Excerpt: Moose Tracks on the Road to Heaven

WGRR FM 103.9, THE BEAR
“Give a Growl for the Adirondacks’ Most Trusted Radio Station”
January 16, 1969

Welcome back, Adirondack listeners. It’s Willard T. Boggs here with you on another frigid Thursday evening in the North Country. Reports have come in that the ice is now twenty-one inches thick on Seventh Lake. It looks like most of the hearty souls who venture out this week in hopes of catching a few trout or whitefish will be spending their time in ice shanties, sipping from flasks more often than checking their lines. Sorry about that, ladies, but at least if your mister comes home empty-handed, you’ll know why.

In entertainment news, actress Ethel Merman, whose powerful singing voice is the delight of stage and film audiences, was born on this date in 1908 in Queens, New York.

            And last, but certainly not least, a three-quarter moon last Friday signaled the arrival of a baby at North Country General as Dave and Elizabeth Wright of Moose Junction added a new bundle of sugar and spice to their brood. Yes, it’s another girl, bringing the total in the family to eight. Watch out, Adirondack softball enthusiasts. One more and there’ll be enough Wright girls to field a fast-pitch team all by themselves!

Of course a boy would throw a monkey wrench into that prospect, so for now we’ll hold off and just send out a WGRRRReat big congratulations to the whole family. Look for the new arrival being wheeled around the Super Duper, where Mrs. Wright will surely be spending a lot of time getting groceries. . . .

 

Prologue

Eternity is not something that begins after you are dead.

It is going on all the time.  – Charlotte Perkins Gilman

 

Until she was five years old, Elena Elizabeth Wright Maguire believed she was an ordinary girl.

Then she went to kindergarten and realized other kids didn’t think it was normal to salvage mummified squirrels and bird skeletons, search the woods for ghosts of Adirondack hermits, or look forward to cemetery visits. Of course some of them went to the cemetery when they had to, just not for the reasons Elena and her family did: to experience the peacefulness, examine interesting headstones, or maybe leave some leftover Easter candy for the invisible residents to enjoy later.

It never occurred to Elena to keep her ideas about such things to herself, and so it was that after a few conversations with startled classmates over midmorning snack and cartons of faintly sour-smelling milk, she’d been forced to entertain a troubling possibility that she was, in fact, different.

It had been a tough pill to swallow.

What had made her this way? She remembered someone once telling her that people were born with the seeds of their own finished personalities inside them, waiting to sprout and seek out the light. That no matter what you did or didn’t do, you couldn’t change your basic nature.

She didn’t know how she felt about that. Truth be told, she almost didn’t get the chance to find out. Even before the dodgy reception by her pint-sized peers, Elena had lived through two personal and unexpected encounters with the Grim Reaper (more details on that in a bit). However, many considered her surviving to adulthood at all an even greater accomplishment, since being born dead-last into a large family of girls came with its own special set of challenges.

Yes, except for her beloved father, Pa, every member of Elena’s household had double “X” chromosomes (even the dog), and she learned early on that underestimating a houseful of females in various stages of hormonal crisis could be lethal. Bringing up the rear of this estrogen-laced version of running the gauntlet helped her blossom into what her maternal grandma had called a “singular” young lady, but most people didn’t notice anything just by looking at her. It took a while and a few conversations to realize what was different about the way she thought and felt.

Let’s go back, for instance, to the subject of death.

Elena’s two youthful run-ins with the Reaper hadn’t caused any permanent emotional scars (though there were a couple of physical ones); instead, she’d carried with her a bone-deep awareness of life’s impermanence, along with a tendency at moments of deep fear or distress to murmur a phrase that broke her father’s heart and earned teasing from certain sisters each time she uttered it: “Am I going to die, Pa?”

The first brush with eternity happened the summer after she’d turned four, at the bustling Adirondack theme park called Fairytale Adventure. She’d been bucked off the live pony-ride—an attraction where children rode tethered ponies round and round in a circle for a pre-set length of time. Unbeknownst to anyone, Elena’s pony had been in the harness for too long. A sore had developed near the edge of his saddle. An insect might have landed on the raw place, or perhaps Elena had accidentally touched it. She couldn’t remember.

