It didn’t escape Gabriel’s attention that Lennon slid away from him slightly. She couldn’t escape him completely; they were in the last row of the van and only had a few inches separating them. Her head was turned to the right, staring blankly out at I-70 as they whizzed by. The highway swung through the entire state of Missouri. Out here, it was only two lanes on either side.
“Hmm?” She turned her head to look at him. “Yeah?”
“When was the last time you were in KC?”
She blew some air out of her mouth, making her loose forelocks blow up into the air for a millisecond. “When I got here. Can’t say I really saw much except the airport and the train station.”
“Columbia’s smaller, but still, it’s a city. Gerry and our sister and I grew up there.”
“Oh, yeah?” Len replied. Her eyes glimmered with some interest and the sides of her mouth relaxed. “I didn’t know that.”
“You never asked,” he replied. “Sam’s in college in CoMo. She’s working.”
“What’s her major?”
“Psych,” Gabriel said. “She’s obviously the practical one in the family.”
“Yeah, the smart one,” Gerry said from his seat, craning his neck back to see them. “Dad had a heart attack when Gabe didn’t become a teacher.”
“Did he really expect you to be a teacher?” Len asked quietly.
“To a point,” Gabe said. “I’d finished my student teaching. I did some assistant teaching stuff at a high school out in the suburbs—”
“Yeah. It obviously didn’t stick,” he replied. “Teaching will always be there, if need be.” Lennon nodded. He leaned toward her, making his seatbelt work, and whispered, “So what’s bothering you? Is it this?”
“Is it what?” she replied.
“This.” He purposely blew warm air into her ear. Her head angled away from his again. “Sorry.”
“You’re not sorry,” she said.
“Yeah, you’re right, I’m not,” Gabriel said playfully. “Baby, what’s wrong?” He trailed a finger down her cheek, but received no answer.
A half-hour later, Lennon spoke to him again, directing a question to him.
“Hey Gabe? Why are there so many billboards for strip clubs?”
“I really don’t know,” he replied. “It’s a boring ass highway otherwise.”
They sailed into Columbia in time for lunch. Lennon’s eyes remained focused on the scenery. From across the seat, Gabriel noticed that she seemed more alert as they snaked through the city on the way to the club, to drop off the equipment. Her head moved to and fro, looking at the unfamiliar place. No matter what she said, Len was an urban girl. She’d be gone soon, back to her real life, and one day, maybe she’d tell her kids stories about the people she met over a summer in rural Missouri.
They stopped at the venue first, where Gerry and Gabriel unloaded guitar cases and an amp into the back of the club. Duty discharged, they had a few hours until Gabriel needed to be back at the club for sound check.
“Where are we meeting Sam?” Gerry asked, once they were back in the car.
“On campus,” Gabriel replied. “By the columns.”
“Columns?” Len repeated.
“You’ll see,” he said.
The University of Missouri, Columbia was a huge campus that took up nearly three miles of land just shy of downtown. Jim parked and they all got out of the car and walked.
There were six graying columns in a row in the middle of the quad. Behind the columns was the edifice of Jesse Hall, with its tall, classical white dome. Jesse Hall was a rambling, colonial-style red-and-white building, classical in its proportions. The main part of the structure, under the dome, branched out into two wings. The dome had a spire on top, poking up into the flawless blue sky.
When Gabriel thought of the word “university,” Jesse Hall came to mind. The quad that the hall faced was large and had paths landscaped through it, with thick green grass growing in the center. The students milling around the quad ignored them, going on with their usual activities. The academic year hadn’t officially started yet and the crowd was thinner than on other visits Gabriel had made. He didn’t see his sister.
Lennon was walking beside him, nearly in step. She was holding a hand above her eyes, blocking the bright August sunlight.
When they stopped on the path near the columns, Len looked up at him and asked about the columns and why they were standing in the middle of the quad.
“They were part of Academic Hall,” Gabriel began, reciting the story by heart. Until he’d broken tradition and went off to the University of Chicago, his entire family had attended Mizzou. His parents had met while attending the university. “The building burned down, but the columns were fine. They left them there as a memorial.”
“That’s because they had room to leave them,” Len said.
“Does your alma mater have anything like that?” He asked. He didn’t know much about Lennon’s college.
“No, no line of ionic columns,” She quipped. “No real campus. But we did have a restored working theater. It’s beautiful. It was red inside with gold molding. You half expect the Phantom of the Opera to appear there.” She smiled. He recognized it as a genuine smile on her part, slow and simmering to appear, with dimples in both cheeks.
“I got to work in there a few times,” Stacey called to them. “That place was beautiful.”
“Did y’all have a quad?” Gerry asked.
“No. But we had the Esplanade and the Common,” Stacey replied. “The Common’s beautiful this time of year.”
“The Swan Boats are out, Stace,” Len said to her friend. Looking up at him, her neck bending back at a sharp angle, Len told him, “The Public Garden has a pond and there are these boats with fake swans on the front and tourists get on them. You know it’s spring when you see those.”
“Or when you almost get run over by the Duck Boats,” Stacey chimed in.
Len kept looking at him, with her neck bent backwards. Her hand came up to her forehead again, acting as a visor.
“You’ll get a crick in your neck doing that, Lucy,” he remarked.
“It’s your fault for being tall,” she flipped back. He slouched first, bent at the knees and slid down to bring him closer to her height. “You dork. You’ll hurt your back.”
He gave her a loud, smacking kiss on the cheek and popped back up to his full height.
“Gerry!” Gabriel heard Sam’s voice calling to them. A moment later, Sam was tackling her younger brother. Samantha was three years older than Gerry, four years younger than Gabriel, and as befitted the middle child, she looked nothing like either of her brothers. Sam’s face was rounder and she had a button nose. But, like Gerry, Sam had long, wavy nearly black hair and like Gabriel, she’d gotten the blue eyes.
