Rebecca Sawyer was the first person from Vaughn to score a perfect 1600 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. When the news hit the Valley Journal, Mr. Sumner, her advisor, who had always said she was honors material and who had recommended on more than one occasion that she aim for state college, maybe for elementary education because she seemed to have the patience to work with children, marched her by the arm into his office. She had never been one of the best students in the class, not even in the top ten, but Mr. Sumner was also the boy's basketball coach, and Rebecca knew that in his world, where people were either starters or substitutes, she had just been called off the bench. He spoke to her with half-time urgency. He flattened his hands on his desk and shook his head. He called her young lady. He was incredibly excited, he said, about her future.
Rebecca couldn't see how a score a few hundred points one way or the other could have much of an effect on anyone's future when five years before a girl from Fort Kent, near the border of Quebec, had scored 1550, only to become a veterinarian's assistant.
"That's Fort Kent," Mr. Sumner said, pointing to his right at a bookcase lined with trophies. "This," he said, tapping his desk, "is Vaughn."
In the hall outside his office, a group of junior girls stopped talking as Rebecca walked by on her way to the bathroom where she stood alone in front of the mirror looking at herself. Next to the morning's article about her scores, the paper had printed a photo of her at the kitchen table. She had large dark eyes, dark hair, and a round face. Some people said she looked Italian or Portuguese; everyone agreed she looked nothing like her parents, grandparents, cousins, or aunts. The bell rang for the beginning of the next period but she kept staring. Some part of her was speaking to some other part of her, deciding something without her permission.
On her way into Mr. Cunningham's U.S. history, she accidentally slammed the door and felt everyone look up as she crossed the room to her assigned seat by the window. Mr. Cunningham continued talking, referring to the reading from the night before while pointing to the board with yesterday's quizzes held curled in his fist. He asked what had happened in 1865, and looked from her to the left side of the room and back to her. Mention of the year brought the text before her mind as if onto a screen, the words scrolling down through her thoughts. She rarely spoke in class, but now, she felt, Mr. Cunningham and the other students waited for her to confess that she had always known the answers.
Rebecca's grandmother, Grandmame, was dying very slowly of old age, and every afternoon before dinner Rebecca spent a few minutes in her small room off the kitchen, which smelled of the hall closet and of burnt dust from the electric heater Grandmame turned all the way up. According to Rebecca's mother, it would have been cheaper for them to build their own power plant.
Rebecca sat in the green chair and looked with her Grandmame through the window across Central Street to the Methodist Church and told her, as she did every day, how school went and what boys she liked. She made up the names of the boys.
"I thought of something to tell you," Grandmame said, "and now I can't remember. Well."
Grandmame removed her hand from Rebecca's and gripped the arm of her chair as if she were about to pull herself up.
"Have you heard anything from your brother?" Grandmame asked, and Rebecca shook her head. Grandmame asked this all the time, and the answer was always no. She dozed off again, her hands folded in her lap.
No one was allowed to speak of her brother in the house, except Grandmame, who did whatever she wanted. Even so, Grandmame always spoke about Jeremy in a whisper. Usually in the same breath she added that Rebecca's mother was cold. Everyone needed someone to blame, Rebecca supposed.
Jeremy's last visit, three months ago, had ended with a scene in the kitchen Rebecca would never forget. She didn't know how it started, or what the argument was about, but suddenly their mother's face turned red and she started screaming obscenities at the top of her voice. Jeremy's face drained for a moment, with his eyes closed, as if he had left his body, and then he flew through the air to punch their mother so hard in the face that her nose exploded with blood. Before Rebecca could even be sure what had happened, Jeremy ran out the door.
When he arrived home from work, her father cursed and threw his bag onto the kitchen table. "He can't keep running," he yelled from the living room where he stood looking out the window toward the river. He said he thought Jeremy had probably hopped the train and gone north, as he had the last time he ran away, to a tiny place called Dennis where he knew people. Her father said he didn't think there was much up there now, since the end of the seventies when they stopped driving logs down the river. Maybe abandoned loggers' camps and old farms. Probably squatters.