Whatever it was, a jumble of sights, sounds, and not very nice feelings had followed that instant as she’d sailed through the air and landed with a crunching thud a dozen feet away. She’d later learned that her skull had narrowly missed a rock when she’d finally reconnected with Earth. She didn’t know any of that at the time, though. She only knew that her shoulder ached something fierce, her collarbone having snapped upon impact.

However, if all else was muddled, the memory of looking up and seeing the worry in Pa’s handsome face had stuck with her, vivid as blood upon snow. He’d scooped her up and carried her tucked against his chest all the way to the park entrance, where they would find their van and go on to the hospital.

As he moved her swiftly through the crowd, that desperate question had slipped out in a whisper. Pa had met her gaze, his striking blue eyes filled with such love for her, and he’d answered in a calm and reassuring voice that, no, she wasn’t going to die. And so Elena had nodded in grave acceptance, blinking away any lingering tears. He was her Pa—the best Pa in the whole world—and he always told her the truth.

But the anxiety of the experience still lingered in the back of her mind when the second brush with eternity swooped down about ten months later. This time it came in the form of a very large Saint Bernard dog suffering from a hidden brain ailment. One minute Elena had been standing in the driveway of a large house up the road, right next to her oldest sister, Anne (who happened to be friends with the teenaged girl whose family owned the dog), and the next thing she knew she was dangling head-first out of the massive canine’s jaws.

One of the animal’s incisor teeth had sunk into Elena’s right eye socket; once her sister and the friend had managed to subdue the dog and pry its mouth open to free her, blood had poured from that and a few other puncture wounds on her scalp. It had prevented her from seeing much of anything except a reddish blur as she was rushed into the neighbor’s house and a wet cloth was pressed to her head until Pa could race up the road (in the van this time) and spirit her away to the hospital yet again.

She’d struggled mightily to recall Pa’s words of comfort to her whispered query on this occasion after seeing a mirrored glimpse of her face covered in blood. She was certain that this time he couldn’t possibly be right. This time she was going to die.

But she didn’t.

The nurse wrapped her in some kind of restraining device so the doctor could stitch her wounds. Then she’d been bandaged and sent home to recuperate. She hadn’t lost her eye, though it had been scratched by the dog’s fang. She’d forever bear a one-inch scar beneath her eyebrow from the stitches, but the worst of that damage had healed by the time she entered kindergarten that autumn.

And so perhaps it was in part because of these two experiences that Elena was pretty matter-of-fact about what others liked to call “passing over” when she was little. She was used to thinking about it. And that kind of acceptance, especially for one so young, tended to make people nervous.

Still, it wasn’t something she could take the full blame for. As mentioned earlier, her family’s unusual way of handling many things, including the subject of mortality, added to her outlook, too. In the end she was thankful for it, but there were times, especially in those years after she’d entered school, when even she didn’t quite know what to make of it.

Here’s an example: The general consensus in Moose Junction was that her parents had been a bit odd in opting to purchase their own headstone and cemetery plot when Elena was seven. Neither Ma nor Pa had had any reason to believe death was imminent. Both were in their forties, in fact. But they’d decided it was wise to be ready.

In keeping with that philosophy, a few times a year they’d bundled the family into the old Volkswagen van, making a pilgrimage to visit their plot and wander around the cemetery. Sometimes they’d even bring a picnic lunch.

Once Pa had gone there by himself to take double exposure pictures of the headstone and then of him sitting near it in various poses with a blanket draped over half of his head. In the finished product, he and the blanket had looked transparent against the headstone, thereby producing a creative representation of himself as a “ghost,” sitting at his own graveside.

They’d all laughed when they saw the prints, but no one in the family considered it morbid. Ma and Pa used humor and whatever else they could to ensure none of their daughters felt anxious about death. It was just another phase in the cycle of life, and it should be accepted as such, rather than denied or avoided until it smacked them in the face.

