The upside to staying with Mrs. Byrd would be Florida. Eleanor had never been to Florida. She saw herself on a white sand beach among palm trees, flamingos, and armadillos. In the news recently an alligator had poached a toddler from a backyard, and in her imagination, alligators crisscrossed the state, lumbering free.
The reason for the trip was that her mother Jennifer had a conference there and had arranged for Eleanor to fly down with her. Eleanor might have stayed with Daddy, but he was in China for work again, and she resented that her parents couldn’t figure out one of them being home. She called her mother Jennifer, but she called Daddy Daddy.
Ever since Eleanor had threatened to kill herself, Jennifer hadn’t left her home alone. She wasn’t allowed to be in her room with the door shut. If she took a long nap, Jennifer checked on her to make sure she wasn’t dead, as if she were an infant. Jennifer had gotten worse since the marathon bombing. More fearful. She rarely let Eleanor go places alone. Jennifer hadn’t been near the finish line, but she had ended up there, and now she had PTSD. Hence Jennifer leaving Eleanor with her college roommate’s mother, Mrs. Byrd. Eleanor had no friend she felt comfortable asking for a sleepover right now.
Besides that, Jennifer pointed out that even if she were comfortable leaving her home alone, Eleanor would have no way to get anywhere in case of emergency—she wasn’t a driver. The past two years, Jennifer had used driving as a carrot dangled insincerely for this or that: try out for cheerleading, and we’ll apply for your learner’s permit; lose fifteen pounds, we’ll stand in line at the DMV.
We, we, we.
We’re applying to college.
We’re going to college where Jennifer went. (Not because Jennifer went there.)
Jennifer spun out multiple reasons it was better not to be behind the wheel—the steep driveway, the snow, that it was dark by the time Eleanor got out of school, that no extra car was available, that she’d have to buy her own, plus insurance, and that the car was a death machine.
* * *
Friday morning they flew from New Hampshire to Jacksonville and rented a car. In the distance they could see a cluster of skyscrapers, one with a base that flared at the bottom. It was so green here. Lush. They passed a strip mall with a party store as big as a skating rink.
“What I’d like to talk about is your graduation party,” Jennifer said. “I’m thinking battery-operated votive lights tucked into all the plants.”
All of senior year, Eleanor had only opened a book in the five minutes before a test. Jennifer set the timer for three hours of studying, but Eleanor read novels, which she hid behind her textbooks. After the academic warning, she’d started cheating to keep up. She couldn’t survive another car ride home from school right after the parent portal opened and Jennifer checked her grades online and chewed her out all the way home from school. Eleanor had conjugated Spanish verbs and written out Physics formulas in ballpoint pen on both of her wrists. She’d read so much that she could get by in English and History. Plus, she loved her English teacher. Math was a different matter. For most of high school she’d been in advanced math, but now in AP Calculus, she was in over her head. She hadn’t turned in homework in over two weeks, and even with the cheating, her guidance counselor had warned her that she wouldn’t receive her diploma until after summer school.
She didn’t know what the impact of this would be. Maybe her college would get a notification or be on probation. She didn’t know what was wrong with her. She used to be a good student.
When she’d walked into school on Friday, the guidance counselor had intercepted her by the flagpole. He said that she needed to inform her parents about what was going on, or else he would have to put in a call. During lunch she dialed Jennifer’s cell phone, but when she got her voicemail, when she heard her mother’s voice, she hung up. Her father might be more open to hearing her out, might try to understand why. But he was in China. There would be no right time to tell this to Jennifer.
She scared herself when she had the thought that dead she wouldn’t have to tell her mother.
When she thought of ways to die.
She had a fear of pain, and whenever she contemplated the logistics, she wondered when it would hurt and for how long. At the dentist she needed extra Novocain. Her scalp was so sensitive that she used to cry when her mother brushed her hair.
She scared herself when she wrote notes to her parents and told them not to blame themselves.
Sometimes when Jennifer was off to Target or Whole Foods, she wanted to say, Don’t Go. Don’t leave me.
“I’m thinking palm trees scattered around the great room,” Jennifer said. “Trees with dangling strings of light. Wouldn’t that be epic?”
When Jennifer got her navel ring, she had called that epic. A navel ring was not epic. Eleanor had been 9 years old at the time—powerless, naïve, and in her own head—but even then she knew she didn’t want her mother to be the one with a navel ring. Lately Jennifer ran through town in low-rise leggings and a sports bra.
They merged onto I-10, passing Florida State College and oaks romantic with Spanish moss. Eleanor saw her first armadillo, dead on the side of the road.
She knew better than to ask to play the radio. Jennifer had gotten the word about secular rock from The Christian Academy. She was trying to prove something by sending Eleanor to this new private Christian school, where regular music was frowned on and kids weren’t allowed to trick-or-treat. Almost all the students had pledged abstinence at this school nine miles west of them, a magnet for Christians all over the Merrimack Valley: the ones who hadn’t made the pledge were outcasts. Maybe Jennifer was also trying to protect her, but Eleanor sidestepped away from this thought. It was more comfortable to be angry at Jennifer. She felt like she was a pawn in Jennifer’s big plan to be a Christian.