"I remember what I wanted to tell you," Grandmame said as Rebecca sat up. Rebecca thought it might be something new this time, even though Grandmame often got worked up over things she had just talked about the previous day. Rebecca was the only one who listened, and the only one Grandmame usually wanted to talk to.
"Not long after I was married to your grandfather, we bought this farm from a family who had seen trouble. I forget what kind now, money trouble. We gave them a good price I think, but they needed to sell in a hurry, so I believe we paid less than we might have."
Rebecca had heard this before and felt annoyed for a moment. The story went along as usual: the family they bought the house from had a daughter who died, and they came to Rebecca's grandparents asking to bury the girl in the graveyard. Their family had lived on the land for a hundred years. But Rebecca's grandfather said no.
Grandmame leaned over as if she believed this was the first time she was telling Rebecca the story. Each time her Grandmame told it she reminded Rebecca not to tell anyone, not even her parents.
"One afternoon I was working in the abandoned garden when I found a patch of loose ground. I dug deeper with the trowel until I hit something hard. I thought it was a stone. That ground was full of stones when we bought the place. But when I cleared the dirt away, it was a girl's face. There was dirt in her mouth over her teeth, and over her eyelashes. Her skin was half rotted away. The smell was just the most horrible thing I had ever known. I went into the house for a sip of your grandfather's whiskey."
Grandmame paused, shaking her head. It seemed as if she was catching her breath to continue. Rebecca tried to think of something to say to stop her from going on.
"I covered her up. I put my garden on top of her. What else could I do? If I told your grandfather, he would have dug her up. I'm the only one who knows she is there." Grandmame's face trembled slightly, and her eyes watered.
Rebecca rested her hand on Grandmame's arm. There was no girl buried in the ground. According to Rebecca's mother, the story had been circulating around the town for a hundred years, made up by the man who had owned the Valley Journal at the turn of the century as a Halloween tale for his daughter and her friends. It had been reprinted several years before to mark the anniversary of the paper.
In the field behind the house the morning light pinched Rebecca's eyes and seemed to sap her strength. She dressed and walked outside carrying her shoes. Wet grass slid between her toes; the sky at dawn had been orange, she could tell, from the white haze still on the horizon. The air held still for a moment over the farm, waiting for the late morning breeze to sweep up the valley from the ocean. Maybe it would be warm, or the clouds might roll back from the coast. She stood there until the breeze came up, sending the maple and oak leaves into a boil. She was waiting, but she didn't know what for.
The school sat on top of the hill, its windows dark, as if no one was there, though she knew everyone was already in first period, lined up in rooms watching the teachers. Rebecca's friend Kathleen waited for her outside the front doors, in the usual place. Kathleen didn't care about being the smartest girl in school, she didn't even take the S.A.T., but Rebecca couldn't be sure how much would change between them now.
"I was about to give up on you," Kathleen said. "Smartest girl in school and she doesn't know what time it is." Kathleen shook her head disapprovingly. Rebecca started to apologize, but Kathleen raised her hand. "I always knew you were smart. Nothing you can do about it."
Rebecca was relieved that Kathleen thought being smart was a simple characteristic, like having hideous toes, that shouldn't change anything. And maybe in the past this had been true. Rebecca's father had told her that Grandmame was extremely smart, though you couldn't tell now. He described a time when he was young and his father was lecturing Grandmame on what was true and not true in state politics. She had embarrassed him after church by disagreeing with him in front of his friends. They were walking through the church parking lot, Grandmame yanking Rebecca's father along by the hand as her husband told her what was what. When they reached the end of the parking lot, Grandmame began reciting numbers at the top of her voice. At some point, Rebecca's father realized that Grandmame was listing the license plate numbers of all fifty cars in the church parking lot.
Rebecca's English teacher, Mrs. Lucas, called her up front after class and congratulated her, smiling thinly. Several other teachers did the same thing, but none of the students said anything at all. On the surface nothing changed, but people in the lunchroom seemed quieter when she passed, and when she sat down in the corner next to Kathleen, no one looked over at them. It wasn't what people would say, Rebecca realized, it was what they wouldn't say—even the teachers—as they tried to act naturally. Even Kathleen measured her words as she told a story about her boyfriend David's car breaking down. They were afraid now—of what, she couldn't be sure. Maybe of what she was thinking.
