Yesterday, Eleanor broke 75,000 words! While in the big, big, big picture that is only a fraction of the few hundred thousand words I've written over the years, we aren't going to count all of those other words. These 75,000 represent about 2/3 – give or take – of the book's final state. (Or what will be its final state.)
To celebrate, I thought I'd share a new excerpt from my long-time work-in-progress. This passage is set in 1985, when Eleanor and her sister are almost seven years old. Chronologically, it follows the prologue, found here, which is set about twenty-two years earlier. (A very, very small scene from this excerpt has been shared before. )
The girls are six years old — just weeks away from their shared birthday — when it happens.
Agnes rushes about the house, looking for her rain boots.
“Esme,” Agnes huffs as she climbs the stairs. “Ellie — have either of you seen my galoshes?”
“They’re called rain boots, Mom,” Esmerelda shouts. “Galoshes are the things you wear over your shoes.”
“Those are called overshoes,” Agnes says.
“No, they’re —“
“Just —“ Agnes pauses on the landing, breathing hard. “Stop. Just stop.”
Esmerelda stands in the doorway of the girls’ bedroom. She shrugs, then squeezes past her mother and walks to the bathroom.
“Where’s your sister?” Agnes asks.
“Attic,” Esmerelda says, and shuts the bathroom door.
Agnes sighs irritably and raps on the door with her knuckle. “Make it fast in there,” she says. “Your father’s going to be waiting at the airport for us.”
“Whatever,” Esmerelda says, her voice muffled by the door.
Agnes pounds the door sharply with her fist. “Young lady, you’re too young for ‘whatever’,” she snaps. “Save it until you’re thirteen. What are you doing in there?”
Esmerelda doesn’t answer. Agnes turns and leans against the wall and presses her fists against her eyes and drops her mouth open in a hushed scream. Then she straightens up, pushes off of the wall, and unclenches her hands slowly, stretching her narrow fingers wide until they tingle slightly. She takes a deep breath, exhales.
“One thing at a time,” she says softly. “One thing, one thing.”
She stands there for a moment, almost swaying on her feet, eyes still closed.
Then she opens them, and goes to the attic door and opens it.
“Ellie!” she shouts up the stairs. “You better be ready!”
Eleanor sits alone in her father’s workshop, studying the tiny, unfinished house. It’s dim in the attic. The rain has turned the world outside to pleasant gray. She prefers days like this to any other kind of day. There is no sunshine, just rain. At age six, her favorite word is ‘inclement’. She uses it whenever she can, having learned it from her first school closure of the year. Today can certainly be described as inclement.
But the light spilling through the circular window at the far end of the attic is too pale, too removed from the work bench, and Eleanor cannot see the details of her father’s latest project. Reluctantly, she reaches up to the lamp and snaps it on. A warm orange glow floods the workspace, and the small house before her casts a long brown shadow across the table.
She can see it clearly now, and can almost pick out the last part her father painted. There’s a hardened dollop of blue paint beneath one tiny window sill. She can picture his careful, deliberate brush stroke. He would have realized that there was too much paint on the brush. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have dabbed the excess paint on the mouth of the small bottle, but he had probably been in a hurry, in which case she could imagine him stroking the exterior of the house this way, then that way, and working the extra blob of paint into the narrow crevice beneath the window sill, where it was mostly hidden from view, a secret that only she can share with him.
The rest of the house is well-constructed. She thinks it is probably her father’s best work yet. The floor plan is creative and different from the houses that she draws during art hour at school. Her houses are single-room blocks with leaning doors and lumpy rooftops. Her father’s are split-level constructions, sometimes with elaborate windows that reach from the floor to the ceiling of a room.
Her favorite days were spent in the attic with him, perched on the stool on the other side of the table. She would be careful to stay out of his light. He would pull the lamp to his eye and peer through the magnifying lens at the house, delicately pressing the skeleton bones of the structure into the styrofoam foundation with tweezers.
“Why do you make little houses?” she had asked him, once.
