She realized, one sticky evening just three months after she’d married Abe’s father, that she had no idea how to be a family member, much less an acceptable stepmother. She was surveying the backyard where Abe and his friends had been playing.
She didn’t know if fifteen-year-olds called it “playing.” They had trooped out after lunch, wearing camouflage and goggles, and noisily pretended to kill each other with orange-tipped guns until supper time. The picnic table was still littered with containers of tiny fluorescent pellets and plastic magazines.
She gingerly picked her way across the lawn to get a closer look at the begonias around the maple tree. She wasn’t positive, but she thought she had seen the Kent boy fall dead there. She knelt in the damp grass. A few plants were broken—not too bad. But the bright green pellets were everywhere—mixing into the soil, tangled in the grass, cupped in the leaves of the hosta, drowning in the bird bath. Just when the yard was starting to look perfect for the All-Town Garden Contest. She tried to pick one up, but it only burrowed deeper into the dirt.
Abe was in the kitchen, rummaging around in cupboards for an after-supper snack. Pete hadn’t warned her that he would eat so much.
If she was his mother, maybe she would shout his whole name, Abraham Thomas Wood, and tell him he was in trouble for making a mess in the yard. But if she was his mother, maybe she would think that was an overreaction. She didn’t want to be mad at him, especially not when he reminded her so much of the Johnny she remembered.
Abe had the same curly dark hair, the same brown, durable, skinny aliveness that nineteen-year-old Johnny had. Had had? She remembered Johnny in the parking lot, heaving with laughter and leaning against the car to keep from falling. Johnny was no longer nineteen any more than she was still nine.
But Abe wouldn’t care about that. He wanted to be mad at her.
Pete came outside and squatted down next to her. They watched his boy together. Abe looked warm and homey, framed in the bright window against the gloaming outside. Classical music floated into the yard from Pete’s radio.
“When will I need to take him into town?” she said. She knew—optometrist on Monday, swim meet on Wednesday—but she needed Pete to acknowledge again how supremely awkward this was. It was her first time home alone with, and responsible for, Abe.
“You’ll be fine. He knows how he is expected to behave,” Pete said.
She wanted to say, “He doesn’t like me,” but everyone knew that already. It wouldn’t fix anything to say it out loud.
Pete kissed her cheek. “It’s only a week.”
She stood up and stepped on a BB hidden in the grass. It poked.
Abe wasn’t the first boy to remind her of her brother. The footboard of her old single bed in Chicago had had a notch in it for every boy that looked like Johnny who coded during her emergency room shift. The too-bright eyes of the suicide attempter, who succeeded after all. The clenched fists of the frat boy whose friends had put too much ecstasy in his drink. The curly black hair of the boy with third-degree burns on sixty-five percent of his body. Biker after biker. DUI after DUI. The mangled skull of the one who had been shot in the head. He was wheeled in still clinging to life by a cobweb.
There was one patient who had been stabbed twenty-six times, one wound for every year of his life. Johnny’s friend Carlos had had a knife with a six-inch blade. Johnny had laughed when Carlos showed it to him, had cradled its smooth handle in his hand and turned it to see it sparkle in the light.
“We won’t hurt anyone,” Johnny had said when he saw her watching. “We won’t hurt anyone, okay, Baby Sis?”
The number of patients she couldn’t save increased. She followed every protocol, she always tried to save them, she watched the life flicker away under the sterile white lights. Time passed. She checked off the requisite boxes.
But then her shift would end. She would take the L home as day baptized the city in its hazy, saccharine light. She would trudge up the stairs to her cold, echo-y apartment.
She wanted coffee and bed, but before any of that, before even taking off her shoes, she would pull out a pocketknife from her bedside drawer and notch the footboard. Some mornings there were none, and she would gratefully shuck her uniform and let the shower wash the night away. One morning there were five notches, all from the same head-on. But she reassured herself—as long as there weren’t too many, as long as the odds were good, Johnny was alive.
Then she reached one hundred. She had been working for five years. After completing that final group of notches, she stared at herself in the mirror. She was twenty pounds heavier than she should have been. There were gray hairs where there hadn’t been any. Her eyes had dark circles under them—but that wasn’t new. She had had dark circles from childhood. She had always been older than everyone else her age, ever since she came home from school to cops in the front yard and Johnny standing on the lawn with his hands cuffed behind his back.
She wept then, that night she reached one hundred. It was the first time she had cried since Johnny left her at Aunt Alice’s.
There was a mosquito humming in her ear. She pulled the sheet up over her head, but then she couldn’t breathe. Pete was a snoring lump beside her that shifted only an inch when she kicked the sheet off. Her hair lay stringy and damp over her ears. She hated when her hair touched her ears.
She rolled off the bed and got an elastic from the dresser. The door was open, and a light was throwing a rectangle of brightness into the dark hall. She tiptoed toward Abe’s room, avoiding the creaky spot on the floor in front of the bathroom.
Abe was asleep with the light on, lying face down on top of his covers. The ceiling fan hummed, but the room was stifling. She picked her way across it to open the window, careful not to step on any gun catalogs or gun parts or BBs. A tiny breath of fresh air crept in. As she moved away, her elbow bumped a framed photo on the bookshelf. It nearly fell, but she caught it. Abe didn’t move.
It was a picture of four- or five-year-old Abe dressed like a cowboy, complete except for the hat, which Melissa, his mother, was wearing. They were looking at each other and laughing. April set the picture down quickly. If he woke, he’d think she was a creep.
She paused with her hand on the light switch. Abe stirred. It was funny how a fifteen-year-old could look like a little boy again when he was sleeping. Johnny had been like that. A tough, macho nineteen-year-old who had looked soft and serene when he fell asleep in the reclined front seat of the Civic.
Abe looked so much like Melissa. April had known her long before the cancer, when Melissa was Waterford’s resident beauty and April was a little girl. April suddenly felt again the sadness she’d felt when Melissa finally died. What a lovely family. Good choices, good morals, good marriage, good income. It had made sense for her family to implode. But not a family like Pete and Melissa and Abe’s.
Johnny had been so mad when Momma let Chip move in that he didn’t come home for a week. He would have stayed away longer if April hadn’t gone to find him. She knew he was at Carlos’s house, so that’s where she went, dragging PeePaw, the dirty pink bunny, behind her.
