Three generations are buried on Wheeler land, starting with Great-Grandaddy Winston, the only one to live up to the surname. A far-traveller, he was. Crossed seven county lines to reach Napanee, carting a new wife, her faith in the old gods, and a wagonload of beehives along with him. Winston named his first and only child Queenie, back when he still held high hopes for honey riches, but slipped into the habit of calling her Teenie when she grew no bigger than his bank account.
After planting her Pops in the first mound out back, Teenie took root on the homestead, settling it and the household accounts. Had such a knack for numbers, in fact, she saved up for a pesticide rig that kept the larder well-stocked, the fields bug-free and her son in a job for life. In her seventy-odd years, she never took no man’s name, nor his hand in wedlock. But, on one occasion at least, she invited him into her bed—and kicked him back out again long, long before she birthed that plane-loving heir of hers.
Nowadays, Queenie surveys her property upwards from the wormside of mound number two, while her boy most often sees it from the clouds. When Buddy Wheeler brings that Piper Cub of his in for a landing, stinking of diesel and creosote, his own daughter Bets teases him something merciless. Poking and prodding, she checks him for extra limbs, sudden chemical-spawned tentacles, or indiglo skin. If he minds, he sure doesn’t show it: Bets’ daddy knows how to take a joke. He’s open-minded. He gets the bigger picture. Always has.
Winging hither and yon in that bi-plane of his, Buddy’s seen far beyond the confines of this hand-me-down property, this cornbread county. Way farther than Bets or her Mamma ever did.
Once upon a time, before Queenie had wheeled groundwards, Buddy used to haw on the harmonica between harvests. Even gathered a decent following—or so he says—at honkytonks here, there, and everywhere, thanks to the unique style of bluegrass he played. Tunes whined extra soulful against that ugly set of metal teeth he wore, temporary inserts he kept in permanent on account of the sharp glint they gave off, the steel shine they lent his smile.
“These chompers of mine’s worth their weight in twenties,” Bets’ daddy used to say, especially when whiskey-soaked, too numb to fly anywheres much less lift a blues-harp to his lips. Thick-tongued, he’d toy with the bridge, running the blunt tip along silver valleys and peaks. “They’s the brightest map outta here, understand? The trustiest, most valuable map . . . ”
Mesmerised, baby-girl Bets had watched the thing wiggle in and out of his mouth. She’d read about touch-maps them Artick injuns used, little sculptures that looked every bit like her daddy’s teeth, except they were whittled hunks of wood. Those carvings’ dips and whorls, Bets later learned, were landscapes shrunk small, coastlines and mountain ranges tucked in pockets or carried inside seal-fur mitts. Portable 3D worlds, in other words, and more reliable than paper or memory. At high noon or moon-dark, travellers could run fingers over them cracks and bumps to get their bearings, certain they’d never be led astray.
Now standing on the back porch her Nanna Teenie built, Bets hefts a shovel and looks out on the hummocked land Great-Grandaddy Winston claimed. Releasing a pent breath, she pats her back pocket for the hundredth time that morning, feels the folded paper’s reassuring crinkle. Guts all a-flutter, she sends a silent prayer to the gods. Thanking any and all of them for blurring Daddy’s sights with clouds and moonshine, filling his mouth with them precious silver directions. Asking—not begging, she’s too reasonable for that—any and all of them to look kindly on her venture, to reward her for putting herself out there, putting on a brave show. Gods favour the bold, she tells herself, hoping their invisible eyes have already turned her way. Hoping they’ll approve. Hoping they won’t leave her stranded.
More than halfway through spring, the ground’s still almost hard as it was in mid-January. The last shaded knolls of snow finally sank about a week ago, leaving patches of grit on winter-squashed grass in the backyard. Filth gathers like crumbled shadows under the boundary’s split timber fences. Weathered barriers divide dirt for the living from that for the dead, keeping ever-fallow acres separate from budding maples and crabapple trees, and from planting-fields in the back forty beyond.
