The sight of a vintage VW bug dredged Djuna Pearson from memory. "Ladybug," Djuna said into Celia's ear as casually as ever, as if this were not the first time that voice had been heard in twenty-one years. Downtown Chicago streamed around Celia in a blur of wing tips and pumps. She stared, seasick, at the gleam of a discarded foil wrapper. When Celia shut her eyes, Djuna materialized behind her closed lids, the two of them sharing the backseat of Mrs. Pearson's Volvo, posting lookout for their favorite car. "Ladybug," Djuna called, and at the sound of that familiar, long-forgotten voice, a false wall crumbled to reveal a maze of other rooms, Djuna standing at the center of each one.
Djuna Pearson had appeared at the desk in front of Celia on the first day of fifth grade, the new girl's dark ponytail tied back with ribbon, stray hairs feathering a slender nape like enameled porcelain. Djuna had excellent posture, and for this Celia decided to hate her. By the second week of school they were friends of an intensity that summoned hangers-on. Their three most ardent satellites were Josie; Leanne; and Becky, the best friend Djuna had replaced. At any given moment Djuna and Celia were a party the others were desperate to attend, or a traffic accident too spectacular to avoid.
As the last pedestrians left the curb, the walk sign counted three, two, one. Celia remained in place, replaying the culmination of a playground argument as if it were a home movie.
It had been windy and Celia was wearing her favorite hat, the one with the yellow pompon. With each gust the pompon shifted--a slight, ticklish feeling, as if a bird had chosen the top of Celia's head to make its nest. Djuna had stood facing Celia, the tips of their noses not six inches apart. It must have been Djuna's turn to be outraged because her face was so contorted that her chapped bottom lip had started to bleed. When she yelled, "Your hat is stupid!" Celia heard the words, felt the heat of Djuna's fury, but had been more interested in watching the fissure in the stretched, pink skin at the bottom curve of her best friend's mouth turn a darker shade of red. Celia remembered the pause, her utter calm before replying, "Your lips are ugly," as if it were a fact to be memorized for a test later on. Djuna spun away, her ponytail slicing an angry arc through the air. When she turned around to scream, "I hate you!" bodies stilled across the blacktop, recess paused to pay homage to a greater power.
Their reconciliations involved passed notes and the pretense that nothing had happened. During the lulls between storms, they spent hours playing in Djuna's room, pretending at belonging to a vast family of orphaned sisters drawn on successive pages of a spiral-bound notebook. Djuna designed the clothes, elaborate ensembles of petticoats and lace that resembled wedding cakes. Celia drew heads that were mostly hair and eyes. One of these afternoons returned to her, a sensory snapshot. She had been staying for dinner and could recall the scent of Mrs. Pearson's cooking wafting upstairs. Residual light from the fading day had cast Djuna's features in pale grays, making her seem like a statue of a girl brought temporarily to life. They sat on Djuna's bed contemplating a notebook page thick with sisters, the pair meant to represent them the most beautifully drawn of all. "We will never be closer to anyone than we are to each other right now," Djuna vowed, to which Celia had agreed with all the certainty eleven years of life could provide. Twenty-one years later, she realized it was still true.
When the walk sign returned, Celia crossed with everyone else, then stopped at the opposite curb to stare at the corner she'd left behind. It was the same instinct that drove others to mark the scenes of accidents and crimes with homemade wooden crosses, with photos and candles. Memorials created the illusion of a sympathetic landscape. Celia looked for some fresh stain, or a crack in the pavement, but saw nothing to mark the demise of her previous self.
Spring had scrapped the need for a jacket, and a breeze snaked inside Celia's sleeve. In the heat of the afternoon, she and Djuna had fashioned their coats into capes in order to streak downhill from the bus, arms outthrust, their coat capes flapping behind them. When Celia didn't slouch, they were the same height but Djuna's arms were longer. Djuna had double-jointed fingers and could waggle each fingertip at its top knuckle. At the bottom of the hill they would throw themselves onto the nearest lawn. Djuna insisted that she could hear the grass grow when she pressed her ear to the ground.
