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On Labor Day my mother and brother piled the station wagon with all our things. Well, except for the ones that had already gone ahead, our furniture and books, on the Whiteflower Van Lines moving truck. So our car is packed with suitcases, duffel bags, Dad's hats, our computer, and our two cats. We stood on Lincoln Street in front of our house—I refuse to say "our old house," even though it's been sold and new people are about to move in—and Mom told us to say goodbye.
I felt like an invisible girl observing the scene: Mom, shorter than I am, thin, shoulder-length brownish hair, wearing jeans and one of Dad's old shirts; Travis, a beanpole with shoulders from all that football, dark brown hair in his blue eyes, Dad's blue eyes—the men in our family have dark blue eyes, Carrie's are light blue, and Mom and I have hazel.
Both Mom and Travis were looking at our house, white with green shutters—I painted those shutters with Carrie and Travis just last summer—and the two maple trees and the dogwoods and big magnolia in the front yard, shady and nice. Carrie taught me how to climb those trees.
Mom looked up at Carrie's room. Travis stood there with his hands in his pockets, gaze as blank as the windows he was staring at. Actually, that's a lie. He had frown lines between his eyebrows. How could he not, about to leave the only house our family had ever known? Me, I refused to say goodbye. If you don't shut the door on something, it means you can always walk back through, right?
Mom taped a note on the door. Can you believe that? As if Carrie is just going to walk up the sidewalk and read that we've gone to Newport. Just as if we've gone to the store, or to the ball field, and will meet her back here for dinner. It's sad, if you think about it. Not just that Carrie won't be home to read any note, but that Mom would even think of leaving one for her.
Anyway, we turned and got in the car. Travis sits up front with Mom. I ride in back with the cats. Neither Travis nor I mention the note, but we do give each other a look. Strange, his eyebrows say to me. Whacked, my grimace says to him.
So that's how we left Columbus: one of us snuffling, one of us frowning, one of us petting cats. At fourteen, almost fifteen, I'm too young to drive. But Travis is sixteen, so he helps Mom out, taking the wheel for hours at a stretch. They keep asking me if I want to pick the radio station, or if I'm hungry and want to stop, or if I need to use the restroom. But nothing can pry words out of me. I just ride in back, hunched up into a ball, reaching into the cat carriers to pet Desdemona and Grisby. Des is mine. Grisby was my sister's. I'm taking care of her now.
I have what's called "stubborn anger." That's what the shrink said. Because everything is wrong. What happened last summer made me lose my mind. That's different from stubborn anger. That's not being able to stand the feeling of air on your skin because your sister is gone. For months afterward, I couldn't draw a breath without feeling someone had stuck a knife into my heart. My mother thinks it's just normal grief, but it's not. My grades, well, let's just say they have suffered. English, C; Earth Science, B2; Art, D; Geometry, A. I'm okay in math, so even though I haven't applied myself, I get by. I skipped regular math last year, went straight into high school geometry.
The strange thing is, I've been dreaming in math. Figures, equations, notations—as if there was a problem to solve, and it involved numbers instead of words. Words get in the way. Numbers don't lie. We are two sisters; add us up. Carrie + Beck = Us.
My friends have gathered round me... kind of, anyway. The ones who haven't deserted me, that is. The ones who still speak to me have held me up, carried me through. I couldn't have survived without them. I'm holding on to the fact that a few people still like me.
And now my mother's taking me away from them. Away from Carrie. Without Carrie, I'm less than a person. It's like subtracting one from one. That equals zero. Except, as all mathematicians know, there's really no such number as zero. So I live my life in confusion. Logic and emotion are at war.
That's where the stubborn anger comes in. I refuse to accept my mother's decision to move us away from Columbus. She says she needs a job to support us, and I say fine—does it have to be in Rhode Island? Doesn't she know without my sister I'll cease to exist? Just try x minus x. Where does that leave you?
