It was morning, too, in the Pacific Northwest, when the space shuttle exploded. Joanie watched it happen on a small TV in a small cabin on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, at the edge of the national park. Her first thought was for her older brother.
Outside, rain fell from a lumpy gray sky. It never stopped raining here for long, especially in January. In the mountains there was snow. Joanie had come west in late October, to take a job as off-season caretaker of a string of rental cabins near Sequim (pronounced “Squim” by the locals). In addition to her small pay, she got to live in the only winterized one. A fire simmered in the woodstove, a state-of-the-art model made in Vermont, keeping the spacious interior of the cabin comfortably warm. Joanie slept in the open loft, the warmest place in the house. Most of the wood was stacked in a small outbuilding, but a box near the stove held enough for several days. The temperature rarely sank below freezing, but the damp air could get inside your bones, and there was nothing like a good wood fire to dry them out.
She’d met a few people in the small town, and she could go into Port Angeles or Port Townsend if she wanted to see a movie or visit a bookstore or just be around people for a while. But Joanie was content to spend the bulk of the time alone, doing small chores around the cabins, or taking long walks, when the weather permitted, through the woods and along the shore. She’d had her fill of crowds over the summer, working at an information kiosk in Bar Harbor, answering inane questions from clueless tourists and advising everyone else how to have fun. She hadn’t had much of a social life. She didn’t like bars and drinking. She hadn’t had a girlfriend since Lisa had lost her job at the car dealership and left Maine six months ago. Lisa was from Georgia and was going back there, and though the relationship had been nice, Joanie didn’t like her enough to follow her to a place more homophobic than rural Maine. Truth was, she didn’t mind being alone just now. She needed some time to think, to sort her life out.
She did not call Jeremy. The Spraulings weren’t phone people, though she did talk to Gretchen from time to time, and her oldest sister kept her more or less current on what each member of the family was doing. They were all grown up now, and gone from the nest – all but Everett. In the fall, he would start high school in Blue Hill, at the same high school they had all attended – well, except for Jeremy. Only now it would be fifteen miles from home. Everett would be lucky not to lose his mind, she thought, stuck out on the end of a peninsula with two people already well on the way to losing theirs.
Joanie had gotten the job on the recommendation of the owner’s brother, a climbing enthusiast in his late fifties to whom she had recommended the best rock faces in Acadia National Park. He liked her and was impressed by her enthusiasm for the outdoors, and when she told him she wanted to get away from Maine for the winter, he suggested that she send a letter to his brother in Washington State, who owned a collection of rental cabins and spent winters in Arizona. Joanie had been thinking about a warmer climate herself, but she sent the letter anyway, and in late September, with the season winding down and no better options available, she accepted the position.
Her car, packed with everything she owned, had made it across the country with barely a hiccup, though it struggled over the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades. She had completed the trip in just over a week. Annabelle had worried about her traveling alone and elicited a promise from her not to pick up any hitchhikers, and she had smiled at this, for Jeremy had thumbed his way back and forth between Maine and upstate New York the entire time he’d attended college, and Annabelle had never said a word. But Joanie didn’t have room in her car for passengers, crammed as it was with clothes and camping gear and boxes of books and the few mementos she couldn’t part with. The job was just for the winter, but Joanie had made no plans to return. She had made no plans of any kind, preferring to take things one day at a time and see what developed. That attitude, she guessed, worried her mother more than anything else. It certainly unnerved Gretchen.
But Gretchen had two kids now, and if Joanie knew her oldest sister, she had already set up a college fund for them and started collecting brochures. Trey was three and Lily was an infant. Madison’s daughter Serena was already in third grade, and Jeremy had been sucked into the vortex of parenthood, too. It scared her a little, that her siblings were so busily reproducing. It made her feel old and unsettled at the same time. Could she possibly make a commitment like that? She knew that if she ever had kids she would have to adopt them, and though the idea seemed farfetched now, might she not some day take comfort in having someone to care for besides herself? Joanie didn’t know. Her brother and sisters seemed to be having kids because that was what they were supposed to do, and Joanie had thrown “supposed to” out the window a long time ago.