Sam let go of Gerry and ran to Gaberiel, throwing her arms around him effusively. “Hey bro!” Standing side by side, Sam’s head came up to above his shoulder.
“Hi Sammy,” he replied, hugging her.
“Who are your friends?” Sam asked him, before turning away. “Jimmy Larkin!”
“Samantha Lee Harris!” Jimmy exclaimed.
“I hear you’re back in Landslide,” Sam said.
“Yup. You’re looking at the new drama teacher at Truman-Landslide High,” Jimmy laughed a little.
“Well, good luck with that,” Sam replied. “Ugh, Landslide.” She pretended to shudder. Sam had left home as soon as she’d been accepted into the university and didn’t return terribly often, even less so than Gabriel did until eight months ago. And Sam lived in the same state. “Hi Mary.”
“Hi Sam,” Mary said quietly, a sweet smile crossing her face.
“Sam, this is Stacey Meissner. She’s a friend and works at the Tallis,” Gabriel introduced the women. “She got the lead for the August show.”
“Oh, wow! That’s so awesome!”
“And this is Lennon McKinney. She runs the Tallis these days.”
“I run it clerically,” Len replied with a smile.
“I run the psych department clerically,” Sam said with a laugh. “All right. Are we getting food or are we getting food?” She spun around and led them all down one of the wide paths out of the quad.
Snaking her arm around his, Sam questioned him, quietly, “Is she your girlfriend?”
“No,” Gabe answered. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Lennon talking to Stacey and Gerry. He heard the crack of her laughter.
“You like her,” Sam said.
“Are you sleeping with her?”
“What?” Sam asked, irritated. “I love you, Gabe, but you’re a moody bastard when you haven’t gotten any.”
“I’m going to pretend that I’m not having this discussion with my little sister,” Gabriel responded. Sam’s grip on his arm tightened.
“Is she the one?” Sam asked. He glanced down to see her arch an eyebrow in irony. “It’s been, what? Eight, nine months? Nearly a year. That doesn’t qualify as a rebound.”
“Guess not,” Gabe answered.
“Are you over her?”
Licking his lips, he nodded. “I’ve been talking to Seb again, making some plans.”
“Good,” Sam said, blue eyes flooding with contentment. “You’re also a miserable ass when you haven’t played in a long time. So…what’s keeping you two apart, huh?”
“About?” Sam whispered.
“I’m not sure. I intend to find out.” Letting out a sigh, he added, “She’s going back home soon.” Sam gave him a pat on the back and let go of his arm.
Sam led them to one of the many on-campus bookstores. Mary’s older sister worked at that particular one and she and Gerry went to the textbook section to seek her out.
“Here. I’ll get this for you,” Gabriel told Lennon, placing a black with gold lettering baseball cap over her long hair, which she’d worn loose today. Len pulled it off and looked at the front, where “Missouri” was emblazoned on the front.
“Consider it proof that you lived here,” Gabe said.
“It’ll look nice next to my Yankees cap,” she said. He winced. “What? At least my Yankees are doing well. What’s with your Royals, huh?”
“Let’s agree to disagree on baseball teams, ok?” He said, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet.
“I can pay for it on my own, Ricky,” Lennon said, tucking the cap on her head after adjusting it. “How does it look?”
“Perfect,” he replied. Against the black cap, Lennon’s long, wavy tresses looked brown, smoothly streaming down her neck and shoulders. She liked wearing black, he remembered. “And no, I’m getting it. Don’t argue.”
“Go Royals!” Lennon said facetiously, with an impish smile. “Or is Columbia Cardinals country?”
“Debatable,” Gabriel replied. “I say it’s harder to love the Royals, but it’s hard to love many things.”
“Like the Mets,” Len replied, wrinkling her nose. He walked toward the register, pulling the cap off of her head.
“If you’re from Queens, how did you become a Yankee fan? I mean, going by territory, shouldn’t you be a Mets fan?”
“It’s not about geography,” Lennon answered. “It’s about…city identity. The Yanks have been around longer. They’re iconic. They represent the entire city to me, not just dinky little Queens.”
“They win more,” Gabriel put in.
“True. Dat.” Lennon shot back, watching as he handed the cap to the cashier to ring up. “Plus, I look better with a navy blue cap. Orange and blue don’t really do it for me.”
Gabriel handed the cashier a twenty-dollar bill.
“Now you can go back to New York and be mistaken for a tourist.”
Lennon grinned. “Yeah, I probably will be mistaken for a tourist.” She clapped a hand on her forehead and muttered, “Oh, shit.”
“Lucy?” Gabe asked, taking the bag with her cap in it off the counter.
“I just said ‘tewer-ist’. Holy fuck. It took me at least four months to pick up a Boston accent!”
“How do you say tourist in New Yorker?” He asked, walking toward the front of the store.
“Now say something in Bostonian.”
“Uh…” She bit her lip. “Get on the T, take the green line up to Pahk Street and transfer to the ah-range line.” To Gabriel’s unknowing ears—the only time he’d come close to hearing a Boston accent was in movies or on TV—it sounded perfect.
“Why aren’t you an actress, Lennon McKinney?”
“The thought of being the center of attention at all is wicked frightening. I don’t know how you and Stacey do that kind of thing. Gives me the willies.” Len reached into the bag and pulled out her new baseball cap, adjusting the Velcro on the back.
“I’ve never been afraid of being in front of a crowd,” he thought aloud. “But put me alone in a one-on-one sich and I get fuckin’ twitchy.”
Lennon snorted, tugging the cap on her head. “Liar.”
“You look beautiful.”
Once again, this time with her eyes hidden by the brim, she said, slowly, “Liar.”