Sneak Peek: Midnight At The Electric

¡Si tú amas TIGER LILY, entonces comience a prepararse para otro libro desgarradoramente hermoso de Jodi Lynn Anderson! MIDNIGHT AT THE ELECTRIC es una novela contada en tres inolvidables puntos de vista de tres chicas en tres momentos diferentes. Mientras que sus historias se extienden por miles de millas y generaciones múltiples, Adri, Catalina, y los destinos de Lenore están entrelazados y conectados por el amor, de una forma u otra, y la esperanza de que podemos vivir a pesar de que no podemos vivir para siempre.

En serio ni siquiera podemos empezar a describir lo hermoso que es este libro o cuántas cosas te hará sentir. Sólo tienes que leerlo y luego contarle a un amigo. ¡Comienza a conocer a cada uno de los tres narradores en este extracto de MIDNIGHT AT THE ELECTRIC!


If you loved TIGER LILY, then start preparing yourself for another heartbreakingly beautiful book from Jodi Lynn Anderson! MIDNIGHT AT THE ELECTRIC is a novel told in three unforgettable points of view from three girls in three different moments in time. While their stories span thousands of miles and multiple generations, Adri, Catherine, and Lenore’s fates are entwined and connected by love, in one form or another, and the hope that we can live on even though we can’t live forever.

We seriously cannot even begin to describe how beautiful this book is or how many things it will make you feel. You need to just read it—and then tell a friend about it! So start by meeting each of the three narrators in this excerpt from MIDNIGHT AT THE ELECTRIC!


Adri

Part 1

 

Chapter 1

From above, Miami looked as if it were blinking itself awake; the rising sun reflected against the city’s windows. Adri—in fuzzy extra-large pajama pants, her messy black hair pulled back in a rubber band—had pulled over on the shoulder of the Miami bridge. Her Theta had blown a circuit board and she needed to fix it. Now, she took in the view one last time: it wasn’t much, but she’d never see it again.

The sky lay low and gray over South Beach. The empty beachfront hotels lay dark, water halfway up their lowest windows. All along the waterfront, buildings stood stark and abandoned. Neighborhood by neighborhood, the ocean had crept into the city, making it look like a kingdom from an old fairy tale, like Atlantis disintegrating into myth. The morning’s mail drones were already buzzing above the waterlogged buildings below, swaying in the heavy winds but staying on course to deliver packages to anyone who was left: the ruggedly independent, the people with nowhere else to go.

Adri had been one of them until today; her entire life had been spent watching the city get swallowed by water. She wouldn’t miss it, but she had to take a deep breath as she turned back to the car. She gathered the papers and wrinkled sweatshirts that had fallen out when she’d stepped out onto the pavement and shoved them into the back. She carefully plucked a caterpillar off her windshield, sliding her fingers against it gently and moving it to the bridge rail. Then she started the car and set it to self-navigate. Her restless mind drifted to Kansas and what lay ahead. She opened her placement letter on the dash monitor and reread it.

 

Dear Ms. Ortiz,

We try to arrange homestays for our Colonists-in-Training as often as possible, to maintain a sense of normalcy at a deeply transitional time. We’re delighted to inform you that we’ve located a distant cousin of yours (a Lily Vega, maiden name Ortiz, age 107) within driving distance of the Center, who is willing to welcome you into her home during the next three months. Please make your way to this address and await instructions.

268 Jericho Road

Canaan, KS 67124

 

Sincerely,

Lamont Bell

Director

 

Adri hadn’t even known she’d had cousins, or any family, left alive. Her parents had been only children; she’d never known of anyone even remotely related to them.

She turned on the news, and when people honked at her to tell her Theta was trailing sparks (it often did) she casually gave them the finger. She leaned back in her seat to watch the sky through the big sunroof. She felt lighter the farther she got from the city.

The coast fell away, and with it, the flooded towns and cities. The ride was only twelve hours with the new interstate, and with a speed limit of a hundred and fifty, it flew by. Normally she would have taken the spare time to study, but all of her devices had been remotely disabled the day she’d received her acceptance letter. Colonists were supposed to spend their last three months focusing on what they learned at the Center in Wichita. Other than that, they were supposed to do as close to nothing as possible.

Only a week had passed since the message had flashed on her wristTab, releasing a spray of holographic balloons that spiraled up around her and away as her admission note flashed on the screen. It was a cheesy touch, but her heart had dropped to her feet anyway. It was the first time in her life she could remember crying. Everything she’d sacrificed and worked for since the sixth grade—the late nights studying, the relentless schedule of exercise, course work, and training—was going to pay off. Within months, she’d be one of the lucky few living on Mars.

The air turned colder the farther she rode. It was long past dark when she crossed the border into Kansas, and another hour before she exited the highway. Nearing Canaan, each turn seemed to take her farther and farther into the middle of nowhere, county roads unfurling darkly under a sky black as ink. The Theta began to make a loud, thumping sound. Around eleven, she switched the car to driver-navigate and steered it gingerly along. It was practically dead when she pulled up to the end of the driveway.

Adri gazed around; the place looked almost abandoned. There was a little white farmhouse with peeling siding and a small barn lot . . . leaning fences surrounding a large pasture, a bunkhouse (or was it a stable?) listing to one side. An ancient SUV sat in the driveway—one of the last of the great gas guzzlers.

Adri cut the power and blinked at a sign by the flowerbeds drying up for the winter. There were indications of life though: a series of purple plastic dragonflies lined the path to the front door and a tin angel with a watering can stood poised over a patch of daisies and weeds to her right. A little placard poking up by the path said: Come in, my flowers would like to meet you.

