Authors: Sara Shepard
The Mennonites had honest, plain faces, and I wanted to tell them everything. But then, as I took a step toward them, they noticed me and froze. Silently, they nodded in unison, climbed into the van and drove away.
The humidity skulked about the room, making us stick to the threadbare bedsheets. I woke up cramped, Stella woke up ornery. She complained that everything hurt; I assured her that Cheveyo would help her. I saw her rolling her eyes at me in the mirror. She complained about the coffee in the lobby and I snapped at her that she shouldn't be drinking it, anyway. She complained that there weren't any Amish people here, that she'd wanted to see an Amish person. I reminded her that, just the other day, she'd told me Amish people were carcinogenic.
And she looked at me as if I'd just told her I was planning to marry a potted plant. âNow, why would I say a dumbassed thing like that?' she spat. âYou must have heard me wrong.'
In the car, Stella put on her pink cat-eye sunglasses and held the Pennsylvania road map a foot away from her face so she could read it. âSo, we have to take this squiggly road here. We'll run smack into the jackalope.'
She pointed to a red line. The lines mingled with other lines and reminded me of veins on a leaf. âThere's no marker that a Jackalope Museum is there,' I told her. âAre you sure?'
âOf course I'm sure. It's a little building on the side of the road-they wouldn't want to mark it on a map because then too many people would know about it. I remember that day clear as anything. Skip and I were trying to find Punxsutawney, but that's right here.' She pointed to a town almost a finger's distance away. âWe were quite lost.'
âWhy were you looking for Punxsutawney?'
She glared at me. âBecause of the
âThe groundhog's name was Phil,' Stella added haughtily. âOr perhaps Philip. I don't remember.'
I looked away. It was a Sunday in the middle of Pennsylvania, the day already too bright and hot. The only things that marked distances here were telephone poles. New York-and Philip-might as well have been on another planet.
People savored Sundays in New York. They shopped at the overpriced stores, they rode their bikes, they ate ice cream. My father used to take the dogs to the dog park in Park Slope, loading them into the car we used to have and driving them all there, circling Grand Army Plaza a million times before he found a parking space. He'd sing on the drive, his head hanging out the window like he was a dog, too. And I remembered thinking,
He's fine. He's completely fine.
The dogs made him so happy-sometimes, I thought they understood him better than people did. They always sensed when he was about to go back into the psych ward-they'd lie around the couch in a tight circle, guarding.
Philip probably had a million friends and a crammed schedule. A fantastic life.
I clicked on my seat belt and pushed the car into drive. âAll right. If you're sure.'
The road was dry and sparse. We passed a few signs for Amish delicacies, shoo-fly pie and funnel cake and fresh soft
pretzels. Stella instructed me to leave in the dust a car with a bumper sticker that said
USA: Love it or leave it.
âSo why were you going to see the Punxsutawney groundhog, anyway?' I asked, because the silence between us was thick and pointed. I wanted to blame it on Samantha-before she'd visited, everything between us had been fine.
Stella shrugged. âIt was something to do. We needed to get out of Cobalt. Clear our heads. Our lives were getting complicated.'
She mashed her lips together and made a few
noises. âOh, you know. Normal things. Fights, affairs.'
âYour almost-affair? That thing in the hotel room?'
She glanced at me, horrified. âHow did you know about that?'
âYou told me. During my grandmother's wake, remember? You told me when we were on the porch at the funeral home.' The story was so weird, I'd never forgotten it.
âI most certainly did not.' Stella's eyes bulged. âI never told anyone about that.'
âYou said you put your ring in your pocket,' I reminded her. âAnd when he went to the bathroom, you left.'
Stella's jaw became even more sharply pronounced. âWell.' She ran her hands along the cords of her neck, then pinched the flap of skin beneath her chin. âWell,' she said again.
âIt's okay. It's not like I said anything to anyone. I mean, I didn't tell my father, or Samantha, or anyone like that, if that's what you're worried about.'
