It wasn’t the trial of the century or anything close, but there were reporters and protestors who crowded behind police barricades, and on the day of the verdict they were especially noisy with their accusations. We trudged through the clamor on into the courthouse.
After weeks of testimony, cross-examination, victim statements, and closing arguments, the jury had made their decision. Prosecutors and defense attorneys sat at their respective tables as a jury member announced the unanimous decision: Guilty.
The families, with their framed photos of victims, cried; some collapsed, some rushed towards the front of the courtroom, ready to enact their own justice. Judge Stephen Fitz called for order; bailiffs and Marshalls worked to secure the area, escorting members from the room with their hands behind their backs.
Then it was quiet. The judge leaned back in his chair, took off his glasses, and rubbed his eyes. When he spoke, his voice quivered at first, then grew stronger to match his sentiment–disgust. His sentence was the maximum, but he believed people like me deserved worse.
I chose not to address the court, knowing no amount of words would lessen their hurt or make me look less evil. Instead I stared down at a blank, legal notepad, squiggly shapes forming behind my eyes and then dancing on the page. I picked up the ballpoint pen and wrote the words, What They Never Told Me…, pressing the tip into the paper so hard that it broke, black ink leaking out like blood from a wound.
The residents of Shadow Park were friendly, but private. We went to work, some of us from home, and minded our own business. It was the beauty of the buildings that attracted us, not the people. Few knew their next-door neighbors, unless there had been a reason for such an introduction, like a power outage, noise pollution, or mail incorrectly delivered. The restored, row-style homes, were elegant still with characteristics reminiscent of a simpler time.
Every year, when the flowers started to bloom, they came, one or two at a time, walking through the neighborhood, collecting memories. Their faces were bright with awe, their steps light as they inched along. We sat near our kitchen windows in front of our delivered meals, watching the strangers point out what was once theirs…that was our door; we sat outside in the evenings…the Glendale’s lived there; they had a rice farm, and during the holidays they gave everyone a twenty-pound bag of rice…the smell of food was always in the air, rich spices and sauces that made us all want to get home fast.
Dressed in suits and shawls, hats and hair scarves, the strangers laughed and cried, recounted favorite moments, losses, and things they’d like to do over. While they strolled down memory lane, we checked our devices, episodes of a show we’d seen at least a hundred times playing in the background. It was the most we could do with tomorrow looming, but in the back of my mind I wondered if I’d one day want to reclaim this time, if I’d think my life mattered enough to return.
The shop was chaotic as usual, filled with angry, demanding customers whose loud voices echoed throughout the small space.
“We have a no return policy, ma’am,” I said at least fifty times a day only to be yelled at and accused of taking advantage of people.
It was fifteen minutes to closing, and a mother and daughter duo were still browsing, hoping to find a dress for the daughter’s upcoming seventh grade formal.
“You don’t have this dress in baby blue?” the mother held the dress in front of me.
“No, sorry. Everything we have is in the store right now, but I believe there’s a shipment coming in next week.
“Well, next week isn’t soon enough,” the mother huffed and returned the dress to the rack.
“I don’t mind yellow, mom,” the daughter tried to calm her mother.
“This is unacceptable. It’s not what you want.” the mother walked back up to the front counter, her steps loud on the tile floor. “Where’s your manager?”
“I’m the manager, ma’am,” I pointed to my badge, the clock now at five ’til closing.
“Mom,” the daughter said through her teeth. “Let’s go…”
“I can put in an order for you, if you’d like,” I stared at the computer screen, pretending to search for the dress.
“That’s okay,” the daughter pulled her mother by the arm.
“Never settle for what you don’t want,” I heard the mother scold as they left the store.
I closed and headed home.
“Elizabeth,” my mother called as soon as I opened the door. “Elizabeth…I need you to do me a favor.”
“Ma, I just got home…and work was…”
“I need you to take this lasagna to Rachel and Eddie. They’re mother is still in the hospital,” she held out a warm Pyrex storage container. “Take it now because I don’t want them to eat a bunch of junk and spoil their appetites.”
I grabbed the container and left, heading towards the Stewart’s house. The kids were outside playing basketball, the portable hoop leaning to the side from hours of use.
“Is that for us?” Rachel asked as she approached the car.
“Yep,” I got out and grabbed the food. “Where’s your dad?”
“He’s inside,” Rachel said and went back to the game.
The walkway was uneven, broken bricks jutting out, a tripping hazard I maneuvered with care.
“Hello, hello,” I called, the screen squeaking as I cracked it open.
“Come on in,” Patrick yelled from his recliner.
“Hi…my mother sent this lasagna,” I looked at his round face, avoiding his hairy chest.
“You can leave it on the counter,” he took a swig of his beer. “The kids already ate, but they can eat that tomorrow.”
“Okay,” I paused, letting the fiery anger subside. “How’s Rebecca?”
“Yeah, she called today,” his eyes didn’t break from the TV. “She’s okay.”
I slipped out without saying goodbye, waved to the kids, and hopped in my car. My mother was calling.
“Did they like the Lasagna?” she greeted.
“Mom, I just gave it to them.”
“Did you tell Patrick you go the promotion?”
“Why would I tell him that?” my tone sharp. “Ma, I gotta go.”
“You’re coming straight home, right? Because I need you to…”
I hung up, deciding that my next destination would not be home. I drove, kept driving until I saw water: Turtle Bay.
The summer air was warm, fresh. And the sun was beginning to set. I parked, took off my shoes, and began my stroll. Quiet waves rippled. A swift breeze tickled my face. Sand slipped between my toes as I sunk inside its silky sea. I was at least half a mile out before I saw it, a tree swing folded over a long branch.
Yes,” I whispered as I pulled the swing down and planted myself sideways on the long, wide seat.
I stared out at the setting sun, its glow milky, magical. Never settle for what you don’t want, I heard the mother’s voice again. And as much as I disliked her as a customer, I knew her words had value. It was time to rethink my life, decide the direction I wanted to go. Stop living other people’s dreams, other people’s traumas.
I saw you this morning standing in line at the bank. The ends of your long, white floral dress flared in the wind, but you didn’t seem to notice. Your face, as usual, was marked with bright red lipstick and thick eyeliner. You held your briefcase, the one I bought you, tight with both hands, swinging it ever so slightly.
You looked beautiful. Elegant.
During your lunch hour, I saw you and three of your coworkers walk to Luna’s Café. The sun poured in, shining against the side of your face, your right arm. You ordered the chipotle Portobello tacos with couscous and a lemon water. But I knew once home you’d go to your secret stash of chicken fingers, drenching them in honey mustard which gave me a chuckle.
I sat back and watched four ladies eat and fall deep into their own thoughts. The discussion centered on the new procedure at work you all agreed didn’t make sense, but the redhead managed to squeeze in a few details about her upcoming trip before the brunette complained again about the redundancy in her job. As you left, I smelled your perfume, that sweet fragrance I remember so well.
You left work at 5:43pm, later than normal because you stayed to see the Brinkley presentation. Corey walked you out to your car, holding his suit coat over his shoulder. I didn’t hear the conversation, but it appeared to be work related. He looked around as you got in your car and drove away. Only then did he make his way back inside the building, up the stairs to his second-floor office.
I was behind you when you arrived at the lawyer’s office twenty minutes later ready to sign papers that brought us closer to dissolving all connections we had. I watched your face, the excitement spreading from one ear to the other as you scribbled your name on each line.
That night replayed in my mind: How you didn’t see me coming. The way you stumbled in your heels trying to escape. Penetrating screams straining your vocal cords. Your warm, sweaty skin as I hugged you tight until your body gave up. How you began to shake and shutter. “I see you,” I whispered in your ear.
“Caroline…I’m so glad you’re home,” Margaret’s voice sounded panicked. “Tell me you can take an infant…she’s just a few days old.”
“Drugs?” I asked, thinking about the last infant who cried and cried, his pain unsoothed by touch, sound, love.
“No, she’s got a clean bill of health, but no name…so if you don’t mind…”
“I know,” I agreed.