She opened and closed all the compartments and cup holders, thinking about not graduating. Death could be easy. She wouldn’t have to get in trouble. She was so uncomfortable inside here.
It’s not comfortable, she almost said. It’s unrelaxing.
That would sound nonsensical. She meant inside her own body, not inside the car, though it was uncomfortable inside here, too.
Now Jennifer was saying that Mrs. Byrd had had some heart issues in the past, but thanks to a bypass and a vegan diet, mostly because of her environmentalism, her heart was operating at full capacity.
“She’s a vegan,” Jennifer said, as if that were something immoral.
“It all started trying to lower her cholesterol, but now it’s more. Cara says it’s a philosophy. It might be an obsession.”
Cara was Mrs. Byrd’s daughter, Jennifer’s roommate from college. Eleanor liked Cara, she thought, as she flipped a compartment open and shut, open and shut.
“Can you stop that?” Jennifer said.
Maybe having Eleanor stay with Mrs. Byrd was some sort of peace offering to Cara. No wonder Eleanor couldn’t make friends herself because that was one weird-ass friendship. Jennifer dieted before vacations with Cara. She hung the tiny dress or pants she wanted to fit into on the refrigerator handle as a reminder. She wore makeup with Cara. Jennifer caused Cara stress, too, like the time Cara made up a dermatologist boyfriend to impress Jennifer. She’d lied to Jennifer. Maybe Eleanor would be the one babysitting Mrs. Byrd.
They pulled onto a wide street lined with magnolias, whose flat, shiny leaves made Eleanor think of gum or banyan trees—something tropical—but not as tropical as she wanted them to be. A palm tree was nearly buried in Mrs. Byrd’s side yard, mixed with brush, oaks, and pines.
“Don’t forget to mind your manners,” Jennifer said. “Please, thank you, anything I can help you with, Mrs. Byrd?”
“You think I’ll embarrass you?”
“I know this isn’t ideal for you. Thank you.”
“Next time I’ll figure out a friend to ask.” Eleanor stole a quick look at Jennifer to see if she too divined that this was an empty threat. An uncomfortable twitch crossed Jennifer’s face, and she said, “I don’t know how Mrs. Byrd will feel about jeans. The South is different. Did I ever tell you that? People dress up more.”
Eleanor looked down at her curvy thighs stretching against the denim, creases deep at the tops of her bowed legs. She closed her eyes and tried to time travel herself back into the body she had before this, the child’s body, but she couldn’t. Dead it didn’t matter what body you had. According to her church and her school, death was a wonderful time.
“You see more makeup down here,” Jennifer said. “I remember that from visiting Cara.”
Eleanor was still looking down. Her sneakers were beat up, dirty. For a moment her foot size had intersected with Jennifer’s, they could share shoes, and she had all of these shoes at her disposal, but now her feet were two sizes bigger than her mother’s. She was bigger than Jennifer in general. More than once, Jennifer had encircled Eleanor’s wrist with her hand and declared that Eleanor had big bones. She wasn’t fat, Jennifer clarified. She was solid.
“Make sure to ask Mrs. Byrd questions about herself. She’s an environmentalist!” Jennifer said, her voice too shiny.
“Third time you’ve told me,” Eleanor said as the car came to a stop. She was afraid she was going to cry. She grabbed her backpack shaped like a bear and rolled her wheelie bag up the sidewalk made of concrete hexagons, most of which had buckled over tree roots, making it a challenge for wheels. Jennifer rang the doorbell.
Mrs. Byrd answered the door. She was wearing a blazer with long collars and hose with practical shoes. Eleanor hadn’t expected a vegan environmentalist to be so old.
“Well, hel-lo!” Jennifer said. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” She and Mrs. Byrd hugged each other. Then, after a few more pleasantries, Jennifer was thanking Mrs. Byrd overly much and saying goodbye.
* * *
Once Jennifer had gone, it was quiet.
“I was just about to water my plants.” The old lady pushed her crystal frameless glasses up onto her nose.
Footsteps had worn a path on the carpet between the front door and the kitchen. Eleanor pulled on the stringy shell necklace that was pricking her neck and followed Mrs. Byrd. It was easy not making eye contact. Plants reminded Eleanor of Jennifer’s flameless votive idea.
When Mrs. Byrd handed her a watering can, Eleanor didn’t confess that she had no idea how to water a plant. How much water to use. Jennifer was a control freak, so Eleanor had never had chores. She used the microwave, but she had a fear of taking things out of the oven. She’d chosen her college not because Jennifer had gone there but because of its good dining hall, where on her visit she’d eaten the best warm biscuits ever.
Eleanor and Daddy had been on the tour of that college the day of the marathon bombing. They would have gone to watch Jennifer, but this was her ninth marathon, and they’d watched her run Boston before. Jennifer had called over and over until Daddy broke off from the tour to answer her.
First thing the next morning, they turned on their hotel TV and found that Boston was on lockdown.
