Summer Reading: New Jersey’s Books and Authors — The Fifty-First State

Lisa Borders’ novel about rural New Jersey is a tale of grief, community, and forging a new family

While we’re on summer hiatus, recharging our batteries and coming up with new story ideas, we want to make sure that you have plenty to read. That’s why we’ll be posting excerpts every day from New Jersey books and authors. We’ll be back, rested and ready, after Labor Day. Meanwhile . . .

A terrible car accident leads to a pile-up on the highway. As a farmer and his wife are dying, the action shifts midsentence to the activities of their son Josh in a South Jersey high school and his photographer half-sister Hallie in Manhattan. With that split-second car crash — which feels, as life-changing moments sometimes do, as if it is happening in slow motion — begins “The Fifty-First State,” a novel from Jersey native Lisa Borders. It’s a character-driven story set in rural New Jersey, a tale of grief, community, and forging a new family. In the excerpt below, 17-year-old Josh is just beginning to process the news of his parents’ death.

Josh stood on the front porch while Nancy talked on the phone with Hallie. He kicked at the railing, trying to erase the memory of the look of pity Nancy had just given him as he’d handed her the phone. He was a senior in high school, almost an adult. He needed to act more grown-up. But Josh felt fairly certain that no matter how hard he’d tried, he wouldn’t have been able to tell Hallie about Mom and Dad. He didn’t fully believe it himself; he kept imagining that it was all some sort of mistake, that someone else’s parents were killed in the accident, that his own mom and dad were injured but alive. It didn’t matter how badly they were hurt — he wouldn’t mind pushing his mom around in a wheelchair, or helping his dad more at the farm if he couldn’t do the work himself — so long as they were alive.
If Josh had said it aloud, that his parents were dead, he was afraid the saying of it might actually make it so.

He heard a car coming and looked down the long driveway, hoping it was Ram. Nancy had left him messages, but Josh knew that when Ram was collecting data in Mollusk Creek he didn’t check his phone until he was finished, around sundown. A month ago, Josh would have been in the creek with Ram, gathering and tagging frogs, but his summer job had ended when school started.
The green sedan with the Pearl Township logo on the side pulled into view; Todd Schwegel, the township sheriff, was back from the hospital in Camden where he’d gone that afternoon to identify Josh’s parents. Josh gave Todd a weak wave as he got out of the car.

“Hey, Josh,” Todd said in a soft voice. He was dressed casually, in jeans and a red Phillies cap, not in uniform.

“Hi.” Josh cast about desperately for something to say so that Todd wouldn’t tell him he’d seen his parents’ bodies, and that they were truly dead. “I thought you might be Ram,” he finally blurted. He didn’t think Todd would mind his saying that, since Todd and Ram were friends. They had gone to high school together, with Hallie.

“You haven’t talked to him yet?”

Josh shook his head. “Nancy left messages. I’m sure he’s been in the creek all day.”

“I could ride out there and get him for you.” Todd swatted at a mosquito. “Let me just go in and talk to Nancy a minute.”

“Oh yeah—sure.” Josh opened the door, and Todd walked past him.

Josh heard Nancy finish the call, heard Todd start to talk to her about the hospital, but he couldn’t bear to really listen. At the same time, he couldn’t not listen. He stood on the stairs where he could hear what they were saying without having to actually be in the room.

“It’s a good thing you and Josh didn’t go,” Todd said.

“But you’re sure it was them?” Nancy asked. “I keep thinking that with all those cars involved in the accident, there could have been a mistake.”

Josh shifted his position, leaning into the banister.
“It’s no mistake, Nancy.” Todd’s voice cracked a little.

Josh didn’t hear the next few things they said. He tried shifting the image in his head — his father’s burning truck — to one he found comforting: Miss Piper’s legs in those sparkly stockings, Missy Dalton’s long, shiny brown hair. He was working so hard at not thinking about his dead parents and not crying that when he looked up and saw Nancy and Todd standing at the bottom of the stairs, he was surprised.

“Todd’s going to drive out to the creek and get Ram,” Nancy said.

“Can I come?” Josh blurted, immediately flooded with a need to see and talk to Ram. Josh considered Ram his best friend, even though Ram was a lot older.

