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Home isn't always the place you go because they have to take you in.
Sometimes, Janelle Decker thought as she crested the hill and took that final slope toward the town she hadn't seen in nearly twenty years, home was the place you couldn't escape no matter how far or fast you ran. Her battered Volkswagen Rabbit pickup, which had seen better days, but so far, thank God, not many worse, drifted to a stop at the traffic light. She didn't remember the fast-food restaurant to her right or, just a bit farther, the pair of hotels on the hill to her left, but she remembered the small white building beside them. Decker's Chapel, one of the tiniest churches in the country.
"Look, Bennett. Over there." Janelle craned her neck to stare into the backseat, where her son was bent over his new toy, the iPad her mother had bought him for his birthday. In seconds the light would turn green, and it had somehow become imperative she show him this sight. "Bennett. Hey. Hello!"
The boy looked up through a shock of red-blond bangs that fell over bright green eyes. His dad's eyes, though Connor's gaze had never, in Janelle's recollection, been as bright and clear and curious as her son's. Bennett looked out the window to where she pointed.
"See that little church?"
Janelle eased her foot off the brake and pressed the cranky clutch, hoping for the sake of the half dozen cars lined up behind her that the truck wouldn't stall. "One of my great-great-grand-relatives built that church."
"Really? Cool." Bennett sounded underwhelmed. "Are we almost there?"
"Another five minutes, buddy. That's all." On impulse, instead of continuing on along the incongruously named Million Dollar Highway into town toward her grandmother's house, the end point of this seemingly endless trip, Janelle put on her left turn signal.
If there'd been traffic heading toward her she might not have bothered, but the only traffic on the road was heading into town, not away from it. That seemed somehow meaningful, but she didn't let herself dwell on that. Instead, she turned into the gravel-gritty drive that serviced the two hotels as well as the chapel. She parked and stared through the windshield.
Her arms ache from where he grabbed her, the bruises still so fresh they've barely darkened, though they will. She'll wear them for weeks. Her hands on the wheel, gripping so tight her fingers hurt from it. Foot on the gas, foot on the clutch, the Rabbit truck bucks and sputters as she guides it to the side of the road. The parking lot of this tiny church is empty, thank God. There's nobody to see her press her face against her hands, nobody to watch her break apart.
Nobody to watch her leaving.
"I thought we were going to Nan's house."
"In a few minutes."
Bennett, her getalong-guy, her complacent child, let out a long, stuttering sigh of irritation. Janelle didn't blame him. They'd been driving for hours with no more than a quick pit stop. Before that, other than the week they'd spent at her mom's, they'd been on the road for what felt like forever.
"I want to go into this church, okay? Really fast." Janelle looked into the rearview mirror. "Want to come in with me? Let me rephrase that. Come in with me."
Her son looked a lot like his absent father, and that she understood. Genetics and all that. But sometimes the kid acted just like his dad, too, and that always floored her, since she and Connor O'Hara had been finished before he even knew the night the condom broke hadn't turned out to be, as he'd so valiantly and foolishly promised her, "okay."
"It'll be cool," she told Bennett. "Really. And if it's not, you can add it to the list of things I've done to permanently scar you."
This earned a small smile. "Okay. But I have to pee real bad."
"Hold it just a little longer. Can you?"
"I guess so." Bennett made a face that said he wasn't convinced.
She'd never actually been inside the chapel. Built of white clapboard with a miniature bell tower and a single door in the front with a wooden ramp leading up to it, the chapel really was tiny. It had been built in the 1800s; she remembered that much.
Janelle got out of the truck, snagging her keys from the ignition, but not bothering to actually lock the vehicle. They were in St. Marys, after all. Secluded, isolated, ninety-nine percent Catholic of the "attend Mass daily" variety. And they were going inside for just a minute or two, the way she'd promised.
She couldn't tell if her heart raced because of daring to leave her vehicle unlocked with all her worldly belongings inside, or for a slew of other reasons that had been plaguing her for the past few months, since she'd made the decision to come back.
The chapel was unheated. Bennett danced from foot to foot, having, of course, forgone his brand-new, heavy winter coat. Janelle herself blew a plume of frost on her fingers and rubbed her hands together to warm them as she walked slowly around the wooden kneelers, an altar and a votive display at the back, no candles burning. She thought about dropping a dollar in the slot and lighting one, if only for the brief flare of warmth it would offer, but she hadn't brought her purse inside and her pockets were lamentably empty.