Mrs. Byrd pinched dead leaves from a plant in the living room, which had a jungly air. Her body had made an imprint and then cracked the vinyl of her shiny black recliner. Her house had curtains, the vinyl backing sounding like clapping as she opened them, flinging dust motes into the house’s sunny rectangles of light.
Eleanor’s house was all wooden beams and skylights, with one of the beams shaped like a cross. No covering that with curtains. Their new house was set back from the road for privacy. Its windows had special technology—UV protection for the art, the upholstery, and the spines of books. Double-paned glass filled with krypton to keep in the heat. Light was more precious in New Hampshire than it was here—light and heat—for most of the year you couldn’t stand in the sun and warm up.
Mrs. Byrd wove through the house with her watering can and claimed to have collected this water in a rain barrel. Eleanor followed her. In one of the snapshots interspersed among the table plants and the bowls of shells, it looked as if Cara had been caught unaware. Cara was a Democrat, and she was divorced. Flawed Cara, not a Christian, or at least not one to talk about it, and therefore not one with a capital “C.” But Eleanor always thought that Cara liked her, and for the moment she was the kind of girl who felt that people had to like her for her to like them back. Cara recommended books and didn’t judge her.
There was a picture of a man who looked about Daddy’s age.
“Mr. Byrd,” Mrs. Byrd said. “We didn’t need to tell each other in words that we’d see each other again.”
Eleanor nodded, but she wasn’t sure she believed they would see each other again. She decided not to say that. Audience awareness.
There were even more plants in the room called the den, and Mrs. Byrd poked her finger into each pot’s soil before watering it. Eleanor leaned against the piano while Mrs. Byrd attended to the fern, the plant that looked like a little tree, and the hanging plants in woven rope baskets.
When they were quiet for too long, thoughts of not graduating rushed in. She had cried in her guidance counselor’s office, begging him to let her make up the work before graduation, but he couldn’t excuse her from summer school. She was embarrassed. The summer school people weren’t her people. Half of her participation trophies in middle school had been for Math Field Days. He said she could walk with the class but would get a diplomaless folder.
“Is diplomaless a word?” she had said in her one openly defiant act of high school.
She saw herself lift the folder’s lid to find it empty—no fancy script, no Latin words, no seal—when she pictured her diplomaless folder, she pictured it blue plastic. Then the lid transformed into that of a coffin, the one from Moby Dick.
“See this conch?” Mrs. Byrd lifted a shell from the mantel. “It was Osceola’s.” Eleanor took the heavy shell.
“I’m part Seminole.” Mrs. Byrd’s eyelashes and eyebrows were white.
The ocean had worn down the conch’s spines. At the shell’s edge, layers of nacre pressed together like filo dough glued together with honey to make baklava, her favorite dessert. But the most interesting thing about the conch was that Mrs. Byrd’s kids didn’t believe it had been Osceola’s. She knew this because Jennifer and Cara had talked about it one time over drinks at the Cape. To add to the implausibility, Mrs. Byrd’s “research” had revealed she’d descended from a Native American princess.
The conch had a patina that made Eleanor think it had been handled a lot. Its mouth had to be one of the shiniest pinks in nature. Mrs. Byrd pointed out the hole at one end. “That makes it a horn,” she said. Her glasses looked too heavy for the bridge of her nose. “Try it,” she said.
She smelled like Mentholatum, a medicine Eleanor only knew about because her grandmother whom she barely remembered used to put it under Eleanor’s nose and smear it on her chest.
Eleanor blew on the shell, but the only sound to come out was a breathy, bike-pump-style blast. She reached up to put the shell back on the mantel, air hit her bare stomach, and she pulled down her shirt to meet the top of her jeans.
“Are you the only girl on the shot-put team?”
Eleanor hated this question that implied she was somewhere along the spectrum of where she wasn’t supposed to be. Most of the girls ran track or cross country, wiry girls with subtle breasts versus “solid” Eleanor at the shot put.
“My mother says I’m not fat, I’m solid.”
Two sad pillows appeared at the corners of Mrs. Byrd’s mouth. “Too bad I can’t see you shooting.”
“Shot putting,” Eleanor corrected. “I could send you a video.”
“Yes, do that,” she said.
“Do you have a cell phone?” Eleanor asked.
Then they were quiet for too long. Eleanor felt obliged to make conversation here, unlike at home. Silence wasn’t working for her, anyway, what with not graduating on her mind. She tried to think of something to ask Mrs. Byrd. Daddy had told her she’d read all of Zora Neale Hurston and had educated herself about civil rights in the sixties. Are you from here originally? Too clichéd. Did you know Mr. Byrd was going to die? She wished she were comfortable asking adults conversational questions.
“You know I’m part Seminole,” Mrs. Byrd said.
“You told me that.”
She felt a pang when Mrs. Byrd held her hand up to her mouth. She hadn’t meant to sound disinterested. She was interested in her own heritage, but there was nothing to find. Even their religion was new: nondenominational, which at their church was synonymous with fundamentalist, evangelical. They met in a concrete warehouse.
