As the prayer winds down, my heart does its weird thing. It gallops, stops. Gallops, stops. Gallops, thenâjust as Father Chet crosses himself, and Pastor Sheila takes both Garrett's hands in hersâmy heart resumes its regular beats.
I take my photocopied flyer of Ingrid from my pocket, unfold it, and study it. The hat nearly topples from her head. I think of that time we went snowshoeing, how warm it was that day. I think of Ingrid dancing on top of the boulder and tossing her hat, catching it.
Red hat against blue, blue sky.
I know where she is. My head pops up. “Garrett,” I whisper. I intend for only him to hear, but everyone's eyes are on me. I thrust the flyer at arm's length.
“What?” he says.
“Look at it. Look at the photograph.”
He stares at it. “Zell, what?” he says, frustrated. Then recognition creeps over his face. “Oh my God. Of course.”
We stand and head for the door, hurrying into coats and boots.
“Garr?” says Trudy, following. “What is it?”
“We know where she went.” He kisses her cheek. “Stay put.”
GARRETT'S SO MUCH FASTER THAN ME; he's many paces ahead by the time I reach the end of the driveway. I follow him, turning left and sprinting for the dirt road. He slips on the ice but catches his balance, passing the cemetery and the haunted orphanage, whose gabled, forbidden-looking attic reminds me of my own.
He waits for me at the yellow gate that blocks the dirt road from vehicles. He catches his breath as I circumvent the gate and get tangled in a patch of pricker bushes. Small thorns snag my pajama pants and slice my skin. A cold metallic fire burns in my lungs.
The wind lashes, and white swirls spin in tall columns. Branches dip and weave, stretch and circle. Deeper in the woods a dead branch crashes, breaking other branches as it falls.
I stand next to Garrett now.
“Stop.” He spits the word, the way he scolds Ingrid.
?” I say. And I realize I'm crying. Again. I cry because I can't stand loss anymore. First Nick. Then Ahab. And now Ingrid.
Garrett needs me to be strong right now, but I'm not strong. Maybe I've never been strong.
He takes off again. I follow him, and we both run hard. I search the ground for little Ugg footprints until I remember his prediction that the snow will fill them in. The wind whips away my voice. “Ingrid?
The lake comes into view. On its shores a gray lump takes shape, and I think it's Ingrid, but as Garrett passes it, I realize it's only the old stone chimney. He turns right and takes the road up the mountain. The same road we snowshoed on that weirdly warm Saturday, just a few months ago.
“Stay here,” he yells. “In case she takes a different trail down.”
I cup my hands around my mouth and shout, “Okay,” as loudly as I can. I remain where I'm standing, my feet planted on the shore of the lake, next to the beaver dam, a crazy mess that looks like a timber shed destroyed in a storm, frozen on the ice.
The snow falls like a singular, solid mass. It pelts my face and stings my eyes. I watch Garrett for as long as I can. I don't want to let him out of my sight. But eventually the snow swallows him, and I'm alone, and before long a whiteout surrounds me. White is all there is, white everywhere.
I STAND IN PLACE until the snow thins a bit. A few minutes go by, maybe five. If it was hard to imagine Ahab wandering alone in conditions like these, it's unbearable to imagine Ingrid doing the same. The snow makes me think of thousands and thousands of nerves, glistening like silken threads.
I can't stand it any longer, this waiting in the wind and not knowing, so I take the road after Garrett. The stones underfoot are icy, and I slip and crash to the ground. But I hike on, up, up, haul myself over a huge felled tree. And on the other side, I see a smudge of red.
Ingrid's soggy hat. Mud and ice cake it; dead leaves and pine needles poke from it.
The hat, I realize, is on Ingrid's head. It covers most of her smiling face.
Garrett's kneeling, and his arms are wrapped tight around her. The dead tree shields them from the wind.
