فصل 15

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فصل 15

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FINCH

Day 15 (I am still awake)

I go to Violet’s early and catch her parents as they’re eating breakfast. He is bearded and serious with deep worry lines around his mouth and eyes, and she looks like Violet will look in about twenty-five years, dark-blond hair falling in waves, face shaped like a heart, everything etched a little more sharply. Her eyes are warm, but her mouth is sad.

They invite me to breakfast, and I ask them about Violet before the accident since I’ve only known her after. By the time she comes downstairs, they are remembering the time she and her sister were supposed to go to New York for spring break two years ago but instead decided to follow Boy Parade from Cincinnati to Indianapolis to Chicago to try to get an interview.

When Violet sees me, she goes, “Finch?” like I might be a dream, and I say, “Boy Parade?”

“Oh my God. Why would you tell him that?”

I can’t help it, I start laughing, and this gets her mom laughing and then her dad too, until the three of us are laughing like old friends while Violet stares at us as if we’ve lost our minds.

Afterward, Violet and I stand in front of her house and, because it’s her turn to pick the place, she gives me a rough idea of the route and tells me to follow her there. Then she takes off across the lawn and toward her driveway.

“I didn’t bring my bike.” Before she can say anything, I hold up my hand like I’m taking an oath. “I, Theodore Finch, being of unsound mind, hereby swear not to drive faster than thirty miles per hour through town, fifty on the interstate. If at any time you want to stop, we stop. I just ask that you give it a chance.”

“It’s snowing.”

She’s exaggerating. It’s barely even coming down.

“Not the kind that sticks. Look, we’ve wandered all we can wander within a reachable-by-bike radius. We can see a lot more if we drive. I mean, the possibilities are pretty much endless. At least sit inside. Humor me. Sit in there and I’ll stand way, way over here, nowhere near the car, so you know I can’t ambush you and start driving.”

She is frozen to the sidewalk. “You can’t keep pushing people to do things they don’t want to do. You just barge in and help yourself and say we’re doing this, we’re doing that, but you don’t listen. You don’t think about anyone else other than yourself.”

“Actually, I’m thinking about you holed up in that room of yours or on that stupid orange bike. Must go here. Must go there. Here. There. Back and forth, but nowhere new or outside those three or four miles.”

“Maybe I like those three or four miles.”

“I don’t think you do. This morning, your parents painted a pretty good picture of the you you used to be. That other Violet sounds fun and kind of badass, even if she had horrible taste in music. Now all I see is someone who’s too afraid to get back out there. Everyone around you is going to give you a gentle push now and then, but never hard enough because they don’t want to upset Poor Violet. You need shoving, not pushing. You need to jump back on that camel. Otherwise you’re going to stay up on the ledge you’ve made for yourself.”

Suddenly she brushes past me. She climbs into the car and sits looking all around. Even though I tried to clean up a little, the center console is stuffed with pencil stubs and pieces of paper, cigarette butts, a lighter, guitar picks. There’s a blanket in the back, and a pillow, and I can tell she’s noticed these by the look she gives me.

“Oh, relax. The plan is not to seduce you. If it was, you’d know it. Seat belt.” She snaps it into place. “Now close the door.” I stand on the lawn, arms crossed as she pulls the door shut.

Then I walk to the driver’s side, open the door, and lean in as she’s reading the back of a napkin from a place called the Harlem Avenue Lounge.

“What do you say, Ultraviolet?”

She takes a breath. Lets it out. “Okay.”

I go slow at first, barely twenty miles per hour, as I roll through her neighborhood. We take it block by block. At each stop sign and stoplight, I say, “How’re we doing over there?”

“Good. Just fine.”

I pull out onto National Road and pick it up to thirty-five. “How’s this?”

“Great.”

“How about now?”

“Stop asking me.”

We go so slow that cars and trucks are speeding past and honking. One guy yells at us out his window and flips us off. It’s taking all I have not to slam my foot against the gas pedal, but then I’m used to slowing down so that everyone else can catch up.