After school, while her mother was out shopping and her father at work, Rebecca wandered through her parents' bedroom looking at the old pictures of her relatives, most of whom she had never met. She found a portrait of her grandfather standing outside the old barn in his overalls, frozen in that single moment. She sat down on the edge of her parents' bed and looked at a picture on the wall of her brother Jeremy when he was five, leaning over the porch with his face covered in jam. In another picture, at their uncle's wedding, he stood at six years old in a blue blazer and yellow tie, already wearing their father's face. Five years older than her, he had always done things with her rather than make friends with boys his age. It was more of a problem when she started to make friends of her own, and didn't always want him around. She felt guilty about that now, and wanted to take each of those moments back. She remembered one time when she was six or a little older. They were down at Boynton's Market, and Jeremy asked what she thought would happen if their parents both died. She was eating ice cream; it was summer. She didn't answer, had never thought of this before. Jeremy must have seen she looked worried because he told her not to worry. He had it figured out. They would be fine. He knew exactly what they would need and how they would get it.
"You promise?" she said.
He said of course, and then she made him promise again because he had always said that one promise meant nothing but two meant you couldn't get out of it.
The first time her brother ran away after a shouting match with their mother he was sixteen. He came into her bedroom the night he left and sat on the floor running his hand down the length of his face. She was afraid to move as he rose on his knees as if he was going to pray.
"I don't know where I'll be." He whispered so lightly she wasn't even sure he wanted her to hear.
Even though he hadn't asked her to, she promised she would come find him, and then she promised him again.
A few hours before dawn, it started pouring outside Rebecca's window. She had gone to bed early with an upset stomach, without eating dinner. She stood and pressed her forehead against the cold glass, looking into the backyard, and was not surprised that Jeremy wasn't leaning against the well house as the drops thudded against the hollow gutters. For a long time she had not wanted to admit that she knew things others could not know. It wasn't just about facts anyone could look up in a book. Now that the article had come out in the paper, everyone would suspect that she knew too much. For instance, the photo of her grandfather in her parents' bedroom had been taken in 1955—she knew he was thinking of China Lake where he had grown up swimming with his two brothers. He was thinking of the lake because it was the tenth anniversary of his younger brother's death in the war. She knew this from looking into the photograph, into his dark eyes half hidden behind his sagging lids. And she knew what her father would never admit, even to himself: that he no longer loved her mother; and she knew that her brother was going to die.
She didn't have the strength to move or say anything when her mother called up the stairs an hour later and then came to sit on the edge of the bed resting the back of her hand against Rebecca's cheek.
"You're burning up," her mother said. "I'll call."
Rebecca knew she wasn't sick—she just couldn't stop thinking, which was a sickness no one could fix—but she went along to the doctor's office where, in the waiting room, her mother flipped through a Good Housekeeping, snapping the pages so fast she could not even have been looking at the pictures. Every time the door to the nurse's area opened, her mother looked up, startled, until finally she slammed the magazine shut and swore. "Jesus." She looked at her watch and folded her hands in her lap. Her mother often spoke to herself. She called it her therapy.
Rebecca stared wearily at her mother until her mother looked up and shuddered.
"What?" her mother asked. "What are you looking at?" She stood up officiously and came over to sit next to Rebecca and feel for her temperature again. "You're still burning."
"I'm not sick," Rebecca said.
Rebecca followed the nurse to the examining room. When he arrived, the doctor's greeting was hollow, echoing across the distance between his lips and his attention. Rebecca had heard him saying goodbye to the previous patient. She closed her eyes and opened her mouth so he could examine her throat, and every muscle in her body seemed to relax.
"You had a fever last night and this morning?" he asked. She nodded. His breath brushed her neck as he leaned over to look inside her head. He asked her to tilt her neck slightly and she did. He rested a hand next to her leg on the table and pressed his fingers against her neck below her jaw.