I don't know if I belong to this embrace, but I join it. I kneel, throw my arms around Garrett's shoulders, and nuzzle my face against Ingrid's. When she speaks, I can almost feel the relief washing over Garrett. He squeezes her; I squeeze him. Gratitude emanates from us like shockwaves.
Ingrid's breath is hot in my ear. “I thought maybe all that wind would knock it down out of that tree. Zell, remember? You said in the spring I could go back and look for it on the ground. And, well, it's spring. And you were right. It was on the ground.”
I open my mouth to respond, but my throat feels empty, a hollow tunnel. I feel an internal collision, like my insides are all smashing up against each other. I can't tell whether I'm trembling from cold or nerves.
“I can't believe I got my hat back,” says Ingrid, her teeth chattering. “I woke up and it was so windy, andâ”
“All that matters is you're okay,” I say. “We're all okay.”
THE POLICE CHIEF QUICKLY GATHERS THE VOLUNTEERS, thanks them, and dismisses them. EJ invites everyone back to the Muffinry for free coffee, and they applaud before they disperse and get into their cars and SUVs and head back to town.
In the kitchen, Chief Kent checks Ingrid's vital signs and makes sure she's not hypothermic or dehydrated. “Everybody out,” he says, “except Ingrid and the chiefs.”
We all file outâGarrett, Dennis, Trudy, France, and Iâand gather in the living room, where I catch snippets of Chief Kent's stern voice. “It's dangerous to hike in the woods alone, especially in snow and cold, without telling an adult,” he says. “You gave the whole town a scare.”
I hear Ingrid say, “Sorry, Mr. Chief,” very quietly.
The police chief leaves, and Chief Kent escorts Ingrid from the kitchen. He picks her up, puts her on the couch, and bundles her in a knitted afghan so that only her eyes and nose show.
Garrett gives Chief a one-armed guy hugâhandshake; they thump each other on the back, and neither of them speaks.
ONE BY ONE, after the hot chocolate turns cold, we disband. I follow Garrett to his truck and think of asking him for a ride but decide to give him and Ingrid their time together.
“See you later?” I say, as he buckles Ingrid, still bundled in the afghan, into the backseat of his pickup.
He shuts the passenger door. He looks even more tired than he did earlier this morning, when he picked me up. “Thanks, Zell,” he says, extending his hand. When I shake it, he pulls me in for a quick hug.
“You bet,” I say. “Drive safe.”
Pastor Sheila putt-putts away in her teal sedan, France takes the “croo-za” back to the station, and Dennis returns to the Wippamunker Building.
It's just me and Father Chet, so he offers to drive me home. Sitting in the passenger seat, I realize I still feel shaky. Like I had too much coffee or something. At first we don't really say much, Father Chet and I. He turns onto the road, flicks the windshield wipers to hyperspeed, and accelerates just a little. The snow thickens and flies toward us.
Eventually we make small talk about the weather forecast, and the rumored mountain lion, and how lucky Garrett was to find Ingrid. And finally, I ask whether Nick ever told Father Chet about a present for me.
“A present?” Father Chet says. “Nooo, Row-sel-
. No present.”
We drive a ways, not speaking. He stops at the Main Street intersection, and the turn signal ticks and ticks. I look around at the gas station and the cemetery, the almost-three-hundred-year-old town hall and the Congregational church's cross-topped steeple, barely discernable against steel-colored clouds.
Father Chet hums. The light turns green. He takes the corner slowly, saying the same thing in French that he said that day in the Muffinry, when I was there with Gail a while back. “
Noose um blah blah blah.
“You said that before, Father.”
“I still don't know what it means.”
He pulls into my driveway. I grasp the car door handle, waiting for an explanation.
Finally he stops humming. He rolls his bald head against the headrest and winks. “I think you'll figure it out when you're ready to hear it.”
I FLOP ONTO THE COUCHâstill in my coat and bootsâand drift to sleep almost immediately. I don't wake up until after the sun's gone down. I wander around the first floor of my house, turning on lights, feeling lonely, before I decide to make Scrumpy Delight and bring it next door. A small offering of sweetness and warmth might be just the right thing to make everybody feel better.