Of course Elena was also the only person she’d ever known whose mother played hide and seek in coffins as a child with a neighbor boy whose family owned a funeral parlor, while Pa in his teen years (long before he met Ma) had been in the habit of taking all the pretty girls one at a time to the cemetery so they could do a little passionate necking behind the gravestones.

With that kind of combined DNA, she’d reasoned, what kind of chance did she have?

 

The Homestead
Moose Junction, Upstate New York
May 25, 1975
 
Every goodbye is the birth of a memory

 

Elena is six years old

 

The mood was solemn as they completed the ritual, interrupted only by seven-year-old Zippy’s occasional hiccup. She and her little sister, Elena, stood on one side of the small hole Pa had dug near the Wright family’s one-room camp in the woods behind the garage; both girls clutched handfuls of freshly picked, blood-dark trillium (a.k.a. stinkpots, for the wet-dog fragrance of the flowers). The shovel Pa had used lay nearby, cradling a newspaper-wrapped bundle in its square-edged scoop.

Jen, who at almost ten years old was considered mature enough to handle the duty, held a homemade cross of tied-together sticks. Kat, Lisa, and Patricia stood a little behind Pa along with Anne and Melanie, who were home from college for the summer. Kat looked ready to roll her eyes at any moment, but managed to keep her opinions to herself, thanks to a pointed look from Ma, who stood behind Zippy and Elena, one hand resting on each of their shoulders.

“Who wants to say a few words?” Pa looked from Jen to Zippy, and then to Elena, since they were all standing nearest to the grave. All three gazed back at him, and Elena’s eyes welled with tears.

“Rest in peace,” Jen murmured.

“I hope you find a friend to play with in heaven,” Zippy added.

Kat snickered at that, hiding the sound behind a cough at the last minute when Ma raised her eyebrow. Elena was too preoccupied with the task at hand to really notice. Then it was her turn to speak.

“I can’t think of anything good, Pa. You do it. You always know the right words.”

Pa nodded in all seriousness and looked up for a moment at the blue sky with wispy white clouds just visible through the treetops, before dropping his gaze again to the newly dug burial spot as he spoke. “Now he can be happy without any worries. Have a good journey. Amen.”

“Amen,” everyone intoned after him. Then they all waited in silence as Pa lifted the shovel and gently placed into the hole the newspaper-wrapped body of the “road kill” woodchuck that Jen, Elena, Patricia, and Zippy had found on their walk along the road past the Steiner’s house and up the hill yesterday.

After filling in the hole with dirt and patting it down, Pa nodded to Jen. She placed the cross, adding it to the dozen or so other markers that had been pushed into the dirt nearby to identify the sometimes mummified corpses they’d find on the road or in the woods and ask Pa to retrieve and bury (because animals had rights, too) in their “Animal Graveyard.”

Elena let out a sigh of relief after placing her stinkpots on the new grave, feeling better already about the lost little creature at least having been treated with more respect in death than it had been given in life.

Shortly thereafter, Zippy broke off a dead branch from a nearby tree and swatted at Elena with it, chanting, “Slow poke, slow poke!” before running off shrieking, followed in close pursuit by Elena, who screamed, “I hate you, you big meanie!” while she scowled and clenched her fists. Jen, who was always up for a friendly challenge (not to mention that, as an older sister, it was her unspoken job to make sure nothing got out of hand) brought up the rear and kept any blood from spilling. Pa picked up the shovel to return it to the shed before rejoining the rest of family as they made their way back toward the house to eat the lunch of hotdogs and beans Ma was keeping warm for them on the stove.

 

 

Chapter One
Maple Creek, Upstate New York
October 30, 2007

As might be expected, Elena evolved from the quirky girl she’d been to the (mostly reasonable) woman she became by her thirties, the transition joyful in some parts and devastating in others as happens for anyone who inhabits this world long enough. Eventually, however, her life settled into a comfortable rhythm and stayed that way . . . until about ten weeks before her thirty-ninth birthday when trouble crashed both literally and figuratively into her routine existence.

