The rain began after lunch, in the steady, cooling drizzle of late spring. I fidgeted through the afternoon, futzing around with the gelato ad, avoiding Glynnis’s plaintive stares, and meeting Jackie outside to complain about everything. “We’re fucked,” she kept saying, blanching slightly at the curse word. “Byron and Rhiannon actually met Miss Trinka. That equals a head start.”
“Seth met her, too. Maybe he can offer you insight.”
Jackie rolled her heavily made-up eyes. “I don’t think Seth even looked her in the eye. That boy has his mind set on one thing, and makeup ain’t it.”
I couldn’t counter that one with positivity. She was right. “There’s time,” I went with. “You and I both know how well we work when we’ve got the time to think.”
The rain tapered off as Jackie finished her cigarette, the clouds lumbering out of the sun’s way. The warmth it brought rejuvenated my spirit. “What are you doing later?” I asked Jackie.
“Nothing,” she said. “A whole lot of nothing.”
“Want to go to the nursery with me? I need to buy some plants.”
“You’re gonna need a lot. You know that, don’t you?” Jackie said, but I could tell by the humor in her voice that she would join me. She shrugged. “All right. Got nothing better to do.”
“Glad for the company.”
“Don’t expect me to plant anything, though,” she added as we walked back inside Guh. “I just had my nails done.”
“Those were some slim pickings.”
Jackie sat in the passenger seat of my car, a sad-looking tomato plant propped between her knees. The plants stuffed into the back seat and trunk were an equally sorry lot. Yellowed, withering leaves, teetering stems, dry soil—even the nursery employees had given up on them. “After Memorial Day, they just don’t care,” she said, shaking her head. “Shame.”
“They’ll be fine,” I assured her. “After we get them in the ground, they’ll perk up.”
“Tell you what. You help me unload them, and I’ll make you dinner.”
Jackie mused about the offer for a moment before answering. “Okay.”
The rain returned as we cruised the streets of Willow Falls, a steady pummeling. “Do you think it’s a bad sign Lukas didn’t put us together for the Landon assignment?” Jackie asked, her smoker’s voice barely audible as we turned the corner onto my street.
Yes, instinct told me. It means he’s definitely going to get rid of one of us. Jackie sounded so dejected I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth, but I didn’t have the heart to lie either.
I didn’t have to choose. When we pulled up to my property, the sight that met me stole my ability to speak.
When we were thirteen, Jesse and I practically lived at the library. By that age, we’d run through most of the paltry fiction section, so we’d set our sights on nonfiction. He would head straight for the hard-science books while I meandered through the history section. I once pulled a book about Woodstock from the shelf, a book consisting mostly of photographs I found shocking but enthralling all the same. Hippies danced in the rain, mud covering their half-naked bodies, ancient creatures rising from the earth, at one with the natural world. I envied them, the joy they took from not caring, not giving even the tiniest bit of a shit. It looked exhilarating, their freedom, and I knew if I could somehow find the right door to open that I could be that free. At thirteen, I’d thought I would love the sight of all that mud, that I would roll in it and roll in it and maybe never come up for air.
At forty-three, getting dirty had lost its luster. If freedom really was another word for nothing left to lose, I didn’t want it. I had things to lose—a home, a son, and, hopefully, a garden. If that meant I wasn’t free, then I didn’t want to be free.
I pulled the car over with a jerk of the wheel. Jackie gasped as we exited the car. “Oh, Paige. What’s going on here?”
The soft earth was no match for the rain. Dark pools of water pockmarked the yard. Mud ran onto the sidewalk in wide streaks.
Jackie and I watched, wide-eyed, as a vaguely human-type form dashed from my back patio, making squelching sounds as it ran through the muck, leaping through the air, only to land on what looked like a tarmac made of garbage bags and duct tape.
“Trey?” I screeched.
He came around the back patio, plastered head to toe in mud. When he saw it was me, he did an about-face, took a running start, and skidded over the homemade slip-and-slide, spraying mud onto Mr. Eckhardt’s pristine white fence.
Another kid followed his lead. And then another, until my backyard resembled that Woodstock photo from so many years ago. It was impossible to tell how many kids slithered around in the mud, their limbs intertwined, their laughter sounding light and musical as the rain, Trey’s ringing out over the rest. I hadn’t seen him this happy in a long time. He looked alive.
He didn’t look like Jesse. He didn’t look like me.
He looked free. Really, truly free.
Maybe freedom had nothing to do with loss. Maybe it had everything to do with joy.
Jackie bent over and removed her shoes and tucked her socks inside. She tossed them into the car and then carefully rolled up her jeans.
“What are you doing?”
“I dunno,” she said while she waded into the muck. Weighed down by water, her blonde hair hung heavily down her back. She wobbled a little until she found her footing. “Can I try?” she called out to the group of kids but didn’t get an answer.
Jackie didn’t wait for one. She awkwardly slogged over to the patio. Without waiting for an opening, she half ran, half stumbled onto the slide, falling on her ass when she got to the end. She sat there for a moment, unmoving. “Paige?” she finally said. “I think I might have hurt something.”
Jesse didn’t like to get dirty. I didn’t either, but for him, staying clean was a near obsession. It didn’t take a psychiatrist to figure out why Jesse had such an abhorrence of dirt; it merely took a glance at a few old photographs of the apartment he grew up in. The hodgepodge of relatives crammed into it had little time for keeping tidy. Jesse’s tiny room—narrow twin bed made with military precision, scratched dresser without a speck of dust, books shelved in alphabetical order—was an oasis of calm in a sea of chaos. Neatness and order became talismans for him, things to keep him steady when the twin tornadoes of poverty and crime swept through the world around him. He kept his habits into adulthood, and I was happy to join in. I liked the feeling of satisfaction brought on by cleaning my house. Feeling satisfied was right next door to feeling safe. And that was close enough for us.
Until death filled me in on a little secret—there was no such thing as a safe life. As much as I hated to admit it, that sense of satisfaction, that feeling of accomplishment when everything was in its rightful place, was gone. Jesse wasn’t in his rightful place, so what did it matter?
Jesse avoided dirt while he lived, but in death he was surrounded by it.
Now I was.
And I didn’t have a talisman to keep the tornadoes away.
“That was awesome,” Trey exclaimed, studiously avoiding eye contact with me. I’d hosed down all of Trey’s friends, sent them home with one old towel each, and put a pot of coffee on for Jackie. She’d twisted her ankle on her way to her ass, and now her foot perched atop a stool in my kitchen.