Every Story Is a Confession
Is renewing an old friendship always the right thing to do? Maybe not.
It happened only because Dean Caudle decided that Yonder needed more culture. First, he set up a little gallery on the square to display his wife’s paintings of bluebonnet fields and windmills. Then he told Jo Moltbee, the mayor, that he’d foot the bill if she could somehow convince Annette Brashear to come home for an event of some sort.
Excited at the prospect of rubbing elbows with a celebrity, Jo got to work. Soon enough, she was emailing back and forth with a booking agent in New York. And soon after that, she learned Annette was agreeable. There was only one thing left to take care of, which is how Ruth Throckmorton found herself sitting across from the mayor at El Rancho Grande one Thursday, waiting for her Jalisco platter to cool enough to eat.
Having filled Ruth in on her correspondence with Carlos, the booking agent, Jo said, “There’s just one thing left: he said she’d like to stay with you.”
Ruth tilted the last lumps of a frozen margarita onto her tongue to hide her face, because she had no idea what it might give away. All of this had come as such a shock.
“She wouldn’t rather stay in some nice hotel over in Lubbock?” Ruth asked the mayor.
“She wants to catch up on old times. That’s what Carlos said she said. You two must’ve been awful close when you were young.”
Ruth remembered sitting on Annie’s bed, watching her primping half-naked in front of the mirror before a Friday night dance. Jo must’ve still been in diapers at the time. “We were.”
“Well, then, can I tell him you’re agreeable?”
Ruth, hardly able to believe what Jo had just dropped into her lap, felt the blood pulsing so fiercely in her neck she could almost hear it.
To the surprise of no one, Annie Brashear had graduated at the top of her high school class, and miles ahead of Ruth. It wasn’t that Ruth was stupid—she just didn’t care enough to try all that much. She couldn’t see where all that hard work would get her since she wasn’t interested in ever leaving town. The world she saw on television spooked her. She had no desire to go to a big city, where she was sure she’d get raped by a gang or pushed in front of a subway train. This world didn’t spook Annie, though. All she ever talked about was getting out, getting out, getting out.
“I loathe this dusty town and everyone who lives in it. Except you, of course.” Annie was looking in her makeup mirror, and her smile ricocheted back to Ruth sitting behind her. “I hate how it sits in a flat wasteland of nothingness. I hate how boring it is. I hate how nobody wears anything but Wranglers and cowboy boots. I hate how Abilene is considered a big city. I hate how stupid everyone is, especially my parents. I hate how goddamn hot it is all the time.”
Ruth understood why Annie hated what she did, but what she couldn’t understand was why Annie didn’t hate her, too, because she loved all the things Annie hated. She loved how wide open West Texas was, how you could look for miles in any direction all the way to the horizon. She loved how she could feel God’s love pouring through the stained-glass windows above Brother Harold’s head as he preached the Gospel. She loved the pure, dry heat of the sun, even when it seemed like it might melt everything into a puddle. Most of all, she loved how straightforward and no-nonsense the people of Yonder were. But she kept all of this to herself because she also loved Annie.
Everyone loved Annie. She had a smile for everybody. But Ruth knew and loved the real Annie, the one who laughed at folks behind their backs, especially the boys who mooned over her with puppy-dog eyes. “Dirty oilfield trash,” she called them. “Have you heard what goes on at the old Estes ranch house on weekends? Disgusting.”
“What about Wade Turnbull?” Ruth asked their junior year, curious.
Annie shrieked and threw herself onto her bed. “Please don’t tell me he’s in love with me, too!”
“No, no,” Ruth said, immediately wishing she hadn’t said anything about the only boy she—Ruth—liked, even though he’d never once looked her way. She’d mentioned him only because she hoped Annie would think differently of him.
“Thank the Lord.”
