*Before I post the actual chapter, I want to let you know that these chapters will be posted fast and furious now because, except for the very last chapter of the entire thing, it's finished! Also, this chapter introduces Stacey and Missouri to y'all.*
The flight from New York to Kansas City wasn’t very long. It was a little over an hour in the air all told, with no delays and no major moments of turbulence. She took a cab to the Amtrak station, where she would board a train due east, leaving her in a town called Sedalia. Stacey would pick her up there.
Lennon found a seat in the train, put her duffel bag on the seat beside her and stared out of the window, eager bespectacled eyes taking in all she saw. In the Northeast, she would’ve seen small towns pass with patches of the track gliding alongside Long Island Sound and through big cities like Boston and New York. Len dredged up half-remembered hamlets in Connecticut along the coast, the entire town consisting of a few blocks of badly maintained brick and wooden buildings and a dock and ferry. Not for the first time, she wondered how rural Landslide would be.
The train made few stops along the way. Open train stations with peaked roofs, identified by the town name swinging on a sign followed ramshackle farm buildings standing solitary in fields. There were empty, asphalt highways, leading away as far as the eye could see. She wondered where those roads lead.
The train whizzed by ancient, sunken-in graveyards, their headstones fallen over with age. Lennon had a theory that railroad tracks always passed by graveyards; it had been that way on the route from Boston to New York.
Her stop came, leaving her on a modern platform with a glimpse of a parking lot and a brick building. Turning left to right, Lennon found that she could see a water tower in the distance. Buildings lined the few streets she could see from her vantage point, neat and orderly, planned on a perfect grid. But the streets seemed deserted.
Well, this was certainly different.
“Len!” Stacey stood to her right waving both arms in the air like a cheerleader. Her sunglasses were perched precariously on her head. She was standing beside an old green Volvo, the only car in the station parking lot. Her crisp white shirt and little Daisy Duke denim shorts showed off a substantial amount of her milky-white skin and her extremely long, balletic legs.
The girls hugged tightly, hopping up and down in their excitement at being reunited. Stacey and Lennon usually went no more than four months without seeing each other and they kept in touch by email, phone calls and texts. This particular gap had been the longest they’d been separated since their college graduation. But the changes were minimal; they were at an age where appearances didn’t change drastically.
They were lucky enough to have an easy friendship. Like a book, it picked up where the story had been left off. Stacey was still tall and willowy, her blonde hair neatly pinned at the nape of her neck while Lennon remained short and pale, her dark hair askew and her eyes marking her to some as “exotic,” as if she were a delicacy like escargots.
Stacey held an arm out, presenting the Midwest to Len.
“Welcome to Missouri,” she said.
“Thanks,” Len said with a tremulous smile. “How much longer are you out here?” Len asked as they sat in the car, shutting the doors. Stacey started the ignition and gave a cursory glance behind her, backing out.
“A few more months, tops. Through the summer, for sure, and I can stay the rest of the year, if I want to,” Stacey shrugged. “I get paid well enough and my hours at the diner are wicked flexible.”
“Is that the current day job?” Len asked.
“Yeah. I waitress and work the counter at Esme’s Diner, so I just might stay through the end of the year and then look at my options.”
“Do you like it out here?”
“Yeah,” Stacey said, dragging the word out, sliding her sunglasses down to cover her eyes. “It’s not home. It took me a while to get used to how different it is from New England, but also, how it’s kind of similar. A small town is a small town.”
Stacey drove them through Sedalia, while Lennon stared out of the car window. Everything was in its place here; houses there, stores here, office buildings in the distance. But the buildings were squat and didn’t rise to the sky. In fact, Lennon could actually see how blue the sky was. There was nothing to hinder her from seeing it.
“I heard a tornado siren the other day and completely freaked out,” Stacey broke the silence.
Lennon laughed. “I remember when Jack and I were staying with our relatives near Chicago. One time, we were at this strip mall with our cousins and the sky turned gray all of a sudden.”