She came to me later that night wrapped in a Dora blanket. Her fine, black hair had been brushed so it lay against her scalp. The first few hours I watched her sleep, like a new mother, checking to make sure she was still breathing. Just before midnight she awoke, her cry soft but commanding. I picked her up, and with her eyes still closed, she wiggled her small body.
“I gotcha, baby,” I rocked her, heading to the kitchen. I wondered if in her cries were moments of yearning for the woman whose voice had comforted her in the womb.
She sucked thick formula from a small bottle, burped on my shoulder, and waited for me to change her diaper before drifting back to sleep. This scene played out over and over for the next week. Sometimes she stayed awake long enough for me to watch her watching me. Her unfocused eyes danced across my face, and I sang to her wondering if these moments with a stranger were enough.
I wondered what would become of her life, how her identify would be shaped by this period of namelessness, motherlessness. I wondered if she felt the gravity of this crisis, something that could now only be registered in her body as a fracture, a wound, and maybe later lived as a never-ending trauma of which she had no memory. I wondered if she’d be rescued, if this act of love was enough to repair, rebuild, renew her life in ways that brought her peace.
Catering jobs were typical for a Friday evening, so when my mother asked me to help I didn’t hesitate. Helping, after all, meant a little extra money for the weekend. Kenny walked me home from school, and I promised to call him later. Inside I changed into my Grab a Plate uniform, a pink top, gray slacks, and a white apron I threw over my shoulder. A block from our house, I caught the 22 bus and headed south to Lower Bayside District. It was a forty minute ride. I leaned my head against the window and listened to music. The ride was uneventful. Most people were headed home, leaving jobs they didn’t like, anticipating an evening of freedom.
The bus didn’t actually travel into Lower Bayside District, just along the perimeter. I exited and walked through the crowded streets to our restaurant, Grab a Plate.
“There she is,” Teresa cheered. “Hey mommy,” she wrapped her long arms around me.
“Hi,” I hugged her back.
“Hey, Naomi,” Lynette called from the back. “Are you ready for tonight?”
“I’m ready,” I yelled, making my way to the kitchen.
My mom was standing in front of the stove.
“Thank you for coming,” she whispered as I hugged her.
I washed my hands and jumped in. My mom, Lynette, and Teresa made trays of roasted vegetables, pasta, fried chicken, lamb and pork chops, roast, and spicy beans–a fan favorite. I took care of the appetizers–deviled eggs, avocado shrimp, salad bites, smoked salmon bites, and vegetarian egg roles. They had made the deserts earlier.
My Uncle James arrived with my cousins, Eli and Marco. They backed the truck into the alley and we loaded the warm trays. The event was held in a hotel just a few miles away. When we arrived, my mother put on her professional face and voice. A woman named Penelope lead us through a back door, showed us where we could set up the food. It was a banquet hall decorated with elegant floral displays on the tables. White chairs, table clothes, and napkins were set perfectly. The lights sparkled making everything look glamorous. We followed my mother’s lead as she created what she thought was a creative display of food. The speakers came up to the microphone one at a time and told their stories.
As I listened, I learned that we were at a women’s event called Rising from Ashes. They talked about escaping the patriarchy, finding their voices, empowering themselves with information and taking sisters under their wings.
“What are they talking about?” Lynnette laughed.
“Female oppression,” I offered. “Men make more money than women; they get promoted more often; in healthcare women aren’t believed when they say their in pain; when they’re assaulted they are not taken seriously; and…”
“We get it,” Teresa said.
“That’s what my teacher said,” I clarified.
“They’re right,” Lynette suggested. “I’ve been oppressed my whole life.”
“It’s serious,” I poked my head out to see another woman standing up to speak.
She wore a black, Maxi dress. At first her voice quivered, and then she found her strength as she asserted her independence, promising to never serve the patriarchy. Everyone clapped as she took her seat. Penelope and another woman who ignored my mother’s outstretched hand, opened the partition that separated us. The women looked out at the arrangement of food, plates and silverware, and condiments. My mother answered a few questions about ingredients for the picky, the allergic, and otherwise health conscious members. After the last question, Penelope dismissed us with her eyes.
We went back to the truck and waited. My mother called my Uncle James to see how things were going at the restaurant.
“I guess we’re the patriarchy,” Lynette laughed. “They didn’t want us to serve them.”
“How’s everything back at the patriarchy?” Teresa asked my mother who was still talking to my Uncle James.
I sat with my feet hanging out the side door.
“We’re just kidding,” Lynette leaned in.
“There’s nothing wrong with what they’re doing in there,” I defended.
“And there’s nothing wrong with what we do,” my mother said as she hung up with my Uncle James. “Did you see how they treated us?”
“We’re not the patriarchy,” Teresa chimed. “We’re worse in their eyes.”
“We’re the help,” Lynette added. “Always will be seen that way.”
“Even though the reality is we’re independent women,” my mother argued. “This is our restaurant. We started it. We maintain it. And we serve.
Her eyes were like needles against my skin. Her words heavy, lending insight where I had been blind.
“I get what they’re saying, I do,” her tone softened. “But serving isn’t just about who’s on top or who’s getting taken advantage of. It’s part of our humanity to serve each other, out of love.”
I opened the gate at four-thirty in the morning so my father didn’t have to waste time and energy getting out of his truck.
“Morning, daddy,” I said as he guided his truck and trailer through the gate.
He waited for me to close the iron doors and hop into the front seat. The headlamp was on, revealing empty cups of gas station coffee and snack wrappers. As he drove around to the front of our house, I picked up the garbage.
“Don’t tell your mom, he whispered, pinching my cheek.
“Okay,” I smiled and stared into his bloodshot eyes.
Once inside he collapsed in his usual spot, a plaid recliner in the corner. He eased his feet out of a pair of brown, steal work boots, and then leaned back, letting out a long, exhausted sigh.
“Do you need anything, daddy?”
“Hmmm…no, Charlotte. I’m going to take a little nap.”
I lay on the sofa watching him sleep. His face drooped, the skin melting into his neck. Sweat beads formed on his wide forehead as his belly rose and fell. His veiny hands rested against dirty Wrangler jeans. I remembered an earlier time, before he took over the family business, when he lived at home, not on the road, when his day started with ours and he left work early to watch me play softball. I remembered his hand tight around mine as the rollercoaster raced towards the ground and then up again. I remembered his face happy, his eyes alive.
His snores paused and then started, this time louder. I sat up, pulling my knees to my chest. I remembered his promise of a handmade swing set, the cookies we were supposed to bake, movie nights his chair stayed empty. I remembered his advice shared during his week-long hauls, on overnights in eerie motels. I remembered barbeques and birthday parties we went to, the standing promise to bring him a plate that would sit in the refrigerator for days, its bottom soggy, its contents growing mold. I remembered when I took for granted the time I had with my daddy, the way life disguised itself as never-ending.
When Mrs. Laney, a long-time member of the Church of Bethlehem, broke her hip and had to go into a nursing home, my mother volunteered me to tend to her plants, clean out her refrigerator, finish any laundry she left behind, and dust her furniture so that everything would be ready for her to return.
“Why me?” I protested. “Can’t her daughter or granddaughter do it?”
“Are you questioning me?” my mother stood with her hands on her hips.
“Never mind,” I sat at the kitchen table, returning to my calculus homework.
I started two days later on a Friday, after I got home from school. My mother left the key on the table next to the front door, along with a brand-new duster, a bucket filled with sponges and cleaner, and a string mop.
“Are you kidding me?” I grabbed the items and loaded my car, a Ford hatchback passed down from my older brother, Tyson, who was away at college.
The drive took about thirty minutes with the construction on Franklin Road. I called my friend Sophie to tell her I’d meet her after leaving Mrs. Laney’s house.
“Hurry up,” she said. “Ronnie and James are coming over to hang out,” she sang.
“I will…I’m just going to do a light clean. This woman is immaculate…her car, her clothes, her hair. I probably don’t even need to be here today. She just went to the nursing home.”
“You know your mom though. She’s going to check,” she laughed. “Alright, Tia. I’ll see you in a bit.”