My mother explains that we don't know that Carrie is in Columbus anymore, in fact we are pretty sure she's far, far away. She doesn't have to tell me that we all have our own special ways of losing our minds, and Carrie's seems to have involved running away from home and, after a lifetime of being the perfect older child, turning into a street person somewhere. Have I mentioned that this is not a recent development?
My older sister left home, or should I say the cabin, the very same day our father died. That was over a year ago. She had a major flip-out, I guess you could say. And that flip-out is the gift that just keeps giving. We get the occasional hang-up and the once-in-a-blue-moon postcard. Even though we haven't received any emails from her, my mother has set our family email to a permanent away message: Carrie! We love you! We are moving to Newport and want you to be with us! Here is our address and phone number. Call, sweetheart!
I mean, Jesus Christ!
Here's what I plan to do: ride all the way from Ohio to Rhode Island without saying one word. I'm not going to eat, either. Hunger strike. Eventually we'll get to Newport. Mom will point out the apartment she and her sister lived in when they were young, before whatever happened that drove them apart.
She'll mention that it's a fresh start, that we have our whole lives to look forward to. One thing she will not mention is the water, which will be everywhere. Then she'll pull up to the private school where starting next week she will be teaching English and Travis and I will (theoretically) enroll as students. Here be rich snobs!
That enrollment will not happen, trust me. Can you imagine attending a school full of millionaire brats where your mother teaches? Why don't I just put my eyes out instead? It would be more fun.
I will helpfully empty the station wagon. I will carry the cats into the house Newport Academy has given my mother as part of her teaching contract. My sister's photographs, the ones she took and called her "Great Girls" series, will go straight into my mother's room. I will feed the cats, show them their litter box, remind my mother and Travis that they are not to go outside—Carrie always wanted Grisby to be an indoor cat, and that is how it will be.
Then, the minute my mother and brother are asleep, I will walk out the door. I've got funds stashed for the trip home. Birthday cash, babysitting money, contributions from my best friends Amy and Ellie. Plus a little extra from what the school shrink says is another cry for help—let's not go into it, but I stole a couple of things, including money from my mother's wallet, and got caught. I gave most of it back. But I kept a little, to help me get home.
"So, my little storm cloud," my mother says from the front seat. "Are you comfortable back there?"
I grunt instead of speaking.
"You're not hungry, you don't care what music we listen to, you haven't said one word."
"She'll eat if we stop at Cracker Barrel," Travis says. "She likes the buffet."
"What do you say, Beck? Should I get off the highway?"
I just keep petting Grisby. What is wrong with Travis? Seething doesn't begin to cover what I'm feeling. Carrie loved Cracker Barrel, not me. Caroline Anne Shaw. Get it straight!
I'm Rebecca Grace Shaw. I may have been joined at the heart with my sister, but my taste in roadside food is different. I like the Pancake King. The highway flies by in a blur. Cars, trucks, exits, all taking us closer to Rhode Island. I want to jump out before we cross one more state line.
"Let's stop, Mom," Travis says. "We'll eat and then I'll drive for a while."
Easy for him to be sweet, I think. Ally is so in love with my brother she'll fly east constantly just to see him. Her father's a doctor and has the money. He's divorced from her mother and bribes Ally to love him best. Ally wants for nothing, not even Travis. So he's got nothing to lose from this whole move, not like I do.
My mother puts on the signal light. Slouched in the back seat, I hear it, click-click-click. Trees along the exit ramp. We merge onto some big ugly road parallel to the highway; it's filled with billboards and stores and restaurants, one after the other, so many to choose from. I shut my eyes tight, because I don't want to think of food and feel hungrier than I already am.
My stomach rumbles. I'm starving.
"Okay, storm cloud," my mother says. "Come on, now. Let's go in and have something good for dinner... ."
I pull the cats closer. I refuse to eat. All I want is to go home. I want my sister, and I want to go home. One hand slides into the thick envelope where her pictures are, and I slip a few out so I can see. This one shows a six-year-old girl jumping rope. Here's one of a woman pinning clothes to a clothesline. And another, two girls talking at their lockers in school.