To distract myself and her, I talk to her like we’re on the bell tower ledge. “My whole life I’ve run either three times faster than everyone else or three times slower. When I was little, I used to race in circles around the living room, over and over, until I wore this ring into the carpet. It got so I started following the ring, until my dad tore up the rug himself, just ripped it right out with his bare hands. Instead of replacing the carpet, he left the concrete exposed so there were these little patches of glue everywhere, with bits of rug stuck to it.”

“So do it. Go fast.”

“Oh no. Forty all the way, baby.” But I bring it up to fifty. Right about now, I’m feeling pretty damn good because I got Violet into the car and my dad is headed out of town on business, which means no Obligatory Family Dinner tonight. “Your parents are awesome, by the way. You lucked out in the parental lottery, Ultraviolet.”

“Thanks.”

“So … Boy Parade. Did you ever get that interview?”

She gives me a look.

“Okay, tell me about the accident.” I don’t expect her to, but she gazes out the window, then starts talking.

“I don’t remember much of it. I remember getting in the car as we were leaving the party. She and Eli had a fight—”

“Eli Cross?”

“They’d been going out for most of last year. She was upset, but she wouldn’t let me drive. I was the one who told her to take the A Street Bridge.” She goes very, very quiet. “I remember the sign that said ‘Bridge ices before road.’ I remember sliding and Eleanor saying, ‘I can’t hold on.’ I remember the air as we went through it, and Eleanor screaming. After that, everything went black. I woke up three hours later in the hospital.”

“Tell me about her.”

She stares out the window. “She was smart, stubborn, moody, funny, mean when she lost her temper, sweet, protective of the people she loved. Her favorite color was yellow. She always had my back, even if we fought sometimes. I could tell her anything, because the thing about Eleanor was that she didn’t judge. She was my best friend.”

“I’ve never had one. What’s it like?”

“I don’t know. I guess you can be yourself, whatever that means—the best and the worst of you. And they love you anyway. You can fight, but even when you’re mad at them, you know they’re not going to stop being your friend.”

“I might need to get one of those.”

“Listen, I wanted to say I’m sorry about Roamer and those guys.”

The speed limit is seventy, but I make myself stay at sixty. “It’s not your fault. And sorry wastes time. You have to live your life like you’ll never be sorry. It’s easier just to do the right thing from the start so there’s nothing to apologize for.” Not that I’m one to talk.

The Bookmobile Park is just outside Bartlett on a country road lined with cornfields. Because the earth is flat and there are hardly any trees, the trailers rise out of the landscape like skyscrapers. I lean forward over the wheel. “What the hell …?”

Violet is leaning forward too, hands on the dashboard. As I turn off the pavement onto gravel, she says, “We used to do this thing in California where sometimes my parents and Eleanor and I would get in the car and go on a bookstore hunt. We each chose a book we wanted to find, and we couldn’t go home till we’d found copies of all of them. We might hit up eight or ten stores in a day.”

She’s out of the car before I am and heading toward the first bookmobile—an Airstream trailer from the 1950s—which is across the gravel and across the field. There are seven trailers in all, different makes and models and years, and they sit in a line with the corn growing up around them. Each one advertises a specific category of books.

“This is one of the coolest fucking things I’ve ever seen.” I don’t know if Violet even hears me because she’s already climbing up into the first trailer.

“Watch that mouth, young man.” A hand is being extended, and now I’m shaking that hand, and it belongs to a short, round woman with bleached yellow hair, warm eyes, and a crinkled-up face. “Faye Carnes.”

“Theodore Finch. Are you the mastermind behind this?” I nod at the line of bookmobiles.

“I am.” She walks, and I follow. “The county discontinued bookmobile service in the eighties, and I told my husband, ‘Now, that’s a shame. I mean, a true-blue shame. What’s going to happen to those trailers? Someone ought to buy them and keep them going.’ So we did. At first we drove them around town ourselves, but my husband, Franklin, he’s got a bad back, so we decided to plant them, just like corn, and let folks come to us.”