With the mop and bucket in one hand, I climbed the stairs and entered the yellow house. I paused in the foyer, looking around at the living room, the kitchen, the long hallway. Everything was as I expected, pristine. Plastic covered the sofa and matching chairs. An embroidered tablecloth covered the coffee table, a fake plant resting on top. The plush, gray carpet still had vacuum lines. The kitchen sink and refrigerator were stainless. The coffee maker on the counter was unplugged, the cord coiled like it had just come out of the box. Black and white tiles still shined from the last cleaning. I wiped everything down anyway. A thin layer of dust had formed on top of the refrigerator, in the windowsills, and in the space between the wall and the crown molding. In the bathroom I added a toilet bowl tablet so the water was bluer. I cleaned the mirror and wiped the counter and floor so it smelled fresh. In her bedroom I fluffed the pillows, dusted the lamp and the fake flowers on the dresser, and changed the wall deodorizer. I decided to run the vacuum just in case my mother asked. I looked in the hall closet, but no vacuum, so I opened the door to what I imagined was a guest room and found it there.
This room, like all the others, was well kept, but I had to stop and catch my breath. The vacuum was still plugged in, the bedspread had the imprint of the last person who had lain there. There was a pair of women’s work shoes on the floor. A white uniform hung from the closet door. On each wall were framed pictures of the same woman, as a baby, a youth, and a young woman. In the middle of the dresser was her funeral program from twenty years earlier. It had been laminated; Velcro tabs on the back kept it in place. Next to the bed was a small bookcase filled with the woman’s nursing books, a few Toni Morrison novels, and ten, maybe twelve hardback journals.
I sat on the floor, pulled a journal from the shelf, and began reading Linda Laney’s faded words. Early journals recounted happy memories, hopes, dreams. She spoke of fashion and design, suitors, best friends, and school. Occasional bad days were followed by bold and empowered lines where she proclaimed her strength, announced her worthiness, demanded the world see her for the amazing woman she was.
Later journals were more melancholy with pages and pages of sadness scribbled on each line, the part of her life she described as absence: I can almost hear the sound of love, a faint whisper just out of range. I can almost taste home, it’s sweet flavors sticking to my tongue. I can almost feel hope, its softness smooth against my skin. I can almost see the color of life, the orange of the sun, the green on the trees, the joy in the eyes of the people. Instead I feel profound absence growing wild in my mind, in my heart, in my soul.
We spent most summer afternoons in the dirty courtyard. Dressed in faded swimsuits our mothers bought second hand, we waited for the building owner, a short stubby man, who hooked up an old green, holey hose and let us spend an hour, no more, spraying each other with warm water. He tolerated our childish screams, our tiffs, our wild ways. And when our hour was up, he gave each of us a popsicle and sent us on our way. Clare, Cynthia, and I went back up to my apartment, 2C. The door was unlocked. My mother lay sprawled on the couch. Short brown hairs stuck to her head as sweat slid down her face to her neck, settling in the creases. I turned on the air conditioner, and we stood in front of it listening to the motor groan, waiting for cool air to blow.
“I want another popsicle,” Clare pouted.
“Me too,” Cynthia copied.
I went to the freezer and opened it. Frost buildup cradled a bag of frozen peas, a water bottle, and two, blue ice packs my mother asked for when her migraines became unbearable.
“We don’t have any,” I said, opening the cabinet next to the refrigerator. “We can have this,” I pulled a can of peaches from the shelf.
I grabbed three dirty forks from the sink, and we took turns rinsing them under a slow, cloudy water stream. We used the front of our bathing suits to dry our hands and went back into the living room to sit in front of the air conditioner. I sat with my legs folded. Cynthia sat with her legs outstretched. Clare sat on her legs, two ashy knees staring back at us. I placed the can of peaches between us. We reached in, our forks clanking against the side of the can as we poked the soft, skinless slices. Juice dripped down our arms, onto the worn carpet.
“This is good,” Clara delighted.
“It is,” I agreed, looking at Cynthia, who was still chewing.
When our stomachs felt full, we moved onto our usual play: dress up. Inside my mother’s closet we found her heels, jewelry, wigs, make up, mini skirts, and halter tops. We pranced around the room, the life of the party until Clare’s mother knocked on the door.
“Oh my goodness,” she looked at us. “Go put that stuff away.”
We did as we were told and then ran back into the living room.
“Did you bring us anything?” Clare leaned against her mother.
“I did. I put it in the kitchen.”
We ran to see what she had brought us.
“You girls share,” she yelled. And then a few moments later she said, “How long has your mom been sleeping?”
“I don’t know…she always sleeps during the day.”
Cynthia and I moved back into the living room, our hands stuffed with greasy chicken nuggets. My mother was sitting up, the side of her face wrinkled.
“What did you take?” I heard Clare’s mother whisper in her ear.
“She took the white ones, ” I offered.
“Do you know how many?”
“Like four or five.”
“I’m fine,” my mother mumbled. “What time is it?”
“I have to get ready for work.”
“Not like this…you know Rogan will be pissed.”
“Did he say something?”
“No, but…you know him.”
“Maybe if she gets all pretty,” Cynthia proposed, “No one will know that she was sleeping all day.”
Every Saturday morning Ezra rode his bike to my house. His knock was soft, polite.
“I don’t want to wake the family,” he said. “Are you ready?”
“One second,” I closed the door and went out to the backyard to grab my bike.
We rode down Washington Ave, his rusted, red wagon trailing behind. It was filled with bread we’d deliver to customers before heading to his parents’ bakery to pick up more orders. On each order his mother handwrote the addresses and directions only Ezra could read. What looked like scribble were words he read once and memorized, leading us through neighborhoods I didn’t know existed. We knocked on doors, held out loaves of bread to elderly men and women, housewives, beauticians straightening and curling hair in their kitchens, teenage girls babysitting their siblings while their parents were at work. Ezra collected payment in a big brown envelope. He was careful to put the correct order slips with the correct payments, using clips and sandwich bags.
He told me all about the bread-making process, how one day he’d take over the store.
“You think you’d want to work in the bakery with me?” he asked.
“It sounds fun…but would your parents mind?”
“No, they wouldn’t mind,” his voice trailed.
I thought about his parents, how we only knew each through smiles and nods. The same was true for my parents. They knew Ezra as the boy I rode bikes with on Saturdays, never offering more than a hello in their thick accents, followed by an energetic wave as we rode away.
At the bakery, we parked our bikes outside, and walked into the small, warm building. It wasn’t like the bakery across from the mall. They didn’t put up decorations, pictures of their breads. They didn’t have sales or run ads in the newspaper. But they were always baking, and people were always putting in their orders. Ezra’s mother came from the back to greet us. She wiped her hands on her apron and then held out her hand to me, nodding. I shook her hand and nodded back.
Ezra handed her the brown envelope and shared with her the messages customers had asked him to deliver. I watched their conversation, the way their tongues danced around words, meaning, the way their bodies communicated love through compromise. Ezra stood ready for the next batch of orders. His mother was itching to return to her oven.
After he refilled his wagon, his mother came out again, this time offering us an assortment of bread–bagel pieces, Raisin-Walnut Babka, Matzo–along with a cup of tea. We stood next to our bikes eating, the store sign shielding us from the sun.
“Maria?” Ezra broke the silence.
“My mom wanted me to give you this,” he pulled a twenty-dollar bill from his pocket. “For helping me every week.”
“Really? That’s so nice,” I slipped the bill in my pocket.
“She said she likes our friendship. She can see that you are a true friend.”
“She can see that?” I asked, thinking about all of the soft handshakes and awkward gestures. “I didn’t know…” I smiled and drank the rest of my tea.
We headed out again, the wagon packed with bread. At each door we were welcomed, anticipated. Their smiles and nods made me think about what Ezra’s mother had said. These weren’t customers; they were friends, family, part of a community brought together by The Bread Box, whose owners poured love into every loaf of bread they made.
She called that Monday from a number I didn’t recognize. I checked the message on Tuesday. And Thursday I boarded a train headed towards the west coast for my younger brother’s funeral.
I waited outside the Amway station for almost an hour, which was plenty of time to reconsider my trip, replay the events that led to a twenty-year silence between my family and myself. I walked up and down the sidewalk, dragging my suitcase behind me. Night was setting in, and a chill rested on the tops of my ears, the tips of my fingers. Other passengers passed, hopping into taxis, Ubers and Lyfts, or into the front seat of their relative’s cars, tired smiles spread across their faces.