“Sure,” Todd said. He looked at Nancy. “What time is Holly getting here?”

“Late,” Nancy said. “She’s coming from New York.”

“We’ll be back in a bit,” Todd said, and he opened the front door, motioned Josh to follow him.

Mollusk creek was only a few miles away, but the ride felt like it would never end. After a minute or two of silence, Todd cleared his throat.

“You been following the Phillies?” he asked.

“Not really,” Josh said. He wished Todd had asked him about books or music, something he could answer.

“No? I thought you were a Phillies fan.”

“Dad is.” Josh’s Mom sometimes joked that only the Phillies had the power to take her husband’s mind off his tomatoes.

Todd gave Josh a quick sideways glance with a smile that looked like a wince, and then it hit Josh: Dad was a Phillies fan. That didn’t sound right. Josh didn’t want it to sound right.

They passed his dad’s farm, the greenhouses and tractor and rows of tomato plants, now bare of fruit. Who will run the farm Josh wondered. He felt sick to his stomach and knew he needed to somehow turn off his brain. He closed his eyes and tried to conjure Miss Piper or Missy Dalton, but all he could see was his parents’ burning truck. He hoped he wouldn’t throw up.

Finally they reached the creek access road. Before they could turn onto it, Josh saw a fast-moving pickup truck heading toward them. He knew immediately it wasn’t Ram; he never drove that fast. Ram had told Josh he always wanted to be able to stop if a turtle or rabbit or possum was in his path, and Josh, who’d just gotten his license a few months before, had taken this to heart — he’d driven his father’s truck so slowly one Saturday that Dad had said he had to be the only teenage boy in the world who drove like an old lady. As the pickup sped toward him Josh noticed the rusted spots, recognized the junkyard passenger’s door whose faded red stood out against the blue of the rest of the truck. It was Cal Stutts. Josh slipped down in his seat. The sound of crushed shells spitting and popping beneath Cal’s tires got louder, then faded.

“I’ve got half a mind to pull him over for speeding,” Todd muttered.

“Let’s just go see Ram,” Josh said, slumped as low as his long legs would allow.

Todd was quiet for a moment. “Okay,” he said, and turned onto the road. Josh sat back up in his seat and rolled down his window. He could smell the cedar from the stands of trees they were passing; it was dark enough that the tree frogs had started their chirping. Before Ram moved to Oyster Shell, Josh hadn’t put much thought into the variety of wildlife in Pearl Township; he hadn’t even realized that there were so many different species of frogs. And all Josh had known about the Southern lion frog — Rana leoninus — was what he’d observed himself.

Josh was twelve, swimming in the creek on a hot July day with his mom and Nancy nearby, when he discovered the deformed frogs. At the edge of the water, Josh had registered strange motion from the corner of his eye: a frog writhing in the wet sand. He’d squatted to look more closely and seen a withered extra leg flailing on the animal’s left side. Then he saw another frog missing its right hind leg. Josh had crawled around on the wet bank of the creek for a few minutes; he’d stopped counting at fifteen, and then called his mom and Nancy over. They’d quickly packed everything up and left the creek.

It was three weeks later that Josh first met Ram, after Nancy had made a bunch of calls to the state’s Environmental Affairs Department. Ram was the field agent assigned to the case.
“Ramesh Rao,” the man had introduced himself, shaking Nancy’s and Josh’s hands where they stood at the edge of the creek.

“You can call me Ram.”
“Rao,” Nancy repeated. “You’re not related to the doctors named Rao who used to practice in Floyd, are you?”

He nodded. “They’re my parents.”

Nancy had smiled then, and Josh could see her visibly relax. All the adults he knew, especially his dad, felt that the state government catered to North Jersey; long before Josh was born his dad had been part of a small movement to make South Jersey the fifty-first state, though he’d told Josh he knew from the get-go that it would never amount to anything. If this Ramesh Rao was from South Jersey, then he might actually care about Mollusk Creek.

