Authors: Tiffany Baker
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Grief teaches the steadiest minds to waver.
t was the beginning of winter, and except for the drone of the St. Bartholomew youth group’s bus, Devil’s Slide Road was empty, dark, and icy, the result of a late-November freeze. The children on the bus were either sleepy after the outing to the movie theater in Berlin, New Hampshire, or hyped up and distracted by the antics of their friends. The alert ones gathered in a noisy cluster at the back of the ancient yellow bus, the boys shoving and teasing, girls giggling. Up at the very front, eighteen-year-old Suzie Flyte sat by herself, staring silently out the grimy window at the prickly expanse of pines, birches, and oaks she knew was there but couldn’t see.
In one fist she clutched a single red woolen mitten. She had lost the other one somewhere on the excursion—probably in front of the theater, when she’d taken them off for an illicit smoke—but when she’d looked after the movie ended, she didn’t find it. She closed her fingers tight around the remaining mitt, her lips flattened in annoyance. She was the daughter of a mill man. She knew not to lose what little was given her. She knew even better not to let someone else take it.
But then she had taken something herself tonight—taken it back at least, which maybe wasn’t the same thing, especially
since it hadn’t been for her own benefit. She licked her lips and blinked in the nocturnal gloom of the bus. From the back she could feel the puzzled gaze of her childhood friend Nate seeking her out, but she refused to turn to meet his eyes. She would talk to him when they got back to Titan Falls, when they were standing again on familiar ground, although after what she had unintentionally witnessed in Berlin, Suzie was no longer sure if where she was going and where she had been were one and the same. She used to think so. Now she wasn’t so certain. She was just riding along here in the middle of the quandary she suddenly found herself in, on this muddy excuse for a road, bounded by trees on one side and a steep ravine on the other.
She squinted as the bus’s spindly wipers passed across the blurry windshield, watching as Fergus, the driver, downshifted and then gripped the steering wheel tighter. An evil S-curve with a tilt was coming up, and the snub nose of the bus was leaning into the curve now, Fergus’s cue to start pumping the brakes slow and gentle before switching to the accelerator. Suzie braced herself against the bus seat, waiting for the centrifugal pull of the turn, but it never came.
Instead a set of high beams illuminated the bus from behind, ricocheting off the rearview mirror, blinding Suzie. She blinked and watched as Fergus groped for the wobbly gearshift, but before his hand could connect, they were once again plunged into darkness as the vehicle that had been behind the bus tried to pass inside the curve, forcing Fergus closer to the ravine. Suzie gasped as she turned her head and realized who must be driving and that she was very likely the only one who had. Fergus let out an indignant half stutter as the bus fishtailed, then teetered, and finally began to roll.
The instant of great disaster, it is often said, is an elongated
one, as if in witnessing its own demise the human mind is wont to wind the moment out long and then longer still.
God from God, light from light
, Suzie dutifully recited every Sunday in one of the plain pews of St. Bartholomew’s Church, chin tucked against her neck, hands folded in front of her, but until this very instant, in this confusion of the bus’s free fall, she had never known what the words meant. Now, in a terrible rush, she divined the lesson: God or man, you were only as good as what you begat on this earth.
Far ahead of them on the road, the indifferent sputtering of a truck could be heard, vanishing slowly around the bends. Suzie barely registered the noise as the bus plunged toward the bottom of the ravine. Her focus lay solely with the boy behind her.
You are not your father
, she thought, pushing the idea toward him, as if it were a sentient thing he would be able to scoop up to his chest and cradle.
You are so much more.
God from God. Light from light. In the end it was all one and the same. But this illumination was brief for Suzie—a mere flash, as is all revelation. Before it had faded, the bus hit bottom, Suzie’s vision exploded into a kaleidoscope of dancing glass, and she slipped into darkness, taking everything she had just gleaned with her.
t the time of the accident in the mid-1990s, when the area’s string of paper towns first began to wither and die, Titan Falls wasn’t yet a hollowed-out settlement stuck at the wrong end of nowhere, but it wasn’t a far cry from that either. While it was true that the sulfurous, stinking waters of the Androscoggin were running much clearer than they had decades before, the village was still only just full enough of wood pulp, buzz saws, and good honest muscle to be barely tipped to the correct side of profitable. Now and then it struck June McAllister—the mill owner’s wife—that Titan Falls was nothing more than a drunken jumble of timber and human grit, an accidental collision of industry and nature, but she was careful never to voice that thought out loud, especially not to her husband and most especially not to the other mill wives. To them she appeared to believe in the singularity of the town’s fate with the same blind assurance her fingers took on during the sewing circle she hosted. At first, June had found the custom archaic, a throwback to her mother-in-law’s time, but, as with everything else in her life, she soon learned that personal will was no match for force of habit where the women of Titan Falls were concerned.
