Joanna’s eyes slipped shut, and her chin dipped for just a second. She snapped her eyes open and jerked the steering wheel, causing the rental car to swerve dangerously on the wet mountain highway.
“Not today, Mister,” she shouted.
That had been one of Jill’s expressions, but who the man was Jill could never say.
The road was mostly straight, but the steep drop-off on her side was littered with thick trees, enormous boulders, and other hidden traps. Beyond all that was the Pacific Ocean. Joanna had explored many of these woods with her sisters and parents when they were young and took the only kind of vacation a family with seven children could afford, a short one close to home.
She and Jill were driving to their childhood home in Searchlight Needles. The rain was falling heavier now. It had been in the forecast. Jill laughed to herself whenever she thought about flash flooding in the mountains. Still, this weather was decidedly inclement.
“That was a close one, eh, Sister?”
The tears came automatically; her therapist told her this was the path of grief; it was seldom a straight line.
With just a glance at the passenger seat, her hand found the urn and patted it reassuringly.
“We’ll be home soon, Jill.”
Joanna considered the shoulder again awash under sliding flat sheets of running water and again was shocked by the lack of a guardrail. She made a mental note to stop for caffeine soon. Not that there were a lot of places to stop in the mountains. Sloppy Pete’s Place was still an hour south of here, but Pete wasn’t the most reliable proprietor with his hours of operation.
Her mind wandered back to the forest of grief she had not visited in almost three minutes. Jill had been everyone’s favorite.
You were too good for this world, Joanna thought as she turned the radio off.
“High, high hopes indeed!”
With the radio no longer blaring, Joanna heard how loud the rain was. That was when it got louder, a lot louder.
Not pulling over was no longer an option. Joanna steeled her nerves before darting into the oncoming lane and then onto a bare spot on the opposite shoulder that was perhaps nine feet wide. It would have to do. The idea of parking on the shoulder on the southbound side of the 101 was a non-starter.
Turn your hazards on, J.
Joanna leaped up in her seat, and her seatbelt bit into her shoulder. Her left hand massaged her already tender trapezius as her right hand flipped the hazard lights on.
The voice sounded a great deal like Jill’s.
No. It didn’t sound like Jill; that was Jill.
Religion was something she’d walked away from when she left Searchlight 12 years earlier. She didn’t believe in ghosts, God, or souls. Her mom and she had finally come to an uneasy truce on such topics. They preferred to keep the peace than try to sway the other.
Also, calling her J? That was something that only Jill could do.
She patted the urn again, testing the passenger seat belt for the thirtieth time, ensuring that her sister’s ashes were held snug. She had packed it loosely in Jill’s down jacket, the one she’d picked up in Boulder. But Joanna couldn’t bring herself to cover the urn entirely. That felt wrong somehow.
Joanna had made several deals and demands with her sisters to keep the down jacket. They had all wanted it for themselves for the same reason. They all claimed it smelled of Jill.
Joanna switched the ignition off and leaned her seat back. Despite thinking she couldn’t possibly do so, she fell asleep.
In her dreams, Joanna relived her favorite Jill memory. It was fresh in her mind as she had shared it during the eulogy earlier in the day when it was her time to talk. All six of Jill’s sisters had spoken, and by the end, everyone was crying.
It happened on Jill’s seventh birthday, and her parents asked her if she wanted a special treat. Jill thought about it a second, then said she would like a frozen lemon custard from the new ice cream place on the edge of town past the trailer park. The Lemon Tree had only been open a few months, but it had already become a favorite hangout joint for high school kids.
The Robertsons were never wealthy. They vacationed at nearby, not exotic, locations. They seldom dined out. But they were a happy family, Steve, Sharon, and seven daughters, all of whose names began with a J.
The lighthouse tourism dollars on the Oregon coast were steady but never great money. But giving tours of the lighthouse and living in the keeper’s cottage proved irresistible to Steve and Sharon. They had plenty of time together, home-schooled all seven daughters, and never went a day without telling each of them how special they were.
The Winkle family went to the same school as the Robertson daughters. They were poor. It was Ruth, the mother, and her two boys: Dusty and Donnie. The dad had disappeared after Ruth had told him she was pregnant with twin boys.
The Robertsons were surprised and happy to see Ruth and her boys at the Lemon Tree. They’d ordered their sherbet, and Sharon hovered near Ruth’s back, looking on as Ruth began counting out her loose change for her two boys’ ice cream cones, touching the single dollar bill in her jacket pocket, readying herself to hand it to Ruth discretely if she came up short. The boys squealed with delight when the two cones were placed on the counter. Dusty, the shorter boy, reached for his, but his grip was loose, and the round ball of lemony, sugary coldness slipped off the cone and plopped into the dust below. He whimpered in frustration. Ruth did her best to soothe the boy, but he was inconsolable. Joanna remembered seeing Jill wipe away a tear from each eye before approaching Dusty and handing him her cone.
“Remember, this was Jill’s birthday,” Joanna had told the congregation. It didn’t need to be said. Everyone in attendance knew that Jill was a kind person. Almost everyone there had heard the story before.
Inspired by her sister’s selfless act, Joanna stepped forward and offered her cone to Ruth. The seven sisters fought occasionally, but they were always a team in each other’s corners whenever needed. The five other J’s huddled around Jill and Joanna and took turns sharing their sherbet with the two of them.
When Joanna got the call weeks ago that Jill was in the ER, she saw her sister as she was at that moment. When Joanna looked at her sister’s face after sacrificing her ice cream, she saw no sorrow or regret. What she saw was only blissful contentment.
The rain let up a bit. The change woke Joanna in an instant.
She studied the water swirling across and around her darkened windshield. She didn’t know the time, but if the sun hadn’t already set, it was headed that way in a hurry. It was effectively night with the thick clouds and downpour.
She saw the face pressed against the windshield and screamed.
Her hand reassured Jill’s ashes that there was nothing to fear from a bit of rain.
You’re going to be okay, J.
She glanced at the spooky windshield again. It was Jill, her face formed from frenetic rivulets of rainwater, animated by the wind and slope of glass separating her from the torrent outside.
“I’m losing it here,” Joanna said, rubbing her eyes. It felt like it had been weeks since the funeral, but that had happened five hours earlier.
Joanna took several deep breaths, tilted her head, and opened her eyes. When she looked back at the windshield, her sister’s face was smiling.
I miss you already.
“You’re not real; I’m hallucinating.”
J, look at my ashes; I don’t have much time. The rain will stop. It’s going to be okay.
That was how Jill spoke. Despite her fears, Joanna opened her eyes again and peered at the urn.
The lid was a snug-fitting thing. The jade green vase trembled, then burped a little sound, and a tiny gray cloud of dust floated out and hovered just above the seat. It began to spin, slowly at first, but then faster. Her tears distorted her vision until the cloud of Jill was a smudged charcoal drawing. The cloud grew faint, then blew apart.
When her crying slowed, she looked again for the face, but it was gone. The skies had grown lighter, and the roar of the rain had softened. Joanna could tell the rain was stopping.
She knew there would be rough days ahead. A lot of them, but sitting in her car, waiting for the rain to stop, Joanna felt a peace she hadn’t known since that tearful night seven weeks earlier.
“It’s going to be okay,” Joanna said, turning the key in the ignition and flipping the radio back on.