In the distance, a range of low mountains gently curves across the horizon. Each greystone peak is bare and blunt as a molar. Six or seven of the things are pressed close together, so’s the ridge as a whole looks to Bets like a broken set of dentures. Closer to home, between the rusted swing-set she used to ride for hours—failing to muster enough courage to leap off the seat at its highest point, to wind up and let go, to fly—and the ploughed rows waiting for the new season’s crop, three soft hillocks push their swollen bellies out of the earth.
Until last autumn there’d only been the two big ones on the left, bulging side by side, reminding Bets of that joke about Dolly Parton lying in the bathtub. Islands in the Stream. Now that the third’s been added, a much smaller mound they barely got covered in burlap before the blizzards set in, she thinks the trio looks more like a giant snowman got drunk and toppled over, his soft noggin slumped to the right. It was a hasty job, building that grave, but Mamma only became more pig-headed when upset, less inclined to listen to—much less heed—anyone else’s advice. She’d wanted that soil piled high while the body was still warm, understand? It wasn’t skimping if it meant getting her own way. Hell no it wasn’t. Just get the burial over and done.
Don’t cut no spirit ditch round the site, she’d said to the teamsters Daddy had booked for the job ages ago. Waste of time. Any soul what can scrape its way free from all this ain’t going to trip up on a little ol’ channel in the ground. Don’t be too precious with the backhoe; the hole ain’t got to be perfect, just deep. Y’all know the drill. Speaking of which: don’t fetch no auger for this dig, no concrete, none of them posts neither, nor them two-by-fours, nor them planks. Why fuss with tombs or chambers when already we’re sinking a case of good steel down there? How many coffins does one corpse need, anyways? This ain’t ancient Egypt and sure as hell ain’t no pharaohs round here. Waste of good money, that’s all this burial business is, a waste of good goddamn cash. Go’on and bulldoze the dirt back where it were scooped from; we’ll tamp it ourselves later on. Nope, nope. Don’t bother stacking no cairn over the whole shebang. Our goats can’t graze on no goddamn heap of stones.
When it came time, Mamma wanted the mess of death scrubbed clean out her house, swept from the yard, put in its place. Out of sight, out of mind.
Red Lucifer’ll trade his pitchfork for a halo, Bets knows, before the old lady ever admits she might or should have done otherwise.
There’s a whiff of clay in the breeze this morning, damp leaves and workable mud. Bets tucks the legs of her baggy overalls into knee-high rubber boots. Zips her acid-wash jacket up to the chin. Sucks in cool air, breathes it out warm. It’s too early yet for the sun to offer much in the way of heat, but already it’s squint-making, bright as the bell-song luring folk down the lane to church.
“Ain’t going to make much progress with that,” Daddy had said a few minutes ago—words slurring across his bare gums—before answering that bronze-tongued call hisself. Normally, the cinder shovel Bets swipes from the fireplace set goes unnoticed; it’s so small, she’s carried it outside three times this week alone, used and returned it, without once getting caught. Today, though, she’d misjudged. Thinking he’d already jammed a cap over his balding head, pocketed a few coins for the collection plate, and hustled off to Mass, Bets had snuck into the sitting room and lifted the tool. She’d made it down the hall, through the kitchen, and had just slipped her boots on when Daddy had come clomping up the back steps.
“Forgot my Hail Marys,” he’d mumbled. Reaching inside the door, he snagged a strand of beads off the key rack. Stopping long enough to deride Bets’ choice of shovel. Not to ask why she was digging. Or where. Or what she hoped to find. Not to make a better suggestion.
Only to offer another two cents out of an endless wealth of criticism.
“Reckon Mamma had the right of it,” Bets had muttered after him. “Without teeth, you sound just as stupid as you look.”
Now she waits for the bells to hush before setting out across the yard. Blue jays razz her from cedar bushes nearby. Further afield, nuthatches and robins chirrup between the stark cornrows, beckoning her with sweet promises of summer. Smiling, she wonders what tunes birds warble in the city, if their notes are smoggy, thick with tar and rust. She tosses the shovel over the low fence, clambers after it, then trudges round to the newest mound’s far side. In the field beyond, cheeping their hayseed chorus, a crew of brown-hooded sparrows scolds her for being late. Bold little buggers, they flit and hop and pip-pip-pip as Bets unearths a feast of worms.