We’ll get to the event itself in a bit. For now, suffice it to say that it was important in a lasting way, a catalyst in helping transform the way Elena viewed herself, people she loved, and even the universe at large. But at the onset, it all kind of snuck up on her (as momentous changes sometimes do).

The actual date commencing all this was apropos for its unexpected nature, since long before Halloween cornered the market for autumn holidays, Mischief Night, which was the prank-filled night before All Hallow’s Eve, was more the rage. However, like most people, Elena didn’t know that history, and she certainly had no inkling of the great upheaval about to be unleashed on her life.

In fact, October 30th began for her just like any other, with little Violet waking her before six and Max rolling over with a snore until his alarm went off half an hour later. Their two older girls, Claire and Jillian, weren’t up yet, but when they came downstairs, they’d be muttering at having to get up for school when it was still dark and rainy outside. Not that they really had anything to complain about. It had been a sunny autumn, but now it was just two days shy of November, and anyone in the North Country of New York State could tell you that meant the unofficial start of winter.

Elena buried her head deeper into her pillow as she listened to the babble of sing-song phrases coming through the monitor they still used to hear the baby (who couldn’t really be classified as such any longer, since she was going on three years old now, but like Max always said, you couldn’t spell the word “smother” without “mother” so the monitor stayed for now). Violet had just learned the words to a few lines of her new favorite nursery song, “All Through the Night,” and was giving it a try as she waited for her mama to come get her.

“Are you getting up?” Max mumbled from under the blankets.

Elena thought about answering him with something smart like, “No, I’m going to go back to sleep and let you take over for once,” but she restrained herself and instead rolled over (in the process managing to dig her elbow into Max with the stealth of a ninja) to squint at the clock.

Almost on cue with the minute display changing, Violet shifted to a warbling cadence of “Mama-up, Vi-awake!” and Elena rolled out of bed, wishing as always for another hour, or ten, of sleep. She knew she should count her blessings. At least she wasn’t being roused to the sounds of crying, like she’d been when fourteen-year-old Claire was a baby. Jillian, who was now ten, had been a mixed bag depending on whether or not she was getting another ear infection. Since Violet’s first day home, she was almost always happy in the morning.

Pulling on her robe, Elena peered out the side of the shades. It was just as she’d suspected: more rain. She closed her eyes for a second, imagining sun and blue skies. Violet started singing again, a little louder, and she let the shade fall, making a quick dash to the bathroom before she went to get her youngest. Tomorrow was another day and another chance for sunny weather. No use wishing (or worrying) your life away, Ma had always said. There was plenty of time if you wanted to feel lousy down the road.

Pushing her sleeves up to wash her hands, she glanced down at the outside of her left arm where distinct, threading scars trailed upward, disappearing into the bunched up fabric above her elbow. The marks glowed white in the fluorescent glare. Nothing new there. Her face was another story. As she washed her hands, she squinted at herself in the mirror. Not good. She’d need some major help this morning. A nighttime visit from the no-wrinkles-or-gray-hair fairy would have been nice. Maybe she should have gone to that Botox party last Christmas like Zippy had suggested, but the thought of needles poking her in the face still made her shudder, wrinkles or not.

Grimacing, she turned off the water hard enough to make the pipes squeal and dried her hands. In a perfect world, she wouldn’t have had to go to work (even though she liked her part-time job as a research specialist at the local library well enough), but she’d long ago accepted that perfection rarely existed on Earth. Luck was another matter. To that end she played the lottery once a week. Only three more days until the next drawing, called out on the news by Yolanda Vega. . . .

A few minutes later she was in Violet’s room, wrapped in a morning hug as she carried her downstairs for some Rice Krispies with sliced bananas, and then poured herself her first cup of coffee. Soon enough Max would be up to keep an eye on Violet so Elena could hop in the shower and get ready for work.

Not long after Elena came back downstairs, dressed and set to go, the cat threw up on the living room rug, Claire scowled and stomped into her room to pretend to wash her face and (actually) change her clothes when informed that she had on too much makeup and her jeans were too tight, Jillian spilled half a gallon of milk on the floor trying to be a big girl by getting her own breakfast, and Max needed help finding his cell phone.

