That September, Anchorage had more moods than a menopausal woman. The sun shone one day and disappeared the next. The leaves began to turn russet and gold, but instead of falling hung on to branches, unwilling to let go. When the first frost came, and the last of the columbines shriveled, people sighed with relief at the return of what seemed like normal autumn weather. Then, a week later, it was warm again, and pansies close to the earth shamelessly opened their petals to take in the shine. Perhaps most troubling of this out-of-season business was the bears. By the end of the month they were usually bedded down for the winter, and stayed that way until spring. This year, however, bears ventured out long past their usual hibernation dates. Programmed to fill their bellies in preparation for sleep, they got into trash, foraging like ravens, and were seen taking dog food from dishes left out for retired huskies. The newspaper's gardening column warned bird lovers like Beryl Reilly to hold off filling feeders with thistle and sunflower seeds for the chickadees for fear of attracting ursine visitors. A bear encounter was the last thing Beryl wanted. Life was hard enough already.
She sat on the leather living room couch with her journal in her lap. It was a small book, its cover a map of the world. For the last five years she had marked in red pen every place she and Earl had traveled. The western United States, their slow drive through the South and up to New York and Canada, and then beyond the Atlantic, where the line stopped, and they'd flown to Europe. Earl wasn't the "see the British Isles tour" kind of traveler. Despite his casual clothes and fondness for diners, he flew first class wherever he went. He knew cutting-edge places to eat, where to shop for French jeans, and most of all, where to listen to the best live music to be found. He had friends in far-flung places, places he often traveled to on a moment's notice. But since the middle of summer, when he'd announced that he wanted to stay home for a while, Earl had spent most of his time in the basement, which he'd converted to a music studio.
Beryl uncapped her pen and wrote down exactly what she was thinking:
Earl's going to leave me. He thinks I don't know, but a woman can tell. When I walk into the kitchen and he's reading the paper, he tucks the sports section under his arm and heads downstairs to the studio. A shrink would call that "cave time," and advise me to "take care of my needs myself," but a shrink doesn't live with Earl, I do. He spends more time down there with the guitars and recording equipment than he does with me. Clear through the kitchen floor I hear him teasing notes from his guitars and keyboards. I imagine him adjusting the knobs and plunking the strings with the tenderness and attention he used to shower on me. With the flick of a switch he can loop a chord progression into a never-ending spiral, infuse an electronic drumbeat without a drummer within a hundred miles. Just the other day I heard the chugging sound of a locomotive passing underneath me sounding so real I ran to the window to look for a runaway train.
An extra inch separates us in bed. My lover, who has always turned to me in his sleep, now sleeps on his left side, turned away. When I ask, "Do you want spaghetti for dinner," he looks at me as if I've asked him to account for every single day of his life. No matter what I say, it puts him on edge.
Okay, so I've skipped a few periods. Maybe I am in menopause, the practical joke nature sics on woman so fiercely we wish our cramps and embarrassing accidents and water weight back again. Does he think I'm happy about hot flashes, mood swings, and my faltering libido? And lately I admit I cry at television commercials showing a tender family moment, and the one-legged chickadee hopping around our deck hoping for some crumbs tears my heart as if it's made of tissue paper, but is that necessarily a bad thing? I've been around the block. I know that in a man's world problems exist to be solved. What if I don't know what the problem is? "Just let me be sad," I say, and off he goes, alone, to the studio, to the bookstore, or to hike away from me, and I'm afraid he's never coming back. Yet sometimes we have sweet reunions. He whispers in my ear as he undresses me, and I feel the very pores of my skin open to take him in. And I want to say it doesn't matter, but it does, because I know Earl's going to leave me.
Five years back, when Earl had bought her the house, Beryl had imagined growing old there, the two of them, their life worn to softness by the years they'd weathered. Bohemian Waxwing, the oddly constructed house, was an Anchorage landmark high on the Hillside with its curving roads and occasional seventy-five-miles-per-hour winds. The builder had been a sculptor, married to a woman who was a serious bird-watcher. He'd set down his chisels to design a house that embodied his beloved's favorite bird. The roofline made up the arch of the bird's spine and connected two window-filled wings. To be sure, it was an unconventional dwelling, but the bank of windows struck Beryl as particularly illogical, since a week didn't go by without her hearing a fatal thump and finding a cooling feathered body lying on the deck. The house's story had its dark side as well. When the artist's wife developed a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer and died, the husband left town, and for years the house sat empty. Apparently nobody wanted to take a chance on hand-hewn beams if they came with the specter of love cut short.