And although she wasn’t religious in the least bit, Annie vowed to stay a virgin until marriage. Mostly out of cussedness, Ruth thought. This pledge of chastity made the boys even crazier, especially the way she’d tease them. And being the males that they were, they all wanted to win the contest and be her first. They’d park in front of her house and rev their engines until her father finally had to chase them off. They wrote terrible poems on slips of paper and pushed them through the slits of her locker. They left bouquets of tickseed flowers under her bedroom window, and they fought like starving dogs for the chance to sit beside her during lunch.
Annie was tall and willowy. Ruth was squatty as a barrel. When Annie cut her hair short, she looked like Audrey Hepburn. When Ruth copied her, she looked like Scout in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird.
Had Ruth not grown up next door, Annie would’ve never had anything to do with the likes of her, and Ruth knew this. The two of them were just too different. But little kids didn’t notice such things. They just played. It was a magical time, those early years, and that magic hung on even as they grew older and started becoming the girls, and then the young women, they had always been meant to become from the start.
To the rest of Yonder, they must’ve looked like a mismatch for the ages. Annie was tall and willowy. Ruth was squatty as a barrel. When Annie cut her hair short, she looked like Audrey Hepburn. When Ruth copied her, she looked like Scout in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. But it didn’t matter. Even though their friendship was never a balanced one—Annie was always the queen and Ruth always her handmaiden—they each got along with, and understood, the other one better than anyone else.
The summer after graduation, Annie was preparing to leave for Duke University in North Carolina to study English on a full scholarship, much to the pride of Principal Cartwright, who had never had a student leave for an out-of-state college in all his years. Meanwhile, Ruth was doing nothing but waiting—waiting tables at Dooley’s Skillet and waiting for her boyfriend to make an honest woman of her because, unlike Annie, she’d made no vow to stay pure. She couldn’t afford to. Somehow, she’d managed to catch Wade Turnbull’s sparkly blue eyes their senior year, and she was so madly in love that her scrambled brains had a hard time keeping breakfast orders straight. She couldn’t keep the smile off her face. Even on the night before Annie left, the night they baked cookies and watched old movies on Channel 39 just like they used to do when they were little girls, she was still happy. But as she watched Annie’s parents drive Annie east into the sun the next morning, Ruth cried. It wasn’t until that very moment that she realized exactly how much Annie meant to her. For weeks after that, she had to keep reminding herself that she’d see Annie again when she came home for the holidays, and that was only four months away.
In the meantime, life went on. While Ruth saved her tiny wages and tips from the Skillet, Wade saved his paychecks from Caudle Oil, and they both worked toward socking enough away to pay for a decent wedding and then maybe a honeymoon weekend somewhere nice. Meanwhile, late at night, Ruth wrote long letters to Annie, telling her the latest about Wade and Yonder, even though she knew Annie didn’t care anything about either. Annie sometimes wrote short notes back about how happy she was that she’d escaped and finally found people like herself. Ruth didn’t take this personally, though. She understood that her friend’s life had changed in ways that she—Ruth—couldn’t even imagine, and she continued to tell herself this even once Annie’s replies stopped coming. Not that this made the silence any easier to take.
One night at the Corral Theater that fall, while Ruth and Wade were eating popcorn and waiting for the movie to start, Ruth grumbled to Wade about how she wished Annie would write her back, and she felt something change in Wade. It wasn’t anything as obvious as a flinch or even a tensing up, but she felt something, nonetheless. The air between them had thickened. She pulled away so that she could better look him in the face.
“What is it? Are you sick of me talking about Annie? Because if—”
“No, it’s nothing like that.” He looked away from her. “No, it’s just . . .”
“What?” She sunk her fingernails into his forearm. “You better tell me.”
He denied knowing anything at first, but he was no match for her. She broke him down, right there in the back row of the Corral just as the lights dimmed for the previews. Tears rolled off his cheeks as he told her it was time for him to stop pretending, to stop living a lie.
