Phoebe, worried that Sal has not yet told her father about Mrs. Cadaver, asks Sal what she will do if Mrs. Cadaver murders her father. To her surprise, Sal finds herself saying that she will go and live with her mother, even though she knows this is impossible. At Phoebe's, the girls find Mrs. Winterbottom hacking glumly at a pan of burned brownies. Both Phoebe and Prudence become frustrated with Mrs. Winterbottom's attempts to help them with their problems. Phoebe finds another note on the doorstep, asking them, "In the course of a lifetime, what does it matter?" The message seems to strike a chord with Mrs. Winterbottom, but her daughters do not notice the change in her demeanor. Sal walks home, musing that Phoebe's and Prudence's problems do not matter in the course of a lifetime, but the way they are treating their mother does.
Sal pauses in her double narrations to tell the reader about the events leading up to her mother's departure. She begins by describing her father's character, saying that he is pure of heart, considerate to a fault, and loves the earth and the outdoors. Sal remembers that shortly before her mother left, her mother was berating herself for not being as selfless as her father and stated that she had to leave to clear her head and balance herself. Sal admits that her mother was not well, having undergone some stress and shock that Sal does not at this time describe. Her mother left Sal a note promising her speedy return, and Sal describes the tense and empty days following her departure. When they found out her mother was not returning, Sal's father flew to Idaho, and upon his return put the house up for sale, feeling that Sal's mother was too painfully present in the house and the farm. He also began to correspond with Margaret Cadaver at this time. Sal, outraged and secretly hoping that her mother would return to the farm, threw tantrum after tantrum, but, eventually, when her father agreed to rent the house instead of sell it, she acquiesced and drove with him to Ohio. On the ride up, Sal found herself, like her mother, wishing her father were not so perfect so that she could blame someone—not her mother— for what had happened.
Sal, at Phoebe's urging, tries to warn her father about Mrs. Cadaver. Her father is glad Sal wants to talk about Mrs. Cadaver, but listens skeptically to Sal's worries. When her father offers to explain about her, Sal refuses his explanations. In English class, Sal finds herself daydreaming about the afternoons her mother would read stories, often Native American, to her in the fields. After class, Mr. Birkway assigns Sal a mini-journal. As Sal and Phoebe are walking home, they find themselves face to face with the lunatic. Screaming, the run to Phoebe's house and rush inside. Mrs. Winterbottom tries to calm them, but looks just as frightened as Phoebe.
In her mini-journal, Sal writes about a habit she picked up from her mother. Sal had been watching her mother one morning from her bedroom window. Her mother, thinking no one could see her, popped a couple of fresh blackberries in her mouth and threw her arms around and kissed a tree. Later, Sal had crept up to the tree, on which she thought she could see a small purple stain from the blackberries. Sal kissed the tree, and, since then, often kisses trees, which, she writes, always taste faintly of blackberries. The next day in English class, they read e.e. cummings's "the little horse is newlY," and Sal enjoys ruminating on the newborn colt's first experiences and sensations. After school, Ben uses a spurious claim that he can read palms to trick Sal into letting him hold her hand. Sal, shocked at her body's pleasant reaction to his touch, storms off without a word. Ben trails her, and when he leaves her at Phoebe's doorstep, he kisses her ear.
Inside, Sal finds Phoebe worrying about a note from Mrs. Winterbottom telling her to lock the doors. Notes for Prudence and Mr. Winterbottom rest on the table. As the other members of the family come home and open their notes, the family finds that Mrs. Winterbottom has gone away for a few days without any substantive explanation. Phoebe flies into a panic, certain that the lunatic is responsible for her disappearance. At home, Sal relays this turn of events to her father, who tells Sal sadly that usually people come back. Sal hopes wildly that his words might mean that through some miracle, her own mother will come back.
Written messages appear throughout the novel, buried within its different narratives, as alternatives and companions to storytelling. Sometimes they offer an alternative to speech, as when both Mrs. Winterbottom and Sal's mother leave notes announcing their departures. These letters demonstrate the difficulties inherent in verbal confrontation an in interpreting the stories of others: both Sal's and Phoebe's mothers cannot bring themselves to say goodbye to their daughters and leave notes instead, but both girls pore over the notes, struggling to understand their meaning and significance. Sometimes, as in the case of the notes left on Phoebe's doorstep, written language intentionally mystifies, while at the same time adding to or encouraging verbal discourse. The stranger's messages on the doorstep mystify Phoebe's family members but find their way into the family's thoughts and vocabulary. The messages and letters feed, drive, and enrich the verbal narrative.
Sal continues to read Phoebe's life with great ease. She is the only one who sees how upset Mrs. Winterbottom is, and how deeply the notes affect her, and Sal understands the significance of Mrs. Winterbottom's departure in a way that Phoebe cannot. Sal wonders at Phoebe's blindness to her mother even while she herself stubbornly continues to push Margaret Cadaver and her father away. Phoebe's life gives Sal cause to reflect on her own life, but does not seem to change her present behavior. Sal can apply the lessons she learns from Phoebe's life to her past, but not her present. Sal finds that while she understands the lessons contained in Phoebe's story, she herself must internalize those lessons through her own experiences. While she recounts Phoebe's story to her grandparents, she herself is engaged in a long and perilous trip to learn lessons about her own family.
Sal's mother and Mrs. Winterbottom's flight from home and family serve as a crucial step toward the girls' initiation into adulthood. Young adult adventure/accomplishment romances involve three stages: being separated from friends and family, undergoing a test of courage, and being reunited with friends and family in a new, more adult role. Both Sal and Phoebe now, at this point in their parallel narratives, find themselves without a mother, without the person who has always provided for their physical and emotional safety. Their mothers' departures precipitate crises, and the girls must learn to provide for themselves physically and emotionally, as well as reconcile themselves with the reasons their mothers left and their roles in their mothers' departures.
As Sal moves farther from her protected childhood realm in the framing narrative, she continues shyly to experience the pleasures of an increasingly adult sexuality in the internal narrative. The cummings's poem, "the little horse is newlY," encapsulates Sal's flirtation with Ben. Sal is new to her sexuality and drinks in its newness and its sweetness with unjudging wonder. Her continued separation from her father and her mother is the symbolic price she pays for these new, more adult experiences. Her quest, though, offers her the chance not simply to leave her childhood behind, but to reconcile herself with it and to take aspects of it—affection, spontaneity, closeness with her parents—into adulthood.