“Well,” he had answered, slowly, drawing the words out as he fit a miniature chimney stack into place, “because I’m not a very good architect.”
“What’s an architect?”
He’d smiled at her without looking up. “Someone who designs buildings. They say where everything goes and what it looks like.”
“Why aren’t you a good one?”
“I’m not a very good student,” he confessed. “You have to be a good student to be a good architect.”
“Oh,” Eleanor had replied. Then she said, “But you make pretty houses.”
“Well, thank you, sweetheart.”
She’d watched him a little longer, then asked, “What’s your work instead?”
“You know the answer to that,” he said. “What does Daddy do for a job?”
Eleanor bit her lip. “Real cheese.”
“Realty,” he corrected.
“I know,” she said, then laughed. “Real cheese is funnier.”
But she had sensed his discomfort with the topic. At six years old, she wasn’t able to parse the subtext of that conversation, but years later she would understand that her father had failed at achieving his dream, and that he comforted himself by getting as close to it as possible. Instead of designing homes, he tries to sell them. And at night and early in the mornings, he built tiny homes in the attic of their house.
She studies the unfinished house on the table now and marvels at the microscopic detail — the insect-sized staircase leading to the front door, the little brass knocker on the door itself. Her favorite part is the lawn and trees, something her father’s houses didn’t always include, but which this one does. The lawn spreads wide around the roofless home, rolling with little hills and small trees. The driveway is empty, but a perfect little mailbox stands at the end of it.
Down the attic stairs, the second-floor door bangs open. Eleanor jumps, jostling the little house in her hands.
Her mother calls upstairs. “Ellie! You better be ready!”
“I’m ready, Mom,” she shouts back.
“Good,” her mother answers.
Eleanor hears the door creak as Agnes begins to close it again, but then the sound stops.
“You shouldn’t be up here without your father,” her mother adds. “Come on down, now.”
Eleanor jumps down from the stool. It rocks under her bottom, and she takes a moment to steady it before heading downstairs.
That’s when she notices the mailbox, its post snapped clean in half.
The attic door opens a little more, and Eleanor comes out, looking sheepish.
“You know your dad wouldn’t like you being up there alone,” Agnes says.
Eleanor nods meekly, and stares at the floor.
“No time for moping,” Agnes says. “I can’t find my galoshes.”
“Your rain boots?” Eleanor asks. “They’re by the back door.”
Agnes shifts her jaw and goes into her thoughts, then snaps her fingers. “That’s right — I was covering the petunias.”
Eleanor turns to go back into her room, but Agnes puts a hand on her shoulder.
“No goofing off,” she says to her daughter. “I need you both downstairs. We’re late.”
Paul is returning from Boca Raton in just under two hours. He had complained to Agnes on the phone last night that he’d only seen the inside of the Holiday Inn — his room, the banquet hall where the realty seminar was being held — for six days straight. He had put postcards in the mail, little quaint photographs of gulls on the sterns of sailboats, funny pictures of elderly women in bathing suits, but none had arrived yet.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Agnes had said. “You’re in Florida. It’s your own damn fault if you can’t find the beach.”
She knew the strain in her voice was obvious. Paul had taken this trip despite knowing that she was reaching her limits — he had traveled three times last month, and there were his regular nights drinking with Barn, and a few late showings in the new beachfront development — but he went anyway. Maybe he didn’t know how little patience Agnes had to work with in the beginning. Maybe he couldn’t tell that it was running out.
“How are things going?” he’d asked.
But her problems wouldn’t matter much to him. The walls of his hotel room were so close to his face that he couldn’t see past them. Agnes and her problems weren’t real, not until he got home again and they were something he had to confront and solve.
“When you get home,” Agnes answered, “I’m driving to Portland, and I might spend all of your money on wine and a suite of my own. And I might not ever come back.”
But she had hung up on him, and her frustration hadn’t diminished overnight.
She scurries downstairs now. On the landing behind her she can hear the bathroom door open, and Eleanor and Esmerelda murmuring together. Agnes takes the bottom step with a hop and almost falls down. The red runner that covers the hardwood floor bunches up under her feet, and she slides and grabs at the banister.