“Your mother used to be my doctor,” Nancy said, “before they retired and moved back to India. I think I met you once, when you were about ten.” While Ram and Nancy were talking, Josh had watched Ram’s eyes surveying the creek. It had looked as it looked every summer, an explosion of color: red cardinal flowers, purple pickerelweed and yellow tickseed mixed among the green salt grasses at the water’s edge. Then, Josh hadn’t known the plants’ names; he’d just known that the creek was pretty. And he’d become afraid, as Nancy and Ram chatted, that the creek looked too pretty.

“You have to kind of squat down to see the frogs,” Josh had blurted, sounding more impatient than he’d meant to.

Ram had shot Josh a look, but he then stepped closer to the water’s edge. Josh followed him. There were hundreds of frogs in and out of the creek, all normal enough at first glance. For a brief second, Josh had wondered if he and his mom and Nancy had imagined the whole thing. Then he saw a frog attempt to jump, but fail; one withered back leg trailed behind it, weighing it down. Another frog crawled along as an extra limb flailed on its side. Ram picked up a frog and ran his fingers over the smooth green skin of its forehead. When he put the creature down, Josh saw that it had no eyes. The gentle way Ram had stroked the blind creature’s head, and the care with which he put it back exactly in the spot where he’d found it, made Josh like him. Ram sat down where the bank was dry, his head in his hands. Josh squatted next to him.

“It’s really bad, isn’t it?” Josh asked.

“To be honest, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Ram said. “But I’ve read about it.”

“You have?”
“There have been sightings like this around the country, and in Canada. A few in the Midwest. This is the first one I know of in New Jersey.”

“What do you think it is?” Josh asked. “I mean, what caused it?”

Ram had explained some of the theories he’d read, about parasites and contaminants and UV radiation. And he’d told Josh, too, about the arsenic and other chemicals that had leached into the Maurice River decades ago; the old Superfund site was in Vineland, less than thirty miles upriver.

Josh never could have guessed then how close he and Ram would become, after Ram lost a battle within the state environmental agency for further study of the creek, quit his job, moved to Oyster Shell and formed the Mollusk Creek Trust to study the problem full-time.

“Josh, do you want me to walk over there and get him?” Todd asked. The way Todd was looking at him made Josh think it wasn’t the first time he’d asked the question. They were parked now, where the banks were dry, and Josh could see Ram close to the creek, sitting at the edge of his truck’s bed, releasing a frog into the water.

“Maybe we should just stay here until he’s done,” Josh said. He didn’t think he could bear to tell Ram what had happened.

“I’ll go get him,” Todd said, and he was out of the car before Josh could protest.

Josh watched as Todd approached Ram. He slid over to the driver’s side of Todd’s car and rolled the window down so he could hear.

“Hey there,” Ram said, laying the wet mesh collection bag flat out in the bed of his truck. “I was going to call you after I got back to the office. Cal Stutts is on a tear about somebody stealing his dog.”

“Josh is in the car,” Todd said, gesturing with his head. “He’s been trying to call you.”

“I haven’t listened to my messages,” Ram said.

Todd removed his Phillies cap and fingered it nervously. “There was a bad accident today. Up in Bellmawr, just over the bridge.”

Josh couldn’t hear what Ram said after that, and he couldn’t hear Todd’s response. But he saw Todd look down at the ground, holding his fist to his mouth. As Ram moved toward Todd’s car, toward Josh, he caught his gaze, and something about it, the intensity of it, made Josh wish he’d never come out to the creek, that Ram still didn’t know. As close as Josh felt to Ram, he also knew that he wanted no part of this, the look Ram was giving him, the feelings that were threatening to explode. He scrambled out of the car and ran away from him, away from the creek, into the woods.

“Josh,” Ram called.

As Josh heard Ram’s feet on the path behind him, he wished he’d just stayed in the car — then, maybe, he could have pretended he was okay. This was stupid; he couldn’t run forever. But it seemed to Josh that as long as he ran, he was keeping his parents alive, just as not telling anyone they were dead had kept them from dying. He moved as quickly as he could will his legs to work, over tree roots, pushing aside leafy branches, but Ram was gaining on him. The moment that Josh stopped running, the moment Ram caught up with him, would be the moment his parents died. That moment came more quickly than Josh expected, and though it was as terrible as he’d imagined, it also felt something like relief.