He told her she might have a small infection but didn't think she needed antibiotics, at least not yet. In the car her skin seemed to vibrate where the doctor had touched her, like a trivial memory that would not go away, and when her mother asked, Rebecca told her what the doctor had said.
"For that," her mother replied, "we pay him."
Once, when no one else was around, Rebecca's father had said of her mother that she would never let them forget she was from Portland.
Rebecca told herself there was no point in going—she could not change what would happen—yet she had to. She waited until early morning. Her father had said Jeremy jumped the train and rode it all the way up to Dennis, so that's what she would do.
In the hours before dawn, the train moved slowly in the heavy air, the lights from Water Street flashing between boxcars. As she had seen boys from school do, she ran along a granite wall that paralleled the tracks and jumped up on the floor of one of the cars, landing in the cool inside where the clicking of the metal wheels amplified in the empty drum. The train followed the river for ten or twelve miles before crossing over in Gardner and heading north out of the valley into the rich smell of the tidal banks. She leaned against the frame and looked at the black trees in the blue glow of the woods. Only now did she find the tear in the knee of her pants and in the skin underneath, which seemed the only evidence that she had made it this far.
The half moon passed in and out of the clouds, giving brief glimpses of her white sneakers. The train slowed before each town and sped up as it snaked back into the woods where for several minutes she couldn't see the tops of her hands. The air in her chest seemed to vibrate with the floor of the boxcar, turning each breath into a gasp. She would not be able to scream if she had to, and even if she could, no one would hear her above the scraping of the wheels over the tracks. Jeremy must have felt, as she did now, that he was in the grip of an iron fist that would not let go.
She fell asleep curled up and woke to see the train stretching through a bend in the mist. The sun, just struggling through, lit up the rust-red boxcar with boston-maine painted on the side. At one crossing a man standing with a paper bag took off his hat and laughed when he saw her. She hung out of the door by her arm and looked up the track where tree branches arched over the train. Finally, she saw a green sign for Dennis. She wasn't moving very fast, but it was frightening to jump and roll in the grass not knowing what lay underneath. She rose to her feet and ran for a dirt road, where she turned just in time to see the caboose rocking on its narrow perch.
A half-mile down she thought she saw a gas station and a store on the other side of the street, but there were no people or cars, nothing to suggest a town. Maybe this was the edge of town and she had jumped too soon. She walked in the direction of the gas station, scuffing her sneakers through the dirt. Part of her hoped she did have the wrong place because if she found him she would have to say something. She never wanted to be the one to speak and hated the feeling of people looking at her waiting for what she would say, for her thoughts, for what she knew. People were greedy. They pretended not to want things, they pretended not to care, except for Jeremy, who never pretended he didn't need anything from anyone. He needed her to look for him.
A truck approached from behind, sending up a plume of dust as the driver steered with his right hand on top of the wheel, his chin pulled in. Messy clumps of hair stuck out beneath his cap. She expected the truck to drive stop at the store, but instead it took a left and crawled over a driveway toward a low farmhouse once painted white and since worn to a rotting gray. She knew Jeremy was inside. It had been this simple for him: jumping off the train, finding an abandoned house. This was the way he did everything, choosing what was in front of him as if there was no other choice.
She stopped walking several times in order to think more clearly, and once almost turned around, though she sensed with resignation that turning around would lead to the same place, in the end, as going through the open front door of the house. A box of rusty tools sat in the front hall and the air felt breathed and rebreathed by the cracked and buckling plaster. A gas can leaned against the wall. In the living room one of two windows opened to the field behind the house where the tall grass bent under a breeze and pushed up again. It seemed impossible that the world outside, where the air moved through the light, was at all connected to the world inside this house, and it wasn't right that she had been able to pass so easily between the two. Jeremy lay on a battered couch with his arms at his sides, his eyes closed. She thought he must be sleeping, but then his eyes snapped open and stared at her as if he didn't know her and she had come to take everything away from him. Small bottles, a plate, and a leather belt sat on an upturned box at his feet. She said his name, but he did not say her name back or change his expression in any way. When he swallowed, a cleft appeared in his chin and the veins of his neck pushed against his translucent skin. His Adam's apple fluttered as his eyes closed, and his chest rose and fell to the timing of heels clomping down the stairs behind her. When no one appeared, she thought the pounding had come from her own head, but the man she had just seen in the truck stepped from around the corner with his hands in his jeans pockets, the leather cap on his head. He quickly removed his glasses to clean them on his T-shirt. He said he was hoping she would come by.