Despite the harsh ground and harsher opinions, she has made decent headway. Kneeling in the groove she made yesterday, Bets digs into a hole already deep and wide as an apple barrel. The shovel’s cast iron pan shunts into cold soil, clanging against pebbles. Scoop after scoop of dirt avalanches down the mound beside her, slow but steady. A regular rhythm of progress.
Few more hours should do it, Bets reckons. Not quite so long as it’ll take Daddy to cycle through his Thorsday rituals. Reverend’s sermon always runs just shy of noon. Wine and bread comes next. Confession and penance after that. Once all tears have been sopped and hankies wrung dry, the congregation drags itself a half-mile north for a palate cleanser of donuts, cherry pie, and sweet tea. As afternoon shadows start reaching for night, folk dust the icing sugar from their laps, brush the crumbs from their whiskers, drain their cups. A short march through the diner’s parking lot and they’ve left the vinyl and Muzak, but not the sugar buzz behind them. After fetching cats and boars and billy-goats from pickup trucks on the way, they assemble in the Lady’s glade beyond the streetlights. Knives come out in the gloaming. Bowls.
By the time these gifts have been offered and accepted, the ale-horn passed round, blood and verses spattered upon ancient oaks, Bets is bound to be done digging. She’ll have made it through. And down. And out.
All by herself.
All with folks none the wiser.
Bets learned real young to keep any hopes to herself. Any efforts. To dream the same way she now shovels. Carefully. Quietly. Secretly.
It’s the only way to stave off collapse.
Bets must’ve been ten or eleven when she first recognised that sudden burn in her belly, that hot flutter above her liver, for what it was. Not instinct so much as a flash of true understanding, a gut-deep feeling of rightness, of knowing what she has to do, what’s to come. Call it a psychic moment. Call it divine intervention. Call it grit. When faced with important decisions—say, whether or not to sing at the Sunday school talent show—Bets felt a blazing hand gripping her innards. Twisting her resolve. Yanking her across the line between missing out and daring to try.
Silently telling her which path to choose, which future to follow.
Truth be told, the talent show was no big deal. A bunch of local folk and their kids gathered in the church’s back room, Reverend on steel guitar and Miss Shayanne on piano. There were no prizes, no ribbons, no certificates. All the same, it was a challenge for a shy gal like Bets. A chance to be seen. To be heard.
To be noticed.
So she’d picked “Song for the Asking”, a number she loved, one that ran well short of two minutes. A minute and a half, really. Next to nothing. In the lead-up she’d practically wore new grooves into Daddy’s 45 LP, replaying that tune on the spinner in her bedroom, memorizing the words. Singing quietly, ignoring the strain on her throat. Bets had never mastered any instruments—she could get through “Heart and Soul” on her plug-in keyboard, and the first few bars of Stand by Me—so she’d decided to sing a capella. She’d wondered what the phrase meant, so went to the bookmobile and looked it up. A capella. In the manner of the chapel. Arranged that way, the familiar letters felt foreign on her tongue. Strange and lonely. Fitting, she reckoned. After all, it’s just going to be her voice, open and vulnerable. Just her and whatever ears might listen.
Nerves jittered her down the gravel road to the church, then kept her standing in the small square room while most grown-ups sat on cheap plastic chairs, kids cross-legged on the floor. As other acts drew applause—for what, Bets can’t recall—she leaned against one of many pin-boards, sweater snagging on hymns and construction paper art. Gaze fixed on her boots, she strained to remember the first line of her song. Grasped for the verses dribbling out of her mind. Blanked at the whole melody.
When Reverend finally called her name, so many faces had turned her way, some clearly bored, some smiling. Jesus and all them other wooden gods frowned down at her from painted bricks on high. Breath coming fast and shallow, Bets had pushed herself away from the wall. Heels scuffing between rows of seats, she’d made it to the front of the room. Swayed there a minute. Searching the darkness inside her skull, desperate for the right words.
Thinking it over I’ve—
So sweetly I’ll make you—
Ignoring the burn, the twist, the knowing yank in her guts, she’d lifted her chin. Smiled at her audience. Chickened out.
