It was ten years ago, the year after Beatrice had buried her husband. Anna arrived at the door with nothing but a neatly packed, waxed cardboard fruit box of mementos and a small suitcase of worn-out and outgrown clothes. She had kept a sandalwood music box of her mother’s and an antique silver mirror, a beautiful, handmade doll, a pair of her father’s creased, brown leather shoes, and a worn-out tweed jacket—his only one—perhaps the one he was married in.

The girl had arrived with five crisp hundred-dollar bills in an unmarked envelope in her pocket. And the passbook to her father’s savings account, which contained three thousand, eight hundred dollars. There was insurance money too, which Beatrice carefully put away for the girl’s future.

It was awkward at first. The child seemed indifferent to comforting. Beatrice would take her in her arms, and it was like hugging a wooden chair. She was a cold little thing, a quiet child who rarely laughed or even smiled.

In those early days together, Beatrice used to wake at night to the terrible, lonely sound of the girl crying in her sleep. The child never cried in daylight though. If something bothered her, she withdrew into herself and became so small and silent that she seemed almost to disappear. This swallowing quietness was even more upsetting to Beatrice than tears.

But struggling through those first bewildering months with the girl helped soften the edge of Beatrice’s own losses. This new problem, this strange child, helped point Bea forward. It became her purpose to blow warm life back into the girl’s frozen heart. She became dedicated to this incubation. Tenderly, she devoted herself to the child’s revival, and for the first time since Niko’s death, she saw the future open up again before her.

But when she had emptied her bag of tricks for the girl and still couldn’t warm her, Beatrice saw that it would take something radical: perhaps the strong sun would help, perhaps the open country. She didn’t know; she went on instinct. She turned away from the familiar. She turned boldly away, trying hard not to look back at what she’d left behind her.

“Let’s just choose a place, dear. How does that sound?” Beatrice said, rolling the map out before them on the table. The girl shrugged disinterestedly, but Beatrice had seen her eyes fly open in surprise for an instant. Yes, that’s what she wanted—to shake her back to life. To show her that courage came in many forms and sizes. Even in the form of a foolish, overweight, forty-year-old widow. Maybe Beatrice wanted to convince herself of this too: that the world was still there for her, still open, still big. That it wasn’t all endings yet for her, that there were still beginnings ahead.

“Let’s just pick a place that looks nice and let’s go there. It’s crazy. What do you say?” She was frightening herself with this idea.

What if she did take the bait? Then they would have to do it. There was no going back on this girl. “We don’t have to stay. We can just explore. We can always come back here.”

“What about school?” The girl was skeptical. She didn’t fully trust Beatrice yet. She didn’t trust anybody.

“We’ll get books. We’ll bring them with us. I’ll teach you. And if we find a place that we like, you can go to school there.”

“Let’s see,” Beatrice bent over the map. “Shall we cross the Mississippi? We could head south or west …” The girl stepped a little closer and stiffly peered over at the map. “It’s a big country, we could even go north. I hear Maine’s nice. Or Minnesota. Look at all of these lakes! We could go fishing and swimming. We could find an old farmhouse and fix it up however we like …”

The girl was silent but appeared to be thinking, so Beatrice did not say anything more. She traced highways, rivers, and mountain ranges with her finger. She became so engrossed with the possibilities that she forgot, for a moment, about the girl standing so quietly beside her. Until she was startled by a voice, tentative and small, that broke into her thoughts.

“Could we have a garden?”

Beatrice looked up from the map and straightened to standing. She turned toward the girl and a slow smile spread across her face. “We’ll have a big garden. Definitely a garden. We’ll grow tomatoes and corn and sunflowers, and we’ll have birdhouses all around the yard. And every spring we will have the first blooming zinnias of anyone in town. How does that sound?”

The girl’s pale cheeks lifted a little and her small teeth peeked out from between her pink lips as she gave Bea a fragile smile. “Okay,” she said.

“Then I think we should head west,” Beatrice said, turning back to the map. “We need to find a place where the soil is good. See the Great Plains?” She swept her hand across the middle of the country.

The girl stepped to the table and examined the map closely now. With her eyes she traveled from the realm of the familiar—the New England shores where she had spent her nine years—and moved westward. She went straight through the middle. She crossed the Mississippi and traveled just east of where Beatrice’s hand lay. She lightly touched the tip of her finger to the map—to the very center of the map.