The owner turned out to be a less intense but just as friendly version of his rock-climbing brother, taller and thicker through the middle, but still in rugged good shape in his fifties. He reminded Joanie of Maine outdoors types; he favored plaid jackets and flannel shirts and bright orange hunting hats. But in mid-December he packed his wife and golf clubs into an RV and headed south, leaving Joanie with a handful of cabins to look after and a list of local phone contacts for things like plumbing and electrical problems, newspaper and pizza delivery, animal control, and the local police and medical services. He told her the place was hers until May, when he and his wife would return and get ready to open the cabins for the summer. He left her a contact number in Arizona, and said he’d call once a month to check in on things. “My brother’s got a good sense about people,” he told her on the day he left. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.” And so far, she had been. She was not lonely. Though the houses between towns were spread out, she had met a few of the neighbors on the walks she liked to take, and they had all been friendly and welcoming – unlike Maine, where the people were suspicious of newcomers. Nearly twenty years had passed since the Spraulings had moved to Blue Hill, and Annabelle and her offspring were still considered outsiders – even Everett, and he had been born there. How did that saying go? Something about a cat having kittens in the oven.
But on the day the space shuttle exploded, after the initial shock of it, Joanie decided that she wanted to be around other living, breathing human beings. Despite the rain, she laced up her Bean boots and donned a sweater and windbreaker and drove into Port Townsend, where she had discovered a no-frills lunch place and a surprisingly good bookstore. She kept promising herself that she would take a day sometime soon and make the trip into Seattle, which required a ferry and an hour and a half in the car. But it hadn’t happened yet. Joanie wasn’t a city girl, and she was still acquainting herself with the small towns on the peninsula. For the same reason, she had not yet taken the ferry over to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, said to be worth a visit for its Old World charm. But on this day she wanted the comfort of American voices, united in disaster. It wasn’t that she needed to talk to anyone, necessarily. She needed the proximity of people who shared her sorrow.
She took a seat at the counter and ordered a turkey sandwich with no mayo, and a Diet Coke. The walking was good for her; she had dropped six pounds in the three months she had been out here, and she was making an effort to eat better. It was good that the cabin complex was too far away from the business section of town for her to walk to the store for ice cream at night. She listened to the hubbub of conversation and was not surprised that most of it was about the shuttle, and the teacher from New England.
“It’s awful, isn’t it?” she said to the blonde, waifish waitress. She looked like a high school girl from the neck down, but money worries or a cigarette habit or both had etched premature lines in her face; Joanie guessed her to be about thirty-five, which to her was old. Then she remembered that Jeremy was already twenty-eight, and his wife – her sister-in-law – was thirty-five. It was the second time this morning she had thought of him.
“What is, honey?” the waitress said.
“Oh, that.” She sighed, as if the topic, hours old, already made her tired. “Yes, it’s a tragedy. Especially for that poor teacher, and her family. The astronauts, well, they knew the risks.” Something in Joanie’s expression stopped her, for she added, “Of course it’s terrible for their families, too. But you know what I mean.”
Joanie nodded. “I do,” she said. “This is worse, somehow.”
“I guess they won’t be sending up any more shuttles any time soon,” the waitress said. She turned to pour coffee for another customer, a middle-aged man wearing a tie and a pocket protector containing several pens, balding from the crown of the head outward.
“They will,” the man said. “They’ve got too much invested to let this stop them. What’re we going to do, cede space to the Russians? They got three other shuttles. They’ll have an investigation, find the problem, fix it, and go up again. Two years, tops. It’s too important not to.”
“What’s important about it?” a woman at a nearby table said. “All that money, just so people can go round and round the Earth. Is it worth the risk?”
The man next to Joanie swiveled on his stool to look at her. “Risk is a part of any new challenge,” he said. “There are going to be deaths. There are going to be tragedies. How many people died discovering America, or pioneering the West?” He gestured around the half-filled diner. “None of us would be here today if people hadn’t been willing to risk their lives on the Oregon Trail. And a lot of them died before they finished the journey. But the journey continued.”
Joanie nibbled on her sandwich as she listened to the debate, thinking that variations of the same were happening in diners and bars all across America. She sucked down the soft drink until there was only flavored air between the ice cubes, but she left most of the potato chips on the plate.