“Ingrid's asleep,” says Garrett, leading me to the bright yellow kitchen. “She had a big, long bubble bath, and she's been asleep since four thirty.”
We sit opposite each other. Garrett eats nearly half of the Scrumpy Delight, thanking me between bites. “This is freakishly tasty,” he says.
“I know,” I say. “Pretty weird, right?”
He laughs and pushes away the plate. “Don't take this the wrong way, but I'm sort of shocked that you're a finalist. I mean, what are the chances?”
“A few thousand to one, apparently.”
“It's almost like fate.”
“I'd like to believe that,” I say.
“I can't believe I'm letting Ingrid go on
Pinch of Love Live.
But how can I
let her go, at this point?” Garrett shrugs. “I mean, I promised. I pinkie swore.”
“Maybe she'll get the Polly Pinch stuff out of her system. Like you said.”
“Somehow I doubt that.”
Garrett shakes his head, loads his fork with limey goat cheese and peppery, chocolaty grilled pineapple, and offers it to me. It's about to slide right off the tines, onto the table. I hesitate, unsure if I should take the fork or let him feed me.
“Quick,” he says. “Eat it.”
So I lean forward and open my mouth, and he giggles and pops the fork in. Chewing, I catch a few crumbs of crust in my cupped hand.
It's the first time I've tried the finished product, I realize. And it's delicious. It really is.
He pulls two beers from the fridge, pops the tops with a bottle opener, and offers me one. “I'm torn between grounding her until she turns eighteen,” he says, sitting back down, “and giving her anything and everything she wants. I mean, really, what's the responsible parent's reaction, here? After your daughter runs away in a blizzard?”
I take a swig of beer. “I think she learned her lesson.”
“When am I gonna learn mine?” He laughs, and I try to laugh along with him, even though I don't really understand what he means.
An awkward silence follows, and neither of us knows where to look. I sip my beer. Garrett clears his throat and fingers a groove in the wood table.
Finally I gesture to the plate, where the remaining Scrumpy Delight forms a crescent shape. “Well, maybe we should save the rest for Ingrid,” I say.
“Definitely,” he says, stifling a yawn. “She'd like that.”
HOURS LATER, I can't sleep. I switch on the lamp over my drafting table, but the glare hurts my eyes, and the pituitary gland I start sketching looks too square, too flat. And then . . . knock-knock-knock, pause. Knock-knock-knock, pause.
I head downstairs, into the powder room. “Ing?” I say to the Ahab wall.
“No,” says Garrett from the other side.
“Were you asleep?” he asks.
“I was drawing.”
“I'm sorry I snapped at you. You know. Earlier. In the woods.”
“I'm sorry about the hat,” I say.
“Why are you sorry about the hat?”
“Because that day, when it got stuck in the tree, I told Ingrid she could get it later.”
“It's not your fault, Zell. I told her the same thing. Believe me. I don't blame you for a thing.”
“Good night,” I say.
“Love ya 'n' like ya,” he says, chuckling.
“Love ya 'n' like ya,” I say, and smile.
April 18, 2008
Ingrid went missing in a snowstorm (we found her) and I feel responsible. Never mind; it's a long story. Point is, I can't seem to do anything right since you died.
Except one thing: I'm a finalist in an extremely high-profile international baking contest (laugh here) and I'm going on
Pinch of Love Live,
the new live version of Polly Pinch's original show. And if I win, I'm going to donate the prize money to the people of New Orleans. Because that's what you would have wanted.
What should I wear for my debut television appearance? I tried on a few nice tops hanging in my closet, including the black scoop-neck I paired with black slacks for your memorial service. But no tops fit me; they seem just squeeze-y enough to make me feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. Or maybe I'm just not used to wearing nice clothes, because for the past year and a half, I've sort of let myself go, as the saying goes.
