She was out of beginnings, this she knew.
Ana ran her hands through her knotted hair, wondering when she’d last washed it. She’d been up for more than twenty-four hours, and there was still ketchup on her shirt.
“This is the fifth home you’ve been expelled from in the last ten years.”
“To be fair, it was only four. I was at the Mitchell house twice.”
“Well, this time it’s . . . a situation.”
Ana stared at the wall behind the desk. She’d seen the corkboard many times before and had studied the photographs of Mrs. Saucedo’s children over the years. She’d watched them grow older, lose teeth, win ribbons, and pose for class photos. There was always a birthday card or thank-you note pushpinned to the board. Today it was a small California license plate bearing the word MOM.
“I know it’s been hard, but we need to find a solution,” Mrs. Saucedo said, adjusting her glasses. “I’d like us to work together on this.”
Ana let her eyes roam around the room. The walls were still a pale industrial green, and there was a fake tree in the corner, the same one with the rubber branches that would never grow. She remembered the first time she saw the tree and how it had been strung with lights and ornaments. There were reindeer, paper stars, and angels made of tin. One branch was weighed down by a heavy gourd, the middle hollowed out to hold figurines of a man and a woman staring down at a baby, a glittered star hanging above them. She remembered how she wanted to climb inside the gourd and live there forever.
“Feliz Navidad,” Ana said, still staring at the tree. “Those were the first words you said to me.”
Mrs. Saucedo looked down at her desk. Everything was in its place save for Ana’s file, which was thick and open to a photo of a little girl in a pink puffy coat.
“I remember,” she said.
“It was cold, not like today.”
“Yes, it was.”
“It was the first time I ever wished for snow—not that it would ever happen.”
Ana shifted in the chair. The armrests were worn and rough under her fingertips.
“Would you like to talk about what happened that night?” Mrs. Saucedo asked, knowing Ana never did.
This time, though, Ana did want to talk about it. She remembered everything, every detail. Back then, it was referred to as “an accident,” and also, “the incident,” but Ana chose to name it as you would a melodramatic poem or story—“With Sorrow and Black Doves.” She was the only one who had seen what had happened the night she was brought in to child services, and every time she entered Mrs. Saucedo’s small office, the memories of The Night That Started It All returned harsh and fast. She’d managed to shut them away year after year, but there, in that windowless room, the images flickered in the periphery.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” Mrs. Saucedo said, keeping her voice soft and slow, trying to catch Ana’s eyes, which remained fixed on the tree.
If there was anyone she could talk to it was Mrs. Lupe Saucedo, the nice lady behind the desk who genuinely cared about her well-being—even after all these years. Though she hadn’t felt it physically since they’d met almost a decade ago, Mrs. Saucedo’s warmth remained. She remembered how the woman’s arms had embraced her that day and how the scent of roses and clean cotton still tickled her nose. Mrs. Saucedo had whispered to her back then too.
“‘Ya me canso de llorar y no amanece.’”
“You’re not crying and you do have hope.” Mrs. Saucedo sighed. “Please, this isn’t a telenovela. Like I’ve told you many times before, the drama does you no favors.”
“It’s a line from a song, not a comment on my psychological state.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear you still speaking Spanish. I think your grandma would be proud.”
Almost as a reflex, Ana’s hands squeezed the armrests of the chair. She kept her eyes focused anywhere but on Mrs. Saucedo’s face and concentrated instead on her own breathing. She wanted to speak but feared giving in to her tears, so she dipped her chin to her chest.
What she wanted to tell Mrs. Saucedo was that the line had been from her grandma’s—her abuela’s—favorite song, and that she had memorized every word. She wanted to explain that if there had been music playing on the day of the incident, it would have been this very song. She imagined the voice of a banshee swooping in to replace the screaming, how a trumpet might have substituted for blasts, and how she wished the plucking of an acoustic guitar had kept her company in the aftermath of silence, a melancholy soundtrack for the newly alone.
“I don’t speak it as much as I should,” Ana said, instead tucking her hands between her knees, which wouldn’t stop bouncing.
“You understand I have nowhere left to send you, yes? We talked about three strikes less than a year ago, and since then you’ve gone from the group home to another failed foster situation. This is it—no more homes, no more chances,” Mrs. Saucedo said. “It might help to talk about what happened that night, talk about your abuela, and talk about what we can do to get you to where she’d want you to be.”
“If it’s all right with you, I’d rather talk about what’s been going on the past few months.”
Mrs. Saucedo had heard complaints about foster parents before. She anticipated an elaborate explanation, knowing Ana’s flair for the dramatic. In her younger years, Ana’s stories were wildly embellished but had since boiled down to silent defiance after being removed from her third foster home.
“I spoke with Ms. Fenton.”
“I’m desperate to hear what she had to say.”
“I think you know exactly what she said.”
“If you had any idea how we’ve been treated all summer . . .”
“Ana . . .”
“—And how the rules were completely . . .”
“It’s not your place to step in.”
“But it wasn’t right, and someone needed to do something because no one ever does.”
“I understand the conditions were not the best,” Mrs. Saucedo said, trying not to raise her voice. “And for that I apologize. But Ms. Fenton is a longtime foster mother, and despite the strict household, it is not your job to tell her how to discipline the other children.”
