The bus bumped over a pothole and Megan woke with a start, jerking her head from the hot pane of glass where it had been resting. She eased the twisted strap of her canvas bag from across her body. It took her a minute to get it off, then she laid her head back against the blue plastic seat. Her heart was hammering like a scared rabbit’s. What a dream. She sat still, trying to recover, staring at the metal ceiling of the bus, where a red and white square was marked IN EMERGENCY, PULL HANDLE, THEN PUSH DOOR OUTWARD. Megan briefly pictured herself standing on the seat, pushing the hatch open. It would be cooler with the wind whipping past.
Mike. God, why was she thinking about that debacle? It was over, finished, done with last summer. Megan reached into her khaki messenger bag and pulled out a stainless-steel water bottle. She took a long drink, grimacing at the warm, flat taste. Don’t play dumb, she told herself. She knew why she was thinking about that night—it was exactly one year ago today. One year ago that she made the biggest mistake of her life. And almost lost her best friend forever. Almost.
To distract herself, Megan focused on the back of the bus driver—straight coffee-colored neck, neat blue polyester collar. The other bus riders seemed practically comatose, beaten into submission by the stench of the clogged lavatory at the back. To Megan’s right, a young blond woman cradled a sleeping toddler, the child’s head flung back. A girl about Megan’s own age sat in front of them, slumped down. Behind Megan, someone was snoring rhythmically, with a sound like a small chainsaw.
The sun beat through the windows, filling the coach with the smell of hot gym shoes, despite the best efforts of the asthmatic air conditioner, which whistled through the vents over their heads. It had been four hours of corn and soybeans under the whitish sky, broken by the occasional truck-stop exit full of belching semis and minivans stuffed with sticky children. But at least Anna was waiting for her at the other end.
Megan dug out her phone and thumbed through Anna’s last e-mail, sent yesterday.
Pick you up in front of the restaurant on the main street. I think it’s called the Leaf. The farm looks gorgeous—I can’t believe it’s been three years since I was last up here. You are going to love it. I’m so excited we get to work together!!!
Megan stared out the window. The landscape was starting to get more hilly now, with patches of lush woods flashing past. When Anna asked Megan to work with her at her uncle Thomas’s farm this summer, Megan had been so excited. Anna used to go down there every summer, back before her dad left. Then, a few months ago, her uncle called and said that her aunt had started using a wheelchair because of her MS and he needed some extra help. Anna had arrived last week to get started.
Megan gazed apprehensively out the window at a giant green tractor trawling slowly up and down a sea of waving corn leaves. No—it wasn’t going to be like that. She scrolled through the e-mail again. “—ten pigs, chickens, a big garden, and horses!” Anna had written. That didn’t sound too bad. More like the Richard Scarry books she used to read when she was little. She scanned the rest of the e-mail.
And we get a separate place to sleep too, just for the two of us. Oh, yeah. There’s a surprise too. I won’t say too much now, but it’s definitely going to make this summer way more fun.
The bus swayed as the driver guided it around a hairpin turn. They were going into some sort of valley now, with trees crowding right up against the road. Megan caught a glimpse of a rushing creek, more like a little river. She wondered what the surprise was. Anna’s surprises could be odd sometimes. Like the time she’d made T-shirts for Megan and her with Mr. O’Gorman’s picture on it. He was their eighth-grade history teacher, and they both had crushes on him at the time. Anna thought they should wear the shirts to school. Megan had told her that would be way too embarrassing, which Anna didn’t understand at all. She’d said it would be funny. Megan had refused and Anna shredded both shirts with her mother’s meat scissors.
The bus reached the bottom of the valley. Black cows stood with their heads buried in knee-high grass, their tails switching. The other bus riders were waking up, gathering their possessions. The snorer behind her sat up with a grunt and belched. Megan craned her neck to look through the windshield. She could see nothing but the tops of some buildings partially hidden by a low hill. That must be the town, Ault Flats. Megan felt a wriggle of anticipation in her belly.
The driver rolled through a stop sign, made a sharp left, then braked abruptly. He cut the engine and opened the door with a pneumatic hiss. It seemed very quiet without the engine noise. Megan watched the other riders file down the aisle. She hitched her messenger bag over her shoulder and wrestled her duffel down from the metal rack overhead. This was it. She was here.
As Megan climbed down the steep black steps, the heat hit her like a furnace blast. It radiated up through the soles of her sandals and pressed against her face. Megan found herself alone on a cracked sidewalk.
