She stands at the hairpin turn on Night Road.
The forest is dark here, even in midday. Ancient, towering evergreens grow in dense thickets on either side, their mossy, spearlike trunks rising high enough into the summer sky to block out the sun. Shadows lie knee-deep along the worn ribbon of asphalt; the air is still and quiet, like an indrawn breath. Expectant.
Once, this road had simply been the way home. She’d taken it easily, turning onto its potholed surface without a second thought, rarely—if ever—noticing how the earth dropped away on either side. Her mind had been on other things back then, on the minutiae of everyday life. Chores. Errands. Schedules.
Of course, she hadn’t taken this route in years. One glimpse of the faded green street sign had been enough to make her turn the steering wheel too sharply; better to go off the road than to find herself here. Or so she’d thought until today.
People on the island still talk about what happened in the summer of ’04. They sit on barstools and in porch swings and spout opinions, half-truths, making judgments that aren’t theirs to make. They think a few columns in a newspaper give them the facts they need. But the facts are hardly what matter.
If anyone sees her here, just standing on this lonely roadside in a pocket of shadows, it will all come up again. They’ll remember that night, so long ago, when the rain turned to ash …
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
—DANTE ALIGHIERI, THE INFERNO
Lexi Baill studied a Washington State map until the tiny red geographical markings shimmied in front of her tired eyes. There was a vaguely magical air about the place names; they hinted at a landscape she could hardly imagine, of snow-draped mountains that came right down to the water’s edge, of trees as tall and straight as church steeples, of an endless, smogless blue sky. She pictured eagles perched on telephone poles and stars that seemed close enough to grasp. Bears probably crept through the quiet subdivisions at night, looking for places that not long ago had been theirs.
Her new home.
She wanted to think that her life would be different there. But how could she believe that, really? At fourteen, she might not know much, but she knew this: kids in the system were returnable, like old soda bottles and shoes that pinched your toes.
Yesterday, she’d been wakened early by her caseworker and told to pack her things. Again.
“I have good news,” Ms. Watters had said.
Even half-asleep, Lexi knew what that meant. “Another family. That’s great. Thanks, Ms. Watters. ”
“Not just a family. Your family. ”
“Right. Of course. My new family. It’ll be great. ”
Ms. Watters made that disappointed sound, a soft exhalation of breath that wasn’t quite a sigh. “You’ve been strong, Lexi. For so long. ”
Lexi tried to smile. “Don’t feel bad, Ms. W. I know how hard it is to place older kids. And the Rexler family was cool. If my mom hadn’t come back, I think that one would have worked out. ”
“None of it was your fault, you know. ”
“Yeah,” Lexi said. On good days she could make herself believe that the people who returned her had their own problems. On bad days—and they were coming more often lately—she wondered what was wrong with her, why she was so easy to leave.
“You have relatives, Lexi. I found your great-aunt. Her name is Eva Lange. She’s sixty-six years old and she lives in Port George, Washington. ”
Lexi sat up. “What? My mom said I had no relatives. ”
“Your mother was … mistaken. You do have family. ”
Lexi had spent a lifetime waiting for those few precious words. Her world had always been dangerous, uncertain, a ship heading for the shoals. She had grown up mostly alone, among strangers, a modern-day feral child fighting for scraps of food and attention, never receiving enough of either. Most of it she’d blocked out entirely, but when she tried—when one of the State shrinks made her try—she could remember being hungry, wet, reaching out for a mother who was too high to hear her or too strung out to care. She remembered sitting for days in a dirty playpen, crying, waiting for someone to remember her existence.
Now, she stared out the dirty window of a Greyhound bus. Her caseworker sat beside her, reading a romance novel.
After more than twenty-six hours en route, they were finally nearing their destination. Outside, a steel-wool sky swallowed the treetops. Rain made squiggling patterns on the window, blurring the view. It was like another planet here in Washington; gone were the sun-scorched bread-crust-colored hills of Southern California and the gray crisscross of traffic-clogged freeways. The trees were steroid-big; so were the mountains. Everything seemed overgrown and wild.
The bus pulled up to a squat, cement-colored terminal and came to a wheezing, jerking stop. A cloud of black smoke wafted across her window, obscuring the parking lot for a moment; then the rain pounded it away. The bus doors whooshed open.
She heard Ms. Watters’s voice and thought move, Lexi, but she couldn’t do it. She looked up at the woman who had been the only steady presence in her life for the last six years. Every time a foster family had given up on Lexi, returned her like a piece of fruit gone bad, Ms. Watters had been there, waiting with a sad little smile. It wasn’t much to return to, maybe, but it was all Lexi knew, and suddenly she was afraid to lose even that small familiarity.
“What if she doesn’t come?” Lexi asked.
Ms. Watters held out her hand, with its veiny, twiglike fingers and big knuckles. “She will. ”
Lexi took a deep breath. She could do this. Of course she could. She had moved into seven foster homes in the past five years, and gone to six different schools in the same amount of time. She could handle this.
