June 16, 1996
At the edge of the creek a willow’s tapered leaves floated on the gentle current. The water was cloudy with mud from the previous day’s rain but Stephanie’s horse, Juniper, drank thirstily. Her father’s horse watched from a distance. Nearby there was a small pebbly beach where Stephanie and her younger brothers could launch canoes and inner tubes. Stephanie sometimes even went swimming, although yesterday she’d had a bad scare, one that she hadn’t been able to shake off. She had come down to the creek by herself, riding Juniper without a saddle. It had been hot, in the nineties, and the water was so clear she could see straight to the bottom. She didn’t have her suit with her so she went in wearing her clothes, a lightweight T-shirt and shorts. The swim was as refreshing as she’d imagined, but when she mounted Juniper, he reared up in surprise at her wet clothes and then bolted toward the woods, trying to throw her. It took less than a minute to subdue him, but as Stephanie realized what a fragile thing her body really was, time slowed down in a way that seemed almost supernatural, the seconds stretching to accommodate 2 Hannah Gersen her fear. She didn’t tell her parents what happened, afraid they would stop letting her go for solo rides. She loved to go out on her own, loved the calm that descended as she meandered along the wooded trails that surrounded the farm. But it was also nice to be with her father, to have him to herself for a while; it felt like it had been months, maybe years, since they’d spent time together, just the two of them. Stephanie had deliberately distanced herself, wanting to become more independent, needing to be more independent, in light of her mother’s dependence on her. She’d thought her father would take over after she left for college, but instead it seemed that Robbie would. He was at that age—the age when you begin to look offstage, to wonder what’s going on behind the scenes of family life.
Her father rode one of the newer horses, a palomino whose sandy silver mane matched her father’s graying blond hair.
Beneath the black dye, Stephanie’s hair was as light as her father’s, though technically he was her stepfather; he had married Stephanie’s mother when Stephanie was four. Every once in a while it would occur to Stephanie that she and her father were not related and she would wonder what her life would be like if her real father had lived. But her real father was not so real to her. He was a man in a posed photograph in her mother’s frilly wedding album.
“That tree’s going to fall soon.” Her father pointed toward the willow whose trailing branches hung over the water. “It’s going to stop up everything.” Its trunk leaned at a forty-five-degree angle, the roots clinging like fingers to the banks.