Carlos’s mother had sat her down on a sagging sofa and called her mija and given her an orange soda, all the while explaining in half-English, half-Spanish that Carlos and Johnny had gone out to fix something on Carlos’s car. Then a young woman came and sat on the sofa too, holding her own orange soda.
Victoria was the most beautiful person April had ever seen in real life. Momma was not beautiful. She was puffy and her hair was thin and straggly and she never wore makeup. Victoria’s brown-black hair was perfect and she was almost as skinny as a Barbie doll and wore a miniskirt like a Barbie doll, too. She had hoop earrings that would have fit around April’s arms. April hugged PeePaw to herself and stared.
“Are you April?” Victoria said. “Johnny is so proud of you.”
Johnny and Carlos came, blasting music from the speakers of Carlos’s souped-up Honda Civic. Victoria bounced up off the couch, and Johnny pulled her into himself and had his hand on her butt and her mouth against his face. April hugged PeePaw tighter and stared harder.
She had made him feel guilty for leaving her to live with Chip and Momma while he hid at his friend’s house. It worked—he started watching out for her again. Now April stayed at Carlos’s house sometimes, too, especially when Momma wasn’t home but Chip was. Carlos’s mother would feed her and let her watch cartoons. That was where she saw Johnny’s new tattoo: “Victoria” in all capital letters down the inside of his arm. That was where she saw the knife.
When she came home from school, Chip and Momma were usually sitting on the dead lawn in front of the house, smoking. Usually the Southern California sun was shining, and Chip was only wearing cut-offs and an undershirt, turning lobster-colored everywhere except under his red trucker hat. The lawn was covered in cigarette butts and crumpled beer cans. When she pictured it as an adult she always wondered whether it really had been like that, or if her memory had turned her family into clichés of white trash.
She knew that neither Momma nor Chip worked. Momma had diabetes and kidney problems. She took lots of pills. And sometimes gave herself shots. April could never figure out what was supposed to be wrong with Chip, except alcohol and drugs and general dissoluteness.
How they had a house in California was unclear. Aunt Alice had never explained. She was Johnny’s real daddy’s sister. Aunt Alice couldn’t or wouldn’t tell if Johnny’s real daddy was April’s daddy, too.
Aunt Alice had said, “If it swims like a fish—it probably is a fish.” Johnny had acted like her real brother when it mattered.
The cuckoo clock in the living room struck eleven, and she looked up from her book. She hadn’t realized it was so late. The long drowsy midsummer twilight had deceived her. Daisy ambled in from the dark kitchen, her nails clicking on the hardwood floor. The night hummed with crickets and frogs.
“Where’s Abe?” she asked the dog.
Daisy rested her chin on April’s knee. April hadn’t heard the screen door slam except once after supper, when Abe went out. Pete allowed Abe to go just about anywhere—as long as chores were finished and homework done. In the summer, he was just supposed to be home before pitch dark.
She went upstairs. Abe wasn’t in his room. Was he being rebellious? Telling her the rules didn’t apply when his dad wasn’t home? Or something worse? The first night Pete was away, and she had already lost his son.
Daisy whined and thumped her tail on the floor.
He would sneak in through the back door, not slamming it so she wouldn’t notice and then she would have to talk to him. He would say, “I know the rules, April. We were just having fun. Give me a break.” He would roll his eyes and skulk up to his room. Why did Pete have to be gone?
On the front porch there was a breath of wind that made the swing creak. There was no moon and the stars were out. She tried calling his name—would Melissa have stood on the porch and called his name into the night? Her voice sounded pathetic. Mosquitoes were swarming. She went back inside.
She would wait until eleven-thirty. Then she would call the Kents. Maybe that’s where he was, watching a movie or something, ignoring the rule that he was supposed to call. She sat down again and stared at the china cabinet.
Daisy got up and barked. April froze. Red and blue lights caught in the mirror above the sofa and danced around the room. She saw yellow caution tape; Johnny with hands cuffed behind his back; shadowy officers with metal glinting at their sides; she yelled “Tree!” No—she just got up to answer the knock on the door.
It was Officer McClintock. “Evening, April,” he said. “Sorry to bother you so late, but I’ve got Pete’s boy in my car.”
She leaned against the doorframe. The police didn’t break the news that someone was dead like that.
“We picked him and some of his friends up near the river campground. A camper called to say they were armed and vandalizing the restrooms,” he said.
“No one except big city campers goes near those restrooms,” April said.
Officer McClintock smiled. “I didn’t believe the camper either. But the boys did have air-soft guns and a large supply of plastic BBs.”
“Are you going to lock them up?” she said.
“They ought to know better than playing like that around people from out of town who don’t know them. Technically, they shouldn’t be out so late on public property. They’re all getting an official warning.” Officer McClintock shrugged. “We know they’re good kids. But you could talk to him.”
“Thank you, Officer,” she said. She could not. That was the problem with this child, youth, boy, whatever. She could not talk to him.
Officer McClintock opened the back door of the police car. Abe emerged, looking sheepish. He tried to shoulder past her into the house, but she blocked the way.
“Did you really need the lights, Brad?” she called.
Officer McClintock laughed and pointed to Abe. “If he’d had his way, we would’ve had the siren on, too.”
“Sit down,” she said, once they were in the kitchen.
“Am I in trouble?” he said.
She sat down across from him and pushed a glass of water in his direction. “I’d like you to imagine how I felt when I realized I didn’t know where you were and there was a police car in the driveway.”“It wasn’t anything serious,” he said. “That camper dude was just overreacting. Our guns are plastic.”
She shook her head and tried to speak in a steady voice. “Abe, the last time I saw police lights in my front yard, people had been murdered and my brother was in cuffs. I don’t want to ever—ever—see a police car in this driveway again.”
She stood up and walked out of the kitchen, feeling Abe’s stunned eyes following her. For once she was the one leaving victorious. She strutted upstairs and crumpled on the bed. She didn’t want to beat him. She wanted him to like her.
When she went to church with Aunt Alice as a child, she had always felt, though she was as shiny and pressed as the other children, that she was fake. Those children were shiny all the way through. Their parents were married, they lived on farms or in the small, good town, they knew Bible verses by heart. The baddest words they knew were “dang” and “heck.” They trusted police officers and social workers. They didn’t know what high or drunk looked like. They knew where all their siblings were.