After she paid her bill, she went over to the bookstore and browsed for a bit, but she didn’t find a title that interested her, and settled on a local magazine with a story on shipwrecks in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the body of water separating the Olympic Peninsula from Vancouver Island. She supposed she had shipwrecks on the brain after the shuttle explosion and the conversation around the lunch counter. But the man was right, and she knew her brother Jeremy would emphatically agree with him – space was risky, space was dangerous, but space could also not be ignored, not by a curious, confident people who considered exploration their birthright.
She wandered around town for a while, admiring the turn-of-the-century houses that Washingtonians considered old, and eventually found herself down by the harbor, looking at the sailboats. Most of them weren’t taken out of the water here in the winter, as they were in Maine. A kiosk near the dock advertised kayaks for rent. Some day she would like to try kayaking. Another incentive to shed a few pounds, she thought. Kayaking had yet to catch on much in Maine, but she had observed a fair number of people doing it out here, where the water was just as cold and just as rough. It occurred to her that someone could turn a fair business renting kayaks to the tourists in Bar Harbor. A few of them might drown, but would that be any worse than what had happened this morning in the sky over Florida?
For the first time since coming West, Joanie missed her family. She especially missed her little sister Pilar, the risk-taker, her ally in so many of the trials of her childhood and adolescence. Where was Pilar on this January day? She had already given up on the University of Maine, and shortly thereafter on the whole state. Her last letter, a belated Christmas card that had arrived three weeks ago, had borne a Louisiana postmark and the news that she had met a jazz musician with a steady gig in a New Orleans nightclub. Before that, she had been in Chicago, making regular visits to Annabelle’s parents in Wisconsin. In typical Pilar fashion, she had drifted down the Mississippi, pausing to pick up part-time work in Peoria before moving on to Memphis, where she met the trombone player she was now dating. Her little sister could conceivably show up unannounced at her door at any time, and Joanie would welcome the intrusion.
Jeremy was in California, married with a kid; Gretchen, after a brief stint in southern Maine, was back on the Blue Hill peninsula, married with two. Madison had a man in her life and a daughter already almost eight years old; Everett, at thirteen, was still living at home, alone on the point with Paul and Annabelle. He had been the baby of the family forever, and now he was an only child. Somehow she doubted that their mother was favoring him with the kind of attention she had lavished on Jeremy.
But it was not Pilar, or any of her other siblings, who showed up a week later. A few days after Groundhog Day (the day had been gray and shadowless, like the day before and the day after), Joanie was watching an old episode of Star Trek and thinking she might call Jeremy after all, just to have someone on the same coast to talk to, when she heard a car pull up, then footsteps outside and a knock on the door. She opened it to a man still on the good side of thirty, neither tall nor short, dressed in jeans and a red windbreaker over a thick sweater.
“Joanie?” the man said. “Joanie Sprauling?”
“Ye-es?” Something about the visitor looked familiar. He smiled at her, and a deep dimple showed itself on his right cheek, bracketed by a less prominent one on his left.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?”
“No,” Joanie said. “No, I can’t say as I do.”
“I’m Peter Sprauling. Your cousin.”
Joanie put her hands to her face. Now she understood the familiarity. He had Everett’s dimples. “My God, Peter, how long has it been?”
“A long time. Maybe since the funeral.”
“We must have seen each other since then.” She had been seven when her father died. But maybe not, she thought. It was surprising how quickly that side of the family had faded from her life. “Come in, come in,” she said. “You want some coffee, or tea? I think I might have a bottle of wine stashed somewhere. Sorry about the mess.”
In fact, Joanie kept the cabin sparingly neat, though small piles of unfolded clothes lay here and there on the furniture, and the surface of the kitchen table was barely visible under the sea of scissors and papers and dishes and books and small tools. She gathered the clothes and dropped them into a basket, moving it out of the way so they could have two places to sit.
“Tea would be great, if you’re having some,” he said.
She opened cupboard doors and kitchen drawers while he checked out the cabin’s small interior. The furniture and the few pictures on the wall had all been here when she arrived; the place had little of her in it aside from the clutter. She did a quick scan of the refrigerator and the counter beside it. She had a hunk of cheese and three Washington apples, a mostly full box of Ritz crackers and a quarter of a box of Nilla wafers. “It’s not much, but it’s home,” she said to him. “Please, make yourself comfortable.”
