SIXTEEN YEARS EARLIER
KENLY ALISTER WAS FIFTEEN YEARS OLD and in the middle of year-end exams in Kalispell, Montana, when her life started falling apart all over again. She and her dad had been living there eight months and four days--something she tracked religiously on her bedroom calendar. It wasn't a record, but it was a good sign that maybe this time they would stay put until she graduated from high school.
She was lying on the couch studying, surrounded by the cracked, gunmetal-gray walls of their living room, when she heard her dad's heavy footsteps come up the walk an hour earlier than usual. Frowning, she looked at her watch. They had a routine, and this wasn't part of it. Every morning, he drove nine blocks to school, parked, and disappeared into the teachers'lounge half an hour before she even rolled out of bed. Then, at the end of each day, she got home at least an hour before he did. Pushing aside a twinge of worry, she told herself everything was fine. When he pulled the screen door open and dropped his briefcase on the floor, she tried to convince herself itwas just her imagination that the air in the room had changed or that he seemed to be avoiding her eyes. Muttering under his breath, he yanked the door shut and gave it the extra tug it always needed, prompting her cat, Java, to come skidding around the corner, where she disappeared underneath the couch.
"Stupid bloody cat," he said, shedding his jacket on his way into the kitchen.
Kenly chewed on the ice from her drink and gave his back a heavy stare. She'd found Java a year earlier under the front steps of the house they were renting, and had had to tear a few old boards off with a crowbar and wriggle underneath through the dead grass just to catch her. Emaciated, starving, and with the jittery personality of someone who's sucked back a pound of espresso, the cat seemed to fit the name "Java" perfectly. She followed Kenly everywhere, but she turned into a nervous wreck whenever she saw Kenly's dad.
Clearing her throat, Kenly held her spot in the textbook with a finger and called out, "My day wasn't bad, thanks. How about yours?"
Her dad taught tenth- and eleventh-grade remedial math for students who either were struggling with the basics or were behaviorally challenged--neither easy to work with. He muttered something unintelligible, then came back around the corner with a drink in one hand and the tense, uneasy look of someone who's just been pulled over for speeding. The cuffs of his shirt were rolled back and his tie had slipped out of the knot he'd put it in that morning.
"What's wrong?" she asked. "Have trouble in one of your classes today?"
He raised his eyebrows and grabbed the remote control. "Something like that." He flipped through the channels, then set his drink down and made a big production of rubbing his shoulder, slowly kneading it with the heel of his hand as if she was supposed to believe he was having a drink because it ached after a hard day of teaching and notbecause of the drinking problem they both knew he had. Disgusted, she lowered her gaze back to her textbook.
"Math exam?" he asked.
She nodded but didn't lift her head.
He turned off the TV and went down the hall to his bedroom; then she heard the telltale squeak of his closet door and knew he was looking for the bottle of vodka he kept hidden on the top shelf behind his suitcase--the one he thought she didn't know about. She swallowed hard, rubbed her temples, and went back to studying, dangling the fingers of one hand to entice Java back out.
It was five o'clock when she glanced up and saw a leggy redhead striding up their front steps. They almost never got company, and rarely anyone as crisp and all-business as this woman. Sensing something was wrong, Kenly frowned and slid off the couch, but her dad came down the hallway and pushed past her on unsteady legs. When he pulled the door open, Kenly saw the determined look on the redhead's face and guessed that these two weren't going to mix.
"Well, hel-lo." He let his eyes slide over the woman as if he had the right, then made a box with his fingers and peered through it with a lopsided grin. "Now isn't that a picture."
Kenly's stomach rolled and she tried to grab his arm, but he shook her off. Staggering back against the door, he motioned their visitor in with a dramatic sweep of one arm.
The woman didn't move. "Mr. Alister?"
He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, lit the last one, and tossed the empty pack on the floor. "Call me Steve."
She handed him an envelope. "Okay, Steve, this is for you."
His face darkened for a split second, and then he grinned with one side of his mouth, pulled hard on his cigarette, and blew smoke in a stream over her head. Kenly waited a half beat, slipped past him, and took theenvelope from the woman, nodding politely to her before closing the door. He had a tendency to push things too far, but when he was drinking they spiraled out of control even faster than usual.