So she had been silent before them and smiled at appropriate junctures and nodded when people asked her questions. When the Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Peck, said that Jesus came to die for our sins, April knew that meant he died for the kinds of sins people in this town committed: not having your Sunday School verse memorized; pushing your sister; lobbing a baseball through a window; saying “dang it” when you dropped things; being proud of how your dress was prettier than Susie Mayford’s. Surely he didn’t die for the sins of her people: letting scary men move into the house; dealing drugs; sending kids to school with black eyes; real bad words; the things in late-night movies on TV; long knives; murder.
Now, as an adult happily married to a kind and gentle Christian man in a state where it rained and gardens could grow, she didn’t think she felt the angst that all the questions used to raise in her. She didn’t lose sleep over them anymore. She believed the Gospel could be for her—most of the time.
Aunt Alice had lost some of her pointy edges in her old age, after April quit the ER job to care for her in her final illness. She had said, “I think you miss the big city, April. This town is claustrophobic for you.”
April had said, “No, Aunt Alice. There aren’t so many trees and flowers in the city.”
The years away had made Waterford kinder, too. The people now had a reason for what Mrs. Peck called “April’s perpetual rainy-day look.” The poor girl had seen all kinds of horrible things working in that Chicago hospital. They were glad she was safely home in their wholesome slice of America.
She was going to have to wake Abe up. Pete had always done it before when the boy slept through his alarm on school days. But now it was summer and he probably hadn’t remembered the optometrist appointment. It had been a late night.
She stood outside his door and tried to remember how Aunt Alice had woken her up when she overslept. April had always been an early riser. Once, Chip had woken her by throwing a beer bottle at the wall over the couch that was her bed. The glass had shattered down all over her and she had sat up screaming. It wasn’t personal—Chip had been arguing with Johnny and Momma. Johnny had ducked. Momma had half-dragged April off the couch into her lap, trying to brush glass out of her hair.
“Hush baby, hush baby,” Momma said. “Look what you’ve done to my baby doll.”
Momma smelled and her eyes were bloodshot and her hands clumsy. April screamed louder.
“Shut her up,” Chip said.
“You shut up,” said Johnny. “Momma stop, you’re making it worse.”
Momma started crying. Johnny scooped April out of her arms, glass and blankets and PeePaw and all, and carried her to Carlos’s house. Carlos’s mother had worked the glass out of her hair with a lice comb.
She knocked softly. There was no sound in Abe’s room. The door creaked a little as she pushed it.
He was lying on his back this time. She opened the blinds and let the morning light stream into the room.
“Hey, Abe, we have to get ready to go,” she said.
He stirred and scrunched up his face in the light.
“We’ll miss the appointment,” she said, trying to make her voice calm and gentle.
“Aw, Mom, it’s too early,” he said and rolled onto his side.
She stepped back. “It’s me,” she said, “It’s April.”
Abe opened his eyes and squinted at her. He sat up abruptly. “What are you doing in here?” he said.
“The optometrist,” she said. “Thirty minutes.”
He was silent on the way into town, but as they pulled into the parking lot, he turned in his seat to look at her.
“Did I call you mom in my sleep? Sometimes I say things when I’m waking up. I didn’t mean it. You’re not my mom, okay? I don’t think that.”
She parked the van. His words weren’t angry, but they were urgent. Maybe that was a change for the better.
“I know you weren’t talking to me,” she said.
When Johnny had left her at Aunt Alice’s, she had screamed and screamed, and he had just kept walking towards Carlos’s Civic with his thin shoulders squared. She screamed, “Tree, Johnny, tree!” and even then he wouldn’t turn around, and she pounded against the screen door that Aunt Alice had locked.
Tree had been their special game since April could remember. She must have only been two or three when she would yell, “Tree!” and leap onto Johnny and wrap her arms and legs around him like a monkey. As she got bigger, she was increasingly difficult to pry off, so Johnny usually resorted to tickling her.
The evening she came home to find flashing lights in the street and yellow tape around the yard where Johnny stood shirtless with his hands cuffed behind him, she had secretly screamed “Tree” as she ran to him.
“Don’t hurt her, please,” Johnny had said as they tried to tear her off him. “She’s just a kid. Baby Sis, they just want to help us. There’s been an accident. It was a mistake. We’ll work it out. The cops are okay.”
The officers couldn’t undo her arms from around his waist without causing her to scream hysterically so they brought her to the station with him. There, three of them had pried her loose as he was led into a separate room. Later she realized how scared he must have been then, having just fought for his life, having just killed Chip. But he spoke only to her as they took him away.
“Don’t be afraid, Baby Sis. They’re going to take care of you. I’ll be there soon. I’ll come get you. I love you, Baby.”
She had found a few news articles later, when she went to college and could search the web. Somehow Johnny, Carlos and Victoria were all at the house. Maybe they were driving by and Chip wasn’t smoking in the front lawn, so Johnny bet he wasn’t home and took them in to meet Momma. Momma had often complained that Johnny never brought his girlfriend by. The news articles didn’t offer any explanation of what happened next, but reports said there was a load of narcotics in the house—heroin, crack, everything. Chip had had friends who regularly came over late at night. Momma would make April go into the other room when they came. Maybe the fight was about drugs. Maybe Johnny threatened to call the police. He had before. But he knew Chip had guns.
Johnny never said what happened. He only said, as he sobbed after hitting a rabbit on the highway somewhere between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, “I couldn’t save any of them, Baby Sis. There was so much blood. Oh God, there was so much blood.”
“It was an accident,” she had said. “You said it was an accident.”
“I never should have taken them there,” he said. “He was insane. I had to do it. He would’ve killed me, too.”
The news only said there was an altercation. Momma and Carlos were dead by the time the police arrived. Victoria survived for a few hours in the hospital. The news agreed that Chip would have shot Johnny, too, if Johnny hadn’t wrestled the gun away from him and shot him instead. Then Johnny had stuffed his shirt into Victoria’s wounds and called 911. They later determined it was self-defense and there were no charges. But at first there were and Johnny was arrested. And because of Tree, April was arrested with him.
After all that he left her at Aunt Alice’s and didn’t turn around. When he drove away, she had suddenly stopped screaming. She had wiped the tears off her face and gone into the room that was now hers and had silently ripped the stuffing out of both pillows on the bed. Aunt Alice had found her later, asleep on a pile of white fluff on the floor. She hadn’t cried again until the night she came home from that hundredth code on her shift.