“I still sang,” she’d told Mamma later. Her folks hadn’t known about the contest; it hadn’t been in her plan to tell them at all. Her plan, such as it was, had been to amaze the crowd with her talent. To blow them so far away, it’d take weeks to bring ’em back down to earth. We heard your gal the other day, they’d gush to Mamma and Daddy at the Holloway feed store or the Napanee auction house or the gas station at Miller’s Point. They’d brag on Bets’ behalf. What a set of pipes she gots! Swear to God, that child’s part canary.
The plan, such as it was, had been to surprise them into being proud.
Once it was over, though, Bets knew she’d missed the mark. Knew it but wanted to be told she hadn’t done half bad. That she’d come close, which wasn’t nothing. That she’d thunk on her feet, even, changing songs at the last minute, choosing a tongue-twisting choir tune folks could tap their feet to, instead of a two minute lullaby. That she’d done something, hadn’t she just, never mind that she was only a kid.
“I hit all the notes, got all the words,” Bets had said. Standing stiff in her bedroom doorway, she’d admitted failure to her mother’s back. High up on a barstool, Mamma was hanging wallpaper she’d got on clearance: Christmas green spattered with cream-coloured hearts. Bets had wanted navy, plain and dark and classy. Mamma had said it was too boring. Too mature. Too expensive. It was hearts or Holly Hobbie. Her choice.
“Everyone was right kind. Clapping and whistling like that.” Bets had paused, grasping. “Still, I wish I’d done the other song.”
“Guess you should’ve practised more,” Mamma had said, without so much as a glance over her shoulder. Cocking her head, she ran her palms over the strip she’d just hung, checking for bubbles. Glue smacked underneath each blister she’d found. The paper bulged, resisting each poke, each prod.
“Hand me a pin,” Mamma had said.
The hole’s waist-deep when Bets breaks for water and a piece of cold chicken. She swigs out of a dented plastic bottle. Gnaws fried flesh straight from the bone. Sweat’s collecting above her lip, trickling down her temples and back, so she unzips her jacket and lets the breeze whisk the salt from her skin. Better that, she thinks, than going underhill like a living salt-lick. Practically begging ghosts to rasp their dry tongues across her damp places when, really, she’d rather they didn’t.
Nanna Teenie has only done it the once, drawling a long cow-slurp across the cheek, after Bets had crawled into her grave that long-ago Sunday, determined to sing that goddamn tune from start to finish. Never said nothing, did Nan, but neither did she discourage. As a rule, she nodded way more than ever she shook that veiled head of hers. Like Mamma, she wasn’t all that keen on hugging, but showed affection in other ways. She paid attention when Bets read aloud from her library books: atlases, mostly; outdated encyclopedias; dictionaries, so she’ll know what’s what. While Bets twanged through the entries, Nanna Tee placed a cold hand atop her warm one, squeezing support. And just that once, licking.
“Thanks, Nan,” Bets had said, always meaning it, even while inching away. Far as she’s concerned, it was a lucky bolt of storm-light that had cracked the middle mound’s shell. A garden trowel Bets had wielded just so built on that god’s work, widening a gap between the metal struts and scaffolding that held the burial chamber up, keeping the space below clear if not always dry. Most times Bets visited Nanna Tee—dropping through dirt, then dank air, then a hole torn in the soft-top of a ’57 Buick—she wound up shivering on the car’s oversized front seat, wet as clay.
Stuck behind the wheel of her finned casket, the old revenant really listens. Teenie doesn’t agree with Bets just for the sake of it, but doesn’t patronize. She’s there for Bets, body and spirit. She’s present.
Mamma pretended not to know about the tunnel Bets had followed into her grandmother’s chamber, nor the tarp she’d taken from the garage to cover it. She and Daddy never did care much what Bets did with her time, so long as she kept to herself, and kept that sameself here. After seventeen years under their roof, she’s still cheaper than hiring seasonal labour and, in the long run, easier to manage. Though Winston and Queenie once thought it grand indeed, their farm’s really too small to support many hands; the annual yield’s not worth the price of extra mouths nor fancy machinery to replace ’em. A full pantry come winter relies on Bets helping with the spring planting, the harvest come fall. If she chooses to burrow into the dead lands in between, so be it. No reason the girl shouldn’t always be covered in dirt.