“I owe it to you to tell you the truth,” he blubbered. “I love Annie. I’ve always loved her. I miss her so much.”
“But she doesn’t even like you, you dumb idiot! She thinks you’re trash.”
“She does not. I know she doesn’t.” He stared at her, and later she would remember how his eyes had flashed in the low, flickering light.
Dizzy and sick, Ruth dragged Wade to the lobby to get away from the curious faces turned their way. “What do you mean?” she hissed. “How do you know that? Tell me!” He shook his head and moaned. “But what about me, Wade?” Despite her best efforts, she was crying now. “What about me?”
“I’ve tried, I really have, but Annie, she...”
The way he looked right then was enough for her to know that he’d never been hers, not even for a second, not even after giving him what Annie wouldn’t give to anyone. She watched as he walked out of the theater and across the street. She waited for him to turn around and come back to her, but he climbed into his truck and drove away without even waving goodbye.
Three days later, somewhere between Meridian, Mississippi, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama, he died in a wreck. She learned about it from his mother, who called her in the middle of the night. Although Mrs. Turnbull could barely talk through her bawling, she asked Ruth if she had any idea where he’d been headed. Ruth, crying herself now, told her she didn’t, but that was a lie. She knew her geography well enough to know that he’d been heading straight for Durham, North Carolina, where Duke University was.
She waited to hear from Annie, but no letter came, and Ruth wasn’t about to write her, not after what Wade had said. She knew he had to have been fooling himself, but some of her still worried that maybe this wasn’t true. Had something actually happened between the two of them? She waited for Christmas, but Christmas came and went without Annie coming home. Annie didn’t come back for the summer, either. When her parents, who had been nothing but sweet to Ruth, stepped into Dooley’s Skillet one Tuesday night to take advantage of the new two-for-one special, she asked after Annie as casually as she could manage.
She ordered Annie’s books and had them shipped to the house since there was no place in town to get books except the library, and the library didn’t have Annie’s books because the librarian had never liked her. When Ruth read them, she kind of had a hard time understanding their point, mostly because the characters were nothing like anyone she knew. They talked about Europe like it was no harder to get to than San Angelo.
“Oh, she’s very happy,” said her father, a former roughneck with an easy smile and sad eyes. “In fact, she’s so happy I don’t know when we’ll ever see her again.”
She could tell he’d meant this to be funny, but she could also tell how worried he was that he might’ve already lost his daughter for good.
Years passed, and if Annie ever came back to Yonder to see her parents before they eventually moved away, Ruth never heard of it. Annie gradually faded from her thoughts. Ruth got married, had a daughter, and got divorced, all before she turned twenty-three. By this point, she figured she’d probably just waitress forever, which wasn’t a terrible thought, but one day she heard that Cecil Throckmorton, the druggist, was looking for an assistant, so, just for the hell of it, she applied. He hired her after no more than ten minutes of questions, and within a day she was helping him dole out antibiotics, creams, and prescription pills while making double what she had been at Dooley’s.
She and Cecil got along pretty well over the next couple of years, and even though she was more than twenty years his junior, she finally accepted his third proposal of marriage, partly because she’d grown tired of telling him to get off his knees, and partly because she’d grown tired of having to take care of every last little thing in her life all by herself. Long before, she’d sworn never to fall again for another man, but she did sometimes need one around—and her daughter did, too—and by this point, she realized that an old one would do just as well as a young one—maybe better.
Meanwhile, she had no idea what had become of Annie, not that she thought of her much in the midst of day-to-day life. Maybe three or four times a year she’d wonder what Annie might be up to, and this mostly happened when she was loopy from too many beers mixing with the Percocet she’d started sneaking occasionally from the drugstore: Cecil did a fairly careless job of keeping inventory. She pictured Annie driving a convertible down a cobblestone street, her blond hair streaming behind her like a bridal veil.