“Thanks,” he said. He took off the windbreaker and draped it over his arm, circling the room one more time before settling into the chair. “You know I live in Seattle now, don’t you?”
“No, I guess I didn’t know that.”
“I come out here to paint,” he said. This stopped her, and she looked at him.
“Out here to the Olympics, I mean,” he went on. “The peninsula. I’m an artist. There’s some great scenery out here. The rainforest, the huge trees covered with moss. The shore. Painting is my first love, but I do pen-and-ink cards and other stuff to make money. I’ve been in Seattle almost four years now. Hey, I’m having a show in April at this new gallery. You should come. I’ll make sure you get an invitation.”
“I’d like to,” she said. This was all so sudden and bewildering. “How did you…”
“I come out here pretty regularly,” he said. “Sometimes I stay in one of these cabins. I know the owner. When he told me the name of the caretaker he’d hired for the winter, I thought it might be you.” His eyes wandered around the room before coming back to her. “I don’t meet many other Spraulings.”
“No. No, I don’t, either.” She decided on the cheese and crackers, even though the cookies would go better with tea, because she didn’t want the Nilla wafers to be gone just yet. Peter flashed the dimpled smile again when she brought out the plate and the steaming tea. On the TV, Spock was doing the Vulcan mind-meld with a creature that was supposed to be an intelligent being made of silicon but was just a guy on all fours beneath a shag rug.
Peter was the middle child in a robust family of five sired by George Sprauling, two years younger than his brother Elliott. Though Elliott had bested him at everything else, George beat him to the parental starting line. George junior was launched more than full two years before Annabelle gave birth to Jeremy. Sandra came along a year later, and Peter two years after that, placing him between the ages of Jeremy and Gretchen. Then Olivia and Max, the baby. Max was Joanie’s age. Joanie remembered them all with the cottony recollection of childhood, a week here and there at the summer home of her grandparents on the shore in East Blue Hill.
“Your brother used to love this show,” Peter said.
“Still does.” Joanie set her tea carefully on the end table and curled her feet up underneath herself on the corner of the couch. “He works in the space program now, in California. He’s involved with the Voyager.”
“Oh, wow. That’s the one that just passed… I’m sorry. Which planet did it just go by? I’m afraid I haven’t kept up.”
“Uranus,” Joanie said. She pronounced it “YUR-a-ness.”
“Oh.” A pause. “Well, that’s pretty cool, I guess. Your brother doing that.” Peter paused again. Joanie wondered if he was going to mention the space shuttle.. Instead, he said, “I don’t think I’ve ever met your other brother. The younger one.”
“Everett,” Joanie said.
“That’s right. He was born after your father died.”
Joanie nodded. “I remember Mom fussing over her black dress before the funeral, worried that her baby bump was going to show.”
They laughed, and the tension that Joanie had felt since answering the door lifted a little.
“Strange to think I have a cousin I’ve never met,” Peter said. “Let’s see, he’d be…”
“He’ll be fourteen in April,” Joanie said.
“Fourteen years. Wow.” Peter leaned forward in the chair and sipped his tea. He reached for a cracker and the thinnest piece of cheese on the plate; he raised the combination to his mouth and nibbled at it slowly. He seemed to be searching for something more to say.
“So tell me about your family,” she asked him. “How are your brothers and sisters? And Uncle George and Aunt Ursula?”
“My brothers and sisters are fine,” he said, turning the cracker around and taking a tiny bite from the other side. “My parents are getting a divorce.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
He pushed the rest of the cracker and cheese into his mouth with a forefinger, and chased it with a sip of tea. “Don’t be,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming. Dad’s been carrying on with this cute little grad student, all of twenty-seven years old. Shit, Sandra’s twenty-seven. He’s been having an affair with a woman his daughter’s age. When Mom found out she hit the roof. Apparently he’s had a bunch of affairs over the years, but Mom always forgave him and he always promised to break them off. Not this time. So I guess they’re going to get a divorce, and Dad’s going to marry the bimbo.”
“Is she dumb?” Joanie asked.
“I don’t know,” Peter said, the grin gone. “Okay, so she probably isn’t a bimbo. But how would you feel, if it was your father?”
“My father’s dead,” Joanie said softly. “I never got the chance to find out.”