I don't want to go to a school where my mother teaches. This is her first job since getting her master's. She is nervous and trying not to show it, which gives me a stomachache. If she's worried, how am I supposed to feel? I can't even think about the water. They call Newport "the City by the Sea."
My brother stands outside the car making impatient noises while my mother opens the back door, leans in to put her arms around me, her lips to my ear, and whispers, "Put those away for now, sweetheart."
"I don't want to."
So she does it for me—takes the pictures out of my hand, slides them back into the envelope. Does she do that because she thinks looking at them makes me sad? Or is she afraid I'll damage Carrie's pictures in some way?
"Things will be better when we get to Newport," she says.
"Stop," I say, the ghost of my old lisp coming back, and I hear "shtop."
I hate Newport and we're not even there yet, and besides, I don't believe her. All that water. I want to stay here, make things right. Make everyone like me again. Most of the time I say my s's and l's perfectly. No one makes fun of me for that anymore—I got through it.
Carrie helped me get over my lisp. She coached me through my speech exercises. With my sister, I overcame the obstacle. She can't help me with this, though. C + B = Us. I hold on to that truth. Mathematics and logic don't lie. So I sit in the back seat in perfect silence, just glaring into my mother's eyes. She doesn't know what I know about Carrie's last day. See, when she's ready, Carrie is coming back.
Storm clouds don't speak. And there's no such number as zero.
Newport greeted them with bright blue water sparkling everywhere, a fresh September breeze blowing off Narragansett Bay, thick roses tumbling over high stone walls. Maura Shaw's hands were clamped tightly to the steering wheel as she drove along Farewell Street, between the two graveyards at the foot of the bridge. She drew the first deep breath she'd taken since leaving their house in Columbus early yesterday. She'd finally gotten them here.
The trip from Ohio had taken longer than she'd expected. Maura couldn't help it: every car on the highway, every exit off the interstate, all potentially could be where she'd find Carrie. She'd driven carefully, eyes on the road. But one part of her attention, a big part, was spent darting over to the passing Dodge Ram, the young hitchhikers, the broken-down Chevy, the ambulance speeding in the opposite direction.
Carrie's postcards had been from places out West. Santa Fe, New Mexico, had been the first; Billings, Montana, was the last. But who was to say she might not have changed her mind? A girl who could run away the very same day her father died, having never purposely done one thing to make her parents fret or worry, who had never been anything less than sweet, reliable, and incredibly smart, might in fact be capable of changing direction and heading east instead.
So Maura and the two younger kids had spent one night in a Days Inn near Allentown, Pennsylvania. This was out of the way; obsessing about Carrie, she'd taken a wrong turn, and the kids hadn't realized. Travis had been navigating, doing a great job, but after a while, assuming they were basically on autopilot, he'd turned to text-messaging Ally on his cell phone.
Suddenly Maura had started seeing signs for Gettysburg—they were heading south instead of east. She almost panicked. She couldn't let the kids know they were off course. Not because of pride or a need for infallibility, but because she wanted to give them a sense of safety, reassure them that she had it together, was on top of her game. Especially Beck, who had become a teenage nihilist, who doubted all that was good, who had seemed to retreat into a world of cats and numbers, and expected only disaster of real life.
Maura had quietly adjusted course, off one exit and back on the other way, not telling the kids they had traveled fifty miles out of the way without her realizing, and trying to keep herself from pondering the symbolism of driving straight toward one of the bloodiest battlefields in America while thinking of where her oldest daughter might be.
And here they were: The southern end of Aquidneck Island, Newport jutted into the Atlantic Ocean, and the sea was everywhere: down every alley, across every lawn, surrounding the city. She had come home to her New England roots, and in spite of everything, she felt a sudden surge of joy. She pressed the buttons to open all the car windows, ignoring the kids' protests as their hair blew wildly.