay for my college. Yes, I saw the looks my parents exchanged. I knew those looks meant that they knew Scott Early was in California but didn’t think that I knew. I played innocent. They believed me. But under all that innocence was a wayward heart. I might have felt very mature, even old,
Papa told me once, right after my sisters died, that atonement wasn’t something a regular person on earth can bring on someone else. He said it was between the sinner and God. He was right. But I couldn’t hear it. I was pretty sure of myself. Veronica Bonham Swan, an eager girl with long twisty auburn hair that was my vanity, who loved horses and science and hated laundry and term papers. I thought one person could do what a whole system had not. Everything had come easy to me in my life.
Everything except the one and most important thing.
Which became the only thing that mattered.
And so I believed that I had survived the beautiful late fall day when Scott Early drenched our lives in blood for a purpose. I thought that if I didn’t walk in the path of that purpose, when my time came to die—whether I lived to be twenty or ninety—I would pass over knowing that I’d failed Becky and Ruthie in the life hereafter as I’d failed them on earth. And I would not be able to face my baby sisters when they came running to me in heaven.
At the moment when Scott Early killed Becky and Ruthie, I was hiding in the shed.
It wasn’t because I was afraid. I wasn’t afraid to die then, and I’m not afraid now. It was because we were playing hide-and-seek. My little sisters always started begging me the minute my parents left me to baby-sit. “Ronnie, Ronnie, Ronnie!” they would tease me, pulling on my shirt while I tried to straighten up the kitchen. “Betcha we can find you this time. Betcha on our chores!” And I would always give in, warning them that if they didn’t find me, they were going to spend two hours, until Mama got back, picking up every crayon and every sticker book in their room.
“This time I’m not kidding, Thing One and Thing Two,” I told them that day. “I’m not going in there right before Mama gets home and pull all your clean clothes and markers out from under your bed.”
“I promise, slalomly,” Becky said. I had to laugh. Her teeth were purple from the berries she’d eaten for breakfast. Becky was as thin and fast as a minnow in a creek and seemed to live practically on air. Ruthie was as round and “slalom” as a little koala bear. Her favorite thing was to eat cookie dough right from the bowl.
They wanted to play outside, because it was a really warm, sunny day for November, not that it’s ever too cold at the edge of what’s practically the Mojave Desert. The purples and yellows and reds of the changing trees that day were as flashy as a marching band.
And so, an hour later, I was crouched down in the shed, behind a big sack of potting soil and a crate of clay, hoping a spider didn’t pick that time to crawl up my back. I couldn’t see my little sisters. But I imagined that they were leaning against the picnic table, where we ate our supper almost every summer night when the bugs weren’t bad—our own tomatoes and sweet corn, sometimes with tacos and black beans—listening to the birds making their go-to-sleep sounds. Becky and Ruthie most likely had their little hands over their eyes, counting fast so that they could yell out, “Ready or not, here I come!” Ruthie would call first, I knew. She always did, and Becky always shushed her, saying there was no way she could have gotten to a hundred yet because she, Becky, was older and she hadn’t got up to fifty. I know they didn’t peek, because I’d told them peeking wasn’t fair and that I wouldn’t play unless they played fair.
That day, though, they never made a sound.
I figured they were counting to a hundred silently, because whenever we played hide-and-seek, Becky would count straight up as fast as she could, and Ruthie, who was only four, would say out loud, “One, two, three, four, eight, fourteen, fifteen, ten.” Becky would get so confused, she’d have to start all over again.
But five minutes went by, and still, they never made a sound. When it got to be a long time, I opened the door.
And I saw my sisters, lying there like little white dolls in great dark pools of paint. I saw Scott Early, a young man with short blond hair, sitting on the picnic table, wearing only his boxers and a dirty T-shirt, sobbing as if they were his little sisters, as if a terrible monster had come along and done this. Which was sort of what he did think, though I didn’t know that then.
It was a good thing, a doctor later said to my mother, that Becky and Ruthie didn’t cry out. It meant that they died quickly. They barely felt a thing. They must never have heard Scott Early come walking barefoot across our lawn. The merciful Father shielded them from fear. Being cut across the carotid artery is a very quick way to die. I knew that, even then, from biology. But it’s not over in an instant, and I prayed for months that Becky and Ruthie never had time to wonder why I wasn’t there to help them.