Was heritageless a word? She was heritageless.
“Would you like to see some of Old Florida?” Mrs. Byrd must have guessed it was going to be a long, quiet day, too.
“Yeah,” Eleanor said. “Yes.” She wanted to see Florida.
Mrs. Byrd showed her into the guest room, where Eleanor changed into a short-sleeved shirt. She picked at a pimple on her upper arm as she headed back toward the den. Then Mrs. Byrd dangled out her car keys. “Mind driving?” she said, her nail beds pink against her tanned hands.
“I don’t have my license,” Eleanor said.
“Do you not know how to drive?”
“My mother won’t let me.”
She already felt stupid with people at school, all of whom drove themselves. Now she felt stupid in front of an old lady.
“We could go for a driving lesson,” Mrs. Byrd said.
“I wouldn’t want to wreck your car.”
Now with not graduating Jennifer might never let her get her license. Eleanor would be like one of those girls who grew up in Manhattan or Saudi Arabia.
The car was too clean, with nothing inside it except for an umbrella and a box of tissues. Mrs. Byrd drove them west past tiny aqua houses, broken-down fences, and poor people. This wasn’t how Eleanor had imagined Florida. Jennifer had said the first people were from Africa, which proved that Adam and Eve were Black.
“I taught my kids to drive,” Mrs. Byrd said.
“I have no natural mechanical talent.”
“You don’t need talent to drive a car.”
Soon they turned right and pulled over metal slats, which according to Mrs. Byrd kept cows from escaping. They bumped past a “No Trespassing” sign onto a deserted road leading up to a farm. Mrs. Byrd took the keys out of the ignition and handed them to Eleanor.
“I’ve never been good at machines or directions.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“I’m literally not allowed to drive.”
“The highway patrol won’t come onto private property.”
“But whose property is this?”
“I used to know the owners. They won’t mind.”
“If anything happens to your car—” Eleanor said, trailing off while imagining her mother’s furious look, the one where her eyebrows lowered and her features moved surreally closer to the middle of her face.
Jennifer always said, “We had an agreement,” when the subject of driving came up, but Eleanor had no memory of any agreement. Jennifer claimed Eleanor wasn’t ready. She said her goal was to keep Eleanor alive.
Mrs. Byrd looked amused at the thought of damage to her car. “This old thing?”
“All right,” Eleanor drawled. The Southern accent was catching. They switched seats, and the crazy old lady didn’t bother with a seatbelt. In the middle of the dirt road, cows chewed and paid no attention to them. “What about the cows?” Eleanor asked.
“They’ll move out of the way when it’s time for them to.”
Up close, the cows were not appealing. From inside the car Eleanor could smell them dirty and matted. She contemplated the ignition for a second and put in the key.
“Foot on the brake,” Mrs. Byrd said.
She pressed down on the pedal. Her mom would be so pissed. But Jennifer was busy with meetings all day and tonight the Saturday night company Dance Party.
Mrs. Byrd pointed to the D for Drive. The car quivered. “Now slowly lift your foot.”
Eleanor eased forward, hitting the brake every time the car felt out of control. She was having trouble getting the pressure right, sending Mrs. Byrd back against her seat with tiny jolts.
Mrs. Byrd rubbed her own neck. “Relax. There’s literally nothing to hit out here.”
Eleanor lurched forward again, and the cows scattered. After a few more jerks, she was beginning sense how much gas to give and what kind of pressure to put on the brake. Soon they reached the farm buildings. Mrs. Byrd coached her through reversing and pivoting, and in far less time than it had taken to reach their destination, Eleanor returned them to the cow slats. She put the car in park. The cows were so cute, chewing their cuds!
Mrs. Byrd took back the wheel, and they drove down the middle of Florida on Highway 301 past Starke, where she said there were strawberry farms and a prison. Words from Mrs. Byrd were barely registering—indigenous people leaving shell middens along the St. John’s River, the Georgia Pacific paper mill’s wastewater dumping into same river, the natural springs’ decreasing flow and contamination (Mrs. Byrd blamed the cattle farmers). During the driving lesson Eleanor had been concentrating so hard that she hadn’t been able to think about her grades or her mother or anything else. Now that she wasn’t concentrating, she saw herself blue, her hands clasped over her belly, which sank into her body as she lay on her back. Dead on her back she looked thin. She could choose death, and her math teacher would feel guilty, and Jennifer would have failed, in spite of not letting her stay alone for the weekend, and people would feel bad that they hadn’t been friendlier or nicer, that they hadn’t liked her Facebook statuses or asked her to parties and sleepovers.
They passed a heap of oranges at a roadside stand, the first clue they were in the state as Eleanor had imagined it. Mrs. Byrd said that years ago those stands would have also sold mounds of conch shells. They drove past a lake, and with words Mrs. Byrd painted a picture of it the way it used to be, before DuPont dammed a river to wash sand and sell sandbags.
“It’s a travesty,” she said. “All the lakes down here are going dry. Now people keep wheelbarrows in their backyards to carry everything down to the water.”
