The miles between, p.10
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       The Miles Between, p.10

           Mary E. Pearson
 
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  An easy one. I would have posed something much tougher.

  Seth leans forward, his hands clasped between his knees like he is thinking. He finally smiles at Mira and shakes his head. “Honestly, Mira, it was just a big miscalculation on my part. I had seen him look in his desk drawer at the beginning and end of every class period since the first day of school, so I got curious. Finally, one day I snuck a look. You know what’s in there? A mirror. He’s checking to make sure everything is in place. I guess those carefully sprayed strands mean a lot to him. I mean, let’s face it, Bingham is flat-out at the bottom of my list of favorite teachers, but—” Seth shrugs and looks up. “This goes no farther than this boat, right?”

  Aidan, Mira, and I nod in unison.

  “Okay. The truth is, well, I felt sorry for him. His hair is the most important thing in his life, and I was squirming just watching him walk around with it straight up in the air like—”

  “A rooster?”

  “Exactly. After two minutes, I couldn’t stand it anymore and my hand just went up before I could even think what I was going to say. That’s where I went wrong. When he called on me, I had to say something. I tried to make light of it, thinking that would make it easier on him, but I didn’t calculate on the fact that everyone else in the class has Bingham at the bottom of their list too. They were waiting for a chance to laugh at his expense. And they all did.”

  Aidan sighs. “Boy, did they. Me included.”

  Mira grimaces. “Sorry. Me too.”

  “But you only told him the truth in the kindest way that you could,” I say.

  “Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth, no matter how you say it. They want to stay in their fantasy worlds.”

  Yes, I suppose they do. And until today, I would have seen nothing wrong with that.

  “So that’s my truth. You can’t tell anyone. I had a momentary soft spot for Bingham. It won’t happen again.”

  “Our lips are sealed,” Mira says.

  Seth slides to the bottom of the boat too. “Better ballast,” he explains, looking up at me. “Plus, we can lean back.” He gives the hem of my skirt a tug and raises his eyebrows. I guess he expects me to join his efforts at being better ballast. It is not like we are on a stormy sea, but I slide to the floor anyway. He’s right. It is more comfortable. It is warmer too, with more protection from the brisk breeze that is picking up across the lake. My whole left side is snug against Seth, and I try to move over, but it is no use because the curve of the bottom pushes me toward him. He will simply have to endure my close proximity since it was his idea.

  “Who’s next?” Seth asks.

  Aidan looks at me and smiles. His eyes narrow. “I have a question for—”

  “Wait!” I say. “Shouldn’t we know what the dare is before we answer questions?”

  Mira nods. “You’re right, Des. That’s the rules of the game.” She looks around our small quarters. There is not much one can do for a dare. “How about if someone refuses to answer they have to swim to shore?”

  “Are you crazy, Mira?” Aidan protests. “That water has to be fifty degrees.”

  I give Aidan the same menacing stare he gave me a moment ago. “It’s not a problem if you answer your question, Cowboy.” Perhaps now he will choose his question more wisely. He seems to get my drift and is not so eager to ask a question at all anymore.

  “That’s right,” Mira says. “Just pony up, Cowboy. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be called a dare.”

  Sometimes I am envious of Mira’s perky replies. They pack a punch but are so cheerful and genuine one can’t protest. Aidan is quiet.

  “What was your question, Aidan?” I prompt.

  He sighs and looks upward. I know he has reevaluated and is cautiously considering his query. Very wise because I had a question ready that would have sent him swimming to shore. Nothing comes between Aidan and his test scores. “All right, Des. What’s your favorite color?”

  “What?” Seth protests. “What kind of dumb question is that?”

  “A perfectly good question,” I say, and then, looking at Aidan, I add, “and a very wise one.”

  Mira chimes in with Seth. “No fair. I already know. Pink.”

  “It is not pink!” I say.

  “Is too. I’ve seen all your stationery that you write your letters to your aunt Edie on, and it’s all pink. I heard a long time ago that whatever you choose for your stationery is your true favorite color because it’s where you pour your heart out.”

