Authors: Jodi Lynn Anderson
urphy lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.
It had been a typical night of sitting in the common room with the other women, gossiping and watching movies, fanning themselves with newspapers, the windows propped wide open for air. In some places, Murphy knew, the night air in the summer got much cooler and fresher. But in southern Georgia, it stayed warm all night. In her trailer, which didn't have AC, the heat had always kept Murphy awake, sweating and longing for the summers she knew they were having in Maine or northern California.
Now she lay on top of her sheets with the regulation flannel blankets the Darlingtons gave for each bed lying in a knot on the floor beside her. She hadn't felt so restless and hemmed in since before she'd left for New York. It was like old ghosts had come back to haunt her. The ghosts of too small, not enough.
Finally Murphy slid out from under the covers. She glanced over at Leeda's empty bed. For the past couple of nights, Leeda had slept at Primrose Cottage. Apparently an injured ferret had arrived, and Leeda was too worried to leave it alone at night.
Murphy opened her door slowly and tiptoed down the hall, pulling her long tank top down over her flimsy boxers. In another couple of moments she was outside, padding barefoot down the wooden stairs. The crickets were deafening. The peach trees were shadows.
She walked across the moonlit grass and climbed the ladder to Birdie's tree house, her soles wet from the grass. She paused on the top rung.
Birdie was peacefully asleep, curled up under an old quilt, a night-light beside her. Murphy rethought and climbed back down, jumping off the second-to-last rung onto the grass. She returned to the dorms and got a couple of quarters and a crumpled piece of paper with a phone number on it from her dresser. She pulled on jeans over her boxers, slipped a bra on under her tank top, and stepped into her flip-flops. Then she headed over to the barn and got on the pay phone.
A sleepy voice answered.
“Hey, can we go somewhere?”
Rex was there ten minutes later.
“Where we going?” He yawned, seeming to become more alert as they pulled out and drove.
“It's off exit seventeen.”
The parking lot of Buckets was practically empty. It was a Wednesday night. Murphy climbed out of the car and, reluctantly, Rex followed her.
They walked in and sank onto two stools near the bar. A woman with curly ash-colored hair sat at the corner of the bar, playing a little electronic trivia game. Murphy ordered a beer for
herself and smiled smugly at Rex when she wasn't carded. Rex rolled his eyes and ordered a milk.
While they waited for their drinks, Murphy kicked the leg of the table with her dangling toes, and Rex looked at her expectantly, clearly wanting to know why they were there.
But Murphy was coy. “What?” she asked, grinning.
He caught one of her feet between his own. “Be real with me, Murphy. Why are we here?”
Murphy shrugged. “I dunno. I thought it would be fun.” She figured that he hadn't been real with her either.
Rex stood up and dug three twenties out of his wallet. “Here's cab money.” He gave her a pained look. “Be safe getting home.” He turned to leave. Murphy knew he would too.
“Wait. I'm sorry.” She stood up and pulled Rex back by the sleeve. “Rex, I'm sorry.”
He turned to her. “Murphy, I can tell when you're trying to cajole someone into doing things your way. But this is me. I know you.”
The waitress arrived carrying their drinks.
To Murphy's relief, they both sat back down, looking at each other as the beer and the milk were set on the table. Then Murphy glanced up at the waitress unsurely. “Do you know a guy who comes in here, green eyes, mustache?” she said.
“Sorry, honey.” She walked away.
Rex was staring at her questioningly.
Murphy took a sip of her drink. “My mom found my dad. But she won't tell me who he is or anything about him. I thought he might be here because I followed him here before.”
“How do you know it was your dad?” Rex seemed bewildered.
“I know it's him. I saw him coming out of the courthouse with her.”
Rex absorbed this solemnly for a moment. “Murphy, maybe your mom has reasons for not telling you. Maybe she's protecting you.”
Murphy balked. “Protecting me from what? From not knowing my genetic makeup? What if I'm prone to female-pattern baldness or something?”
“Maybe she doesn't think having a dad in your life all of a sudden would be a good thing.”
Murphy stared at him, trying to stare into him, suspicious.
“She's probably just worried he'll hurt my feelings,” she said with forced carelessness. “By not being interested. But seriously, I don't care.”
They sat a while longer, and Rex seemed to become increasingly impatient. “Murph, why are we here? I mean, really here?”
Murphy didn't know how to answer that question. She knew the likelihood of her dad just happening to be there was slim. All she knew was that he'd come here once.
Rex got up to go to the bathroom. Murphy leaned on her elbows, listless, staring around the bar. Finally she stood and walked over to the wall and studied the photos hanging there.
It was full of pictures of people who'd spent time at the barâthe family of the bar owners, babies even, and a grainy photo of the original owner in 1973.
It was like looking at history. These were people who'd stayed in one place all their livesâthe opposite of Murphy.
Maybe it was a thread she was looking for. Just a tiny thread between her and her father.
She trailed back to the bar. Rex had returned and was sitting there on the stool watching her, looking worried.