“So, I’m just supposed to sit there and let two little kids go without any food for the second day in a row? I’m supposed to kick back while the so-called mother of the house eats the freezer and shelves clean just to prove a stupid point? It’s Ludicrous, capital L.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She doesn’t give any of us lunch or dinner—like zero food—anytime she feels we’re doing something wrong, which is pretty much all the time. She got angry that I gave an ice cream sandwich to the kids to share, and I get that it was the last one in the freezer and everything, but it was all we had. And she took it out on them. It’s not the first time it’s happened, either.”
“Ms. Fenton relayed to me that you were combative and inappropriate, and while I disagree wholeheartedly with her methods, I do not condone your response to them.”
“Believe me, I can skip a ton of meals, but the kids? She takes their toys away and never lets them play, as if their lives weren’t completely messed up already, as if we weren’t starving enough. So, yeah, something needed to be done. Sorry but not sorry.”
“I was unaware this was going on,” Mrs. Saucedo said, taking a breath. “I understand your point, but staging a death scene isn’t funny and you know it.”
Mrs. Saucedo thought she detected a smile. Ana sometimes smiled when she was uncomfortable, rarely when she was proud or defiant. It was a habit that often led to miscommunication.
“That’s not what we were doing,” Ana said, sitting up and looking at Mrs. Saucedo for the first time. “Like I said, there was nothing in the cupboards and only ketchup in the fridge, so I told the kids to imagine they were eating hamburgers. I squirted ketchup in their mouths, and we pretended we were so full we couldn’t get up from the floor. It was just a stupid game . . . something I made up to take their minds off things.”
Mrs. Saucedo had a hard time believing that had been the extent of it.
“Haven’t you been going to the recreation center for lunch?” she asked, remembering Ana and her foster siblings were part of the Summer Food Program. “Hasn’t Ms. Fenton been making sure that you go?”
“She didn’t let us out of the house a few times this week because she was angry that I stayed late at the library. Sometimes when she gets angry, she punishes all of us and says we’re ‘putting her in a mood.’ It’s a mood I like to call completely insane.”
Mrs. Saucedo kept her eyes on Ana.
“I’m not making this up.”
“I never said you were.”
“Really, Mrs. S., she’s the most deplorable woman. I don’t mean to call you out or criticize the way things are done around here or anything, but the way you guys pick foster parents sucks. I know it was stupid to leave, and I know I’ve done it a few times before, but after she refused to feed us again, after so many days with no lunch, and after we were forced to sit on the couch while she inhaled a bag of Cheetos without offering us any and then told everyone it was all my fault—you have to understand why I had to get out of there. But I wasn’t making a run for it, I swear. I was going to get something for everyone to eat.”
Ana chewed her bottom lip and kept her hands folded in her lap. She looked down at her ripped jeans, focusing on the misshapen hearts and stars drawn all over her exposed kneecaps, the remnants of an afternoon spent playing “art school” with her foster brother and sister, the two she knew she’d probably never see again.
“Not to elaborate, but she made us do all the housework too. Honestly, I don’t mind, but if there was toothpaste on the mirror, or if I didn’t iron all the wrinkles out of her shirts, she would take it out on all of us. I tried to be nice, to do extra work. I tried to ignore the way her disgusting boyfriend used to stare at my T-shirt as if invited by a logo emblazoned across my chest, and I tried to do everything you’ve always told me to do.”
“You don’t have to say anything else,” Mrs. Saucedo said.
“But I shouldn’t have left like that . . . I get it.”
“No, you shouldn’t have. Nor should you have called Ms. Fenton what you called her, regardless of how she treated you.”
Ana had heard the sound of the screen door slam behind her as she ran out of the house. Her throat was raw and the imprint of small hands still warmed her palms. She remembered running through the gravel in the front yard and all the way down the block, ignoring the heat of the sidewalk seeping into her sneakers. She couldn’t remember how far she’d gone or why she’d neglected to say good-bye, knowing, even then, that she wouldn’t be allowed to return. She had promised she’d never leave her foster siblings there—that she’d never leave them period—but she’d broken that promise again, in the same way it had always been broken to her.
“You’re almost sixteen,” Mrs. Saucedo said. “You are old enough and smart enough to know how and when to rise above a situation. I know you were looking after the others, but the person you need to look after most is yourself.”
Mrs. Saucedo studied Ana’s face, which was tense; her eyes focused on clasped hands, one thumb picking at the other. She’d seen this look before.
“What’s the matter?”
“I know you don’t want me to get into it, but I should probably tell you that she brought up my mother.”
“What did she say?”
“That I’m going to end up just like her.”
Mrs. Saucedo took a breath. “Is that all she said?”
“I want you to tell me exactly what she said.”
It wasn’t the first time Ana’s file had been used against her, if the file even allowed her to be assigned to a foster home in the first place. No one wanted to deal with a child who had been marked as difficult or traumatized.
“She said I’m going to end up in jail, where I quote unquote ‘belong,’ if a bullet doesn’t find me first. It’s not like I haven’t heard it before.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“Isn’t it?” Ana said, hands gripping a bouncing knee.
“Your parents knew what they were involved in, and the rest . . . None of it was your fault,” Mrs. Saucedo said, removing her glasses and placing them on top of Ana’s file. “We’ve talked about how to deal with difficulty, how to temper your emotions, but we’ve never talked about why they flare up every time you settle in to a new place. We’re either going to talk about it now and figure out the next steps or I’m going to have to make a decision without your input.”