“Oh God,” she muttered.

She took a deep breath.

She turned her attention upward. The sky was closer here than it had been back home, or at least it felt that way. That’s where I’ll be, she thought. That’s where I’m going. In a way, she was already gone. That was what she needed to focus on.

She checked herself in the mirror. She looked like she’d just rolled out of bed, which was how she always looked. She brushed herself off and got out of the car, a few soda cans and empty wrappers trailing out with her feet.

 

A sign had been taped to the door, written in shaky handwriting.

 

Adri, I stayed up as late as I could, but I’m old! Your room is upstairs to the right. Can’t wait to meet you. Don’t let the bed bugs bite. EEE

 

Adri moved through the house in the dark, bumping into corners and staring around into the shadowy rooms before she made her way up the stairs. One room stood open and inviting: faded blue and smelling of mothballs. The lamps were all on, and a bright patchwork quilt lay across the bed, turned down at the corner. She looked around. There was something about the room that was off, unsettling. But she couldn’t say what.

There was no dresser so she moved back and forth across the room, flinging her pants and balled-up sweaters along the closet shelves. Lily had either neglected or forgotten to clean in the back, and the corners were covered in cobwebs that stuck to her fingers. Otherwise the shelves were empty except for an old crinkled shoe box. She opened it, finding a pile of photos and old postcards instead. Adri was notoriously nosy.

She moved closer to the bedside lamp and flipped through the contents. There were several photos of a woman she assumed must be Lily, some with a man who looked to be her husband, and some of her as a little girl. But most of the mementos were older, artifacts from before even her cousin would have been born: ancient ticket stubs from shows in the 1950s, an autograph from someone named Wayne Newton. One postcard was from New York City and very old—it showed a wide boulevard with people in hats and dresses strolling arm and arm, gazing into shop windows. It was postmarked May 7, 1920, and the writing was so faded it was close to illegible.

 

Beth—

Arrived New York last night and making my way to you tomorrow. Galapagos in tow. Did you get my letters? Will you be waiting for me?

Will you love her as much as I do?

 

Love, Lenore

Adri did the quick mental math to calculate how many years had passed since 1920: a hundred and forty-five. She read it one more time, then put the box back where she’d found it.

Finally, with nothing else to do, she turned out her light and lay down. In the silence of the strange room, a feeling still nagged at her and kept her from sleeping. Maybe it was nerves about living with a stranger . . . and a stranger who was also—weirdly—family. She wondered what Lily would be like—and it made her think of her old roommate at the group house back in Miami, and something she’d said once.

“I really admire you, Adri,” she’d said. “But I have to say you’re not very likable.”

Adri hadn’t shown that it hurt her, but it had stayed in her mind. She didn’t know why she couldn’t keep from being too blunt, too standoffish and distant, a little mean. She’d stopped trying to change it years ago; she could never figure out how.

Growing up she’d watched other kids buddying up—everyone with their weird quirks and flaws getting along anyway somehow, forming some mysterious club she couldn’t penetrate. She’d think to herself, How do they do that? It was like executing an intricate dive.

Adri wasn’t a diver. If anything, she was a pickax, chipping away at each day. The next three months living with another stranger, even one who was related to her . . . she would chip away at too.

  • ••

In sixth-grade astronomy, Adri had read about neutrinos for the first time. They were particles that traveled across space—from one end of the universe to the other, unstoppable and anchorless. They could pass through matter, right through planets and people and everything else. When kids talked after that, about what they wanted to be when they got older, the image of that textbook page always flashed through her mind.

Now she pictured the day she’d be the one launching off from Earth, unstoppable. She hoped the time between then and now would go fast. As she fell asleep, behind her eyelids she watched herself pinging across space.

 

 

Catherine

Part 1

 

Property of Catherine Godspeed
Canaan, Kansas

May 20, 1934

The dust came again this morning. It kicked up out of nowhere, looking like a gray cloud rolling across the ground instead of the sky. I was just walking out of the barn with a bucket when I saw it blowing across the northeast edge of the farm, but by then it was too late to get to the house. I had to hold on to the fence not to fall over my own feet, and then all those grains of dirt ran their hands against me and polished me like sandpaper, crawled into my eyes and throat. And then it passed, and the sky was that relentless blue again.

Now everything has a thin layer of grit. All Mama’s books in the library are powdered. My toast this morning was dusty and so were my eggs. But we are lucky this week. Sometimes the dust blows for days.

I dream about rain and wet leaves, even when I’m awake. I could lie down on a patch of green grass and never get up.

 

I found this postcard in the bottom of one of Mama’s drawers, while I was looking for pennies she might have left there before they became so scarce.

I’ve read it over six times, and I still don’t understand it. There’s never been a Lenore in our lives, and Mama’s never mentioned her.

I can see her now, out at the side of the house, sweating over the kitchen garden—which feeds us—and Ellis, our helper over by the barn listening to baseball on his wireless, feeding our one skinny cow. Galapagos is wallowing in the mud in what used to be a pond and trying to catch a fly. Beezie is in the hall coughing on the dog.

I want to ask Mama about Lenore, but she is the best imitator of a stone you ever met. You can have a whole conversation with her just by yourself. I’ve spent my whole life trying to read her signals. She has a way of pulling you into her silence.

This morning she said she smells rain on the dry wind. We all looked at each other and agreed that rain is on its way. But our eyes said something different.