She steadies herself, and kicks the runner flat again.
Her boots are exactly where Eleanor had said they were, like little sentries beside the sliding glass door. It’s one thing off of her back, and she exhales slowly. The glass is cool and she rests her forehead against it and watches the rain falling in the backyard. Her breath fogs the glass, and then the fog quickly retreats when she inhales. Then it comes back with the next breath.
The backyard was supposed to be her place — her version of Paul’s attic. The petunias are lined up carefully beneath the plastic cover she put out the night before, safe from the rain, but now she doesn’t care. They’re only flowers. If they’d been destroyed by the rain, what would it matter? Paul would only tell her to get some more from the nursery. He wouldn’t consider the care she’d put into them, teasing them out of the ground, transforming them from hard bulbs into delicate, lovely paintings.
She’s serious about the hotel room in Portland.
Upstairs the girls are fighting. She can hear the murmur of their voices carry through the ceiling.
She should go up and pull them apart, but the glass feels nice against her skin, and her hair hangs around her face, separating her from the world outside, creating a small space that is all her own. She lets the glass fog over. She can feel the chill radiating off of it, and each breath she lets out is warm and slow. The contrast between the temperatures is delightful.
Agnes closes her eyes. A lifetime of rainy mornings like this one. They are beautiful in their own cold way, but they burrow into her and turn her into somebody else. An angry mother, a lost child. Every rainy morning reminds her of her mother.
What little she remembers of her.
Agnes pushes away from the glass door. She slips her feet into her boots. They slide in comfortably. The rubber creaks. She sighs again. Her shoulders are tight. Her head has begun to pound. She reminds herself to breathe — in, out, slowly, slowly — but the migraine will come along anyway, and there is nothing to be done about it.
She goes to the foot of the stairs and calls again for the girls.
They appear at the top, disheveled, elbowing each other for standing too close. They’ve been fighting.
“Get your coats,” she tells them. “We’re late.”
She presses her thumbs against her temples gently and moves them in circles. The girls reappear and thunder down the stairs. Agnes winces.
This is not the time for one of her headaches.
She takes her own raincoat from the peg beside the front door and puts it on. She leaves it open, because it’s a stiff coat, and getting into the car is difficult when it is zipped up. Her purse hangs on another peg, and she grabs it, too, then reaches instinctively for the small foyer table. Her fingers meet the empty surface, and she looks down.
“Keys,” she says, looking around.
The girls are standing beside her in their coats, Esmerelda’s purple, Eleanor’s blue. Esmerelda is holding the ring of keys on one finger.
Agnes exhales in a rush. “Thank you,” she says. “Are we ready?”
She looks again at her daughters. Esmerelda has a book in one pocket of her coat. Eleanor has a spiral notebook and a pencil case. Given time to themselves, the girls often retreat into their own worlds in exactly this way. Esmerelda reads books that she has sneaked from her parents’ stash, tired of her Nancy Drew mysteries, and Eleanor draws elaborate pencil maps, underground tunnels full of misdirection and booby traps.
“What book did you take?” Agnes asks.
Esmerelda looks away. “Oh, just a book. It’s nothing.”
Agnes lets it go. She had discovered a copy of The Shining under Esmerelda’s pillow a few weeks earlier, and had interrogated the girl. As it turned out, Esmerelda didn’t understand most of what she was reading, but she understood the Danny parts of the story. To her, The Shining seemed to be the story of a boy who got to play all day in an empty hotel. It sounded like an adventure.
“Let’s get going, then,” Agnes says.
She opens the door and takes a surprised step back. In the short time since she put her boots on, the rain has become a torrent, thundering down on the lawn and driveway as if the earth itself might crack in two. She ushers the girls onto the front porch with her, and locks the front door.
“Count of three?” Eleanor asks, looking up at Agnes.
“Go now,” Agnes says, putting a hand on each girl’s back and pushing them towards the porch steps.