When a red sedan pulled into the parking lot, its lights bright and jarring, I knew it was Julianna. She inched along, looking around until she spotted me.
“Hey,” Julianna said, looking down at something in her purse.
“Hey…can you pop the trunk?”
She popped the trunk without looking up. I put my suitcase into the trunk next to her dry cleaning. As I reached for the front passenger door, she motioned for me to sit in the back.
“I cleared a spot for you,” she fiddled with her papers in the front seat.
The drive to her house felt familiar, with unexpected changes in landscape. I stared out at the buildings remembering our lives before the wound, the divide.
Instead of taking me to her house, she pulled into the Day’s Inn parking lot and put her car in Park.
“I got you a room,” she didn’t bother to look back at me. “All you have to do is go in and give them your name…the funeral is at eleven. I’ll pick you up at ten.”
“Sounds good,” I got out, grabbed my suitcase, and went inside.
After I checked in, I walked to the bar at the end of the block. It was quiet, filled with what looked to be regulars. They played pool, listened to music, and nursed foamy beers. I grabbed a seat and ordered a margarita. The bartender pushed a bowl of peanuts in front of me along with a small red napkin. I sipped my drink and cracked peanuts.
“How are you doing tonight? I’m Mark.” a man wearing a black, leather jacket and tight, blue jeans sat down next to me. “Can I get a rum and coke?” he asked the bartender.
“I could be better,” I said, hoping he’d move on to the next unsuspecting lady.
“Well, maybe I can help you…we could help each other,” he leaned in so his face was a few inches from mine.
“I don’t know.,” I teased. “I’m here for a funeral…can you make that better?”
“Ah, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Can you make my sister talk to me?” I slurped the last of my drink.
“What happened between you two?”
“Do you really want to know, Mark?” my voice sarcastic, loud.
“Well, twenty years ago I made my way to her fiancé’s bed and…”
“Wow!” Mark’s eyes widened. “Hey bartender, how about another rum and coke, and a margarita for the lady?”
“It was the day before their wedding,” I smirked, feeling the buzz.
“No way,” he laughed.
I got back to my hotel around two a.m. Mark left a little after six. I lay awake thinking, remembering. Being a year and a half behind Julianna meant I lived in her shadow, but she was always willing to let me tag along. Her friends were my friends. Her interests were mine. I lay across her bed listening to her go on and on about Jeffrey from band, Lucas who had a part time job at the ice cream shop, her hopes of being an anthropologist, her dreams of writing romance novels.
There were days I wanted to be her. And when her life began to pull her away from home, I did things I’m not proud of: intercepting her college acceptance letters, crashing her car, stealing her fiancé and moving away to start a life with him in a one-bedroom apartment near a noisy nightclub, where I had two miscarriages while he was out with Nina, his coworker.
At ten I waited in the hotel lobby for Julianna’s red car to arrive, but she never came. A quarter ’til eleven, I requested an Uber. I was fifteen minutes late, so I decided to stand in the back. In the front row were my parents, Julianna and her husband, Brian, and next to him an empty seat. When asked to share words and memories, I was the first to the podium. The room was silent. I remembered my baby brother, shared funny stories, expressed my sadness, my faith, all while my family looked on like I was a stranger who had interrupted their grieving.
Summer vacation had begun, and my brother Matthew and I were on a bus travelling east, on our way to Grandpa Dan’s house. I was nine, Matthew thirteen. He sat on the seat assured as he read his comic books. I worried, clutching my bag to my chest.
“You’ll only be gone for three weeks, Hillary,” my mother promised.
“But how will I know if you’re okay?”
“I will call you…did you think I wouldn’t call you?” she hugged me. “I’m going to be just fine.”
The bus ride was five hours, and, as promised, when we arrived at the station, Grandpa Dan was there leaning against his blue and white pickup. He threw our luggage into the back and told us to hop in. He was quiet, stoic, his face filled with lines, his hands stained from years of labor. He drove from the city back to his small town and onto a plot of land that had been in the family for generations.
Matthew and I shared the guest room, which was really a junk room.
“Just move that stuff over,” Grandpa Dan directed.
Matthew moved the tools, and I moved the clothes. Underneath the piles were two twin beds, a dresser, and a television that didn’t work. I put a few things on one side of the dresser. Matthew put his comic books on the other side. We found Grandpa Dan outside in the chicken coop.
“What are you doing?” I asked, peering over the wire fence.
“I’m cleaning the coop,” his voice was gruff, nonchalant.
“Can I help?”
“You want to help me clean the chicken coop?” his tone surprised, doubting.
“It’s dirty…and stinky…and gross.”
“Alright then,” he opened the gate and let me in. “Grab that shovel over there and do what I’m doing,” he demonstrated.
I scooped up droppings. And then we moved on to removing the bedding. Grandpa Dan and I used wire scrub brushes to clean the area. The chickens danced around us, each time Grandpa Dan shooed them away.
“What are their names?” I asked.
“They don’t have names,” he laughed.
“I can name them for you,” I offered.
“No, we don’t name these chickens. They’re not pets.”
“What are they then?”
“They’re food,” he shooed two away. “Don’t you like chicken?”
I dropped the scrub brush and ran out of the coop. He didn’t chase after me. In fact, I didn’t see him again until dinner when he called us to the table for pork and beans and two slices of white bread.
“Do you kill the chickens, Grandpa Dan?”
He sopped pork and beans with his bread and stuffed it in his mouth. As he chewed, he stared at me, his eyes curious, strong.
“Every chicken has its time,” he explained. “But for right now, they’re free to be chickens.”
I finished my dinner, relieved that none of the chickens would be killed anytime soon.
“In the morning, I need your help feeding the chickens,” Grandpa Dan said.
“What about you, Matthew?”
“I guess,” Matthew put his comic book down.
At six in the morning, Grandpa Dan knocked on the door and told us to meet him in the coop. We each got a small can filled with feed. The chickens surrounded us, their necks bobbing up and down as the feed fell to the ground. Sleep had erased any ill feelings I had about the life process of the chicken, and I found myself noting the characteristics of each one.
“You have twelve golden chickens, Grandpa Dan, and four black ones.”
“Uh huh,” he muttered.
“And one black and white one…I like that one,” I watched as the chicken ate the feed next to my foot. “All the rest of the chickens have different colors.”
“Let’s refill the water,” Grandpa Dan said.
“Can I call that one, Oreo?”
“We don’t name the chickens, remember?”
“Just that one,” I begged.
But I did name him Oreo. Every morning I followed Grandpa Dan out to the coop, making sure Oreo got his fair share of feed. I even touched my hands to his feathers when he got close to me. I did things to make him chase me. I did things to make him mine.
I told my mother all about Oreo, asked her if it would be okay for us to bring him home, with Grandpa Dan’s permission, of course. She wasn’t completely on board with the idea, but I had five days to convince her. Each day I worked with Oreo, tried to train him, get him to do tricks that would make him irresistible so my mother would have to say yes.
“He’s a special chicken,” I told Grandpa Dan.
“That’s a hen,” he said.
The day we were scheduled to leave, I knew I had to try one final time to convince Grandpa Dan to bring Oreo to us and spare his life.
“Please, Grandpa Dan,” I begged.
“You can’t have a chicken where you live.”
“But I don’t want Oreo to die,” I cried.
Grandpa Dan didn’t respond. He loaded our luggage onto the back of his truck and told us to get in. I made a detour to the chicken coop to say goodbye to my beloved Oreo.
Grandpa Dan didn’t respond.
“Where are all the other chickens?” my heart raced.
In their place were ten yellow chicks running from one end of the coop to the next.
“When did this happen?” I looked around the property. “We just fed the chickens this morning.”
“Get in, or you’re going to miss your bus.”
I cried all the way to the station, disturbed by the idea that somewhere someone was eating Oreo.
Before we got on the bus, Grandpa Dan took my face in his dirty hands and wiped the tears.
“That’s why we don’t name the chickens,” he said, pulling my small frame against him.