We’re a house full of secrets. The main secret is that we are afraid.

Twenty-four sunny days in a row. Where have the clouds gone?

 

May 25, 1934

This morning in church we prayed for rain and President Roosevelt. I spend most of my time in church trying to keep Beezie from picking her nose or whispering loud and embarrassing observations like how if Jesus knew for sure he was going straight to heaven things weren’t that bad for him anyway. Beezie’s so tiny she may just as well be half elf, but she’s a hellcat and everyone knows it. Meanwhile they barely notice me at all. Even Mama calls me her brown bird: I’m not pretty, and I blend in. But Ellis says if I’m a brown bird, I’m a vulture, for the way I circle the house in the evenings. I’m so restless I could fly out of my skin.

Ellis is the one who told me to start writing things down. At church, he sits at the end of our family bench, and when I glance his way, his head is invariably bowed. When I’m bored during the service I let myself picture him asleep in the bunkhouse—in my mind, I kiss him awake.

 

After service we made our way through the chattering, cheerful Sunday crowd gathered outside the church door, catching up with each other on the week’s happenings. On Main Street the heat and the sun beat down on us all like a fist. As usual, everyone went out of their way to talk to Ellis. He’s not a vulture but a peacock, dark-haired, always with a twinkle in his eyes like he just heard a joke, and a smile like he never met a stranger. People are drawn to him. He’s the town pet.

We stopped in at Jack’s store. While Mama bartered some old farm tools for flour, Ellis and I picked out other things we needed and loaded them onto the counter. I handled an apple and then put it down because the store is mostly a museum of things we can’t have.

“They say the last storm blew dust all the way to New York, Beth,” Jack was saying to Mama as she stood looking down at a newspaper on the edge of the counter. He looked drawn, worried, like everyone does all the time now. “They say some places in Texas, it’s piled up in drifts that can cover cars.”

“God will bring the rain,” Mama replied. She has the slightest bit of an English accent. It always stands out. She moved here from England when she was young, and she’s always said the grass there is so green and wet it looks like a carpet, that the trees that fill the woods are as covered in green as limes.

Mama is full of faith, but recently mine has been running through my fingers, dribbling out. I can’t seem to catch it.

Jack’s daughter Lyla darted out of the back of the store and gave us a happy wave, because like everyone else, she’s in love with Ellis. The only difference is, I think he loves her back. They’re both seventeen, a year older than me. Ellis likes to annoy me by calling me “the kid,” but Lyla shoots him looks when he does it, standing up for me.

Ellis stepped forward, leaned on the counter, and tapped his fingers as Lyla loaded a shelf. “Any way you all can do better than three cents on this apple?” he asked, pulling it from where I’d replaced it. I was mortified, but Lyla smiled and slid it into a bag with the flour for free. That’s the effect Ellis has on people. I know I’ll end up giving most of it to Beezie anyway, but it still gives me a warmth inside.

Ellis was just stepping up to whisper to me when something else grabbed our attention—both at the same time.

It hung behind the cash register, tucked sheepishly below eye level: a poster, dominated by a beautiful dancing girl in a long gold skirt and big hoop earrings. Behind her were lions, a cobra twirling out of a basket, a man holding barbells, a Ferris wheel. The words Ragbag Fair—Coming Soon! were written across the top in red.

“Whoa,” I said, gaping.

“Whoa,” Ellis echoed. “Would you look at her.”

I slapped his arm and shook my head. It wasn’t the dancing girl I was drawn to but the picture tucked away at the upper-right corner like an afterthought: a bolt of lightning threading through a pair of gnarled old hands, and these words beside it: Would you pay $10 for Eternal Life? You Can at the Electric! Midnight Shows Only!

“What’s the Electric?” I asked Jack.

“One of the exhibits, I guess. They’ll be here for weeks, sounds like. Paid me two dollars just to hang it here, but . . .” He looked sheepishly at Mama. “I might just take it down and give the money back.”

“That’d probably be best,” Mama said, eyeing the poster doubtfully. Mama’s a timid sort. She’s never broken a rule in her life, and these kinds of carnivals are frowned on by just about everyone.

But all the way home, I was thinking about the poster—the old, wrinkled hands, the lightning bolt.

Ellis once told me that if they had a way of weighing people’s souls along with their bodies I’d be 2 percent fat, 10 percent water, and 90 percent unattainable desires. (Ellis has made a lifelong career out of telling me about myself, but he can’t do math.) He says I talk about rain and daydream about rain and think about rain so much that the only way I’ll ever be happy is if I am reincarnated as a puddle. Every place we’ve ever seen a photograph of, I’ve told him I want to see it.

Anyway, I often tell Ellis things I’d tell no one else, but if I told him how badly I wish I had that ten dollars for the Electric, he’d laugh in my face. I want him to think well of me. He hates superstition as much as he hates cities and spinach and snakes.

 

Ellis came to us three years before the dust, just after Daddy died. It was the middle of a bone-cracking winter. He was eight years old, and I was seven. Farmers would meet the trains, full of orphans escaping the poverty of the cities, and pick them out like puppies.

I wasn’t supposed to be there that night. Mama needed a strong, healthy, older boy to help with the heavier farm work Daddy had left behind, but I wanted a little sister so badly that I lay in the back of the truck to stow away so I could pick her out myself. (I didn’t know then that Mama was carrying Beezie.)

