It was only a couple minutes before Crystal and Nanci came out, with Crystal carrying a large river drybag. At first glance, Nanci didnít look good Ė a black eye, several bruises, all shades of purple and green and yellow. She looked haggard; her hair was a mess, looked like she hadnít slept in days Ė and sheíd obviously been doing a lot of crying.
Crystal tossed the drybag into the back seat next to him as Nanci opened the right door Ė and stopped in shock to see him sitting there. "Jon!" she said. "What are you doing here?"
"Heading to Momís wedding," he said. "What did you think?"
"But . . . where have you been?" He could see the confusion on her face.
"Around," he smiled. "Sort of like Crystal."
"Come on, get in," Crystal said from the other side of the car. "Weíre burniní daylight." As Nanci got in, still a little shocked at the surprise appearance of their brother, she continued, "Michelle owes me on that one. She always said she could fit someone out from the lost and found room in ten minutes. She missed on one item, but we can do a quickie up the street at the Short Stop."
"Michelleís pretty good," Jon smiled. "What did she miss on?"
"Sanitary napkins," Crystal laughed. "Bet that doesnít happen again."
"Crystal, as long as weíre stopping," Nanci said apologetically, "can I get you to get me something to eat? I havenít had anything except a doughnut in two days."
"Yeah, sure," Crystal smiled. "Jon, we better top off the tank before we head up there, or weíre gonna pay through the nose for gas out at Marble Canyon. Why donít you fill it while we run inside?"
"Sure, can do," Jon said. "Grab me a candy bar and a bottle of iced tea while youíre at it."
In less than a minute, Crystal screeched to a stop in front of the gas pumps at a convenience store. Jon hopped out and went to fill the tank while his sisters went inside. Nanci looked a little better when she came outside with Crystal a couple of minutes later. While in there, sheíd washed her face and combed her hair, but she still looked pretty terrible. From what little he knew of what had happened to her, he still had difficulty feeling sorry for her after all the trouble sheíd caused. If she hadnít gotten their dad into a perpetual temper, well, there still might be a family back in Glen Ellyn Ė but then, he wouldnít have Tanisha, so maybe it had worked out . . .
"Get in the center in front, Nanci," Crystal said, just short of a direct order. "Jon, you ride shotgun. I gotta get a new muffler on this car next winter, and itíll be hard to talk with you in back."
"Can do," he said. "Maybe you just ought to keep the muffler and put a new car on it, then replace the muffler as soon as you can."
"I know itís an old clunker," Crystal said as she got in the driverís side. "Hell, it was an old clunker when Randy took it to college eight years ago. But it gets me around as much as I need it, and itís got a few miles left."
"Iíve been thinking about trading the Monte Carlo," Jon said as Nanci got into the center. "Maybe I could cut you a deal."
"Itís an idea, but letís not talk about it now, Bro," Crystal grinned. "Down the river someplace, maybe."
"This river trip," Nanci asked. "Itís sorta like what you used to do down there in Tennessee, isnít it?"
"Sorta," Crystal said, starting the Dodge. "The water is wet and weíre in rafts. Everything else is pretty different. Like, the trips only used to be two and a half hours on the Ocoee. Here, weíre talking two and a half weeks, although weíre cutting this one way short Ė a little under two weeks. But, letís not talk about that, either." She glanced over her shoulder; there was no traffic coming, so she punched the accelerator. "OK, look, you better not have too much to eat right now, or itíll make you puke. Have a candy bar and some tea for now. Thatíll bring your blood sugar up and youíll feel better. Then, in an hour or so, you can have something else."
"Thanks, Crystal," Nanci said quietly, fumbling with the wrapper on a candy bar. Her fingers werenít working very well, so Jon took it and opened it for her.
"Eat it slow," he said. "Stretch it out." He looked up to see that Crystal was sticking her foot in the old Dodge. That scared him a little; he was a careful driver, and she tended to push things a bit. But then, he knew that she was trying to get ahead of the bus, and sheíd have to push it.
"Thanks, Jon," she said. "I didnít think Iíd see you here."
"Just worked out that way," he said, not willing to reveal much more. "Look, Crystal didnít say much more than you were broke and beat up and youíd come to see Mom and her. You want to fill me in?"