They drove past horse farms and on to Ocala. Mrs. Byrd pointed out “borrow pits,” which looked like ponds next to the highway. She said that limestone had been quarried from the pits and then crushed into gravel. “Formerly gator watering holes,” she said, “and more recently stocked with fish.” There had been a lot of discussion over which fish to stock, she explained. If red-ear sunfish were stocked with bluegill, the two species would produce hybrids that grew better than either parent.
Eleanor was a hybrid but unlikely to grow better than Jennifer. Skinny, toned, religious, perfect Jennifer—sometimes they were mistaken for sisters.
“You can find arrowheads around here.” Mrs. Byrd said that when she’d asked her grandfather about the Native American in the family, he’d said, “I’d rather not talk about that,” and the only time he ever talked about Indians, it was because he caught them cutting across his property.
“I’ll bet that sounds ancient to you,” she said. “It was prejudiced.” Her clean white wavy hair gleamed. “Everybody tells me how young I look. I think it’s the one-sixteenth Seminole.”
Eleanor smiled at her and tried to figure out how far back the Native American in Mrs. Byrd’s family would have been. She thought of Elizabeth Warren, her favorite senator across the border in Massachusetts. Jennifer had not been a fan. She’d preferred Scott Brown.
Soon they reached Weeki Wachee, which Mrs. Byrd said was Seminole for “winding river.” They took a short cruise on the river, past cypress trees and Florida birds. The water was so clear that they could see markings on the fish. Mrs. Byrd showed her the sandy hollowed-out depressions that were fish nests near the shore. One fish in each nest. After the cruise, they claimed spots on a bench at the underwater theater, which was run down, with humid carpet.
“This is going to be a special Old Florida treat,” Mrs. Byrd said, while the caulking around the thick glass made Eleanor wonder if the spring might burst into the theater, gallons per second. While they waited for the show, mounted television screens played the Kelly Clarkson music video “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” Weeki Wachee mermaids spliced in like subliminal messages.
The curtain parted, and women wearing fish tails performed a version of “The Little Mermaid” that was intentionally not Disney’s version. The opening act made Eleanor miserable. The Little Mermaid was a tiny thing, with just enough breast to fill a scallop shell. Then two other mermaids joined her, and one of them had strong legs, calves like shot puts, and a swelling below her belly button that wasn’t fat but was solid, a rib cage that didn’t flare into cypress knobs like the others’ did. These girl-women had to be athletic for this job, breathing and swimming 45 minutes a show. The solid mermaid disappeared into a curtain of bubbles.
After a moment, the sea witch burst from the cave. She could have been male or female, and eventually Eleanor figured out that the solid mermaid had become the sea witch. Her arms were both fleshy and strong. Sunlight dappled her tail like batik. She had hips! She breathed through her hose, bubbles rising like puffs of smoke. Fish ignored her as if she were one of them.
This wasn’t the Disney version, but it wasn’t the Hans Christian Andersen version, either, because didn’t she die at the end of that one? The Little Mermaid dropped her hose and swam along the glass windows of the amphitheater, waving bye-bye as cloyingly as any Disney princess. On the way out, Mrs. Byrd declared they needed souvenirs and bought them each one from a machine that molded plastic mermaids while they watched.
* * *
That night Mrs. Byrd sliced peaches and drizzled them with agave nectar. Her fingers weren’t parallel to each other anymore. She made herself a drink she said was a whiskey sour, and it smelled like turpentine. She offered Eleanor a tiny Coke in a glass bottle.
“It’s good for me to have a young person around,” she said.
Eleanor smiled at her as it occurred to her that this old lady, not even a grandmother, no relation to her, would be sad if she died.
After Mrs. Byrd went to bed around ten o’clock, Eleanor didn’t know what to do with herself. She was nowhere near tired. She almost texted Jennifer but decided against it. Jennifer had sent picky girl foods—mac and cheese—along with her, and Eleanor appreciated the pouches of microwavable mac with orange powder. She made one for herself before bed. All night she worried about bleeding on the sheets. That would be mortifying to have to ask Mrs. Byrd to wash her sheets. All night she heard strange noises—at five o’clock in the morning she heard a train whistle and then the train—one noise she finally identified as an icemaker.
The next morning she woke up confused about where she was. Mrs. Byrd was making kitchen sounds. The little dreamless sleep she’d gotten had been a respite, but the second she was conscious, her thoughts crackled with not graduating, those two words lit up in red. She would be one of the few if not the only one with an empty diploma. Maybe she could put off telling Jennifer until graduation day, Jennifer so focused on the white dresses girls were required to wear, on the party afterward. She’d found Eleanor a size twelve dress that looked like it was made of handkerchiefs stitched together. At least there would be party food. Food could be a consolation. When Jennifer had dragged her to Weight Watchers, the leader had said, “If it’s not hunger, food won’t fix it,” but Eleanor wasn’t sure she agreed with that. Food could be good company.