As it turned out, neither of us got our wish. We got there too late, and there was only one child left unwanted—the right age for Mama, but pale and skinny and delicate, standing alone and coatless on the platform, shivering like crazy. When Mama offered him her coat, he said no thank you and that he wasn’t cold. He was trying to look strong and dependable, but very unconvincingly. I could see the compassion in Mama’s eyes.

“No,” I whispered. “I don’t want him. Please, Mama, no.”

But I knew she’d have pity on him, like the little birds the cats are always after, and the little newborn calves I’ve seen her puff back to life with her own breath.

“Well,” Mama said, after we stood there in front of him for a few minutes. “Come with us.”

The first thing I said to him, once we were in the truck—him sitting in the back and still not wrapping his arms around himself—was “We wanted a girl.”

He had the good nature to look sorry. I’ve been in love with him ever since.

Now he loves Canaan more than maybe even Mama does. He says the day he got off the train in this town was the luckiest day of his life.

 

May 28, 1934

I only have a moment to write this. I’ve asked Mama about the postcard.

It was late yesterday afternoon. We’d just finished gumming clean sheets over the windows after four days of dusters. The best time to talk to her about anything is when her hands are busy, when she sometimes lets her thoughts run free.

“Mama,” I asked. “Who is Lenore?”

Her hands paused on the windowsill, and then she resumed her work. “She was an old friend.” And then, as if she’d thought better of leaving it open-ended, she added, “She died.”

“A close friend?” I asked.

She sat back on her heels and studied me. “No,” she said. “No, not really. I knew her in England, when I was very little. We drifted apart after that.”

“Oh,” I said.

She squeezed me on the shoulder then went back to work. Squeezing me and Beezie is her way of telling us how much she loves us because she’s not the kind of person who says it.

And that was it. She made a show of being done, left the room, washed up her brush and bucket, and went upstairs to her room. Like I said, talking to her can be like talking to a stone. At least she didn’t ask where I got the name in the first place.

But last night, when I went down for some milk after bed, I heard something shuffling in the pantry. At first I thought it was a mouse, but then I heard someone sniffing. The walls are thin, and to avoid waking us upstairs, she’d closed herself in there to cry.

The wind is back again. I’ve come to hate the sound of it.

 

June 5, 1934

I’m sitting here at the edge of the mudhole pond, perched on a rock, putting off cleaning the chicken coop. There’s only a slight breeze drying the sweat on my skin; the sun is blazing. The windmill across the yard is spinning, but where it used to churn up water it just creaks and spins the dust. Still, our home is beautiful even now. You can see all the way to the edge of the earth, it feels like.

I’ve been reading Jane Eyre but finished it too fast. I’m so desperate for excitement I’ve committed to reading every one of Mama’s books in the library, but at this rate I’ll be through them in a few months. We’ll never be able to afford another book after that, and then I’ll just have to stare at the walls.

In front of me, Galapagos and Sheepie are bickering like an old married couple. We don’t let Sheepie run free anymore because last week the Chiltons next door lost their dog, Blinkers, in a storm, so to pass the time he’s started trying to herd Galapagos. Right now she’s gazing at him with what could only be called amused disgust. Nobody can get Galapagos to do anything she doesn’t want to do.

I wonder about her now, after the postcard. Over the years, Mama’s made her several little wooden overhangs for shade on the best side of the pond. And though we’ve had to cut back on so many things—only have three chickens left and one sad cow—she brings the turtle buckets of water to drink and cool her feet. She shares with her our meager tomato crop, blackberries she’s managed to find or buy, or anemic lettuce leaves she’s clawed out of the spindly garden.

“She’s just a teenager,” she says. “She needs her food.”

And it’s as if Galapagos knows she’s royalty. She likes to sun herself and forage around in the morning, bask for a bit in the sun, and then head for shade and watch us work, craning her neck like she’s watching an interesting play.

Still, I’m not writing because of Galapagos, but because of what Mrs. Chilton said this morning when she came over. She was standing there in our kitchen, scuttling her two youngest children away from Beezie—who was extravagantly coughing on all her dolls to make sure they wouldn’t play with them. (Beezie’s had the cough for weeks, and often uses it to evil purpose.)

The kitchen was full of the static that comes with the dust, and we were all trying to avoid rubbing against each other as we moved around the small kitchen so we wouldn’t get sparks. (In the worst storms, the charge in the air has been known to short cars.) Mrs. Chilton has seven children, so her hair always looks like she’s just been shocked anyway. She once said to Mama, “Cathy isn’t much to look at, but you won’t find someone who works harder,” but I don’t hold it against her because I know she’s too tired to think straight.

“David’s talking about going west,” she said, and sipped at her tea, trying to pass it off as a casual statement. “He says he can’t take the poison air. He’s worried about little Lizzie.”

“What’s that?” Mama asked evenly, as if she didn’t know what the west was. She was pounding the life out of a ball of dough. It had been quite a day already because Beezie had torn down the sheets we spent all day plastering and then blamed it on Sheepie. When we pointed out they were covered in her dirty handprints she knelt by Sheepie and lifted one of his paws and tried to convince me that paws look exactly like hands. The dog is her best friend, but it’s not the first time she’s tried to pin her crimes on him.

“That’s what I said to him. Going west would be like jumping into a black hole. What do we have to live for out west? People hate us there.”

Which I know is true. They call us Okies no matter what state we’re from. They make laws to keep us out.

Mama wiped her hair out of her face with her wrists. “The weather will change soon.”

“That’s what I told him, Beth,” Mrs. Chilton agreed. “Mark my words, we’ll never leave that house as long as I live. I may as well die as leave. This is home.”