  “That is the most foolish thing I’ve ever heard!” I tell her.

  “I’d bet it’s black.”

  “Do you pour your heart out?” Seth asks.

  Instantly they are all silent and looking at me.

  “You can’t ask me another question,” I tell him.

  “Aidan’s demoted to the lower decks. His question didn’t count. Besides, Mira answered it.”

  “I can’t help that—”

  “Destiny, it’s a simple question. Much easier than mine. Do you pour your heart out to your aunt Edie?”

  They are looking at me like they are wondering if I have a heart at all. Or perhaps just a baboon one, after all. Maybe that’s exactly what I have. I look down at my lap. “I write things. Things I wish—Things that—” I look up at Seth. “But I’ve never mailed the letters. They’re all in a box in the bottom of my dresser.”

  The wind blows over our heads. The boat rocks. They are silent.

  “And Mira’s right,” I say. “It is pink.”

  “Why write letters if you’re not going to mail them? Isn’t that a huge waste of time?” Aidan asks. Mira glances sideways at him and frowns.

  “It’s all right, Mira. It’s a logical question,” I say. “Because the writing of them was enough. The words are there. They’ve been said, if only on paper. That’s enough.”

  “Is it?” Seth asks.

  I look at him. I thought it was enough. At least all that I could expect. My rants. My accusations. My pleas. My apologies. Eloquently penned on pink stationery and hidden away. But of course it wasn’t enough, which is why there was always another letter. And another. An impotent one-way conversation.

  “Maybe not,” I answer. “But there’s not much I can do about that.”

  Seth grins, a slow, wicked upward turn of the corners of his mouth. “If you say so,” he answers. He shakes his head and looks back at the others. “Pink. I wouldn’t have guessed. Good question after all, Aidan. You’re allowed back on the upper decks.”

  If you say so?

  So many people in life think you have choices. Like Mrs. Wicket wondering if I will stay. Sometimes the choices are taken away from you. If I say so? I only say what is.

  Seth is already moving along in the game, asking Aidan a question, then Mira, all of them moving forward when I am still three steps behind, out of step as I have always been. I have never told anyone before about the unmailed letters—not counselors, not Mr. Gardian, not even Aunt Edie. It is like Seth says, sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth. Sometimes a fantasy world is easier. Not only easier. Wiser.

  I think about the letters I wrote, the pink stationery that Mr. Gardian always kept me well supplied with, the very same kind Mother bought me when I was five and just learning to write. The pages I crafted over and over again, counting each letter, thinking just the right amount might make a difference. There was the year they all had to be a strong solid number, exactly one hundred words long, and the following year, when I was sure that each sentence needed nineteen words, and then again when each letter needed four paragraphs, one for each person in our family, or what should have been a family. I thought that if all the timing of the writing and the reading were just right, it might undo all the timing of the past. And then finally, in the last year, just the same word over and over again filling both sides of the paper. Never mailed. Always neatly tucked away, because if my secret missives were to bring about any change, it wouldn’t happen via postal delivery.
Tucked away because I knew I had no choice or voice, and no words, no matter how carefully arranged, could ever change anything. Tucked away because, really, I wasn’t sure I deserved to be heard.

  If I say so?

  I look at Seth, still trading in details and technicalities with Aidan. Still listening, spouting, engaged. Moving forward. Moving on without me. Leaving me behind. I clear my throat. “I do say so.”

  Seth stops midsentence and looks at me. “What?”

  “Today. Now. I want to go.”

  “Go where?”

  “May I finish what I was saying?” Aidan grumbles.

  “Shhh!” Seth and Mira both tell him.

  “I’ll row,” Mira says cheerfully, lifting herself back up to the seat. “Where do you want to go, Des? The other side of the lake?”

  “My house. I want to go see my parents. I have things to say.”

  Seth nods.

  Aidan’s brows rise.

  Mira grins.