In other words, the day rolled on pretty much as usual with none of them the wiser about what was coming.

 

 

WGRR FM 103.9 THE BEAR
“Give a Growl for the Adirondacks’ Most Trusted Radio Station”
~October 31, 1974~

Welcome back, Adirondack listeners. It’s Willard T. Boggs here with you on a cold North Country All Hallow’s Eve. The temperature is already down to forty degrees. If you haven’t harvested your pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns and such, get ‘em in soon. The frost that wilted the vines a week ago is strong enough now to hard-freeze the fruit. No one likes a rotted pumpkin, which is just what you’ll have when you bring a frozen one indoors and it thaws.

            This Day in History is handpicked for you poetry lovers out there. On this day in 1795, John Keats was born. He penned “When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be,” a title that is fitting in light of the catastrophe last evening.

            As almost everyone knows by now, Don Luftkin’s barn burned down last night in a Mischief Night prank turned deadly. Young Elmer Jones and Travis Davies made a tunnel in the hay bales and accidentally started the inferno with a candle they lit to play cards. Moose Junction next-door neighbors and longtime friends Dave Wright and Hank Steiner were passing by late on their way home from work at the military base when they spotted the flames. The boys were saved, but the barn collapsed with more than a hundred milkers trapped inside.

            A spaghetti dinner is in the works to try to raise funds to help the Luftkins rebuild. Anyone wishing to donate should contact the station. And of course a “WGRReat!” job goes out to Dave and Hank for helping to prevent an even greater tragedy and loss of life by their keen attention and quick actions.

 

Chapter Two
Maple Creek, Upstate New York
October 30, 2007

At four o’clock on the afternoon that changed everything, Claire was still tied up at volleyball practice, but Elena was on her way to pick up Violet from the sitter and Jillian from her after-school program. Even more annoying for a catalyzing event, it happened in the blink of an eye. Glowering rain clouds made the afternoon seem more like night than day, and it was clear that Mother Nature was brewing something big.

The wind was blowing to beat the band, tossing leaves all over the road and adding to the general wildness of the afternoon. It was the kind of afternoon Elena had always loved, as long as she was indoors with a cup of tea, cozy as she watched the world through the safety of their big picture window.

Today she was out in the thick of it, when the heavens opened up in a lightning-cracked downpour. She’d just turned off Sleepy Hollow Road onto Jasper when it happened. There was a blur of metallic blue and a blinding light. A surge of adrenaline swept through her, and she managed to draw in a single breath before the impact of metal crunching against metal rocked her senses—along with the stinging collision of the air bag striking her face and upraised hands.

Car accident.

She hadn’t been in one since . . .

Her mind blocked out the details as it always did when something jarred her into thinking about it. Still, she felt the rumble of those long-suppressed memories tipping her backward to that day. Fear rose up before she could stop it, kept at bay only by the realization that she was alone in the car this time. That it was different in so many ways. . . .

Then everything was still.

Vaguely she heard the staccato rhythm of the rain on the car roof, accompanied by the sound of steam hissing, and a fainter echo of music playing. Chemical dust from the airbag swirled through the interior, smelling like gunpowder, and she knew her skin should be burning from where the bag made impact, but strangely there was no pain. She was in shock, she supposed. Her head felt heavy and she was disoriented.

She tried to open her eyes, but she was having trouble overcoming the urge to surrender to the darkness that seemed to siphon away her thoughts as swiftly as Violet’s bath bubbles gurgling down the tub drain. She felt sleepy. A nap couldn’t hurt. Help was sure to come soon. It had better, because she needed to frost the pumpkin cupcakes for Jillian’s class party tomorrow.

Elena decided to make one more attempt to regain her concentration before allowing herself to drift into the black void beckoning her. Focusing all her energy, she tried to look around, but everything was blurry and dim. She wasn’t even sure her eyes were open.

And then suddenly Jesse was there, and Elena gave a little gasp.