Could she hide the empty diploma? Would the guidance counselor know whether she’d informed her parents? She could send him a note from Jennifer’s email account since she’d had the same password forever: BELIEVE. Would Jennifer ask to see the diploma, even though all diplomas looked alike, or could Eleanor get away with keeping the vinyl folder shut? Maybe Jennifer would be so distracted by the obligations of the day—the battery-operated tea lights and the Hawaii-inspired décor—that she wouldn’t look. Maybe she’d be too busy sliding the switches of all those flameless candles. There would be no way to hide summer school.
Time alone meant time to ruminate, so she put on her sweatshirt and went to the kitchen, where Mrs. Byrd, already dressed, was cutting open a red mesh bag of oranges with scissors. She juiced the oranges by hand, leaving a lot of the fruit still in the rind. Clearly the juicer required a lot of strength, but Eleanor was content that she had the awareness not to offer to help. Mrs. Byrd poured two cups of coffee and asked what she took in hers.
“I’m not allowed to have coffee—Jennifer says it’s a drug.”
“A good drug,” Mrs. Byrd said, “and our secret.”
Eleanor gave in quickly. Jennifer would never know. The coffee, rich with sugar and almond milk, warmed her up from the inside. She thought the caffeine made her happier. That just proved it was a drug.
“Look at this.” Mrs. Byrd held up a magazine. Eleanor liked the smell of a fresh magazine. “A beautiful cake for some celebration. A beautiful cake for your graduation.”
Eleanor pulled the drawstring of her sweatshirt in and out of its holes.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Mrs. Byrd asked. “Look, thick layers of pudding.”
“Is that easy to do?”
“Yes. I’ll send the recipe back with your mother.”
Being with Mrs. Byrd felt like spending time with a grandmother must feel, although both of Eleanor’s had died when she was little. She didn’t want to tell this old woman she wasn’t graduating, any more than she wanted to tell Jennifer. She was scared to tell Jennifer, but she had an unusual, pure feeling of not wanting to disappoint Mrs. Byrd. It was as if there were two Eleanors, the one she was inside and the one she was with Mrs. Byrd.
“Where do you get all that pudding?” Eleanor asked.
“That’s just lemon pudding. I can even make it vegan. Wait, turn back. That one has a lot of vanilla.”
“We might not need a cake.”
“Maybe not a cake,” Mrs. Byrd said. “Dessert.”
“For graduation Jennifer’s planning birthday dinner food. Steak and twice-baked potatoes.” She blushed once she realized she’d described a meal of meat and dairy, but apologizing would make it worse. “We usually subsist on crudités and thin-sliced diet bread,” she said.
“And what does one wear to a graduation these days?” Mrs. Byrd asked.
“A white dress, unfortunately.”
“Do you ever wear skirts?”
Eleanor looked down at her jeans. “Maybe on Easter,” she said. “My mom’s favorite holiday. More religious than and not as commercial as Christmas.” That was a Jennifer quote, but she’d said it as if it were hers.
“Of course there’s the Easter bunny.”
“This is true.”
“She must be a devout person,” Mrs. Byrd said. “She must be a good person.”
“She’s one of those perfect people. Successful, beautiful, and—yes—devout.”
Jennifer ran or cross-trained daily and had read most of the bookstore’s Christian section. Her favorite flower was the overpoweringly sweet hyacinth. Her happiest moment had been taking Jesus as her personal savior, and marrying Bryan, she often added, and Eleanor’s birth. But there was the odd shard that didn’t quite fit. Her boyfriend she was still friends with who turned out to be gay. Her conviction that Jesus was a person of color. Her father always talking about labor unions. Her recurring nightmare in which she didn’t realize she was registered for a class until the end of the semester. Her alcohol craving whenever Cara visited. One time out on her bike Eleanor saw Jennifer’s car go down an unlikely street, and she never figured out where she was headed. For a second she’d wondered if Jennifer was having an affair.
“You believe your mother’s perfect,” Mrs. Byrd said. “And you’re not.”
“She’s hotter than I am, with way better social skills.”
“I don’t think she’s hotter.”
“Sometimes I imagine myself dead. My body’s blocking traffic on the pavement beneath some high window, and my mom looks out and finds me.”
“Don’t say that. I would miss you.”
Eleanor hid her face in the magazine and smelled it. Gravity from people who cared about her always flustered her.
“Believe me, she’s perfect. She’s prettier. She’s religious and successful, with an absence of body fat.”
“I’m sad you think she’s perfect and you’re not,” Mrs. Byrd said.
“She is. Nothing I can do about it. She’s the prettiest mom of all the moms. I’m the ugliest daughter.” Eleanor put down the magazine.
Mrs. Byrd massaged one hand with the other. The A/C kicked back on.
“She got that abortion,” Mrs. Byrd said. “That’s not perfect.”
“What?” Eleanor wasn’t sure she’d heard right.
“She got that abortion.”
Eleanor saw an antiquated doctor’s office with metal tools and a cold table, and she tasted something metallic.
“So no need to be discussing this perfect business,” Mrs. Byrd said.
The word abortion was the least likely of all the unlikely words Eleanor would have connected with her mother. Jennifer always said that life began at conception. That abortion was murder. That life was in God’s hands, which was also why suicide was a sin.