Peter took another sip of tea and sighed. “I suppose you were too young to remember getting together for Thanksgiving,” he said. “We used to alternate years. One year in Philadelphia, the next year in Rochester. That all stopped when you guys moved to Maine.”
“Peter, I was three when we moved. I don’t remember anything that happened before that.”
“I remember one year you all got stuck at our house in a humongous snowstorm. Granddad and Grandma were there. And everybody was getting on each other’s nerves, not being able to go out and all. Finally, on like the second or third day, my dad and your dad decided they’d had enough of wives and kids and parents, and they ventured out into the storm to find a bar that was open. I guess they found one, because they didn’t come back until about four in the morning. Aunt Annabelle and my mom lit into them. My brother George told me they’d found a couple of girls. I didn’t believe him. But I guess I sort of do now.”
“That’s an interesting story,” Joanie said. She was remembering the family, bouncing round in the big house on South Street – for they had visited at least once before the doctor took his tumble. To Joanie it had seemed like a herd of older kids stampeding from one end of the sprawling old mansion to the other.
“Hey, you like pizza?” Peter said.
“What? Sure, who doesn’t like pizza?”
“I know a good place. I’ll treat. We can catch up.”
And just like that, Joanie had a friend in Washington. Over a shrimp and squid pizza with green onions and red peppers at a funky, wood-paneled place called Poseidon’s Fork, he filled her in on the Sprauling side of the family. He sometimes heard from their Aunt Sally, the baby sister born five years after George, whose love of horses had led her to Kentucky, a horse farm, marriage and three daughters. Peter had painted a portrait of one of her prize-winning horses several years ago, when he was still in school, he explained, and Aunt Sally had singled him out for her favor ever since. They updated each other on the lives of their siblings. George Junior was working at a law firm in Denver and already on his second marriage. Sandra had remained in Rochester, married a physics professor at RIT, ands was currently pursuing a PhD in statistics. Olivia taught yoga classes in Philadelphia and traveled frequently to run in marathons and half-marathons. Max was in college at a small school in western Pennsylvania; Peter wasn’t sure what he was studying.
Over the next few weeks, they managed to meet up several more times, in Seattle and on the peninsula. He showed her around the city, and she accompanied him on a trip to the peninsula’s wild outer shore, on the open ocean, where he painted and she walked along the edge of the surf, picking up shells. Another time, they went into the rainforest, and she shivered while he tried to capture the varied greens of the mosses and the play of the mist between the trees. It was an entirely comfortable relationship between cousins who had not previously known each other well. Though he didn’t talk much about himself, Joanie gleaned from their conversations that he was straight, single, and not currently seeing anyone. She had made a few proto-friends around Sequim and Port Angeles, and the woman at the bookstore in Port Townsend knew her by name, but she was grateful for Peter’s occasional company and the chance to learn more about her extended family.
“I’m surprised that none of us kept in touch,” she said one day over twin burgers in Port Angeles. “I got Christmas cards from Grandma and Grandpa, you know, after Dad… and I remember going out to see them in East Blue Hill, but not when you guys were there.”
Their grandparents had died with weeks of each other in the winter of 1982. Neither had been outwardly religious, and there had been no real funeral, though the family had held an informal memorial service in the spring. The Maine branch of the Sprauling family had not been represented.
“I remember hanging around with George and your brother Jeremy,” Peter said. “They used to pick on me so bad. Remember that raft at the beach in East Blue Hill?”
“I’m pretty sure I do.”
“It was anchored a ways out from the beach, and it was a big deal, as kids, when you were old enough to swim out to that raft at high tide. The water was over your head, so you had to keep going or turn back. And I finally got my courage up to do it, only those two swam out there first. And when I got out there, all tired out and needing to grab onto something, they started rocking the raft and stepping on my fingers and pushing my head under. I thought I was going to drown.”
“That sounds like Jeremy,” Joanie said.
“I remember playing board games with Gretchen and Madison. And of course you were still little.”
“I was still in grade school the last time we saw each other,” Joanie said. “It wasn’t long after Dad died, at any rate. Nobody made much effort to get the family together.”
` “I don’t think my mother and your mother got along,” Peter said. “They were polite to one another, but it always seemed like there was some underlying tension.”
“Probably Mom was jealous. Aunt Ursula was a rather striking woman.”