âI did that because of what Skip did,' Stella blurted out. âI was driven to do thatâ¦with that man. I never would have, otherwise.'
A few signposts went by. There was a fan-shaped tree alone in the middle of a field. âWhat did Skip do?'
Stella sighed. âOh, you know. The usual. Classic soap-opera story. I found him with someone else. They were in the
park next to the fire station. You know it, the one with the tire swing? They were there. Sitting on the tire swing together, she on his lap. Kissing. It was so stupid, I was driving by, just goingâ¦I don't know. To the market, maybe. To the florist's. And I just looked to my left and there they were. In front of everyone. I marched over to them and started screaming something, I don't even know what, and then the fire whistle started blaring. That crazy air-raid fire whistle, you know, blotting out the sound. I kept screaming though, even though they couldn't hear me, and the fire truck comes out of the garage but they can't get past because my car is there, and I'm still screaming and Jack Baker, you know Jack-or no, I guess you don't, he's dead-he tried to get me to calm down but I couldn't, I just kept screaming, and finally someone moved my car for me and the fire truck got out. I think, actually, it was an ice cream parlor that was on fire. The one that later became the Dairy Queen; the one we stopped at on the drive out of town.'
She made a small hiccup on the word
. âCan you believe that? An ice cream parlor on fire? Now, that's just about the last thing I would imagine. A bar and grill, maybe. Aâ¦aâ¦store that sells wood and matches, certainly. But an ice cream parlor? Now, that just shouldn't happen.'
âI'm so sorry,' I whispered.
âOh, don't be.' She waved her hand, stifling a sniff. âThis is a silly thing to talk about. I don't know why I'm going into it. Maybe it's because I think this Chevrolet man or whatever his name is will rape me. Maybe I want to confess things, like you're a priest.'
I drove for a while, thinking. âSo who was it?'
âWho was what?'
âYou know. Who was the woman Skip was with?'
She stared straight ahead at the flat, unimpressive road. âHe wasâ¦well, he was with Ruth.'
I squeezed the steering wheel tight, paying careful, careful attention, because I was certain I was going to wreck the car. âMy grandmother?'
I took a breath. âHe was with my grandmother.'
She sighed, teenager-like. âThat's what I
The highway rolled on, endless. A green sign popped up, telling us that the Spring Mine Road Exit was ahead. The exit sign loomed in the distance, seemingly suspended in air. The road beyond it was desolate and empty. âThis is us.' Stella's voice broke.
âAre you sure? This looks like it goes to nothing.'
âI remember this road. This is us.'
I put on my turn signal and we slowly eased into the exit. None of the other cars was getting off. A bright yellow arrow sign told us we had to turn left or right. âWhich way?'
âRight,' Stella said.
I turned right. There were cornfields on either side of us. Stella sat next to me, her posture perfect, her gloves pulled up over her elbows, her patent-leather purse sitting on her lap.
âDo you still think about it much?' I asked her.
âThink about what?'
âTheâ¦you know. What we were talking about.'
She blew air out of her cheeks, making a neighing noise. âNah.'
âWhat's the point?'
A few anemic trees slid past. Then a shack with a few trucks parked out front. A red barn. On its side was an advertisement for chewing tobacco; the words weathered from the years. There was a sign for a McDonald's thirty miles ahead. The giant hamburger's sesame seeds were as big as boulders. âDid you ever say anything to your sister about it?' I asked.
Stella shrugged. âNot to her.'
âOh, I don't know.'
âBut she's your
,' I protested.
âYou two didn't talk much. You weren't friends. It was because of that, wasn't it?'
Stella looked at me sharply. âWhat do you want me to say, that it was? That if I would've patched it up, acted like it didn't bother me, we could've become best friends? She was different. And she wanted different things than I did, and one of those things was a husband that provided, a pictureperfect marriage. I wanted love. And look where that got both of us. And there's no law that says you have to get along with your siblings. It's not like you get along with Steven.'
My ears felt tinny, shunting closed. A bird flew very close to the windshield, almost running into us. âHow do you know I don't get along with him?'