Once the internet finally came to Yonder, Ruth searched online. All of Annie’s accomplishments unfurled before her. She had become a writer for big-time magazines, as well as a novelist, and she’d married a fancy banker named Trevor Fitzhugh, but she hadn’t taken his name. None of this came as any surprise to Ruth, seeing as how these were the goals Annie had set for herself long ago. On YouTube, Ruth watched Annie reading from her work in front of audiences in places like Boston and Chicago and San Francisco. She had aged, of course, but not so much that she wasn’t still always the prettiest woman in the room. Her voice had changed, though. Instead of from West Texas, now she sounded like she was from wherever everyone on television was from, which Ruth always kind of thought of as nowhere.
Eventually, she ordered Annie’s books and had them shipped to the house since there was no place in town to get books except the library, and the library didn’t have Annie’s books because the librarian had never liked her. When Ruth read them, she kind of had a hard time understanding their point, mostly because the characters were nothing like anyone she knew. They talked about Europe like it was no harder to get to than San Angelo, and they never said anything about Texas unless it was to make fun of it for being full of racists, Bible fanatics, and gun nuts, which she knew that Annie knew was unfair, no matter how much she’d hated Yonder. Each one of the books seemed to end with no warning, too, which left Ruth feeling buffaloed and stupid. But her opinion was obviously in the minority because the people quoted on the backs of Annie’s books called her “a writer of compassion who rends the heart with every unflinching sentence,” and “a lyrical stylist non pareil.” Horseshit, thought Ruth.
After that, she would occasionally Google Annie’s name to see if anything new was happening, but mostly she spent her time being a mother (and then a grandmother) and the druggist’s wife and assistant, the woman who knew exactly what medicine everyone in town was taking and how come, from the Proctocort for this so-and-so’s hemorrhoids to the Valtrex for that so-and-so’s genital herpes. Maybe she wasn’t the toast of the book world like Annie, but Ruth did enjoy having the power to embarrass quite a few folks if they ever happened to make the mistake of crossing her.
Not being used to driving to Lubbock and dealing with all of its traffic, Ruth took two Klonopin in preparation, a white one plus a blue one, to sand off the jagged edges, and she made sure to give herself plenty of time. She got to the airport early, so she spent the time rereading Annie’s last book, The Desiccated Heart (which she’d brought in case of this possibility) just to refresh her memory. Soon enough, she found herself annoyed all over again by the rich people strolling through Paris or the snow of Central Park complaining about how terrible their lives were.
Ruth recognized Annie before Annie recognized her, of course, so she watched her a bit before stepping forward to reveal herself. Annie was pulling her wheeled luggage with one hand and scrolling through her phone with the other. Despite the flight, she still looked like the sort of woman the perfume ads in the fashion magazines were always meant for. When Ruth finally approached and gave Annie’s silky sleeve a tug, it took a moment for recognition to come, but then Annie said, “Oh, my God!” She then kissed Ruth on the cheek like they were at a cocktail party on some television show, but not before Ruth saw a quick flicker of dismay in her eyes at what stood before her, a person even rounder than the already round girl Annie had known long ago, not to mention older and wrinkled and gray. Money, meanwhile, had kept Annie looking close to the same.
“Well, get a load of you!” Ruth shouted, pretending as best she could that every single thing about this moment was perfect.
“I made it!” Annie shouted back, and it was only then that Ruth realized Annie was drunker than a barkeep’s rag, as her drunk of a father used to always say of other drunks. Annie must’ve known it was obvious, too, because then she said, “God, I’m so glad to be on solid ground again. I swear, flying still scares me to death, no matter how much I do it, and I have to do it all the time! I just can’t manage without the help of a gin and tonic or two. Or four! I’ve got what’s called aviophobia. That’s a fear of flying.”
“There’s medicine for that, you know, honey,” Ruth said gently. “Xanax would probably help.”
“Xanax made it to Yonder?” Annie laughed. “I’m kidding. No, but seriously, I’ve tried Xanax, and it makes me so dizzy I can’t walk.”