Her hand was shaking when she gave him the envelope. "What's going on?"
He didn't answer, just tore it open and read the letter from top to bottom as she inspected one of her fingers, half-guessing at what he would say next. Finally he murmured, "It was time to move anyway."
"You can't be serious."
"Sometimes change is good."
But she saw his hands shaking and knew it wasn't true, knew he hated moving as much as she did, and saw the flicker of worry that told her he'd been fired again. A familiar feeling of panic rose up and circled her chest, looking for a spot to land. This would be their sixth move in less than three years. "I don't want to move."
"You're just nervous."
She leaned forward, trying again. "But it's hard making new friends."
"You do fine."
"Dad, you're not listening."
His eyes met hers and held them until she looked away. "I'm listening, Kenly, but it doesn't change the fact that we're moving."
Looking around the kitchen, her eyes settled on a stack of boxes she'd left by the back door weeks ago. Boxes she'd asked him to take out to the shed, filled with things they never used. One crammed with photo albums, another stuffed with camping gear, and the last one taped shut, her mom's broken studio stand wrapped up inside next to a bag of oil paints. Now the boxes would all be moved somewhere else, where no one knew Kenly and her dad, and where they'd get another new phone number and another fresh start.
As reality hit her in the face, Kenly's hopes evaporated and she left the room, rounding the corner into the hallway,where she stopped and pressed her back against the wall. Moving meant starting over again, and that thought sent a wave of nausea through her. She wanted to go back and ask him why. Why he kept getting fired, why he drank so much, and why he didn't seem to care about anything anymore. Grandma Alister often said he used to love the challenge of teaching, but that was years ago, before her mother died. Now he was the kind of teacher who didn't last in the good schools and couldn't even hold on to the jobs he found in small towns.
"He never got over losing your mother," Grandma would often say, defending him.
Kenly sighed, knowing that she'd seen the signs, but had ignored them. After all, he'd called in sick twice last week, and then Grandma had phoned when he didn't show up to drive her to Missoula. That alone should have set off alarm bells. A friend of Grandma's had won two tickets to a George Strait concert, and even though she was seventy-eight, Grandma couldn't wait to go. She thought George was the sexiest country singer alive, and going to his concert was all that she'd talked about for months.
Kenly's dad had been passed out on the couch while Grandma cried at the other end of the line--wilting sobs that made Kenly feel so sick she'd flopped into a chair, pinched her eyes shut, and lied. "He feels just sick about it, Gran. That stupid car of ours broke down again and ..." It was one of her better performances, and when she finally hung up, she flicked off the lights and went to bed, hoping that he'd sleep through the night and leave her alone. Often when he drank, he'd shake her awake in the middle of the night in one of his the-world-has-shit-on-me moods that made her so crazy. Then he'd sit on the edge of her bed and give her the same speech every time, the one he always offered to justify why he was who he was today.
"I met your mom the year I graduated from college, and do you know that the first time she smiled at me, I knew? The way you know when you've been looking foryears, dating lots of different women, waiting, and watching--absolutely certain of what it is that you're looking for. Then she shows up, isn't anything like you'd imagined, and you go stupid when she smiles at you."
He would slump forward with his elbows on his knees, like a man defeated by something he hadn't seen coming, then say, "Tell me, how are you supposed to keep going when you lose a woman like that?" Kenly never answered, just sat with her legs pulled against her chest, staring at his high bald forehead or scraping at the polish on her fingernails, listening until he ran out of steam.
Biting the inside of her cheek, she poked her head around the corner and watched him, bent at the waist and back humping convulsively as he dry-heaved into the kitchen sink. When he straightened, he opened the fridge freezer, dropped a handful of ice into a glass, and filled it with vodka from an almost-empty bottle he'd hidden in the pantry. She knew tomorrow he'd look for another job and then go through a week of predictable just-you-watch-me speeches when he found one, puffed up and full of bluster with a clean slate in front of him.