The trolley took us through the shopping strip, stopping every couple blocks as if to let passenger on and off, but there was no one. Nadia stood on the seat next to me. She pointed at window displays, flashing WE’RE OPEN signs, and covered seating for patrons when they arrived. After two days of rain, the sky brightened and wet leaves began to dry on the ground, on benches, on store awnings. Holiday marketing was in full swing, and music played through outdoor speakers.
“Where is everybody?” Nadia asked, her face twisted with confusion.
“There’s a person,” I said, pointing at someone walking with an umbrella.
“And there’s someone,” she pointed, turning it into a game. For each person she found, she held up a finger.
I smiled at her excitement. We hadn’t seen people, not like this, in weeks. since the evacuation. She didn’t seem to remember, in the moment at least, that night when the earth rumbled, swallowing streets and homes whole. Military personnel gave every family west of Ellington Bridge an evacuation notice. I called Adam’s sister, Lori, and asked if we could come for an extended visit.
“What happened?” she asked, hesitating to confirm my request.
“There was an earthquake and the bridge collapsed…and the roads…the houses,” I tried to collect my thoughts as I packed our essentials.
“You have to evacuate?”
“Yes…”I picked up on her resistance and decided not to push. “It’s okay, Lori…thanks.”
“It’s just that Adam and his girlfriend are here.”
“Tell him his daughter misses him.”
Nadia held her doll close to her chest as I called a couple more people to see if they had room for us. No one did. I drove away without a destination, just drove. Our part of the city was dark, small electrical fires added to the chaos, the damage. Police officers waved us through the neighborhood, our one option to enter the freeway and drive away. I turned on the radio and listened to reporters repeat details about what we had all just experienced and list resources for those who didn’t know where to turn. I was now one of those people, so when I could I pulled over and called.
We were set up in a hotel, provided food, toiletries. Then we moved to a motel. To a women and children’s shelter. Everyday I called to see when we’d be able to return to our four-story apartment complex, our two-bedroom, subsidize unit with the colorful succulents hanging from the balcony.
A few more people hopped on the trolley and the driver continued through the shopping strip. We looked out at shiny lights and watched life happen in slow motion. We didn’t have anywhere to be, but like the almost empty street, we were still here, ready for action.
She called me at 10:19pm and asked me to come over for tea and cookies.
“You do realize it’s 10pm?”
“Yes, bring milk,” she hung up.
I turned off the TV, slipped on my shoes, grabbed the new cartoon of milk from the refrigerator, and headed towards Viola’s house, the yellow, Victorian with the red door, two houses down. Cold air hit my face as I stepped out, the smell of rain strong. I walked under a light mist promising myself that this would be a short visit. I wouldn’t let Viola ensnare me into one of her long stories about her days as a nurse.
She greeted me at the door wearing a long, black dress.
“Why are you all dressed up, Viola?” I asked, kissing her cheek as I passed.
“Let’s have tea and cookies, dear,” she motioned for me to sit in my usual spot, the south end of her solid oak, dining table.
“I brought milk,” I put the milk on the table next to the waiting tea pot and cups.
This was Viola’s favorite part, pouring the hot tea into the pink, floral cups, adding milk, and a cube of sugar.
She served me and then herself.
“Eat the cookies, dear,” she pushed the saucer with chocolate cookies closer to me, so I took one.
I sipped the fruity tea, and Viola sipped too. It was quiet. The usual sounds from Owen’s radio were absent at this hour.
“Is Owen asleep?”
“I absolutely love this tea,” Viola held up the can the tea bags came in. “Owen bought these for me,” she put the can down on the table.
“That’s so sweet,” I said, hoping she didn’t plan on shifting the conversation to my month-old divorce.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I was working a double shift and we got a call about a patient described as Zombie like?”
“No, Viola,” I hesitated, unsure how to know if this was a short story or a long one.
“Well, he came from another hospital…they were out of beds,” she sipped her tea. “When he arrived we did everything we were supposed to do. We followed the doctor’s orders. And after a few hours the patient seemed to be doing okay, not better, but stable. So we settled back into a routine as the evening meals were delivered,” she sipped her tea again and took a bite of a cookie. “I went into the new patient’s room to check his vitals and he was sitting straight up in the bed, his breathing heavy. His eyes were rolled back in his head.”
“I made sure he was secure and then paged the doctor. I spoke with another nurse named Nancy, and she followed me into the patient’s room where he was still sitting straight up in his bed. She said, ‘he looks possessed.’ I told her to hush, to not let the doctor hear her say such a thing. But I thought he was possessed too,” Viola admitted. “We had never seen anything like it.”
“What did the doctor say?”
“Well, before the doctor even got there, the patient managed to get himself out of bed. He walked himself over to the window and started banging his head against the glass. Nancy and I grabbed his arms, her on one side and me on the other, and we tried to wrestle him back into the bed. Leanne, another nurse called for security and they came in and assisted.”
“Were you hurt?”
“Me?” Viola laughed. “Not at all. He was strong, but he was stiff as a board. Plus, he wasn’t fighting us; I think he was fighting himself, Fighting whatever demon had taken over his body. But they tied him to the bed anyway. The doctor came back and ordered more tests.”
“What did you do?”
“I went home, dear. My shift was over, just in time. My mind was getting foggy, so foggy I no longer trusted myself.”
“What happened to the patient?”
“He was sent down for x-rays, an MRI, blood work, everything, but the next day he died.”
“Oh no…did they ever find out what was wrong with him?”
“Sleeping Sickness they called it,” she drank the last of her tea. “It’s funny because that was over forty years ago, and last night that patient returned to my mind, my old, foggy mind,” she chuckled.
“That is strange.”
“Yeah, except that man didn’t look like himself,” she paused. “He looked like my Owen.”
“Oh, no,” I felt the hairs on my arms rise. “What did Owen say?”
She took a bite of the last cookie on the saucer, the sound of crunching loud between us. As I waited, I looked around the room, noticing again the absence, how it hung in the air.
I decided to stay in the city after dropping Lenny off at the airport. I called my friend, Ellie, and she met me on the pier.
“Look at you,” she greeted. “How long has it been?”
“Since you left…” I started.
“Nope, we are not going there,” she laughed.
“Does that mean you are not coming back?” I probed.
“Okay, okay.” I gave up. “She’s great. She has a competition coming up next weekend.”
“That’s awesome! I miss my little gymnast.”
Ellie put our names in at The Pier House, and then we decided to take a walk along the sandy path while we waited the forty-five minutes. She told me all about her new job, her boyfriend, Matthew, and their upcoming trip to Dubai. I talked more about Lizzy, about Lenny, his decision our decision to take a break, and my mother and father who had sold their house, bought and RV, and went out on the road.
We ate from seafood platters, drank beer, and enjoyed the ambiance, the friendship. Time slipped away, rewrapping us inside memory, stranding us there in the joy, the love. And just before joy turned to darkness, we left.
I slept on their sleeper sofa, hard springs pressing into my back for five hours. The house creaked and cracked, background to Matthew’s snoring. Just before dawn, a neighbor’s chickens began crowing. I packed my things, wrote Ellie a note telling her I would call later, and hopped in my car.
Lenny was gone, and Lizzy wasn’t due home until Sunday evening, which meant I’d have the house to myself. In anticipation, I blasted the music and celebrated the uninterrupted bath I’d take, the nap on the veranda I’d enjoy, and the hours of westerns I’d consume. I decided that if he could take a break then so could I.
I missed most of the Saturday morning travel traffic, shortening my drive by at least twenty minutes. Well-kept tract homes stared back at me as I drove onto our street. I turned down my music and followed the newly paved road almost to the end where I pulled into our driveway, the yellow, two-story home staring back, not at me, but at its identical twin across the street.
When I opened the door, cool air hit my face. I flipped the light switch revealing what was left of our ransacked home. My face was hot, my hands sweaty as I backed down the steps and went to my car.
“I need to report a burglary…”
I stared at Lenny’s number, as I waited for the police to arrive. We hadn’t said more than two words to each other on the way to the airport. And the night before we had spoken too many words. A break was in order. But now I wondered how long we’d be here at this impasse, if this break-up and this break-in meant we were already past the place we could turn around, start over. Or if the opposite was true: in the absence of everything lost, we could rebuild.