On the drive home, Annie talked and Ruth listened, just like back in high school. She told Ruth all about living just outside of New York City, where they both had always predicted she would end up, and what it was like being an author, especially dealing with all the awful agents and editors and publicists and booksellers and critics. And readers! She told Ruth stories about the folks who came to her readings and book signings, the stupid things some of them asked.
“No matter where I go, all they want to know is how I got my agent,” she said. “As if that’s all it takes to become a writer! Jesus. I swear. I’m never rude, though, of course. Because I want them to buy my books, of course!” She cackled. “It happened in Phoenix, which is where I just came from, and it’ll happen again in Atlanta, which is where I’m heading next. If I hadn’t had a few days free between those two, Carlos would’ve never even bothered to tell me about this.” She pointed her finger aimlessly.
Ruth told her about Cecil and her job at the drugstore and also about May, her daughter, who lived in Fort Stockton with her husband and two sons, Austin and Tyler. “Holy shit, you’re a grandmother!” Annie said. “Jesus, I can’t even imagine.”
Halfway between Slaton and Post, Annie finally stopped talking and made a big show of taking in the view through the dusty, bug-smeared windshield. “I wasn’t sure if I could trust my memory, but you know what? It’s exactly as I remember. Exactly.”
“Well, things don’t change much around here, it’s true.”
“It’s still just as desolate as the moon.”
“I guess compared—”
“And hotter than hell.”
“Well, it is summer,” Ruth said. “And you are wearing black, which—”
Annie pointed at a dust devil spinning in the distance. “Oh my God, how did I survive here? That’s a tornado of dirt! I mean, seriously.”
“I don’t know, hon. I really don’t.”
For a mile or two after this, the only sound was the air conditioner blowing full blast—to keep Annie from “dying,” of course—so Ruth told her about Cecil and her job at the drugstore and also about May, her daughter, who lived in Fort Stockton with her husband and two sons, Austin and Tyler.
“Holy shit, you’re a grandmother!” Annie said. “Jesus, I can’t even imagine.”
After the sound of the air conditioner took over again, Ruth told Annie how much she loved her books, because she knew it would’ve been rude not to say so at some point.
“Which one do you like best? Be honest.”
“I think The Desiccated Heart,” Ruth said, naming the one she hated most, figuring that would be Annie’s favorite.
“That’s Trevor’s favorite. Maybe that’s why I married him.” There was more laughing. Ruth couldn’t remember her ever laughing this much. “I think you’ll like what I’m reading tomorrow, too, though it’s a bit different. It’s from my new book, Hiraeth. It’s my first collection of stories.”
Annie spelled it out letter by letter and then said it again.
“It’s Welsh. It means ‘nostalgia for a place that never existed,’ which is one of the collection’s themes.”
“The story I’m reading tomorrow doesn’t really fit that theme, which is why I wasn’t going to include it in the book, but my editor said he’d quit if I left it out, so I kept it in.”
Ruth pressed for details about this story because she knew that was what Annie wanted her to do, but Annie turned an imaginary key at her lips.
“Tick a lock,” she said. “Isn’t that what people used to say here?”
“I don’t think we ever stopped.”
The lock only concerned talk of the new story because Annie continued to talk, but she didn’t say anything about why she’d never once tried to get in touch in over thirty years, which was one of the only things Ruth wanted to hear about. Regardless, however, Ruth kept nodding and smiling as she drove. It was still early in the visit, she told herself. Annie had plenty of time to bring up all that she damn well needed to bring up.
At home, Ruth introduced Annie to Cecil, who made little effort to hide that he was none too excited about any of this business. He didn’t like his routine disrupted, Ruth knew, especially by anyone he hadn’t known his whole life. While she fixed supper, she strained to make out their conversation in the living room over the sound of the grease popping in the skillet, but mostly she heard silence. She knew he was probably more focused more on his glass of Jim Beam than he was on Annie. Eventually, she heard Patsy Cline’s voice. He’d put on music to fill the silence.
