In this mesmerizing novel, acclaimed author T. Greenwood draws readers into the fascinating and frightening world of Munchausen syndrome by proxy-and into one woman's search for healing.
When Indie Brown was four years old, she was struck by lightning. In the oft-told version of the story, Indie's life was heroically saved by her mother. But Indie's own recollection of the event, while hazy, is very different.
Most of Indie's childhood memories are like this-tinged with vague, unsettling images and suspicions. Her mother, Judy, fussed over her pretty youngest daughter, Lily, as much as she ignored Indie. That neglect, coupled with the death of her beloved older brother, is the reason Indie now lives far away in rural Maine. It's why her relationship with Lily is filled with tension, and why she dreads the thought of flying back to Arizona. But she has no choice. Judy is gravely ill, and Lily, struggling with a challenge of her own, needs her help.
In Arizona, faced with Lily's hysteria and their mother's instability, Indie slowly begins to confront the truth about her half-remembered past and the legacy that still haunts her family. And as she revisits her childhood, with its nightmares and lost innocence, she finds she must reevaluate the choices of her adulthood-including her most precious relationships.
"Lush, evocative." -The New York Times Book Review
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September 27, 2011
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Excerpt from Nearer Than The Sky by T. Greenwood
I understand lightning. I am not afraid of the rumble, gentle as an empty stomach but powerful enough to shake the ground beneath my feet. I'm not afraid when the sky opens up and blinds my eyes with rain. And when its cold white fingers reach down, looking for someone to touch, I barely shudder anymore. I have an agreement with the sky. An understanding.
It happened when my mother ran back inside the Food- mart with my baby sister, Lily, on her hip. She'd forgotten to buy baby aspirin and Lily had a fever. I was in the shopping cart; at four years old I was still small enough to fit in the front basket with my mother's purse. She parked me and the groceries next to our orange Chevy Nova and said, "Indie, honey, I'll be right back. Don't you move." As she hurried back across the parking lot, I busied myself with a package of cookies I found poking up from one of the bags. I remember they had chocolate stripes and holes in the middle I could fit my thumbs through. The chocolate melted on my hands. It was 1970,August,and our first summer in the mountains of northern Arizona. We didn't know then about the monsoons.
I can only imagine what the other Foodmart shoppers must have thought about me out there in the parking lot like any other bag of groceries. No different from an abandoned carton of ice cream, cardboard growing soggy in the sun. Maybe if someone had paid more attention then it would have stopped with this. If someone had wheeled me into the Food- mart, down the aisle where my mother must have stood browsing the shelves of medicine as if the bottles were magazines she might like to read, then maybe she would have realized that you don't leave four-year-old babies in shopping carts in parking lots. Not even when your youngest has the pink raspberry flush of a fever.
But no one did. After the electric doors closed behind her clean white heels, I sat eating cookies while the other Foodmart customers bustled about opening trunks and wiping the crusty noses of their own children. Every now and then one of them would notice me and smile, probably at the chocolate mess I'd made, but not one person looked for my mother. They must have thought she was inside the Nova somewhere, preparing the car seat or looking for a lost toy.
I knew she would come back. I wasn't afraid of that. I do remember the sudden chill in the air, though, and the long shadows that fell across the parking lot as storm clouds moved across the sky. I remember the sound of shopping-cart wheels moving quickly across the pavement, and the first few drops of rain on my face.
I must have eaten five or six of those cookies, each one growing soggier and soggier in the drizzle. I remember the way my hair tasted. The way the rain beaded up on my bare arms. The smell of wet pavement.
The first rumbles of thunder could have just been my stomach. It could have been hunger instead of a threat from the sky. But then the thunder rumbled again. Louder this time. Insistent. But it wasn't until the sky exploded, threatening and angry, until it opened up and the rain came down in sharp slivers, soaking the brown paper bags and the cookie in my hand, that I started to feel afraid. The next crack of thunder made the shopping cart roll a little, and I felt panic for the first time, the dull thudding of my heart, the heat rising to my ears, as I looked toward the doors of the Foodmart in the distance.