“Lenny…someone broke into our house,” I let emotion have its way.
“Are you okay?” his voice was groggy but concerned. “Do you want me to come home?”
“Are you ready?” Melanie asked, poking her head into my room.
“Um…” I sang, looking up from the TV. “I guess,” my answer an invitation for Melanie to enter for a heart to heart conversation.
“It’s a pretty big step,” she sat next to me on my bed.
“We’ve been together a year…so, yeah,” I laughed.
“So, what’s the plan?”
“Arden is going to pick me up, and we will all go to dinner.”
“What are you wearing?”
I stood up and moved to my closet, pulling a light blue, summer dress from the rack.
“With your white sandals?”
“Yep…what do you think?”
“I like. What about your hair? Up? Down?”
“I was thinking up.”
“How about a side braid…and then bring it back into a bun…you know what I mean?”
“Can you do it for me?”
“Thanks…what time is it?” I looked at my phone.
“What time is he coming?”
“You have a couple hours.”
“Yeah, but I want to make sure…you know.”
“You want to look your best for your man,” Melanie teased. “I’ll be in my room. Come and get me when you’re ready.”
After three attempts, Melanie got my braid to lay just right. She added her pearl necklace to the ensemble and wished me luck.
“They’ll love you,” she said as I opened the door to greet Arden.
Arden drove us to Barcino’s. We filled the car ride with small talk, slipping in an occasional detail about his parents. He assured me that they were easygoing and excited. I couldn’t help but think about my own parents who were not open to meeting “that brown fella.” Soon we were across the bridge, entering the city. I stared out at the rippling, blue water as Arden maneuvered through the traffic.
“I think I see them,” he said. “They’re sitting on the first bench…”
“Oh, I see them,” I waved, but their faces remained flat.
I felt blood rush to my face as Arden parked the car.
Mr. and Mrs. Cruz stood up when they saw us and went right in for long, welcoming hugs.
“Arianna,” Mrs. Cruz rolled the R. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
We were seated next to a window overlooking the water.
“Shall we begin with some beverages?” Mr. Cruz laughed, ordering a bottle of wine for the table.
Our meals were served on large plates, heaping servings with steam rising up to our faces.
“Arianna,” Mr. Cruz began. “You are in nursing school?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered. “I have one more year.”
“Good for you,” Mrs. Cruz joined in, still chewing her food. “Arden says you want to work in surgery.”
“Oh, my goodness,” Mrs. Cruz put her fork down. “I knew I liked you,” she teased.
The conversation was easy, unlike any dinner I’d had with my own parents. We laughed and exchanged details about ourselves. We made informal plans to meet again, next time across the country at their vineyard. We drank wine and ordered desert because I had to try some of their favorites.
“So, when do we get to meet your parents?” Mr. Cruz asked.
I felt their eyes on me as they waited for my answer.
“I, uh, don’t know,” I admitted. “They’re not…”
“That’s okay,” Mrs. Cruz put her hand on mine. “Give them time.”
“Now the most important question of the evening,” Mr. Cruz raised hands. “What did you think of the Leche Frita?”
I paused for dramatic effect, looking around the table.
She sat on the porch waiting for the sun to set every evening. The moment its soft orange hue melted into the dark sky, she was up on her feet searching for anything that might distract her from a stream of memories that came alive at night.
“Mama,” I called, but she couldn’t hear me.
Once she repainted the living room. It took her all night. We woke up to find her passed out on the floor, paint in her hair, on her hands and face. She cooked big meals–appetizers, entrées, desserts. Neighbors came to partake in the feast. Her favorite was to scrub sinks, toilets, floors, walls. It gave her much pleasure to rid surfaces of unwanted dirt, making them look new again.
Her late-night cleaning and cooking was something we got used to, but when chasing memory away led her outside to wander the streets, we called a family meeting.
“Mama, you can’t just leave at night like that,” I scolded.
“And why not?” she looked me in the eyes. “I’m grown.”
“That’s not what we’re saying, Sadie,” her sister Dhalia explained. “It’s dangerous out there…”
“We want you to be safe, Mama,” my sister, Cassidy, said, taking Mama’s hand in hers.
“When it gets too noisy…I have to get out of here.”
Aunt Dhalia, Cassidy, and I sat quiet.
We took turns at night to make sure Mama didn’t leave. One night she was up ironing Cassidy’s clothes for her work trip. I lay on the sofa half reading and half listening to her movements.
“Oh,” she remembered. “The neighbors brought us a basket of lavender today from their farm.
“Really?” I asked to be polite.
I heard my mother go into the kitchen. She returned with a big basket busting with the purple plant.
“Smells good, right?” she put the basket on the coffee table between us.
“It does smell good, Mama,” I engaged, sensing she was spiraling.
“What are you reading over there?” she asked as steam poured from the iron.
“Jane Eyre, it’s for school.”
“Is it a story book?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah, it’s a novel.”
“Read it to me.”
As I read, her ironing slowed. Her whole body reacted to the story. The creases in her forehead were deep with wonder. Her eyes were wide with contemplation, welling with sadness and pain only she knew.
“I don’t like that woman, ” she admitted, wishing Jane didn’t have to be subjected to such evil. “She should love Jane…she’s her aunt.”
“I don’t like her either,” I admitted.
“Jane’s a strong girl though…I think.”
“Yeah, she’s strong…like you, Mama.”
She squirmed, fiddling with the iron, her face turned away from mine.
“That lavender smells good, huh?” she asked, sliding another pair of Cassidy’s work pants onto the ironing board.
“It smells great.”
“Yeah, it smells real good.”
She was spiraling again, so I picked up my book and kept reading. Her whole body reacted. And when the words were too heavy, we looked away, letting lavender rescue us from the pain.
He lived in the upstairs apartment. Every morning at three a.m. I awoke to his footsteps ascending the iron stairs. Steel boots landing hard and then scraping against the steps, a slow climb hindered by copious amounts of whiskey he consumed at Lady Love. He fiddled with his keys, steadied his hand long enough to slide the key inside its hole. The door cracked open and he entered, moseying into the kitchen. He opened cabinets, took out what he wanted, and then slammed them shut. The springs in his mattress screamed as he collapsed onto the bed. And for another hour, I lay listening to his sounds: phlegm coughed up and spit out, whiskey-laced urine released into the toilet, the quick changing of channels as he searched for something to fall asleep to.
At seven a.m. my brother, Sam, and I piled into the back seat of our mother’s bright yellow car on our way to school. The car rumbled down the street, a thick cloud of black smoke trailing. I watched the gas gauge as it rested on empty. Sam begged for baseball cards, reminding our mother that she had promised to get them for weeks now.
She let us out a block from the school, refusing to get stuck in the morning traffic.
“Watch your brother,” she ordered and turned the car around on her way to Freddy’s Cafe, her newest job, where she’d serve cranky customers for eight hours, ten if Diane didn’t show up for her shift again.
Sam ran to his class, Mrs. Jenkin’s fourth grade, and I headed for Mr. Lewis’ sixth grade classroom, where I knew he’d already be taking roll. As I entered, the noise of my backpack rubbing against by nylon jacket caught his attention.
“Nice of you to join us,” he glanced at me over the top of his glasses.
I sat at my desk, put my backpack in the aisle, and waited for my name to be called. Mr. Lewis put his pen down and cleared his throat. Everyone stared and laughed.
“Put your bag away, Pootface.”
“It’s Prudence,” I muttered as I walked over to the coat rack and hung my backpack on a free hook.
After a long day of history, math, spelling, reading, after-school tutoring, and hours of dodging insults, I was ready to see my mother’s yellow car race into the parking lot, her front seat filled with greasy bags of food–Freddy’s famous fries, two double-patty cheese burgers, and a large Pepsi Sam and I would share.
First we stood in our usual spot, on the sidewalk in front of the school. Then we moved near the flag pole, where Sam tried over and over to climb. Forty-five minutes later we were both sprawled on the grass watching teachers and administrators, one by one, exit, headed for their cars.