After Cecil made Annie take his and Ruth’s hands before saying grace, the meal was quiet. Annie was still sobering up with coffee, and she hardly touched her chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, and fried okra. The brownies afterwards, however, she ate. She even took a small plate of them with her to the living room after Cecil excused himself and headed off to bed. She stepped out of her heels and stretched out on the couch. Ruth sat in Cecil’s rocking chair, which she’d never sat in before, and listened to the grandfather clock ticking while she watched Annie eat.
After a while, Annie said, “You know, I can’t believe it’s been so long.”
“Me neither,” Ruth said.
“Remember how angry we’d get when the teachers wouldn’t let us sit next to each other in elementary school?”
Ruth fell happily back into the memory. “I remember crying in Miss Brigantine’s class.”
“Oh, Miss Brigantine! I completely forgot about her. She was so mean.” A quiet minute passed while she ate another brownie. “You know, I was just thinking: whatever happened with you and that boy you were so in love with right before I left? What was his name? Wayne?”
A quiet minute passed while she ate another brownie. “You know, I was just thinking: whatever happened with you and that boy you were so in love with right before I left? What was his name? Wayne?”
“Wade.” Ruth, feeling her heart now beating too fast, watched Annie’s face for any sort of sign. “He died in a car crash a couple of months afterwards.”
“He did? Well, shit. How awful.”
“It was.” Ruth continued to watch her. “You didn’t hear about it?”
“How would I have heard about it? You just said it happened after I left.”
Ruth shrugged and waited, hoping Annie would say more, but she didn’t. Instead, she nibbled at her brownie and then, after a suitable amount of silence had passed, started talking about a writer friend of hers who had been attacked by monkeys in India and had to get rabies shots. “They don’t inject you in the stomach anymore, but it’s still four shots. Can you imagine?”
“No, I can’t.” And because it was clear now that Annie wasn’t going to say anything else about Wade, Ruth told her she was going to hit the hay.
“Hit the hay, huh?” Annie said. “I wonder how long it’s been since I last heard that.”
Ruth told her the guest room was already fixed up for her whenever she was ready.
“I think I’ll help myself to some more of those brownies before I hit the hay, too, if you don’t mind,” Annie said. “I mean, I can’t always punish myself, you know? Sometimes I deserve a treat.”
“Treat yourself all you like,” Ruth said as she made her way down the hall to the bedroom, where she could already hear Cecil’s snoring through the door. “Like you said, you deserve it.”
The next afternoon, the auditorium at Yonder High was full by a quarter to one, and Ruth, who was sitting with Jeannie Pettus since Cecil was at the drugstore, took a look around. It seemed like every boy who had ever been in love with Annie was there, and freshly shaved. A minute after one, Jo strutted to the podium. After thanking Dean Caudle for his generosity, she put on her glasses and stammered through a long list of Annie’s accomplishments. When she reached the end, she looked up and said, “No matter how impressive that all is—and it is impressive, don’t get me wrong—she’ll always be a Yonder girl, so please help me welcome her home!” Everybody clapped and whistled as Annie made her way to the front.
After spending thirty seconds adjusting the microphone, she thanked everyone for the warm welcome. “But what other kind of welcome would I get here?” she added, fanning her face and smiling. “The air conditioner doesn’t work any better than it did when I went to school here.” There were a few seconds of good-natured chuckling, after which she said a few kind words about the late Ms. Bonaventure, her English teacher senior year, whose name Ruth had needed to remind her of. Then she retrieved a book from her bag and cleared her throat. “Before I read this story, I’d like to dedicate it to someone. My best friend growing up, Ruth Hogue.” She pointed at Ruth and smiled.
Ruth waved and did her best to smile back, but she felt her cheeks heating up with embarrassment.