The three of them run squealing into the rain. It pounds on their thin coats. Their boots splash in lakes that have formed on the driveway. The blue Subaru gleams in the pale storm light.
“In, in, in!” Agnes shouts over the rain.
The doors are locked.
They scream and run back to the safety of the porch, breathing hard, their faces slick and wet. Esmerelda stomps in place.
“Follow me in five seconds,” Agnes says.
She turns and darts to the car. Her hood falls away, and her hair instantly darkens and fastens itself to her skin in long heavy tendrils. She jams the key into the lock and yanks the door open and heaves herself into the driver’s seat. She slams the door behind her and sits, stunned. The girls appear at the windows a moment later, yelling and pounding on the glass. Agnes snaps out of her momentary haze and throws the locks.
The girls climb inside without indulging their customary battle for the front seat. Agnes drags her palms down her face, squeegeeing water off of her skin. The girls settle in, shaking like puppies. Eleanor is in the front seat. Esmerelda is in the back.
“Buckle,” Agnes says.
She starts the car and slides the heater control to full in one motion. The engine thrums to life, and the vents blast cold air. Eleanor pushes the vents towards the ceiling.
“Are we late?” Esmerelda asks.
Agnes turns to answer, then flinches as a drop of water smacks her in the eye. She tilts her head back and inspects the ceiling. The cloth lining is dark, soaked through. Water collects slowly into a fat bead, then falls onto her.
“Fuck,” Agnes says.
“Mom!” Eleanor gasps.
“Yes, alright?” Agnes says, a little more angrily than she had intended. She yanks the stick into reverse, then turns, snaking one arm over the back of Eleanor’s seat. She pushes the gas, and the Subaru rattles down the drive and arcs into the street. “We’re very, very late.”
“And the rain doesn’t help,” Eleanor adds.
“Right,” Agnes says.
She drives as fast as she dares through the neighborhood, then wrenches the car onto the avenue that will carry them through town to the highway. After a moment of driving, Eleanor folds open her notebook and continues drawing a map that looks like a cross-section of a militant ant hill. In the back seat, Esmerelda unbuckles and slides closer to the window, then buckles herself in again. She watches the passing cars, then focuses on the steam on the window. With her fingernail, in very tiny print, she writes her mother’s swear word in the steam. Then she quickly erases it. She takes out her book — this time it is Jaws. She turns to the part of the book where Hooper and Brody’s wife begin their affair, curious at the words there and what they mean.
The road hisses under the car, and every passing car sends up a fan of water that lands on the Subaru with a staccato splash. The girls, accustomed to these sorts of storms, don’t look up from their diversions.
Agnes follows the coast road to the highway. She only takes this road when they must drive to Portland. She tries not to look when the rows of houses and scruffy fields of pine fall away and the rocky beaches spread out beside the ocean, but it isn’t easy, and eventually she looks anyway. They have already driven past the pier where her father borrowed the row boat, and the section of beach where her mother would dive into the sea for her daily swim. But she can still see Huffnagle looming out there on the horizon, a dark, knotted form, its hunched back scraping at the black clouds above.
Anchor Bend is small and sits on Oregon’s coastline like a burl on a redwood, knobby and hard. It is a postcard town, nestled into the pines, quiet and unassuming. Its sunsets are spectacular, its mornings gloomy and drenched with fog. The town was built to serve the sea, and during the second war, it thrived, coming into its own as a small-market port. Thousands of tons of machinery left America through the tiny keyhole of Anchor Bend. Engines for troop transports, windshields and doors for command vehicles — even the occasional wing structure for a bomber. Those were good years, and as the sea became a very good customer, the fisheries and canneries followed. Working families flocked to the town, and it swelled from ts original population of two thousand to nearly thirty-seven thousand in just two years.
These days the docks and warehouses are still there, battered and rusted but standing, though the fisheries are gone, moved up the coast into Washington. A fire had torn through the industrial district, reducing the two largest fisheries to ash and cinder. Management had opted not to rebuild, and their scorched lots stand empty even now.