"How do you know who I am?"
"How did you know which house to walk into?" He put the glasses back on and looked at her. He was probably her brother's age or a bit older. He sat in the chair next to the couch, crossed his legs, and rested his chin on his hand. His sharp lips chopped off the consonants when he spoke, sounding to her like one of the migrant worker's kids.
"I'm not from around here like my friend," he said, as if this should explain any questions she might have. He leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head with his elbows in the air.
"You're not his friend!" Rebecca shouted in what could not have been her voice.
"Whatever you say." He shrugged one shoulder and glanced over at Jeremy who seemed to see through them. "We've got everything you need here to be happy. We've got food if that's what you need, we've got money, we've got a roof that don't leak—and we've got business coming right down from Canada. This here's a stop on the trans-Canada highway." He looked at her brother for a moment before turning to her and reaching in his jacket pocket to pull out a photo in which she thought she could see her brother and herself when they were younger, but she quickly looked away and shook her head. She couldn't breathe.
"That's my favorite picture," he said, saying it pi-sure, while looking away, as if embarrassed. He sighed and dropped his shoulders into the silence that followed and lasted until he seemed smaller than her. "That's at Niagara Falls. I've never been there, but I want to go, I plan to go. In fact, I could go right now if I wanted to. There's nothing stopping me."
"I have to go," she said and then watched him, waiting to see if he would try to stop her.
"Suit yourself." He closed his eyes and slid further down in the chair.
Jeremy turned to face the wall, and she opened her mouth to call out to him—if she just said his name, maybe he would come back with her, though of course he wouldn't. If she said his name, he might explode, as he had that morning at her mother. He didn't want to attack her—the idea would never occur to him—but whatever pushed from the inside against his rising and falling back hated everything, even her.
Outside, she ran across the overgrown field for the road and the tracks, stopping only to catch her breath and look over her shoulder. No one followed. Everywhere she looked, down either direction of the tracks or across the field into the woods, she saw the starved image of Jeremy's face. She ran for a few more minutes, stopping when she could no longer breathe to bend over her knees and make a sound in her throat like the wheels of her father's car crunching over their gravel driveway.
A train would come eventually, if she kept walking in the direction of home, and if she kept her thoughts straight and parallel to the glinting edge of the rail, which drew her under a canopy of turning leaves. The tips of her sneakers slid forward over the chattering gravel until she was convinced the noise came from Jeremy or the other one following her, and she started to run again until she reached a bridge over a river.
She thought she saw something moving through the trees to the right but instead of going back or freezing (as she told herself to do), she ran toward it, jumping over fallen trees and yelling Jeremy's name. She stopped in a clearing above a stream and looked around, but there was nothing there. The blue sky paled around the edges. Pockets of warmth drifted in the cool air. She looked down the slope, feeling as though she could see inside the wind brushing through the grass. The distant pines leaned together in a sudden gust and were still again. When the breeze returned, it seemed to whistle through her limbs, and she realized that Jeremy had been here, in this clearing, in the grass. He had measured the wind by the movement of the branches.
The train whistle bleated as it passed through Dennis, and she bolted toward the sound. The wheels ground against the rails, ticking off what little time she had left to get home before they knew where she had gone and what she had seen. The boxcars moved through the trees, speeding up as if the forest was rushing south. Some of the Boston-Maine cars were empty, doors sliding back on both sides, the sunlight blinking through the openings as she ran to the bridge and there jumped from a railing half onto the edge of a car. Inside, with her face pressed to the cold metal, she sensed him: Jeremy's face with the stranger's hat and long arms, both of them in the same body standing in one of the dark corners. She looked for their smile, and their eyes, glowing in the shadow, but there was nothing.