“You mean Mrs. Cecil Throckmorton!” someone behind Ruth bellowed, much to everyone’s delight.
“Of course!” Annie said. “Of course. Old habits die hard.”
The story she then read was called “In the Waters of Echo Lake.” It was about two boys, Jasper and Pike, at a summer camp in Connecticut. Jasper and Pike both loved to swim, and any chance they got, they raced each other. Jasper always won, but Pike never gave up. Just before the end of camp, they set out on their longest race ever: all the way to the other side of the lake. Nobody in the history of the camp had ever made it, and anybody who got caught trying would get kicked out and never allowed back to Camp Penobscot. That was why Jasper and Pike decided to race at night, so as not to get in trouble. Jasper made it to the other side, but Pike didn’t.
When Jo returned to the microphone to say that Annette would be happy to take a few questions, hands filled the air, but Ruth was already not listening. Instead, she was trying to figure out why Annie had dedicated this story to her.
“And it was at this moment that Jasper made a decision,” Annie read. “Because he didn’t want to get banned forever from Camp Penobscot, he didn’t run immediately to wake the counselors. Instead, he got into bed, and when he woke in the morning, he joined the other boys in their shock at Pike’s absence, and then also in their grief when his body was found floating in the lake the next day.” Several folks clapped, including Jeannie, but they stopped when Annie shook her head. “Not just yet.”
“I thought that was it,” Jeannie whispered to Ruth. “How much longer is this gonna be?”
Annie took a drink from her water before continuing: “Jasper never told a soul about the night he swam all the way across Echo Lake, and he certainly never told a soul about Pike. But late at night, while he waits for sleep, sometimes he feels his friend near him, dripping icy water onto the sheets. He asks for forgiveness, but Pike always stays silent. And so Jasper lives on, the picture of wealth and health and happiness, but deep inside he never stops climbing out of Echo Lake. He never stops shivering alone in the light of that night’s cold summer moon.” Annie closed her book then, bowed her head, and said into the microphone: “Thank you.”
Everybody in the auditorium clapped, including Ruth and Jeannie. When Jo returned to the microphone to say that Annette would be happy to take a few questions, hands filled the air, but Ruth was already not listening. Instead, she was trying to figure out why Annie had dedicated this story to her. Was it just because she’d put Annie up for the night, or did she mean something particular by it? Was there some sort of symbolism she was supposed to decipher?
Eventually, the questions petered out. Jo told everyone to line up if they wanted to buy a copy of Hiraeth and get it signed—by the author herself! Most everyone lined up, including Jeannie—more out of politeness than any interest in reading it, Ruth knew. Since she was taking Annie straight from the gym to the airport in Lubbock, she stayed seated, still wondering why Annie had dedicated that story to her. Was the drowned boy supposed to be Wade? Or her?
At the Lubbock airport, Annie didn’t say anything about how they needed to stay in touch, which Ruth was grateful for.
“I’m so glad your nice mayor invited me,” Annie said.
“And by ‘invited me,’ I mean ‘paid me,’ of course.” She smiled.
“I know.” Ruth smiled, too.
“Because I never would’ve come back, otherwise. You know that, don’t you?”
“Because I hate it here.”
“I know you do. You weren’t made for this place.”
“You’re right, I wasn’t. But it was still great seeing you.”
“It was great seeing you, too.”
Ruth thanked Annie for signing her book, and Annie thanked Ruth for everything, including what she’d given her for the flight—a container of the brownies she’d liked so much after dinner, plus several pills that Ruth had promised would help with her aviophobia more than Xanax, and with no dizziness—and then they hugged and said goodbye. Once Annie got in line to go through security, Ruth waved and then walked out to her truck and drove home, having not heard one word from Annie about why she’d never once tried to get in touch in the thirty years since Wade’s died on the way to Durham, North Carolina.
