Chapter One: All the Lost Pieces
Picture yourself in a helicopter, looping slowly down from heaven.
First, it looks like a child’s map of what Earth offers—green and blue and beige, dark and light. The green resolves into broad hills, thick with trees: a green beard chopped off by the craggy throats of glacial bluffs, dropping away to sparkly beaches. Even from this great height, the water is so clear that you can see the bottom, and the bottom could be hundreds of feet from the surface. You think, it’s a sea. But no, it’s a lake, massive and majestic. The greatest of all lakes, it’s called Superior.
Now you descend.
You can tell the red pines from black spruce at this height. You begin to hear the restless fingers of the wind among all those branches. Closer, you spot the little town. It’s named after a harbor narrow as a creek but deep as a river. No one pays attention to the small freighters that load and unload there. Everyone sees the big, winged yachts with their showy masts, polished deck rails, and ironic names. Nick’s Waterloo. Enter the Titan.
That’s the pretty side of towns. There’s a dark side, and an even darker side – and there was before I was ever born.
There are ghosts.
Some of them are ordinary ghosts, the lost and drowned who kissed their children and went hopefully off to their work and never returned. They died in terror. No one here tonight thinks of the most famous boat that plied Lake Superior, the one immortalized in song, The Edmund Fitzgerald, an iron ore boat, sank in a gale just fifteen miles from Whitefish Bay, with twenty-nine men, sons and fathers and husbands. That was just one of the boats, wooden and steel, claimed by the lake; there have been hundreds. Of course, there are hundreds not even counting the fishing boats and pleasure boats and little sailboats with two people who set out smiling into the sun and end up soaked and disoriented in a world of hurt.
Sometimes, if the boat capsizes close to land, searchers recover the bodies.
Even before somebody wrote a song about The Edmund Fitzgerald, children as young as my little sister Angie knew that the song just took a line from something the old people have always said: Lake Superior never gives up her dead.
None of the bodies from The Edmund Fitzgerald was ever found.
And yet, people are drawn to Superior, as if the iron in its ribs exerts a magnetic force.
You are, too. So set down gently. Your rotors spin slower, then fall silent. The helicopter disappears. There never was one.
There’s a town square, just a little too old and well-used to be tacked-on for tourists – although tourists flock to Iron Harbor for reasons I’ve never been quite able to fathom. At the center stands a monument to Amos Hayden of the Union’s First Minnesota infantry regiment, another ghost, sweet and sad. The town’s Civil War hero, he was a miner’s son. At Gettysburg, when nothing except a doomed charge with fixed bayonets could hold back the Rebels, the general turned to the First Minnesota, the soldiers who were closest to him. Two hundred and sixty-two men charged, and two hundred and fifteen died. Not a single man deserted. It was over in fifteen minutes. They gave their lives for an idea that not all of them probably even understood.
Amos Hayden was only seventeen. His statue is here, but he still sleeps in that ground so far away.
Was he brave or only young?
Did he have a moment to think of his mother? Or the lakeshore where he skipped stones, or the summer stars so close you felt you could reach up and play with them like beads? Did a girl love him and wait for him to come back to her. Did he know that he might never again open the door on an icy wind that slapped him to run until he glowed?
Tonight, nobody is thinking of Amos Hayden dying young and alone. It’s late fall, and people visiting this town are taking advantage of the warmth of an extended autumn. They stroll past the Flying Fish restaurant and Borealis Books, with its neat scalloped wooden fringes—each painted to resemble a famous volume of prose. Even the tall pale girl with the uncombed auburn hair, who stops in front of the statue and stares. . . the tall pale girl who is me … even she isn’t really thinking of Amos Hayden, although I remember looking up into his earnest and good-natured face, the face that would always be young. Twenty streets.
Only later, when I passed the scene of the place where I had the only true mental meltdown I would ever have in my life, did I stop to consider Amos Hayden. I wondered then, how could the most innocent of heroes and the pond scum of sinners rise from this one small place? Iron Harbor is very small indeed, four hundred people, four thousand in summer.
That Sunday night was only a few weeks after my best friend’s murdered body was found.
If she were here, Juliet would not be an ordinary ghost. She’d have been an angry ghost, punishing and malign. I was angry, too.
So that night I walked into one of the two clothing stores and I stole a poncho.
I had never stolen so much as a pack of gum.
If all the boutiques in Beverly Hills had opened, all at once for my own personal plunder, and I could run through them and keep whatever I wanted—until my arms and shopping carts were filled—I would sooner have chosen a rhinestone cat collar than a poncho. And I don’t even have a cat.
The one I pulled down was woven in shades of green, from mint to forest —a thick, subtly striped garment with the kind of oily, expensive feeling that seems to scoff at all weather. Ladies from Chicago bought these to wear on their sailboats. The store was a typical wannabe Native American thread-and-head shop that is required on the map of every tourist town.
I slipped the thing on.
Then, I walked out the door.
The owner, an old bearded hippie guy everybody called Corona, watched me curiously. He didn’t say a word.
Corona’s store was of the few places that Juliet and Rob and I had never been able to break into. Corona was in the gifted program for theft prevention.
I call it “breaking in,” but we never broke a thing.
