Authors: Jodi Lynn Anderson
exico City had nowhere quiet to walk. It was one of the few things Birdie really disliked about it. Everywhere you went there were people and buildings, always accompanied by noise. For someone who'd learned to sort through her thoughts by walking under drooping pecan trees and into quiet shady corners, it could be hard to focus when she needed to.
Today Birdie was walking aimlessly in the city's center. She had just finished her last final. Enrico was waiting for her to come over so they could head to an engagement party being thrown for them by one of their friends. But Birdie's feet had led her away from his dorm building and down by the floating market, then past the bus station, winding along the streets, people watching. She kept circling back to a particular pay phone, staring at it, biting her pinky nail absently, and walking away. She didn't
to call anyone. She just kept feeling like she
to call someone. Finally she picked up the receiver, fished her phone card out of her wallet, and began to dial.
“Hello?” Murphy's sleepy voice came over the other end of
the line. Georgia was two hours ahead, but Murphy had never been an early riser. Birdie was grateful she had even picked up.
“Bird? You okay?” Murphy croaked, slowly waking up.
“Yeah. I justâ¦wanted to know how your trip went.”
“Fine,” Murphy murmured. “It's weird being home.”
“I bet,” Birdie warbled. She didn't know why, but hearing Murphy at home in Georgia set her on the verge of tears. A few feet in front of her, a man spit on the sidewalk. Sometimes she hated Mexico City.
“What's going on, Bird?”
Birdie hesitated. She didn't know what to say. She kicked her toes against the concrete beneath her, staring at a piece of flattened gum stuck there.
In the days since Enrico had proposed, Birdie had gone from nervous to giddy to something else entirely. Some feeling she didn't recognize. And the more she'd tried to swallow it and write it off, the bigger it had gotten. It was close to the feeling of forgetting something.
“Nothing. I just can't believe I'm not gonna be there with you guys this summer.”
“I know. Me too. It's the worst.”
They were quiet for a while, missing each other. A woman had arrived at the phone booth and had dropped two big satchels of vegetables. She hovered, looking at Birdie directly to let her know she was waiting.
“So are you still engaged today?”
Birdie laughed softly. “Yeah.”
“You sound, I dunno. You sound weird.”
Birdie could hear that Murphy was perfectly awake now. And it felt like a blessing that, when Murphy was awake, she noticed everything, and then she called you out on it.
“Iâ¦I don't know if I can explain itâ¦.” She studied her brown Teva sandals instead, then looked at the lady waiting for the phone. Birdie was growing a little self-conscious.
Birdie kicked her feet gently against the pavement. “I just, you know what? I feel really angry.”
“I'm angry becauseâ¦because Enrico has floppy hands. And he wears these nubby white pants. I hate white pants. I just stare at him in those white pants and I want toâ”
“I don't want to say.”
“Okay. I just want to punch him in the face.”
Murphy guffawed and then immediately silenced herself.
“What do you think?” Birdie asked.
“You know what I think.”
Murphy had already said she thought Birdie wasn't ready to be engaged. A lot of people would have said that. But Birdie was excited to have this thing with Enrico. She was excited that she could have him around for the rest of her life. She couldn't imagine finding someone better to make a life with.
“I'm not like you, Murphy. I don't need to sow my wild oats like you do. I like being settled.”
“But maybe you're settl
. Maybe that's what you're feeling.
Remember that time you were telling me about Disney World? How you said you really loved the Dumbo ride?”
“Okay, well, so you said you didn't want to go on any other ride, but then you went on Space Mountain. And well, you know, that ride is way better.”
“Enrico is not the Dumbo ride!” Birdie gasped into the phone.
“Okay, okay,” Murphy said sheepishly. “Then I don't know. I don't know what's going on with your feelings. You're a deep well, Birdie. Things take a while to play out with you sometimes.”
Birdie fiddled with the phone cord. She felt badly for yelling at Murphy, who knew her so well.
“I feel scared.”
“That, I understand,” Murphy murmured.
“I feel like I've forgotten something big.”
They both were silent for a while. Birdie let out a wistful sigh. She decided to change the subject.
“Are you gonna see Rex?” she asked.
“Oh, maybe. I dunno.”
Birdie smiled. Murphy acted the most careless about the things that made her the most nervous.
A voice interrupted them in Spanish, telling them they had one minute left.
“Okay, well,” Birdie said, “I guess I'm out of credit on my phone card. And some lady's waiting to use the phone anyway.”
“Okay. Okay. Well, I hate that you're not here. You're not still kissing that stupid chicken, are you?”
“No,” Birdie lied.
“All right. Love you.”
Birdie hung up the phone and stared at it for a minute. Then she turned and walked.
She walked back the way she'd come, down by the floating market, and into a stationery store. She bought some paper, an envelope, and stamps, and then walked back outside, positioning herself on a stone bench.
She thought maybe she'd write to her mom. Or maybe to Poopie. It was still weird, sometimes, choosing between them in little ways like this.
But finally she decided that what was inside was too big to write to either of them. She just stared off into space, tapping the pen against her chin, miserable.
