The miles between, p.14
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       The Miles Between, p.14

           Mary E. Pearson
 
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  And I do.

  I feel hands on my back. My arms. I float back to the world I still belong to. Mira, Aidan, and Seth are still with me like they promised. Even though I have said good-bye, I am not alone. I push up from the ground and sit on Mother’s grave like I am sitting in her lap. I wipe away the bits of grass and dirt that cling to my arms. I turn to look at Seth, who is sitting beside me. He reaches out and brushes something from my nose and smiles. “You’re a mess.”

  “I know,” I answer. “That’s what people have been telling me for years.”

  Aidan pulls a clean handkerchief from his pocket and holds it out to me. “No, he means—”

  “I know what he means, Aidan.” I take the handkerchief from him. “Thank you,” I whisper.

  I wipe the grime from my cheeks. Even with all the dirt smudging my face, for the first time in my life I don’t feel like a mess. There is nothing mysterious or magical about the truth. It is simply there, cold and hard and large and unforgiving. No wonder I ran from it. But now it is facing me instead of chasing me, and that makes all the difference. The noise it made at my back was far more frightening.

  I feel their stares, waiting for more answers. This far. There is no point in holding back now.

  “Your nose,” Aidan says. “Blow.”

  I follow his instructions. The sound is loud and harsh in the empty cemetery and quite nearly funny. I would laugh, but I don’t think the others are there yet.

  “It’s getting late.” Seth stands and helps me to my feet.

  “Wait!” Mira kicks off her shoes and runs back to the car. She returns with the bouquet of sunflowers and the peacock feather and places them in my arms. “I knew when we got these, there was a good reason. I just didn’t know what it was until now.” She doesn’t need to say what they are for. I turn and face the graves again. I brush the peacock feather against my cheek. It’s as soft as a baby blanket. And blue. Blue for a baby boy. I lay it on Gavin’s grave. I divide the bouquet in half and lay the first bunch on Father’s grave. If flowers can smile, then these do. A smile for Father, the smile he wanted. I take the second bunch and whisper into them, a whisper from me to Mother, and I lay them down for her. She whispers back, That’s my good girl.

  I turn to the others. Their stony faces are more than I can bear.

  “How’s that for a secret?” I say.

  Aidan is happy for the out. “Way better than the baboon heart.”

  Mira smiles. “Bonus points. Beats all of ours.”

  Seth doesn’t say anything. He just looks at me and nods, and I want to say something else that is light and distant to turn the attention away from what has just happened, so I can be invisible for just a moment longer, but that time has long passed and I feel the careful layering of their gazes warm and tight about me.

  I look away, squinting to the west at the last pinch of orange sun between two hills, and in that same instant, the sun vanishes, gone from view but leaving in its wake brilliant streaks of pink. The breeze is still. The music quiets. Gone.

  34

  CHANCE. IT WEAVES THROUGH our lives like a golden thread, sometimes knotting, tangling, and breaking along the way. Loose threads are left hanging, but the in and out, the back and forth continues, the weaving goes on. It doesn’t stop, even if that is exactly what you want it to do.

  The vagaries bunch up and change your life. And you adjust accordingly. You have no choice. But what do you do when chance comes along yet again and unravels the woof and warp of your existence that you’ve learned to survive by? How do you learn a new way of living? A new way of talking? A new way of thinking? Too much has been woven into you to leave it all behind.

  And yet.

  You must.

  Because chance, a fair day, and three friends have made it so.

  35

  MY PARENTS AND GAVIN ARE DEAD.

  Dead.

  The word transforms me. Today, in an instant, in the nakedness of a moment, my life is changed. Just as it was ten years ago. Today chance has played with me again, but in a different way. An unattended car. Trash duty. Meticulous Miss Boggs miscounting her tests. A well-timed bloody nose. An annoying teacher who made me voice what I want. A fair day.

  How would one fair day make a difference?

  I had no clear answer for Mr. Nestor this morning, but my guesses all proved to be true. Hope, belief, justice, order, courage, power, redemption. But mostly it gives you wholeness. The broken and loose threads of your life finally blend in with the sound ones and create the texture of who you are. Tattered but whole. And maybe if you could see the back side of anyone’s life, they would all have a degree of fraying.

  With the setting of the sun, the temperature has dropped. By the time we get to the bottom of the hill, it is dark. Mira shivers. So do I. I pull Lucky closer.

  “There’s a place up there to pull over,” Seth says. “I’ll see if I can figure out how to get the top up.” I see a barn ahead, not far off the road, a lamp at the peak of the roof creating a circle of light below.

  Mira is biding her time. I know. They all are. The questions will come soon. The space they give me won’t last long. Past protocol has been shattered. I have opened a door and explanations are necessary. I have already surmised they will be lengthy and painful and awkward. But necessary. I want them to know everything. I want them to know I’m not crazy. Seth turns at the dirt drive that leads to the barn and parks under the light. It casts a dim warm glow on us.