Waterford was still a small enough town to have a general-store-slash-post-office. The campers who stayed in the site by the river liked it. It made them feel like they had left civilization. You had to drive an hour up the highway to get to Walmart. They only had an optometrist because Don White had retired early from a job in Indianapolis to set up business in his hometown. Farmers came from all around to get glasses from him.
When she stopped the minivan at the store, Abe made no motion to get out.
“You want to wait in the car?” she said.
“Where is your brother now?” he said.
“How do you know about my brother?” she said. She didn’t tell people in Waterford about Johnny. She didn’t usually say she had a brother.
“You said last night that he was handcuffed in your front yard. Where is he now?”
She had told him just like that, in one sentence. It made her shaky to think she had blurted out something she had kept safe for so long. She got out of the car without answering.
She tried to collect herself in the store, but she couldn’t remember what she had come for and couldn’t find the list in her purse. She filled her basket with a box of cornflakes, a Snickers bar, and a carton of eggs. She never bought eggs from the store. She bought them from the neighbors.
“This it?” Charlene said as she rang up the total.
April rummaged in her purse and nodded vaguely.
“Say, did that guy ever find you?” Charlene said. “There was a guy asking for you in here a week or so ago.”
“That’s weird,” April said.
“I thought so. Medium height, curly grayish hair, jeans and a t-shirt. And skinny. Even his fingers were skinny. I noticed when I gave him change. He bought a pack of Marlboroughs. I kind of wondered if he was like a rock-and-roll musician or something.” Charlene giggled. “He would’ve been quite the looker if he wasn’t so skinny. Definitely from out of town.”
April felt cold all over.
Charlene didn’t notice. “He was really polite, though—not at all creepy—so I told him where you live. I hope that was okay.”
April’s hand shook as she handed over her cash. “He didn’t find the house,” she said. “Maybe he meant someone else.”
Back in the car, she leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes for a minute. She had no idea what Johnny would look like if he came to the door. Would he look like a rock-and-roll musician? He wasn’t a musician. Would he be a smoker? He hadn’t been before.
“April?” Abe said. “I have to tell you something.”
She needed to get herself together and drive home. Charlene was notoriously bad with names. She always called April “June.” Someone was probably looking for June Kent. June actually had been a musician. That made sense. It was someone June used to know. April started the car.
“Don’t get mad, okay,” Abe said. “I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I did. I was mad that Dad was going away and leaving me with you.”
She started hearing him. “I’m not mad about last night,” she said. “It’s not a big deal.”
“Not last night,” he said. “A couple days before Dad left. A guy came to the door asking for you. He said, ‘Does April Young live here?’ and I said no—technically that’s not your name anymore, and I was mad. He asked if I knew where you lived, and I said you were out of town.”
April was speeding. She needed to not speed.
“He said that if I saw you I should tell you that someone named Jonathan Young had asked for you.”
She pulled over to the shoulder and stopped the van.
“I’m sorry,” Abe said. “But I think it was your brother.”
“You think?” she said, trying to speak through breaths that came too fast. “Abe, Abe, Abe, how could you do that?”
She got out of the car and started walking down the side of the road. It had to be Johnny, which meant he wasn’t in prison and wasn’t dead. She remembered the doorbell ringing during supper, and Pete asking Abe to answer it. Abe had slouched back into the kitchen and said it was a salesman. Johnny had been ten feet away, and she hadn’t even guessed.
She kicked a rock and almost hit the van. She picked up another one and hurled it at a scarecrow that stared into the road from a neighboring field. This impossible boy. The third rock hit the scarecrow in the stomach.
Michael Kent drove up in his pickup. He slowed when he saw their van. “Everything okay, April?” he hollered.
“Everything is just fine,” she said without turning around. She chucked another rock at the scarecrow.
“Everything okay, Abe?” he said, slowing down even more.
She didn’t hear Abe’s answer. But Michael drove on, and Abe’s feet crunched on the gravel.
“I’m really sorry, April,” he said.
“You said that already,” she said. “But guess what? Sorry doesn’t fix anything. Abe, I’ve worried my brother was dead for longer than you’ve been alive. I’m not sure ‘sorry’ is what I need to hear right now.”
He silently leaned against the van’s rear bumper. He was just a kid. He didn’t know about Johnny. She pitched another rock at the scarecrow. This one decapitated it. She was used to disappointments losing their sharp edges with time, like this one would. She dusted off her hands and leaned against the car beside him.
“I am almost ready to drive you home,” she said.
“We could still look for him,” Abe said. “He asked if there was a post office here. Charlene might know where he went. Or at least where he mailed something.”
“Do you know where you should go if you need to find someone?” Johnny had said that cold night in the Walmart parking lot. “Just in case, you know, you or someone else gets lost.”
“The post office,” she said, “because the mailman knows where everyone lives.”
He had laughed so hard he got weak in the knees and had to lean against the car. It wasn’t that funny, really. But there hadn’t been anything funny in weeks.
“You’re right,” she said. “Charlene might know. And if we know what direction he went, we might catch him.”
It was crazy. Pete was out of town, and they were supposed to look after the house. But you could drive across America in three days if you wanted to. They could be back before Pete got home. Because she had to take Abe with her. She would at least be that responsible.
Once the detectives had determined Chip’s death was self-defense and Johnny was released, he took April out of foster care and drove her to Aunt Alice’s. Later she realized, he had actually stolen her from foster care. There was no way he could have done what he had done if a California social worker had been involved. But Johnny was used to living beside the law—not quite in defiance of it, but more in its shadow, or in the ditch that ran next to it.
He had picked her up after school in Carlos’s Civic. She hadn’t known he was out of jail yet, but when he said her foster parents had asked him to pick her up, she had believed him. She still didn’t doubt when he said the social worker had told him to take her to Indiana where their Aunt Alice lived. She just cried when he said they didn’t have time to go to the foster family’s house to get her stuff. They were good people and had bought her new clothes. Even PeePaw was left behind.
They were on the road before lunchtime. Abe hadn’t believed her at first—but she had made him put some clothes in his gym bag, gathered some snacks, called the neighbors to let them know they’d be gone, and thrown dog food and Daisy’s water bowl into the minivan. She pulled out Pete’s old AAA road trip maps. They might be back before he came home, but just in case, she left a note on the kitchen table:
“Abe, Daisy, and I decided to take a trip in the van. We may have found the brother I told you about. If we’re not home when you get here, we’ll be back by Tuesday.”