We were way too good for that. We left things just as they were, or a little tidier. Juliet could be light-fingered, when it came to expensive wine and trinkets, but Rob and I kept her in check. She was the first one to get a set of lock picks (you can buy them online) and we all quickly followed her lead. The tres compadres, we roamed the night, from fancy, faux Swiss ski chalets in the hills where we sipped champagne in the owners’ hot tubs to the music store where we pounded our palms on drums or ran our fingers over the electric guitar strings, me playing the only chords I knew, the opening riff to ‘Smoke on the Water’.
We owned Iron Harbor, Minnesota.
It was ours.
Really, though, Iron Harbor, and our place in it, in its night landscape, was mostly Juliet’s. Juliet was always at the wheel, no matter who was really driving. Rob and I rode shotgun to her desire.
Her chief desire?
That was to be free – not free of us, her closest friends on earth, but of this place and of her life in it.
Now she was free, forever, of the former and the latter.
Wearing the poncho like a flag, I reached the end of the street. Then I stopped and burst into tears. It was a warm night, sixty-eight degrees at nine o’clock. It’s never this warm, this late in the year, so far north, Canada except for a checkpoint.
Corona had joined me at the corner. He was a tall old guy, thin to the point of gauntness, with a face I now noticed was lined not with the wrinkles of care, but with decades of quiet amusement. His eyes brimmed with a surpassing kindness. Why had we ever tried to burgle his little place? As we gazed at each other, I saw that he knew that we had tried, and it was already forgiven.
“It’s okay, little dude,” he said.
Corona took the phone out of my hand and scrolled down until he found the favorite labeled Mom.
She was there within five minutes, jumping out of the minivan, leaving the driver’s side door hanging open in the middle of the intersection. I might as well have been a toddler, for the way my mother held up my arms and slipped the poncho over my head. Then, she stroked my hair. “Oh, Allie . . . oh, Allie.”
“I stole this from him,” I confessed. My teeth started to chatter.
Corona just shrugged. “It’s okay. I don’t care if she keeps it even.”
Everyone knew about Juliet. Everyone knew I was crazy.
“I stole this!” I repeated, raising my voice.
Corona gave my mother a level look.
Mom sighed. “Allie,” she said. “Honey. Time to go home.”
“Why don’t you call the cops?” I glared at her, and then at Corona. “Call Tommy. Call Mr. Sirocco. No, don’t call him. But call someone.” Juliet’s father, Tommy Sirocco, was the chief of the Iron County Sheriff’s Department, and deeply in mourning for his only child. “Doesn’t anybody around here ever do anything? Doesn’t anyone care when someone does something wrong?”
“You aren’t a bad person. You didn’t do anything wrong, tonight or ever. You couldn’t have helped her, Allie,” Mom said, pulling me close. I shook my head, squeezing my eyes shut and struggling against my mother, now really acting like a toddler, literally kicking at her shins with the toes of my ballet flats. That’s a lie, I thought. I knew, I knew, I knew.
“Allie, no,” Jackie said, pulling me closer. Both of us were sweating. “It’s not your fault.”
I might as well have spoken aloud. I never had to speak for Jackie Kim to know exactly what I was thinking. Maybe it was because I was chronically ill, with something that would probably kill me sooner rather than later, so she paid ultra-close attention. Maybe Jackie was born with an extraordinarily vigilant nature – no way of knowing if she became an ER nurse because she was that way or if her nature evolved from her profession, like natural selection. Whatever the reason, Jackie is so over-protective of her family that she makes the Secret Service look like stoners. She’s also very optimistic. That could have been a foul combination for a sick kid, a mother who thought I would outlive my genetic destiny, and so didn’t spoil me with all the other things kids like me got, but also insisted on monitoring me like a rare orchid. My interior life was exterior to my mother: my mind seemed to provide her with an onscreen display of my every emotion. If Jackie hadn’t been a strong believer in civil liberties (even mine) I’d have had a miserable youth. Fortunately, holding anyone back from free choice was against Jackie Kim’s nature. Fortunately or unfortunately. If I hadn’t been so much my mother’s daughter, I’d have been wilder than the winds that blew off Superior.
Jackie handed the poncho to Corona.
I let her guide me to the front seat, pulling the belt across me. She turned the AC on to Arctic blast. I glanced in the rearview mirror. My nine-year-old sister, Angela, was curled in the backseat, bony arms wrapped around her knees, thick black hair a fringe hiding her face, trying hard not to look at me.
I opened my mouth wide and screamed as loudly as I could.
Angela flinched. “Allie?” she croaked. “Are you … sick?”
“You loved her, too,” I said, breathless, my throat an open wound. Angela would know that I mean Juliet, the big friend who had treated her like a little sister, and like a little princess. I glanced back at Angie. I was tormenting her.
She was crying freely.
My mother concentrated, backing the car out into Harbor Street.
“Allie, we all loved her,” she said.
“But nobody knows the truth! Nobody who’s alive, anyway. I should do community service. Not for what that freak said I did. For being a goddamn fool.”
“Don’t talk about it like that. It’s just a job,” said my mother. “Think of it as an opportunity. You would have wanted a job like this anyhow.”
I glanced at Angie from the edge of my eye.
Angie’s face glowed pale, stretched tight. This was not the capable, strong big sister she knew. She expected grief but she didn’t expect this moaning, fragile thing that her Allie had become.