Whenever Daddy was away dusting crops, doors were best kept closed at their place. Eyes lowered. Sketchpads held close to the chest. Notebooks scribbled in at night, under cover. Songs breathed, not even hummed. Unseen, unheard, Bets listened while Mamma grumbled on the phone about the sorry state of her house. Her marriage. Her life.
Sure as sunrise, the Aunties would come over next morning, armed with bottles and casks, to float Mamma out of her funk. They’d have Dolly on the turntable, a glass in each hand, smokes burning between chapped lips. The lot of ’em hooting and hollering, having such fun, it never failed to entice Bets into the living room. Soon as she peeped round the jamb, they’d call her in, put her on the spot, ask after her drawings or beg for a ditty, using words like clever and perceptive and dark-horse when she’d finally relent and pass her rough pictures round. Clutching her calico skirt, she’d creep in closer, passing the couch and coffee table, the uncomfortable rocker, and step up on the cold stone hearth to watch the hens peck and cackle. Searching for falsehoods in their flattery. Condescension in their comments. Finding none.
When they put the sketches aside, Bets saw their honesty, generous and plain. They wanted nothing from her but delight, maybe a song. Puffed as a robin, she’d sing ’til her face was pinker than theirs.
“Enough showing off,” Mamma always snapped too soon, shooing Bets out.
“Let her stay, Gayle,” said the Aunties, but by then Bets was already gone. Back down the hall, back to her books and paints. Back on her lonesome.
The cinder shovel’s small but sturdy, the worn handle a good fit for Bets’ grip. The blade’s got some new notches and the shaft is bending, but it’s holding up, keeping pace. Shunt, spill, shunt, spill, shunt, spill. Bets grunts as she digs, conserves energy by tipping the dirt gently beside her instead of tossing it like a stupid cartoon character. Folk who don’t turn soil for a living have some highfalutin notions about work like this—suburbanites and city slickers pay top dollar to visit hobby farms, to crouch in their chinos and pull weeds for a spell, to shove their manicured hands in manure for a weekend and call it a Zen experience. Being in the moment. Focusing on the now.
Horseshit, Bets thinks, shunting, spilling. There’s nothing relaxing about the pain in her lower back, the crick in her neck, the afternoon sunlight glaring off the dregs of water left in her bottle. With every spadeful, she’s time-travelling. Imagining herself elsewhere. The past. The future. Anywhere but the present.
Anywhere but here.
There had to be someplace to start, she’d thought. Some first step she could take. Some way to catch a break.
“Maybe I could get a gig at the Sugar Spoon,” Bets had suggested after dinner one night, when Mamma was mellowing on the couch with a cigarette and a bit of cross-stitch. There’d been an ad in the paper the day before, a local ragtime band looking for backup vocalists. Black and white, no pictures, the opportunity had been crammed in a few lines of text, printed between a psalm and a call for pageant judges.
She’d run the idea past Nanna Teenie that morning; the old ghost had nodded, squeezed, flapped her mouth enthusiastically. No harm in trying, Bets believed Nan’d said. So she’d dusted off the grave-dirt, gussied herself up, gone down to the saloon and auditioned before she could overthink herself out of doing it.
This time Bets performed the song she’d intended. Start to finish. And she’d done all right, maybe more than all right, her voice trembling only when she wanted. They said they’d call her tonight or tomorrow.
They’d smiled and said she was good.
Every time the phone rang, her belly squirmed.
“I hear they might be looking for singers,” Bets had said, aiming for aloof, managing something more like half-contained fidget. Now that she’d already gone and done it, it was safer to broach the topic. Mamma couldn’t ruin it after the fact. “Maybe I could try out,” she said.
Mamma had tied off a thread, then reached for her smoke, balanced it between her needle-fingers. She took such a long drag, her chest rattled.
“Be reasonable,” she’d said, squinting, exhaling clouds. “This ain’t but another whim. Ain’t it. When’s the last time you picked up a pencil? Or played that keyboard of yours? This ain’t no different. You ain’t no singer, Bets. It’s just a phase.”
“But,” Bets had begun. Stopping as the phone rang.