But after walking through the empty rooms, Beryl told Earl she didn't believe in curses. She'd never thought she'd own a home, but she began to warm to the idea of decorating with earth tones and soft linens, making this place a reflection of the two of them. "Every house has a history," she said, "and every history holds its measure of sorrow." It was a house, for Pete's sake; Earl had put it in her name. Real estate, like lingerie, wasn't returnable.
Many nights she stood on the balcony wrapped in a blanket watching the northern lights shimmy across the evening sky. The aurora rippled and waned, varying from green to purple to -- on rare occasions -- nearly red. Supposedly, way out in the bush, if the conditions were right, you could hear it hum and whistle, but Beryl had never been that lucky. The lights almost made her believe in God again, but come daytime her confirmed distrust of the Creator of the universe came rushing back. There was too much sorrow on earth to believe that a Supreme Being would allow that kind of pain. Beryl told herself she believed in concrete details, in evolution, in matter she could touch, like the rich, dark earth, and her foul-mouthed parrot. Now that she lived where she could experience seasons, she believed in the earth all the more strongly.
Beryl studied the Alaskan landscape, the names of the mountains and glaciers -- Sleeping Lady, Denali, the Knik, and Matanuska. She memorized the names of flowers like the periwinkle blue forget-me-not, assorted columbines, and the frankly yellow butter-and-eggs. She cooked reindeer sausage and tried salmon jerky, but Earl preferred plain old meat loaf, mashed potatoes with a puddle of butter in the center, and lima beans straight from the can. When he said thank you -- like a man who after years of unwrapping ties and leather wallets finally receives the big red tool chest from Sears -- that was enough for her. They sat together at the kitchen table eating while Hester Prynne, Earl's tabby cat, peered down from atop the fridge, and Beryl's parrot Verde muttered obscenities to himself from his elaborate, toy-filled cage. She loved her life, even if her boyfriend didn't love her.
The morning she'd decided to confront Earl, he was up before she was. She washed her face, ran her fingers through her curly hair, and poked at the bags beneath her eyes, which, like unclaimed luggage, appeared to be there to stay. She heard the downstairs television switch on, and sat on the end of her bed, tying the belt of her pale pink chenille robe while gathering her nerve.
I will get through this, she told herself. It's time I took control of my life anyway. I'll learn to drive a car. Make an effort to find new friends. I'll let my emotions out instead of filing them away for that rainy day that never comes. I'll -- what was it her friend Maddy had said the last time they talked on the phone? "Fake it until you make it." A mantra for recovering alcoholics, it would work for newly single women as well.
Downstairs she stood in the kitchen and called his name. Her knees shook and she felt her stomach turn over. "Earl? Honey? We both know things can't go on like this. Can't we talk about it?"
For a long time he didn't answer. Rather than ask again she stared at the screen and watched Peter Jennings narrate in his strong, clear anchorman's voice over footage of whatever the latest world crisis was -- teenage mothers stuck in the welfare system, drug cartels financed by unwitting Americans, a war that was always brewing someplace -- oh, the specifics didn't really matter. Beryl stood at the kitchen table holding on to her elbows while Earl, on the living room couch, leaned forward concentrating on any news but hers. When he didn't answer her question, she sighed, swallowed against her nausea, and went upstairs to take her shower.
Later she could hear Earl bumping around in his studio, but she didn't go after him. She tried to work on some embroidery, but she had a headache, so she took a nap. She dreamed of her friends in California on the flower farm where she'd once lived. It was a typical, sunny autumn day, and the smell of chrysanthemums was thick in the air. Phoebe, who had inherited the farm from her aunt Sadie, was telling them all something Sadie had said about growing roses, and Beryl couldn't help but smell the soft, dusty petals even deep in her subconscious. When she woke, the September sun was waning outside her bedroom window, bathing the birches in failing light.