Spike Miller, Polly Pinch's assistant, whom I called in response to my notification letter, said “wardrobe specialists” will dress me if they're unhappy with my own outfit. He recommended I wear red, because red is a universally flattering color, especially on camera. But I have nothing red except an old Red Sox sweatshirt and, of course, your T-shirt from The Trip, which I am actually considering wearing.
It's rather random, how I came to possess the shirt. The day you died, I was painting Gail's g.d. guest bathroom. I was mixing colors and testing them on my arms, because I'd run out of room on the wall. The mountains, trees, granite, and snow were all painted, and I was about to incorporate new colors, for clothing and skin. I wanted to get them right. Plus, I was feeling loopy, probably from reading all your e-mails, especially your last one, about how inspired you felt, about how you couldn't wait to get home and show me the slideshow of your photographs, and make plans for the soccer team. I was really looking forward to meeting the new you and entering a new phase in our life, a new phase in our love.
There is something sensual about stroking the bristles of a wet paintbrush across your forearm. Using your own body as a palette, a testing ground. Both my forearms were striped with different colors when my mom knocked on the door.
“There's someone here,” she said. “They're calling for you. In the driveway.”
“Come outside.” She sounded a bit frantic. “I think there might be a problem or something. Come now.”
I lifted a corner of the drop cloth, found my cell phone, turned it on. Ten missed calls from Kent PowersâChief Kent. Four missed calls from Chester Claude MboâFather Chet. Three missed calls from Sheila White. I never did listen to those messages.
Mom, Dad, Terry, Gail holding Tasha, they all followed me and gathered on the deck. Pastor Sheila and Father Chet were in the driveway. They stood in front of Sheila's teal sedan. I ran to them.
It's weird the details you remember. Pastor Sheila wore a tunic-length patchwork shirt. She came right up to me. In one hand she held the T-shirt. With the other hand she gripped my arm.
“We've been trying to reach you,” she said. “The Ludlow police offered to come, but we wanted to tell you ourselves. We tracked you down, tracked down your sister's address, and droveâ”
“Tell me what?” I said.
“There's been an accident.” Pastor Sheila's voice quavered. She pressed the shirt into my hand.
That's how I found out you were dead.
I sank my face into the shirt. I wanted it to smell like you. But it didn't. It didn't smell like anything at all.
And it still doesn't really smell like anything, even though I've worn it so much since that day. To bed, to the grocery store.
Sheila said later that the shirt got mixed up in the wash somehow; an old lady from a church down there offered to do everyone's laundry, and Sheila found your shirt in her suitcase when she got home.
Anyway, at least the “Wippamunk Loves New Orleans” message is a good cause to advertise on
Pinch of Love Live.
And, it will be appropriate for the tribute afterward.
What tribute, you ask? See the e-mail from EJ, pasted below. . . .
Hi, Zell. EJ here.
I've been meaning to tell you about something. I was hoping you would hear it through the grapevine by now, or see it in
and I wouldn't have to tell you, but neither of those things happened, and the time is approaching, so.
I don't know why I haven't told you face-to-face. We didn't talk for so long, and then it just seemed like a difficult thing to bring up with you. And then Ahab. Anyway, e-mail is easier. So here goes.
We're planning a tribute to Nick. France came up with the idea. So we can have closure, she says. A lot of people are involved. There are going to be some nice surprises. It's really important that you come.
Problem is, the tribute is the same day as the
Pinch of Love Live
show: May 5. You see, Russ was there when you found out you were a winner, and he realized the show and the tribute were scheduled for the same day. But we couldn't reschedule the tribute, because we'd advertised for weeks in
, and we're expecting a lot of people.
So anyway, I talked to Garrett and he will take you back to the town common right after
Pinch of Love Live.
(Or if it rains, the town hall.)
If you want to come, that is.
Please come. We want you there. Invite your family, too.