“Kansas?” Beatrice asked, willing herself to be calm—and open. Her heart stepped up its pace and began to beat hard against her chest.

Anna nodded.

“Do you think that’s the place for us?” Beatrice asked with complete seriousness. The girl shrugged. Her cheeks reddened. “Did you see The Wizard of Oz?”

The girl mutely nodded, yes.

“Did you like it?”

“Yes,” Anna said. “Except I didn’t like it when Dorothy was caught in the witch’s castle and the witch sent the flying monkeys out the window to get the scarecrow.”

“That was a scary part all right.” The girl was studying the map closely now, whispering the names of the dream towns that walked across the rectangular state in the dead center of the country: Haysville, Crystal Springs, Kiowa, Enterprise, Cedar Vale, Whitman, Maple City, Council Grove, El Dorado, Mt. Hope, Pretty Prairie, Elyria, Paradise. She did not know the meaning of these words, but the sounds of them rang like little bells to her and she could hear her future in them.

Beatrice bent close, her head almost touching Anna’s and said, “Kansas, huh?” The girl shrugged again. It was that shrug—of anticipated disappointment, of accepted defeat, of already abandoned expectations—that did it.

“Okay. We’ll do it. Let’s go there and check it out,” Beatrice said firmly. “Oh boy,” she sighed, feeling the full weight of her decision, feeling amazed, feeling afraid but … willing. “Kansas …” she said again and smiled. She covered the girl’s small, cool hand, lying across the sunflower state with her own and squeezed it.

Beatrice expected Anna to extract her hand immediately, or to leave it inert and unresponsive until she pulled her own away, but she didn’t. The girl’s cheeks showed encouraging spots of color now.

“Oh boy, oh boy,” Beatrice said shaking her head and smiling. “I never thought I’d live in Kansas.” The child smiled tentatively back and gave Beatrice’s hand a quick, hard squeeze.

***

Crossing the prairie at night, they couldn’t see a thing, only darkness to either side and in the distance the tall mysterious lights of a grain elevator or the clustered twinkling of a town.

During the day, she watched everything. She could not tear her eyes away from the endless landscape of America as it rolled out before her. She had never imagined it so big, so wide, so empty. After a while, Anna curled up on the front seat and slept. When the girl had bad dreams, Beatrice would talk to her in a low, confident voice of all the good things to come. “We will have a kitchen with lots of cupboards,” she said. “White  ooden cupboards. And a cuckoo clock on the wall with a little blonde bird that looks just like you. That springs out on the hour and says: Cuckoo-Cuckoo.

“And shiny brass beds. One for me and one for you. With lots of fluffy goose down pillows. And we’ll hang our sheets on the line in the sun, so that every night you’ll fall asleep with the smell of the blue sky in your dreams.

“We’ll have a good life, Anna. You and me—” Bea would say, only to look and find that the child was already sleeping.

It was after ten when Bea finally pulled off the highway and onto the dark streets of Elder’s Grove. The place looked as good as any and she was exhausted. She had assumed they would be able to find a motel room, but after passing one sleeping town after another, she’d realized her mistake. “I guess we’re in the country now,” she said to herself as she drove down the main street of the town and saw that the shops were all dark. PATIENCE + THRIFT = SUCCESS, she read from a big sign as she turned into town. “Yes, yes, for God’s sakes patience, Bea,” she muttered, impatiently. She just wanted a place to lay her head! Was this so much to ask?

She had just about decided to pull off the road and sleep in the car when she saw a small battered sandwich board sign with half the letters fallen off. It said: ROSE’S R OMS—WE WE COME WALK-INS. The shabby, peeling framed house didn’t look much better than the sign, but there was no choice. If she wanted a bed, this was it. She angled the station wagon to the curb and shut the engine off, dropping her head onto the seat back and heaving an exhausted sigh as the quiet night seeped in through the open windows. Beatrice glanced down at the child who was sleeping on the seat beside her, and for a brief moment she felt a rise of fear and a spinning sense of vertigo. “I am responsible for this creature,” she told herself. “She’s got only me and no one else.” Bea hated to think what would happen if she messed this up.

What on earth are we doing here? Is this crazy? Where are we going? She studied the child with a worried look as if her face might hold the answer to these mysteries. But her answers were only the even breath of sleep.