“Prudence and Sam,” Principal Jennings called when he saw us on the grass waiting. “Come here,” he moved back inside, holding the door for us. “You want to call your mother?”
I did want to, but I knew better. Calling her on the job had gotten her in trouble in the past.
“I think she’s just running a little late,” I defended.
“Well, maybe you should call her and make sure,” Principal Jennings pushed.
I looked back towards the street, stalling.
“There she is,” Sam shouted.
“Okay, then,” Principal Jennings let us go to meet our mother.
The yellow car inched towards us, its right turn into the school wide, uncontrolled. As it got closer, we saw that it wasn’t our mother. It was Mr. Whiskey.
“You two must be Sam and Prudence,” he said.
We stood on the sidewalk unsure of what his presence meant.
“Get in,” he said. “Your mom asked me to come fetch ya.”
I opened the back door and motioned for Sam to get in.
“Where’s our food?” Sam complained.
“Where’s my mother?” I asked.
“She’s at work…she had to work late.”
“Why do you have our car?”
“Well, I don’t have a car, so for me to come and fetch ya, I needed to take hers.”
He didn’t wreak of alcohol, but the odor was there, on his skin, in his hair.
“Take us straight home,” I directed.
At home he parked the car and we hopped out.
“What are we going to eat?” Sam asked.
“I’ll make us something,” I feigned.”
“We don’t have anything.”
“Hush,” I pushed him ahead of me as we walked towards our door, and Mr. Whiskey headed for the stairs.
Once we were inside, I prayed that I could find something for us to eat. But the refrigerator was bare except for a diet Pepsi, a stick of butter, pickles, a water jug, and a half-eaten biscuit. I searched the cabinets and found an empty box of graham crackers, a can of black olives, and a can of sweet corn.
I heard Mr. Whiskey coming down his stairs. Moments later he was knocking on our door. Sam opened it to find him standing there with a loaf of bread and a few slices of cheese.
“I thought you might want to make yourselves a grilled cheese sandwich,” he offered.
“Ooooh,” Sam swooned. “Thank you.”
Mr. Whiskey left and I went back into the kitchen to make grilled cheese sandwiches and warm up the corn. We sat in the living room, eating at the coffee table while watching Powerpuff Girls and doing our homework. Our mother returned home a few hours later with A Pepsi for us to share and a big pile of long, crinkled fries. She slipped off her shoes and lay on the couch.
“Were you nice to, Scott?” my mother asked me.
“I don’t want him to pick us up.”
“But were you nice?”
“Well, sometimes he will have to pick you guys up, so I need you to be nice.”
“What about Grace’s mom?”
“What’s wrong with Scott…he lives right upstairs?” she sat up.
I stared at her and she stared at me, both unwilling to name the fear rising in the back of our minds.
At three a.m. I heard Mr. Whiskey climb the iron stairs, fiddle with his keys, and then enter his apartment. He went into his kitchen, opened the cabinets, and then slammed them shut once he found what he was looking for. He collapsed onto his bed, the springs letting out a loud, squeaky cry. The TV blared as sleep swept in saving him from the monsters he had spent the evening chasing away.
By the time we arrived, our local farmer’s market was buzzing with vegetarians, vegans, and those in search of fresh foods and ingredients they’d take home and share with their families, a small offering of health, love.
Elijah steered our wire rolling cart, pausing to look back at me every once in a while and ask, “Do we need any of these, mommy?”
He wrapped his small hands around plump navel oranges, crunchy apples, juicy peaches, banana bunches. His body shook with excitement as he watched the scale’s arm rise. He greeted workers, and in return earned himself free samples of sweet nectarines, cherries, melon. He delighted the patrons on our path, volunteering to fill their bags with furry kiwis, green and purple plums, and nuts he assured he could weigh.
Grapes, still on their vines poked through thin plastic bags. Green, woven baskets were home to black and blue berries. Their red juice stained Elijah’s fingers, a detail he didn’t notice He counted tomatoes, squash, carrots, onion–yellow and red–bell pepper, and potatoes.
We found spinach and kale, their dirty leaves bundled together with blue, produce ties. We found ginger root; he was first taken aback by its branch-like appearance. We found honey. He licked his lips in anticipation. We found lavender spray, one for us, another for his teacher, Mrs. Johnson. We found fresh wheat muffins, at which point it became solely my job to push the cart and his job to munch on his muffin.
After a wave, and a “See you next week,” we headed for the car. I put our goodies in the trunk, while Elijah strapped himself into his car seat.
“Mommy, mommy,” he said as I opened my door and got in. “I know what we can do when we get home…”
“What’s that, buddy?”
“Make smoothies,” he sang. His face was lit with joy. “We could put in a banana, apple, blue berries…”
“What about spinach and kale?”
“No,” he shook his head and kicked his legs.
I smiled, knowing I would slip some in when the time came.
Swings swung and little feet hung high in the air. Small bodies slid down tunneled and spiraled slides, their cheer-filled screeches heard throughout the park. Bikes sped along paved paths. Skateboarder jumped and flipped their boards. Basketballs bounced to their own rhythm and hit against weathered backboards, fell through tattered nets.
Friendships and bonds grew stronger as daylight diminished. Children practiced with their coaches, in matching uniforms and gloves, swinging wooden bats high and low. Martial artists moved in unison, their movements sharp, rehearsed. Nearby neighbors arrived with leashed dogs for their evening walk, pausing along the way to take in the fresh air, savor what was left of the day.
As a marker of the new season, darkness crept in fast, but park-goers clung to nature, unwilling to walk away from this sense of peace, a temporary escape from the ugliness of humanity.
It was her favorite place to be, but I never understood why until the morning my mother came into my room and handed me a envelope.
“It’s from Nana.”
Inside was a letter that read:
It’s me, Nana! I know you said your goodbyes yesterday at the funeral, but there’s one more thing I need to show you. Get dressed because I know you’re still in your pajamas. Put a light jacket on because I know you get cold easily. Do your hair in case you run into someone you know. And open your heart because I know it has closed a little since I’ve been gone.
If you’re up to driving, tell your mom to give you the keys to her car…tell I said so and that it’s in writing so she can’t dispute it. Drive out to the property, make sure you play our favorite songs on the way. You know the ones–Nana’s Playlist. When you get there, I want you to walk out to the garden and wait for me.
I won’t be there like before, which is why I put together another playlist. Check your phone…Now get going. The garden is always best in the mornings.
My mother didn’t even flinch when I asked her for the keys to her brand-new Mercedes. She smiled, handed me the keys, and told me she loved me. I got inside, adjusted the seat and the mirrors and set Nana’s Playlist to play through the speakers. Singers and bands from the 70s belted out their joy, their pain, their stories my nana and I listened to every Sunday when I came over to wash and style her hair.
At the property I did as she said, parked and walked to the edge of the garden. I pulled out my phone and pushed play on the audio file.
Avery, good morning, my darling. I know it’s been awhile since we’ve taken a stroll through the garden. I hope you’re up for it. First things first, the history. I’ve been waiting to share this with you because, yes, you are my favorite granddaughter, also my only granddaughter.
I couldn’t help but smile.
When my father got to this country, they lived in a one-bedroom apartment with three other families. One day his mother brought home a plant and gave it to him. He kept it and it grew. A year later that plant was still alive, and it was so big. He had never been prouder of himself. It wasn’t long before his father came home and announced they were moving to their very own home, and my father was so excited. He imagined that very plant in a brand-new pot near a window in the kitchen. He wanted it to bring the family joy every time they saw it. On moving day, somehow the plant got left behind. My father cried and cried. But after the disappointment he vowed to bring beauty to his family. For birthdays and holidays, he always brought flowers and plants for them, but this was not enough. When I got married, and Albert and I bought this property, it was acres of dirt and weeds. That’s not what my father saw though. He saw a place he could finally turn into the beautiful oasis he’d always wanted to provide his family.
One day he told me to go stand next to the kitchen window and look out. He took his shovel and stuck it into the ground and said, “this is where I’m going to build you a beautiful garden.“
So that’s why you liked sitting next to the kitchen window.