  “It’s about time,” she says. “Let’s go.”

  27

  IT’S ABOUT TIME. All about time. Could it have been different? We all know the past cannot be relived, but how many of us really have the will not to visit that realm? A world where you imagine the steps that might have been placed in a different order, a word spoken louder or not, a breath that might have been exhaled a heartbeat faster. A split second that fractures into endless other possibilities. If only I had been a different person. Or they had. Even for a few minutes. Could I have been kinder? Could they? Would one step have added up to a thousand different ones?

  I look back every day. The sky was filled with fat, fluffy clouds, the kind that move from one shape to another. A bird. An elephant. A rabbit. Shapes that make the sky look like a child’s party plate. A birthday party plate. How could they not see that? A brief spatter of rain pelted us as we ran to the car.

  Father was nervous on the way to the airport. He preferred to be the pilot and not the passenger, but a last-minute change in their appointment time made it impossible to fly his own jet. The flight plan couldn’t be cleared in time for the destination airport. Of course, at seven years old, I knew nothing of flight plans or changed appointments—Aunt Edie related these details later—but I do remember Father twisting the band of his watch, and checking the time over and over again. He sat in the front seat with Esme, the babysitter, who was driving. Mother, Gavin, and I sat in the back. He turned often to check on Gavin and then would give a cursory glance to me. He lingered once, trying to get me to smile. I turned away and looked out the window. It was my birthday, after all. Mother was too preoccupied with Gavin to notice Father’s nervousness or my silence. Gavin was smiling and cooing and not looking sick at all. “That’s my good boy,” Mother said over and over again, not even trying anymore to play up the sick story. It was clear her allegiance had already shifted.

  Langdon Airport is small—only two gates—with one public waiting area. Esme parked the car, and we went in to see them off. She pulled me close and whispered in my ear, “Don’t sulk. Say good-bye. I’ll buy you an ice cream on the way home.” If only she had known me better. The world had been at my fingertips. A single ice cream cone was hardly a fair trade.

  At the last minute, when I realized my sulking wasn’t going to stop them, I cried. I created an embarrassing scene that made them stop. Mother knelt and began to cry too and explained to me all over again why they had to go today. But they were still going. She wiped my tears with her fingers. “There now, be a good girl, Destiny. Mama’s good girl. No more tears. Let me see you smile. Give Mama a nice good-bye.”

  I wasn’t a good girl. I didn’t smile. I didn’t say good-bye. I was silent, stunned that they really were leaving me.

  “We have to go, Caroline. Everyone’s boarded. They’re holding the flight for us. She’ll be fine.” Father gave my forehead a rushed kiss. Mother did too. It was a fitting scene for Esme and anyone else who might be watching. Their final obligation was fulfilled, they were rid of me. They walked away, Gavin still smiling at me from his car seat as it swung from Father’s hand. The babysitter grabbed my hand to go, but I pulled away. I ran to the window to watch them walk across the tarmac and up the stairs of the waiting plane. Within seconds, the stairs were pulled away, the blocks behind the wheels pulled, and they were moving, taxiing out to the runway. The puffy clouds above had pulled together in a thick, dark blanket.

  Was it too late? Would they know? I began to lift my hand. Maybe they would look out the window and see me. But the timing. Changed appointments. Changed planes. Running late. A hundred unrelated events that choose to come together at a single moment. A weaving of errors that some might call coincidence. I was too late. My face flushed hot. They were gone. They didn’t look back. They left without me. “Destiny!” The babysitter pulled me away from the window. She pressed my face into her belly. She pressed so tight I couldn’t breathe. Or maybe I stopped on my own. They left me. My parents and Gavin left me behind.

  If that wasn’t enough, they sent me away when they returned, out of the house so I wouldn’t taint their good little boy. Moving on without me. Not that I care anymore. It’s been too long to care.

