Nearer Than The Sky

Nearer Than The Sky

by T. Greenwood
Nearer Than The Sky

Nearer Than The Sky

by T. Greenwood


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In this mesmerizing novel, acclaimed author T. Greenwood draws readers into the fascinating and frightening world of Munchausen syndrome by proxy--and into one woman's search for healing.

When Indie Brown was four years old, she was struck by lightning. In the oft-told version of the story, Indie's life was heroically saved by her mother. But Indie's own recollection of the event, while hazy, is very different.

Most of Indie's childhood memories are like this--tinged with vague, unsettling images and suspicions. Her mother, Judy, fussed over her pretty youngest daughter, Lily, as much as she ignored Indie. That neglect, coupled with the death of her beloved older brother, is the reason Indie now lives far away in rural Maine. It's why her relationship with Lily is filled with tension, and why she dreads the thought of flying back to Arizona. But she has no choice. Judy is gravely ill, and Lily, struggling with a challenge of her own, needs her help.

In Arizona, faced with Lily's hysteria and their mother's instability, Indie slowly begins to confront the truth about her half-remembered past and the legacy that still haunts her family. And as she revisits her childhood, with its nightmares and lost innocence, she finds she must reevaluate the choices of her adulthood--including her most precious relationships.

"Lush, evocative." --The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780758238740
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 10/01/2011
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 252,000
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

T. Greenwood is the author of Breathing Water, Nearer Than the Sky, and Undressing the Moon, the latter two both Booksense 76 picks. She has received grants from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and, most recently, the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches creative writing at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She lives with her husband and their two daughters in the D.C. area, where she is also an aspiring fine arts photographer.

Read an Excerpt

Nearer Than the Sky

By T. Greenwood


Copyright © 2000 T. Greenwood
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7582-3874-0

Chapter One

I understand lightning. I am not afraid of the rumble, gentle as an empty stomach but powerful enough to shake the ground beneath my feet. I'm not afraid when the sky opens up and blinds my eyes with rain. And when its cold white fingers reach down, looking for someone to touch, I barely shudder anymore. I have an agreement with the sky. An understanding.

It happened when my mother ran back inside the Foodmart with my baby sister, Lily, on her hip. She'd forgotten to buy baby aspirin and Lily had a fever. I was in the shopping cart; at four years old I was still small enough to fit in the front basket with my mother's purse. She parked me and the groceries next to our orange Chevy Nova and said, "Indie, honey, I'll be right back. Don't you move." As she hurried back across the parking lot, I busied myself with a package of cookies I found poking up from one of the bags. I remember they had chocolate stripes and holes in the middle I could fit my thumbs through. The chocolate melted on my hands. It was 1970, August, and our first summer in the mountains of northern Arizona. We didn't know then about the monsoons.

I can only imagine what the other Foodmart shoppers must have thought about me out there in the parking lot like any other bag of groceries. No different from an abandoned carton of ice cream, cardboard growing soggy in the sun. Maybe if someone had paid more attention then it would have stopped with this. If someone had wheeled me into the Foodmart, down the aisle where my mother must have stood browsing the shelves of medicine as if the bottles were magazines she might like to read, then maybe she would have realized that you don't leave four-year-old babies in shopping carts in parking lots. Not even when your youngest has the pink raspberry flush of a fever.

But no one did. After the electric doors closed behind her clean white heels, I sat eating cookies while the other Foodmart customers bustled about opening trunks and wiping the crusty noses of their own children. Every now and then one of them would notice me and smile, probably at the chocolate mess I'd made, but not one person looked for my mother. They must have thought she was inside the Nova somewhere, preparing the car seat or looking for a lost toy.

I knew she would come back. I wasn't afraid of that. I do remember the sudden chill in the air, though, and the long shadows that fell across the parking lot as storm clouds moved across the sky. I remember the sound of shopping-cart wheels moving quickly across the pavement, and the first few drops of rain on my face.

I must have eaten five or six of those cookies, each one growing soggier and soggier in the drizzle. I remember the way my hair tasted. The way the rain beaded up on my bare arms. The smell of wet pavement.

The first rumbles of thunder could have just been my stomach. It could have been hunger instead of a threat from the sky. But then the thunder rumbled again. Louder this time. Insistent. But it wasn't until the sky exploded, threatening and angry, until it opened up and the rain came down in sharp slivers, soaking the brown paper bags and the cookie in my hand, that I started to feel afraid. The next crack of thunder made the shopping cart roll a little, and I felt panic for the first time, the dull thudding of my heart, the heat rising to my ears, as I looked toward the doors of the Foodmart in the distance.

Every time the doors opened, I expected to see her. But it was only a Foodmart cashier in a red apron, a lady with a yellow umbrella opening above her like butterfly wings, a man with a long gray beard and a bag brimming with green leaves. And then, just as the heat in my ears started to bring tears, the glass doors opened up again, and I saw my mother in her crisp polka-dot sundress and Lily still safely nestled on her hip.

"Ma," I cried. Relief like cool rain.