Bea slipped out of the car into the balmy summer air. She pushed the door against the latch quietly so as not to wake the child, and stretched her cramped arms and legs with a moan of relief. She kept listening for something but there was, amazingly, nothing to hear. It was the most complete silence she had ever experienced, except maybe underwater. There was no highway noise, no sirens, no music, no voices. All was still. She shivered a little the strangeness of it all. But where are all the people?

Just as she was about to get back into her car and get the hell out of this queer, hushed place, she heard the deep, low rumble of a V8 engine. Bea waited, standing there in the street, feeling lost and a little bit scared. The engine sound came closer. And then, as if she had called it to herself from out of the black night, the cheerful headlights of a truck appeared around the corner. Bea watched as the truck slowed in front of her car. She started to wonder if this wasn’t very stupid of her to just be standing here like this.

Maybe she should be preparing to defend herself and Anna against the advances of some perverted creep. But before she had a chance to look for her tire iron, the truck stopped and a disarmingly gentle male voice spoke up out of the darkness of the cab’s interior.

“Everything okay, ma’am? You need some help maybe?”

A boy, who had been riding in back, sprang over the side of the truck. He surprised Beatrice by coming to stand companionably beside her, almost rubbing shoulders, close enough to take her hand, close enough so she could smell his sweet, boy sweat. “Car trouble?” the voice asked again. “I’ll be happy to give you a lift somewhere.”

“Oh,” Bea sighed and pushed up her sleeves tiredly. “We’ve been driving all day and we needed to stop for the night. I saw the sign for rooms.” She looked back toward the darkened house doubtfully. “I know it’s kind of late … but I was hoping we could stay.”

The man in the truck indicated the boy with a tilt of his head, “Well, you’re all set then. Here’s your man. Rose is his aunt. She’s got the rooms.”

The boy grinned. “Rooms are all empty—always are. She never has anybody. But she won’t cook.”

“Shorty’s is just up the way here. You can get yourself a decent breakfast there in the morning,” the man said.

“But just don’t get the oatmeal. It’s gross,” the boy added.

The man in the truck laughed. “Yeah, he’s right. Steer clear of the oatmeal and the Hawaiian omelet. By the way, I’m Harlan Whitehouse.” A burly hand came out to meet her and Bea stepped forward and shook it.

“I’m Bea.”

“Pleased to meet ya. Welcome to Elder’s Grove.”

He was an attractive man, Bea noted, and friendly. But he seemed shy, and once they were introduced he was quickly at a loss for something to say. He turned back and pointed his finger at the boy. “I need you early tomorrow and I need you awake. So don’t go out gallivanting.” Then his expression softened and he winked at Bea. He said goodnight and pulled off—to Bea’s great disappointment.

Beatrice looked after the truck’s diminishing tail lights with a twinge of unaccountable regret. She turned to the boy and he shrugged and smiled. She tried to smile back, though she almost felt unequal to the effort. “Is that guy married?” she asked suddenly, her voice poised between humor and hope.

“Yep,” the boy answered. “’Fraid so.” He gave her a sly, sideways look. “But I’m not.” This made Beatrice laugh out loud, and the boy laughed with her and she liked him all at once.

It was a humid July night, and the boy was naked from the waist up with his shirt slung loosely at his hips. Beatrice watched as he twisted and fished for something in his back pocket. He was lean and muscular, his body just fleshing into manhood, and she could see the outline of every rib as he turned. He untied his shirt and shrugged into it, leaving it hanging unbuttoned. He patted the breast pocket and smiled, gingerly extracting a crooked cigarette.

“Mind if I have a smoke before we go in? My aunt won’t let me smoke in the house. She hates the stink. It’s been a hellish long day. We’re harvesting wheat, you know.”

“I’m surprised your aunt lets you smoke at all. You’re awful young to smoke.” Bea watched with surprise as he struck a match and lit it. “Do your parents let you do that?”

He shrugged and shook out the match. “I’ve been smoking since I was twelve.”

Bea was tempted to give him a lecture about the idiocy of smoking, but she restrained herself. This wasn’t her kid and she was tired. So she crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the car to wait.

The boy smoked and looked out into the street, turning now and again to calmly study the woman beside him, squinting as he took hungry drags on his cigarette as if it were his only sustenance.