Downstairs the kitchen lay half in shadow. While she could have turned on any number of lights, she didn't want the scene to have sharp edges. Earl was bent over the kitchen table writing checks from one of those enormous checkbooks, four of them to a page. He paid all their bills, and every month he gave Beryl more money than she knew what to do with for "household expenses." She hardly ever spent it unless she was buying him a gift. After all this time she had a bank account well into the mid-six figures, which didn't seem quite real when she opened her statement and examined the balance. "My buddy," she said as she rubbed his shoulders, "buddy" being her term of endearment for this skinny, gray-haired virtuoso who collected signed first editions and traveled to Europe as easily as people around here drove to the Kenai Peninsula for the weekend. "Tell me what's wrong."
Earl reached up and patted her hand. "Nothing's wrong."
Beryl took a breath, let it out, and spoke before she lost her courage. "Earl, don't do this."
"Retreat from me," she said. "Go all icy and distant and pull away when I go to touch you. If there's something wrong, let's talk about it. Fix it. You know I love you, right?"
He stamped the envelopes and stacked the bills in a neat pile before he answered. "Beryl, I'm as fine as anybody is these days," he said. "The economy's in the toilet, and Bush is in the White House. Ask me again in four years." He closed the checkbook and stretched his arms above his head, neatly moving away from her in the same movement. "I need to get out. Winter's coming. It makes everyone feel a little claustrophobic."
Just then Verde squawked from the front room. Beryl's severe macaw didn't appreciate being left out of any conversation, and this one was no exception. Beryl opened a cupboard to get him some peanuts. "There's still some light. We could hike Powerline Pass trail if we hurry," she said. The hike wasn't exactly challenging for someone like Earl, but it wore Beryl out. The views were stunning, but unless you were looking inside a Wal-Mart, gorgeous scenery pretty much set the standard for south central Alaska.
The set of Earl's shoulders was stiff. Maybe this was all about impending winter. Maybe she was, as her stepmother used to say, "borrowing trouble." But deep down she felt sure he was trying to figure out how to leave -- how a man could do that after promising a woman "forever." It gutted her legs, but she took a breath and forged ahead. "Look. I can tell you want to leave, and not just for a little while. So let's get it out in the open. Be grateful we had five years."
He stared at her, measuring her words.
"This isn't a trick," she said. "I'm sad, but I won't fall apart. Why don't you go take your hike? I'll stay here and make some bread. That rye you like. And soup. When you get home, we'll work this out like adults."
Earl smiled in such plain relief that Beryl fell for him all over again -- the shy, reluctant grin, the slightly overlapping front teeth, and the crinkly lines near his eyes that smoothed out when they made love. "Are you sure?" he asked.
Sure? About dismantling her life? Well, it wouldn't be the first time she'd done it. "Why would I lie to you?"
"No reason. Okay, then. I think I will go. On the hike."
As if she'd signed his permission slip, Earl was out the door in twenty minutes. No perfunctory goodbye kiss, just him grabbing his daypack and jacket and a terse "See you later." Beryl glimpsed a wave of the hand with the callused fingertips she loved to feel travel across her skin -- though she hadn't in quite some time, and now she was going to have to say goodbye to all that. He'd return less burdened. They'd eat dinner and push their plates aside and open their mouths and behave like civilized people. You love that couch, so you keep it. I know how important your books are to you, so I'll help you pack them up so they won't get damaged, when all she wanted was to sidle up close, unbutton the top of his Henley and run her hands over his chest until he got the idea that using bodies instead of words was a much better form of communication -- and medicine to heal most rifts.