“She still is.” Peter grinned over his hamburger.
“Tall,” Joanie remembered.
“Five-ten in her bare feet,” he said.
Joanie laughed, because while her Uncle George had shared Elliott Sprauling’s height, her cousin wasn’t much taller than her brother Jeremy. Peter was towered over by both of his parents, even in adulthood.
“And she still has that regal bearing,” he went on. “She used to get on us about our posture. She tried to make us walk across a room with a book balanced on our heads. None of us could do it, but she could.”
“How is she handling… you know, everything?” Joanie asked.
Her cousin shrugged. “Okay, I guess. Mom will be all right. I think she’s more relieved than anything else, now that everything’s out in the open. She and Sandra see each other a lot. Mom told her it was liberating not to have to keep secrets from her children any more. That’s the word she used, Sandra said. Liberating.”
“Of course, none of you are children,” Joanie said. “I think there ought to be a statute of limitations on keeping things from your kids.”
“It’s funny you should say that,” Peter said.
She couldn’t decide whether his half-smile was amused or sympathetic, or if he meant to convey some other emotion. “Why?” she said.
He looked at her across the table for several seconds before replying. “Do you think your mother’s told you everything about your father’s death?”
“What? He fell down the stairs and hit his head. What’s to tell?”
“I don’t know,” Peter said. “But I do know that for a long time afterward Dad was pretty agitated about it. I remember overhearing him arguing with my mom a couple of times. He wasn’t convinced his big brother’s death was an accident. He wanted to sue the hospital and hire an investigator to find out what really happened. He wanted someone to blame, I guess. And one of the people I think he blamed was your mother.”
“Peter, that’s preposterous,” Joanie protested. “You think my mom wanted to be widowed with six kids? It was hard for her. She had a house, no career, no roots in Maine…”
He held up his hand. “I know. I’m just telling you what I heard, what I remember hearing. And I remember feeling sympathy for my father for the first and maybe the only time in my life. I mean, Uncle Elliot was the older brother who beat him at everything, was better at sports, better at school… you know. My dad lived in his shadow his whole life. Kind of like me and George. It must be something about first-borns. They’re arrogant, but they’re also accomplished.”
Joanie nodded, recognizing Jeremy in Peter’s words.
“And when your father died, my father was devastated. The competition was removed, brutally removed, and I don’t think he’s ever gotten used to living without it.” He paused, then continued quietly, “I think that’s how I’d feel if George died. He picked on me mercilessly, when we were kids. I used to yell at him, ‘I wish you were dead!’ But if it really happened, I’d be crushed.”
“Well, of course you would,” Joanie said. But the direction the conversation had taken unnerved her. “What did he say about my mother?”
Peter shook his head. “I don’t remember anything specific. Maybe he didn’t say anything at all. But I did pick up on the attitude. It was an uneasy time, at the funeral.”
“I haven’t been to many,” Joanie said, “but aren’t funerals always uneasy?”
“Perhaps. But it might explain why our families stopped seeing each other.”
“Do you really think my mother has something to hide, though?” Joanie felt a mixture of anger and fear. “My father fell down the stairs. I was only seven years old, but I remember her gathering us all up and driving us to the hospital, and we sat by his bed, and he never woke up. She cried and cried and cried.” Joanie covered her face with her hands, feeling a bit like crying herself. Her father had never seen the space shuttle fly. He had missed Watergate and Jimmy Carter and disco and punk rock and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Falkland Islands War. The world went on without him. She went on. Almost fifteen years had passed – the majority of her young life. And on many days she did not think of him at all.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Look, Joanie, I’m sorry I asked, okay? I’m sure it must have been hard for your mom. All I meant was that parents try to shield their kids from stuff. My parents hadn’t been getting along for years, even back when all of us kids were living at home. They sure as heck tried to hide it from us, though. I didn’t have a clue that anything was wrong. Maybe there was stuff going on between your parents that you didn’t know about. That’s all I was trying to say.”
She looked up at him, smiled, and took a deep breath. “Sure,” she said. “It’s okay. We’ve talked about your parents a lot, after all.”
“Divorce and death aren’t the same thing,” he said quietly, still contrite.
“No,” she said, with an effort at a smile. “No, I guess they’re not.”