It was not yet nine a.m. and Celia wanted to close her eyes and be draped over a shoulder to be carried home like a sleep-clobbered child. Instead she used her reflection in a storefront window to examine a softer, more impressionable landscape. Her nose and chin had sharpened, and her hair was darker than it once had been. She had lost the baby fat that had once made her cheeks pinchable, but her eyes were the same pale blue. Djuna could have dowsed from those features a smaller face now outgrown. Celia searched the opposite corner one last time, hoping to conjure Djuna from that single remembered word, but the voice she had heard was light from an extinguished star.
Above the doors of Celia's destination, state of illinois building was carved in stone, those words a former title belt worn in reverse reflection by the mirrored facade of the new champion across the street. The Thompson Center contained an El station, a shopping mall, and most of the state agencies that had once endowed its older neighbor. Celia's building was called the Bilandic now, demoted to glorifying a former mayor, the Illinois Auditor General's office the most distinguished among the agencies it had retained. Celia had always preferred her building, but had the Auditor General's office moved with the rest, she would not have been on the street that morning. Like the personnel of the Lottery Department and the Elections Board, she would have traveled from the El station to her office door without ever having to step outside. She would not have seen the red car. For the rest of her life she might have enjoyed the illusion that she was no more monstrous than anybody else.
I think, therefore I am is too vague. We are, because we remember. As each new present blinks out, its heart is weighed and then judged, preserved in mental amber or consumed. Before, Celia's memory had functioned present but hidden, as necessary and neglected as a pancreas or a spleen. Now it had revealed itself to be a twenty-one-year cheat.
Celia crossed the lobby, rode the elevator, and arrived at her office the way it is possible to drive for miles hypnotized by the highway, then found herself standing at the receptionist's desk with Helene, Gary, Gloria, and Steven all staring at her.
"Celia?" Helene asked. Celia felt a hand on her arm. "Are you okay?"
Celia turned toward the voice as five fugitive words came out of hiding. "My best friend is dead," she said.
By the next day, Celia was on an eastbound plane. Her window seat represented the culmination of Helene's instruction to go home, to take compassionate leave for the funeral it had been assumed she would need to attend. Every intervening moment--the previous morning's backward commute on the outbound El; the moment Celia told Huck about Djuna; the awkward phone call to her parents; the last-minute purchase of her plane ticket home--all these had felt unsurvivable until she had survived them. The dogs had helped. During the dim, empty hours leading up to the time of Huck's return, Celia had lain less asleep than in a state of suspended animation, succored by the sound of Bella's steady breathing and Sylvie's warmth beside her on the bed. The dogs had met Huck at the front door, then lain at Celia's feet as she told Huck what she remembered, speaking into the crook of his arm as if to protect her words from exposure to light.
All five of them--Celia, Djuna, Becky, Josie, and Leanne--were supposed to have gone home on their respective buses, but walking had been that day's buried fulcrum, the shared secret around which the rest of the day had turned. Jensenville Elementary lay along a wooded, curving two-lane road with no sidewalks, its sole pedestrian the occasional doomed possum. Rumors of the woods abounded. The forest was said to conceal an abandoned stable with a haunted horse skeleton; a derelict quarry filled with glowing water; a moldy mansion from inside which a warlock lured children with promises of candy and then beat them with his belt. They had refuted these stories and then repeated them word for word. They were frightened of the woods and in love with being frightened. To walk along Ripley Road was an unthinkable transgression that could not be denied once it had been conceived.
Celia and Djuna had been fighting, their anger so sharp that after twenty-one years the memory still made Celia flinch. The force of their argument had propelled them past the others and around a curve, nothing but road and trees stretching in either direction. The gravel shoulder along the road's edge was just wide enough to walk two abreast, but Djuna pulled ahead of Celia and veered into the woods. They had fought so often, over the littlest things, that the cause of that day's fury had merged in Celia's mind with the sound of fracturing underbrush as she threaded her way between trees in an attempt to follow. So much could have happened differently. If Celia had taken the same path as Djuna, she might have seen what was coming. Had Djuna entered the woods at a different point, she might have avoided the danger. Had they not been fighting to begin with, they might not have left the road. In any of those instances, the afternoon would have been indistinguishable from countless others.
Instead, Celia watched Djuna fall. One minute she was there, and the next the earth had swallowed her up.