The logical part of her mind knew it wasn’t possible, but she couldn’t help wanting to hold on to the image of him as long as she could. He smiled at her, looking exactly as he had more than twenty years ago, his blue eyes crinkling at the corners and his handsome face illuminated like some kind of light was shining on it. The glow even lit his hair, making strands of it gold.

She saw the shadow of another figure behind him, but she couldn’t make out any detail. Jesse nodded, and the words “It’s going to be fine, stay calm, don’t move” filled her mind even though no one spoke. She tried to smile back at him, feeling tears sting her eyes as bittersweet memories spilled through her.

But before she had time to understand what she was experiencing, the feelings multiplied tenfold, overwhelming her with a rush of love and longing—and then the switch flipped at last, dropping her into the darkness.

 

WGRR FM 103.9 THE BEAR
“Give a Growl for the Adirondacks’ Most Trusted Radio Station”
~July 5, 1968~

Welcome back, Adirondack listeners. It’s Willard T. Boggs here with you on a sweltering Friday afternoon. The famous dog days of summer don’t usually arrive until August, but you’d never know it by the weather today. Business is booming at Lake Pines Park, especially Stan’s Ice Cream. Stop by for a Sno-Cone and tell Stan that Willard sent you. He’ll give you a dime off your choice. You can thank me by calling the station and casting a vote with the manager for an air conditioner in the broadcast room. Don’t come in person, though, or you’ll be treated to an eyeful of the Hawaiian shorts I’m wearing to stay cool.

            During this heat wave, make sure to thank any French people you know. Yes, folks, it was on This Day in History that the bikini made its debut in Paris in 1946. Oooh, la, la, those Parisians sure know how to keep fashion interesting.

            On a tamer note, in news from downstate, we’re told that former local resident Janie Simms and her husband, NFL great Jim Wilder, are the proud parents of a new baby boy. Grandma Simms, who still lives in Moose Junction, reports that the baby has been named Jesse James Wilder. All of us at WGRR send our congratulations, along with the hope that young Jesse will follow in his father’s career footsteps as opposed to those of his other namesake.

            And now stay tuned for a word from our sponsor, Wild Root Cream Oil, for taming the most unruly hair. . . .

 

Chapter Three
Maple Creek, Upstate New York
October 30, 2007

Looking back on the accident with the buffer of a little time to cushion it, some came to see it as providential. A tune-up for things to come. Whatever you want to call it, it set into motion events and realizations that would change Elena forever, even if she had to be dragged to them kicking and screaming.

Before continuing, however, something should be made clear: she didn’t die in the crash (the proliferation of “dead person” narrators in modern fiction notwithstanding). There was no “crossing over” or even what some people might term a near-death experience, wherein the soul leaves the body only to come zooming back in once the person is revived. What, exactly, did she experience in the moments after the accident? Well, that remained to be determined. She’d felt Jesse’s presence at a bone-deep level, that much was certain. She’d seen him sitting next to her, there in the car.

Jesse.

Even acknowledging his name sent something strange, dark, and dangerous spiraling through her insides. She could feel herself teetering on the edge of memories she wasn’t ready to take out and examine. So she pushed back, blocking them out, and forcing them under the veil of conscious thought as best as she could. It was like slapping a piece of duct tape over a crack on the big dam near Lake Pines, but it was enough for now.

She remembered sitting there in the soupy dark of her damaged car, smelling burnt chemicals from the airbag, her head pounding. A lot of other parts didn’t feel so great, either, but her head was the worst. She was conscious when the emergency vehicles arrived, but so groggy that the medics opted to place her on a backboard with her neck immobilized before they hauled her to the hospital, sirens blaring.

Max rushed there as soon as someone called him about the accident. Because Elena was awake, they let him see her even though she was still in the emergency room. He told her the sitter had brought Violet home while he’d picked up Jillian, and Claire was keeping an eye on both her sisters until he got home from the hospital (she’d earned her babysitting certificate from Red Cross when she was twelve).