For I was always there to help them.
Though I was only twelve-almost-thirteen, Mama could trust me to look after the little girls alone, even if she had to be out in the part of the shed that was her “studio” or at the galleries, as far away as St. George, for hours at a time.
“You are as responsible as any mother, Ronnie,” Mama told me quietly one night, after the time Becky’s hand got burned. Becky had been impatient that morning for her “cheesy eggs” and reached up to see if they were finished while I was cooking. She burned her hand on the pan. Mama said I had “presence of mind” because I didn’t start to cry or panic when Becky screamed. I didn’t try to put butter on the burn, which my own grandma would have done, because that would have made it worse. From the first-aid section of health class Mama taught me, I remembered that a burn had to be cooled down with water right away or the heat inside would keep right on burning the skin and the damage would go deeper. I put Becky’s hand under the cold-water tap for five minutes and wrapped ice in a thick towel and taped it down around her hand. Then I ran, pulling Becky and Ruthie in the wooden wagon, down to our nearest neighbor, Mrs. Emory, who drove us to Pine Mountains Clinic ten miles away, between our house and Cedar City. At the clinic, the doctor, a young woman, placed a net shield and gauze under a bandage on Becky’s palm. The doctor spoke so gently to Becky that I suppose it was then that I first thought I would become a doctor one day myself. I wondered if the incident meant I was called to it.
Becky had just a tiny scar on one finger after her hand healed. Our pediatrician, Dr. Pratt, said he wouldn’t have done one thing different himself, except to drive her to a hospital. But there wasn’t a real hospital within fifty miles of where we lived at the foot of a pine-covered ridge. Where we lived wasn’t even really a town. It was a sort of settlement for people like my father, who always said he liked his “elbow room.”
And so, on the day they died—unless paramedics could have arrived at our house within minutes, and everyone knew that was impossible; or unless there was a doctor already at our house, but Dr. Sissinelli, our neighbor, was at his hospital—no one could have saved my sisters.
I must not feel guilty, Mama and Papa told me over and over in the days afterward, although I could see in their eyes and hear in their voices that they felt exactly that way themselves. I was not to feel guilty for being unable to call for help until it was too late or for being unable to get Papa’s gun because he was out hunting for quail, they said. By the time I opened the door on the sight that would change me for the rest of my life, it was already too late. When the police asked questions about why we weren’t supervised, my parents spoke up. They defended me and their choice of leaving me to watch my sisters, telling the officers what a responsible girl I was. I had done just what I should have done. I had been brave. They said that not even a parent could have suspected that Scott Early would even find such a remote place, much less grab the weeding scythe Papa had left leaning against the barn and use it like the sword of an avenging angel, striking a death blow in seconds.
I listened and I nodded, but I didn’t really believe them.
I didn’t want to cause Papa, and especially Mama, any more pain, but no
You can start a story anywhere you want.
And so I don’t want to start with what the police found that afternoon when they finally got to our house, and not because it’s too sad. There is no way that this can’t be sad. I mean, even though now I’m happy in the world, there’s no way a part of me won’t always belong to sadness. It’s my own, like the color of my eyes. My sisters’ deaths are in my genetics. I only have to think of them, of the littlest thing, of putting them up in front of me on my old Percheron mare, Ruby—which was safe, by the way, because Ruby had three gaits: standing still, walking slow, and walking a little faster—and I can still start to cry so hard, just for a moment, that I can’t see my charts in front of me. I just don’t want to start with “the tragedy,” the whomping of the helicopters overhead, people leaning out trying to take pictures of our log house, the site of the Grim Reaper murders, the interviews about us that people gave to reporters who bought sandwiches at the general store. (“They were quiet,” Jackie and Barney said of us. “They were polite. Always. Friendly, but not the kind to bother you.” I’ve wondered since, in situations like that, whether anyone ever says anything else.) All that press stuff was such a . . . mockery, though Jackie and Barney were kind and didn’t mean to bring anything unwelcome on us. I ended up having my own experiences with the compulsion to explain yourself when a reporter asks you a question, so by and by, I understood.