The Miles Between
By Mary E. Pearson
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2009 Mary E. Pearson
All rights reserved.
I was seven the first time I was sent away. This raised eyebrows, even among my parent's globe-trotting friends, and I was brought back home in short order. Rumors are embarrassing, you know? A nanny was employed, but that only partially solved their problem. I was still in the house. I was seen and heard. When I turned eight years old, it seemed reasonable to send me off again. And they did.
They never kept me at any one place for long. The counselors are bothersome and have too many requests. Like asking that my parents visit at least once. Or that I return home for holidays. When rumblings begin, I know I will be shuttled off somewhere new once again. I don't allow myself to get too settled or attached. There is no point.
I came to Hedgebrook when I was fifteen. That was almost two years ago. It is by far the most beautiful of the boarding schools I have attended. I commend Mother and Father. Rolling green hills hem in the redbrick mansion that serves as the school. Many of the dorm rooms still have bars on the windows, due to its previous use as a mental hospital, but they don't interfere overly much with the view from my room. I can see pasture after pasture, white fences that bend and hide with the hills, two red barns, and a farmhouse that is so far away I can only guess that the color might be blue.
Today is October 19, the exact same date I was sent away when I was seven. I pay attention to dates, numbers, and circumstance. Obsessively, some say. I prefer to think of it as careful observation, finding the pattern to coincidence. Can there really be such a thing as a pattern to coincidence? It would seem to defy the very definition. But many things are not what they seem to be.
Take Hedgebrook, for instance. Hedges are abundant here. They separate gardens, stables, and fields. Some are large and loose, and move in the wind like sheets billowing on a line. Others are small and tight, like nervous turtles hunched in their shells. And others in the distance, naturally sprung up along brooks and in the dips of hills, are really a mixed batch of trees and shrubs, actual forests if you could get through them, but hedges by default.
And then there are the brooks. There are four within a short stroll of Hedgebrook. They all tie together somewhere, I'm sure, or maybe they all started out together once and were separated by an unforeseen knoll, but they thread around Hedgebrook like thin shoelaces, so there is always some babbling within earshot.
But it is only coincidence, for it is not the hedges or the brooks for which Hedgebrook is named but for Argus Hedgebrook, who built the first home here in 1702. Not a tremendous coincidence. Some would say none at all. But still, I think about it and wonder, like I wonder about today.
I snap my sheet as I have done every morning since I have been here. Schedules are the lifeblood of Hedgebrook. Failure to follow the prescribed routine has consequences, and I am resigned to that because, really, Hedgebrook is a place I can sink into. I wouldn't say I love it, but I can feel invisible, which is not such a bad thing to be. It fits around me comfortably, like my gray chenille robe. But mind you, I am not attached to Hedgebrook. I wouldn't be so foolish as that.
My aunt Edie visits every three months. It is not easy for her. As rich as my parents are, she is poor. Not destitute poor, but traveling is a luxury for her. She tried to get custody of me when I was ten, but I suppose she couldn't outmuscle my parents' lawyers. Nothing came of it. But every time she visited, she would tell me she loved me, and every time I would ask why my parents wouldn't let me live at home, and every time she would turn away and wipe at her eyes. I don't ask her anymore. I enjoy her visits, and I don't like to see her cry. Crying is something I avoid watching and doing. Nothing comes of it either. I learned that when I was seven.
The breakfast bell rings, and I hear shuffling in the hall outside my door.
"Breakfast, Des," Mira says, briefly poking her head in the door, before she hurries on.
Like I don't know.
Mira's daily reminder drove me mad at first. I punched her on my fourth day here. Impulsive, yes, but I hadn't quite settled in yet. I thought it would stop her, but the next day, there she was again, announcing breakfast, and I realized that perhaps she couldn't help herself. Well, certainly she couldn't, if even her swollen lip was not a deterrent. And she didn't tell anyone how she got it either, so I tolerate her daily intrusion, thinking of it as a newspaper smacking my door. I've even added to the routine with my daily response.
"On my way, Mira." It's a small thing to offer for one who doesn't cry over split lips.
I tuck the sheet beneath the mattress and quickly tuck in the blankets as well, neatly folding the corners, the way Aunt Edie showed me years ago. She comes after classes today for a two-day visit. Mrs. Wicket knows that Aunt Edie is low on funds, so she allows her to stay in an empty room over the old carriage house. It is against the rules, but Mrs. Wicket likes Aunt Edie, and I suppose she likes me, though I have no idea why. I make a quick phone call to the front office to remind them of my aunt's pending arrival and then comb my short black locks with my fingers and a sprinkling of water from the glass by my bedside.
Before I leave for breakfast, I take a last look at my calendar. My days are bunching up. I have never been anywhere this long. I know the news will come soon. Where will they send me next? But it is best not to think about it, because that means I would care, and I don't. I rip October 19 from the pad and crumple it into the trash. It feels almost illegal to dispense with a day that hasn't yet played out. I smile at the thought of being able to so easily control my destiny.