Every time the doors opened, I expected to see her. But it was only a Foodmart cashier in a red apron, a lady with a yellow umbrella opening above her like butterfly wings, a man with a long gray beard and a bag brimming with green leaves. And then, just as the heat in my ears started to bring tears, the glass doors opened up again, and I saw my mother in her crisp polka-dot sundress and Lily still safely nestled on her hip.
"Ma," I cried. Relief like cool rain.
She stood in the doorway, not moving. Not coming. I watched her struggle with the baby aspirin bottle, and the soft puff of cotton inside. Through the rain, I watched her put the tiny orange pill on Lily's tongue. Watched Lily shake her head. Tighten her lips over my mother's finger. I watched her kiss Lily's head, brush her white-blond curls out of her eyes, and adjust her position on her hip.
Thunder rolled through my body, rolled under my skin like waves. She looked up from Lily then and remembered me.
What happened next lingers in my memory like an electric current that refuses to leave the body. The details circulate from fingertips to fingertips, toe to nose to toe.
The thunder cracked again; it sounded like a slap. Like a giant hand hitting skin. I watched my mother's steps quicken and then I put my hands up to my ears and closed my eyes. One ... two . . . three. I imagined I was counting my mother's steps toward me. Four ...five and I opened my eyes.
Everything was white. Metallic and cold. My skin felt like it had been stung by a thousand bees. And my heart was suddenly still. No beating, only buzzing. Only the hum of an electric lullaby.
When I could see again, I realized that I was no longer in the shopping cart. I was lying facedown on the hood of the Nova, staring down at the spilled groceries on the ground. At a hundred pink tablets of baby aspirin, at the polka dots of my mother's dress. The shopping cart was in the next parking space, and glowing red.
The rain wasn't coming down so hard anymore. But I was cold, freezing cold, and I couldn't hear anything except for the buzzing of my body. When my mother's free hand found me, I shrank away from her touch. Her wide blue eyes grew wider, and Lily cried. When she finally spoke, her words tasted like sour milk. And Lily's cries were the bitter of unripe berries.
They say that two things can happen to you if you are struck by lightning. The first is that you will die. The second is that you won't die and that you will be left with few (if any) injuries, no lingering symptoms or souvenirs from your encounter. But even now, so many years later, I can't hear well with my left ear, and with the other one I can still taste sounds. Music and wind. Voices and lies.
My mother says it didn't happen this way at all. She says that she was inside the Nova, buckling Lily into her car seat. Finding my lost Crissy doll. She says she would never have left me alone in the parking lot. But I remember the click of her heels, the pinkish orange aspirin melting in the rain. And when she tells the story her way, her words taste like asphalt. Like aspirin. Like anything but the truth.
My mother has never been able to take the blame. Not then and not later. The way she tells the story, she's the one who kept me from turning into a blackened version of my former self. The way she tells it, she saved my life. In her version of this story, of every story, she's always the hero.
In those days, there were no words to describe the nature of my mother's tales. No diagnosis for her tendency toward fiction. No names for women who make accidents happen to their children, no terms for imaginary heroes. And so we listened to my mother's stories in silence and tried to believe.
That she brought my brother, Benny, back to life when he stopped breathing in his crib. That she saved me from the lightning. That Lily's illness was real instead of something Ma put inside of her. We listened in silence and waited for the words that might explain.
I understand lightning. I know the cold taste of light, the inevitable paralysis of its touch. I know how deceiving an empty sky can be, and I understand the consequences of thunder. But sometimes, I still dream the gentle thrill of electricity, and stand in open fields during storms with my arms raised. Because illumination of this intensity is apt to show you something you might not see otherwise. In the white cold light moments of a storm, you're bound to get at least a glimpse of the truth.