The girl's hair is a darkness unravelled. She's slight. There's a look in her eyes like she's haunted and leaving everything behind. She fights at school for unknown reasons and she's quiet at home. She won't listen to her father and she skips class to walk in the woods and sit alone in some unfound place. Where she will stare at a photograph showing her likeness. A dark-haired woman with sad eyes and a brave smile. A man with his face in shadow, hat pulled forward in a mysterious slant. A pistol at his hip. Face long gone and grave.
At age sixteen, Gus and Dolls tell her the truth about her parents' deaths. Their faces are hollowed with regret. She stares into their faces, begging them with her eyes. Demands of them to explain why they didn't tell her earlier. Their words are reasoned; protective; but her anger is the bleakness of the howling mid-winter snow. She won't come home for a week. When she does, she's meek; worn out from the grief. She forgives them instantly, asks the same in return. Tries to restart her life knowing who she is, and becomes a young woman in that instant.
She no longer picks fights with every young man in town. Instead, she asks for Waverly's old books, and starts from the beginning. She reads everything she's given; finishes them in a year. Applies for college. She leaves behind the anger that pulls up her fists and makes her unloosen them into the faces of the men who try to follow her around. She asks Christine to teach her to fight without hurting anyone. She takes a job waitressing and saves to buy a motorcycle, the feel of the engine under her a memory she doesn't know why she has.
She graduates early, and at the top of her class. The old, worn-out photograph of her parents is tucked carefully into the right pocket of her jeans underneath her gown. A photograph of her aunts is folded into the left pocket. As she takes her diploma into her hand, Dolls and Gus and Randy and Chrissy and Christine are whooping, impossibly loud, from the audience. Her grin shy; proud. After the ceremony, she stands in the warm circle made by their bodies and she looks into Nedley's face; nods at him. He stares back, smiling, his face pure pleasure, satisfied.
She leaves Purgatory for her training and throws every part of herself into the academy. She takes each optional class offered to her. She offers to lead a judo class and teaches two times a week in the training hall, the musical smack of bodies onto mats calming her. She learns to understand the breathing of the city, accumulating its patterns and rhythms into her body, while knowing at the same time that she'll never live in one again. She thinks about Purgatory all the time; the bleakness of the hills; the jut of the mountains against a cavernous sky. She misses Gus's food and Nedley's gentle smile. She gets homesick in a true, visceral wave. She calls Dolls every evening from a park bench, away from the eyes of her classmates. She waits, alone on the bench until her eyes are no longer red, and returns to her dorm.
Her sleep is fretful. She either remembers nothing at all, the night a blank void, or she has dreams that endure into the late afternoon. She sees her parents, alive. Sometimes they're fighting revenants; sometimes they're smiling at one another. She sees everyone she's never met and knows in the dreams that she misses them anyway. She sees Waverly, her body turning away, and feels the edges of a life that never was. Nicole is always there, even when she can't see her. Sometimes she sees a man in a bow tie. Snow falling and the awful itch of summer.
On her twenty-seventh birthday, she rests her hat on the table and calls up the stairs. She walks to the fridge and pulls out two bottles of beer, gripping both in the fingers of one hand while she finds the bottle opener. She flicks the lids off and walks through the main room, waiting for Dolls to appear in the doorway, handing him one of the beers. She meets his smile with her own grin, and takes a gulp of the beer, settling into her favorite chair. She feels behind her for her mother's cushion, pulling it onto her lap.
She looks at his familiar face; takes in the broad expanse of his shoulders; the loving lines at the corners of his eyes. She tells him about the cases that have made up her week, every person she's spoken to, every small thing Nedley has taught her. She can hear her father saying her name, Alice Michelle, even though he's quiet, sitting still in front of her. She can feel her parents, never quiet, doing the same thing. She can feel the world getting smaller and warmer, and she can feel the place she knows she will one day find.
Nicole stands in front of a door. She knows before she looks down that there's snow under her feet. A deep, clean cold all around her. The breath in her lungs is a sharp pleasure of frozen air, and she breathes out, hard, watching the plume of warmth flood over her vision until it gets lost in the coldness. The summer no more. She looks up, reading the word above the door, Perkatory, and smiles. She knows what's on the other side. The ground aligning under her feet. Everything in its place. Her memory fully alive and fully intact, returned.
Her body, free of pain, recognizing every small part of the world without ever having seen it before. She can feel Waverly on the other side of the door. She can close her eyes and see a young, dark-haired woman sitting on the porch of the homestead. Alive and free.