Mama went on silently with the dough. She’s always taking in information and rarely giving it, and this leads people to think she either agrees or disagrees with them, depending on their mood. But I know Mama is as likely to leave Canaan as she is to leave her own bones behind. Every time I’ve tried to bring up that we should cut our losses and go (before the dust drowns us), she’s conjured up a thousand reasons why we can’t: that we have no money and barely anything left to sell, that things are no better in the cities—no jobs, businessmen selling fruit on the street to live, influenza running rampant, and we don’t know a soul anywhere but here. All of this is true, but still I disagree.

“This town used to be a paradise,” she has said many times, “and it will be a paradise again, if we can just hold on.” She shakes off the gloom, or tries to, with a toss of her head. “We’ve had so many bad years; the good ones are coming. God wouldn’t be mean enough to have it otherwise.

“You’ve always been restless,” she adds.

 

It’s been four years since it all started, since the rain dried up, first just a few dry weeks here and there and puffs of dust swirling around. It feels like yesterday that every farm was wheat all the way to the horizon.

I remember I used to feel that we were the luckiest people on earth. Like that was just who we were, and it would never change. We’d see other people—dragging through town looking for work, people who couldn’t get hired on account of their background or prejudice toward their skin color or their threadbare clothes—and feel like we were two different kinds of human beings, the lucky and the unlucky, the people who were naturally happy and prosperous and the people who weren’t. We were fools.

There was a time Mama would say she dreamt of going back to England, to see where she grew up, and I used to believe her. But now I suspect—despite the terrible uncertainties beyond Canaan—that the main thing is she believes happiness is something behind her, to remember instead of to chase.

I’d still consider leaving if it were just me alone. God knows I’d be a fool to stay for Ellis, who’ll marry Lyla someday and set up on his own.

But we are like one person, the three of us: me as the brains and busy hands, and Beezie as the beating heart, and Mama as the soul we could never unwind from ourselves. We’ll probably die right here one day sweeping the front room together. We’ll just be skeletons with brooms in our hands. We—

 

Later—

In bed now, thinking how I’d give anything for a piece of ice to hold against my cheeks. Sheepie is shivering and obsessing and trying to herd me out of the room. There must be a storm nearby because I just rubbed my stockings against the bedspread and there was a crackle and a pop.

I had to stop writing because Ellis came walking up to help me with the coop.

“I like doing it,” he said. “I have a technique.”

“Your nostrils flare when you lie,” I said, picking up my shovel and digging into the smelly waste at the bottom of the coop. The truth is I’m terrible at tasks like this: tasks that involve patience—I’m impatient in body and soul. I’m always knocking my elbows against the walls as I turn corners because it takes too long to steer my way around.

“You must watch me a lot to know something like that, kid,” he said, smirking. “Are you planning to declare your intentions toward me? Are they honorable?”

“Don’t be stupid,” I said and dug in my shovel.

For a long time we worked in silence, clearing the sawdust and muck, laying new sawdust.

After a while Ellis spoke, as if picking up the thread of a conversation we were already having. “She must have other letters somewhere, if that girl was so important to her. She’s hiding something.”

I’d told him about the postcard from Mama’s room and how I heard her crying. I tell him almost everything, and I’ve never told him a problem I had that he didn’t try to fix.

“Maybe.” Preoccupied with other things, I hadn’t thought about it much since we’d talked. I stood straight to rest for a moment and rubbed my arm along my forehead.

“That’s a good look for you,” Ellis teased, indicating with his finger that I’d swiped some muck across my forehead by mistake. He traced the line of it without touching his finger to my skin.

I winced and turned my face away, embarrassed.

He studied me, his brows drawn down over his eyes. “Sorry,” he said. “I’m not contagious, I swear.” His teasing, unfolding smile tugged a smile onto my own lips. Ellis has that effect on people. He recently pickled some tumbleweed and got us to eat it. He said we need the minerals. Anyone who can get you to eat pickled tumbleweed can get you to do anything.

We finished up, and I looked at him for a moment, too tempted to keep silent anymore. “I don’t need to find some old letters. I need to find a way to make ten dollars,” I said.

He studied me for a moment in confusion.

“Why?”

“I just do.”

“That’s an impossible amount of money, Cathy. For any of us.”

“I know,” I said hopefully.

He stuck his hands in his pockets. “I’ll think about it,” he said. Simple as that.

 

There are so many things I don’t like about Ellis. I don’t like the way he licks his lips when he concentrates. I don’t like how he won’t daydream with me about being millionaires or going away (“There’s no better place than here,” he says). Everyone would think out of the two of us, he’s the stronger one, but they’d be wrong. These are the things I tell myself when I feel most desperate to have him, when he is the most kind and tender and irresistible.

But nothing works. I always know where he is without looking—my eyes track him even when I want them not to. I imagine that I stumble upon him by the cow pond, or in the clearing at the edge of the property, and in my dream he looks at me like it hurts too much not to touch me. And we kiss. We more than kiss. If there were a God who cared how much any of us want or need anything, he would make it rain and he’d make Ellis Parrish love me.

 

Lenore

Part 1

 

March 2, 1919

Dear Beth, you can’t imagine how you’ve shocked me!

I walked into the foyer yesterday after work, fingers stained with ink, hair in all directions, and found—sitting on the mantel by the door—your letter. It may as well have been Bluebeard’s treasure, I was so surprised to see it—it’s been so many weeks since I heard from you. And then I read what was inside.

You! Engaged!

I nearly fell off my feet.