Instead she put on her winter jacket and gloves and set out for her own walk. A spattering of rain, typical of the autumn season, darkened the tarmac. Soon, enough moisture would collect in the graveled places and turn to frost. They lived too far up the Hillside to have streetlights, but it was still a fairly spendy neighborhood, complete with a homeowner's association she continually worried would discover her past felony conviction and boot her out as undesirable. Beryl tried to imagine who lived in the houses on the acre-plus lots. Some were styled in a postmodern box shape, with paned windows like staring eyes. Others were massive log-home forts, and when Beryl looked at them she pictured entire forests giving their lives to become pretty lumber. Rarely on her walks did she encounter a neighbor. Oh, sometimes a dog walker would give her a brief nod, but nobody spoke beyond "Hi," or "Cold, isn't it?" If you lived this far up the hill, people figured you didn't want to be bothered. She had her hands in her pockets, her head down, the posture of brooding, and was trying to reconcile what had happened in her kitchen half an hour ago with what would happen when Earl came home. Menopause had delivered her a unique method of reasoning, such as, "If Hollywood can make such authentic love stories, films that make a person cry time after time, then why can't human beings stay in love for longer than five years?" Furthermore, was the whole idea of finding one's soul mate doomed to failure? A beautiful pipe dream with a hairline crack? Could anybody sustain a relationship and maintain a sense of herself? Phoebe had nearly lost herself when Juan died. The love of Ness's life had left her with HIV. And why couldn't Nance, who would make the best mother, have her baby instead of three miscarriages?
After she'd thoroughly depressed herself, she pictured Peter Jennings, his handsome face, the dark hair graying at the temples, his professional calm, and wondered if he was like that in real life, if he was married, and who the lucky woman might be.
In fact, she was so caught up in her thoughts she didn't see the bear. To her it looked as if her neighbor's front-yard spruce tree had suddenly sprouted a goiter. What the hell, this was Alaska. Anything could and did happen, people falling into glaciers, the legalization of marijuana, the mayor shutting down a harmless library exhibit because he wanted to pretend there was no such thing as gay pride. But in the next instant, the tree goiter was on the ground on all fours, breath steaming from his nostrils, looking as surprised by Beryl as she was by him.
She tried to remember bear etiquette -- were you supposed to run, like you did with moose, hauling ass as quick as possible from those deadly hooves? Bear claws were huge and thick, scar makers of the highest order. Maybe she was supposed to stand absolutely still, or was she supposed to make noise? Bear bells and pepper spray -- just about every Alaskan store had them for sale -- and a joke to tell along with them -- but it didn't take a rocket scientist to know they wouldn't do diddly against a pissed-off bear. Should she back away? She didn't see a cub. Sows with cubs were the most dangerous. Was it a black bear or a brown one? It was hard to tell in the shadows. She remembered a Tlingit tale she'd read in a book she'd bought at Title Wave Books.
"A woman is out gathering berries with her family. Surprised by a bear, she drops her basket. The bear takes her away. He becomes her husband. She makes his dinner. From their passion, children are born. Her husband treats her well. It's a good life, except for her occasional wondering about her life before this one."
Then, depending on the version, her brothers return for her and kill the bear, which by now she loves with all her heart or, seeing how bearlike she's become, they kill her, too.
Beryl closed her eyes and thought of the people who might possibly miss her should this bear take her life -- her girlfriends back in California, definitely. Earl? Of course he would, for a while anyway. She smelled the bear's harsh odor, or maybe it was her own fear rising. All she knew for certain was that when she opened her eyes, she was home, having run all the way and seeing nothing. But even standing on her own front porch the feeling of safety eluded her. Peter Jennings, she thought. Peter would have known what to do.
To calm herself she would make bread. First she sifted the rye flour with wheat, shook anise seeds from the spice tin into the mix, and in another bowl she stirred blackstrap molasses with melted butter and warm milk. Then she spaced out for a moment, staring at the bowls, trying to figure out what was missing. Her mind returned to the bear. She remembered that her neighbors had hung a bird feeder in the tree. The poor bear was hungry, that's all. He was looking for something to fill his stomach before hibernation. Maybe he didn't like the taste of fifty-three-year-old women. Maybe he had a good laugh at her running down the street like her hair was on fire. Oh my God! Yeast! How could a baker forget the leavening? Outside it had begun to rain.
The six-burner restaurant stove was so powerful and efficient at baking that the bread was done and cooling on the wire rack in three hours. Its perfume filled the kitchen, and made Beryl so hungry she went to work on a white bean soup, taking time to chop shallots and then to lightly caramelize them before adding them to the soup. Such careful attention made the difference between an okay soup and a meal so wonderful that she knew Earl would ask for seconds. There was sour cream to dollop on top of the soup, and chopped green onions to sprinkle across. Why not put as much care into this dinner as all the others? She had just finished washing her hands when the phone rang.