“Just put me in another foster home. I can start over again.”
“That’s not an option.”
“What if I lived with you? I can do all the housework. You can put me in the garage or something, and I’ll babysit your kids until school starts—really, I can help out. I’ll be quiet, and you won’t even see me.”
Mrs. Saucedo closed her eyes for a moment. She thought back to her training and reflected on her decades of experience. She reminded herself not to show any anger or sign of frustration, so she inhaled deeply, and even though it was discouraged, she thought about her own children.
“You won’t even know I’m there. I’m good at washing dishes and fixing things. And I don’t need to eat much. I can go days without food, done it many times before. And I know a million bedtime stories that my abuela told me, ones I’m sure your kids haven’t heard before. It’ll just be until I’m sixteen—not like forever or anything.”
Mrs. Saucedo moved closer to Ana, who turned her body toward the door.
“I’m not crying,” Ana said. “My eye itches. And I’m just sick of this.”
“Honestly, I didn’t mean to freak out and run. I’m trying to do the right thing.”
“I know you are, but that’s not the problem.”
“Please don’t send me back to the group home.”
Ana wiped her face. She told herself that if her eyes met Mrs. Saucedo’s again, she might drown.
“I’ll do anything,” Ana said. “Just please don’t send me back there.”
She felt her voice slip and knew she’d never be able to catch it. Every breath seemed heavier and harder to swallow. She’d been to a group home before Ms. Fenton’s; in fact, it was the last time she’d sat in Mrs. Saucedo’s office arguing against another situation that had remained woefully unchecked. Ana could barely remember the faces of those who had surrounded her back then, though she could recite every word they said. Her memory flashed to the bathroom, the group of girls standing behind her as she tried not to make eye contact in the mirror. They were older and greater in number, swift and quiet in their attack. She was shoved from behind first and punched once or twice—she couldn’t remember—before her head hit the floor. There were multiple feet near her face, that she remembered, and she’d kept her eyes focused on the chipped tile where there was a clump of her own hair.
“Take a breath,” Mrs. Saucedo said and slid a box of tissues across the desk. Ana Cortez had cried in her office on only two occasions. The first time, Mrs. Saucedo had put her arms around Ana’s small, rigid shoulders, which refused to soften, unlike those of her own daughters. This time, Mrs. Saucedo remained still, willing herself not to do or say anything she couldn’t promise.
“I’m serious about working for you,” Ana repeated. “I can sleep on the floor. You won’t even know I’m here. I’ll do all your filing, whatever job you want me to do.”
“Funny enough, I think a job is exactly what you need.”
In all the years that Lupe Saucedo had thought about Ana Cortez—and she’d thought about her more often than she’d anticipated—she had never truly known what to do. Ana was six years old when she was brought in the first time on an unseasonably cold Southern California night wearing dirty shorts and a pink coat. Unlike other children brought in under similar situations, Ana was talkative and had been known around the Ramona Houses as La Boca. The police officers had said she had told them her name was “Fantasma,” and when Mrs. Saucedo asked the young Ana why she wanted to call herself “ghost,” the girl had looked her in the eye and said she had made her parents disappear. It was the only time Lupe ever considered bringing a child home.
She’d been relieved when Ana’s grandmother arrived, heaving with worry. She watched as the slight woman swooped the little girl into her arms and they both held on to each other and cried. It was a rare happy ending that lasted for just more than a year. Ana was back in her office the following spring, her hair drawn up in colorful ribbons that clashed with the bandages peeking out from the neck of her dress. Where she’d been surprisingly chatty the first time around despite the grim circumstances, she had remained relatively mute following the death of her grandmother.
Year after year, every time the slightly older Ana sat across from her, hair longer, frame slighter, Mrs. Saucedo felt a ghost was still with her. There were times she’d be shopping in the grocery store, her own kids in tow, and she’d catch the gaze of a child in someone else’s cart. They’d be the same eyes—deep, placid, and reflective—wanting of so much and so little in a single glance that Mrs. Saucedo would feel a chill pass through her.
“Put me anywhere you want then,” Ana said. “Doesn’t matter. Like you said, I’m almost sixteen, right? So put me in a group house, and I’ll put myself on the streets. I know how to take care of myself.”
“I have something more interesting in mind,” Mrs. Saucedo said, opening an e-mail.
“Let me guess . . . juvie? That’s the next logical step, right?”
“We’ve yet to discuss the possibility of emancipation,” she explained. “Do you understand what that means?”
“I can live on my own if I want?”
“It’s not as simple as that. You’ll have to work at a job. Upon completion of that job, your employers will decide—along with me as well as a judge—whether you can formally emancipate yourself. Think of it like speeding ahead to eighteen only with better options. You and I both know living on the streets isn’t easy, especially here.”
“What kind of job are we talking about?”
Mrs. Saucedo swiveled around the computer. On the screen was a photograph of a gray house with a red door, impressive but not imposing. There were white steps leading up to a wraparound porch with two chairs and several wooden boxes overflowing with wildflowers. The entire house was surrounded by lush fields of green.
“It’s a one-month trial. If the work goes well, you’ll stay through Labor Day and go to school there. If it doesn’t, you come back to a group home and school here.”