She stood in the doorway, not moving. Not coming. I watched her struggle with the baby aspirin bottle, and the soft puff of cotton inside. Through the rain, I watched her put the tiny orange pill on Lily's tongue. Watched Lily shake her head. Tighten her lips over my mother's finger. I watched her kiss Lily's head, brush her white-blond curls out of her eyes, and adjust her position on her hip.

Thunder rolled through my body, rolled under my skin like waves. She looked up from Lily then and remembered me.

What happened next lingers in my memory like an electric current that refuses to leave the body. The details circulate from fingertips to fingertips, toe to nose to toe.

The thunder cracked again; it sounded like a slap. Like a giant hand hitting skin. I watched my mother's steps quicken and then I put my hands up to my ears and closed my eyes. One ... two ... three. I imagined I was counting my mother's steps toward me. Four ... five and I opened my eyes.

Everything was white. Metallic and cold. My skin felt like it had been stung by a thousand bees. And my heart was suddenly still. No beating, only buzzing. Only the hum of an electric lullaby.

When I could see again, I realized that I was no longer in the shopping cart. I was lying facedown on the hood of the Nova, staring down at the spilled groceries on the ground. At a hundred pink tablets of baby aspirin, at the polka dots of my mother's dress. The shopping cart was in the next parking space, and glowing red.

The rain wasn't coming down so hard anymore. But I was cold, freezing cold, and I couldn't hear anything except for the buzzing of my body. When my mother's free hand found me, I shrank away from her touch. Her wide blue eyes grew wider, and Lily cried. When she finally spoke, her words tasted like sour milk. And Lily's cries were the bitter of unripe berries.

They say that two things can happen to you if you are struck by lightning. The first is that you will die. The second is that you won't die and that you will be left with few (if any) injuries, no lingering symptoms or souvenirs from your encounter. But even now, so many years later, I can't hear well with my left ear, and with the other one I can still taste sounds. Music and wind. Voices and lies.

My mother says it didn't happen this way at all. She says that she was inside the Nova, buckling Lily into her car seat. Finding my lost Crissy doll. She says she would never have left me alone in the parking lot. But I remember the click of her heels, the pinkish orange aspirin melting in the rain. And when she tells the story her way, her words taste like asphalt. Like aspirin. Like anything but the truth.

My mother has never been able to take the blame. Not then and not later. The way she tells the story, she's the one who kept me from turning into a blackened version of my former self. The way she tells it, she saved my life. In her version of this story, of every story, she's always the hero.

In those days, there were no words to describe the nature of my mother's tales. No diagnosis for her tendency toward fiction. No names for women who make accidents happen to their children, no terms for imaginary heroes. And so we listened to my mother's stories in silence and tried to believe. That she brought my brother, Benny, back to life when he stopped breathing in his crib. That she saved me from the lightning. That Lily's illness was real instead of something Ma put inside of her. We listened in silence and waited for the words that might explain.

I understand lightning. I know the cold taste of light, the inevitable paralysis of its touch. I know how deceiving an empty sky can be, and I understand the consequences of thunder. But sometimes, I still dream the gentle thrill of electricity, and stand in open fields during storms with my arms raised. Because illumination of this intensity is apt to show you something you might not see otherwise. In the white cold light moments of a storm, you're bound to get at least a glimpse of the truth.

Peter and I were naked and intertwined when the phone started ringing. Because before the shuddering afterglow, while muscles and bones, tongues and lips and hips still rang metallic and taut, my mother's blood was filling with poison. When the soft skin of his back yielded to my sharp fingers and all of him quickened, her own quicksilver, arsenic dance had already begun, and with this crescendo came her crescendo of lead. I didn't pick up the receiver. But after, while he slumbered, I shuddered still. That moment was over, but my mother's poison lullaby was just beginning, and some part of me knew. The phone started ringing again.

It was Lily who called. It was always Lily who called, her whispers as deceptively sweet as Nutrasweet, leaving me with a bitter aftertaste and a slight headache.

"Ma's sick," she said.

"What's the matter?"

"They don't know. It's real bad. She called an ambulance."

Despite the fear in her voice, ambulance sirens (the harmony of high-pitched squeals and the sonorous chords of fear and accident) were not unfamiliar sounds to either of us.

"Where is she?"

"Down here. At St. Joseph's."

"Why is she in Phoenix?" I asked. My mother lived more than two hours north of Phoenix, in the mountains.

"They transferred her, Indie. It's real bad this time," and then sweetly, "Can you come home?"

"Is she going to be okay?"

"She's filled with poison. It's in her blood," she said softly. I imagined Lily winding herself up in the phone cord, the blue light of the TV shining through her transparent nightgown. Her baby, Violet, raspy-breathed inside the rented oxygen tent in the living room. "They can't figure it out. Maybe lead poisoning. The blood tests haven't come back yet."

I tightened my grip on the phone. "I spent six hundred dollars on an airplane ticket the last time, and there was nothing wrong with her."

"I really think you need to come home this time," she said, twirling me inside a cotton candy swirl. "I'll pay."