“Get that,” Mamma had said, getting up. Heading off to the john. “I’ve had so much tea tonight my back teeth are floating.”
“Got it,” Bets had replied. Reaching over to the side table, she’d laid her hand on the receiver. Didn’t pick up.
She isn’t asking much. Not some round-the-world cruise on a ship bigger than Napanee County. Not a million dollar lotto win. Not to be fawned over in fancy-girl dress shops like those snobby ladies did Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman—a film Bets had adored, immediately and profoundly, and was foolish enough to say so. While the credits rolled on their TV, she’d sighed happily, hand fluttering up to her heart. “That was so good.”
“Bets is found herself a new calling,” Daddy had said from the recliner, loud so’s Mamma could hear it from the kitchen. “Fancies she’s gonna be a hoor.”
She can still feel the heat of that flush. The lump jagging in her throat. The teary anger at being so misunderstood.
“It’s just a movie,” Daddy had said, laughing, clicking those damn silver teeth of his. “And you ain’t got the figure to make that kind of money.”
All Bets wants is to live a while in the city. Downtown. In an apartment. A sleek one with granite countertops and stainless steel fittings, picture windows without curtains, and halogen bulbs inset in white ceilings, beaming down like alien spotlights. She wants a place with no yard.
She thinks about the type of someone she’d have to become to match those upmarket joints. A catalogue model. A regular guest at the Grand Ole Opry. A rich man’s wife.
Nope, Bets thinks, digging, digging. Scratch that last one.
If she can’t find her own shine, she might as well stay home.
Shunt, spill. One little dig after another, accumulating, really gets her pulse going. She braces herself against the mound as the ground shifts beneath her feet. The crest is rising up fast in front of her; if anyone looked out the kitchen window right about now, they’d glimpse her blonde bangs over the ridge, her hair teased up in a wave that’s beginning to droop. They’d see the cool arcs of brows she’s spent hours upon hours plucking. Pale green eyes that blink too much, fluttering to shut out a world that doesn’t yet match the one hidden behind her lids.
Although this third grave’s much smaller than the one Nanna Tee’s in, it’s still big enough to swallow a heavy duty Silverado whole. From chassis to skylight, quadruple headlights to a tray that can haul over three thousand pounds, the pickup’s well and truly covered. No sense burying nothing useful, nothing valuable, Mamma insisted. Sink rustbuckets instead of good timber.
Always was so practical, her Mamma. Never did nothing without a solid reason. Never acted on a whim.
Bets straightens up, cuffs the sweat from her brow. Pauses to take in the familiar view one last time. The flag jutting out from the house’s back gable, parachute fabric snapping in the breeze. All those red and white lines pointing nowheres, those jagged stars fading to nothing. At the end of the driveway, the rickety toolshed. She won’t miss its oil stink, its spiders, its stubborn door. By the stoop, there’s the swan-shaped planters Mamma bought at a flea market, cracked from too many cold snaps. The bleeding-heart bushes have grown wild around them, weird flowers bobbing in grass that was overgrown long before winter, and has now sickened into a yard of pukey yellow-green. Phlegmatic. That’s another word Bets once looked up: means apathetic, unflappable. Literally, she thinks, looking at that useless lawn. So heavy and dull, even the wind can’t budge it.
Nothing shiny round here, Bets knows, but what’s underground.
Singing low, she keeps digging until she hits some.
Soon as Bets strikes metal, she tosses the shovel and starts using her hands instead. She’s not worried about damaging the truck—the thing was a piece of shit long before it was buried—only, she wants to reach the cab without having the whole damn thing cave in. Between each scoop, she packs the dirt walls around and above her, suddenly grateful for the ground-freeze keeping the mound’s earthen lid stiffly in place. The sloping tunnel is now twice her width and half again as tall. Cursing Mamma’s stubbornness—it’d be so much easier if the pickup had been parked inside a cavern, the way Winston’s jalopy and Nanna Tee’s Buick were—Bets crouch-claws down to the bottom. Does her best terrier impression. Sprays soil up and out the hole behind her.