“That’s exactly what happened!”
“Then the siren started going off. Jack thought it was an air raid siren and screamed his head off. I was terrified. He was excited. My uncle was driving and the radio said that the storm was a few miles behind us. I don’t think there actually was a twister or at least it didn’t come down on anything, but Jack kept turning around and blocking the rearview mirror to see if there were fighter jets in the air.”
Stacey laughed. “Oh, your brother.”
“Utterly clueless, as usual,” Len replied. She settled back into the seat, feeling lighter than she had in months. This visit would be fun. She felt certain about that.
Stacey drove down an empty street with one hand, while she opened a creased paper, a map and directions from Mapquest with the other. She handed both to Lennon.
“You’re my navigator.”
“Of course I am,” Lennon said with a smile. “I’m the one who’s not directionally challenged.” Stacey’s eyes flitted toward her for a second, in a mock glare. Len could see them move behind the tinted lenses.
“I may be directionally challenged, but at least I can drive…oh, there you go, on ramp!” Stacey steered toward the sign and drove onto the interstate. “Anyway. Yeah. Tornadoes.”
“Every place has their crap, I guess. Tornadoes. Drought. Nor’easters.”
“Mom said the Northeast got buried this winter.”
“The entire subway system shut down in the city,” Len said. Stacey groaned. “It was a mess. In fact, calling it a mess is an understatement. It was fucking awful. I was stuck in a subway car between Lexington and Roosevelt Island for about forty minutes.”
“Holy shit!” Then Stacey smiled. “All the more reason for you to drive.” Len rolled her eyes. “Len, come on, if you’re going to be here for more than two weeks…it’s a necessity. You have your permit, right?”
“From another state. Is that valid?”
Stacey shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t think they’ll care. They can drive at fifteen here. Landslide is full of wide roads with nothing on them. No parked cars. No cabbies. No swarms of pedestrians and tourists…”
“Heaven,” Len sighed, leaning her head back against the seat. It was exactly as she’d expected, really: deep in the country; absolutely nothing around it for miles. The idea of that kind of isolation used to frighten her. Now it seemed appealing. “So what does Landslide have?”
“The theater,” Stacey began. “A few bars. The Black Kettle is the only one that really serves food. Esme’s Diner…but it’s close enough to count as Houstonia, I think. A Wal-Mart.”
“A Wal-Mart?” Len deadpanned.
“You haven’t lived until you’ve been in a Wal-Mart,” Stacey teased. “You can go back to New York and tell your friends, ‘I’ve been to Wal-Mart. Now I’m an American.’ Though I think we both know that Target rocks harder.”
Lennon let out a gut-blasting laugh.
It wasn’t until Stacey had gotten off the interstate onto a major thoroughfare, due northwest, that she brought up her latest boyfriend. Lennon smirked in response. Stacey always had a boyfriend. During junior year in college, after a vicious break-up, Stacey had estimated that she hadn’t been single since she was about fourteen and swore up and down not to be involved in another relationship anytime soon. She’d found another boyfriend within four months.
Somehow, Stacey managed to combine a talent for drawing men to her with her an innocence that earned their respect; the majority of her ex-boyfriends remained close friends. Lennon didn’t understand how Stacey managed to pull in guys at all, period. She marveled at how Stacey kept all of her romantic dreams alive after being through the drama of so many rocky relationships. Lennon hadn’t even been in anything resembling a romantic relationship and considered herself more cynical than any girl her age had a right to be.
That didn’t mean she wasn’t curious about her friend’s romantic escapades. She was more curious for not having been in a relationship, trying to glean anything about how that whole realm of life worked.
“So, the new guy?” Lennon asked.
“You don’t seem very surprised,” Stacey remarked.
“Am I supposed to be? Stace, you break up with one of ‘em and there’s another one in the picture, straight from the wings.”
Stacey chuckled under her breath and muttered, “It’s not quite like that. But anyway, he’s an actor with the troupe.”