Who is this man who’s swept you off your feet so unexpectedly? You barely say anything about him. I’m thrilled of course, but I need more. What does he do? Where will you live?

You asked me to tell you how I’m doing. Everyone says remarkably well, given the circumstances.

Mother says the best cure for grief is to keep busy. I wish she’d take her own advice. I avoid them all as much as I can: Hubert and Gordon in black suits all the time, Vera and Ruth moping around the garden, Lawrence riding Star around the estate like the fourth horseman of the apocalypse. All any of them talks about is TeddyTeddyTeddy.

Only Father and I have stayed sane. We go off to work together and walk home together, and Teddy never comes up. Though Father has gone and bought the biggest memorial stone you’ve ever seen, to replace the one we had on the grave temporarily. Hubert says it cost a fortune, but I suppose we made so much money in the war that it doesn’t matter. Remember how we used to be rich? Now we’re ten times that.

Will the suffocating gloom ever lift from this house, Beth? I feel like Rapunzel, locked up in my tower by a witch, only the witch is everyone’s sadness. I know if you were here, you’d save me. Without you, I’m trying to save myself and doing a poor job of it. The house is a tomb, and I am buried inside.

Compared to so many people, we’ve had it easy. (Mrs. Douglas lost all three sons. All of them, Beth!) Vera says that kind of logic doesn’t matter. She says that since Teddy was closer to me than anyone, I should be feeling the loss the most. But I refuse to let the sadness sink me like it’s sunk them.

The only thing, and I’ll admit this only to you, is that I don’t sleep well. And every once in a while I feel like I’m not myself. Things like: I look at my own hand and can’t believe it’s attached to my wrist. Or I sometimes feel like everything I see happening around me is a film instead of real life.

Otherwise, life is slowly returning to normal in Forest Row. There are things to buy in the shops now, and plenty of food, though not as much as before the war. I do payroll and administrative work at the factory, and being the boss’s daughter pays well, which means saving money for my ticket to America. (I haven’t given up the idea, Beth!) You’d laugh, watching me take orders. You always said I was good at giving them.

I’ve started taking long walks again. The other day I went looking for our Cave of the Cup—where you used to tell me the Holy Grail was buried, remember? But it must have grown over with thorn bushes because I couldn’t find the way in.

I kept following the creek until long after I knew I must have passed the opening and I kept going and going. I never found it, but I did find something that took me by surprise.

It’s a stone house—or what’s left of one. And it’s old: stone floors and stone walls, half crumbled in. A collapsed stick roof. I can’t tell how recently, but it’s clearly abandoned now. It’s shrouded in bushes, which is why you and I and Teddy must have missed it all these years on our walks.

I went in, pushing the cobwebs and branches out of my way. There was an old table, half standing, and a bowl and a plate set as if some person years ago had just gotten up and left right before dinner. There was a mantel above the fireplace, still intact, chimney and all.

If we were still little, we’d say it was haunted by the ghosts of dead Germans and claim it for our hideout (Teddy would sneak around and throw things in through the window to scare us). Now it’s just an empty house.

As you can tell, there isn’t much to do. At first when someone dies, you feel so surrounded by everyone telling you how sorry they are. Then that all fades away and you’re left—not with all that noise and activity anymore—but just with one less person in your life than you used to have.

Don’t worry, Beth, when I finally make it to you in New York, I’ll be the girl you remember. I won’t let the war and everything that went with it crumple me up. I’ll live next door to you wherever you end up, and help with all your babies when you have them. It won’t be quite what we used to picture as children, where we get married in a double wedding to famous actor brothers, but it’ll be good enough. I promise you, I won’t change.

P.S. Here’s the book I promised you, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the one we scribbled all over, though I’m a little nervous putting something so sentimental in the mail in case it sinks on the way over. Also just to prove we’re grown-ups, I’m sending Dubliners, though I only half understood it.

P.P.S. Did I ever tell you that sometimes I look east and imagine that, if there were no trees and no curve on the Earth, I’d be able to see you? Do you ever do silly things like that?

Send more news when you can.

 

March 16, 1919

Dear Beth,

I was so excited to get your letter! I can’t believe you’re moving to Kansas. People say you can plant anything in the ground in the American West and it grows. I have to admit, I never saw you as a farmer or a farmer’s wife, but I’m very happy for you.

There’s a parade in town today, to remember the soldiers. I decided to stay home . . . for one because I have something strange to tell you, and for another because I can’t take another parade where everything centers on the dead and we all act as though we may as well be dead too, even though we’re not.

On Sunday we had several families from around the village over for a dinner. Mother said it’d been too long since we’d all gotten together, but really I think she sees any gathering as a chance to marry us off. Matchmaking is the only thing that stirs her to life anymore. Maybe if we were all permanently out of the house, she wouldn’t have to get dressed in the morning. She wouldn’t have to breathe. She could lie down at Teddy’s headstone and never get up.

The boy she picked out for me (for some reason, she focuses mostly on me) was too boring to even write much about. He’s a coward, for one thing. He watched all his friends join up before he finally got conscripted when boys like Teddy were joining up first thing. And he was so unforgivably serious: I’msorryforyourloss this and that.

My face hurt from pretending to be interested while shooting annoyed glances at Mother, who didn’t notice. (It’s like she wants someone to come along and plug a hole inside me. She doesn’t see that there is no hole.) She says marriage and motherhood is everything. “I nearly died giving birth to Gordon,” she likes to say, “but it was worth it! Then of course I went on to have five more children!”

