They leave New Mexico without looking back. The stormclouds follow them, heavy dark things, flashing with lightning. Ruth thinks if she looked in the mirror, she'd see the colors bold and bright against the thunderous gray.
She doesn't look back.
They drive east, leaving the sun and Bo and Dean and everything behind them. Ruth doesn't have a plan - she's never had a plan, beyond making it through another day - except to put as many miles as she can between Lilah and the government agents that have taken Bo.
She glances at her daughter, gone quiet now that the initial panic has passed. Lilah sleeps, forehead pressed to the window. Ruth itches to run a hand through her hair, to assure herself that her baby breathes, that they're going to be okay. There's a rumble of thunder, a great reverberating noise in the flat and dusty desert, and she forces herself to look back to the road. The dark clouds, heavy with rain, the kind that were rare even before the drought, have overtaken them and threaten to spill open at the slightest provocation. A streak of lightning flashes in the middle distance.
A handful of fat drops on the windshield is the only warning she gets before the deluge comes. Rain falls in torrents, heavier and harder than the rain they witnessed in town. Ruth can't see more than three feet in front of her, the wipers no good against the sheets of rain. She pulls over to wait it out.
Another flash of lightning sears her vision, painting a stripe across her eyelids as she blinks. A crack of thunder follows, rattling the dashboard. Lilah wakes and stretches, her eyes wide at the sight of the storm.
"How long will it last?" she asks, voice full of wonder. She hasn't seen rain before today, Ruth remembers suddenly. It hasn't rained since the flood.
Ruth grips the steering wheel, refusing to succumb to her memories. "I don't know," she says at last. "I don't know."
They have to stop for gas in Texas, in some tiny town in the northern panhandle. The sky is the strange green that threatens hail and funnel clouds. Ruth keeps one eye on the gas meter and one on the clouds. She knows they're tied to her, to her power, to the colors, to Lilah, but she doesn't know how to control them. They sit like a presence in the back of Ruth's mind, waiting. She thinks if she could just learn to control them, if she had that innate sense that Lilah and Bo and all the women before them had, she could fix things. She could mend what's broken in the world and in herself.
Lilah slams out of the gas station in a whirl of noise and color, startling Ruth from her thoughts. "How much further to the airport?" she asks, breathless with energy now that she's slept and the immediate danger is over. "When are we leaving for Rome?"
The gas pump cuts off, and Ruth ushers Lilah into the cab. She pulls her atlas out from under her seat. "Bo told me once that her family came from Georgia," she says, opening the atlas to the page with all of the states. "Long ago, too many generations back, a grandmother came from Africa and was sold to a plantation there. Her children and her children's children were born there, and when the war came, some of them left, but some of them stayed. Bo's great-great grandmother went west, with a man she'd loved, but her sister stayed behind." The story Bo told her was more complicated than that, but Ruth doesn't remember all of it. She hopes Simona will know the rest and can tell it to Lilah.
Lilah leans over and looks at the map with her. Ruth traces her fingers over New Mexico and Texas, Oklahoma and Arkanasas, following the line of I-40 east across the Mississippi and into Tennessee. Her fingers dip south into Georgia.
"There," Ruth says. "Rome."
The rain comes down in buckets in Arkansas, just across the river from Memphis. That night, the Mississippi floods its banks for the first time in half a century. "Haven't seen anything like it since I was your age," the old man at the hotel tells Lilah while counting out their change. "Knew it was coming though. Could feel it in my bones."
"I knew it, too," Lilah tells him seriously. "It's been raining since we left Bo."
Ruth tenses without meaning to, waiting for the flash of suspicion and fear to pass over the man's face. She thought Bo had taught Lilah the importance of discretion, had taught her not to talk to or trust strangers, but clearly the lesson didn't stick, even after everything.
The old man hums and shakes his head as he hands over their room key. "They said on the radio it's a big front. Sweeping across the whole country. Anybody going anywhere is liable to get caught up in it. The flood walls're holding for now, but there's some worry they won't last. It's been so long since they were needed. If you're crossing the river, be careful. Stay away from still water; it's likely to be deep. If you get caught in it, don't panic. Only thing you can do then is try to keep your head above the water. Stay calm, you'll be alright."
