WHEN THE VAN SLAMMED INTO the woman, the crash sent the frog to the bottom of the ditch water and spooked a pair of sparrows from their perch on the telephone wires above. The impact of the large grille crushed the woman’s body and killed her instantly. The van’s driver flew through the shattered windshield and auto parts flew in pieces across the country highway. The driver cartwheeled into the field like a twirling rag doll, expelling blood and body parts along with loose change and bits of clothing into the patches of goldenrod, buffalo bur, nettle, and bindweed.
I shut the book with a bang, pushed it off my lap, then stood and crossed the room, heading to the stairs. I wanted to vomit.
A board squeaked at the bottom of the stairs. Grandma was on her way up.
I took a deep breath, which eased my racing heartrate and calmed most of my trembling. But my legs wanted to stop supporting the rest of my body. I leaned against my desk when she entered the room.
“I hope you girls will like what I’ve done to this old loft,” she said, smiling at me. She carried a white plastic basket of folded clothes in front of her, which she handed to me. “Your mother says these will fit you. I know they’re secondhand, but they’re like new and they washed up nicely.”
She made no comment when I clutched the basket in a bear hug. There were T-shirts, jeans, socks and underwear I didn’t recognize.
Really? Secondhand underwear? Gross.
I thanked her despite the creepy feeling I got from knowing that strangers once wore the clothes.
“Your grandfather is putting up more clotheslines and I’m starting dinner,” Grandma said. “I hope you’re hungry.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked, being polite.
“No, no. Dave and Amy are helping. I want you to rest. You’ve been through a terrible ordeal.” Grandma’s green, sorrowful eyes peered at my face. “How are you feeling? Your mother says you didn’t sleep well last night.”
“I slept okay.” Except for bouts of anxiety and bad dreams waking me at two and four o’clock in the morning.
“She says you’ve been talking in your sleep.”
“Dr. Jarvis says it’s a normal reaction after something traumatic happening,” I said. “He said it’ll pass eventually.”
Grandma’s gaze remained fixed. “Have you had any strange visions while awake?”
I balked to answer the question.
“You were struck by lightning,” Grandma said. “That can really mess with a person’s head.”
“I’m fine,” I said as Lenny dropped one of his toy cars. He’d been sitting motionless the whole time, probably hoping Grandma wouldn’t turn around and see the removed floorboard and his childhood treasure in a pile on the floor.
“My old hiding spot,” he said when Grandma turned. When she did not reply, he said, “I’ll clean up my mess and put the board back right away, Mrs. Lybrook.”
“Good idea, Leonard,” Grandma said. “And make sure that board isn’t loose when you do. Nail it down if you have to. No one needs to twist and break any ankles.” She turned to me. “We’ll talk later. For now, though, put away your clothes and leave the basket in the hall at the bottom of the stairs.” Then, “When you’re feeling better,” she added.
“I’m fine, Grandma. Seriously. And I’d really like it if you’d let me help.”
Grandma looked thoughtful. “I suppose I could have you pick some blueberries,” she said. “Get you outdoors in the fresh air for a little while.” Then, to Lenny, “Go with her and show her where the ripe ones are at.”
“I will, Mrs. Lybrook. I know right where to look. It was Gumpa’s and Gam Gam’s favorite spot,” he said, looking melancholic for a moment.
I forced away a smile that came upon hearing the pet names for his grandparents. I knew a kid with an Italian last name in Upper St. Clair who called his grandfather Gumpa, but Gam Gam was a title I’d never heard before. I couldn’t imagine calling Mom’s parents anything but Grandpa Jack and Grandma Evelyn. And Daddy’s parents, who were lawyers in Charleston, West Virginia, were Grandpa and Grandma Erickson—no first names.
“Are you part Italian?” I started to ask, but Grandma still addressed Lenny.
“Help her unpack first, but be quick. I’d like the family to eat before five.” She studied me once more, the way Mom always did when I told her I had a sore throat and she thought I was faking it. “We’ll talk later, just us girls, when we have some time alone,” she said before going to the stairs. She paused at the nearside of the three-sided safety banister at the top of the stairs.
I waited for her to say something more. She didn’t and descended the steep stairs slowly.
I put the clothes in the bottom drawer of my dresser.
“You were reading this,” Lenny said, coming to me and holding out the book.
Yeah. So what? I shut my drawer extra hard. “I simply looked and the words were there. Is that okay with you?”