“Have you ever been to a farm?” Mrs. Saucedo asked.
“Not really my kind of thing.”
“Well, I’m afraid this is your only choice.”
Ana stared at the house in the photo, which was set back against towering trees. She hadn’t noticed it at first, but there was a woman standing off to the side. It was hard to make out her face, but she was captured smiling and in mid-wave.
“Have you ever been outside of Los Angeles?” Mrs. Saucedo asked.
“No,” Ana answered. “I’ve never even been to the beach.”
“Ever been on an airplane?”
“Never wanted to travel?”
“Sure, but c’mon, Mrs. S., let’s get real . . .”
“Let’s,” Mrs. Saucedo said. She shut Ana’s file and leaned across the desk. “Grab your backpack.”
Nothing irritated Abbie Garber more than unexpected visitors during the summer harvest. Everyone in Hadley knew that for her it was a sacred time devoted to picking, packing, pruning, and preserving while managing the staff and overseeing produce season. What this meant for Abbie—proprietress of all products stamped GARBER FARM—was a gentle dose of mania. The last thing she wanted was to finish the day feeling even the slightest bit behind.
“Emmett!” Abbie shouted out the screen door. “If that woman is here to bother Manny about the tractor, I will sharpen my shears on her Beemer’s bumper!”
Abbie broke her own rule by letting the screen door slam shut. She walked toward one of the curtained windows at the front of the house, checking her reflection in the hall mirror along the way.
She took a breath before peeling back the linen curtain. Just beyond the wooden fence, on the perimeter of the fields, stood her close but not-so-close neighbor Minerva F. Shaw, chatting with the farm’s field manager, Manny, who leaned against his tractor stroking an overgrown mustache and looking the opposite of amused. While it was true the F stood for “Fellowes,” in memory of Minerva’s long-dead first husband, why she kept the initial after she married her second late husband, Bob Shaw, had remained a mystery. Abbie didn’t care to know the reason why, especially because she’d always given the F a different meaning; she just wanted Minerva to mind her own business.
“I’m going to give you five seconds, Minerva Fellowes Shaw,” Abbie said, turning to the pair of armchairs flanking the fireplace in the corner of the room. “And if you’re still standing there when I pull back this curtain again, so help you, I will unleash the dogs.”
In actuality, Garber Farm had only one dog, Dolly, a retriever mix who favored lounging on the porch or barking at the wind to any sort of farm duties. Still, Minerva Shaw’s repeated visits on matters of tractor noise, fence placement, and anything that was no business of her own enraged Abbie’s proud sensibilities enough for her to imagine a pack of wild dogs once and for all chasing her meddlesome neighbor away.
There had been a time when Garber Farm housed a whole menagerie of animals. Abbie and her brother, Emmett, had enjoyed growing up on the idyllic Northern California farm, its fields vast, lush, and undulating up and down the hillside in shades of brilliant green. Their hands had helped their mother roll out pie dough and make preserves each season when they weren’t helping their father plant every crop. And though the siblings spent most of their lives together, Abbie had left home in her teen years, following the unexpected death of their mother.
Emmett Garber had lived in Hadley all of his life, sharing several of those years happily working and living above the barn with his beloved wife, Josie. But in the year of the codling moth, when the whole of the county had suffered nature’s winged misfortune, Emmett Garber Sr. had died too, leaving the farm and all its dealings to both Emmett and Abbie equally. Though they both hadn’t lived at the farm together in more than a decade, they came back together to take their rightful place as inheritors of the soil.
It was a turbulent time, especially for Emmett, but coming back to Garber Farm had been a blessing for Abbie. Mired in a troubled marriage with a man more devoted to his guitar, Abbie had been searching for a way to let him and a life in the city go. Following her father’s death, she packed a single suitcase, donned her great-grandmother’s old straw hat, which had been languishing in the back of her tiny closet for years, and left the ramshackle San Francisco apartment she’d worked so hard to love.
Though Emmett and Abbie had settled comfortably into farm life, there were times when the wind danced through the buckeyes or a majestic hawk circled overhead, and each one of them would feel a lump sliding down their throats. Abbie worked late into the night, making jam and a wide variety of pickles with names like Fab Figs or Beauteous Beets. On lonelier evenings, typically in the colder months or when Emmett had retreated to his haven in the barn, she would pore over recipe books or read online forums on the best way to make cider or tackle all-natural pest control.
Emmett preferred to harness himself to the land. He was up every morning before dawn, tending to the more grueling workings of the farm; in truth, he preferred the silence in those early hours. Josie would awaken with him at the same time every morning. There would always be a cup of coffee and freshly baked muffin on their small breakfast table, and when he returned from inspecting the crops and opening the fence for the morning staff, he’d stride over the hill, sunrise illuminating the tiny barn, and Josie would wave to him from the window. These days, he took his breakfast with Dolly on the porch or back in the barn. Rarely did Abbie join him outside. It had been almost a year since Josie’s unexpected departure, an event that rendered both siblings speechless. Their mutual affection for her reached back to a shared childhood. Abbie often watched through the window as Emmett stared out into the horizon, streaks of gray speckling his shadow of a beard, his cowboy hat drawn low.