Tuesday was a week. She would give herself a week. If she didn’t find him then it was over. Then God didn’t want her to find him. She guessed she could accept that.
The stranger had told Charlene he was heading home to California. April and Abe unfolded the giant map of US Highways against the side of the van. There were three ways to get to California.
When Johnny had brought April to Aunt Alice’s, it was winter, so they had come east through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, avoiding the snowy mountain passes. But now it was summer, so how could they know which way Johnny had gone?
Two of the ways diverged in central Illinois. April decided to head that way and ask around Champaign where the highways split.
Two and a half hours later, she stopped at the post office near the junction. Champaign had the sleepy look of a midsummer college town. Brilliant clouds blew across the blue sky. Abe let Daisy out into the parking lot and filled her water dish.
No one inside the post office remembered someone of Johnny’s description coming in four days ago. April came back to the van and sat inside the open sliding door.
“Am I crazy?” she said. “He could be anywhere in America—the world even—by now.”
“Charlene said California,” Abe said.
“We’re only as far as Illinois and we’ve lost the trail,” April said. “And the states only get bigger the further west you go.”
“Which way would you take?” Abe said.
For the first time ever, Abe was giving her undivided attention and seemed genuinely interested in something she was trying to do. It was suspicious.
“What do you want?” she said.
“I’ve never been on a road trip before.” Abe said. “And I didn’t think you did random stuff like this.”
“It’s not random. I’m trying to find my brother, whom you lost.”
Abe was quiet. He reached down and patted Daisy, who was looking from one to the other and smiling.
April stood up. “If I had to drive to California, I would go back the way I came.”
They had passed towns with names like Tuscola, Neoga, Effingham, and St. Elmo. They had stopped for gas and bathrooms. April had bought Abe a Big Mac. She wasn’t hungry.
Daisy was asleep in the back seat. Abe stared out the window.
“There sure is a lot of corn around here,” Abe said.
She overtook a semi. They passed a crumbling barn half covered in ivy.
“Is your brother dangerous?” Abe said.
“Of course not,” she said.
“You think he’s reformed?” Abe said.
“He never was dangerous,” she said. “What’re you saying?”
Johnny had cradled the long knife in his hand like he knew how to use it. But he had cradled her the same way, when the car was so cold they had thought they would freeze to death. She had fallen asleep with his arms around her in the back seat, watching his breath form clouds that shone white in the parking lot lights.
“You said he was a murderer,” Abe said.
“I did not,” she said. She had no idea what Johnny was now. He could be an ex-con. If not for murder then for something else. It was textbook statistics for men with his background.
“When I was a little girl,” she said, “my brother and mom and I lived in a yellow house in Riverside County. I had my own room and a cat named Olive Oil. Like from Popeye. I went to kindergarten. My brother went to high school. My mom went to work. One day she brought a man home with her. He was short and skinny with knobby hands. His name was Leonard. He had a Pitbull that chased Olive Oil away so I never saw her again. He tried to come into my room one night. My brother stopped him.
“Johnny was only fifteen years old, but he beat Leonard up and threw him out of the house. He saved me.”
Cornfields streamed by. A pickup with its windows down overtook them. Country music blared for a moment and then faded.
“I’m fifteen,” Abe said.
“He’s not a murderer,” she said.
After five hours of driving, April felt her hands starting to shake on the wheel. They had started late in the day—too late to really get some miles behind them. But St. Louis was just ahead. They would rest there.
The sun was in her eyes when she thought she saw the first glimpse of the Gateway Arch, a brief band of silver on the horizon.
“It was night when we passed through here coming from California,” she said. “Johnny woke me up and said, ‘Look at that—that’s the Gateway to the West.’”
“Wouldn’t it have been the gateway to the east for you?” Abe said.
They were closer now. Abe looked around eagerly at the city cropping up on either side of the highway, at the arch in the distance.
“I’ve never seen it for real, but I have that picture, you know, in my room,” he said. “My mom loved stuff like this—bridges and monuments and skyscrapers. We went up the Willis Tower, and we had to beg her to go down again. She just wanted to stay there and watch the city forever.”
“Cities are all right from above,” April said, “but I prefer farmland up close.”
They spent the night in a motel with slippery bedcovers and a stale cigarette smell. It wasn’t much of an improvement on a Walmart parking lot, but at least there was AC and she could lie flat. She tried to call Pete, but his cell didn’t have coverage. She took it as a sign that he didn’t need to know.
They were off again at sunrise. They drove past signs for Sullivan, Cuba and Doolittle. How many dinky towns could a country have? Abe fell asleep.
She was crazy. There was no way to know if Johnny had come this way or not. He could be anywhere in the world, and she had brought Pete’s son to Middle-of-Nowhere, Missouri.
“God,” she said, half-aloud. Daisy’s ears perked up in the rearview mirror.
“God, I’m going crazy. You have to let me find him.”
Abe woke and stretched. She could feel him staring at her, but she kept her eyes on the road and overtook a campervan.
“Good sleep?” she said.
“When did you fall in love with my dad?” he said.
“I wouldn’t call it falling,” she said. “At our ages, in our circumstances. It’s not like the movies.”
He had heard all the rumors, of course. She wasn’t sure why she thought he wouldn’t have, that they would somehow spare him. Perfect little wholesome towns could be cruel.
“Answer my question,” he said.
Pete had come to her house—Aunt Alice’s house—only a few days after Melissa’s funeral. He had stood on the wraparound porch, looking through the screen door like a forlorn puppy.
“Do you have any coffee?” he said.
“Come in,” she said.
He drank his coffee at her kitchen table, and they had talked about the weather, about his work, about local yields, about maintaining antique houses. Or mostly Pete had talked and April had listened. He had come every two or three days after that and done the same thing. After two weeks, they talked about Melissa. Pete cried—something he hadn’t done at the funeral—and April put a box of Kleenex on the table and poured him another cup.
He came less often once he started working again, but when he did, he stayed longer. She cooked him supper. She began looking forward to his coming and was disappointed when he didn’t. And then people started talking.
“When Mom was alive, I would wake up in the morning or come back from school and you were always there,” Abe said. “You were there all night.”
“I was her nurse,” April said. “It was my job to be there. Sometimes that meant all night—she was in a lot of pain.”
“I’m not stupid,” Abe said. “You weren’t with her all night.”