“We can go,” she said.
On the way back, they were quiet. But it wasn't a bad silence.
Murphy studied him out of the corner of her eye from time to time. It was 2 a.m. before they were back at the foot of the driveway. “You can just leave me here,” she said.
“Are you gonna call me again?” he asked.
“I don't know.”
She hopped down onto the gravel and closed the door behind her, giving Rex a wave through the window. It hurt to watch him pull away without a promise she'd see him again. But Murphy didn't want to be depended on.
Maybe that was another thing she and her dad had in common.
It was midafternoon and sweltering. Leeda had locked up Barky in his crate because it was Baxter the hunting dog's time to play in the house. Barky and Baxter didn't get along, mostly because Barky was jealous of Baxter. Barky was very possessive of Leeda, like a firstborn, and he didn't like to share her. Over the weeks, he had weaseled his way into being Leeda's bedmate whenever she stayed at the cottage, mostly because he wouldn't stop crying and yelping till she went downstairs, got him, and pulled him into her bed. It had been difficult for her, sleeping with a dog. Getting his fur all over the sheets, having her face licked in the morning, listening to his snoring. But, slowly, she had gotten used to it.
Now she went up to his crate and gave him a stern look that quieted him down. He looked at her guiltily. But she knew as soon as she turned around, he'd start yelping again.
Still, Leeda was in a good mood. Even though, despite countless Internet searches and phone calls, she hadn't found anyone willing to take the poniesânot even one of them. The fact was,
she felt confident. She felt as though, for the first time in her life, she were doing something good for the world.
Exhausted, she looked at the clock. Almost noon and she was way behind. She headed out to the barn lot, swiped back her sweaty hair, and began pouring feed into all the buckets. She didn't know how Grey had ever done it all alone. It was hard enough for her to share it with him fifty-fifty, and he did all the heavier, more difficult work.
The ponies were in high spirits, racing each other around the field. They moved like a clutch of bees, all turning and weaving as if on some secret signal. When they tired and stopped running, they milled around, watching Leeda or playing with one another.
Sneezy had taken a special interest in Leeda and often walked over to spend time with her while the rest of the ponies socialized. The pony would follow her around, watching Leeda curiously as she swept out the stalls or spread fresh straw. Leeda didn't welcome her, but she didn't shoo her away either.
The Baron was much more mischievous. He would come by and nip Leeda on her butt or tug at the hem of her shirt, and then, when she whipped around, he'd run back to the other ponies. Sometimes she could swear they all seemed to be snickering. And that they liked Grey best. They nuzzled up to him and let him pet them and never nipped him.
In any case, the nips hurt. Leeda found bruises in the mirror when she undressed at night.
She and Grey spent much of each day not talking, just focusing on their tasks, but when they crossed paths they smiled or nodded at each other. At mealtimes they sat on the sunporch with
the windows open and rested. Sometimes Grey would read for twenty minutes or so after eating, and Leeda would just stare out at the barn lot, content to sit in silence.
Between the ponies and the animals (the grand total of strays was now ten) and trying to get to the orchard whenever she could, Leeda felt she never had a second to herself anymore. She was thinking about this as she poured feed into the last of the pony troughs. Hearing footsteps behind her, she turned to see Grey.
He looked sweaty and tired, his T-shirt pasted against him and a film of dust covering his long, lean arms.
“Where do you want me to build the new pen?” he asked. Leeda thought. They had already built two pens for the dogs to run in, but now Leeda wanted to give the bunniesâthere were twoâsome room too.
“I guess we could do them along the wall,” Leeda said. “So there's shade.” She had gotten a little handy over the past couple weeks and had learned how to nail pens together and stretch chicken wire over the wooden frames. She still didn't know what she'd do with the animals when she left. She never had time to step back and figure out what her plan was. She was merely reacting.
Leeda leaned against the wall of the stall. “Phew,” she said. August was just around the corner. “It has to cool down soon, doesn't it?”
Grey studied her for a moment. “Why don't we get out of here for a while?”
“Now?” Leeda looked up toward the house, thinking of all the stuff she had to do up there once she was done with the barn lot.
“Oh God, I don't have time. I've got to get online once we're done andâ”
Grey reached out and took her elbow, smiling, amused. “C'mon, Leeda.”
She let him drag her out onto the porch, and then down to the front of his truck. He pulled her around to the passenger side and opened the door. Then he lifted her up roughly, like a wet fish, and dumped her onto the seat. Leeda rubbed her elbows where he'd picked her up, even though they didn't hurt.
He drove in the opposite direction of town, down a winding back road that seemed to go on forever. Leeda was too tired to ask where they were going and too bleary-eyed to follow the scenery.
“So what are you gonna do with all that money?” Grey asked after about ten minutes, his hands confident and lazy on the wheel.
Leeda flopped her head to look in his direction, resting her neck on the top of the backrest. “Shop.” She smiled, half-joking.
“You think I'm selfish,” Leeda said, wiping away her hair where it was blowing in her eyes and looking back out the window, not really offended. Not really caring.