Max had never been a huge talker in public, but he placed his big, warm hand on Elena’s arm and sat with her while she waited on the gurney in the hallway for the next in the series of x-rays, CT scans, and examinations they’d lined up for her. By then they’d given her some kind of pain medication and applied salve to the minor burns she’d sustained from the airbag, so she was feeling physically a little better. All the big tests seemed to turn out all right, but the doctors told her she’d need to stay the night for observation and rest.

Because of that, Max ended up bringing all three kids to visit at the hospital after supper to give her kisses and hugs goodnight. Seeing them made Elena’s throat ache, even though she had wanted more than anything to see them and reassure them that Mama was all right.

Long before visiting hours ended, Ma and Pa arrived, too, their worry helping them make the thirty-five-minute drive in record time with Ma at the wheel. They both might have been in the latter half of their 70s, but they looked and acted at least a decade younger. Good genes, maybe, but a lifetime of hard work, homemade food, and the occasional highball of Black Velvet mixed with ginger ale didn’t hurt, either.

Pa kept his cool during the entire visit, but Elena could see how unsettled he was. Of course, even when she was a little kid, Pa had always hated seeing her hurt. He’d scoop her up and call for the Mercurochrome if she so much as skinned a knee.

Ma got teary as soon as she walked into Elena’s hospital room, and then she got to work, adjusting her pillows and making sure she had plenty of ice in her water in between giving her hugs. After that she just sat there and held Elena’s hand like she used to when Elena was little and had to stay home from school with a bug or something. In quintessential “Ma” style, before she left the hospital she assured her youngest daughter that she’d stop by her house in Maple Creek and make certain the cupcakes for Jillian’s class were frosted before she and Pa headed home.

Seeing Pa and Ma calmed Elena’s jostled emotions. It had always been like this for her (Zippy used to make fun of her for admitting that, even to herself). But as much as Elena soaked up every second of seeing her parents, she convinced them to tell her sisters within driving distance not to fuss by trying to come by the hospital tonight, reminding them that she’d be released and home by the following morning.

It wasn’t that she didn’t love her family. The truth was that, similar to the majority of the adult population, she hated being the center of attention. Many people who knew her found that kind of ironic, since her closest (age-wise) sister, Zippy, was the poster child for being not like most of humanity, having graduated high school and then literally become a movie star.

Other people tended to find it funny—or else they wanted to read deep, psychological principles into why one sister was so . . . public, while the one born just eleven months later was so intensely private.

All Elena knew was that the only time she didn’t mind everyone focusing on her was when she was at work, and that was only because she knew what she was doing and was good at it. It helped that at work she was around books all the time. They were comforting: solid on the outside with magic on the inside. She felt like she was in her element when she was in the library. Being the focus of a medical emergency was an entirely different animal.

The extra uneasiness had started right after she was taken by the medics from her car. Add to it the fact that some of those emotions she’d buried so carefully all those years ago had been stirred up, and she was having a hard time finding her equilibrium again. She couldn’t cram everything back into the neat little box she’d kept it in for so long.

This was a problem.

She didn’t realize how big of a problem at first. In her usual way, she tried to ignore it. Scarlett “Tomorrow is Another Day” O’Hara had nothing on Elena Wright Maguire and her ability to catalog and to rationalize. She considered this a talent in certain circumstances, but in others it could be a curse. She had no idea which it would turn out to be this time.

Have you ever watched someone decorate a cake with one of those funnel-shaped bags full of icing? If you cram too much in, it oozes out the top when you squeeze it to do the decorating. An odd choice of metaphor, perhaps, but the cake of Elena’s life was only partially trimmed, and her stirred up emotions were like that frosting, packed to overflowing inside the little white piping bag.

She continued on, determined to maintain control and to keep squeezing the amount she wanted through the tip, as slowly as possible.

You’ve probably noticed that what we intend in life isn’t always what we get. The best laid plans and all that, courtesy of Robert Burns and adopted by John Steinbeck as a title for one of his novels, later. All it takes is too much icing in the bag, some extra pressure, and a little time before, odds are, you’re going to end up with a colorful mess on your hands.

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