“You’re right,” April said. “I was in the kitchen, drinking coffee with your dad after she was able to fall asleep.”
Coffee at the kitchen table had been the extent of their courtship—if you could even call it that.
“Which ones have you heard?” April said. “All the care I gave her was exactly what any nurse would have given her. Dr. Adams could tell you that. I didn’t know about her life insurance policy. There’s no baby. The only things we did before we were married was drink coffee and hold hands. Your Dad first kissed me a month before our wedding. Does that answer your question?”
Abe sat back against his seat and stared straight ahead. It was silent for a long minute. They passed a billboard for the biggest swap meet in the Midwest.
“I would come home from school, and he wouldn’t be there,” Abe said finally. “Just an empty house and Daisy.”
She had asked Pete what Abe was doing, when he showed up on her porch. And he always said something like, “He has friends.” Abe had come to his own screen door and been his own version of the sad puppy. Only he hadn’t had anyone to let him in. And he was a child.
“Your dad shouldn’t have done that,” she said. “He should’ve been there.”
Once she had started to hear the things people in town were saying, she had blocked the doorway when Pete came.
“Where is this going, Pete?” she said.
He took a step back and said, “We’ll get married.”
“What does Abe say about that?”
“It doesn’t matter what anyone says,” Pete said.
“I didn’t say anyone,” she said. “I said Abe—your son.”
“I need you,” he said. “We both need you.”
He had promised to ask Abe about it. And when he came again, with a ring, he had assured her that Abe approved. She found out later that “asking Abe” actually meant “telling Abe.” She had tried to be logical and reasonable and proper. She had insisted they wait seven months. But for the first time there was a good man who needed her, wanted her. It was too hard to not want him back.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Abe.
The car was deathly silent past Joplin and into Oklahoma. There was nothing for miles and miles. She saw Johnny’s thin shoulders walking away from her as he ruthlessly got back into Carlos’s car.
“It’s hard for men to know how to grieve properly,” she said, “or how to say goodbye. Even good men like your dad. He’s always had a woman to care for him. He didn’t know what to do when there wasn’t one anymore. So he just wanted to fix it.”
“So you’re just the quick fix?” Abe said.
Yes, she was just a quick fix. No, it wasn’t that simple. She was a fix, but she didn’t mind. It wasn’t a bad thing. Pete loved her. He cared for her. And all she had ever wanted was someone to want her.
“Your father is a good man,” she said. Why was it so hard to explain?
There was a lot of empty land in the heart of the country. Oklahoma was a lonely state. She didn’t remember that from her journey with Johnny. She had probably slept a lot. It had been so cold. Now when they stopped for bathroom breaks, the air was thick with humidity and thunderheads gathered on the horizon.
“I didn’t believe the one about the baby,” Abe said. It was the first thing he had said since they started driving at first light.
“The timing was all wrong, right?” she said.
“Yeah,” Abe said. “But I’ve always wanted a little sister.”
“No,” she said. “No, you don’t.”
“That’s what Kyle says,” Abe said. “But his little sister isn’t that bad.”
Kyle Kent’s sister was an exceptionally pretty and unusually not-awkward thirteen-year-old. April glanced over at Abe. He was staring at the landscape hurdling by.
“I think that’s what your dad once said about Alvin Browne’s little sister,” she said.
Daisy stuck her head between the two front seats and licked Abe’s ear, so April didn’t get a reaction to that remark. But he was being civil. They were talking about something else.
“Did your brother not want a sister?” Abe asked.
They were not talking about something else.
“Johnny was the only person who wanted me,” April said. “My mother didn’t know what she wanted most of the time.”
Lightning flashed around them. They were in for a storm, if not a tornado. She should have considered tornadoes.
“And you wanted my dad,” Abe said.
“I wouldn’t have married him if he hadn’t said it was okay with you.” She wasn’t sure that was true.
“You should have asked me yourself,” Abe said.
“What would you have said?”
The wind was picking up. Some semis were pulling off the highway. The next exit was in forty miles. She kept driving.
“My mom had just died,” Abe said. “My mother. Do you understand that?”
When Johnny had brought her to Waterford, Aunt Alice hadn’t been expecting them. She didn’t know what had happened. She hadn’t been in touch with Momma for years. Apparently when Johnny was about twelve, she had visited them in California and had given him her address and told him to contact her if he was ever in trouble. She probably saw things going downhill—even though at that point Momma was healthy and didn’t have a boyfriend and could afford daycare for two-year-old April. Aunt Alice had always had a foreshadowing look in her sharp eyes, like she could see the future.
Her foresight had convinced her that it would be better if no one in Waterford knew where this unexpected niece with stringy hair and very pointy elbows and knees had come from. She told people April was an orphan, which was most likely true, and that she was her legal guardian, which was most likely not. And she gave April a bath and bought her new clothes and permed her hair and said, “Now you can start all over. It’s like none of that ever happened. You are safe here.”
Her brother, the only person in the world who loved her, had gotten back in his car and driven away, even when she had pounded on the door and screamed for him to turn back. Her mom had just been killed. Her mother. Did anyone understand that?
Angry fat drops of rain smacked the windshield. She turned on the headlights. If they could just get to Oklahoma City and out of this desolate farmland. Thunder cracked ominously close. Daisy started whining.
“Should we be driving in this?” Abe asked.
They passed another semi parked on the shoulder with its emergency lights on. The road was getting slick and before she could answer, hail started bouncing and popping everywhere. She turned on their hazards and pulled to the shoulder. The van shuddered in the gusts. The hail was so loud they couldn’t hear each other. Then it let up and rain came down in sheets. April turned off the van.
Abe crawled into the backseat next to Daisy. She tried to bury her face behind him. He stroked her back and looked at the wall of water outside.
“I understand,” April said. “You would have said, ‘Give me some time.’”
He acted like he couldn’t hear, but she knew he had.
“Time isn’t a quick fix, so we don’t like it. But maybe it’s the best fix,” she said.
Lightning and thunder almost in unison. Daisy burrowed further behind Abe, forcing him to lean forward.
“Then again, maybe it’s not,” April said. “I’ve been looking for my brother for twenty years.”