Well over the speed limit, the old white Dodge flew north. Over the next few miles, as the Ponderosa pine forest around Flagstaff changed to the redrock of the Navajo country and the Painted Desert, Nanci told them the story, sometimes half in tears. It wasnít a happy one. Sheíd been with Kip, her boyfriend from Northern, up until the time that heíd beaten her up, then heíd been unwise enough to tangle with Crystal. Her father had leaned on her to press charges on him, and he wound up spending a year in the county jail. But, her father hadnít been much kinder, and after a while, sheíd moved out again, in with another boyfriend. There had been another boyfriend after that Ė it wasnít real clear Ė but that one had come to an end just about the time Karin had filed for divorce. When sheíd tried to go back to her father, with no other place to go, his temper had been so bad that heíd told her he didnít want to see her again Ė ever. Sheíd had to sleep in the seat of her car several nights, until sheíd thought of going to a guy named Rich, who she knew slightly.
Living with Rich had been hell, but there hadnít been any other place to go. Jon didnít get a clear picture of Rich, but apparently he drank heavily and smoked crack. Nanci had tried to stay away from it Ė pretty much with success. Rich had let her try it once or twice Ė but he had been selfish enough that he wanted all he could get for himself.
There had been a series of jobs in there, the best one working at a fast food place, but then Richís place had been raided, and Nanci had been there when it happened. She was taken to jail, although they didnít charge her Ė but when she got out, the job at the fast food place was gone, and she was back to sleeping in the car. Sheíd known Curt through Rich, and heíd taken her in. But he was no better than Rich had been Ė worse even. That hadnít lasted long. Then, like sheíd told Crystal, three days ago heíd wanted money for crack, and he knew she had some money still left from her fast-food job. While he was out, sheíd shoved what clothes she could grab quickly into shopping bags, taken her little reserve stash of money, and got in her battered Camry, now with no place to go.
"I only knew I had to get out of Chicago," she said, now in tears again. "The only thing I could think of was to find Crystal and Mom. Back about the time of the divorce, Iíd tried to call Mom at work, and Thelma told me that you were out at this rafting place, Crystal, and she thought Mom was with you but she wasnít sure." She was silent for a moment. "God knows, I didnít have any other ideas. I mean, you have every right to throw me out on my ass, after the way I treated you, but I couldnít think of anything else. After you beat up Kip for me, I thought you might help."
"What would you have done if I hadnít been here, or if Iíd thrown you out?" Crystal asked.
"I donít know," Nanci replied quietly. "I donít have any money, and I donít even have any gas left in the car. I thought about jumping out in front of a semi, but now that I know about Mom getting married again, I donít want to ruin that, too."
"Look," Crystal said, taking one hand off the wheel and putting it on Nanciís shoulder. "If it turns out you canít go on this trip, you heard what I told Michelle."
"Thanks, Crystal," Nanci nodded. "I donít deserve it, after what I did to you, but thanks."
"Whatís this?" Jon asked.
"I told Michelle that if she has to come back with Jeff, to cut her a check for five hundred out of my pay," Crystal said. "Maybe thatíll give her a stake to get started with."
"Iíll help out, if that happens," Jon said. "Iím making more than you are."
"Thanks, Jon," Crystal said. "Look, Nanci," she went on. "Yes, I was extremely pissed with you when we were at Northern. You acted like a damn fool kid, and you know it. But I was a hell of a lot more pissed with Pete, and with Mom than I ever was with you. You want to know why? Because they wouldnít take the responsibility to deal with the way you were acting, just dumped it on me and blamed me. That didnít go over real big with me. I could see they were still going to be blaming me after I brought you home from Northern, which is why I left."
Nanci shook her head. "I guess I didnít realize it at the time, but the way Dad talked afterward, especially after I got thrown out of school, I knew that was what happened. Iím sorry Crystal; I treated you like shit, just because I wanted to have a good time."
"You know what?" Crystal said. "Iíd have been perfectly willing to let you have a good time, if you hadnít been so goddamn determined to drag me down with you. Hell, that was why I didnít want you to go to Northern; I wanted to have a good time myself. Randy and I were planning on living together that fall, but we couldnít, because your dad insisted that I set a good example for you."