Stella turned and stared at me. It felt as if she'd unzipped me and was feeling around at my bottom, looking for loose change. I could tell there was something she wanted to say. âWhat?' I demanded.
She lowered her eyes. âNothing.'
Stella's face was firm, almost young. âI don't want to go to this man today.'
âDid Samantha say something to you?'
âNo, she didn't. I just don't want to go.'
âBut what if he helps you? What if there's a miracle?'
âHow do you know that?'
âBecause I justâ¦know. It's not real. And you know it's not real, too. You with your degree in science, you with your big, wasted brain. Don't treat me like an idiot.'
âBut you don't know until you try it! I really think this is reputable. I really think this could
Stella leaned her head against the window; the trees whizzed by. âI think it's probably time for you to go back to New York.'
I lifted my foot off the pedal. â
âI don't need to be saved, Summer. I don't need to be taken care ofâ¦not like this. I'm fine-I'll
fine. But what about you? What are you doing here?'
My mouth was wide open, a chunk taken out of my face. I blinked once, twice. I heard âThe Star Spangled Banner' in my head, deafeningly loud
. Oh, say can you seeâ¦?
Stella looked out the windshield, then down at the map. She frowned. âYou know, I don't recognize any of this.'
I couldn't respond, gripping the steering wheel until my hands were white.
What so proudly we waveâ¦
Stella turned around and looked behind us, then ahead again. âNoâ¦this isn't right.'
I let out a groan and pulled into a parking lot to a hillbilly 7-Eleven of sorts; there were faded NASCAR and Mountain Dew posters in the window, a sign for propane and worms, a plastic newspaper dispenser near the door, its contents depleted.
âI guess it was the next exit instead,' Stella sighed.
I set my jaw and stared fixedly at the cracked sidewalk outside the market. âWe're on a time schedule. Our appointment is in an hour, and it's still a half-hour down the road.'
Stella clutched the passenger door and, after a few seconds of fumbling, managed to push it open. She swung her bandy legs onto the pavement and hefted herself up, using the door as leverage. âWhere are you going?' I cried.
âI'm going to ask for directions.'
I didn't know what else to do but sink back down into the seat and watch her stumble toward the door. The general store's windows were murky, so I could only see a few shapes inside. There was nothing around here; it was more desolate than even Cobalt.
I think it's probably time for you to go back to New York.
After a while, I checked my watch. Stella had been in there for six minutes. She was probably chatting to someone at the counter, perhaps about the jackalope. Or perhaps she was talking about me. That I wasn't as accomplished as her other grand-niece, Samantha. That I was testy and lazy and not married and that I didn't have a job.
That I was using her as an excuse.
I don't need to be saved.
That was what I got. If I didn't save her, if I didn't do these things, who would? And what did she think, I was
I hit the steering wheel, annoyed, and turned the car off. The ground was crunchy beneath my feet. Dust swirled. But then I wondered,
If Stella didn't want to go to Cheveyo-if Samantha had said something to her, if she wanted to give up, whatever-then why was I pushing for it so much? Why shouldn't I just let her be?
But then the fear took hold of me again, the fear of so many things. I pushed my way through the market's door.
Bells jingled. An older woman behind the counter looked up. Beneath her were different coffee cans full of fishing worms. In the back of the market were a few refrigerators full of beverages, and to my right were aisles stuffed with candy and chips. A dilapidated hot-dog machine squeakily rotated in the corner. Stella was gone.
My heart started to pound. âHelp you?' the old woman behind the counter asked. There was a large wad of something in her mouth.
âDid an older woman come in here?' I asked.
The woman lazily pointed a bony finger toward the back. âBathroom.'
The door to the bathroom was unmarked, but I could see a key with a fish-shaped keychain hanging out of the knob-I assumed Stella had unlocked it and then forgotten to pull it out. âStella?' I knocked on the door. With the store's country music blaring, I couldn't really hear anything. âStella?'