  “Let’s go inside,” Mira says. She is already out of the car and venturing in before we can respond. A light inside flips on. Seth grabs Lucky and we follow. We find her sitting on a bale of hay, settled in like she is waiting for something. Waiting for me. The biding time is over. Better now in the light where I can see their faces and know what they think of me.

  36

  “I CAN’T IMAGINE what it must have been like for you,” Mira says.

  We sit in a circle on a bed of straw, knee to knee, leaning against the bales of hay at our backs. I look at the past like I am looking at moving pictures of someone else, and I tell them everything—everything I can remember from my seven-year-old perspective and everything Mr. Gardian told me along the way too.

  I watch their faces as I speak, looking for flinching, glances between them, or other signs that I should stop, but I see none, so I go on. I tell them how the doctors thought that seeing my parents die right before my eyes had left me a bit touched. I admit to them that for a time it probably had. The truth was too hard to accept. But I was never crazy. Not like I heard some nurses whisper. Poor thing, maybe it would have been better for her to be on the plane with them. All the things they thought I didn’t hear, but I did. And then all the defenses I created to help me cope, like saying my parents abandoned me.

  “So you made up that story?” Seth asks.

  “Not exactly. That version was just there in my head. A coping mechanism, the doctors called it. And that became the truth of my world. If my parents had only abandoned me, no matter how despicable, then maybe . . .”

  “Then maybe one day they could come back,” Mira finishes.

  “Something like that.”

  Mira leans forward and picks at her shoes. “I know this isn’t the same, but I sort of did something similar when”—she looks up. “I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it, but my parents are divorced. It was a nasty one.” She looks back down at her shoes. “And when we were going through all the court battles, I actually pretended they weren’t my parents. I imagined that they were horrible fakes and that my real parents—the nice, reasonable ones—would come back and smooth the whole mess out. That all I wanted was for everything to be smoothed out and go back to the way it was.”

  She looks up and smiles. “I pretended like that for about three months until they forbade me to call them Harold and Vivian anymore. Those weren’t even their names. I pulled them out of thin air. Names of strangers. Because that’s what they were to me.” Her smile vanishes.
When they banished the names, well, by then I already knew the reasonable parents were never returning, so I went back to calling them Mum and Pop. But that fantasy got me through a tough patch.” She weaves her hands together and looks at me with a hesitant sideways glance. “So I understand why you would make something like that up, Des. When the world’s unreasonable, sometimes it seems like the only thing to do.”

  I look at Mira, staring straight into her eyes like I have never done before, looking in a way that most would deem impolite or uncomfortable, but it is neither. It makes me wonder why I have never done it before. I finally nod. “That’s right, Mira. We do what we have to do.”

  “A fantasy for a few months is one thing,” Aidan says, “but you never stopped. Didn’t you have, um, like, therapy?”

  I shake my head and grin. “You don’t know the half of it, Aidan. Poor Mr. Farrell. He was my father’s best friend and attorney, but I didn’t really know him because he lived far away in the city. I was so young and he was just a shadowy figure who came in and out of our lives. I still remember when he came to the house and tried to explain to me that he had been named my guardian and—”

  “Your guardian. So that’s why you call him that,” Seth says.

  I smile. “I was logical, even then.” I tell them about my move hundreds of miles away to the city where Mr. Gardian lived, but I didn’t do well there. Not that Mr. Gardian didn’t try, but he was an inexperienced bachelor and I was an angry, mixed-up seven-year-old. He thought that going back to the house in Langdon might help, so he actually moved back there with me, hiring yet another nanny to help him. But I didn’t like strangers in my house, where my mother and father and Gavin should have been. When we returned there, I only got worse. I withdrew and stopped talking and eating. I remember Mr. Gardian always on the phone, always taking me to doctors, often taking me to the park just to get away. Finally it was decided I needed a special school that was all about therapy.

  “It took a while,” I say. “But it eventually helped. Some. I’m at least talking, aren’t I? But all the therapy in the world might be able to convince you of the truth, but it doesn’t change how your brain has learned to work. Or maybe how I chose for it to work.”

  Mira leans back and folds her arms. “But why did Mr. Farrell bounce you around from school to school? It wasn’t your parents who kept switching you, like you told Mrs. Wicket.”

  “You eavesdrop far more than I give you credit for, Mira.”

  She shrugs and grins. “Sorry.”

  “I kept switching because—” I remember all the long talks with counselors where I listened but didn’t speak. “When you witness your whole family die and you think it’s your fault, you”—my breath shimmies in my lungs and I feel my cheeks grow hot. I slide my hands beneath my knees and hug them. “You think that maybe there’s something bad about you. Something that makes people disappear. It makes you afraid—”

  “You were afraid to get close to anyone again,” Seth finishes for me.

  I nod. “When I found myself looking forward to seeing someone the next day and the next at a school, I’d do something to put an end to it. By the time I was ten, I knew exactly what sorts of behaviors would have me packing my bags the next day. It got to the point that when the boarding school called, Mr. Gardian knew just what was coming. He never showed his displeasure.” I turn and look at Mira. “I suppose with him it was sort of like bonus points too. After what I had been through, he thought I had earned a certain dispensation, I guess, and he just accepted that I was destined to have my . . . difficult periods.”