Luckily, her aim isn’t too far off target. A window’s topmost edge is poking up from the ground in front of her: not the windshield she’d expected, but the driver’s side door. Scraping her fingers raw, she cleans the glass bit by bit, wiping away grime and the fog of her breath, until the pane is mostly clear. A ragged circle of light filters in over Bets’ shoulder, reflecting grey on the panel’s upper right corner. In blue shadows inside the truck’s cab, a slight figure is buckled behind the wheel, dressed in her Thorsday best. Lace-gloved hands folded in her lap. Permed head bowed as though praying. Refusing to look up.
“Open up, Mamma,” Bets says, knuckles rapping on the glass. “Don’t make me break in.”
Mamma’s gaze flicks to the door, then back to her knees. Slowly, she bunches the lengths of her black skirt up onto her thighs, twisting the fabric around a glint of silver. Patting it in place, she straightens her shoulders. Rearranges her tarnished necklace, nestling the cross between ruffles on her blouse. Tilts the rearview mirror and fusses a minute with her hair. Acts like she’s alone. As ever.
“Come on,” Bets snipes, knocking harder. “Mamma.”
The ghost rolls her eyes, unrolls the window. Soon as it’s cracked an inch, a dank gust of air whooshes out, reeking of smoke and tar and hospital-grade antiseptic. All the stinks of life that led her into death, clinging for eternity. It wasn’t dramatic, Mamma’s end. It was efficient. Expected. Not trusting anyone else to get the details right, she’d made all the arrangements herself. Hedging bets, she’d asked Reverend to send her off, ashes to ashes and all that jazz, then invited the Lady’s diner sect to drive her into the ground.
That’s my girl, Daddy had said proudly, before Mamma went and stole his smile for good. Keeping it for herself.
“Got my license,” Bets says, talking fast so Mamma won’t interrupt. “And a spot on the bookmobile’s roster. From next week, I’ll be driving the Napanee—Athabaska route. It’s not much, but . . . ”
Bets stops, swallows. Keeping her gaze down—if the gods are watching, they’re watching, whether she’s under wide skies or close earth—she wriggles onto one elbow, reaches back with her free hand. Paper crackles as she drags the map from her pocket, then smooths it between filthy palms. Scrawled on a scrap torn from an old sketchbook, the road-lines are messes of crayon, the landmarks smudges of multicoloured chalk, the street names and compass arrows scribbled in illegible marker. No matter which way it’s held, the thing’s damn near impossible to read. A kindergarten kid could’ve done better, no doubt about that.
Good thing you’re set on broadening your horizons, girl, Daddy’d said when Bets showed it to him yesterday. Most Wheelers know these roads inside out, but this . . . He’d shaken his head, turning the map this way and that. If you ain’t inherited my sense of direction, well, you’d better ask yer Mamma for the next best thing. Reckon she’ll give it to you easier’n she will me.
But Bets knows Mamma never gave anything so easily as she did criticism, followed by her own—the only—opinion. Death won’t have changed her mother that much.
She’s counting on it.
Steeling her resolve, Bets holds out the drawing, keeping her hand flat and low, close enough for Mamma to lick. It really is the worst piece of art she’s ever crafted, as appalling in the gloom as it is in full bright, but Bets yammers like she has so many times before when showing off what she’s made. Too quick, too eager for approval.
“The bookmobile stops in the city twice a month to restock,” she says, pointing. “Here and here and there. Don’t know exactly where else I’m headed, but probably we’ll follow the river,” she wags her finger at a splotch and a purple squiggle, “then motor alongside the canyon a whiles.” Brown penciled nonsense cuts across the page, so ugly Bets can hardly bear looking at it. “Reckon this map’s going to lead me on some grand adventures, don’t you?”
Chin lifted, Mamma rolls her eyes at the thing.
Don’t hold back now, Bets thinks, suppressing a grin when Mamma uncrosses her arms, snatches and crumples the page.
How will you ever get by, the ghost’s blue sneer seems to say. Magnanimous, Mamma fumbles at her skirt, freeing Daddy’s silver-toothed map from the wool’s dark folds. With a huff, she tosses it up into the dirt tunnel. Don’t let me stop you.
“Oh,” Bets says, smiling at last, running a thumb over the mouth-piece’s worn ridges. A new song tickling her lips. A coal of certainty burning hot in her belly. “I won’t.”