"Are you channeling Martha Stewart?" her friend Phoebe asked when Beryl explained the dinner menu.
"I hope not," Beryl said. "Didn't she run over her neighbor or get really fat?"
"According to the rumors," Phoebe said. "At least you aren't being investigated for stock shenanigans."
Beryl could hear Phoebe's five-year-old daughter, Sally, screaming in the background. "What's wrong with the little princess?"
Phoebe sighed. "Her highness is making sure everyone knows that she is not pleased with her dinner menu. How can any child of mine hate vegetables, I ask you? Suddenly all she wants is bacon or cheeseburgers, even for breakfast."
Beryl thought about how a change in appetite could be an omen, and how the words omen and ominous and were so obviously related, but how did the English language go from there to the word augury, or the queen of them all, portentous? She got so distracted that Phoebe had to startle her back into joining the conversation. "Beryl Anne? Are you still there?"
Hormones. The answer had to be hormones. She'd find a doctor and get a prescription and start taking them immediately. "I'm sure picky eating's just a phase, Pheebs. Sally won't perish if she eats a hamburger now and again."
"Over my dead body. They put all those nasty growth hormones in meat nowadays," Phoebe argued. "I don't want this child needing a bra by second grade. Oh, my God, Beryl. Think about it. My daughter is going to have bigger tits than me by the time she's thirteen years old! Probably even before that."
Now the rain had turned to snow -- the first flakes of the season. They'd melt before they hit the ground, Beryl thought. She and Phoebe laughed, and for the moment things were so nearly like the year Beryl had lived at Bad Girl Creek that she felt as if Phoebe were down the street, or in the next room, even, instead of a six-hour plane ride away. She flew down to see them twice a year, but this winter she'd asked Earl if they could stay home. Winter in Alaska was slow and quiet, cozy. Beryl wanted to read, play with Verde, and cross-country ski along the Coastal Trail. If they traveled at all, she wanted to head back to New Mexico, where Earl performed music in out-of-the-way bars, tried out his new material, and where Beryl had first met Maddy, who was now living in Nashville, sans Rick, whom Beryl never thought was good enough for her anyway. When Earl left she would be alone for winter. Well, alone wasn't necessarily a bad thing. She took a breath and decided not tell Phoebe about the breakup. The last thing she wanted was to add to her friend's burdens.
"The reason I called," Phoebe said, "is my love life."
"You have a love life? That's wonderful, Phoebe. Who's the lucky guy?"
"Hang on. It's not what you think. I went on a movie date with my Rolfer, Grant. He's very nice, and he's handsome, and the movie was pretty good, too, but Beryl, am I nuts? The whole time we're sitting there in the theater all I can think is I'm sitting next to the man who knows my misbehaving muscles intimately. Not to mention he's seen my" -- she paused and lowered her voice -- "my bird's nest peeking out from my underwear a time or two. Honestly, I was so nervous I couldn't eat my popcorn."
"Your bird's what?" Beryl asked.
"Think metaphor," Phoebe said. "Precocious little pitchers have big ears, remember. Well, anyway, it was a tense evening. And he asked me to go again next week. Do you think that means something? Or is he just lonesome? I wonder if maybe he parked in a handicapped space and got assigned community service and I'm the service? Oh, enough about boring old me. How's the love of your life, you luckout?"
"Earl's fine," Beryl said.
"Pass the phone so I can say hi."
"He's out for a little hike, otherwise I would."
"He goes for hikes a lot, doesn't he?" Phoebe said.
"Well," Beryl said, looking out the kitchen window at the fat flakes illuminated in the porch lights and wondering where he was, if this would be the last time she had a right to feel this way. "Hiking's a religion up here. If it's a nice day, you go fifteen miles. If it's a crappy day, you only do seven."
"Wait. Isn't it dark all the time now?"
Beryl craned her neck to see if she could catch a glimpse of the driveway. Earl was probably in his truck, driving up the hill this very minute. She'd explained Alaska's light-and-dark peculiarities a thousand times, but her friends in the Lower Forty-eight persisted in believing that Alaska had two seasons, light and dark, so she'd finally quit trying. "How's Nance doing?" she asked. "Ness? Mimi and Dayle? David? Anyone heard from Maddy?"