Garber Farm was their life, and it wasn’t an easy one. Emmett and Abbie felt a duty to preserve the legacy of the farm, one of the only small organic farms still in existence around Hadley. After all, Garbers had been farming this land for a hundred years. In order to stay afloat, they’d had to move beyond selling at the local farmers’ markets. Their wide variety of vegetables and herbs was legendary, and more crops meant more work. Abbie had also taken to making seasonal batches of infused oil to sell along with pickles, preserves, and her award-winning hard cider, all adapted from her mother’s or grandmother’s recipes. Still, even in a successful year, they never had the margin the bigger corporate farms enjoyed.
They knew something needed to change. Emmett’s solution was to retreat to the barn and brood, but Abbie figured a younger, more robust extra hand was what they needed to shake things up. She worried about her brother and his melancholy ways and thought having a young person to live with them and take along on weekly deliveries might help clear out the cobwebs. It wouldn’t hurt to have some help in the kitchen either.
After much debate, they settled on the idea of a farm intern who would work for school credit. Emmett reached out to Hadley High and Abbie posted a notice on the advertising board at Moon Pharm General Store. But the results were the same: the town’s local boys were either on the football field, tending to their own family business after school, or, as Hadley’s oldest and wisest resident, Alder Kinman, put it, “Sodding off in the forest with the rest of the jugs and thugs. Wouldn’t you?”
Despite Emmett’s initial protestations, Abbie contacted the local foster system. In the same way that she pursued the rest of her “harebrained ideas”—Emmett’s words and often her father’s too—Abbie went ahead with the paperwork, background checks, and home visit anyway, which occurred while Emmett was coming in from the fields. She knew the only way to change her brother’s mind was to never give him any option in the first place, and he signed off on the matter hoping that would be the end of it. Abbie was surprised when the system matched her with a young woman from Los Angeles, less than a week after her approval came through. It was a “special case,” they had said, and one in which there was no option to dispute the gender. Emmett would grumble, but he’d get used to it. And Abbie relished the idea of female company. She reassured Emmett that the “foster student” was up for the challenge of farm work, and he never asked any more than that, not that she intended to elaborate.
The last person she wanted to explain all this to was Minerva Shaw. It was only a matter of time before the news was all over Main Street anyway. Any bit of news became Minerva’s sole duty to share. She was the self-appointed chief of Hadley’s gossip police.
“No need to get everyone talking yet,” Abbie thought before opening the door and stepping onto the front porch. Minerva made her way up the stone-lined front path, hips swinging, her red heels awkwardly clacking up the wooden steps.
“I must say, I just had the most astonishing conversation with your brother.” Minerva trilled through coral-colored lips.
“Hello to you too,” Abbie answered.
“Likewise, dear.” Minerva removed her oversize sunglasses and tucked them into her pink leather handbag.
“He mumbled something about going to the airport . . . something about someone of the male persuasion coming to see you?”
“We do have visitors from time to time.”
Minerva pursed her lips and squinted as if inspecting a dappled onion. “Not to be a nuisance, but I’m just checking that all is well with you, my dear. I wouldn’t want some cold-blooded killer swooping into your single-occupied farmhouse while the menfolk are away. As much as I love your brother, his silence is quite the concern since you-know-who vacated the premises.”
“We’re fine, Minerva,” Abbie said. “Honestly, there hasn’t been a murder in Hadley since the gold rush.”
“Of course you are,” Minerva said with a wink. “Well, enough with this idle chatter. I stopped by for some pickled carrots. I’d love to serve some with the wine and cheese tonight . . . maybe a bottle of cider too? I have a full house this weekend.”
“I think that can be arranged,” Abbie said as they headed inside.
Minerva could never bring herself to tell Abbie how much she loved the farmhouse, especially the kitchen, which was all white with wooden countertops and glass-fronted cabinets that showed off the Garber family’s collection of mismatched Victorian china. A picture window above the sink looked out over the back garden, which was meticulously laid out with rows of herbs, lettuces, beans, and heirloom tomatoes, the perimeter bursting with wildflowers. A thin shelf built across the middle of the window displayed small bud vases and mason jars full of clipped rosemary and scarlet zinnias.
Abbie’s touch was all over the kitchen. There were vintage tea towels near the sunken sink and a large green tin with BREAD painted across it in bold letters. Tucked into the corners of the countertops were well-used cookbooks leaning up against glass containers full of flour, sugar, and assorted baking goods. Along the walls hung antique plates and framed wildflower prints. There was flair to the kitchen beyond its warm, vanilla-scented spell, and it never failed to render Minerva Shaw speechless.
“I’ve got only a few jars of carrots left but plenty of cider,” Abbie bellowed from her cavernous pantry. “But we’ll be back into full swing in the coming weeks. I can do two carrots for fifteen and bottles of cider for seven each.”
“Wonderful,” Minerva said. Her eyes swept across the kitchen, taking in the rustic table in the corner. “Sweet peach? You’ve laid out the table with your mother’s napkins and those plates with the scratched roses. You weren’t expecting me to stay for dinner, were you?”
Abbie emerged from the pantry with bottles in hand.
“Definitely not. Why?”
“Well, dear, because the table is set for three,” Minerva said. She draped her fingertips across her chest, her head tipped and primed for information.
“As I said, we’re expecting company tonight.”