Anchor Bend recalls its populous, profitable past, but has very little pride left. Entire suburbs stand empty. Street after street of unoccupied homes, some of them condemed, most sagging and growing old in small, unnoticeable ways. The herd has thinned, and fewer than twelve thousand people remain within the town’s borders. Most are simply holding on until a better life someplace else beckons.
It is a strange town for a realtor. Nobody at Paul’s annual conference can tell him how to sell a home in a town where empty houses lie discarded on the side of the road like crushed cans.
Anchor Bend is no short distance from the Portland airport, where Paul’s plane has arrived unexpectedly early. The flight had knocked him around like a tennis shoe in a dryer. Putting the plane on the ground safely had been a terrific feat, and when Paul bumps into the pilot in the terminal, he surprises himself by congratulating the man.
“You have no idea how close we came,” the captain whispers, his white cap tucked under one arm, his collar loose. He shakes his head and grins. “Kidding, of course. Bit rough back in coach, I imagine.”
Paul looks at his watch. “I’ve got some time to kill,” he says. “Can I buy you a drink?”
They enjoy a couple of beers in an airport pub that fancies itself an old English drinking hole. It is called the Peat & Pear, though there is nothing earthy or particularly fruity about the place. Its walls are covered with illustrations of biplanes turning lazy circles over black-and-white meadows. The pub is little more than a hollowed-out nook in the concourse, with a few sticky tables and a short bar with bolted-on stools.
The captain’s name is Mark, and he regales Paul with stories of troublemaker passengers and bad weather landings, and when the two men finish their first beer, Paul glances at the clock over the bar. It is still early yet — his flight had been scheduled to land at four, and it is ten minutes til. Agnes and the girls should be here by four-fifteen. Time enough for a second beer.
At twenty minutes past, Paul and Captain Mark abandon their stools and walk slowly to the arrivals ramp. The sidewalk zone in front of the airport is strangely empty, and Agnes’s Subaru is nowhere to be seen. Paul leans out and watches the horizon, but the car does not materialize. Agnes is not driving in slow circles around the airport waiting for him.
“Wife late?” Captain Mark asks.
“Little bit,” Paul says. He turns and looks back and spies a clock over the United desk. Four twenty-five now.
“Probably traffic,” says the captain. “Saw lots of it on approach.”
Outside the world is gray and opaque. The large windows welcoming travelers into the airport are beginning to fog over, and water trickles down them in long, slow streams. He can barely make out planes on the distant runway, lining up, awaiting their turn to leave the Earth.
Paul nods. “Yeah. You’re probably right.”
But his world sways a little on its axis.
“Can we stop?” Esmerelda asks in the back seat.
Eleanor doesn’t glance up. The scenery rushes by, wet and gray and chalky, and she hardly notices. She bites her lip as she draws, carefully threading a single gray line down the sheet of paper, then pairing another beside it. The entry tunnel. She pauses, studying it, seeing something taking shape on the page that nobody else would see if they were to look. She erases bits of pencil, making little notches in the pair of lines, unevenly spaced. Then she draws little angled lines forking away from the first two, flanking each of the gaps. Secondary tunnels.
This continues for a time as she builds the spine of her underground bunker. The primary tunnel is wider than the others, and will carve deeply into the graphite earth around it. This tunnel will be a distraction, a red herring. It will appear to be the important corridor, will appear to lead to the secret stash she’ll bury somewhere in the map, but in truth, one of the dozen forked paths will be the truly meaningful hallway.
“Can we stop?” Esmerelda asks again.
Eleanor looks up and sees the fog beginning to swamp the highway ahead of them. The trees become thin and faded, the fog catching high in their branches, trapped like some ghostly predator caught up in a green net.
“I like the fog,” she says to nobody in particular.
“Nobody cares,” Esmerelda retorts. “Mooo-oomm, can we stop? I have to pee.”
“We’re almost through,” Agnes replies. Her hands are pale on the wheel. There hasn’t been a moment of sunlight during the drive. This is the first moment of respite from the rain. “Let’s get to the airport and you can go there.”