Bea fidgeted at first, a little uncomfortable with the silence. She tried to think of things to say, but she was too tired to make conversation.

The boy did not seem to care either way; he seemed willing to chat or just as happy to be silent. He was absolutely at his ease, in no apparent hurry to finish, move, or speak. As he studied her, there wasn’t a trace of the insolence that filled the eyes of many fifteen-year-olds.

But there was a sort of unsparing appraisal, a kind of honest scrutiny that Bea found a little unnerving in such a young face. But she had nothing to hide really, so she stood up to it without flinching. After a while he smiled slowly and cocked his head.

“So. You running away from home?”

This made Beatrice laugh. “Oh boy. Is it that obvious? Honestly, I haven’t a clue what I’m doing.” She laughed again, a bit wistful now. “Yes, we’re looking for a life. Got any great ideas?”

At the word we, the boy bent to look in the car window and saw the sleeping girl for the first time. She was clutching a pillow like it kept her afloat, her long hair fanned wildly around her.

“Maybe you should stay here?” he suggested, peering at the girl.

Bea took this lightly at first and almost laughed, but then she looked around at the empty streets and quiet houses. A shiver coursed through her. Everything seemed so strange: the truck coming out of nowhere right to where she stood, the boy’s uncanny gravity, the stillness, and her own exhaustion. It all combined to make the moment seem dense and grainy like an old movie, so that it almost felt like fate was pressing on her shoulder.

“Do you like it here?” she heard herself say in a voice that sounded thick and odd. The boy turned back to her with a thoughtful look, as if he’d never stopped to consider such questions.

“I don’t know. It’s home. The wind blows a lot,” he answered. He paused to think of something more definitive to add but couldn’t come up with much. “It’s okay, I guess,” he finally said with a shrug. “As good as anywhere.” He sucked the last of the smoke into his thin frame and threw the butt on the ground. “Ready? I’ll show you up. The place is never locked, so you can come and go as you please. Should we wake her?” He nodded toward the car.

“I hate to. She’s had an awful hard time sleeping lately. Why don’t you show me the room first. Then I’ll come back and carry her up.”

“Suit yourself.” The boy started to walk across the dry lawn toward the darkened building. Bea followed. There was a light affixed to the eave of the garage and it cast long, eerie shadows from their bodies over the ground. As they were about to step in the side door, Beatrice heard a cry.

They both spun around and saw the girl standing small against the car, a tight patch of darkness except for her upturned face and yellow hair that grabbed the angled light. She was standing on the grass, clutching the door handle with both hands behind her and seemed unwilling or unable to let go of the car.

“Beatrice,” she called in alarm. “Don’t go!”

Bea motioned with her arm. “Come here, honey. We were just going inside to get a room. I was going to come right back out for you. Come on, sweetheart, come with us then.” But the girl didn’t budge. She seemed fastened there, caught behind some invisible barrier.

“I had a nightmare,” she said in a voice that grew fainter and trailed into silence, unable to project itself over the distance between them.

 

When he heard her cry out, the boy, Jonny Carter, did not hesitate. He started toward her, quickly crossing the lawn. When he reached the car, he held out his hand.

As the girl looked up at him, the darkness that always seemed to confront her upon waking began to subside, but the familiar headache that went with it began to set in earnest, slanting behind her eyes so that she had to squint to see him.

Through half-closed eyes she saw that his hair and chest and eyebrows were covered in a dust that made him look pale and glowing. Strange and ethereal and blue, she thought, like a moth or an angel even. And there were patches of darkness on his body where the night had pasted him with shadow, where, it seemed to her, he harbored pockets of magic; ragtag, like the pied piper. She wondered what on earth could be inside of them.

The girl slowly released her frozen grip upon the door, reached out, and took his hand. He reminded her of a luna moth she had once seen fluttering over a city street after a summer rain, silvery and night-draped. The reason she took his hand was that she suspected he might be from Mars or some other planet, like her, dropped down from nowhere to nowhere. She was watching him, instead of watching where she was going and she stumbled a little, inadvertently wrenching his hand and squeezing it a bit too hard. She would always, always remember how he didn’t wince or scold or pull away but only looked down and smiled at her and said softly, “I got ya.”

It must have been then, when she first saw him, bare chest powdered in grain dust and dark night obscuring his eyes. It must have been then.


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