There wasn’t much after Oklahoma City, either, just gentle hummocks of grass and occasionally a distant farmhouse or a tree under the soft after-storm sky. They passed Clinton Lake and families with motorhomes and trailers. They went through Canute and bypassed Elk City, Sayre, Hext, Erick—there was something oddly sad and peaceful about crossing empty miles of prairie and then seeing a tiny town. Like crossing a graveyard with miles between the tombstones.
Abe was studying one of the AAA maps. “There’s a place on here called Dead Woman Crossing,” he said.
“Lovely,” April said.
“We passed it already,” Abe said.
They entered the Texas Panhandle. The landscape grew flatter and more desolate. It was Thursday. The storm hadn’t delayed them—though her back ached with all this driving. They had done nine hours or so each of the past two days. They would reach Albuquerque tonight.
Waves of heat shimmered off the highway. Daisy panted in the backseat. Abe popped open a Sprite. They passed a billboard alerting motorists to the Devil’s Rope Barbed Wire Museum, housed only four short miles off the highway.
“We’ll have to do this again,” he said, “with Dad. You know, when we have time to stop and see the sights and stuff.”
A family road trip. That’s what that would be. People in campervans would look at them and think, “What a nice family on vacation together.” And it would be true. They would be a nice family on vacation together—or at least as close as anyone ever got.
Then a squealing noise started coming from the engine. The AC air turned warm. April followed exit signs for Tucumcari.
“One day you’ll up and marry Handsome Harry from Tucumcari,” Aunt Alice had said sometimes—referring, presumably, to a generic Mr. Right. That prophecy had not been fulfilled in Aunt Alice’s lifetime. She had hoped that April would get married to a nice, normal guy at twenty-two like the other girls in town. If one of the fine young farmers around town had taken a shine to April and swept her off to a life of raising children and alfalfa, it would have been the perfect conclusion for the girl Aunt Alice was trying to create—a girl who fit in perfectly with Melissa Browne and Susie Mayford, who had nothing but blissful school days and summers on the river in her past. “Nice” was something to aspire to, as far as it went. April understood that. But now even Melissa was dead and Susie was divorced. “Nice” didn’t come with a lifetime guarantee.
The friendly man at the historic Conoco station determined that it was the serpentine belt and helped them nurse the van to Tucumcari’s Main Street mechanic. A few other road-trippers were ahead of them, but he promised to do his best in as little time as possible. April, Abe, and Daisy walked up the blinding hot street in search of Del’s Café, where they had been promised air conditioning and milkshakes.
Tucumcari looked mostly like burnt grass and dull murals on old stucco, For Rent signs that had faded in the sun and empty lots labeled with decaying signposts that had once been neon. Unlike the few places in Oklahoma where they has stopped for gas, it was not a withered Route 66 town, but still had an air of trying eke a living off nostalgia.
Del’s let Daisy come in, but as soon as they had placed their orders, she needed to go out again. Abe took her, and April rested her head in her arms on the table.
Tucumcari, New Mexico. How in the world were they here? Why was being that nice girl that Aunt Alice wanted so difficult? Of course, she knew now, after studying nursing and taking classes on mental health and all that, that Aunt Alice’s methods had been exactly the wrong way to deal with what April had experienced as a child. A psychologist would have called it trauma. But it seemed almost greedy to want to “resolve her grief” or “make peace with her past” or whatever, when she had escaped it. Statistics showed that she shouldn’t have been married to a good Christian man in a nice little town, planting begonias as an upstanding member of society.
She had found an article once, on a slow night in the ER, about a woman who had been a stripper. Her journey into the sex industry had begun when her stepfather molested her at age ten. April had stopped reading the article.
Abe and Daisy burst into the booth.
“April, come quick,” Abe said. “He’s here.”
She didn’t understand. She got up without thinking and followed him out of the café, leaving her purse and everything.
There was a dingy white pickup with the hood up and a skinny, middle-aged man looking into it. Curly gray hair. Dirty jeans and a white t-shirt. He turned around when he heard them running.
“It’s me,” said Abe. “The kid who gave you directions to the post office in Waterford, Indiana. And this is April Young, who you were looking for.”
The man folded his arms across his chest and squinted at them in the noon glare.
“Johnny?” said April. The name stuck in her throat. She didn’t recognize this man. How could she not recognize him? She quelled a feeling of panic.
“It’s mighty hot out, lady,” said the man. “Maybe you need to get into the shade.”
“She’s the one you told me you were looking for,” Abe said. “Look, I messed up, but now I’ve brought her to you.”
The man leaned back against his truck. “I think you’ve made a mistake.”
“No, you’ve made a mistake,” Abe said.
“Abe,” April said. She felt the familiar calm of disappointment. “It’s okay. Let’s go.”
“April, he’s the guy, I swear,” Abe said. “Don’t you recognize him? He’s your brother.”
The man slammed the hood shut and swung into the driver’s seat.
“I’m sorry we bothered you, sir,” April said.
Abe put his hand on the truck door. “Don’t you recognize me?” he said. “I’m the kid who told you she was out of town. I lied—I’m sorry.”
“I’ve never been to Indiana,” the man said.
They watched the dust of Main Street settle behind him. April felt like she had been run over.
“I don’t get it,” Abe said. “That was the guy who came to the door. The same clothes, the same truck, everything.”
“There are lots of trucks and guys like that in America,” April said.
“Why would he lie about not recognizing me?” Abe said. “Why didn’t you recognize him?”
April stirred her melting milkshake. “It’s been twenty years.”
“But I checked,” he said. “I checked that it was the same guy before I came in here. I know he recognized me, because he was just kicking the tires and stretching, but then he started looking all busy after we made eye contact.”
“It’s okay, Abe,” April said. “I really appreciate how seriously you are taking this and how much you want to help me. We all make mistakes sometimes.”
“Stop,” Abe said. “I’m telling you, I checked. He had the same tattoo.”
Abe had noticed the tattoo, “Victoria” in all capital letters, when the man had come to their door. He had seen it again now, when the man was stretching outside his truck. He had kept his arms folded when April came out, until he got into the truck, and then she was on the wrong side to see it.
How had she not recognized him? Johnny’s bright eyes and skinny shoulders. The nonchalant way his clothes had always hung on him. The long, oddly delicate fingers that would have been great at playing the guitar or something if they had ever had the chance.
She silently put her head down into her arms again and wished she could cry like a normal human being. This would have been a great opportunity. Everything was too much. Too much driving and too much heat and then he lied. Even if he didn’t recognize her, he knew Abe. And he lied like it was as easy as breathing.