Ruth smiles, or tries to, and thanks him. Lilah looks like she wants to ask more questions about the flooding, but Ruth ushers her away. Some questions don't need to be answered.
The truck breaks down twenty miles outside of Nashville, coming to a slow stop with a guttural sound and steam rising from under the hood. They're rapidly running out of daylight. The rain has cleared off, turning into a fine gold-tinged mist as the sun sets. Ruth finds a flashlight in the glovebox, but the batteries are dead, crusty with corrosion - and it's too far to walk in the dark.
She's about to suggest that they hunker down in the cab for the night when headlights appear in the growing dark to the east. The car passes them, slows, and pulls a U-turn, coming to a gentle stop ten feet from the truck's tail.
"Y'all need a lift somewhere? We ain't expecting more rain, but it's supposed to get down into the forties tonight."
Ruth looks at Lilah, too young to wear dark smudges under her eyes. She considers the truck, still steaming, considers the Buick with its driver waiting patiently. "Lilah," she says, "get your bag."
Doris' drawl is as thick as the molasses she puts in the cookies she bakes after insisting on feeding them dinner. She looks like a woman out of time, her hair done up in an elaborate bouffant that adds three inches to her height. She barely stops talking long enough to breathe from the time Ruth and Lilah climb into her car until she and Ruth make the bed in the guest room.
"Y'all sleep tight, and I'll get Herb to take a look at your car in the morning," she says with a brusqueness born of busyness, halfway down the hall before Ruth can muster up a thank-you.
In the morning, as promised, Herb - the local autoshop owner and, apparently, Doris' beau - has more than looked at the truck; he's replaced the radiator hose and the battery, topped off the oil and the wiper fluid, and filled the gas tank.
They're another hour east of Nashville before Lilah discovers the shiny new flashlight tucked in the glovebox with extra batteries.
They hit the Tennessee-Georgia border at Chattanooga, and Lilah begs to go to Rock City. Since Arkansas, they've passed countless barns with their fading exhortions to SEE ROCK CITY, Lilah reading out the words each time. "Seven states," she tells Ruth breathlessly. "That's like seeing all the way to the other side of the world!"
Ruth considers her choices. They're less than a hundred miles from their destination - no more than two hours from the promise of answers to so many questions - and if they push through now, they'll get there well before sunset. She glances at Lilah, whose eyes are so big, so full of hope, the thought of seven states at once so incredible that it has pushed all the weariness and fear of the last week out of her mind.
"Find our exit," Ruth tells her, nodding at the atlas shoved in the footwell.
Lilah pumps a fist in the air, jubilant, and scrambles to dig out the map.
Officially, the gardens are closed - have been for years, the drought taking its toll here, just as it has everywhere else - but the road up Lookout Mountain is still driveable. The houses along the way are abandoned, many of them burned out by the forest fires that have ravaged the area. Ruth pulls into the gravel parking lot, and Lilah is out of the truck like a shot, already headed for the cracked cement walkway.
They pick their way up the path to Lover's Leap. It's the first truly clear day they've had since the rain began. Lilah traces her fingers over the plaque with its arrows pointing toward the seven states before lying down on it and staring across the distance as if she could pinpoint the exact place where one state ends and the next begins.
Ruth doesn't count the minutes they spend at Rock City, too entranced by her daughter's fascination with the kitschy, overgrown tourist trap. They walk the uneven stone trails, holding their breath through Fat Man's Squeeze and giggling at the Gnome Valley. By the time they finish exploring the park, the sky has grown dark and the air cool. Ruth sends a silent thank-you to Herb for the flashlight that they use to make their way back to the truck.
Neither of them want to make the drive back down the mountain in the dark, so Ruth digs the old horse blankets out from behind the seats. They smell musty, but no worse than anything else they've brought with them. She lays them out in the bed of the truck. It won't be the most comfortable night's rest, but there are worse ways to sleep in the rough.
Lilah climbs up and kicks off her shoes, lying back to stare at the sky. Ruth joins her and looks skyward too. The stars are out, the great big sky full of them. They seem brighter than Ruth remembers them being when she was Lilah's age, the lights twinkling at them from millions of miles away. If she closes her eyes and opens them again, she imagines she can see them change colors.