“You seem to be going through a lot of trouble for this mystery guest. Let me guess . . . an old Garber relative?” Minerva inquired. “Perhaps a certain faraway customer to which you or Emmett has become . . . close?”
Minerva always had a way of emphasizing the solitude the Garber siblings shared. She also had a habit of going out of her way to introduce any bachelor types drastically above and below Abbie’s age range if she happened to run into Abbie in town. Abbie knew she meant well, but it was amusing.
“Yes, they’ll be here for an extended stay,” Abbie offered.
“It’s been difficult knowing exactly what to prepare, seeing as how my guest is coming from quite a ways away,” Abbie said.
Minerva’s eyes widened as she cleared her throat.
“I have a lot to do to prepare,” Abbie said. She set the box of rattling jars on the counter and smoothed down her well-worn shirt.
“Yes, of course,” Minerva said, backing away from the table. She dug into her purse and pulled out an overflowing leopard-print wallet. She handed over the cash and looked down at the box on the counter, then back up at Abbie again.
Abbie smiled and picked up the box, carrying it out onto the porch, and noticed Minerva had parked her BMW all the way down the road.
“Please tell Teresa and the gals at the inn I send my regards,” Abbie said, setting the box in Minerva’s unwilling arms.
She walked to the door before turning back around on the threshold.
“If you don’t see me around town this weekend, or happen to drive by and notice the curtains drawn, don’t be alarmed. I’ll most likely be entertaining an adolescent murderer.”
“No need for sarcasm, my dear,” said Minerva, theatrically balancing the box and tottering down the walkway. “An unexpected savage might be just what you need!”
Emmett Garber took the usual route. It was his favorite time of day—namely, anytime he found himself alone in the old pickup truck. He rolled down the windows, turned up the music, and accelerated down the farm road.
When Abbie first mentioned the idea of taking on an extra hand, Emmett envisioned an intern from the university up north. Class credit was just as desirable as a wage, he thought, and a young man with farming prospects would be glad of the experience. He’d been college age when his father enlisted his help on the farm.
“The world needs more men in the field,” his father had said. “Nothing more noble than tying yourself to tradition and terrain.”
Emmett had been offered two choices on his eighteenth birthday: life on the farm or time in the military, and he’d chosen the former.
He’d been content enough, if a little lonely. It was the summer Abbie left the farm that Emmett first noticed Josie, Abbie’s childhood best friend. She’d been there all along really. But one night at a bonfire down on the beach with a bunch of other kids, he found himself sitting next to her and realizing they’d never actually had a conversation. Without Abbie around to protest her best friend’s dating her older brother, it wasn’t long before Josie was once again a permanent fixture around Garber Farm.
Emmett moved out of the farmhouse and into the barn. Farm life took on a different meaning now that he had someone to share it with. He and Josie were married on a windy, cloudy day as the meadowlarks sang. It was a small ceremony, with just a few people in attendance, including Abbie as the slightly bewildered maid of honor. But it was the first time Emmett Garber remembered welcoming the seasons of his future.
“Our future,” he had told Josie. “For what is mine is yours, forever.”
“Forever’s a helluva long time, son,” his father had said. “Sometimes way too long.”
But an eternity without Josie seemed almost worse. It was easier for Emmett to remember the bitterness of the end, still too painful to remember the warmth of the beginning. Whatever he chose to remember, the circumstances remained the same: he was still here and she was still gone. The farm and Abbie were all that was left.
“What kind of grown man lives alone with his goddamned sister?”
Emmett said this to Neil Young, whom he always envisioned riding shotgun. Neil was a good listener. He didn’t always answer, but sometimes he did, so Emmett turned the music up and sailed toward the oncoming shore.
“A maid. A man needs a maid.”
“Indeed,” Emmett thought to himself.
“It’s hard to make that change . . .” Neil sang.
“Right again,” Emmett said.
He turned the truck down Roseberry Lane, away from the sandy coastline. He drove past familiar flat green farmland dotted here and there with cottages, errant tractors, and worn dairy silos dwarfed by their redwood neighbors.
The cars began to multiply as he drove closer to civilization, closer to the populated area where learning and logging had lured both the hippie and the money-hungry pioneer. Though most of Emmett’s friends had moved away, he was never interested in life outside of Hadley. He’d never seen the point. Everything he’d ever wanted was a stone’s skip away from the farm; the wider world never tugged at his chin like it did for Abbie.
Emmett sped up as he approached the airport and parked in front. The small parking lot was surprisingly empty given that there was an incoming flight. He shoved his hand into his coat pocket and pulled out the torn paper with the flight number and name of the kid, whoever he was, whatever he looked like—Abbie hadn’t elaborated—to make sure he’d arrived at the appropriate time.
“Cortez,” he read aloud with a shake of his head, wondering if Neil had reached into his pocket and scrawled it himself.
“Cortez . . . the Killer.”
• • •
Ana sat chewing the skin around her nails. It wasn’t as if she’d never been left somewhere before. She chose the most visible seat nearest to the doors of the airport entrance, reminding herself not to panic, and calmly took in her surroundings.
“So much wood,” she thought of the wall-to-wall paneling. “Like a lumberjack’s cabin.”