"I never knew that," Nanci said. "I mean, I always thought you were just being a bitch."
"Hell, I told you," Crystal snorted. "I told you I didnít care if you fucked the whole hockey team at center ice, just so I wasnít around so Pete could blame me for it. All you had to do was keep your pants on for one semester. But, thatís beside the point, and thereís no reason to dig it up again. The important thing is, you see where all your fucking around back then got you, right?"
"Yeah," she said glumly. "It got me into a world of shit. Crystal, I never dreamed it would turn out like this."
"I know," Crystal said. "You were a damn fool kid. Now, youíre paying the price."
"The hell of it is that weíve all paid the price," Jon said. "It set off a chain of events that broke up a pretty decent family, drove Crystal out, drove me out, even drove Mom out."
"Iím sorry," Nanci said, almost in tears again. "I wish there were some way that I could put things back the way they were, but I know there isnít."
He smiled. "Actually, the way things have happened, I donít think Crystal or Mom or I would want to put things back the way they were. A lot has happened since we saw you last, Nanci, and most of it has been for the good." Up ahead, he saw the bus; Crystal had indeed been flying low. They closed on it rapidly.
"Theyíre different than they would have been," Crystal said. "Not the least of them is that Randy married someone else, has a hell of a job and is living in a big new house, while Iím a river bum who doesnít get to sleep in a bed very often. And, you know what? It was hell getting here, but Iím just as glad it turned out that way."
"It almost didnít," Jon said. "Sheer dumb luck got involved there, several times. But, thatís another story."
"Yeah," Crystal sighed. "We better not get into that now, either. Maybe later, if it works out that you can go on the trip."
"You said you were real pissed with Dad and Mom," Nanci observed. "I take it youíre on good terms with her now."
"Probably the best weíve ever been," Crystal smiled. "Which is another story for another time, maybe. Yeah, I was about as pissed with her as I was with Pete, mostly for her letting him have his way when she knew he was wrong. When she showed up out here, after she told him to go to hell, we still had a lot of issues, and it wasnít easy working them all out. Jon doesnít even know about all that."
"I know more than you think," Jon said as Crystal whipped into the left lane and went flying past the bus. There was no oncoming traffic, and the road was straight, although he knew from many trips up to Leeís that it got narrow and crooked with a poor surface not much farther on. It was good to have the pass out of the way now. As they shot by, he looked up, and could see the back of Tanishaís head in the window, in an animated conversation with Myleigh and someone else. That was another angle he hadnít figured out how to bring up yet, but he was going to have to in little more than an hour, the way Crystal was driving. "Mom and I have talked about it more than once," he continued.
"The important part is that she knew sheíd made a mistake, admitted it, apologized for it, and was willing to put the past in the past while I worked out the issues I had," Crystal said. "Iíd been burned enough that it wasnít easy for me. Now, Mom and Jon and I are real good friends."
"Thatís surprising," Nanci said. "You and Jon were always on each otherís ass when we were kids."
"Nanci, I have to say that Iím better friends with Crystal now than I ever was when we were at home," Jon said. "It involves growing up, facing the real world. Now, I think what Crystal is trying to say is that youíre going to have to do the same thing. Crystal learned from Mom that the past can be put in the past. I donít have the same issues with you that Crystal has, but you sort of pissed me off secondhand. Iím willing to help you get on your feet a little, and so is Crystal. But, I donít think either of us is ready to make a habit of bailing you out all the time."
"Couldnít have said it better, Bro," Crystal grinned. "Nanci, if you really want to clean up your act and get a new start, I think itís safe to say that Jon and I will bust our butts to help, and I think Mom and Dad will, too. But, if you want to just catch your breath and pick up on the same old shit, we better know now, so I can send you back on the bus with Jeff, and you better be long gone from Flagstaff when we get back from the trip. And, Iíd better not see you again."
"Crystal, I know what happens with that old stuff. Iíve tried to get out of it for a year or more, ever since Mom left. Thatís why Iím out here. I couldnít do it in Chicago. I mean, I knew Dad wouldnít help, not after what he told me. Like I said, I havenít seen him in a year and a half, and I donít even know where he lives now. And, I donít particularly want to see him again. But, Crystal, Jon, I donít know what I can do."