  28

  IT IS DECIDED THAT WE WILL “finish our escapades” in Langdon, as Mira put it, before we go to my house, which is beyond the outskirts of town. That way, as I explained, if things turn sour, we will at least have our day in Langdon to remember—and as I didn’t explain, I will still have time to change my mind. When we return with our boat, we see all the other boats battened down for the winter, pulled onto scaffolds on the shore, canvas stretched tight over their tops.

  “I thought he wasn’t closing up until the end of the week.”

  “Changed his mind, I guess.”

  “The weather is turning.”

  “But how did he get all those boats put up so fast?”

  “He’s too old.”

  “Must have had help.”

  We see the boat keeper at the end of the dock waving us in, Lucky by his side. Mira expertly guides us close to the dock, and the boat keeper slips a rope over the cleat to secure us.

  Baaaa.

  “Miss us, fella?” Seth says, unmistakably relieved that the boat keeper didn’t abscond with Lucky.

  We get out of the boat, saying our hellos to Lucky, who is happy to see us. “Look, his tail is wagging.”

  “Do you think it means the same thing as a dog’s wagging tail?”

  “Of course it does!”

  “I don’t think so, Mira.”

  Baaaa.

  Seth picks him up. “Let’s go get him a snack. Thanks for—” He turns around, looking in all directions. “Where’d he go?” We turn too. The boat keeper is gone. Off the dock. Out of sight.

  “When he closes up, he doesn’t waste time, does he?”

  Apparently not. I scan the shore, the park, the shadows in the trees beyond. He is gone.

  “He probably wanted to get lunch.”

  “At three o’clock?”

  “Sounds good to me.”

  We indulge Aidan. Our first stop is our second lunch of the day. This time pizza by the slice. I get three. Pepperoni. Hawaiian. Veggie.

  The money flows.

  We have our picture taken at a novelty studio, Seth and Aidan as gunslingers and Mira and I as saloon girls.

  We get henna tattoos; mine is a thorny vine that wraps around my upper arm like a piece of jewelry.

  We shoot cardboard ducks at the arcade.

  Minutes later, we are saving a mama duck and her brood of four ducklings who are crossing a busy road. Aidan notes the irony. Mira notes the fairness. Seth notes the timing. I try to note nothing at all.

  The afternoon is giddy. Lightness. I only allow myself to think of what comes next. Not later. Minutes, seconds, in the moment, in the now. It’s like it is all happening in one long inhaled breath. Keep moving, don’t think. I am smiling. One time I laugh. A loud belly laugh. It draws looks from the others.
I don’t blame them. It sounds foreign to me too. Aidan even whispers under his breath to Mira, What’s with her?

  A fair day. That’s what. For a couple of hours, I am outrunning chance. It is a day like no other. A once-in-a-lifetime day, and it makes me wonder: What kind of journey am I really on? One to lead me away from all that is unfair in my life, or a journey to lead me back to all that is right?

  We pass an appliance store. A dozen televisions all on the same channel fill the front window—a travel channel showing the green hills of Austria. I am hoping Mira doesn’t break out in song. A salesman within walks to the door and opens it like he’s been expecting us. Suddenly the green hills disappear from the televisions and are replaced with a News Alert message. Seconds later, the president appears at a podium. Aidan is already walking through the open door of the store, and we are right behind him to hear what the news is about.

  “He’s still wearing the same clothes from this morning! I saw that shirt. I almost touched that shirt!”

  “Shhh!”

  The voice of an unseen reporter tells us that the president is holding an impromptu press conference from his mountain weekend retreat. He called for the conference to announce something important. The president smiles and begins.

  “Thank you all for coming on such short notice. I’ve been thinking about and discussing this for a long time with my advisers, but just this morning I spoke with a young man . . .”

  The president goes on to describe a patriotic teen that he met in a small town not far from his retreat, a boy that any of us might know, he could be our brother, our son, our student, a bright young man with hopes and dreams for the future of our great county. I wanted to reach inside the television and shake the president and tell him to stop. Now Aidan would be insufferable for at least the next decade.

 
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