By the time Ruth got back home, the sun had snuffed itself out. As was their usual routine, she and Cecil sat on their porch swing and drank beer while they watched the stars blink to life. When he asked how the reading had gone, Ruth fetched her book from inside the house to show him.
“Hiraeth?” he said, squinting in the dark at its cover, which included a black-and-white photograph of a dog looking into a mirror. “Is that the dog’s name?”
“I don’t think so.” Ruth felt the pleasant work that the beer was doing to her along with her most recent pills. “She told me what it means, but I already forgot. It’s from some other language.”
“That figures,” he said.
Even though it was too dark to read it, Ruth opened the book to show him what Annie had written on the front page: Ruth, it was wonderful to see you again. Love, Annette. She also told him how Annie had dedicated the story she’d read to her, too.
“Well, that’s nice, I suppose.”
“It was,” she said, and she supposed this was the truth, too, but all the dedications in the world couldn’t make up for Wade Turnbull, who had been lying cold and dead in Greasewood Cemetery for decades now. Regardless of whether he’d ever loved her or not, Ruth had loved him, so it still didn’t matter in the slightest whether Annie had meant to take him away from her or not, because she’d done it just the same.
All the dedications in the world couldn’t make up for Wade Turnbull, who had been lying cold and dead in Greasewood Cemetery for decades now. Regardless of whether he’d ever loved her or not, Ruth had loved him, so it still didn’t matter in the slightest whether Annie had meant to take him away from her or not, because she’d done it just the same.
Cecil yawned and said he was bushed. Ruth told him she’d follow him to bed soon, but not just yet. Before lumbering inside, he kissed her on the head and told her not to stay up too late. She patted him and promised she wouldn’t.
She took a long pull from her longneck and fanned her sweaty face with the pages of Annie’s book. Watching a plane blinking its slow, silent way east across the darkness, she wondered: if a lady were to fall asleep and then slowly turn pale as milk, would any of the other passengers notice? Probably not, she imagined. At least not until after the plane had landed and everyone was filing out past her. Maybe then someone would wonder if something was wrong with the lady who still hadn’t unbuckled herself. Maybe someone would tell a stewardess. Or maybe they’d all just keep walking, telling themselves that it was none of their business. Regardless, it was done, and it had felt right, like a put-off chore finally taken care of.
“I’m giving you five of these,” Ruth had whispered to her secretively in the airport, handing her a bottle of generic Rohypnol, “but don’t take more than two unless you really need to. Then you can take three, but definitely no more. It’s a new anti-anxiety wonder drug. Just approved by the FDA.” Because Annie had always considered herself special and better than everyone else, Ruth knew she’d probably take at least three and maybe four. And then there was the alcohol to consider, which Ruth had told her wouldn’t cause any problems with the pills.
Even though Ruth couldn’t imagine it ever happening, if anybody were to come sniffing around Yonder with questions, she knew she could play dumb with the best of them. After all, wasn’t she just a hick from nowhere? What possible motive could she have, anyway, especially after all these years apart? She’d tell them how Annie had told her all about her fear of flying, as well as her drinking problem. And her coming home for the first time in more than thirty years had just made all the things already troubling her all that much worse. In an effort to cope, she must’ve taken too much of whatever medications she’d brought with her from New York, the poor thing.
Once the plane shrunk to a speck and then disappeared, Ruth finished the last of her beer and tossed the bottle into the trash with a crash of broken glass. It was time to head inside to Cecil and his god-awful snoring. In the darkness of their bedroom, she would immediately pop a couple of the pills she’d left for herself on the bedside table, slip into bed next to the old man, and sleep until morning without a dream in her head, just the way she liked it.
Kevin Grauke has published work in such places as The Threepenny Review, The Southern Review, StoryQuarterly, Fiction, and Quarterly West. He is also the author of Shadows of Men (Queen's Ferry), winner of the Steven Turner Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. Originally from Texas, he now lives in Philadelphia.