"I donít either," Crystal said. "Frankly, my schedule is such that I canít be a lot of help. I get a few extra days off after the end of this trip, but then Iíll be working two and a half weeks on and then off three days until the end of November. Mom is going to be pretty busy and gone a lot, too, and Jon has plenty of time issues of his own." She sighed. "Well, maybe I got a possible idea, but itíll depend on whether you go on the trip. Jon, I think that itís gonna be your nickel and mine. What do you think? My guess is that Mom and Dad will go along with what we recommend."
"Hey, wait a minute," Nanci said, eyes open with surprise. "You mean Dad is going on this trip?"
"Get used to it, Nanci," Jon snorted. "It took me a while, too. When Crystal talks about her dad, sheís not talking about our dad."
"What?" Nanci frowned.
"Itís no big secret anymore," Crystal sighed. "Itís just one of those things that have changed since we saw you last. Hell, I donít care if Pete knows now, or what, especially after we get back from this trip. Nanci, letís just say that you werenít the only one in the family who ran a little wild when they were younger, did something a little crazy. But, it worked out in the end, and now I get to go to Dad and Momís wedding."
"But . . . but . . . you mean . . . ?" Nanci stammered.
"Yeah," Crystal grinned. "I think itís kinda neat. Thatís one of those strokes of sheer damn luck that Jon was talking about a few minutes ago."
Jon smiled. "You remember how Dad used to bitch when Crystal would do something crazy Ė like storm surfing on Lake Superior Ė that Crystal had to be Momís daughter, since no daughter of his would act like that?"
"Yeah . . . " Nanci said, eyes wide. "He used to say that a lot."
"He was right," Crystal grinned. "Mom never told him, of course. Mom and Jon and I have talked it over a lot, and we pretty well agree thatís why he was such an asshole toward me, especially after I got bigger than him and started doing all the outdoor adventure stuff. He somehow could sense that something wasnít right, but couldnít put his finger on it. I think thatís why he didnít mind trashing me while he was sticking up for you, when we were up at Northern. That has something to do with why I accepted Momís apology, and I can consider accepting yours. But, it also means I donít have any reason to accept his."
"Youíre still pissed, arenít you?" Jon said.
"Youíre damn right," Crystal said. "I mean, if he were to show up out here, I could be civil to him, but heíd have to be civil to me. He doesnít have that in him, not after the way he treated you two. But, thatís not my issue anymore. If you two ever get back in touch with him, youíll have to be the ones to deal with it."
"And, he wonít be civil to me," Jon said.
"We know that, Bro," Crystal said sadly. "Anyway, what do you think we ought to tell Mom and Dad about taking Nanci on the trip?"
"Can I put off answering until the bus gets in?" he asked.
"Sure," Crystal smiled, understanding him perfectly. "I could stop and flag Jeff down, if you like."
Jon thought hard. He realized that heíd finally come to the conclusion that he didnít much care anymore if his dad found out about Tanisha, whether it was through Nanci, or any other way. He knew Pete would no more accept Tanisha than he would Crystal Ė and had known that since the first time heíd taken Tanisha in his arms and kissed her. For years, there had been a little hope that he and his father could at least be civil again Ė if his dad didnít know about her Ė but sheíd now become far more important to him. It wouldnít matter now, if he did know; the gulf between them was too wide and too painful. At one time, it would have mattered, but in the year and a half since Crystal had come knocking on his door, theyíd gone a long way toward building a new family and friends who accepted his wife for what she was.
But, that still left the question of how Nanci would react to Tanisha, and he couldnít figure out any way of sticking his toe in the water before jumping in. But he still had an hour Ė well, less than that, the way Crystal was driving. Maybe he could think of something. On the other hand, how Nanci reacted would obviously affect his recommendation. "Yeah," he said thoughtfully. "Maybe weíd better settle that part of it before we talk to Mom."
* * *
"Now what the hell?" Tanisha heard Jeff say from the driverís seat. She turned around from the discussion she was having with Myleigh and looked; Crystalís white Dodge was sitting at the side of the road, blinker lights flashing, front doors wide open. Crystal and Jon were standing on either side of the car, waving their arms.