The train slowed into each town, the tracks occasionally winding within fifteen feet of kitchen windows and the backyards of houses she passed. It was not hard for her to determine the characters and even the thoughts of the people living inside. People wanted you to think things were complicated when they weren't. Through a window a woman looked up from doing the dishes. She's thinking about her twelve-year-old son, Rebecca thought, who was caught stealing from a corner store. All the information was in the air around her, waiting for her to absorb it. Her mother was frightened and vain; she always had been and she always would be. Her father was patient and simple near the surface and unhappy underneath. It couldn't be any different than the facts she learned for tests: Pablo Picasso, born October 25, 1881. His first painting, La fillette aux pieds nus, 1895. A poem she glanced at two weeks before, the "Song of Apollo," with the second stanza, Then I arise; and climbing Heaven's blue dome, I walk over the mountains and the wave . . . I am the eye with which the Universe Beholds itself, and knows it is divine. The Earth was formed 4.6 billion years before. The words cesium, curium, erbium, rhodium, argon, osmium, streamed through her head faster than the trees whipping by outside.
She remembered a story her mother told of being a girl in the 1950s and traveling on a freighter across the Atlantic to Europe with her father, who was a merchant marine. There was a storm—a hurricane, her mother had said, and described the ship rising up the mountainous waves, the wind faster than if you put your hand out of the window on the highway. Her mother had been much younger than Rebecca was now, and as her mother's father helped on the deck of the freighter, she sat alone in the dark cabin. Rebecca had heard her mother tell this story dozens of times over the years, and each time her mother stuck out her chin and wore a blank, put-upon face. Each time, Rebecca mistook her mother's expression for boredom, as if she was being forced to tell the story again even though no one had asked her to. Now Rebecca could see the expression was thinly disguised pride. Rebecca's father realized this, too, which was why he complained every time that it wasn't actually a hurricane. "All right, it wasn't," her mother shouted at him one night in front of people from his work who were having dinner at their house. She stood up from the table with tears in her eyes. "It wasn't, okay, it wasn't officially a hurricane if that makes you happy. I was ten years old down in a square metal room with no lights or windows and with the boat practically upside down back and forth for eighteen hours!" Her mother turned and left the table but came back in a moment to apologize and laugh lightly. "My, my," she said when she sat, refolding her napkin. "You'll have to excuse me."
Her mother had been terrified in that room, holding onto the edge of a metal bunk as everything lurched back and forth and the inner workings of the boat groaned. When Rebecca closed her eyes, she could see her mother clinging in the dark compartment with no idea if they would survive or if she would see her father again. The noises of the ship would not have been much different than the noises of the boxcars knocking together as she sped through the woods.
The crossing bells chimed one after another as she drew closer to Vaughn, and she expected someone she knew, a friend of her mother or her guidance counselor, to look up from their gardening or their steering wheel to see her face in the open door of the boxcar. When she leapt from the train onto the grass near the town library, she expected the bell at the Catholic church up the street to ring for the six p.m. service or the Baptist church for their seven p.m. service or at least the more distant sound of the town hall clock bell sounding on the hour. But it wasn't Sunday night, there were no services, and it wasn't on the hour. She sat on the grass watching the train pick up speed as it left town, the lights of the caboose fading into the darkening pines, and the crossing bells growing silent one after another in the distance.
In the kitchen, the heat from her mother's cooking clung to her cheeks and palms.
"I put all the dish towels in the laundry. Would you grab me one from upstairs?" her mother asked. Rebecca nodded.
"You're home late."
"I was at Kathleen's."
"Hurry up and wash your hands and you can help me set the table."
Her mother took the forks and spoons, moving back and forth deftly between the stove and the table with the same urgency she brought to every night's dinner.
"Okay," her mother said after everyone sat, reaching out to take Rebecca's and Grandmame's hands. "Someone say grace, please."
As Rebecca's father started, her mother squeezed her hand so hard the bones of her fingers pinched together. Her mother pulled her jaw in and cinched her eyes shut, tears welling up over her bottom lids and washing down her face. She always feels so much, it's as if she feels for all of us, Rebecca thought.
"I think I'm coming down with the flu," her mother said. "I'll go lie down for a while." She plucked her hands away from them and stood up from the table as if from an insult.