She reached out for Ms. Watters’s hand. They walked single file down the narrow bus aisle, bumping the cushioned seats on either side of them.
Off the bus, Lexi retrieved her scuffed red suitcase, which was almost too heavy to carry, filled as it was with the only things that really mattered to her: books. She dragged it to the very edge of the sidewalk and stood there, perched at the rim of the curb. It felt like a dangerous drop-off, that little cliff of concrete. One wrong step could break a bone or send her headlong into traffic.
Ms. Watters came up beside Lexi, opening an umbrella. The rain made a thumping sound on the stretched nylon.
One by one, the other passengers disembarked from the bus and disappeared.
Lexi looked at the empty parking lot and wanted to cry. How many times had she been in exactly this position? Every time Momma dried out, she came back for her daughter. Give me another chance, baby girl. Tell the nice judge here you love me. I’ll be better this time … I won’t forget about you no more. And every time, Lexi waited. “She probably changed her mind. ”
“That won’t happen, Lexi. ”
“It could. ”
“You have family, Lexi,” Ms. Watters repeated the terrifying words and Lexi slipped; hope tiptoed in.
“Family. ” She dared to test out the unfamiliar word. It melted on her tongue like candy, leaving sweetness behind.
A banged-up blue Ford Fairlane pulled up in front of them and parked. The car was dented along the fender and underlined in rust. Duct tape crisscrossed a cracked window.
The driver’s door opened slowly and a woman emerged. She was short and gray-haired, with watery brown eyes and the kind of diamond-patterned skin that came with heavy smoking. Amazingly, she looke d familiar—like an older, wrinkled version of Momma. At that, the impossible word came back to Lexi, swollen now with meaning. Family.
“Alexa?” the woman said in a scratchy voice.
Lexi couldn’t make herself answer. She wanted this woman to smile, or maybe even hug her, but Eva Lange just stood there, her dried-apple face turned into a deep frown.
“I’m your great-aunt. Your grandmother’s sister. ”
“I never knew my grandmother,” was all Lexi could think of to say.
“All this time, I thought you were living with your daddy’s people. ”
“I don’t have a dad. I mean, I don’t know who he is. Momma didn’t know. ”
Aunt Eva sighed. “I know that now, thanks to Ms. Watters here. Is that all your stuff?”
Lexi felt a wave of shame. “Yeah. ”
Ms. Watters gently took the suitcase from Lexi and put it in the backseat. “Go on, Lexi. Get in the car. Your aunt wants you to live with her. ”
Yeah, for now.
Ms. Watters pulled Lexi into a fierce hug, whispering, “Don’t be afraid. ”
Lexi almost hung on too long. At the last second, before it turned embarrassing, she let go and stumbled free. She went to the battered car and wrenched the door open. It rattled and pinged and swung wide.
Inside, the car had two brown vinyl bench seats, with cracked seams that burped up a gray padding. It smelled like a mixture of mint and smoke, as if a million menthol cigarettes had been smoked within.
Lexi sat as close to the door as possible. Through the cracked window, she waved at Ms. Watters, watching her caseworker disappear into the gray haze as they drove away. She let her fingertips graze the cold glass, as if a little touch like that could connect her with a woman she could no longer see.
“I was sorry to hear about your momma passing,” Aunt Eva said after a long and uncomfortable silence. “She’s in a better place now. That must be a comfort to you. ”
Lexi had never known what to say to that. It was a sentiment she’d heard from every stranger who’d ever taken her in. Poor Lexi, with her dead, drug-addict mother. But no one really knew what Momma’s life had been like—the men, the heroin, the vomiting, the pain. Or how terrible the end had been. Only Lexi knew all of that.
She stared out the window at this new place of hers. It was bold and green and dark, even in the middle of the day. After a few miles, a sign welcomed them to the Port George reservation. Here, there were Native American symbols everywhere. Carved orca whales marked the shop fronts. Manufactured homes sat on untended lots, many of them with rusting cars or appliances in the yard. On this late August afternoon, empty fireworks stands attested to the recent holiday, and a glittering casino was being built on a hillside overlooking the Sound.
Signs led them to the Chief Sealth Mobile Home Park. Aunt Eva drove through the park and pulled up in front of a yellow and white double-wide trailer. In the misty rain, it looked blurred somehow, rounded with disappointment. Plastic gray pots full of leggy, dying petunias guarded the front door, which was painted Easter-egg blue. In the front window, a pair of plaid curtains hung like fabric hourglasses, cinched in the middle with strands of fuzzy yellow yarn.
“It isn’t much,” Aunt Eva said, looking ashamed. “I rent from the tribe. ”
Lexi didn’t know what to say. If her aunt had seen some of the places Lexi had lived in her life, she wouldn’t have made excuses for this pretty little trailer. “It’s nice. ”
“Come on,” her aunt said, turning off the engine.