"Do people get married here?"
"I don't know. I guess they could." Janelle looked at the map on the wall and the framed documents telling the Decker's Chapel history.
She laughed. "Um
"How come? If you think it's so cool and all that." Bennett ran a finger along one of the half-size kneelers and gave her an innocent look that didn't fool her for a second, because she'd seen it in her own reflection more than once.
Janelle rolled her eyes. "C'mon. Let's go. I'm freezing."
Back in the car, buckled up tight, she once again looked at her son in the rearview mirror. He'd already bent over his iPad again, thumbing the screen in some complicated game, his headphones firmly settled in the tangles of his too-long hair. This was her boy. Her life for the past twelve years. She hadn't messed him up too badly so far.
But there was still time.
"Whoa, look at the size of that Pepsi cap!" Bennett sounded way more excited about that landmark than he had about the chapel. He added a chortle that cracked her up. As if the kid had never seen a giant Pepsi cap on the side of a building before. Come to think of it, he never had.
It took a few more than five minutes to get to Nan's house. There was a lot more traffic than Janelle remembered, for one thing, and some of the roads had changed. The Diamond, as the locals called it, ran in one direction only, and though she knew she had to get off on the first street, somehow she ended up going all the way around the circle of traffic again before she could.
"Big Ben," she murmured as they passed the town's snow-covered Nativity scene, still holding pride of place in the square, though it was already the day after New Year's. "Parliament."
Bennett, familiar with the joke, though not the movie she was quoting, didn't even look up. Janelle concentrated on getting off the Diamond and onto one of the side streets. G.C. Murphy's, location of many a summer afternoon's dawdling, was long gone. Janelle felt a sudden pang of nostalgia for Lee Press On Nails and Dep hair gel. Her car bump-bumped over the railroad tracks as she headed up Lafayette Street, pausing at the intersection to point out the elk heads, antlers alight with bulbs, adorning the building on the corner.
"This place has a lot of weird things," Bennett said matter-of-factly. "Maybe they're in your app, Mom. We should check them off."
He meant the application on her phone that listed the odd and offbeat attractions littering the American countryside. Biggest balls of twine, and mystery spots, that sort of thing. They'd spent a good portion of their trip from California to Pennsylvania taking back roads to catch a glimpse of some forgotten storybook forest or an abandoned "Fountain of Youth" that turned out to be an algae-infested and crumbling well alive with frogs. In the past couple days, though, busy with the holidays at her mom's house and then the final portion of this journey, they hadn't even checked to see what weird delights might await.
They'd already passed a dozen landmarks that had always marked off the distance between her mom's and this town like hash marks on a ruler. The Mount Nittany Inn, with its spectacular view. The child's sneaker-shaped scooter attached for no good reason to a high fence, which she could remember looking for during every trip to visit Nan. Janelle had thought about rallying Bennett to scream out "Weed!" as they passed through the tiny town of Weedville, the way she and her dad always had, but knew he wouldn't understand the jokenor did she want to explain to him the old comedy skit about a pair of stoners incapable of keeping their stash a secret when visited by the cops.
Now she spotted another landmark Bennett wouldn't really "get"the Virgin Mary statue in the corner lot they were passing. Common enough in a town named for her, not so much in any place they'd lived. Janelle slowed a little as she passed to give the praying Virgin a silent nod.
Janelle hadn't been inside a church for years, but she still wore the Blessed Virgin medallion she'd had since she was eighteen. It lay against the hollow of her throat, warmed by her flesh. She wore it constantly; it had become as much a part of her as the small but genuine diamond in her nose and the shooting star tattoo on the inside of her left wrist. She never took the necklace off unless she was getting dressed up to go somewhere fancy, and replaced it with her single strand of good pearlsand it had been a damn long time since she'd done that. She never thought much about it, in fact, unless she forgot to put it back on, and wasn't that the way of things?
You didn't notice them until they weren't where you expected them to be.
She traced the medallion with her fingertips, so familiar by touch, though honestly, if you'd asked her to identify it in a photo, she'd probably be unable. Mary's features had become worn from the thousands of such touches over the years. The metal had tarnished. Janelle had replaced the chain twice that she could recall. It hardly looked like the same necklace that had been given to her so long ago.
