I had twenty-three borrowed dollars in my pocket, and the deed to a house in a town I couldn't find on any map. How long ago had I stopped at that gas station to ask for directions? It seemed like hours. The attendant had pointed to the top of the mountain and said, "Keep going up."
So I drove until the sun wilted into the horizon, dropping behind rows of shaggy, towering evergreens. Brown leaves skittered across the road; I swerved around them more than once, mistaking them for toads, or chickadees. Deer-crossing signs blazed yellow in my headlights around each turn. Snow appeared, as if growing from the ground. The windows began to fog.
I should have turned around before starting this absurd quest for—what? Revenge? Retribution? Whatever it was, a certain romanticism had crept into the ordeal—being on the road, alone, with just my thoughts and a cooler of Diet Coke. I always imagined myself the tragic heroine. That, and I had absolutely nowhere else to go.
Squinting, I saw a light ahead, attached to a worn, whaleshaped sign: THE JONAH INN
"Cute," I mumbled, turning into the driveway.
There was a story in the Bible about Jonah. My grandmother, a bit of a religious fanatic, had taken particular delight in giant fish and prophets and the complete stupidity of some guy living three days up to his knees in gastric juices. I must have heard it fifty times. "You see, you must always do what God tells you to do," she'd say. As a small child, I would nod and agree, and then ask for a cookie. Finally, when I was twelve, I demanded, "What about adultery? What about murder? What does God say about that?"
Grandmother's eyes had bulged. "Who told you?"
"Aunt Ruth," I said. "Don't you think God wanted me to know the truth about my parents?"
Grandmother didn't talk to me about the Bible anymore after that. She stopped talking to Ruth completely. Lucky Aunt Ruth.
* * *
The inn's gray clapboard siding flaked like dead skin onto the front porch. I hoped the bed had clean sheets.
The door unlocked, I entered to a bell chime. A sleepy voice called, "One minute." I heard scuffling from the room to my left, and a woman limped out, hair the same sad color as the house. About fifty years old, she wore a too-big sweater with leather patches on the elbows, and thick fleece socks.
"This is mighty unexpected," she said, but smiled.
"I can go somewhere else, if you're not ready for guests."
Silent a moment too long, the woman realized she was staring. "Sorry, dear. I'm just a little fuzzed up with sleep is all. There's no place else to stay, except here." Pulling a ledger from the desk by the front door, she asked, "What's your name?"
"You a skier, here visiting?"
I cleared my throat. "Just passing through."
Under her flannel pajamas, the woman's bony frame stiffened at my lie. She finished writing my name in the book, and handed me a dusty key.
"I'm Mary-Margaret Watson. Folks here call me Maggie. You're welcome to do the same. That all you have, or do you need to go back out to your car?" She nodded toward my duffel bag.
"This is all I need tonight."
"Okay, then. Follow me."
The old stairs creaked in protest, unhappy to be bothered so late at night. Maggie opened the door to my room, pointed at another door just to the left. "That's the bathroom. Towels are in there. You'll need to let the hot water run a bit."
"Yup. Pick up the phone in the room if you need something. You'll get me. Spare blankets are in the closet. Sleep tight," she said, and then disappeared back down the stairs.
I felt oily. I hadn't showered in three days but was too tired to clean up now. I didn't even change my clothes—just shook off my shoes, turned on the bedside lamp long enough to find the extra blankets, and climbed into bed.
I forgot to check the sheets.
Unable to sleep, Maggie listened to the floorboards crackle above her as Sarah tossed in the bed. Old houses, old bones, they're the same. Her hips ached—pain fueled by the raw autumn night.
She reached for a blue glass jar on the nightstand, a salve that Aggie Standing mixed for all the stiff joints in town. There were many. She rubbed on the cream, smelling camphor and eucalyptus, a hint of lemon, a dash of witch hazel. Then she took four painkillers. She was only supposed to take two, but two didn't do a darn thing.
Sinking back into the featherbed, she pulled her worn sweater tight around her spindly ribs and prayed silently for the pain to subside. Finally, the roar in her hips dimmed to a whimper.
Maggie had known it was Luke Petersen's daughter as soon as the sleep cleared her head. It wasn't so much how she looked, with hair the color of dried apricots and huge, dark eyes, but the way Sarah looked at her—still as a doe that smelled the hunter, but couldn't quite see him through the trees. Her father, however, had come into Jonah wind-beaten and searching for peace. Sarah seemed to want a fight.
It was Luke's sweater Maggie wore. He'd lent it to her one chilly night after church, and she never returned it. Day to day she told herself she just forgot, but on nights like tonight, when the pain made her honest, she admitted she kept it because it was his. For nine months, Luke had lived at the inn, until the ground thawed and he finished fixing up the house he bought. Maggie cooked for him, washed his socks and hemmed his pants, and talked with him late into the evenings. Folks had whispered in the beginning, but as they ate and shopped and worshipped with him, the rumors fell away, like woolen coats at spring's first thaw. Luke grew into the town, as if he'd always lived in that little cabin two turnoffs past McMahon's Sugar House, three-and-a-half miles down on the right.
She never expected to love him.
She never expected Sarah to show up in Jonah, at her inn.
Maggie reached over and set the alarm as her eyelids started to droop—not that, after all these years, she needed a clock to goad her out of bed. She would wake early to prepare a big breakfast, the kind she saved for Christmas mornings. She stirred love into those meals, and Sarah looked like she needed some of that something fierce.
Home Another Way by Christa Parrish
Copyright © 2008; ISBN 9780764205231
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.