It was as easy as breathing. She had done it for years. How many people knew she had a brother? Aunt Alice had said that Waterford was a new start for April, and she had tried to make it that. She had been a girl without a family and without a past. It had usually worked to live behind the shell that Aunt Alice so carefully constructed with the cute dresses and perfect homework and nice friends. April had been quiet and shy and shrunken. It had only come out sometimes—the pillow fluff all over the bedroom floor, the notches in the footboard. And more subtly: rebuffing nice Amos Kearney all through high school, moving to Chicago, eating too much McDonald’s, drinking too much coffee. Little things that wouldn’t have meant anything to anyone else but were ghosts for April. Lying was as easy as breathing with severe asthma.
Someone clumsily patted her shoulder.
“It’s okay, April,” Abe said. “We can still catch him.”
“He doesn’t want to be caught,” she said.
“We can’t give up now,” Abe said. “We’re so close.”
“It’s not going to work,” she said. “We should never have come out here. The van is broken down. Your dad’s going to be upset.”
“You left a note,” Abe said. “Please, April. Even if we don’t find your brother, we can’t turn back now. I want to see California.”
Abe was along because she couldn’t leave him home alone. But he had said he’d never been on a road trip before. Pete’s job kept him busy in the summer. Melissa had been too sick for years. April had forgotten what it was like to get out of Waterford and into the great wideness of America for the first time.
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll see when the van is fixed.”
They made it to Holbrook, Arizona, by nine that night.
“When we do this again, we’ll do it once you have your license,” she said. “Then we can trade off driving.”
“We’ll go slower, too,” Abe said. He had the map spread out on his bed. “We just bombed through the Petrified Forest without even noticing it. And the Grand Canyon isn’t that far away.”
“We’ll take our time,” April said. “We’ll see all the sights. Your dad can bring his camera. Maybe the Kents would let us borrow their trailer.”
She had said “when we do this again.” Maybe it was the first time she had talked about future plans without using “if.” She couldn’t remember. When Pete had asked her to marry him, she had first said, “What will Abe say?” And then, “If I marry you, I’ll win the All-Town Garden Contest with your yard this summer.” Which she still would.
It was past sunset when they reached the house, but there was still a band of deep orange light along the horizon. She hadn’t quite remembered the way, and so many things had changed. There were new housing developments and the university had expanded across the boulevard. Some of the lots in the neighborhood were new duplexes. But then they passed Rivera Elementary and a paletero pushing his cart down the sidewalk and the big jacaranda tree and there it was.
She parked the van on the opposite side of the street and got out. The house was blue now and the lawn was neatly trimmed and had a white wrought-iron fence around it. There were roses under the windows and a fancy light fixture over the front step. The light had small moths bumbling around it, but the house was dark and silent.
Abe and Daisy came around the van and looked at the house with her. Then they looked up at the indigo sky and watched the string of twinkling airplanes heading into Los Angeles.
“This is your home,” Abe said.
“Someone might call the cops on us if we stand here too long,” she said.
“We’ll just tell them the truth,” Abe said.
Someone came shuffling along the opposite sidewalk and stopped with his back to them, his hands resting on the fence. His white t-shirt hung awkwardly from his thin shoulders. April didn’t think. She just strode across the street and stood next to him.
“What happened to the Civic?” she said.
“You’re sure not a quitter,” he said.
“You’re a rotten liar,” she said.
“I totaled it in Seattle,” he said. “Ten or eleven years ago.”
“Good car,” she said. She still hadn’t looked at his face. He still hadn’t looked at hers.
“Yeah,” he said.
They stared at the house.
“How often do you come back?” she said.
“This is the first time,” he said.
“That’s not true,” she said. “But I’ll accept it.”
“I had to pull over as soon as you weren’t in my rearview mirror anymore,” he said. “I couldn’t see the road.”
“Tucumcari?” she said, “or when you left me with Aunt Alice?”
“Both,” he said.
It was so still. There were crickets, and the heat of the day radiated off the asphalt. A siren sounded far away.
“You know you have to tell people if someone’s been murdered in a house that’s for sale?” he said after a minute. “It didn’t sell for six years.”
“Then?” she said.
The tiniest breath of ocean breeze that had somehow made it this far inland whispered around them.
“People forgot,” he said
“Did you?” she said.
He didn’t answer.
“Do you ever think about the night we were so cold in that parking lot?” she said. And she looked at his face. His graying hair and the creases around his bright eyes and the sharp jaw that was still there under a grizzled two-day beard.
He looked back at her. “Every night I’ve been cold since,” he said.
She wanted to ask if that had been often. She wondered what he saw when he studied her. The years had been unkind to both of them.
“You’re old,” he said. “You have a son.”
Stepson. But she looked back at Abe still staring up at the airplanes, and she wanted him to be hers so hard her insides hurt.
“Come,” she said and pulled Johnny across the street to the van. His arm was skeletal under her hand, and he pulled back a little from her.
“I’m only here because of him,” she said. “I would have turned back in New Mexico.”
“He told me you weren’t home,” Johnny said.
“I know,” she said. “I was in the kitchen. The little punk.”
The low headlights of a car caught them in a moment of harsh light and shadow as it swung into the house’s driveway. A young Asian couple got out, speaking softly to one another in a language that didn’t sound like English. The man gently hoisted a sleeping child out of the back seat, and they went to the door. They paused for a moment under the light while the woman fumbled in her purse for the key. Then they disappeared into the house, and the dark windows lit up from inside.
The three of them stared at the family like they were watching a tableau from another world. April felt unfamiliar tears pricking at her eyes. She felt the need to do something reverent, like kneel or cross herself or kiss somebody’s robe.
Johnny let out a long breath and sagged against the side of the van. “I guess that’s what they call the American Dream,” he said.
She called Pete from the hotel. It was one in the morning for him, but he was awake and confused. She let him sputter for a while and realized she didn’t know what to say to him. She handed Abe the receiver.
“Yeah, we’re good,” Abe said. “We found her brother. He’s fine. But guess what, Dad? We’ve planned our next family vacation. We’re going to borrow the Kents’ trailer, and then we’ll drive all the way to California on Route 66. Plus take side trips to the Grand Canyon and stuff. And then we’ll come back through Nevada and over the Rockies. It’ll be awesome. This is a huge country. We think it will be worth taking some time to see.”