  “You said you thought it was your fault. Why would you think that?” Seth asks.

  I look at Seth. Didn’t I already make that clear at the cemetery? I refused to say good-bye. Ever since that day, I’ve thought of that word over and over again and the difference it might have made—a fraction of a second, and a lifetime of wondering kind of difference. “When I didn’t say good-bye,” I tell him, “I felt like I helped to make all the seconds add up wrong.”

  Aidan snorts. “That’s craz”—he catches himself. “I mean—”

  “Of course it’s a crazy way to think, Aidan,” I say. “But sometimes the way life plays out is crazy too. At the very least, it defies explanation. Maybe one insanity balances out the other.”

  Aidan nods.

  “Why were your parents going somewhere without you in the first place?” Mira asks.

  “They had to. My baby brother, Gavin, was born with a hole in his heart. I didn’t really understand back then. My parents tried to explain it, but he looked healthy to me. I remember his tiny perfect fingers. But when he cried, he’d lose his breath, and I remember my mother doing anything to keep him happy. There was a special doctor they wanted to see, but he was very busy. He was booked for months.”

  “Except for your birthday,” Mira says, holding her cheeks like she is astonished all over again.

  “That’s right. My birthday and my mother’s. And that’s where the other things went wrong. It was the wrong day, by all accounts.” I explain about the appointment changes, flight changes, and that my parents weren’t even supposed to be at that airport in the first place. My father had planned to fly his own plane, but Gavin’s appointment was more important than convenience or birthdays. It was all so last-minute. Mr. Gardian relayed some of this information to me over the years; some I knew because I was there, but other bits came from therapists and counselors who unwittingly helped me piece together a warped logic of numbers and timing. And of course the worst timing of all happened right before my eyes.

  “Another plane that was coming in lost an engine,” I explain and then correct myself. “No, it didn’t just lose it—it was a catastrophic failure. The engine exploded, and they were so close to landing, the pilot didn’t have a chance to veer away. He flew straight into my parents’ plane. Esme, my babysitter, pulled me away from the window, but it was too late. I saw everything. What are the chances? The day that brought my mother took her away again, and everything that could go wrong, did. Maybe it is the Law of Truly Large Numbers. But when it happens to you, it doesn’t feel like a statistic.”

  Seth sighs. “And now today. Escrow closing on the same day as they died.”

  “That part wasn’t a coincidence. That was my doing. Mr. Gardian has wanted to sell the house for years, but he always deferred to me, and I always said no. I know everyone thought he was crazy for listening to a child, but he did. One time a Realtor even contacted me directly. Mr. Gardian was furious. I guess he thought that so much had been taken away from me, he wanted to give me some power back. He loved my parents. I never really stopped to think about how much he had lost too. A few months ago, he asked me about the house again. He told me it wasn’t wise to leave it standing empty. He said someone should be living in it. A family. I finally agreed. On one condition—”

  “That the sale was final on October 19,” Aidan finishes.

  “I thought that maybe—” I look away.

  “The numbers again,” Seth says.

  I nod. “I still”—I look at my open palms in my lap—“I still hoped there was a key. Something I had missed. A way to turn back time, maybe. If everything added up just right, the way everything had added up just wrong that day . . .” I look away from my hands into the rafters of the barn. “I know it’s not possible. I know. But sometimes the world makes no sense anyway.”

  “It’s unfair.”

  “It stinks.”

  “Sometimes you—”

  “Yes,” I whisper.

  Seth exhales a puffy breath of air. “You still worry, don’t you? About today. That it will take you like it did your mother.”

  I am caught off guard by his bluntness. I’ve never spoken it aloud, fearing that saying it might make it true, but he’s right. “I used to be terrified,” I finally admit. “In fact I hardly breathed on my birthdays, so Mr. Gardian let all my teachers and counselors know that my birthday was not to be mentioned or celebrate
d because it would send me into such a downward spiral.”

  I smile, realizing how far I have come. “Last year Mr. Gardian actually tested the waters and sent me a birthday card, and it didn’t send me into a complete catatonic state. I suppose that’s another sign of acceptance or getting better. Maybe I’ve just finally accepted that I don’t know why things happen the way they do. Sometimes it seems there’s pattern and purpose, and other times it’s all sheer chaos, and I suppose the day I die could fall into either category.” I lean back and cross my legs. “But whatever it is, chaos or design, it’s the only game in town, right? It’s not like we have a choice. Take the mixed bag or take nothing at all. And I’m tired of taking nothing at all.”

  “It’s a lot like a bowl of mixed nuts, don’t you think?” Mira says. “I hate the cashews, but I eat them to be polite. It would be wrong to pick through and just take the best nuts.”

  Best nuts? We stare silently at Mira. She blushes.

  “I’m sorry. That’s a terrible analogy. It’s not like you could choose the, well, you know, everything.” She looks down at her lap.

 
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