Mrs. Carnes leads me from trailer to trailer, and at each one I go up and in and explore. I pick through stacks of hardcovers and paperbacks, all of them well used and well read. I’m looking for something in particular, but so far I don’t see it.

Mrs. Carnes follows along, straightening the books, dusting off the shelves, and tells me about husband Franklin and daughter Sara, and son Franklin Jr., who made the mistake of marrying a girl from Kentucky, which means they never see him except at Christmas. She’s a talker, but I like her.

Violet finds us in trailer six (children’s), her arms full of classics. She says hello to Mrs. Carnes and asks, “How does this work? Do I need my library card?”

“You got the choice of buying or borrowing, but either way you don’t need a card. If you borrow, we trust you to bring them back. If you buy, we only take cash.”

“I’d like to buy.” Violet nods at me. “Can you reach the money in my bag?”

Instead, I pull out my wallet and hand Mrs. Carnes a twenty, which is the smallest I have, and she counts off the books. “That’s a dollar a book, times ten. I’m going to have to go up to the house to get change.” She’s gone before I can tell her to keep the money.

Violet sets the books down, and now I go with her to explore each trailer. We add a few more books to the pile, and at some point I catch her eye and she’s smiling at me. It’s the kind of smile you smile when you’re thinking someone over and trying to decide how you feel about them. I smile at her and she looks away.

Then Mrs. Carnes is back, and we argue about the change—I want her to keep it, she wants me to keep it, and finally I do because she absolutely won’t take no. I jog the books to the car while she talks to Violet. In my wallet I find one more twenty, and when I get back to the trailers, I duck into the first one and drop the twenty and the change into the old register that sits on a kind of makeshift counter.

A group of kids arrives, and we tell Mrs. Carnes good-bye. As we walk away, Violet says, “That was awesome.”

“It was, but it doesn’t count as a wandering.”

“It’s technically one more place, and that’s all we needed.”

“Sorry. Awesome as it is, it’s practically in our backyard, in the middle of your three-to-four-mile safe zone. Besides, it’s not about crossing things off a list.”

She is now walking several feet ahead, pretending I don’t exist, but that’s okay, I’m used to it, and what she doesn’t know is that it doesn’t faze me. People either see me or they don’t. I wonder what it’s like to walk down the street, safe and easy in your skin, and just blend right in. No one turning away, no one staring, no one waiting and expecting, wondering what stupid, crazy thing you’ll do next.

Then I can’t hold back anymore, and I take off running, and it feels good to break free from the slow, regular pace of everyone else. I break free from my mind, which is, for some reason, picturing myself as dead as the authors of the books Violet collected, asleep for good this time, buried deep in the ground under layers and layers of dirt and cornfields. I can almost feel the earth closing in, the air going stale and damp, the dark pressing down on top of me, and I have to open my mouth to breathe.

In a blur, Violet passes me, hair sailing behind her like a kite, the sun catching it and turning it gold at the ends. I’m so deep in my own head, accepting the thoughts, letting them come, that at first I’m not sure it’s her, and then I sprint to catch up, and run along beside her, matching my pace to hers. She’s off again, and we push ourselves so hard and fast, I expect to go flying off the earth. This is my secret—that any moment I might fly away. Everyone on earth but me—and now Violet—moves in slow motion, like they’re filled with mud. We are faster than all of them.

And then we’re at the car, and Violet is giving me a “so there, take that” look. I tell myself I let her win, but she’s beat me fair and square.

After we’re in and the engine is running, I toss her our notebook, the one we’re using to record our wanderings, and say, “Write it all down before we forget anything.”

“I thought this one didn’t count.” But she’s flipping through the pages.

“Humor me. Oh, and we’re hitting one more place on the way home.”

We’ve left the gravel and are cruising along on pavement again when she looks up from the notebook she’s now writing in. “I was so busy with the books, I forgot to leave something behind.”

“It’s okay. I did.”

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