She decided to write a fake letter instead.
I can't do this. Please forget me.
She felt tears welling up in her eyes at her own melodramatic words. But they calmed her. It was like shock therapy. They were things she'd never actually say or mean. She tapped the pen against her chin for a moment.
Your white pants make me want to punch you in the face.
Birdie stared at the letter and a tiny, peaceful smile slipped onto her face. She took it a step further, tearing off a stamp, licking
it, and placing it on the front of the envelope. For the return address she wrote,
Birdie, Country Mouse.
And then she stood up and started walking again.
She walked past the bus station, but this time she stopped, staring at a bus with the banner
She longed to go to the
. She longed to hop a flight and go home and forget that Mexico and Enrico had ever happened. Then she wouldn't have to make choices.
There was a blue postbox right by the ticket counter. Birdie stared at her letter, feeling half crazy. She wouldn't send it, of course.
But she found herself walking to the postbox. She found herself opening the tiny door. She found herself laying the letter upon it, tempting fate.
And then, with the recklessness of someone who has kissed chickens and flown off to study in foreign lands, she dropped it in.
urphy stretched in bed, staring at the dingy white ceiling overhead. Her tiny window looked out on the patchy dead grass behind Anthill Acres Trailer Park. She could smell the coffee and microwave dinners that had saturated the trailer over the years. It was like a museum of her former life.
She rolled sideways out of bed and slunk out through the skinny door into the living room where her mom was bent over the table reading the paper, coffee in one hand. She looked over and beamed at Murphy.
Murphy hugged her from behind and then flung herself down on the couch. She blinked at the table for a few minutes, waking up. The night before, they'd barely caught up before Jodee had gone back to bed. Murphy had stayed up watching TV, unable to sleep after hibernating on the bus. Her mom handed her a coffee.
“I'll get another cup.” She stood.
Murphy and her mom had lived in Anthill Acres all Murphy's life, and her mom had lived in Bridgewater since dinosaurs had roamed the earth. Jodee had grown up two blocks down the street in a house that was now a shell, overgrown with kudzu.
“What's new?” Murphy asked. By the look of things, the answer was nothing.
Jodee looked at the TV, picking at her fingernails. “Oh, you know. Work's good.”
Murphy studied her. She had expected her mom to gush. Jodee usually loved having someone to talk to. But this morning, she was quiet, reserved, a little strange.
“Dating anyone?” Murphy asked, trying to jump-start the conversation.
She shook her head. “Nope.” Jodee smiled at her and took her hand. “Oh, sweetie, I'm glad you're home,” she drawled.
“Me too.” At the moment, sitting with her mom, she really meant it. She squinted at Jodee. “Is everything okay?”
Jodee nodded brightly.
Murphy asked after people in town. Two of her classmates had gotten married. Cynthia Darlington's teahouse was doing well. Judge Miller Abbott's wife had died. But soon Jodee fell into an odd, awkward silence and fidgeted in her seat.
Frustrated, Murphy thrust herself out of her chair. “I think I'm gonna go over to the orchard,” she said. “See Poopie and Walter.”
“That sounds nice.”
Murphy assessed her mom with one last glance, then walked into her bedroom and pulled on long shorts and an orange tank top. She corralled her defiant dark curls into some kind of frizzy ponytail. She grabbed her knapsack and headed out the door.
Outside, she unlocked her bike and hopped on. She pulled out to the edge of the parking lot.
But instead of turning left, up Orchard Road, she guided her handlebars to the right.
She rode toward town, taking in the sights. It all felt surreal to Murphy, like something far away, but also exactly the same as the day she'd left. Main Street felt like a time warp. She rode past the courthouse, where she'd stood in front of the judge at least twenty times for various acts of rebelliousness. She rode past Rex's dad's hardware store. Here, she paused her bike for a moment, confused. Though the store looked the same, the familiar sign hanging above the door had been replaced by an Ace Hardware sign.
“Hmm.” She sighed. She kicked her bike back into motion. Past the cemetery.
As she got closer to Rex's, she began to bike slower, zigzagging over the bridge, studying the trees and the flowers and thinking about turning around. Murphy went over some rules with herself. She wouldn't act too happy to see himâthat would lead him on. She wouldn't apologize for not replying to his e-mailsâshe still stood by her decision that it had been the right thing to do. Why should she feel obligated to hold on to something that didn't work for her anymore?
Murphy took a deep breath. It was a beautiful spring day. The river under the bridge was usually dried up, but today it was an even trickle. The sound of the water was hypnotizing.
She turned off the bridge and onto Rex's street, edging the cemetery. She could see a corner of his gray one-story prefab house peeking out through the trees ahead. Her pulse picked up a little.
Pedaling the bike as slowly as it could possibly go without
falling over, she wound out from the cover of the trees. And then she stopped, her sneakers hitting the pavement at the edge of the driveway. The gravel was dotted with about fifteen old newspapers, some of them turning back to mush. The lights were out.