Heading for the back door, Java bolted between Kenly's legs into the kitchen, and her dad stumbled backward, almost tripping over her. "Neurotic bloody cat!" Pushing the screen door open, he kicked her outside, guzzled his drink, and threw the empty vodka bottle at the garbage can, but he missed and it shattered against the wall.
Kenly shrank back around the corner and crept downstairs to count how many boxes they had, how many they needed, and how long it would take to pack everything up again. When Java didn't come home later that night, Kenly spent an hour prowling the neighborhood, calling out for her. It was after midnight when she finally gave up, left the front door propped open with a soup can, and fell asleep on the couch, waiting for Java.
The next morning, she woke up when the screen door bounced shut against its frame. Sitting up, she leanedover the back of the couch and rubbed her eyes. Then they widened and she went absolutely still. Rain streaked sideways across the window, blown by the wind, but she could see her dad in the street using the toe of one foot to poke at Java's motionless body. Her heart started to pound until it filled her ears. Not Java!
Her dad bent over, slowly shaking his head.
Oh, God, please not Java!
He scooped her up with one hand and walked back to the house, the cat's limp body flopping back and forth in time with each step that he took. As Kenly watched, a rush of tenderness flowed through her, a hot sweetness she could almost taste as she clenched her fists against her knees. Java, as endearing as she was neurotic, twining herself around her ankles or trailing after her in the wet grass, shaking one foot and then the other before climbing into Kenly's lap and falling asleep curled nose to tail.
She slammed both palms against the window, startling her dad, and when he looked up, he gave her a brisk shake of his head that told her Java was dead. Unable to pull her eyes away, Kenly watched as he laid the cat in a cardboard box on the front steps and then disappeared with it around the corner of the house.
Chest heaving, she pressed her hands against her mouth to muffle what would fly out if she didn't hold it in. Then a burst of anger bubbled up inside, and she pushed off the couch and ran into the kitchen. Slipping on her shoes, she pushed the back door open and hurried down the steps. Her dad was next to the fence, shovel in hand as he stood over two yellow circles of dead grass where their garbage cans usually sat--the same garbage cans where he usually stashed all his empty vodka bottles, thinking she wouldn't see them.
Java was lying in the box on the ground next to him.
Kenly's legs felt like sacks of cement as she made her way across the yard, icy wind tunneling up her sleeves and pant legs. Java had been hers. Hers to feed and take care of, and hers to babble to at the end of each day, in aworld where she'd learned to make a game of each move that she and her dad made. How close would their new phone number be to their last? Would their new neighbors be married or single, old or young, have kids, grandkids, or pet parrots? (One of their neighbors the year before had had two.) Would their new house number be odd or even? Or would they live in a house at all? Maybe this time it'd be a trailer, or an apartment, or a drafty basement suite. She would jot down all her guesses, seal them in an envelope, and open it after they'd moved, writing in the correct answers next to each one.
She was crying when she came up to him, hands clenched before her. "L-let me d-do it."
He turned and raised his eyebrows. "Kenly."
Not allowing herself to look at Java, she motioned for him to give her the shovel. He gave her a worried look, but handed it to her, and at that moment, Kenly had no idea where she would bury Java, except, of course, not here. Not underneath two circles of dead grass where someone else's garbage would rot on top of her grave long after Kenly and her dad were gone.
Lightning zigzagged across the sky in the distance; then thunder boomed overhead. Holding the shovel in one hand, she picked up the box and cradled it under her arm, then walked out of their yard and down the alley to a path she knew would take her to a grassy hill--a quiet spot where she'd often brought Java when she did her homework.
And it was here that she buried her in the pouring rain.
Here that she struck her fists against her knees and hovered over Java's grave, crying in silence.
With each move, the loneliness had gotten worse, and Kenly became even more distanced from anyone she'd been close to before. When letters sent to old friends went unanswered, she'd stopped sending them, recognizing that her friends were busy and had moved on to other friends. No one visited Kenly and her dad anymore except a relative now and then or Grandma Alister, whodidn't travel much, although eventually she always showed up, no matter where they moved. Grandma never said much. She just walked in, gave a big smile, and took over. She would wander around the house, bony hands on her narrow hips, then set about organizing.