Lenny blinked and stepped away from me. “I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. “I just thought that … maybe because of … well, here.” He held out the book again. “It’s yours if you want it.”
I wasn’t mad at him, just tired. And annoyed at the weird things happening to me.
“Sorry.” I looked at the offering for a moment. “That thing is creepy. I don’t want it.”
“Oh.” He looked disappointed, which I have a lifelong habit of doing to people I like.
“Sorry,” I said again, standing. “It freaked me out that I could understand the numbers and figures inside. I didn’t mean to get angry.” I took the heavy book from him, which took away his disappointed look.
“It’s okay. And it’s really awesome you can read it … whatever it is.”
“Poetry? Why would someone write poetry in cipher?” Lenny shrugged. “Oh well. I thought it was a book of codes, something top-secret.” He looked at me, impressed. “So, what’s the key?”
“The key to the cipher. You know … the key that told you what the words meant.”
“I dunno.” I set the book on my dresser. “They just made sense to me, that’s all.”
“Well, I’m like ‘wow’.” The smile and admiration on Lenny’s face beamed volumes.
I paused. No good-looking boy had ever taken a liking to me so quickly. But then, Daddy had always scrutinized every boy who ever visited, and then intimidated them with his strict adherence to curfews and laws on drugs and alcohol when we went anywhere. My reputation as the girl most likely to get you in trouble with her old man preceded me. Even my more popular sister was without a steady boyfriend.
“Let’s get you unpacked so we can pick blueberries,” Lenny said.
His seemingly genuine interest in me made me cast timid glances at him while we unpacked all the boxes with my name scrawled on them in black marker. He joined me at my dresser where I unpacked my small but newest collection of classic courtroom movies on Blu-ray discs and DVDs—birthday gifts I had received and opened the day after awakening in the hospital.
“Is this that Santa Claus movie?” Lenny asked, holding up Miracle on 34th Street.
“My dad’s favorite.”
Lenny nodded. “It was one of my mom’s favorite movies, too. We used to watch it on TV every year … before she died. And before the change, of course.”
“You know. The change.”
I shook my head.
“Nothing electronic here works right,” he said. “Computers, phones, TV, radios … even video games. Some kind of electronic interference on the ridge, ever since that sinkhole appeared at your grandfather’s old farm.”
I studied Lenny’s face closely, looking for the slightest sign that he was kidding me. His look remained sincere.
“Interference from a sinkhole?” I asked.
“Yep. Some scientists and professors from the university at New Cambridge spent all last summer looking at the thing, but I never heard if they figured out what’s inside that’s causing the interference.”
“So why doesn’t someone fill in the hole?”
“Your grandfather started to, but that sucker is deep. Plus, it keeps widening and swallowing more property. He lost most of his cornfield last summer. And with his dairy business losing money over the years and the bank foreclosing on the farm, he finally sold his cattle and farm equipment to pay the bank and buy this house from my dad.”
I took in the information, all of it new to me.
“So what do you think is down there that would cause electronic interference?” I asked.
“No idea. But when it rains, like when there’s lightning, it glows green inside. I saw it happen a few times when I helped plow the cornfield; it creeped me out every time.”
“That sounds like fluorescent minerals glowing because of the lightning … maybe sodalite or fluorite.”
Lenny shook his head. “Nah, whatever’s down there is emitting energy of some kind that’s converting to light.”
“You mean radioactive energy?”
Our conversation stalled until I said, “Well, that sucks.”
Lenny nodded. “But at least there are no sinkholes here,” he said.
“I hope you’re right.”
The thought of the ground opening and swallowing people made me shiver.
“My dad says it’s because of the underground mining done on that side of the ridge a century ago. Now, the old mines are caving in and causing sinkholes because of the huge amounts of nickel, silver, and copper that were extracted from the ridge.”
“Is that where the silver and gold you buried in the floor came from?”
“Yeah. A relative of Gumpa’s was a miner. I used to pretend there were mines up here. I even playacted some of the old miners’ tales from books.”
I smiled while I imagined him as a little boy in this room, pretending.
My stomach grumbled with hunger, which was loud enough for Lenny to hear. He grinned.
“We should skip getting you unpacked and go get those blueberries” he said. “I don’t want your grandmother any madder at me than she is already.”
“Agreed.” I followed him downstairs to collect our plastic bowls from Grandma. She gave me a blue one and Lenny two green ones and told us to be quick because she wanted to eat at four o’clock.
We promised to hurry.