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” she found herself chirping week after week, doling out advice like she was serving up neat pats of iced butter. It was an old wives’ saying she’d often heard growing up and had hoped by now to have escaped. The ladies around her would pause, then shrug and bob their heads. One of them might snip a thread from her pile of sewing with a bare front tooth. Another would slide a new row of stitches across the cool steel of a knitting needle. It was fine and well for June McAllister to sit there and orate in her own house, of course. The Lord
give and then take away. The problem—and the truth that none of them ever dared to utter—was that in a town like Titan Falls, smeared up flush along the river and frequently pummeled by it, it was often difficult to tell which was which.
It wasn’t that the other women didn’t like June (although in truth they didn’t), it was just that they didn’t trust her very much. She wasn’t, after all, a natural-born daughter of the place. Instead she’d struggled to become one over twenty years of marriage to Cal, the fourth-generation owner of the Titan Paper Mill and, really, the sole lifeblood of the town. At first, as a scholarship girl fresh out of the ranks of Smith College and totally unfamiliar with the mores and means of the North Woods, June had found the geography of Titan Falls shocking in its stony glory. She’d been raised in a shaky-jointed, not-very-prosperous town on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The architecture of June’s childhood had been sandy and loose-slatted, all tin roofs and concrete blocks, peeling shutters and slow-twirling ceiling fans. The smell of sea salt had corroded everything all the time, clattering insects had made the sticky air vibrate, and colors were either vibrant and urgent—bougainvillea, birds-of-paradise opening on their stalks—or buffeted and past their prime.
Until Smith, June hadn’t known that air could turn so crisp
it was like getting a first kiss, that a tree could burst into the color of fire and then change again into a skeleton of itself and then yet again, in the spring, haze into unexpected blossoms. She learned to drink tea hot from a silver pot instead of sweet and iced, saved up for and bought herself a camel-hair coat, and dreamed of becoming a literature professor so that she would never, ever have to leave this new and glorious world of leaded windows, mahogany library shelves, needlepoint cushions, and cathedral towers.
And then she met Cal on a weekend jaunt to Boston. She was at a house party hosted by her roommate, Janey, who knew Cal’s best friend from summers spent on Nantucket.
“He’s a senior at Dartmouth, and I hear he’s a mill man,” Janey had whispered in her parents’ well-appointed living room, eyeing Cal’s chiseled jaw and strong shoulders with appreciation as she handed June a warm beer. At first June had misunderstood. Her heart had skipped to think that finally, after almost two and a half years up north, she was meeting another soul like her, another working stiff accepted into this rarefied world of college and summer houses but yet not of it.
“No, silly,” Janey had said with a laugh, correcting June. “His family
the mill.” One of the very oldest in the East, it turned out, and June’s cheeks had flamed like the autumn trees around her. She spilled some of her beer onto her skirt, but Cal didn’t seem to notice, or if he did, he liked what he saw.
“Hello,” he said, stepping right up to her and cupping her thin hand in his generous palm. “You’re Janey’s roommate at Smith, aren’t you? What are you studying?”
“Literature,” June had answered without hesitation, and Cal had nodded thoughtfully. She held her breath, waiting to see what he would say.
“You know, Whitman wrote
Leaves of Grass
on paper made by my family’s mill.”
June gaped at him. It had never occurred to her to consider the physical provenances of the works she pored over day after day. That this wide-necked, blue-eyed boy would be able to lay such casual claim to what June considered mythic amazed her. When he offered to fetch a second drink for her, she let him, and when he asked, one year later, for her hand, she said yes right away, egged on by her girlfriends, who assured her that she was trading up—books for real life, an unfinished education for a giddy leap up the social ladder.
But Titan Falls, it turned out, was nothing like the New England of Smith or, indeed, of the literature she’d studied so ardently and written so many essays about: the blooming lilac bushes of Whitman, the pin-straight woods of Thoreau. Instead the world of Titan Falls reminded her a little of her old life in Florida, but on a much vaster scale. If she went five minutes out of town in three directions, she found herself enveloped by a swath of forest so great it was like stepping out of time. The river cut along the fourth face of the village, forming a line of currents, sludge, and rogue logs. June learned quickly that in Titan Falls the wilderness was a bounty, yes, but that it could also turn around and swallow a man whole in a heartbeat.
The Androscoggin, June also discovered over time, came with its own problematic history. It was a long-troubled stretch of water, beautiful on the surface but poisoned underneath, like a ruined woman who’d kept up her face but let the rest of herself fall to hell. Sulfur dioxide still escaped from the mills, and in the summer the town sometimes had to put out bubblers to aerate the water enough to keep the fish alive. In spite of that, clumps of algae continued to bloom like roses every August, spreading
a tangy phosphate odor across the back of June’s tongue. During her first year in Titan Falls, she’d found the stench overwhelming, but her mother-in-law, Hetty, had assured her that she would get used to it.