“You shouldn’t have told me.” Eleanor’s eyes turned brackish, and so as not to cry, she picked up two mementoes from the middle of the kitchen table: a gator tooth in a corked bottle and an alligator snow globe, the gator hugging the globe, Florida spelled out between its hind legs. She squeezed the glass bottle and the snow globe, one in each hand, hoping they would crack. They didn’t.
The one thing she knew to be true was that this wasn’t something she should know. How could random Mrs. Byrd know this major part of her mother’s history, maybe even the most major thing that had ever happened to her, right up there with the marathon?
Mrs. Byrd shouldn’t have told her. Eleanor also didn’t want to believe it.
“I’m surprised you didn’t know,” Mrs. Byrd said.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t tell your kids if you had an abortion.”
Mrs. Byrd looked truly sorry, and Eleanor knew she had intended well, but she wasn’t ready to forgive. “I can’t un-know it now,” she said.
She shook the alligator snow globe—gators didn’t even live where there was snow. She heard the brakes of a large vehicle outside.
“You’re not defective, you know,” Mrs. Byrd said.
Eleanor tried to imagine her mother making that decision. In college Jennifer had had long frizzy hair and dewy skin, wore too much makeup, and had significantly more padding.
“Tell me this,” Mrs. Byrd said. “Do you have your eye on anyone?”
And that was the stupidest question with the stupidest timing ever.
She did have her eye on someone. He had her same social standing. He had a cleft lip that had been repaired, and she liked the seam between his nostril and his smile. In the van on the way home from Whales Tale Water Park, he sat by her. “No, I don’t,” she said.
“I don’t know if your mother told you, but my sister got pregnant and didn’t go to college. My other daughter also got pregnant young.”
“There’s no need to scare me, if that’s your purpose. I haven’t even dated yet.”
She’d wanted the guy to lean against her or hold her hand. Rub her back. She’d be 18 at the end of the month, and she’d never had a boyfriend. She might die without the experience of kissing a boy. She hadn’t chosen abstinence—it had chosen her.
“You scared me enough with what you told me about my mother.” She saw her mother strapped to a hard table, her feet in stirrups while some death machine vacuumed her out. Some guy standing at her side, maybe even Daddy. Jennifer must have been terrified. She might’ve wanted to die. Maybe she’d been desperate to get pregnant with Eleanor, in hopes of forgetting or replacing the other baby. Eleanor shook the alligator globe again and then turned it over. Made in Hong Kong. She would have had a sibling.
Mrs. Byrd made them each another cup of coffee, and as Eleanor added an extra spoonful of vegan cane sugar to hers (how was sugar not already vegan?), the doorbell rang. That would be Jennifer. Eleanor went to pack up while Mrs. Byrd answered the door, and once packed, she met them in the den. Eleanor had seen her mother naked—too often, Jennifer being one of those overconfident women who walked around nude all the time. She looked at her mother’s satiny shell tucked into draped high-quality pants, at the gold buckle on her black reptile skin belt, and in return Jennifer gave Eleanor’s faded jeans and running shoes, worn down on the outsides because of bowleggedness, a disappointed look. In spite of that, Eleanor walked to Jennifer and hugged her. She let her head settle onto her mother’s shoulder. She almost felt sheltered by the curve of her mother’s neck. Almost. A part of her had missed her mother. Staying with Mrs. Byrd had been something like she imagined being an exchange student in a foreign country would be.
“I see two cups of coffee,” Jennifer said, although she did hug back.
“It was mostly milk.” Eleanor detached herself from her mother.
“Mrs. Byrd’s special coffee, I call it. Would you like to try it?” Mrs. Byrd held out her own unfinished cup to Jennifer. “Or I could brew some more.”
“No, thank you.”
Jennifer never shared drinks or lipsticks.
“Thank you, again,” Jennifer was telling Mrs. Byrd. “I can’t tell you how helpful this was to me.” Jennifer had moved on with her life, sealed it up, abortion-free.
“I was glad to get to know this girl.” Mrs. Byrd squeezed Eleanor’s hand. “My goodness, your skin is soft,” she said, and Eleanor smiled anemically back at her.
“We had a driving lesson.” While Mrs. Byrd looked ridiculously pleased with herself, the corners of Jennifer’s mouth turned down. Now Jennifer’s features would do that surreal shrinking thing. Eleanor didn’t want to look at her, and out the window a raccoon, maybe a rabid one—it was daytime—crossed the driveway toward the green oranges and the messy magnolia.
“I don’t appreciate that,” Jennifer said. “She’s not allowed to drive yet.”
Yeah, well, an alternate Eleanor might have told her, the Eleanor inside, we don’t appreciate your having abortions.
Eleanor tried to think how they could explain away the driving, but she found no solution—Mrs. Byrd had said it straight out—no way to claim driving was a euphemism for something else, and “I didn’t think you’d care” wouldn’t be plausible with Jennifer.
“Not on the highway,” Mrs. Byrd clarified, as if this would make a difference to Jennifer, “out at one of the dairy farms past Baldwin.”
