On one such morning, as I sat at the counter watching Grandma pour a bowl of cornflakes, she said, "How would you like to go to school?"
"I wouldn't like it," I said.
"How do you know," she barked. "You ain't never tried it."
She poured the milk and handed me the bowl, then she perched at the bar, directly across from me, and watched as I shoveled spoonfuls into my mouth.
"We're leaving tomorrow for Arizona," she told me, but I already knew. She and Grandpa always went to Arizona when the weather began to turn. Grandpa said he was too old for Idaho winters; the cold put an ache in his bones. "Get yourself up real early," Grandma said, "around five, and we'll take you with us. Put you in school."
I shifted on my stool. I tried to imagine school but couldn't. Instead I pictured Sunday school, which I attended each week and which I hated. A boy named Aaron had told all the girls that I couldn't read because I didn't go to school, and now none of them would talk to me.
"Dad said I can go?" I said.
"No," Grandma said. "But we'll be long gone by the time he realizes you're missing." She set my bowl in the sink and gazed out the window.
Grandma was a force of nature—impatient, aggressive, self-possessed. To look at her was to take a step back. She dyed her hair black and this intensified her already severe features, especially her eyebrows, which she smeared on each morning in thick, inky arches. She drew them too large and this made her face seem stretched. They were also drawn too high and draped the rest of her features into an expression of boredom, almost sarcasm.
"You should be in school," she said.
"Won't Dad just make you bring me back?" I said.
"Your dad can't make me do a damned thing." Grandma stood, squaring herself. "If he wants you, he'll have to come get you." She hesitated, and for a moment looked ashamed. "I talked to him yesterday. He won't be able to fetch you back for a long while. He's behind on that shed he's building in town. He can't pack up and drive to Arizona, not while the weather holds and he and the boys can work long days."
Grandma's scheme was well plotted. Dad always worked from sunup until sundown in the weeks before the first snow, trying to stockpile enough money from hauling scrap and building barns to outlast the winter, when jobs were scarce. Even if his mother ran off with his youngest child, he wouldn't be able to stop working, not until the forklift was encased in ice.
"I'll need to feed the animals before we go," I said. "He'll notice I'm gone for sure if the cows break through the fence looking for water."
I DIDN'T SLEEP THAT NIGHT. I sat on the kitchen floor and watched the hours tick by. One A.M. Two. Three.
At four I stood and put my boots by the back door. They were caked in manure, and I was sure Grandma wouldn't let them into her car. I pictured them on her porch, abandoned, while I ran off shoeless to Arizona.
I imagined what would happen when my family discovered I was missing. My brother Richard and I often spent whole days on the mountain, so it was likely no one would notice until sundown, when Richard came home for dinner and I didn't. I pictured my brothers pushing out the door to search for me. They'd try the junkyard first, hefting iron slabs in case some stray sheet of metal had shifted and pinned me. Then they'd move outward, sweeping the farm, crawling up trees and into the barn attic. Finally, they'd turn to the mountain.
It would be past dusk by then—that moment just before night sets in, when the landscape is visible only as darkness and lighter darkness, and you feel the world around you more than you see it. I imagined my brothers spreading over the mountain, searching the black forests. No one would talk; everyone's thoughts would be the same. Things could go horribly wrong on the mountain. Cliffs appeared suddenly. Feral horses, belonging to my grandfather, ran wild over thick banks of water hemlock, and there were more than a few rattlesnakes. We'd done this search before when a calf went missing from the barn. In the valley you'd find an injured animal; on the mountain, a dead one.
I imagined Mother standing by the back door, her eyes sweeping the dark ridge, when my father came home to tell her they hadn't found me. My sister, Audrey, would suggest that someone ask Grandma, and Mother would say Grandma had left that morning for Arizona. Those words would hang in the air for a moment, then everyone would know where I'd gone. I imagined my father's face, his dark eyes shrinking, his mouth clamping into a frown as he turned to my
mother. "You think she chose to go?"
Low and sorrowful, his voice echoed. Then it was drowned out by sounds from another conjured remembrance—crickets, then gunfire, then silence.