“It’s so far,” Esmerelda complains.
Eleanor sighs at her sister’s childishness. “Grow up, Esme.”
“You grow up,” Esmerelda snaps.
In the back seat there is a metal snick as Eleanor’s sister unfastens her seat belt and scoots to the middle. A moment later Esmerelda pops up between the two front seats like a Jack-in-the-box, clutching at her mother’s sleeve.
“I really, really have to pee,” she moans.
Eleanor elbows Esmerelda in the shoulder. “Get out of the way,”
“You get out of the way,” Esmerelda says.
Which infuriates Eleanor, because how could she be in the way? She is the one sitting in her seat, buckled up, exactly where she is supposed to be. Esmerelda is the one tumbling around in the car like an escaped hedgehog.
“Sit down,” Agnes barks, and both girls recognize the fractured timbre of her voice. This is Agnes when the world seems to be closing in around her — Eleanor doesn’t know the word stress just yet, but if she did, she would recognize that her mother is very, very stressed-out.
Esmerelda moves into the back seat, sullen. “If I pee the seat, it’s not my fault,” she mutters, but such is the mood in the car now that nobody replies.
Eleanor casts a furtive glance at her mother. Agnes’s jaw is clenched as tightly as her hands on the wheel, and it makes Eleanor think that driving must be very hard, because her mother looks as if she’s being crushed into a tiny ball.
The fog crashes in like a wave, then, and Eleanor returns to her map as the Subaru becomes a space ship in some pale cosmic ocean.
Highway 26 curves inland from the Oregon coast, a narrow ribbon that winds through miles of tall trees and more miles of golden fields that roll away towards the mountains. It is on its best days a beautiful, scenic route, and on days like this, it is a tightrope strung into nothingness. Agnes feels like a circus performer on that rope, barely able to see the wire at her feet, two unruly monkeys perched on her shoulders.
Her hands are beginning to ache, so she opens them with her palms against the wheel. Her fingers crack like ice in warm water, which makes her feel a little better.
“Seriously,” Esmerelda says again.
Agnes takes a long, slow breath and lets it out before she responds. “You really can’t hold it?”
“I really, really can’t,” comes the reply.
Agnes glances up at the rear view mirror, then tilts it with one hand so she can see her daughter. Esmerelda is buckled into her seat behind Eleanor, knees tucked up to her chin, arms tightly cinched around her legs.
“We’ve already passed most of the stops,” Agnes says. “Can you hold it? I’ll stop first place at the bottom of the hill.”
“Mom!” Eleanor shouts from the passenger seat, and Agnes feels a spike of fear in her heart and whips her attention back to the highway.
There’s nothing worth shouting about. The cars ahead of the Subaru are braking, a little river of red lights rising out of the fog. After a moment of deep breaths to calm back down, Agnes sees why.
The fog begins to shred, torn into floating gobs of cotton by the rain, which starts again in earnest. It’s as if a dam somewhere has given way. The water comes down in heavy sheets. The Subaru’s hood and roof thrum angrily beneath the downpour.
“Don’t do that,” Agnes says, feeling the rush of alarm and adrenaline fade. “You could make me have an accident.”
The rain robs her of sight once more. It is impenetrable, and she loses the shape of the cars ahead. She can see the tail lights of the one just before her, but little past that.
“Mom, I really have to —“
“Shut up,” Agnes says, and her voice is hard and heavy, and the girls both lapse into an aching silence.
Highway 26 weaves through Hillsboro and Beaverton on its path to Portland, eventually diving down a steep, winding grade, then finally pushing its way through a mountain tunnel. The grade is often jammed with drivers who seem unnerved by the sweeping curves, possibly confused by the trifecta of exits, by the enormous yellow sign that reads SLOW, festooned with blinking amber lights. In the lane beside the Subaru, a steady stream of vehicles drive by much too quickly. Their drivers seem oblivious to the signs that order them to remain in their designated lanes — No passing for next 1 mile — and this drives Agnes’s heart rate up considerably. She can hear the blood pounding in her ears, overtaking the sounds of the world, overtaking the angry march of the rain on the shell of the car.