The conversation went on eternally. People kept arriving, and it got so stuffy and hot in the house, and I was so tired of Mr. Sorryforyourloss that I walked out the back door to get some air, and then just set off across the field. I went all the way to the edge of the woods to the fence that marks off our land, and then I stood there and tried to catch my breath for a minute.

Then, on impulse, I doubled back to the housekeeper’s shed for a broom, and then climbed over the fence with it, into the woods, and walked all the way back to the abandoned cottage.

Once I got there I began to sweep. It was like something had taken me over, and all I wanted at that moment was to get the place as clean as possible. I swept out every leaf, every piece of dirt that had accumulated in the corners for God knows how many years. By the time I was finished, the house was still broken, but it was spotlessly broken.

I didn’t trail home until after the dinner was over and all the guests were gone. No one seemed to have noticed: Vera was sitting on the sofa braiding Ruth’s hair (with black ribbon, of course), and Hubert was in the library, no doubt reading depressing poetry. This is another thing about losing Teddy. When he was alive he was just one of us. Now that he’s gone, he’s the only one anyone thinks about.

Anyway, over the past few days I’ve been to the cottage several times to clear out more debris from the crevices in the walls, brought down some old pillows and jars and things Mother won’t miss to make it comfortable, and propped up the old table with some bricks that were scattered close by in the ivy.

I suppose you’ll tell me I’ve lost my mind. I don’t know what to say except that being there and fixing things makes me feel awake, and it’s the only place to be truly alone. Though, as stupid as it sounds, I mostly just sit at this old table (where I am now!) and have imaginary conversations with you. I think of this place as ours. And maybe that’s the strangest part.

Well, no, that’s not quite right. The strangest part is that every once in a while, when I’m home sitting up in my window where I have a good view of the woods, I swear I can see smoke wafting up from this spot in the trees. So maybe I am losing my mind after all.

I’ve been doing some counting. Remember how after I fell off the barn roof that one summer I was always getting hurt, I liked to count my broken bones? The clavicle, the sacrum, the tiny bones in the wrist—going over them again and again to pass the weeks I spent in bed recovering? Now I count time.

It’s been three years and eleven months since they sank the Lusitania and a year and ten months since the first zeppelin bombed London. It’s been four years and thirteen days since you left Forest Row, and by my calculations it will be four more months before I can save up the money to see you again.

All I do is work and read. Work is fine, though none of the workers seem to like me much. It’s only my first year and I’m only seventeen, but I make more money than most of them, and sometimes I suspect they know it.

This time I’m enclosing Ethan Frome. Ruth bought it for me. It’s very tragic.

Love, Lenore

 

April 1, 1919

Dear Beth,

I can barely hear myself think, my heart is beating so hard as I think about what to write. We’re all going to a workers’ picnic at the factory, and Vera and Ruth are running up and down the hall looking for things to wear. I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to get down before I have to run, but something so startling happened last night that I can’t keep it in. I’ll need to explain what led up to it, which is also confusing in its own way.

The new cinema opened last night, only three train stops and we’re there. I won at drawing straws so Mother took me as her date. The theme is Arabian Nights. It’s full of stars and spires—the kind of thing we would have fainted over when we were little. (Kindly, you would have given me the middle seat. I would have made you give me half your candy.)

In actuality it was so lovely and perfect, but I have to admit that the whole thing felt a bit flat, like there was no sparkle to any of it. I sat there thinking how the stage lights are just chemical reactions and not magical objects like they might have seemed a few years ago. I kept looking around at all the faces turned so raptly to the screen and wished I could be as absorbed as they were. Though it makes no sense, I always find myself looking for Teddy among crowds—for that aggressive, spiky brown hair of his and that smirk that used to annoy me. It’s a stupid habit, but I can’t seem to break it.

A one-armed boy winked at me from the row ahead of us (if you toss a pebble in Forest Row you’re going to hit a one-armed boy). I gave him a look to say not a chance. Not because of the lack of limbs, but because I feel like these boys are always asking something like comfort from me, even if it’s just with their eyes. Mother cried through most of the film even though it was a comedy. Then we came home and went to bed. Everything was normal.

So I couldn’t say why some time around midnight, I woke in a panic. My heart was beating fast like I’d been sprinting. And I couldn’t calm down. I kept remembering—of all things—how Teddy once saved my pet duck from becoming dinner by hiding him in his room—how he called me in in a whisper and showed me, and said, “He’ll live to quack another day.” I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Finally, I snuck downstairs and pulled on my wool jumper and boots and walked out across the field in the moonlight and the drizzle, and down to the creek and wound my way to the cottage because it was the only place I could think of to get away from myself.

I was—I admit—a little afraid of running into something scary in the dark, but I was more afraid of staying in my room and having my heart beat out of my chest. It smelled like dew and grass and rain, and I watched the ground for grass snakes as I walked.

Now that I think about it, I’ve ignored the signs all along. The bowl set neatly on the table. The smoke from the chimney, the half-mended roof.

I burst inside without a thought, tried to light the candles but my hands were shaking. It was like there was some invisible thread between Teddy saving my duck all those years ago and the ground underneath me, the cells of my skin and my shaking hands. At last I gave up and sank down on the floor against the wall and tried to catch my breath. A moan escaped from my lips, a thing inside that had nowhere else to go but out. I held my breath for a moment, and was surprised to find I could still hear myself wheezing. But, Beth, I’m sure you can guess by now that the wheezing wasn’t mine.

Mother is outside beating the door down. Sorry to leave you—I’ll have to finish when I get back.