She pulled in and parked her bike, hovering over the kickstand longer than she needed to. She walked up the stairs onto the front porch and pushed the porch swing next to her with her foot, staring at it for a few moments, watching it move back and forth, forward and back, a pain rising in her chest. Finally she stopped it with her hand and walked to the window behind it, pressing her face up against the glass. She peered inside at the house. The furniture, the curtains, the radio that Rex's dad had liked to listen to, the oil painting of ducks above the couch, even the washer and dryerâ¦
utside the banquet room of the Cawley-Smith Hotel, the late May breeze was lifting the leaves, but no one had bothered to open a window.
Leeda sat back in her chair and stared at the gently waving branches. Next to her, her sister, Danay, leaned forward casually, her hair fanning over her right shoulder. In front of Leeda, on the table, was a paperweight with the Cawley-Smith logo on it. Leeda ran her fingers over its cool glass.
At the head of the table, Grandmom Eugenie's lawyer shuffled papers. He was also the lawyer of the entire Cawley-Smith family and half the well-heeled people in townâwhich added up to about twenty, including the heiress to a local ginger ale fortune and a family whose predecessor had invented and patented a new way to process pork cracklings.
Fourteen people had showed up for the reading of the will. Grandmom Eugenie's money and influence had stretched like tentacles all over the town of Bridgewater. She had been partial owner of the family bed-and-breakfast, as well as benefactress for various charitiesâsuch as the Kings County Miniature Pony
Rescue and the Pecan Trail Tourism Committee. On top of that, no one would have been surprised if she'd had gold doubloons buried in a cookie tin in her backyard. People had come with less hope of getting a lot of money than of seeing a show.
“Talk to your uncle Gabe after this,” Leeda's mom, sitting to her left, whispered to her. “He said he'd give you some advice on building up your rÃ©sumÃ© for business school.”
“Mom, I'm a freshman.”
“It's never too early. Danay started laying the groundwork for her law degree as soon as she got to school.”
Leeda looked over at her sister, happily chatting with one of their aunts. She was wearing a short-sleeve, impeccably tailored maroon suit, and her long straight hair was combed down her back. Danay seemed happily at ease wherever she was, and today was no exception.
Being home was already getting to Leeda. She felt dwarfed next to the person she thought she was in NewYorkâfun, sort of cool and glamorous, together. Being around her family made her feel aimless and sort of lame. She felt like someone else around them, but she didn't know whom.
Her dad had picked her up from the bus stop the night before, hugged her briefly, and asked her lots of questions about the weather in New York on the ride home. She hadn't seen her mom until this morning, and although Leeda had felt full of things to tell about her life in the city, she hadn't been able to think of much to say. There was something awkward about being loving in the Cawley-Smith family. Leeda sometimes felt as though they were all intimate strangers. It gave her a sinking feeling, now that she was back.
Finally the lawyer cleared his throat and tapped his papers to straighten them. The low murmur of the room quieted as he launched into a lengthy, monotonous reading of all the legal preliminaries. Leeda quickly started to zone out, looking out the window at the trees again, longing to find Murphy, head to the orchard and see Poopie and her uncle Walter, and lie in the grass.
She was attentive enough to hear that Eugenie had left her house, Primrose Cottage, to her mom, to be either kept or sold as Lucretia wished once a home had been found for the miniature ponies in the corral in the backyard.
The lawyer continued down the list of parcels of money and other pieces of property that had been left to Leeda's uncles and aunts.
“To my granddaughters, I leave the followingâ” Leeda turned, hoping now that it was doilies, so she and Murphy could have a good laugh. “To Danay, I leave my shares in the Cawley-Smith Hotels, accessible at her discretion.”
Leeda glanced at Danay. She looked surprised and pleased. It seemed weird, being happy about something you got because someone had died. Leeda scratched the back of her neck, feeling self-conscious.
“To Leeda, I leave the sum of five hundred thousand dollarsâ¦”
Leeda was sure she had misheard. But the way the room suddenly clammed up made her heart skip a beat. Her eyes found their way first to Danay's bewildered ones and then to her mother's look of shock. The lawyer continued. “â¦upon the following condition. Leeda will undertake the stewardship of my Kings County Miniature Pony Rescue. The ponies are currently
under the care of a worker I have retained for them. Leeda will need to find a home, or homes, for the ponies.” From her right, Leeda could hear one of the onlookers snort, but she was too dazed to see who. Some people snickered under their breath. “The money is intended to be more than enough for the care of my babies. However, once the ponies are properly cared for, Leeda is free to do with the remaining money as she wishes.
“She should take up residence at Primrose Cottage until she has finished dispensing her duties, at which time the house will be transferred to her mother. Failure to accept this responsibility will render Leeda's inheritance void, and the money will go to a charity I have specified.” The lawyer seemed reluctant to go on, but then sheepishly continued reading. “If my ponies are not looked after properly, you can bet I will be frowning down on you from the hereafter.”
A few giggles rang out in the group. It was the Eugenie they'd come for.
Leeda sat stock-still. As if sitting stock-still could mean that twenty-three ponies would run right past her, on to the next corral.