Eleanor took the conch from the mantel. It was heavy, though lighter than a shot put, and fit well in her hands. She laced her fingers through the spines, held it up to her mouth, and blew, still unable to coax a sound anything more exciting than breath forced through a hole.
“I would have said not to drive if I thought that was the plan,” Jennifer persisted.
Yeah, and we would have said not to get abortions, tiny inside Eleanor called out in a high upset voice.
“You should have checked with me.”
“Doesn’t she need to learn to drive? She’ll be going to college next year.”
“She doesn’t have her license yet,” Jennifer said. “It’s illegal for her to drive.”
Eleanor was desperate for her mother to stop. She figured Jennifer was not aware that Mrs. Byrd knew her secret, and Eleanor would have blurted it out, held it hostage over Jennifer, if not for getting Mrs. Byrd in trouble. Jennifer looked so hypocritical arguing about driving when Mrs. Byrd knew about her abortion.
“Mom,” Eleanor said, “Did you know that Mrs. Byrd is part Seminole? This was Osceola’s conch shell horn.”
“Try blowing it again,” Mrs. Byrd said. She was clearly hoping to distract Jennifer, too, whose face was distorting again, anything but relaxed from the news of the driving. Eleanor blew again with no luck. Then it dawned on her to make her lips into a wide slit, as in embouchure from her two years of flute in middle school band, and finally a foghorn sound—waanh, waanh—came out of the shell.
“I’m not sure your kids believe that about the shell,” Jennifer said. “Cara’s theory was it was just a distraction from your Confederate heritage.”
Eleanor wiped the mouthpiece with her shirt and replaced the conch on the mantel.
“Everyone has a Confederate heritage down here,” Mrs. Byrd said. When she smiled like that, a wedge of wrinkles radiated out from her eyes, and Eleanor could see Mrs. Byrd’s one-sixteenth Seminole.
“Everybody has a Native American heritage, too—most of the U.S., right? That doesn’t mean we’re Native Americans. Just like Elizabeth Warren.” Jennifer crossed her ankle over her thigh and leaned forward, her business pants pooling where she stretched her hip.
Maybe Mrs. Byrd was clinging to an unlikely family mythology, but it wasn’t right to be rude. Eleanor tried to warn Jennifer telepathically to quit.
When telepathy didn’t work, Eleanor said, “I like Elizabeth Warren. I love her.”
“I pride myself on being honest,” Jennifer said. “That’s all.”
What a hypocrite. Eleanor opened her eyes wide and gave her mother a look, desperate to divert her from the question of the conch.
“What did Cara say?” Mrs. Byrd crossed her arms. Her lipstick was only evident now from a few flakes on her upper lip giving her a defeated look.
In a flash of inspiration, “Wait, Jennifer, there’s something I have to tell you,” Eleanor said.
“Let me think what Cara said specifically.” Jennifer gazed at the conch as if for inspiration.
“Jennifer.” Eleanor waved at her, desperate to save Mrs. Byrd. “Mom—listen.”
“We’re talking,” Jennifer said, and both Jennifer and Mrs. Byrd looked loath to be interrupted.
“I don’t have enough credits to graduate.”
Mrs. Byrd looked puzzled, and Eleanor hoped she didn’t feel betrayed when she thought back on the lemon pudding conversation. Jennifer’s foot dropped to the floor. “How long have you known this?” she asked.
“How did this happen?”
“I told you I shouldn’t have been in advanced math. But I can do summer school.”
“What were you thinking?”
Mrs. Byrd squeezed Eleanor’s bicep. “She’s going to make it up, our girl can make it up.”
“You should be—” Jennifer looked like she was struggling to find the right word—“ashamed.” She covered the tortured expression on her face with her hands for a second, then dropped her arms. “No party then for graduation,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry,” Eleanor said, as though emphasizing her regret might make it more convincing. But she didn’t sound sorry since not graduating paled in comparison to getting an abortion.
Mrs. Byrd rinsed out their coffee cups and set them upside down on a drainboard. She put away the sugar. “Be good; stay sweet,” she said.
“I’ll try.” Eleanor put on her backpack shaped like a bear and held her toiletries bag out to her mother.
“Put it in your bear,” Jennifer said.
“I’ve got my wheelie bag,” Eleanor said. She held it out to her mother again, who put it in her own oversized bag. Jennifer pushed open the door. Eleanor stood in the sun on the cracked hexagonal sidewalk, closed her eyes, and felt swaddled by the muggy heat—she would stand in the sun for a while and warm up.
But it was time to head for the airport. They got into the upgraded-to-luxury rental car, which smelled like an expensive purse.
“You’re bright, you’re underachieving—why?” Jennifer asked.
Eleanor had no good answer. At that time in her life, she placed no value on being smart.
They passed the Florida State College sign again. At least she was going away for college.
“It was out in the country where there’s nothing to hit,” she said.
From the highway she could see downtown off to the right, the buildings shimmering under a bright blue split by an airplane, its white contrail a seam in the sky.