"Maddy sent us a CD," Phoebe said. "Mostly cover songs, but man, she can really belt it out when she wants to. Did you hear that Rotten Rick had to go back to work? He got a job writing for that retirement newsletter! Ha. Everyone else is fine. Mimi and Dayle are currently broken up, however."
"That's too bad."
"It's a stalemate with those two. Dayle misses Alaska and wants Mimi to move there with her. Mimi refuses to leave Bayborough because her grandkids are here. Of course, her daughter-in-law still won't let her be a part of their lives, but Mimi persists in thinking that will change."
"Tell Dayle she can come stay here if she wants. There are whole rooms I haven't explored. Sometimes I feel like I live in Manderley."
"I loved Rebecca," Phoebe said. "I was maybe ten when I read it for the first time. It was so creepy and romantic all at the same time. Kind of like love, actually."
Beryl said, "I think I read it in prison."
Both were silent a moment, and Beryl felt the shift in tension even before Phoebe spoke. Prison had ended ten years ago, and her friends loved her through and through, but every time Beryl made a reference to it, there was this momentary awkward hush. "There is one thing I wanted to tell you," Phoebe said. "Before you hear it from someone else."
The receiver suddenly felt leaden in Beryl's hand. "Oh, God, Pheebs. Save the worst news for last. Tell me what happened."
"Nance lost the baby."
"No. Oh, not again."
"Yeah, she did. Yesterday."
In her nearly five years of marriage to Phoebe's brother, James, Nance had been pregnant three times and miscarried three times. This made attempt number four. Beryl had watched Phoebe make the transformation from "Eh, who needs a baby" to a darned good mother, but Nance's maternal impulse ran clear to the core. Beryl'd never known anyone who wanted a child so badly.
"And she made it so far this time," Phoebe said.
"What's the doctor say?" Beryl asked.
"Time to give her body a rest."
"How long a break does she have to take?"
"Actually he said to stop trying altogether."
"Does that mean they're going to adopt?"
"Sally, you put that video down this minute!" Phoebe sighed. "Sorry to sound like such a crab, but I cannot bear one more viewing of The Little Mermaid today. I should probably hang up. Poor Nance. They really thought this time was going to be the charm. The ultrasound looked good. It was a boy."
Beryl didn't want to think about it, but now the picture was in her mind, a tiny boy waving from across the creek that ran behind the flower farm. His face was in shadow, and he pressed his palms together and dived into the water. "Is she eating okay?" Beryl asked. Nance was anorectic, and too much stress could potentially send her back to the days of apple skins and half-cup cottage cheese entrées.
"James says she is. He made her go back to the shrink. Says she just needs time to grieve the loss. That's the one thing I suck at, you know? I'm just not a patient person. Never have been, never will be."
Beryl understood that, probably better than any of the other women who lived at the farm, but they had no idea why, and she hadn't gone out of her way to tell them. All Beryl'd revealed of her past was hints that a series of long-ago obstacles had kept her from having a career as a teacher. She'd closed off that portal, kept it from the world, and living in Alaska had only reinforced the wall. "I'll write her a card," Beryl said, hearing the sound of a car pulling up. "I have to hang up now, Phoebe. Earl's back. I have dinner ready."
"Keep in touch, Martha," Phoebe said. In the background there was a crash, and she sighed again. "I'd better go sweep up before one of the animals cuts a paw. Love you, Beryl."
"Love you back," she said, and hung up. In the time they'd talked, the weather had turned bad, one of those freezing rainstorms that made Alaskans stay indoors and light the woodstove.
Beryl waited for Earl's whistle as he took the stairs, the familiar clink of his key in the front lock, which generally triggered Verde's explosive greetings -- a cussing parrot never ran out of things to say -- and for Hester Prynne to jump from her perch atop the refrigerator, but instead, the someone rang the doorbell. Who would it be at this time of night? Maybe Airborne Express. Earl was always getting packages. She answered the door and instead of her true love, she met a state trooper. Snow and rain had dampened the shoulders of his extra-large jacket. He looked so young for someone that tall, his face unlined, his cheeks as smooth as a boy's. "Yes?" she said. "May I help you?"
The trooper removed his hat. "Ma'am, does an Earl Houghton live here?"
