The Things That Keep Us Here
It was quiet coming home from the funeral. Too quiet. Ann wished Peter would say something, but there was just the soft patter of rain and the wipers squeaking back and forth across the windshield. Even the radio was mute, reception having sizzled into static miles before.
As they crossed into Ohio, Ann turned around to see why Maddie hadn't called it, and saw her seven-year-old had fallen asleep, her head tipped back and her lips parted, her book slipped halfway from her grasp. The first hour of their trip had been punctuated by Maddie asking every five minutes, Mom, what does this spell? Ann leaned back and teased the opened book from her daughter's fingers, closed it and put it on the seat beside Maddie. Kate hunched in the opposite corner, a tangle of brown hair falling over her face and obscuring her features, the twin wires of her iPod coiling past her shoulders and into her lap.
Ann turned back around. "The girls are asleep."
"Even Kate. I don't know how she can possibly sleep with her music going."
He made no reply.
"Do you know I caught her trying to sneak her iPod into the church? I don't think giving her that was such a great idea." When Peter remained silent, she went on. "It's just one more way for her to tune everyone out."
He shrugged. "She's twelve. That's what twelve-year-olds do."
"I think it's more than that, Peter."
He said nothing, simply glanced into the rearview mirror and flicked on the turn signal, glided the minivan around the slower-moving vehicle in front of them.
It was an old argument and he wasn't engaging. Still, there was something else lurking beneath his silence. She read it in his narrow focus on the highway and along the tightness of his jaw. "You all right?" Of course he wasn't.
"Just tired. It was a long weekend."
A long, horrible weekend. All those relatives crammed together in that small clapboard house, no air-conditioning, Peter's mother wandering around, plaintively asking everyone where Jerry was.
"I'm glad your brother made it."
Not yes, or yeah. Yep. He never talked like that. He was throwing up warning signs, telling her to back off. But fourteen years of marriage made her plough straight through anyway. "Everything okay between you two?"
So he wasn't going to tell her. "Bonni said she saw you and Mike arguing."
He glanced at her. So handsome her breath snagged for a moment. The strong, tanned planes of his face and the beautiful blue-green of his eyes that Kate had inherited; now he looked drawn and older than his forty years. He returned his attention to the road. She wanted to cup her hand to his cheek, but he was sending out those keep-away signals.
She crossed her arms. "Mike doesn't think it was an accident."
"Mike doesn't know what he's talking about."
"He has a point, though. It is strange your father wasn't wearing blaze orange."
"What are you suggesting, Ann? Suicide by hunter? Give me a break."
She should have, but she couldn't let it go. The questions piled up inside her, three days' worth of strangers whispering, three days of Peter's mother tugging at Ann's sleeve. "Things have gotten so bad with your mom, Peter. I had no idea. This morning, she told Maddie that her parents must be looking for her and that she'd better run along home. You should have seen the hurt look on Maddie's face." Ann shook her head. "It just breaks my heart. We can't leave her like this."
"Bonni will check in on her."
"Checking in's not enough. She needs round-the-clock care." The rain had stopped. A watery sunshine glinted through the clouds. Peter switched off the wipers. "I don't want to talk about it. Especially not with the girls in the car."
"You mean the girls who are sound asleep?"
Maybe she was pushing too hard. She leaned her forehead against the window and watched a hawk spin circles high above.
"You sure you need to go into the field tomorrow? Maybe one of your students can go in your place."
"I've got no choice. Hunters are nervous enough right now without me sending in some twenty-year-old."
"Because of the bird flu?"
"Do you think you'll find anything?"
He shifted position. "Probably. But it's not an isolated case that's a problem."
"It's a cluster of cases."
The hawk grew smaller and smaller, a smudged dot that eventually disappeared. No doubt to perch on a branch somewhere and watch for prey. "I forgot to tell you, things were so rushed Friday, but that interview came through."
"At Maddie's school?"
She nodded. "I go in next week to meet with the principal. I keep thinking, what if I don't get the job? Then I think, what if I do?"
"You'll be fine."
"I haven't worked in, God, twelve years."
"How hard can it be?"
She flashed him an irritated look but he was staring straight ahead. "It's not finger painting and Popsicle sticks, Peter."
"I just meant I know you can do it."
"It's theory and history, too. What if I teach above their heads? What if they're bored? What if Maddie hates me being her art teacher?"
"There must be some part of you that's looking forward to it."
Did she want to talk about this? "It's the whole . . . thing. I'm not sure I can do it."
"You mean, art in general?"
He heaved a sigh. She heard the impatience in it. "It's been a long time," he said.