"Let's get you fed," she'd say, steering Kenly into the kitchen.
Kenly often wondered what it would have been like to have a mother like her. With arms that hugged tight and left you weak when they pulled away; arms you wanted to crawl straight into after you'd had a bad day. Grandma had a way of leaning forward when she listened that made Kenly feel like she mattered. She would perch on the edge of a chair and prop her chin in her hands, weighing every word Kenly said before offering any comments. And no matter what, she always found a sliver of good in everything.
The only time Kenly ever saw Grandma cry was the day that Kenly's mom died. The morning before that, Kenly had waved to her parents as they drove off for what was supposed to be just an overnight trip to a friend's wedding north of Chicago. Grandma was taking care of her and they spent that afternoon and evening rooting through old boxes in the attic.
The next morning, Grandma was pale when she slid into bed next to Kenly and told her that there had been an accident. Her mom was in the hospital and her dad wouldn't be home for a few days. Even though Kenly was only seven, she would never forget how scared she was when she came downstairs later that afternoon. Grandma was at the kitchen table with the phone beside her, receiver dangling to the floor, her hair falling out of its combs. Her face was in her arms and she was crying so hard that her back shook. Grandma crying like she wasn't Grandma anymore, and then the sound of her dad's voice at the other end of the phone when Kenly picked up the receiver and held it to her ear.
"Jesus, Mom, she's dead," he wailed. "Lara is dead ... ."
Kenly had stood there frozen with the phone against her ear until a warm stream of pee trickled down her legs and she, too, started to cry.
After that, things were never the same. Her dad sat alone in the living room for days after the funeral, never saying a word, even when Kenly curled up in the chair across from him. Then, when he was "let go" from his job six months later, it took him almost a year to find another one. She was nearly nine when they moved away from the only home she'd ever known in Chicago, and that's when the roller-coaster ride of moving from town to town had started, increasing in speed and intensity over the last few years.
There were things Kenly couldn't remember about her mom anymore, but there were some she knew she'd never forget, like how she could make Kenly's dad laugh the way no one else could or the way she used to whisper against Kenly's ear each night at bedtime, "I'm loving you, sweetie, and I'm always here if you need me." She had a habit of running her finger around the top of her teacup when she told stories in that hold-your-breath voice of hers Kenly loved so much, and she used to hunch forward and squint whenever she worked on one of her sculptures.
Although her mom had her teaching degree and taught at the same school Kenly's dad did, she loved to sculpt. The year Kenly turned four, her mother bought herself a studio stand and set it up in the basement, where she would often disappear for hours at a time. Kenly wasn't allowed to play with her kickwheel or any of her chisels or rasps, but she watched her use them as she lay stretched out on the floor at her feet. Her mom would tie on a canvas apron, hunch over, and work with the wet clay until her face and arms were covered with gray flecks of it. Now and then she'd stop and pull Kenly into her lap. She would adjust the seat, drop a lump of wet clay onto the flywheel, and make certain it was centered before she took Kenly by the elbows andgently shook out her arms to "get rid of the cobwebs" before they started.
"How do I do it?" Kenly would ask.
"Just close your eyes," her mom would say with a smile. "And let your hands tell you."
So Kenly would close her eyes and roll her thumbs in slow circles, dipping and curling them against the slick wet clay until something began to take shape and her heart started to pound with an eerie excitement.
"You'll know when it's right," her mom would whisper, pushing the hair off Kenly's face. "You'll feel it deep inside of you and then your hands just ... take over."
After she died, her dad often found Kenly outside, crying softly as she crouched next to a puddle of mud, fingers pressed deep into the slick muck underneath, staying close to her mother the only way she knew how. Shaking his head, he would scoop her up and carry her inside to wash her off without ever saying a word.
