Read The Lincoln Highway Online
Authors: Amor Towles
As Emmett was taking in the disorder, a ten-year-old boy with glasses who had noticed him, tugged at the sleeve of one of the older boys. Looking up at Emmett, the older boy signaled a peer. Without exchanging a word, the two advanced shoulder to shoulder in order to place themselves between Emmett and the others.
Emmett raised both of his hands in peace.
—I’m not here to bother you. I’m just looking for my friend. The one who brought the jam.
The two older boys stared at Emmett in silence, but the boy with the glasses pointed in the direction of the hallway.
—He went the way he came.
Emmett left the room and doubled back to the landing. He was about to head down the stairs when from the opposite hallway he heard the muted sound of a woman shouting, followed by the pounding of a fist on wood. Emmett paused, then proceeded to the hallway, where he found two doors with tilted chairs tucked under the knobs. The shouting and pounding were coming from behind the first one.
—Open this door right this minute!
When Emmett removed the chair and opened the door, a woman in her forties wearing a long white nightgown nearly fell into the hallway. Behind her, Emmett could see another woman sitting on a bed weeping.
—How dare you! the pounder shouted, once she had regained her footing.
Emmett ignored her and went to the second door to remove the second chair. Inside this room was a third woman kneeling beside her bed in prayer and an older woman sitting peacefully in a high-back chair smoking a cigarette.
—Ah! she said when she saw Emmett. How good of you to open the door. Come in, come in.
As the older woman tamped out her cigarette in the ashtray that was in her lap, Emmett took a step forward uncertainly. But even as he did so, the sister from the first room came in behind him.
—How dare you! she shouted again.
—Sister Berenice, said the older woman. Why are you raising your voice at this young man? Can’t you see that he is our liberator?
The weeping sister now came into the room still in tears, and the older woman turned to address the one who was kneeling.
—Compassion before prayers, Sister Ellen.
—Yes, Sister Agnes.
Sister Ellen rose from her place beside the bed and took the weeping sister in her arms, saying,
Hush hush hush
, while Sister Agnes turned her attention back to Emmett.
—What is your name, young man?
—Well, Emmett Watson, perhaps you can illuminate us as to what has been transpiring here at St. Nicholas’s this morning.
Emmett felt a strong inclination to turn and walk out the door, but his inclination to answer Sister Agnes was stronger.
—I was driving a friend to the bus station in Omaha and he asked me to stop. He said he used to live here. . . .
All four sisters were looking at Emmett keenly now, the crying sister no longer crying and the hushing sister no longer hushing. The shouting sister was no longer shouting, but she took a threatening step toward Emmett.
used to live here?
—His name is Duchess. . . .
—Ha! she exclaimed, turning to Sister Agnes. Didn’t I tell you we hadn’t seen the last of him! Didn’t I say that he would return some day to perpetrate some final act of mischief!
Ignoring Sister Berenice, Sister Agnes looked toward Emmett with an expression of gentle curiosity.
—But tell me, Emmett, why did Daniel lock us in our rooms? To what end?
—Well?! demanded Sister Berenice.
Shaking his head, Emmett gestured in the direction of the dormitories.
—As best as I can tell, he got me to stop so that he could bring the boys some jars of strawberry jam.
Sister Agnes let out a sigh of satisfaction.
—There. You see, Sister Berenice? What our little Daniel has returned to perpetrate is an act of charity.
Whatever Duchess was perpetrating, thought Emmett, this little diversion had already set them back thirty minutes; and he sensed that if he hesitated now, they might be stuck here for hours.
—Well then, he said as he backed toward the door, if everything’s all right . . .
—No, wait, said Sister Agnes, extending her hand.
Once in the hallway, Emmett moved quickly to the landing. With the voices of the sisters rising behind him, he dashed down the staircase, back through the dining room, and out the kitchen door, feeling a general sense of relief.
He was halfway down the hillside before he noticed that Billy was sitting on the grass with his backpack at his side and his big red book in his lap—while Duchess, Woolly, and the Studebaker were nowhere to be seen.
—Where’s the car? Emmett said breathlessly, when he reached his brother.
Billy looked up from his book.
—Duchess and Woolly borrowed it. But they’re going to bring it back.
—Bring it back after what?
—After they go to New York.
For a moment Emmett stared at his brother, at once dumbfounded and irate.
Sensing that something was wrong, Billy offered his assurance.
—Don’t worry, he said. Duchess promised they’d be back by the eighteenth of June, leaving us plenty of time to get to San Francisco by the Fourth of July.
Before Emmett could respond, Billy was pointing at something behind him.
—Look, he said.
Turning, Emmett saw the figure of Sister Agnes descending the hill, the hem of her long black habit billowing behind her as if she were floating on air.
—You mean the Studebaker?
Emmett was standing alone in Sister Agnes’s office talking to Sally on the phone.
—Yes, he said. The Studebaker.
—And Duchess took it?
There was silence on the other end of the line.
—I don’t understand, she said. Took it where?
—To New York.
—New York, New York?
—Yes. New York, New York.
. . .
—And you’re in Lewis.
—I thought you were going to California. Why are you nearly in Lewis? And why is Duchess on his way to New York?