“This is nothing. When
was a bride,” she said, twisting her dented wedding ring for emphasis, a ring so worn that June pitied her for it, little imagining the coming stretch of years that would rub her own ring to dullness, “we used to say the river was too thick to paddle and too thin to plow. Mud would turn yellow, and the paint on all the houses would peel. Kids used to bounce quarters off the scum that floated down here.” Her expression soured. “Now we’re so regulated, fish can barely piss in the river. Not that it stops the damn town from blaming the mill for every last thing. You’ll find that out, too.”
Hetty died from liver cancer a short year after June was married, and a heart attack claimed Henry, Cal’s father, soon after, and though June never said so, she often wondered how much the pollution from the river had to do with their demises, just as she wondered if it was the cause for the occasional flotillas of dead trout that popped up or even the babies sometimes born in the area with stunted fingers, cleft palates, or tongues so stubbed they couldn’t suck their mothers’ milk. When she found out that she would be unable to bear any more children after the birth of her son, Nate, she spent hours pacing along the banks of the waterway, staring at the swirling muck, a misgiving building inside her that she knew she could never voice.
For that was part of the deal she’d made by coming to live in Titan Falls—a private bargain she’d struck in the deep tissue of her heart. As long as the town spared her its eternal suspicion and took her in as one of its own, she vowed, she would turn a blind eye to the soot clinging to roots of the place. She would
do as her mother-in-law suggested and ignore the little details of decay that snagged along the corners of her gaze, letting the dark surface of the river ripple in peace, the way it had for generations.
Over time June proved to be an apt pupil of Titan Falls. Even the other women couldn’t begrudge her that. In a blizzard her pantry was the best stocked, and she was always ready to share. She possessed a whole cupboard of muffin tins molded for various holidays: bunnies for Easter, trees and stars for Christmas, jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween. Following in Hetty’s civic footsteps, June oversaw improvements to the library, handpicking the leather chairs and the globed reading lights as if she were outfitting a fancy gentleman’s club. On the Fourth of July, she helped festoon the tiny main street in patriotic bunting before handing out ice cream with the other Acorn Association ladies.
The parts of Titan Falls to which she couldn’t turn a blind eye, she simply avoided. The derelict mill cottages, for instance, down by the river, where her son used to love to play in the summer when teenagers weren’t carousing in them. The mill itself, since it was a largely male domain except for Gracie, Cal’s phlegmatic secretary, and the quiet woman who came in on Friday night to clean the office. And most of all, the old homestead out on Devil’s Slide Road, where the river folded back in a crook and stewed in such foulness that no one was very surprised when a lone woman named Gert Snow went missing out there in the early 1950s.
As a very young child, gossip had it, Gert had been waspish and sour-faced, but as a young woman she’d grown into a great beauty—so lovely, in fact, that it was rumored she’d even turned the acquisitive eye of Henry McAllister. Fire broke out in the family home and killed her parents during the great drought of ’42, when the river stank so hard that all the silverware in town
tarnished overnight and even the flies out that way dropped dead. People said Gert survived the disaster out of pure spite. Some folks even suggested she might have been the one to light the blaze, but absolutely everyone agreed that the girl’s behavior after the tragedy was not right. Instead of accepting the baskets of vittles and wares people left for her on the edge of Devil’s Slide Road, Gert hurled them into the ravine with curses, then proceeded to build herself a shack barely fit for livestock. She stalked the woods of her family land with a rifle and perfect aim, bringing back the corpses of deer and hares, skinning them and leaving their remains hanging in the trees as a warning to intruders. The chimney of the little smokehouse, untouched by the conflagration, belched at all hours of the day and night, and people assumed that Gert must be living on the hardest foods imaginable: smoked jerky, roots, and the bitter berries of the North Woods.
A halfhearted search party tramped up and down Devil’s Slide Road when she disappeared a decade later, but not much effort was made and she was never found. In truth, no one would even have known how to bury the likes of Gert. Since she was godless to her guts, it wouldn’t have been right to mix her bones up with the town’s good Protestant ones. The other Snows had always been laid to rest elsewhere by their kin—no one was sure where—but there wasn’t a soul left in the immediate family to do that now, and no need anyway. The townsfolk simply bowed their heads that week at prayer and then let a slow tide of moss and rot pull the empty shack back down to the earth for the next twenty years, when a distant relative of Gert’s, a man named Pruitt, showed up to claim the place. People tended to drive slow past the Snow stretch, even in all sorts of weather, and they were wise. The river cut a notch deep down to the bottom of a ravine
there, and the mud oozed a peculiar yellow color. “Brimstone,” the locals called it, and knew enough to take it easy on those patches.
“Let the river lie,” was Hetty’s advice on the matter the first time June asked about Gert’s history, shortly after her marriage. When June pointed out that she’d been talking about a woman and not the Androscoggin, Hetty simply smiled. “In Titan Falls,” she said, “everything begins and ends with the damn river. You’ll see. If you’re smart, my dear, you’ll stay clean out of all of it.”
Cal had put it another way. “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” he’d said, and for many years—right up until the crash that changed everything—June chose to believe this.