"Do you want one of us to come with you, with some food?" her father asked. "There is something going around at work. Maybe you have it."
Rebecca knew from the tone of his voice that he didn't think she had the flu, and that he had no intention of comforting her.
"Go ahead and eat," her mother said.
Grandmame stared across the room for a few minutes while Rebecca's father unfolded his napkin and arranged his silverware in a perfect row.
"Don't let your mother's hard work go to waste," he said as he started cutting into the pork chop. After a few more minutes, after Grandmame had started eating, humming faintly to herself, as she sometimes did, a tune no one recognized and which probably wasn't a real song at all, her father leaned back and asked Rebecca what she had done at school that day.
"Nothing," she said.
"Nothing?" he said, raising his eyebrows. "Well, that's good. They're getting you used to the working world. You've got three and a half hours—less a coffee break or two—of nothing before lunch, but you don't want to use it all up before lunch because you've got a good four of nothing after lunch. And then you want to be careful to have people see you shove nothing in your briefcase at the end of the day so they think you're doing nothing at home, too." He smiled through this, amused with himself.
Grandmame went back to her room while Rebecca helped her father carry the dishes to the sink. He scraped the plates that she handed to him and stacked them neatly in one side of the double sink with the silverware piled in a basket. She was just turning back to the table for the salad bowl when he started humming a song she didn't recognize. He caught her arm and pulled her toward him, swaying from left to right in a dance he must have learned before she was born—she had never seen him dance. A smile spread up from his chin until his whole face lifted, and he opened his eyes and chuckled before letting go, turning off the water, and picking up the Valley Journal from the counter on his way to the living room.
"What about the rest of the dishes?" she asked.
"Leave them, I'll do them later," he said, raising the back of his hand, though she knew he wouldn't. "Go check on your mother."
Her mother lay on top of the covers in the dark bedroom, her arms spread wide, and her eyes closed. Rebecca thought she was asleep.
"Come here," her mother said, holding her hands out like a child wanting to be picked up. Rebecca pulled back at first but then held her hands out. Her mother's crying passed up into her own arms and across the back of her neck.
"He's not coming back, is he?" her mother said. "It's going to be winter soon—it will be so cold up there."
"Of course he's coming back," Rebecca lied, tumbling forward from the weight. Her mother wrapped an arm around her shoulder and squeezed as she buried her face in Rebecca's neck. The smell of her mother's hair was both familiar and distant, like the sight of her brother's face, and the harder her mother squeezed the more Rebecca felt as if she were far away from this moment, floating over their house and town.
"Please, promise me you won't ever become mixed up with the people your brother did."
"I won't," she said.
"Of course you won't," her mother said. "You're too smart for that."
Her mother rolled onto her back, lifted her hand to her forehead, and sighed. Rebecca waited for what she would say—when her mother lost control, she talked frantically afterward to cover it up.
"I don't know why I was thinking about your brother tonight," her mother said. "Before dinner I was remembering a trip your father and I took right before we were married, when I was already pregnant with your brother. Your father's mother didn't even want us to get married, I don't suppose there's any harm in telling you now—because I wasn't Catholic—and she did not approve of taking a trip like this before the wedding, but the wedding was in the fall—it had to be, I forget why, I guess because I was already pregnant. I don't know how we thought we were going to fool that woman. The trip was on an old tall ship, up the coast. We sailed for ten days, with three other couples. Every evening before dusk the captain and the crew anchored in a small harbor, and while they put everything away and made us supper, we sat on the deck and looked out at the ocean. We had absolutely nothing we had to do. I knew it would be rare in the life we were starting, but your father, who had worked on the farm from the day he started walking until he started college, couldn't understand why anyone would want to sit still for so long staring at the sky and the water. I think the whole thing was torture for him. One evening before dinner, he stood up beside me, stripped down to his boxers, and dove off the bow. It was as if he just couldn't sit still any longer and he had to make some work for himself. Watching the bottoms of his feet disappear, I just lost it for a moment. It was stupid, but I thought he wouldn't come back up—that he was running away from me. This time on the boat was the longest we had ever spent together, and I felt this desperation of not wanting to lose him. When I saw him crash up a little ways out, shivering and waving with a big smile on his face, I was so happy, I almost jumped in after him, and I probably would have if that water wasn't cold enough to stop your breath forever."