Celia may have called into the silence. She may have stood there, waiting for Djuna to rise from the undergrowth. Maybe she meant to teach Djuna a lesson. Perhaps she thought her most secret, shameful wish had just come true. The unadult mind is immune to logic or foresight, unschooled by consequence, and endowed with a biblical sense of justice. The only thing more appalling to Celia than these excuses was the child's act they contrived to explain. When Djuna failed to reappear or make a sound of any kind, Celia had not tried to help. Instead she'd retraced her own path through the trees to return to the road, then back around the curve to where Josie, Becky, and Leanne were still waiting. She told them that Djuna had gotten into a stranger's car, and they had nodded like a trio of marionettes, the first in a town of fifty thousand to believe her.
Celia had envisioned a spectrum of doomsday scenarios to accompany her confession. None were remotely fulfilled. Huck certainly didn't leave her. Instead, at the moment she had been dreading, he became very still. "Oh dear," he had said like a nineteenth-century schoolgirl, surprise making him demure. It had taken only a few seconds for the Huck she knew to return--sensible, fast-thinking Huck who specialized in contingencies--but the immediate effect of Celia's words was to render him rudderless, a sight almost as frightening as anything she had forecast. Not until she was lying insomniac in Huck's arms did she realize why she had gotten him so wrong. The eleven-year-old girl she had described to Huck was a stranger. Only Celia recognized that girl and what she had done. Neither the sound of Bella nor the cradle of Huck's exuded warmth had trumped the loneliness of that knowledge, a secret she did not wish to keep.
On Celia's annual Christmas trips home with Huck, the packed holiday plane felt like a multifamily station wagon, the stewardess dispensing extra packets of snack mix to stave off are-we-there-yets. Today's flight was half empty, and rather than bartering with Huck for the window, Celia had a row of seats to herself. The first time she had ever flown back east had been with him, her solo drive condensed to a trip the length of a Hollywood movie. She'd been reluctant to give up seven hundred miles of highway, her progress measured in tanks of gas and cans of Dr Pepper, her thoughts ordered incrementally with each dashed yellow line. That yearly road trip had been a natural extension of her local driving expeditions, weekend explorations of her adopted state that had become as much a habit as the Sunday paper. Celia savored charting a course on a map to steer by, a simple objective stated and then achieved. Framed by a windshield, details of landscape caught her eye that she otherwise might have missed: a hand-painted billboard, a dry-stacked stone wall. Sometimes the sound of her tires against different surfaces--smooth bitumen, weathered asphalt, the metal grid of a bridge--had even suggested new poems.
She and Huck had met when he introduced himself after a senior reading. He'd praised, a sonnet whose beginning had come to her while she'd been driving over a covered bridge in Long Grove that seemed to say, No songs, no songs, no songs. The reading had been held at the Reynolds student center, where Celia's ubiquity often got her mistaken for an employee. That semester, she'd been treasurer for two student advocacy groups, co-editor of the campus literary journal, and Urgent Action Coordinator for the campus chapter of Amnesty International. Huck had been a stranger to Reynolds. A hazel-eyed, strong-jawed creature without her cluttered schedule, he'd sparked in Celia the same detached, appreciative desire she felt for the grace of an animal observed in the wild--until she discovered that he had not learned to drive until his sophomore college year. This exotic, absurd fact made him seem attainable. Instead of acquiescing to Huck's interest, she began courting him with her car, wooing him with careful itineraries: old routes west of the lake that passed woods and prairies; a pilgrimage to Calumet's smiley-faced water towers. Her solitary car trips came to an end, the obscure poetic utterances of the road replaced by boundless miles of two-way conversation, though even after she had won Huck he remained impervious to the more subtle charms of a twelve-hour drive. To quell her nervousness on their first flight--their relationship had never traveled so far or so fast--she had packed their traditional roadside picnic, complete with red-checkered napkins for their seat-back trays, their plates of cold chicken sparking longing and envy across the aisle.
This morning Celia had given no thought to even basic airplane comforts--a water bottle, a mindless magazine--but when she reached into her carry-on, there was the familiar red-checked napkin, wrapped around a bagel. Huck would be at school by now, charming a room of teenagers into caring about the Louisiana Purchase or the Great Migration, but in that moment she felt him inviting her to enjoy the pleasure of a picnic at thirty thousand feet, and the sight of cirrus clouds outside her oval window.
From the Hardcover edition.