1: Mill Hollow, 1972
The wind howls, the rain comes down in sheets, and Patty is still dead.
The earth settles, the grave grows green with the first shoots of hungry scrub grass and dandelion root, and Patty is still dead.
The funeral bells are silent, the last of the we’re-so-sorry cakes have been reduced to stale crumbs that attract marching regiments of ants, and Patty is still dead. Patty is going to be dead forever, because that’s what dead means: dead is the change you can’t take back, dead is the mistake that can’t be unmade. The rain batters the tin slope of the roof until the sound of it drowns out everything else in the world—everything except for the simple, inalienable fact that Patty is dead, Patty is gone, Patty is never coming home. Patty died far away, in the big city where Jenna begged her not to go, the victim of the sadness that grew in her own body, in her own bones, until she picked up a knife as sharp as the end of the world. The big-city police packed up Patty’s body and shipped it back to Mill Hollow in a pine box six foot long and three foot across. Too big to hold the frail little thing Patty left behind her when she went. Too small by half to hold a girl with a smile like the morning sun and arms strong enough to hold up the world.
Thunder rumbles in the distance, low and harsh, like God clearing his throat. The walls are closing in. Jenna looks around at the curtained windows, at the muslin sheets covering the mirrors—the big one in the hall, the two smaller ones that flank the fireplace—to keep the dead from looking out. She wants to tear the fabric down, to gamble everything for the chance at seeing Patty looking at her one more time. First person to meet a ghost’s eyes is the first to die, she thinks, and it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter, because Patty isn’t here.
She rips the fabric down off the mirrors that flank the fireplace, leaves them staring blind at her, and the only face she sees is her own, skinny little Jenna, Jenna-left-behind. The absence of her sister is too much for this house to hold. I have to run, she thinks, and even as she thinks it, she’s already running, already in motion, heading for the door without pausing to grab her coat or pull on her shoes. Ma’s asleep in the kitchen, tears dried to salt-crusts on her cheeks, and Pop is God-knows-where, out in the shed or up in the attic, spending his own tears in private. He’s always been a strong man, doesn’t waste his time asking anyone for anything. He doesn’t know how to mourn a daughter. This isn’t going to be the thing that starts him looking for help.
Jenna runs alone and no one sees her go. The door slams shut behind her, closing on an empty room. The wind it makes knocks the muslin sheet covering the big hallway mirror askew. It falls by inches, fluttering slowly to the floor, leaving the glass unbarred, and everything is silent, and everything is still.
She runs across the field behind the house, heading for the forest where she and Patty used to play, her legs churning up distance and turning it into motion. The feet turn into yards behind her, and she doesn’t really have a destination, and she doesn’t really want one. Patty is still dead; Patty will be dead no matter how far Jenna runs, no matter how hard Jenna tries to catch up to the past. So Jenna just keeps running. She runs past the forest’s edge, her bare feet squelching in the muddy soil. She runs into the dark beneath the trees. She runs, and runs, and runs until the ground crumbles beneath her heels and sends her plunging down into the ravine. She should have seen it coming; maybe she did, somewhere deep down inside. Maybe she didn’t care, because she was getting what she wanted: she ran out of the world of the living entirely.
It will be two days before Jenna’s body washes up on the riverbank half a mile downstream, bleached pale as bone by the currents. One of her hands will never be found. Somewhere deep in the river, fish will play hide-and-seek among her finger bones, chasing each other through the space between her thumb and index finger. Her parents will send for another long pine box, too big for her body, too small for her soul. Old lady McGeary who lives down the hollow will bring her parents a spice cake and tell them how sorry she is, and they’ll be too busy grieving to see that her eyes are dry.
They’ll bury her next to her sister, and everyone in the Hollow will whisper about how sad it was for the Paces to lose two daughters in the space of a season. But at least Jenna died at home, they’ll say; at least Jenna died on familiar soil. Both girls will sleep better for knowing that they’re resting comfortable in Mill Hollow, where the world outside will never touch them. One day, when Dan and Molly Pace follow their daughters into the dark, the whole family will be able to rest easy, together, safe at home.