"Iíll bet she finally blew that thing up," Randy commented. "I never figured itíd last this long when I gave it to her in the first place."
"She drives like sheís in a race," Tanisha laughed, as Jeff began to slow the bus, to come to a stop behind the white car.
Jon and Crystal came over to the door as Jeff opened it. "Tanisha, come on," she heard her husband call.
"Coming," she said, understanding that a decision had been made up in the white car. "See you on the river, Myleigh."
"Good luck," Myleigh told her.
Jon met her at the step, even before she got off the bus. "Tani, I decided that Nanci needs to know about us before we tell Mom whether we think she should go," he said briefly. "I havenít said anything about us. Just to be on the safe side, donít say anything about where weíre living or what weíre doing."
"I understand," Tanisha said as she stepped down. "The jury is still out, right?"
"You got it," he said, as they headed for the car.
"Thanks for stopping, Jeff," Crystal said. "See you at Leeís." She turned to Jon and Tanisha. "Guess you two better sit in back. Weíll just have to talk loud." Jon headed for the right back seat, while Tanisha headed for the left. She got in, to see the small blonde girl, black eye and bruises showing, staring at her.
"Jon, whatís this all about?" Nanci asked as he got in and closed the door, while Crystal slid back behind the steering wheel.
"Nanci," he grinned, taking Tanishaís hand over Nanciís drybag, between them. "Crystal and I told you that a lot of things have changed since we saw you last. Iíd like you to meet your sister-in-law, Tanisha."
"Wow!" she exclaimed, eyes wide, as she squirmed sideways in the seat to be able to talk over the seat back. "You got married! When did this happen?"
"Two years ago, in a few days," Tanisha told her with a smile at her husband. "This is sort of an anniversary trip for us. Weíve actually been together for four years, and that anniversary comes on this trip, too."
"Hey, thatís neat!" she said, with a little smile. "Tanisha, Iím Nanci."
"Jonís told me about you," she replied, trying to be friendly. Myleigh and Randy had been giving her a refresher course on the bus, but obviously they didnít know the little bit that Crystal had told her in the parking lot at Canyon Tours. She took another look at her; yes, she showed signs of having been badly beaten up; she reminded Tanisha of a dog with its tail between its legs, hoping that it wouldnít get beaten any more.
"Jon," Nanci said in a questioning voice, "does Dad Ė I mean, our dad Ė know about this?"
"What do you think?" he snorted. "Not that it matters either way, now." Tanisha knew that the message was meant for her, just as much as it was for Nanci. Nanciís words told her that the secret about Crystal, Karin, and Al had been revealed.
"Yeah, I guess," Nanci said thoughtfully. "But, hey, congratulations, you two."
Tanisha could feel Jonís hand loosen its grip; she gave it a quick squeeze, and relaxed her own. He gave her a quick squeeze back. In that wordless communication, they agreed that Nanci had passed that test.
"Thanks, Nanci," Tanisha grinned. "I think your brother is a pretty special guy."
Crystal hurried the Dodge north, slowly leaving the bus behind, pushing hard on roads that werenít very good pavement. The road was more narrow and crooked now, running through a desert with scattered brush, much of the way through a valley with steep red walls and lots of talus slopes lying at the bottom. Here and there were tiny villages Ė they were going through the Navajo reservation now Ė and in several places along the road were collections of rude souvenir stands, mostly empty. Tanisha had seen them before, and it was familiar, if sad, at how poor some of these people were Ė yet how proud they could be. She didnít think about it much on this trip though, nor look at the spectacular scenery.
By the time they reached the twin spans of Navajo Bridge, it was clear that the color difference between Jon and her wasnít going to be an issue with Nanci . . . but there were plenty of other problems. Sheíd always been impressed with Jon, for his intellect, his brilliance, for a lot of things, and especially his loyalty to her. Sheíd first met Crystal long before, but had only known her well for a year and a half Ė and had been impressed with her in her own way. Nanci, she soon discerned, was different Ė she didnít have the pride, the strength that her brother and half sister possessed in abundance. That worried her; it hinted at more problems ahead Ė but she was a human being, too, a hurting one, and Tanisha knew, just like Jon and Crystal had apparently figured out, that it was going to be hard for any of them to turn their backs on her.