"The oatmeal is pasty today."
I plop three ladlefuls into my bowl and pour milk on top. Of course it is. The oatmeal is always pasty. Mira is a fountain of old information. But I give my usual lengthy response so she won't repeat herself.
The dining room is emptier than usual. There are three dining rooms at Hedgebrook: the larger hall that holds all 420 students and the two smaller ones off the kitchen. I eat in the smallest one most often, along with eight or nine other students. The room is furnished simply, with one large no-nonsense wooden table and a dozen sturdy chairs around it. I set my bowl and glass of juice down.
Curtis and Jillian are on either side of me. Mira, Aidan, and Ben are opposite us. Mrs. Wicket sits at the end reading the paper with one hand, nibbling buttered toast with the other, and trying to talk to students as they arrive. The true definition of multitasking.
"Good morning, Destiny."
"You shouldn't talk with your mouth full, Mrs. Wicket," I tell her.
"Yes, I know. You've told me. Sleep well?"
"Where is everyone?" I ask, meaning the usuals. I try to stir the lumps from my oatmeal, and milk spills over the side of my bowl onto the table.
"Isabel is sick. Seems to be a mild case of the flu, but just the same we've isolated her in her room," Mrs. Wicket answers.
"She never gets sick," Jillian says.
"Today's her recital, too. Why today of all days?" Mira adds.
Ben shakes his head and only says, between mouthfuls, "Bad timing."
I look out the window and feel something stirring, not on my skin but somewhere deep inside. A blast of wind and leaves hits the window, startling Mrs. Wicket so that she drops her toast on her plate. "Goodness! Where did that come from? The forecast today called for fair weather."
"I could have told you," I say, stirring in another spoonful of sugar to make the lumps more palatable. "It's the nineteenth."
"Oh, boy, here we go." Aidan leans back in his chair. "Don't indulge her."
"And what does the nineteenth have to do with wind?" Jillian asks.
"It's only breakfast talk, right, Des?" Mira offers.
"Nothing," I tell Jillian. "But certainly there will be nothing fair about today, including the weather."
"Profound. Can we stop now?" Aidan is fearful of anything fateful or coincidental.
"I'm just saying —" No need to frighten them all. And saying one more word might do it. I know the tics and fears of each person who sits in our dining room. I know how they cross their feet beneath the table and how much food they leave on their plate each morning. I know how often they look askance at the others and how often they wonder if they are being noticed. I know how often Jillian will touch her napkin to her lips — twenty-two times — and how many times Curtis will clear his throat — seventeen times — like he is trying to find the courage to speak. I know how many times Mira will nervously glance across at all of us — forty-four times — and hope that we are getting along. And I know how many times Ben will look at me when I am looking away — five — wondering just what is wrong with me, because even though my eyes can't see him, I feel the scrutiny of his gaze. And I know all this, with amazingly little effort. After almost two years, their habits have, in an odd sort of way, become mine.
"Look at Isabel," Ben says. "There are 364 other days she could have gotten sick."
I mash my lumps against the side of my bowl. Lumps are not fair either. Not day after day after day.
Isabel is not a friend. I do not have friends at Hedgebrook. But still, I mull over Ben's words.
"Curtis? You're quiet. Nothing to add to the breakfast conversation?" Mrs. Wicket has resumed her multitasking, eating her toast, reading her paper, and making sure no one is left out. Curtis shakes his head. He makes a point to eat with us every day but rarely says anything unless Mrs. Wicket almost forms the words for him.
"And Faith? Where's she?" I ask.
Mrs. Wicket sets her paper down and looks over her reading glasses.
Ben looks at me and then Mrs. Wicket. She sits up straight and stiff. Aidan obviously doesn't catch Mrs. Wicket's body language and blurts out, "She's with child. You didn't notice? She's leaving."
It was no secret that Faith was blossoming daily. And we had all had sex ed and knew exactly why.
"But what —"
"We don't gossip here at Hedgebrook," Mrs. Wicket warns.
"Of course we do," Jillian says.
"But not very much," Mira clarifies.
"Why does she have to leave?" I ask.
"We aren't really set up for babies here," Mrs. Wicket says.
"And the boy, does he have to leave too?" I ask.
"He doesn't attend Hedgebrook."
"Well, I bet wherever he attends school, he's not missing a single day of it," Jillian says. The room dims. I think I am the only one to notice. And then it lightens again, like a cloud has passed the sun. For a brief moment everyone is frozen in time, like the sculptures that decorate the garden, and I look at each one, wondering at how easily their lives are intersected by simple things beyond their control, like wind and clouds and people.
"Aren't you going to ask where Seth is, Des?" Mira asks.