Buildings lined either side of the short street—the only road in the town, as far as Megan could tell. There was a worn-out pharmacy, a pawn shop, a barnlike structure with bags of fertilizer stacked out front and a sign reading BAKER’S FEED AND SEED, a repair shop with a disemboweled tractor visible in the open bay, and a liquor store.
Her palms were sweaty and her messenger bag was cutting into her shoulder. Megan changed her grip on her duffel, scanning the buildings for the Leaf. The sun was a pale disk burning through the dull clouds. It was so quiet, Megan’s sandals scraped on the gritty sidewalk as she turned around. This place was really remote. She’d kind of been picturing something . . . cuter. And Anna wasn’t here. Megan tried to tamp down her annoyance. Maybe the bus had been early. She glanced at her phone. No. Right on time.
A few men with weather-seamed faces sat outside the repair shop, perched on metal barrels. Megan felt their eyes on her legs and she swallowed, trying not to feel self-conscious. She wished she’d worn jeans instead of shorts. Where the hell was the damn Leaf restaurant? Did Anna have the name wrong or—She spotted a green and white sign across the street with a surge of relief and marched purposefully toward it.
Megan set her bags down between her feet and leaned awkwardly against a windowsill, folding her arms on her chest and trying to look nonchalant. Don’t those gross old guys have anything else to do? Fix some tractors or something? One with a bushy brown beard winked at her. Megan gritted her teeth and looked steadily and deliberately at the yellow shop sign next door. J&B PAWN, SINCE 1960.
Just then, she heard the rumble of an engine and saw a rust-red pickup roaring toward her, Anna at the wheel. Megan picked up her bags, a grin already on her face. She stepped to the curb in readiness, waving wildly as the pickup drew near. But Anna didn’t stop. The truck roared past. Megan could see Anna turn her head, laughing. She disappeared down the street. Megan’s hand wilted by her side, and a familiar mixture of frustration and resignation rose in her throat. She stood, her face flaming as the men in front of the repair shop chortled. At the end of the street, the truck screeched in a U-turn and drove back toward her. This time, Anna stopped and Megan ran to the passenger door, wrenching it open in a shower of rust flakes.
“Hey!” Anna said, still laughing. “Got you! Your face when I drove past was hilarious.” Her sunglasses covered half her cheeks, like she had huge fly eyes. Her glossy black hair was twisted on top of her head, and she wore a clingy gray T-shirt and jeans cut off just above her knees.
Megan tucked her messenger bag behind her feet and flung her duffel in the back. It was just Anna being Anna. “Those old guys at the garage thought it was hilarious too.” Megan kept her voice light.
“You look gorgeous, by the way.” Anna reached over and gave Megan a one-armed hug as she drove. “I’m so glad to see you!”
“You too,” Megan replied and suddenly, she was. Anna’s presence was like a firework—sizzling, bright, colorful. She relaxed back against the seat, which was covered with an old gray blanket, sprinkled liberally with dog hair. She cranked the window down as far as it would go and let the breeze dry her sweat-dampened hair. “This truck is great. Really . . . farm-y.”
“Yeah, Uncle Thomas let me borrow it to come get you. And it’s a stick shift! Can you believe I’m driving it?”
“No, not really.” Megan watched her friend’s sneakered feet alternately press the pedals on the floor. “Do I have to drive it?”
“Probably. We use it all the time for hay and feed and stuff.” Anna shifted expertly into third gear.
“Oh.” A few shreds of straw blew up from the floor of the cab and whirled around her knees. “How’s it been so far? It feels like you left way longer than a week ago.”
Anna nodded. “I know. So much has happened too,” she bubbled. Megan was about to ask what she meant, but Anna kept talking. “How was home?”
Megan made a face. “Boring. Mom made me take online tours of colleges with her all week.”
Anna slowed down behind a trailer full of cows. “Ick. Why didn’t you just tell her to stop?”
“Oh, sure. She’d love that. Then you’d be working down here by yourself this summer because I’d be confined to the house.” Megan extracted her water bottle again and took a drink. “So, what’s it like, you know, working on a farm? I’m kind of nervous.” For an instant, she wished she could take the words back before Anna gave her that look like she was the most idiotic person in the world. But her friend just reached out and squeezed her knee.
“It’s fun. You’ll love it, I promise. Uncle Thomas does all the serious plowing and mowing and stuff. The summer hands mostly do the garden and the chores.”
“Chores?” It sounded like a Laura Ingalls Wilder story. They were always doing chores in those books.
“Like feeding the animals and mucking and gathering eggs. And you’re getting paid! It’s better than Silver Mountain.”
They looked at each other and Megan snorted, then they burst out laughing. They’d both applied to work at the Silver Mountain jewelry kiosk in the mall before Thomas had called. The woman who ran the place looked like she ate high schoolers for snacks.