 

Later—

It’s late, too late to write really, but I need to tell you the rest before I go to sleep. You know how I like to finish things.

I was squatting there in the cottage, frozen in fear. All sorts of terrifying possibilities were flashing through my mind: everything from Germans who hadn’t heard all year that the war was over . . . to a creature from one of our fairy tales: a witch or the troll under the bridge. But as my eyes adjusted to the light I could see that there was a figure against the far wall cowering from me.

And in that moment, my humiliation outstripped my fear. I tried to compose myself.

“Who’s there?” I called out.

A long pause. I was beginning to think there’d be no answer when a voice snaked out of the darkness. “Kaiser Wilhelm.” A male, English voice, amused but a little blurry, like he had marbles in his mouth.

There was a long silence, a shifting. I could hear him scratching at his hair, his cheeks, furiously.

I stood. My hands were steady now. I grabbed the matches from where I’d left them and lit the candle in one try.

I moved to cast the light toward him, and the flames leapt dimly over his shape. As his face emerged from the shadows, I sucked in my breath. He was missing an ear, and his left cheek looked drippy, like candle wax.

Beth, I’ve seen other men horribly wounded by the war, and I know how you’re supposed to act: don’t flinch but also don’t pretend, make eye contact, shake hands. I know all that, but I’ve never seen a person look so far from being a person.

“Lenore Allstock,” I said, thrusting out my hand, but flinching all the same when he stretched up from the floor and let his fingers touch mine.

“Pleasure,” he said, his voice deep and polite, but with a hint of laughter in it, as he unraveled himself to his full height, either not noticing my flinch or pretending not to. He was enormously tall, at least two feet taller than Teddy. A giant.

Looking past him, I could see a bedroll in a corner where he must have been lying until I came in, and a rucksack.

“You’ve been sleeping here?” I asked.

“For a couple of weeks.”

“I’ve never seen you . . .”

“I only spend the nights, and evenings. Also, I clear out when I hear you coming. There’s plenty of time. You walk like a bear.”

I felt my whole body stiffen. I was suddenly ready to defend that little dingy room to the death. “You’re trespassing.”

“Well . . . ,” he said with hesitation. “Clearly it’s a well-loved and indispensable piece of the estate.”

He studied me. His face was so ruined I couldn’t tell if he was being menacing or teasing or both.

“Look, Miss Allstock, is it? I like staying here.” He pointed to the roof; I followed his gaze up to where I saw now, even in the dim light, he’d done some patching. “I’ve worked hard to improve it. Maybe we could work something out? Unless you plan on more of these nocturnal visits, we’d never even have to cross paths.” He leaned against the wall and put his hands in his pockets. “I spend the whole day out hounding. I don’t usually come back until the evenings. I could make a point of that.”

“Hounding?”

He sighed and rubbed at his ruined face. “Fossil hunting. That’s how I found this place. I was out hounding and it seemed . . . perfect.”

I watched him. “I’m not sure . . .”

“In the stream here, all sorts of fossils. Old bird bones, fish skeletons, things like that, frozen in time.”

I held up my hand, impatient. “I’m not worried about the bird bones. I just don’t know why I should let you stay.”

He gestured casually to his face. “Is it enough to say I need to be away from the city for a while? And that you should take pity on a poor war hero?” His voice cracked on the last words, and it made me realize he was younger than I’d thought he was. His size had misled me.

I studied him skeptically.

“Look.” He became suddenly serious, his voice dropping an octave. “In London, people stare. In the woods . . .” He nodded out toward the darkness. “The raccoons don’t care if I’m missing my face. Know what I mean? I need a break. Isn’t that why you come here? You need a break?”

I felt my face flush, and shook my head to contradict him.

“We all need a break,” he said, more to himself than to me.

I stood there uncertainly for a few moments longer. On one hand, I wanted to keep everything as I’d thought it had been: all mine. On the other, how could I refuse him?

“So you’ll let me stay?” he said, turning a confident smile on me or at least half a one. “We’ll share?”

I laid my candlesticks on the table and nodded. “For now I guess that’s all right,” I said. “But it’s my place, in the end. Don’t forget that.”

He nodded and then winced.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes,” he said impatiently. “Of course. Just one more thing . . . can you please not mention to anyone that I’m here? I don’t want people showing up with baskets of buns. I just want to be alone.”

I nodded. I was about to leave and was moving toward the door, but I back-stepped when I saw him clasping his hands together suddenly and sharply in pain. A shudder passed through him and then he straightened again and struck a careless pose with his hand at the window.

“Can I get you anything?” I asked. “Do you have any money? There’s a chemist in town. I could get you some . . .”

“Oh, I go back home for supplies. My family has a good doctor, plenty of money.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

He looked me up and down and smiled ruefully. “Thank you. I just need peace.”

And that was it. I haven’t seen him since.

I’ve decided to stay true to my word and not tell a soul about him, even though he could be a thief or a murderer or both.

I already know he’s a liar, because if he’s from a wealthy London family why are his clothes all frayed and old? And if he’s a wounded veteran, why is he hiding in a cottage in Forest Row instead of being treated in the city like the war hero he is?

 

My hand hurts because I wrote that all in a rush. It’s nearing midnight, and I can hear someone sniffling and crying quietly all the way down the hall but I don’t know who it is. I love my family, but sometimes I think they’re all so pathetic, awful as it is to admit. My eyelids are drooping.

Good night, Beth.

No books to send with this post.

Your friend, Lenore


Fuente: Epic Readers

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