Seth is new this year, and just because I happened to notice him when he first arrived and made a comment about his scruffy blond hair, Mira seems to think I have an interest in him. Which I don't, of course, because that would break my number-one rule: Don't get attached. But I can't stop observing. It is my habit, always on the outside, looking at the armor others clothe themselves with, comparing their natures with my own, trying to imagine how they got that way and understand why circumstances crowd into one life and not another. Seth is connection to my distance, smiles and easiness to my everyday calculations, and I wonder at the divergent paths that have created us. But I don't wonder overly much. I find his smoothness impossibly annoying, and I don't really care where he is, but Mira still watches me, waiting for a response.
"All right, Mira," I sigh. "Where's Seth?"
Aidan steals Mira's wind. "He has early-morning trash duty."
"What did he do?" Jillian asks, leaning forward, the scoop about Seth far more interesting than her shriveled sausage.
I see Mrs. Wicket faintly shake her head, resigned to the passing of the story.
Aidan tips his chair back. "Yesterday in English lit, Mr. Bingham opened the window —"
"And a strong breeze flew in!" Mira finishes. "It blew some papers off the desk —"
"And it blew his hair."
"Oh, my God, not his —"
"That's right! His comb-over!" Aidan confirms. "The whole class was trying not to laugh and then Seth raised his hand. Mr. Bingham calls on him, and Seth says, 'Uh, Mr. Bingham ... looks like the lid on your treasure chest is open.'"
Squeals and snorts explode through the dining room. Mrs. Wicket clears her throat.
"What did Bingham do?" Jillian asks.
"Mr. Bingham," Mrs. Wicket corrects her.
"What else could he do?" Aidan answers. "He shut the lid. And once the whole class quit laughing, he gave Seth detention and trash duty."
"That hardly seems fair," Jillian says, picking up her sausage with her fingers and nibbling on it.
"It's an English class, after all," Ben reminds everyone. "And Seth did use a metaphor."
"A good one too."
"He really should've gotten extra credit, don't you think?" Mira adds. "It was a compliment of sorts."
"Extra credit is what would have been fair."
"That's right," Curtis adds so that now he has officially been part of the breakfast conversation.
Mrs. Wicket smiles. "Finish up, now. Ten minutes until classes." She gulps down the last of her tea and stands, like she has every morning since I've been here, then claps her hands to send us on our way.
As we gather our dishes, Miss Plunkett enters with a piece of paper. Miss Plunkett is new and doesn't know all the students yet. "This call came a few minutes ago. They said you would inform Miss ..." she looks at the note again and says, "Miss Faraday?"
I look up from my oatmeal.
Mrs. Wicket briefly scans the note and then looks at me. "Oh, Destiny, dear. There was a phone call. It appears someone has stolen the tires — all four of them — from your aunt Edie's car. She won't be able to come today, but —"
I stand, my chair screeching behind me.
Everyone stops and stares at me like I am a fragile twit. Which I am not.
"Seth's a fool," I say. I snatch up my empty bowl and juice glass. "It would have been much more cruel to remain silent and let Mr. Bingham teach his entire lesson looking like a ridiculous lopsided rooster." I throw my dishes into the dirty dish bin near the door. "And that is what would have been entirely fair."
I generally try to stay out of trouble at Hedgebrook, and I am generally successful. But today, I'm afraid, trouble is already mine. I notice on my first step outside that it is a cloudless, windless day, as Mrs. Wicket had predicted. Yes, I can imagine things when I choose to. I can even be happily delusional if it suits me, which it often does. But I am always deadly observant, and I do know the difference between fantasy and fact. Back in the dining room, the sun dimmed on a cloudless day. And that is fact.
Instead of hurrying to my civics course as I should, I walk to the other side of Carroll Hall dormitory in search of a lone cloud, perhaps hiding in the garden because it is a pleasant place to be and because it is October 19, and I don't take coincidences lightly. But once there, I only find myself standing in the middle of an empty garden under a clear blue sky. Not even the tiniest bit of spun sugar clings to a spruce.
I hear the distant sound of the late bell. It echoes through the air in a strange curvy way, like it's trying to find its way to me, to let me know, Don't hurry, Des — it's too late anyway. You're too late again. I walk farther down the gravel path to a long stone bench that sits among the well-trimmed hedges and slowly ease myself down, like if I am quiet enough and gentle enough, maybe the world will leave me alone. I feel the emptiness of the garden. No wind. No clouds. No Aunt Edie. The stillness is odd, like the garden is holding its breath, or maybe it is just me who is doing the holding. Four tires, all gone. A sufficient excuse. Aunt Edie will not be coming.
A cold tremble crawls the length of my spine and spins around in my chest, and only because I am completely alone, I allow myself to lean forward and bury my face in my hands. The trembling grows, until it is shaking my throat like a furious switch. I rock, keeping my mouth shut tight. If I keep it tight, I will win. I silently count. One, two, three ... (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Miles Between by Mary E. Pearson. Copyright © 2009 Mary E. Pearson. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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