Megan offered the water to Anna. “Is it weird seeing your aunt in a wheelchair?” she asked sympathetically.
“No.” Anna’s voice was hard. She took a long swig.
Megan raised her eyebrows. “It was just a question.” More fences, more cows outside. Clapboard farmhouses with American flags. Children’s toys in the driveways. A field of sheep that looked like dingy cotton balls with legs.
Anna sighed, capped the bottle with one hand, and handed it back. “Aunt Linda and I don’t really get along, okay? She’s never liked me, because I’ve always been Uncle Thomas’s favorite. She’s jealous.” Anna’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel.
“Oh.” Megan searched her mind for a new subject. Making Anna mad was never a good idea. She glanced at her friend’s toned arms. “How is it that you already have a tan?”
Anna’s face lightened, and she laughed as if she knew how great she looked. “Ten hours in the sun every day? I’ve mostly been working in the garden this week.” The corners of her lips turned up and she lingered over the words, as if drawing up pleasant memories.
“No . . . Uncle Thomas has some full-time help. Dave and Sarah. They’re, like, twenty-five.”
The road was straight now, and the cows had given way to open fields of some kind of low, curly plant. Anna pressed her foot on the accelerator. She gave Megan a significant look.
“Okay, I give in,” Megan said. “Come on, what’s the surprise? I know you’re dying to tell me.”
Anna seemed to hold herself in for a moment, then burst out, “Oh my God, Megan, I met someone and he’s so perfect! I was going to wait and not say anything until later, but I just have to tell you. His name is Jordan and he’s one of the other summer hands. He started the same time as me, and he’s so sweet. We’ve been hanging out all week and it’s getting really serious. I think that he could be, you know, the one.” She was practically bouncing in her seat, her eyes hot and bright.
Megan could feel sweat break out on her upper lip, despite the breeze from the open window. “Oh, wow!” she said, trying for simple excitement. Anna hadn’t gone out with anyone since she and Mike had broken up. No one ever said it was because of what happened at the party, but by the time school started in the fall, Anna and Mike were over. During the initial explosion, Megan had sobbed and apologized. Anna called every single night to tell Megan just how furious she was. Then, after one month exactly, Anna never spoke of it again. She would completely shut down when Megan attempted to broach the subject.
Anna watched her, glancing frequently at the road. Megan licked her lips. “That is so great.” She felt like she was balancing on a slick stepping stone in the middle of a creek. One misstep and she’d fall in. “I’m really happy for you.” If Anna could find someone new, maybe the wound would be healed. The wound Megan had created. A fresh wave of guilt swamped her, somehow undiminished despite the passage of twelve months.
Megan reached over and grasped Anna’s hand for a second. “I am so happy for you,” she repeated, looking right at her friend. Please, Anna. Believe me. Should I say something more? Like an anniversary apology?
“Thanks.” Anna squeezed Megan’s hand and then released it to turn onto a narrower side road. “I’m happy for me too.”
The weeks of the summer stretched out like a long, murky river. They would be together every day, sleeping together, eating together. Megan had to get it out in the open. She had to say something about the anniversary. Okay. Say it now. “I just wanted to tell you how sorry . . . You know, today is one year . . . I’m so glad we’re still friends after . . .” But the passage of time weighed on Megan, and instead she let out her breath and rested her head against the scratchy blanket. They were quiet for a few miles. The breeze blowing through the window was cooler now, almost refreshing. Trees were everywhere, huge towering oaks and maples with long grass laid over in swaths around their trunks. They passed an old red brick house, like something out of Pride and Prejudice, then a mowed pasture with horse jumps. The next house was a massive Tudor concoction surrounded by landscaped grounds. Megan blinked. “I’m sorry, are we in another state? Why does everything look like it’s from a Jane Austen novel all of a sudden?”
Anna laughed. “I know, weird, isn’t it? It’s all farms and cows, and then it turns into this super-fancy area called Ault Hill.” They passed a twenty-five miles per hour sign, and Anna slowed, downshifting. “It’s all big estates. A lot of people just come out here on the weekends to ride their horses.” She gestured at a cream-colored barn that looked bigger than their high school at home. “Uncle Thomas has one of the only working farms in this section. He says the county association is always calling, asking if he wants to sell, so they can break it up into estates.”
Anna flicked on the turn signal and braked rapidly. Megan saw a stone pillar with a plaque set into it reading GIVEN FARM. In front of them stretched a long gravel driveway, flanked by open pastures, which disappeared into trees up ahead.
“This is it,” Anna said, turning into the drive. “Welcome home.”