“Hey, I'm no saint. I don't know what you are. I'd probably buy a ridiculous Italian motorcycle or something. Butâ¦” He trailed off.
“What?” She looked at him.
“But maybe I'd give it all away and live in a cabin and have everything I needed,” he said.
He looked at her, and Leeda didn't know why, but she laughed.
She hadn't asked him when exactly he was leaving for Alaska. She had been scared to. She didn't know how she was going to take care of everything without him.
“I'd buy something I'd get tired of,” she admitted. “I'm fickle.”
“Eugenie must have thought more highly of you than that.”
Leeda shrugged. “Grandmom contained multitudes, I guess.”
“You know what I've been thinking, Leeda?”
She turned to him. “What?”
“You know how you say you're so unsure of what you want and what you like, all that?”
“Yeah.” Leeda felt slightly embarrassed. And she wondered where he was headed.
“I was just thinking, maybe that's not such a bad thing.” He glanced over at her. “Maybe figuring it out isâ¦I don't know, what it's all about. Constantly deciding. And you're true enough not to decide anything before you're ready, and you don't want to lock yourself into a box. Maybe it's the sure people who are missing out.”
The words fell on Leeda heavy as stones. Each one of them hit her somewhere inside, like something she'd never thought of before. A little something in her shook. She didn't say anything. Grey only gave her a half smile and kept driving.
A few minutes later, he slowed down and parked at a small makeshift parking spot nestled into the side of the road among the trees. Leeda followed him into the thin swath of woods. They emerged almost immediately onto a long winding creek. Mertie Creek was miles long and ran all through the county.
The water, moving gently, glistened in the sun, winding its way south. It was wide here, and the current was slow. It looked
deep, with no rocks poking out, and a rope swing dangled from one of the oak trees overhanging the water.
Grey took off his shirt. He was sunburned on the back of his neck from working in the sun. Leeda felt awkward and stared at the water. “Well, in you go.”
Leeda grinned dubiously. “That's a creek. It's way too cold.”
Grey studied her, shrugged, and turned, taking a running start into the water. He leaped up for the rope swing and grabbed it, pulling it to the shore with him. Then he proceeded to use it, doing dives and flipsâ¦.
He was graceful in the water. She'd never seen him look so unfettered. He moved like a different person than the one she'd met in the barn lot at the beginning of the summer.
Leeda finally walked to the water's edge, dipped a toe in, and then started to wade in, first to where the water met the edges of her khaki shorts, then, gasping with the cold, to the bottom of her tank top. Finally, with a kind of surrender, she let herself sink all the way in.
They swam and kicked and splashed.
Grey knelt so Leeda could climb up on the shelf of his thigh to grab the rope. He steadied her by the waist as she reached up for it, stretching herself out of the water. She had to stand on her tiptoes to try and reach it, lower herself, and try again. Within a few seconds her body was covered in goose bumps. Grey's left hand was on her calf.
“What happened?” he asked, reaching out his finger to a spot just above the back of her knee where The Baron had nipped her.
“Ponies,” she said, stiffening until his hand went back to her calf.
When she got it, she held the rope like a trophy.
The first time she swung she slid off the rope almost immediately, hitting the water with her feet and letting go. The second time she lifted her knees up, pulled herself into a ball, and gripped. By the third time, she could make it clear to the end of the swing before letting herself drop. Leeda had always been a quick learner.
They roughhoused for a while, splashing each other, and then they got tired. They drifted off to their own areas of the water, Leeda floating on her back and Grey examining some moss at the bank.
Finally she got bored and ducked under the water, swimming toward him, sneaking. She came up right behind him. But either he was pretending he didn't hear her, or he was too absorbed in what he was studying, because he didn't turn around when she popped out of the water. Hesitating and wondering what to do, Leeda froze. She stood a bit too long to do anything. She stared at his back, at his shoulder, at the drops of water on him, at the tilt of his head, feeling curious about whatever was going on in his brain. It was like being hit with an arrow.
She stepped backward, awkwardly, and sank under the water, swimming back toward the shore. She got out and began wringing out her clothes. She waited by the car until he'd come out of the water and dried off with his shirt, putting it back on sopping wet.
On the drive home, they were quiet. Leeda was acutely aware of where every edge of him was. It was like she couldn't be just in her own head.
“I'm gonna wait to go to Alaska. Until you go back to school,” he said. “After you've figured everything out.”
Leeda felt awkward and grateful. “Thank you,” she said.
Grey turned on the radio, and they were silent for the rest of the drive. Leeda wondered if the silence felt as dense and alive to him as it did to her.
A strange car was in the driveway when they pulled in, but Leeda barely registered it.
They both got out of the car a little breathlessly.
At the front of the truck, they stood for a second, smiling at each other with their hands in their pockets. “Thanks, Grey,” Leeda said.
The cottage's front door opened, and Leeda turned, surprised by the sound.
Eric stood in the doorway.
Leeda jumped, yelped with glee, and ran into his arms.