Emmett was beginning to regret having called Sally. But what choice had he had?
—Look, Sally, none of that matters right now. What matters is that I’ve got to get my car back. I called the depot in Lewis and apparently an eastbound train stops there later today. If I catch it, I can beat Duchess to New York, retrieve the car, and be back in Nebraska by Friday. The reason I’m calling is that in the meantime I need someone to take care of Billy.
—Then why didn’t you say so.
After giving Sally directions and hanging up Sister Agnes’s phone, Emmett looked out the window and found himself thinking of the day that he’d been sentenced.
Before heading into the courthouse with his father, Emmett had taken his brother aside to explain that he had waived his right to a trial. He explained that while he had intended Jimmy no serious harm, he had let his anger get the best of him, and he was ready to accept the consequences for his actions.
While Emmett was explaining this, Billy didn’t shake his head in disagreement or argue that Emmett was making a mistake. He seemed to understand that what Emmett was doing was the right thing to do. But if Emmett was going to plead guilty without a hearing, then Billy wanted him to promise one thing.
—What’s that, Billy?
—Promise me that whenever you feel like hitting someone in anger, first you’ll count to ten.
And not only had Emmett promised to do so, they had shaken on it.
Nonetheless, Emmett suspected that if Duchess were there right now, ten might not be a high-enough number to do the trick.
By the time Emmett entered the dining hall, it was filled with the clamor of sixty boys talking all at once. Any dining hall crowded with
boys was likely to be loud, but Emmett guessed this one was louder than usual as they relived the events of the morning: the sudden appearance of a mysterious confederate who delivered jars of jam after locking the sisters in their rooms. From his time in Salina, Emmett knew that the boys weren’t simply reliving the events in service of their excitement. They were reliving the events in order to establish them in lore—to settle upon all the key particulars of this story that was sure to be told in the halls of the orphanage for decades to come.
Emmett found Billy and Sister Agnes sitting beside each other in the middle of one of the long monastic tables. A half-eaten plate of French toast had been pushed aside to make room for Billy’s big red book.
—I should have thought, Sister Agnes was saying as she laid a finger on a page, that your Professor Abernathe would have included Jesus in place of Jason. For surely He was one of the most intrepid travelers of all. Don’t you agree, William? Ah! Here is your brother!
Emmett took the chair opposite Sister Agnes since the chair opposite Billy was occupied by his backpack.
—Can we offer you some French toast, Emmett? Or perhaps some coffee and eggs?
—No, thank you, sister. I’m fine.
She gestured to the backpack.
—I don’t think you’ve had the opportunity to tell me where you two were headed when you chanced into our company.
Chanced into our company
, thought Emmett with a frown.
—We were just taking Duchess—or Daniel—and another friend to the bus station in Omaha.
—Ah, yes, said Sister Agnes. I think you did mention that.
—But the trip to the station was just a detour, said Billy. We are actually on our way to California.
—California! exclaimed Sister Agnes, looking at Billy. How exciting. And why are you headed to California?
So Billy explained to Sister Agnes about their mother leaving home when they were young, and their father dying of cancer, and the postcards in the box in the bureau—the ones their mother had mailed from nine different stops along the Lincoln Highway on her way to San Francisco.
—And that’s where we’re going to find her, concluded Billy.
—Well, said Sister Agnes with a smile, that does sound like an adventure.
—I don’t know about an adventure, said Emmett. The reality is that the bank foreclosed on the farm. We needed to make a fresh start and it seemed sensible to do so in a place where I can find work.
—Yes, of course, said Sister Agnes in a more measured manner.
She studied Emmett for a moment, then looked at Billy.
—Are you finished with your breakfast, Billy? Why don’t you clear your things. The kitchen is right over there.
Sister Agnes and Emmett watched as Billy placed his silverware and glass on his plate and carried them carefully away. Then she turned her attention back to Emmett.
—Is something wrong?
Emmett was a little surprised by the question.
—What do you mean?
—A moment ago, you seemed a little put out when I echoed your brother’s enthusiasm over your journey west.
—I suppose I’d rather you hadn’t encouraged him.
—And why is that?
—We haven’t heard from our mother in eight years and have no idea where she is. As you’ve probably sensed, my brother has a strong imagination. So when possible, I try to help him steer clear of disappointments—rather than heap on cause for more.
As Sister Agnes studied Emmett, he could feel himself shifting in his chair.
Emmett had never liked ministry. Half the time it seemed like a
preacher was trying to sell you something you didn’t need; and the other half he was selling you something you already had. But when it came to people of the cloth, Sister Agnes unnerved him more than most.
—Did you happen to notice the window behind me? she asked finally.
She nodded, then gently closed Billy’s book.
—When I first came to St. Nicholas’s in 1942, I found that window to have a rather mysterious effect on me. There was something about it that captured my attention, but in a manner I couldn’t quite pin down. Some afternoons, when things were quiet, I would sit with a cup of coffee—about where you’re sitting now—and stare at it, simply to take it in. Then one day, I realized what it was that had been affecting me so. It was the difference between the expressions on the faces of the disciples and the faces of the children.