Agnes guides the Subaru into the far left lane, which hugs a concrete barrier, and slows the car to almost nothing at all. She worries about the brakes on the grade — they’re wet, and they’ve been a little creaky lately, regardless — but finds herself distracted, a little, by the driver to her right. The woman is stunningly old, her skin a crumpled brown paper bag, her hair a pale robin’s nest. She drives a twenty-year-old Volvo and is riding her brakes, which Agnes can hear even above the rain — the Subaru’s brakes may be in bad shape, but the Volvo’s sound like rusted metal on metal. The driver hugs the steering wheel to her chest. She’s so small she might not even be in her seat any more. Agnes can almost imagine the woman standing in front of the wheel, both feet jammed forward on the brakes, so far from her that she can barely peer over the dashboard —
“MOM,” Eleanor says.
The car directly in front of the Subaru has corkscrewed to a stop, its rear end angled from a skid. Agnes lays into her brakes with everything she has. For the first time ever, they lock, and the Subaru slides down the steep road like a sled on ice.
“No,” Agnes says, her voice calmer than she might have expected. “No, no, no.”
She throws an arm out instinctively, pinning Eleanor to her seat. In the back of the car, Esmerelda makes a sound like a quiet owl, a long, low whistle.
Agnes has enough time to see the old woman in the Volvo notice what is happening beside her. The old woman’s eyes widen, and Agnes has enough time to think, rather selfishly, that this should be happening to the Volvo, not the Subaru, to the old woman who has lived a thousand years, not to this young family of hers.
And then, like a break in a hurricane, everything is okay.
The Subaru’s tires catch gravel in the tiny furrow between the driving lane and the concrete embankment, and that’s enough. The car grips the road again, lurching to the right just a bit, correcting its misdirected slide. If not for that almost balletic turn, the Subaru might have rear-ended the car ahead — a pickup, Agnes notices now for the first time, with one of those gaudy roll bars in the bed, big spotlights mounted at the corners — but instead the Subaru straddles the white line of the shoulder, its front wheels right next to the pickup’s bed.
“Shit,” Eleanor says, her voice tiny and mouselike.
Agnes turns to look at her daugher, perhaps to correct her, but there is no time. She lowers her arm, releasing Eleanor. Agnes can feel her heart threatening to punch right through her chest, can taste again the bitter smart of adrenaline on her tongue. She says, “Are you okay?” and Eleanor nods slowly, and Agnes turns to the back seat to ask Esmerelda the same question, and the words catch in her throat, because she sees the moving van and there’s not even time to say, “No,” not even time for Esmerelda to turn and see it coming, there is only time for Agnes to want to do those things, and then it happens, and it cannot be undone.
Eleanor sees the moving van reflected in the Subaru’s side mirror. It surges out of the mist like a breaching whale, thin foggy tendrils curling quickly away from the hulking machine. Its windshield is a dusty gray color, and the Subaru is a dark reflection in the glass, and in that dark space Eleanor can almost see the man inside the U-Haul. This moment feels very slow to her, but it happens faster than Eleanor can blink.
The van hits the Subaru with terrific force. The station wagon lunges forward against its will, pistoning deeper into the tapering space between the pickup truck and the concrete highway divider, and then, with nowhere left to go, the transferred momentum of the collision lifts the Subaru’s backside into the air. The moving fan, braking but moving too fast to stop, plows into the vacated space beneath the car, and when the Subaru falls, its weight bends the U-Haul forward, twisting the metal cab frame and shattering the windshield.
Eleanor is pitched forward as if she weighs nothing at all, and the dashboard of the Subaru rises up to meet her, and then she is asleep, tossed into a sea of darkness that closes over her in an instant.
It happens so quickly, and is over so abruptly, that for a moment traffic soldiers on, pouring down the steep hill, the other drivers only dimly aware that something has gone wrong.