Her mother fell silent with her arms at her side. Her toes and fingers twitched after a few minutes as her breath settled into the rhythm of sleep. Rebecca listened for her father's footsteps, but she could tell from the distant flutter of a turning page that he was still down in the living room reading the paper.
She stared at the bedroom ceiling and imagined standing with her mother as her father swam back to the boat and climbed up the ladder. Her father dressed, hopping on one leg, and whispered something in her mother's ear as she bent over, laughing. Rebecca had never seen her mother laugh this way before. Her parents put their arms around each other and walked toward the stern as if Rebecca wasn't there because, of course, she wasn't. Then her father ran back toward her, but only for his jacket, which lay at her feet, and when he glanced up, there was no look of recognition on his face. Rebecca knew this feeling, had known it all along, of not being seen, but she would also remember the look on her father's face that told of how even this brief moment away from his new wife was too much to bear.
Rebecca went to bed, falling immediately asleep without undressing, and didn't know what time it was when she sat straight up and looked out the dark window. Her clock radio was unplugged, probably from when her mother vacuumed, and her limbs felt heavy as she wandered down into the kitchen. The moon hung low in the sky, everything silent except the dormant sounds of the house, the refrigerator, the furnace in the basement.
"Rebecca, is that you?" her Grandmame called from her room. Even though her Grandmame rose before dawn, she kept the blinds tightly drawn at night and the room pitch black, so that Rebecca had trouble finding her way to the ratty green chair.
"Is that you?" Grandmame said again. She was only a foot away in her narrow bed, but Rebecca couldn't see her face.
"It's me," she said.
"There was something I wanted to tell you after dinner, but I didn't get the chance."
Instead of going on, though, her Grandmame's breathing calmed, and the airless room filled with the musk of her skin and clothes. Rebecca leaned her head back and pictured herself on the train headed north toward Jeremy. She tried to remember his face in that house but could only see the strain of his neck and the cleft where there had not been one before. The harder she tried to remember his face, the more he looked like someone she didn't know. She thought of what her mother had said about winter coming. In one afternoon, everything she had seen up there—the pines, the field, and the low house—would be sheeted white against a white sky. If he was still in Dennis, he wouldn't stay there for long, she guessed, and he wouldn't come back to Vaughn. He would continue north on the train hundreds of miles through the thick forest until there was nothing but rock covered with ice. She pictured him there, as far up as anyone could go, walking across a blank white plain extending out to the horizon. Her brother, she realized, had gone north not to run away from life, as her father had said, but to know everything. Because he had wanted her to follow, she would have to keep looking for him, even if she would never find him, and even if he was no longer there but somehow everywhere, all around them.
Grandmame shook Rebecca's leg, and Rebecca opened her eyes to the morning light framing the shade.
"An awful, awful thing has happened," Grandmame said in such an urgent voice that Rebecca leaned forward to hear. But then Rebecca realized her Grandmame was about to tell the tale, once again, that she had read in the newspaper of the girl who had been buried in a backyard. There was nothing Rebecca could say to stop her Grandmame, so she just listened and waited for the story to end.
"I was only six years old when they buried me," Grandmame said as tears soaked the moth wings of her cheeks. "My father wanted to put me next to his mother, but the people who bought the farm from us wouldn't let him, so he dug my grave in their vegetable garden while they were sleeping, and no one knows. No one knows where I am."
The train whistle blew in the distance, the first warning of its approach from the north. Rebecca felt the air shiver from the force of the locomotive against the tracks as the second whistle blew and echoed down the valley, carried south by the tide. The third whistle blew the final warning, though to Rebecca it was less a warning than a cry.
"I don't want to be buried in this place," Grandmame said and squeezed hard on Rebecca's arm. "Promise me you won't let them."
A promise was easy to give, and as Rebecca whispered it, Grandmame sighed as if she had finally been relieved of an unbearable secret.