“Wait a sec. I distinctly recall you saying ‘I will never date another actor because they’re wicked pretentious and act like babies.’” Len paused. “We have to get off this road in 2.5 miles. Gosh, do I have to learn how to think in miles?”
Stacey laughed. “How do you judge distance?”
“Hmm. Anyway, about the actor thing, a lot of them are babies. It comes with the territory. Nick’s been acting since he was twelve, but he didn’t train. He’s not as pretentious. He’s an amazing actor. He really throws himself into a role.”
“How long have you been together?”
“We made it official the end of February,” Stacey replied. She changed lanes, then glided into the next lane and drove down an off-ramp. Lennon noticed that Stacey signaled every time she made a move. “I really want you to meet him. He’s been good to me.”
“Well, good,” Len said, glancing out at the unchanging landscape. Trees and grass, indeed. “Where’s he from?”
“Syosset, New York.”
“Syosset?” Len pulled a face, with a sharp left downward turn of her lip. “Yikes.”
“What’s wrong with Syosset?”
“Nothing, I suppose,” Len said, sounding as if she meant the complete opposite. “Other than it being on Long Island. Does he have the accent?”
“Kind of,” Stacey replied. “You’re the New Yorker, so you tell me.” The car rounded a curve. The road was becoming narrower. “We’re almost there. Look.”
Lennon saw a green highway sign, simply lettered, that said Landslide town limits. The road curved to the right and around the bend, another sign, a bigger one, read Landslide, population 900. Len involuntarily winced. Her high school had had more people than this town.
“If you go down that road two miles, you’ll hit a park, a lake, and Esme’s Diner,” Stacey said, glancing to a road on Len’s side. “Couple of houses on there, too. If you go the other way on that road, to my left, you’ll get to the high school.”
“This is the main drag,” Stacey continued. “We’re approaching town.”
“Town” consisted of a few built-up blocks along a paved road. Set well away from the street on one side was a motel, post office, and a grocery store. Each had a parking lot. The other side of the road had an Episcopal church with a sunken-in churchyard that spread around the weathered structure in a semi-circle, like an opened paper fan.
Then there were tall trees; Len noticed a thin ribbon of a dirt road leading away from the main drag. Another block of buildings followed. A bar with a parking lot stood on Stacey’s left, across the street from a cleared field of grass. Len wondered if it was a park or a common or farmland. The field was large, fringed on the sides with dark, tall trees. She could see a blue, bulbous tower in the distance, sticking up from beyond the trees. If she squinted, she could make out that the word Landslide was painted on the side of the water tower—the tallest point for miles around.
The car turned off the main drag a few miles later, the steering wheel sliding through Stacey’s hands. “I’ll show you the theatre later,” she said. They were on a dirt road that snaked around in curves. A few houses, with enough space between them to contain at least four full-block apartment buildings, dotted the road. Another right led them onto a securely paved road, smaller and narrower.
Two identical buildings sat on the road, which ended just beyond the buildings in a dead end. Stacey pulled into a driveway and shifted the car into park.
Lennon saw that the buildings went further back than she could see from the street. Each building surrounded a yard of sorts—more like a courtyard—on three sides. Both buildings had a large glass front door and were about three stories tall, sided in a tan color that gleamed so new that Len wasn’t entirely sure if the paint had dried on them yet.
“It looks so suburban,” Len remarked, clipping the seatbelt and letting it slide back behind her.
“They were built last year. This was farmland. The family sold it to these developers, I hear. The farm got foreclosed on,” Stacey explained, taking the keys out of the ignition. “They don’t fit this place at all. P.S, I cleaned the apartment, however, it’s still kind of a mess.”
Len waved it away. She had vivid memories of stumbling around their dorm room, her tiny feet becoming tangled up in flowing yellow shirts, a purple leotard and balled-up white tank tops carpeting Stacey’s side of the room.
Those memories made her laugh.