Nine years. An eternity. A blink.
"Maybe you're ready, Ann."
"In other words, I should be ready."
He lifted his hands briefly from the steering wheel. I give up.
The hills undulated by, the woods fiery red and burnt orange. She caught glimpses of barns and houses set high and solitary. She wondered about the people who lived there, if they were lonely.
"It'd be good for you to go back to work," Peter said. "A fresh start."
She nodded, distracted. They needed the second income, what with two college tuitions coming up. And everything had gotten so frighteningly expensive, especially gas. It was costing as much to fill up the minivan as it was to take everyone out to dinner and the movies.
"Actually." He cleared his throat. "We could both use a fresh start."
She turned to him, worried by the strangeness in his voice. "Okay."
"Not okay, Ann. It hasn't been okay for a long time."
"What does that mean? What are you talking about?" But she knew. This quiet autumn day had suddenly become strange, queered by intensity and the feeling that something terrible was about to happen.
"I think we need some time apart."
She stared at his profile, speechless, feeling her heartbeat accelerate. He was suddenly a stranger to her. The seatbelt slid down her arm, she was skewed so sideways. "You don't mean that."
"I have to."
"I thought we were doing okay. Not good, but . . . better." Maybe this weekend had been the last straw. Was it just his father's death?
Or had he been thinking about this for a while? How could she not have known? How foolish she'd been, taking things for granted, being her clumsy, pushy self. She'd been too harsh about his father's death. Maybe she should have been kinder, but she'd never really liked the man.
"Dad was sixty-two. Sixty-two." Peter gripped the steering wheel, his knuckles white. "There were so many things he never got to do. So many things he put off. Going to Gettysburg. Seeing the Vietnam Memorial. Finishing that tree house for our girls. I stood there and watched them put his coffin into the ground." He leaned back and let out a breath. "I don't want to be that man. I don't want to live like he did."
She put her hand on his arm, felt the warmth of his skin. "But . . . you're not."
He shook his head. "I'm just like him, living in suspended animation, watching everything go past."
"Is this some kind of midlife crisis?"
He glanced at her. "I wish it were, sweetheart." His eyes were gentle. "Ever since the baby died"
"Don't," she said, hearing her voice sharpen, and took her hand away. She'd never forget walking into the nursery. Seeing William silent and unmoving in his crib.
"We can't even talk about it."
"This isn't talking about it. This is telling me to get over it." She twisted to look back at the girls, saw that they were still fast asleep. He didn't want to discuss his mother with them sleeping back there, but it was okay to talk about the one thing they struggled every day to get past? She felt a spark of anger at his indifference. "Which is all you've ever done."
"That's not fair. You won't let me in to do anything else. It's like you slammed all the doors shut and threw away the keys."
"I know you have." There was that horrible kind voice again. "I've tried, too. Don't you think it's time we both stopped trying, and started loving one another the way we used to?"
She stared at him. "But we can't," she said, helpless. "We're not the same people." They couldn't be that man and that woman who happily fell in love at that insanely crowded party; they couldn't be that naive twosome who thought finding each other was the hard part. She tried again. "We do love each other."
He sounded so sad. She hated this. Couldn't he understand she was doing the best she could? Couldn't he be happy with the way things were now?
He slowed to take the exit toward Columbus. They passed a cluster of gas stations, then a series of strip malls.
"But Thanksgiving's next week." A stupid thing to say. Who cared about that? She clenched her fists in her lap. It wasn't about Thanksgiving. It was deciding whether to go with his mom's traditional stuffing or her mom's walnut- apple. It was picking out the Christmas tree, loading the dishwasher, and bringing in the mail. It was waking up in the middle of the night, hearing the person breathing next to you. About knowing you weren't alone.
"We both need to move on," he said. "We can't live like this, two people afraid to be real with one another. I love you. I'll always love you." His voice was low but relentless. "I'm just not in love with you anymore."
She didn't want to hear this. She sat back and stared numbly through the glass. This was one of those hideous things that happened to other people. The fabric of her life shredded just like that, all the truths she'd clung to now melted into nothing. Everything she was or thought she was, everything she thought they were, had vanished as though they'd never been.
Another house appeared, tucked among the golden trees by the roadside. Someone was there, crouched and working in a garden. A woman. Ann watched as she straightened, lifted a hand to shade her eyes to watch them shoot past, the four of them entombed in a blue minivan and hurtling toward the unknown.
Excerpted from The Things That Keep Us Here by Carla Buckley. Copyright © 2010 by Carla Buckley. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.