When I hung up the phone, I watched Peter's chest rise and fall. He sleeps so deeply sometimes that his silence wakes me up, and I'll press my ear against his chest to make sure that he's still alive. Tonight, he was smiling. Sometimes he even laughs in his sleep. I envy his dreams. I curled against him, pressing my body against his until there were no spaces between us, until his skin became my skin. Until the cadence of my breaths matched his.

This had happened so many times now, I wasn't worried about falling asleep again. Another frantic call from Lily wouldn't keep me awake all night. I grew up in the village where the little boy cried "Wolf!" I was a local. I knew these streets like I knew my own name, and Lily knew them too. After she hung up the phone she would return to the couch where she'd been sleeping since Violet got sick. She would toss and turn, of course, each rumble of her daughter's chest waking her. But Ma would not enter her mind again until morning, until after the rituals of coffee and bacon and newspapers and her husband's kiss good-bye. Only then would she begin to wonder if the Wolf was really hiding under our mother's bed or if Ma had made him up. Fabricated him like so many school projects, out of chicken wire and papier-mâché.

I didn't want to go back to Arizona now. It was autumn, and the woods around our house were on fire. I had asked Peter not to rake the fallen leaves around the cabin, enjoying the way the rust and gold and purple carpeted the yard and driveway. The sky had been bright and blue and cold lately; the heat of the summer had finally relented.

This summer had been particularly hot and difficult to endure. I lost my job in April, and without it, I hadn't known what to do with my time. I'd been writing for the local paper for almost ten years. I wasn't a good reporter, I knew this, but I had loved my job. I didn't even mind that I usually got assigned to the dullest stories. Dog shows and 100th birthday parties. Big fish and ballet recitals. I never thought the paper would let me go, but when they lost their lease on the building, they had to pick someone, and I guess I was the logical choice. I missed the cool blue office, the whirr of electric fans and the clicking of typewriter keys. I missed driving to one town or another for a story, the windows of the truck rolled down and the radio turned up. I missed the interviews conducted on porches, and later transcribing the stories about UFO sightings or the new school principal's recipe for potato salad. Summer days are long in Echo Hollow. And even longer without anything to do.

So when the air began to turn cold, and the first bloom of red appeared in the maple tree in front of the house, I felt a certain sense of purposefulness. It was as if that red signified that the stagnant heat of summer had finally broken, and that in its place was something brighter. I had felt so optimistic that Peter was even able to convince me to come to work with him at his café. He promised he'd teach me how to make muffins, how to busy my hands and my mind. For a month now, I had been waking up with him at two o'clock in the morning. We had to be there to start baking at three, and we live deep in the woods, an hour's drive from town. I had been learning how to navigate in the darkness of early morning, how not to be afraid. The stillness of this hour surprised me, when the only sounds were wet leaves crushing beneath our feet and our screen door closing. I loved the way our headlights were the only lights on the interstate at that time of night. It felt like we were alone in the world, as if no one existed anymore but us.

Even in town there is a certain peace at this hour. We would park on the empty street in front of the restaurant and sit for a few minutes before going inside. Sometimes Peter would put his arm over the back of my seat, and look at the small brick building, at the new awning: THE SWAN SONG CAFÉ & THEATRE, painted in white block letters. After ten years of working for other people, Peter finally had his own restaurant. In all the time we'd known each other, I'd never seen him so happy. And in these half-light moments before dawn, I felt happy too. Like we were sharing something. Of course, then the spell was inevitably broken by the reality that muffins and bread needed to be made, that the industrial-size dishwasher in the kitchen was probably on the fritz again, that morning would come if we waited too long inside the truck. But for a little while, anyway, the world belonged to us.

He had taught me my way around the basement bakery, how to maneuver the giant silver bowls and long wooden spoons. How much batter would make the perfect muffin. The intricacies of sugar and flour and why butter is so important. He made the bread and rolls, which were much more complicated than my muffins. Part science and part philosophy. There was as much to be learned in this basement bakery as there was at the university, I supposed.

After the loaves of bread were in the oven, Peter would leave me to make the muffins and go upstairs to start the coffee and unwrap the salads in the deli case. Joe, the cook, would get there at seven to start making lunch. And two of the girls from the college would be in to open up shop at eight.

I was still learning, and my muffins were completely unpredictable. Sometimes they came out hard and small, burned at the edges. Other times the batter grew so high that the muffins looked like small mountains but were still sticky and wet inside. My favorite part of the day was after the muffins were made, when I carried the heavy trays, stacked four or five high, up the stairs. I used thick white dish towels to protect my hands from the hot pans, and the steam from the muffins made the hair around my face curl. Joe and Peter and whoever was working the counter that day would all gather around one of the tables, and we would break open the wild blueberry or banana and chocolate chip muffins before the onslaught of customers. We used a plastic spatula for the butter and Peter poured everyone coffee. No one ever complained about my baking.

We were usually interrupted by some impatient businessman or other regular who felt somehow entitled, peering through the locked door, asking to be let in. Peter never turned them away, though. He always went to the door and smiled, unlocking it and opening the floodgates.


Excerpted from Nearer Than the Sky by T. Greenwood Copyright © 2000 by T. Greenwood. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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