His drinking got worse after he lost the first job, and that's when the anger started to take over. Days after she turned nine, Kenly spent an hour one night huddled in a corner of the living room with her knees pulled to her chest, watching in horror as he stormed through the house methodically smashing every sculpture her mom had ever made. He was raging at a demon she couldn't see, eyes filled with anger and tears and something else she couldn't understand. Shards of ironstone and tiny pieces of gray boneware flew everywhere, landing on the furniture and all over the floor. There were even tiny pieces of it that stuck in her hair and came to rest against the bare skin of her feet.
When he was done, he made his way into the spare bedroom where they kept her mother's things and Kenly crept after him. Through the crack of the doorway, she watched him rise up on the balls of his feet and bring a hammer down against her mom's treasured studio stand again and again until it lay in broken pieces on the floor. Then he dropped to his knees and buried his face in hishands, sobbing, either unaware or unable to care that his daughter was watching.
Kenly crawled back into the living room, reached up to the shelf behind her mother's rocking chair, and snatched the one piece he'd missed. It was her favorite: three hands curled together and shooting up out of a clay base. A man's thick, callused fingers engulfed a slender woman's hand, and the pudgy fingers of a child's curled into a tiny fist between them. Beneath it, on a small brass plate, was one word: family.
She sank back into the corner, instinctively knowing that if he saw it, he'd smash it, too. She curled the bottom of her nightshirt over it and pushed it deep into her lap, sitting small and still until she could sneak upstairs and hide it. The next morning, she went looking for her mom's leather sculpting pouch with her chisels and rasps rolled up inside and the rocket-red scarf she used to wear around her neck. She found the pouch in an old canvas jacket and the scarf inside a box of clothes marked for giveaway, and over the years, whenever they moved, these were the first things she packed to take with her.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON, KENLY SLIPPED THROUGH THE front door, sniffed the air, and managed a small smile. The aroma of fresh baked bread was everywhere, and that meant Grandma Alister was here. She dropped her jacket on the couch and then froze when she heard Grandma's voice.
"Damn it, Steven, it's time to get a hold of your life!"
"I'm doing the best I can." His voice was flinty, like it got whenever anyone told him what to do.
"What kind of life is this for Kenly?"
"It'll have to do."
"It's pathetic and you know it."
He sighed. "Look, you know damned well Lara begged me to have a kid for years so I finally agreed, but raisingher on my own was never part of the plan. All things considered, I think we do just fine."
Kenly felt like she was in a badly written movie and not the hallway of their dilapidated town house. The air suddenly got thick and there wasn't enough of it as she pressed her hands together to stop them from trembling.
"What the hell happened to you?" Grandma asked, the devotion to her only child overshadowed by a disgust Kenly had never heard before. "I'd like to think it's the booze talking when you say garbage like that, but sometimes I worry that it goes deeper and then I wonder what kind of son I managed to raise."
Her dad's silence was a punishment of sorts, and Kenly knew he was probably standing there with his jaw tight and his arms crossed. There was a long silence, and Grandma finally sighed. "Well, it's a little late to change things now, isn't it? Kenly's your daughter, and I think it's time you put her first for a change."
Her dad sat down hard, the feet of his chair scraping against the kitchen floor. "Do you know that after she was born, every time I tried to hold that kid, she cried? Christ, I felt like I'd grown a third eyeball or something. But not Lara. She could cuddle her, make dinner, and have the phone tucked under her chin, all at once, and Kenly would grin like an angel just because her mom was holding her."
Kenly covered her ears and shook her head to clear the image that came to mind. The one where she had a mother who bounced her against one hip while she made dinner, folding her into her life the way someone does with a child she loves--the way her dad never had. Taking slow breaths, she tried to imagine what Grandma was wearing to get her mind on something else. She knew her long gray hair would be pulled up in that wispy way she had, where a few strands always fell out of their combs and caressed the back of her neck.
"seven, how often have you tried spending time with her since Lara died?" Grandma asked. "And I don't meantime spent breathing or eating or doing laundry together. I mean moments or hours or days when you're just with her because you want to be."
Kenly closed her eyes. She'll have a dress on, like she always does, and her narrow feet will be pressed into her favorite slippers.
Her dad didn't answer. Instead he carried on with his own thoughts, murmuring in a low voice. "Sometimes when I look at her, she's so much like Lara it stuns me ... ."