The airport lobby couldn’t have been more different from the vast steel blankness and harried blur of LAX. There was a deer head mounted on one wall, for instance, and only a handful of travelers milling about. One man seemed to be looking for someone in particular, scrutinizing each passenger in turn. He got the attention of the lone security guard, the very same one who had approached Ana earlier with crossed arms and pursed lips.
“I’m looking for a kid, about sixteen, name of Cortez. He was supposed to be in on the flight from L.A.,” Emmett told the security guard, who didn’t seem the slightest bit interested.
“Yeah, buddy, that flight’s been in for over half an hour.”
“See any teenage boys wandering around?”
“Nope. But there’s a girl . . .”
“Boy, Cortez something. My sister didn’t give me the last name. Typical.”
“You sure you’re not looking for a girl? Because there’s a kid been taking up the whole front bank of chairs over there. Says she’s working on a farm for the summer, but you and I both know that’s code in these parts.”
Emmett looked over at the lone figure sitting near the door. It was most definitely a girl, somewhat diminutive, though hard to tell under the oversize army jacket she was hiding underneath. He continued staring, hoping his eyes were playing tricks. She caught him looking and sat up straighter.
“That’s her,” the guard said, pointing in Ana’s direction. “Has to be. Seems like trouble if you ask me.”
“Surely this couldn’t be my ride,” Ana thought. Mrs. Saucedo said to expect a single woman named Abigail Garber who’d most likely be thrilled to see her, and not this puzzled-looking man. Ana grabbed her backpack and clutched it to her chest.
“Cortez?” the lumberjack said as he ambled over.
“Yeah, I mean, yes, I’m Ana Cortez.”
“Where’d you fly in from?”
“L.A.—the Los Angeles International Airport,” she corrected herself. “Are you Abigail Garber?”
“Do I look like Abigail Garber?”
“Well, I wouldn’t want to presume. People have all kinds of crazy names these days. Not that it’s a crazy name.”
“You’re waiting for Abigail Garber, correct?”
“I am. Sir.”
Ana held her bag tighter. Emmett nodded his head and clenched his teeth, unable to hide his frustration.
“Do you have some sort of paperwork or verification?” he asked.
“I don’t have a driver’s license if that’s what you’re asking, but I do have an ID card.”
“No, I mean papers telling me your . . . specifics.”
“No offense,” Ana said, “but I was told by Mrs. Lupe Saucedo from Los Angeles County Support Child Services that I was to wait for an Abigail Garber to pick me up and not to leave with anyone else.”
“I’m Emmett Garber, Abbie’s brother.”
“Do you have paperwork or verification?”
“This is ridiculous,” Emmett said. “If your name is Cortez and you’re waiting for Abigail Garber to take you to Garber Farm, then I’m your ride.”
Ana remained still, her eyes focused and unblinking, making it difficult for Emmett to hold her gaze. He cleared his throat and pulled a well-worn leather wallet out of his back pocket.
“The mustache is a beard now,” he said, handing over his license.
“I can see that. It’s distinguished. Like a regal lumberjack.”
“You think I look like a lumberjack?”
“Honestly, I don’t really have a frame of reference.”
“May I?” Emmett reached for Ana’s backpack but she held it close.
“If you don’t mind, sir, I’d like to hold on to it.”
“Call me Emmett, not sir,” he said, taking back his license and walking toward the doors. “Let’s go.”
Ana had no choice but to follow.
• • •
They sat in silence as the old Chevy choked its way down the highway. Emmett gripped the wheel and chewed his cheeks. Ana stared out the window. She didn’t have the same queasy feeling she’d felt in the past when situations became sticky, but she knew better than to drop her guard. She kept one eye on the towering trees, the other on the driver’s reflection in the window. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know self-defense—with or without the army knife they confiscated back at the airport in L.A.—but she liked reminding herself to remain alert, as if some familiar person was sitting next to her whispering it into her ear.
Emmett shot his hand toward the stereo, then hesitated and placed it back on the wheel. Ana edged closer to the door and slid the hand covertly hiding underneath the backpack on her lap nearer to the latch. The truck was feeling crowded—mentally, at least. Emmett had already made up his mind back at the airport, but felt it important to reiterate to his brain that the Cortez girl would not be staying. He went over the conversation he’d undoubtedly have with Abbie later. She would be the one to break the news, seeing as how she was the one who got this all wrong in the first place. Until then, he thought it best to keep the journey back to Hadley breezy yet conversationally minimal.
“Music,” Emmett announced, switching the stereo on, thinking that at least with Neil there’d be a third person in the truck.
Tall trees darkened the highway as they wound through the state park. Ana marveled at the roadside restaurants barely glowing with lamplight and the gas stations selling dream catchers and giant chainsaw-carved bears. She inhaled the cool mountain air trickling in through the crack in the window, letting it cool her nerves.
“Dark velvet,” she said.
“It looks and smells like dark velvet out there—kind of smooth and earthy yet soft with a hint of something undetectable that’ll suffocate you out if you inhale too much. I have a strong nose.”
“Looks like it.”
“Does it? You’re not the first person to point that out, but I appreciate your honesty and interest in facial aesthetics. My abuela said my nose is a mark of strength, like María Félix’s, and that I’ll grow into it one day. I’m not offended or anything; I think some of the greatest faces are marked by a distinguished nose.”
“I meant that it sounds like you have a strong sense of smell.”
“Who’s your abuela?”