Past Deprator's Beverage, down one more street, one more turn. Her heart beat a little faster at the sight of the familiar green shingled house. She pulled into Nan's driveway and let the truck idle for a minute or so before turning off the ignition.
Don't be a stranger, Janelle. This will always be your home. I know, Nan. I know.
Come back soon, Janelle. It's been so long since I've seen you. I'll come soon, Nan. I promise.
She'd had the heat going on the highest setting, but now the frigid air was finding its insidious way through the cracks and crevices. She told herself that's why she shivered, why the hairs on the back of her neck rose, why her nipples pebbled beneath her multiple layers of clothes. She got out of the truck, one hand on the roof, one foot propped on the running board. Her sudden chill had little to do with the actual weather.
"We're here," Janelle said. "We're home."
There's a girl with red hair in the backyard of the house next door, and she's blowing soap bubbles from a big plastic dish. She dips the wand in the liquid and holds it to her puckered lips, then laughs as the bubbles stream out, one after the other, like beads on a string. Like pearls, Gabe thinks. Like his mom's pearls, the ones in the drawer in the back bedroom, in the box his dad doesn't think Gabe knows about.
The girl with red hair glances up, sees him looking and frowns. Gabe stands on one of the cinder blocks that keep his yard from falling into hers. If he steps down he'll be on her grass, so he stays where he is. His yard is higher, which is good because he thinks she's taller than him, and that would be annoying.
"Hi," she says. "You're Gabe Tierney. My dad says you have twin baby brothers."
He does. Michael and Andrew. Gabe doesn't question how or why this girl's dad would know that. Everyone knows about the Tierney boys. His bare toes curl over the edge of the cinder block, but he doesn't step down.
The girl stands, her fist dripping with suds. "I have bubbles, look."
"I have bubbles in a big jug. Had," Gabe mutters. "I spilled em.
It had been an accident, but he might as well have done it on purpose since he got in so much trouble for it. The soap had soaked into the rug in the front room, making a squishy patch he'd been unable to clean up no matter how much water he used. Mikey walked through it, then onto the linoleum floor in the kitchen, where he skidded and slipped, hitting his head on the table. Then Dad came through, yelling, and he slipped, too. Went down on his butt. It would've been funny, kind of like something on TV, except Dad didn't laugh about it. He hadn't spanked Gabe, but it might've been better if he had. He'd not only taken away the rest of the bubbles, but he'd sent Gabe to his room for a whole day. No lunch, no supper. Gabe's belly had hurt from being empty.
"I'm Janelle." She holds up the wand. "Do you want to blow some bubbles? You can use mine."
Gabe does want to blow bubbles, but he stays put. "My dad says I'm not supposed to leave the yard."
Janelle puts her fists on her hips. Her lower lip sticks out in what Gabe's mama used to call a pouty. "Gaby's putting a pouty on," that's what she used to say. Before.
Janelle shakes her head. "What are you, a baby?"
He's not anything close to a baby. Heat floods him, not from the summer sun beating down but from someplace deep inside. It comes from the same place that gets hot whenever he overhears someone talking about "those Tierney boys."
Which is a lot. Without another thought, Gabe jumps down from the cinder block and into Mrs. Decker's yard.
"Be careful. Your dad might yell." Janelle looks toward Gabe's house, which is taller than Mrs. Decker's. Made of brick instead of painted wood. Gabe's house has three stories and he's pretty sure the third floor is haunted.
"He's not home. He's at work." Mrs. Moser wouldn't yell if she came out from inside the house and found him in the yard next door. She'd be happy to see him playing with a friend. She'd be happy for him to stay out of the house, out from under her feet like she said, though it is the twins who are always crawling around under her feet. Not Gabe.
"Oh." Janelle grins and holds out the bubble wand again. "So come and blow bubbles! It's really fun."
"Bubbles are for babies," Gabe tells her, knowing it will wipe the smile off her face.
That's what Dad says. Wipe the smile off your face. But it's never like wiping your face with a cloth or a napkin or the back of your hand. Smiles always melt like Popsicles in the sun. Drip, drip, drip.
Janelle does stop smiling. That line appears between her eyebrows again. She puts one hand on her hip, the other still holding out the wand. "I'm not a baby, and I like bubbles! But if you're too much of a baby to come into my Nan's yard
"I'm not a baby!"
"Nope," Janelle says with a grin that melts something inside him that's nothing like a smile, "you're a jerk."