And her shoes will be at the back door where she always leaves them; next to that tattered canvas bag she carries, filled with all her knitting things.
" ... and it takes me right back to the day she died--"
Grandma's voice cut in, interrupting him. "I don't want to hear this!"
"Well, maybe you should."
Kenly grabbed her knapsack and slipped outside, tears threatening to spill as she hurried along the side of the house, across the yard, and into the back lane. The gate shut behind her and she traipsed back and forth along the fence where she couldn't be seen, crossing and uncrossing her arms. Where do you go when you feel like you don't belong anywhere? she wondered for the hundredth time. She couldn't stay with Grandma, who lived in a seniors' complex in Kalispell with forty other old people. She knew she could visit (the management had, on occasion, moved a cot into Grandma's room so Kenly could stay the night), but moving in wasn't an option. And she did have an uncle in San Francisco, but even though he was her mom's brother and had been polite to her the few times she'd met him, he didn't seem like the type who'd throw his arms wide if she showed up on his doorstep asking to move in.
As she leaned against the fence, a tiny flash of movement caught her eye. Turning, she saw a spiderweb built into one corner near the gate, with dozens of intricate, silklike strands glistening in the sun. Caught in the middlewas a fly with one of his wings stuck and the other flapping as he tried to free himself. Kenly unzipped her knapsack, grabbed a pencil, and carefully broke the strands that trapped him, then lowered him onto the grass, where he sputtered up into the air and back down again a few times. A sad smile worked its way across her face as she watched and she found herself thinking, Well, there you go. At least now you have options.
A WEEK LATER, SHE WAS READING IN HER BEDROOM when her dad called her into the kitchen to break the news that he'd taken a teaching job in Canada.
"In northern Alberta. You'll love it."
She stood so fast that her chair fell over. "Are you trying to be funny?"
He closed his eyes.
"Because this really isn't funny."
"Athabasca is the name of the town," he said, talking slower now and with exaggerated patience, "and there are only four hundred kids in the entire high school."
She dug her hands into her hair and groaned. "This just keeps getting worse, doesn't it? I mean, two years ago we moved from Billings to Rapid City, where you told me I'd love living in the hills and visiting Mount Rushmore whenever I wanted. We were there six months, Dad, and I never even saw Rushmore. Then it was off to Idaho, where you spent three days a week teaching part-time in Boise and the other four drinking ... ."
"I don't need this crap from you." His voice was cold and detached, like he didn't care what she thought.
She ignored him, pacing back and forth across the kitchen. "After Boise, it was Grandma who got you this job, wasn't it? Someone she knew who knew someone else in Kalispell with just enough pull to get you a teaching job here, where it would be a lot harder to come upwith reasons to avoid seeing her more than twice a year."
"Don't be a smart-ass with me," he said, raising a finger and jabbing it into the air between them.
Kenly stared at his finger, then picked up the chair, and stood it back at the table. She wanted to ask him what made him hate himself so much. What was it that life had dished out to him that was any worse than what it gave everyone else? She curled her hands around the back of the chair, opened her mouth, and hesitated. Here we go again , she thought, and as she stood there she was saddened beyond explanation. She'd let her guard down months ago and had even considered painting her bedroom, then allowed herself the luxury of imagining what kind of graduation dress she'd wear when she finished twelfth grade here in Montana. But now those daydreams wilted like a flower and evaporated completely when her dad lifted his eyebrows and gave her a look that told her whatever she had to say would be a waste of time.
"I'm not packing your things this time," she said, her voice catching.
She turned and left the room with her shoulders squared and tears in her eyes, then closed her bedroom door and lay across her unmade bed. Minutes later she heard him leave, and when the sound of his car faded into the distance, she got up and dug an old pair of running shoes out of her closet. They didn't fit anymore. The last time she'd worn them she was nine, but they had a row of notches carved into the outside of each rubber sole: one for every move they'd made since her mom had died. Taking out the pocketknife her dad had given her for Christmas, Kenly sat on the edge of her bed and carefully cut one more notch into each sole, not bothering to count how many there were.