Sunlight zigzagged across the dashboard as the truck crept out of the density of the forest and coasted down the hill into a canyon dotted with pine trees.
“Holy—” Ana exhaled. “This view is insane!”
“Everything’s concrete where I come from. Strip malls, buildings, metal fences, that kind of thing. But this . . . this is unreal. Magnificent even.”
“But I’m sure you’re used to it in a way that makes it harder to see its beauty. Like if you stared out at the same building every day and never noticed the new plant in the window across the street. We become blind to what waves right in front of us sometimes. I’m not suggesting you’re blind or anything, it’s more that—”
“You’re trying to fill the air?”
“Am I talking too much? I’ll shut up. It’s just, I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
The truck rattled as the road began to snake in and around the oncoming hills. Emmett turned the music up.
“It’s kind of funny you put this on,” Ana continued, raising her voice over the volume. “I mean it’s totally apt.”
“What is?” Emmett said, turning it back down again, but only slightly.
“He says he’s been to Hollywood and Redwood, then he says, ‘I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold . . .’ I didn’t cross the ocean, but I did see it for the first time from the airplane. I’ve been to Hollywood Boulevard a bunch of times, and now I’m here in the redwoods. Neil’s kind of nailin’ it right now.”
“You know Neil Young?”
“Not personally or anything, but I met this guy in the library who I’m pretty sure lived there during the day. He was always camped out at one of the music stations and suggested I check out Neil, so I did and started to get into the lyrics. We would talk about bands sometimes—Ronnie, I mean, the guy in the library—or sometimes he’d talk about crazy stuff, like Vietnam, and I’d just listen. This guy had a ton of sensational stories, volumes. Anyway, Harvest is way better than After the Gold Rush, which we both found to be a little whiny.”
“After the Gold Rush is a masterpiece.”
“But it’s like Neil’s struggling to find air when he’s singing, right? Like he’s trying to find his voice or something, and there are way too many other voices throwing themselves around. Also? Not enough harmonicas. But if we’re singling out songs, ‘Birds’ is kind of beautiful if you deafen yourself to the lyrics, which seem maudlin, even for Neil.”
Emmett snorted, or laughed; it was hard to tell.
“You went to the library to listen to Neil Young?”
“I went there because it’s quiet, but also for the free music and books. I mean it’s a library. That’s what you do there.”
“I don’t go to libraries.”
“Well, you’re missing out.”
“Not really much of a reader.”
“Or a music critic.”
Emmett turned the music back up as the truck rattled along. They descended into a valley lined with dry creek beds and withered ferns. It reminded Ana of the empty river in L.A., all cracked and concrete with a few weeds that refused to stop growing.
“Look, I know you’re going to send me back,” she said.
Emmett remained mum.
“It doesn’t take a genius of perception to read the signs, so don’t feel weird. You can just turn around and take me back to the airport or I can hitch it back to L.A. You’re not the first person to send me back almost immediately, probably won’t be the last, so no hard feelings. I’m used to it.”
Emmett inhaled audibly.
“Honestly, I don’t really want to work on a farm anyway,” she continued. “I said yes to this whole thing only because I didn’t want to go back into the system or get shuttled off to another group home, which, trust me, is like a step up from prison, or what I imagine prison is like, not that I’ve ever been, but who knows, it’s probably my destiny. I’m fully aware that my mouth gets me into trouble, and you’re completely right about me filling the air—it’s a nervous habit—but I did try to make conversation about music, which you clearly have some sort of interest in, judging by all the CD cases on the floor. It’s kind of cool that you still listen to them and that you have Creedence because ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’ is one of the most profoundly depressing songs of all time, especially if you’re a dude living or not living alone in a library in East L.A. But that’s just me. I’m not a music critic either.”
Emmett remained silent. Neil sang something about dominoes.
“I don’t know what you were expecting, but Abbie, your sister, sounded nice from what Mrs. Saucedo told me, and I saw a photo of your farm, which seems truly spectacular. What I’m trying to say is I appreciate your flying me all the way up here, and I totally get it. The ride through all of this was worth it, even for the day, just to see trees that look taller than the buildings in downtown L.A. But, like I said, I can find my own way back.”
“It’s too late to take you back. At least, today it is,” Emmett said.
“You’re here for only a month anyway,” he said out loud, wondering why he said it, because he’d already decided Ana wouldn’t be staying.
“I was told it might be for longer, but as usual it’s not my place to decide.”
“Why don’t you put on some other music,” Emmett said, wanting to change the subject. “Pick something.”
Ana eased her backpack onto the floor and fished through the CDs swimming at her feet.
“You’ve got a lot of Fleetwood Mac,” she said.
“Those aren’t mine. You can play anything you want except for those,” Emmett said, rolling down his window, airing out the front seat with early evening breeze.
Ana took a CD out of its case and popped it into the player. She turned the volume up, like Emmett seemed to like it, and resumed her dual-eyed stare out the window.
“I see the bad moon arising,” the stereo sang. “I see trouble on the way.”
Main Street widened toward the center of town. Emmett stopped the truck at a traffic light and cleared his throat. He gestured to the rest of the road in front of them and said, “Welcome to Hadley,” as the truck rolled slowly past quaint buildings that reminded Ana of the ghost town facade she once saw in a book about old Hollywood movie studios.