"He does," Beryl said. "But he's not in at the moment. Is there something I can do for you?"
The trooper had one of those military-short haircuts. Beryl invited him in to the foyer, where true Alaskans took off their shoes without a moment's thought as to the state of their socks. Only a cheechako -- a newcomer, like she had once been -- would stand there shod and dripping. But even though this man clearly wasn't a cheechako, water puddled around his boots on the slate tile. "I'm sorry to tell you, but we found his truck by Eklutna Lake."
Beryl looked at him. "Eklutna Lake?" No one went there after summer's end. The roads were impassable in snow. "No, he went for a hike up the Powerline trail."
"Ma'am, we found his truck off the road in the trees. Keys in the ignition, motor running, no sign of him. What with this ice storm -- "
Beryl shook her head no. "You're mistaken. He'll be back any second."
The trooper looked at her sadly, as if his mouth were brimming with a speech he'd memorized from training, only to realize it was not going to make things any easier for either side of the equation. Beryl's knees began to buckle. "Ma'am," he said, catching her by the arm to steady her. "Is there someone I can call for you?"
However long it took to fall, Beryl had time to remember when she had been the one delivering bad news, six years back, on Phoebe's wedding day. Her fiancé, Juan, had been killed in a multiple car wreck on his way to their wedding. The pain of seeing the mangled cars and the devastation of Phoebe's life lay right below the surface, and if Beryl thought about it for longer than five minutes, she broke down. But now other memories began crowding in, demanding time and attention and recognition. Right then she would have given both her arms if that state trooper would just put his Smokey the Bear hat back on and go deliver his bad news to the house next door. He held her upright, struggling to maintain eye contact, to let her know just how serious this was.
He could have gone to Eklutna, Beryl reasoned. It was a beautiful lake. In the summer they'd kayaked there. Portaged their gear to a quiet spot, made love on grass so green it seemed to glow beneath their flesh. The trooper helped her to the kitchen table and got her a glass of water.
After she drank, Beryl pulled herself together. She could hear the soup bubbling on the stove. "Tell me," she said. "Even if it's really bad. Don't leave anything out."
Copyright © 2004 by Jo-Ann Mapson
A Bad Girl Creek Novel
A Bad Girl Creek Novel
Beryl now lives with Earl in Alaska, where the fissures in their relationship have started to spread. But then Earl disappears one wintry night. Nance, on the heels of a string of devastating miscarriages, has been advised to stop trying for a baby. Phoebe finds herself overwhelmed by her five-year-old daughter, Sally, and an enigmatic Southern charmer named Andrew. And Ness tenderly nurses David Snow as he gradually succumbs to AIDS. The farm's successes have brought profits, but when a nursery opens across the road, the bar is set higher yet again.
Life rolls on, though, and in the midst of myriad misfortunes come explosive surprises. The old friends are challenged to reunite once again, to rediscover with fresh eyes the powerful words in Aunt Sadie's journal: Live life to the fullest. Love as often as you can. Regret nothing. Eat hearty. Laugh often. Plant flowers. And don't forget to dance.
Read an Excerpt
Reading Group Guide
1) In this story, setting is more than a backdrop. The depiction of Alaska and coastal California, where most of the novel takes place, goes deeper than just creating the mood. These places seem to actively reflect the characters' state of mind and emotional "landscape," so to speak. As such, what significance does Beryl's moving to Alaska have in terms of the larger story? What did Alaska offer her that California did not? What tools does the author use to make the natural landscape such a vibrant part of this novel?
2) How are animals used to the same effect throughout this story? Often, as the lives of these people unfold their relationships with non-human characters reveal much about their personality. Think about Sally with her horse, Thomas Jack with birds, and Beryl with many different kinds of animals. Why is it that animals give us a window into the emotional worlds of these people?
3) Beryl religiously writes in her journal. As such, it is a key in understanding her as a character. At one point, we learn this about her writing: "What she'd written in California wasn't earth shattering, but here in Alaska she was digging down to the bedrock of her life, and it was a stony parcel of land to till." This metaphor not only sheds light on Beryl's relationship with Alaska, but also alludes to the unresolved pain surrounding the rape that she suffered as a teenager. A few pages earlier, that rape, and Beryl' see more