Now, that story was mostly for me because I miss him terribly. I wanted to make sure one other person knew that story. I trust you will pass it on and share it with your own children. For now, there are a few things I want to show you…shall we?
The garden didn’t always look like this, of course. It took time for everything to grow in, and Papa and I have hired gardeners over the years to tend to the overgrowth. I tried to keep it true to what my father envisioned. The arch was my father’s idea. He planted trees around the metal frame and year after year he guided the branches into a perfect bend. This brought shade all year long. Then he planted vines that crawled along the garden walls, blooming at different times of the year. Pink, purple, yellow, orange, and white flowers brought sweet smells I savored.
I inhaled the soft smells.
What color are they now?
They’re pink, Nana.
Notice how the light squeezes in through the spaces between the branches, between the vines. These long rays I welcomed inside the darkness. Remember, Avery, there is always light, even inside darkness.
Everything feels dark these days, Nana.
Sometimes all we can is sit and breathe until the darkness lifts.
I took a deep breath.
That bench over there…it came much later too. I wanted a place to sit and watch the birds, the butterflies, the ladybugs. A place to sit and remember. Take a moment now and have a seat. What do you see?
Birds, butterflies, and ladybugs, I smiled.
These rocks and the waterfall were Papa’s ideas. The waterfall has been turned off for years, but it brought me a lot of peace.
It’s like I can hear it now.
Well, time sure flies when you’re having fun. It looks like we’ve made it to the end of the garden.I hope you enjoyed our stroll. I sure did. Anytime you want to meet just let me know. I’m still here.
It was the six of us, always the six of us together. Graduation was a week behind us and Eleanor had the keys to her dad’s newly restored VW Bus.
“We’re going on a road trip, girls,” Eleanor plopped down on my bed next to Adeline and Greta.
“What are you talking about?” Scarlett looked up from braiding Blair’s hair.
“Yeah,” Greta mocked.
Eleanor held up the keys and squealed, kicking her feet in the air.
“Where are we going?” I put my head on Eleanor’s shoulder, and she grabbed my hand.
“Anywhere we want to go,” her voice dreamy.
We spent the next two days deciding on a destination, picking a color scheme so that our outfits matched, and buying enough snacks to feed a football team.
“Talulla, sweetie,” my mother stood in her robe and curlers. “Be careful. You know those crazy girls…well, that Eleanor.”
“Mom, we’re adults now. We’ll be fine.”
“Call dad and me when you get to the hotel then.”
We piled into the bus, Eleanor at the wheel, Scarlett next to her in the passenger’s seat, Greta and Adeline in the middle row, me and Blair in the third prepared to manage the snacks stuffed in the back with our bags. The neighborhood was alive with yard sales and car washes. Laundromats were full. And pancakes were stacked high, buttered and fluffy, ready to eat.
“Let’s get hot cakes,” Scarlett whined as we passed.
“Didn’t you eat?” Blair complained.
“She never eats,” Eleanor yelled.
“But she’s always hungry…”
Once on the freeway the loud engine attempted to drown us out, but we talked even louder, our excitement uncontained. This was the last summer we’d spend all together before we each dived into our individual lives, moved away, and became something other than what we were then. We held on tight, reminiscing and renewing our roles: Eleanor, a whole six months older than us, the leader; Adeline the quiet observer quick to alert us when our antics got out of hand; Scarlett, the second oldest, always shotgun; Blair, the talker who could get us into any movie theater on the north side; Greta, the smartest, who “edited” our English papers; and me, Tallulah, in charge of conflict resolution, there to remind us of why we loved each other.
“Remember when Mr. Kohn’s toupee got stuck to the map in Geography?” we laughed.
“Or when Joan Martin yelled at Liam Nash in the middle of math class because he was breathing too loud.”
“How Mrs. Nelson stuttered during first period but not during any other period.”
“Ms. Deman’s thick perfume and her “secret” flask.”
“That’s not funny,” Adeline piped. “She died.”
We stopped laughing and looked out the window until Blair burst into laughter, spitting wet cracker crumbs onto the bus floor.
“Halloween…ninth grade, we all went as evil Raggedy Ann dolls.”
“Movie nights at Greta’s…yeah because her parents love us.”
“Sneaking out to go see Robert Mitchell play defense…he was so cute until he took Naomi Jackson to prom.”
“Driver’s tests! Do you have your license yet Blair?” we laughed.
“Sewing class…you think anyone will ever wear the dresses we made?”
“Oh, that time Greta got a D.”
“It was supposed to be a B,” she corrected.
“But you made us all come over to watch you forge your report card.”
“When Talulla thought she had chickenpox, but they were pimples.”
“When Buster died and Scarlett’s dad dug a hole in the backyard and let us have a funeral.”
“Buster, we miss you!”
The bus roared down the freeway, Eleanor brave behind the wheel steering us south to Hollywood where we planned to meet a few celebrities, sunbathe, and buy souvenirs. We stopped for gas. We snacked. And Eleanor obliged our stretch requests exiting the freeway into unfamiliar neighborhoods, an adventure we didn’t mind taking advantage of. On one of those adventures we found ourselves overlooking a lake of baby blue water.
“Let’s get in,” Scarlett suggested.
“I don’t want to,” Adeline blurted.
“We can just walk around and hang out for a bit,” Eleanor announced, opening her door to get out.
Scarlett exited and opened the side door. Our steps were loud against the rocks. We followed the path to a sandy shore where there were people sitting on towels and blankets, in the water bouncing on the waves. Blair let out a scream and ran towards the water. One by one we followed, our excitement growing the closer we got.
“But, I don’t want to get in,” Adeline yelled, as Scarlett grabbed her hand and pulled her in.
The water was warm at first, but the further we swam the colder the water became. We splashed, squealed, even Adeline who didn’t want to get in. The friendly folks near us offered their inner tubes and we were quick to accept, Eleanor collapsing onto one, Scarlett on the other. Greta, Blair, Adeline, and I spun them around, dumping them into the water when we were ready to take our turn. When the friendly folks came for their inner tubes, we took that as our cue to get out of the water and head back to the bus for our towels and sandwiches. We found a nice sunny spot to spread our towels and ate our sandwiches in silence.
“Greta, where did you learn how to swim?” Scarlett teased.
“Remember when Sophie Madden fell off the diving board during swim class…her legs were shaking so bad.”
“Oh, when we went camping in tenth grade and got lost during our hike…they had to call the park rangers.
“Sloppy Joe Thursdays in the cafeteria…that food fight where we all walked away with red sauce in our hair.”
“How can we forget about band? Adeline’s flute solo that ended when she dropped her flute and it rolled off the stage.”
“Blair’s flat cookies at the senior bake sale…everyone kept asking what they were.”
After we dried off, Eleanor drove us straight to the hotel. We showered and one by one collapsed onto one of the double beds until all six of us were scrunched together, overlapping, crisscrossed.
“In two months, I’ll be in New York,” Greta said.
“I’ll be in Washington,” Eleanor added.
“Arizona…Illinois…Kentucky,” Scarlett, Blair, and Adeline offered.
“Oklahoma,” I followed.
“When will we see each other?” Greta asked.
We were quiet except for our soft sniffles and unsteady breaths. This was the end of one phase of our lives, and we knew our friendships would change as we each went in different directions.
“We’ll always have senior cut day when we went to Six Flags and got stuck on a rollercoaster,” Eleanor laughed as she grabbed my hand, and I grabbed Greta’s, and she grabbed Adeline’s, who grabbed Blair’s, who grabbed Scarlett’s.
“I’ll see you guys when you get home,” I hung up the phone, wiped down the tables, tidied the magazine racks, and refilled the sugar trays.
“You done for the day?” James asked, sweeping dirt into a dustpan.
“Yeah. How long are you here tonight?”
“I have one more client, and Viv wants me to stock the shelves.”
“There’s a storm coming in, and it’s supposed to be pretty bad,” I looked out at the darkening sky.
“It’s overtime,” James shrugged. “Have a good weekend.”
By the time I got to my car, rain was falling from the sky in big heavy drops. I headed towards the freeway but decided against that route when I saw the long line of brake lights. The wind was picking up, its howl seeping through my windows. Heavy raindrops turned into hail. Traffic slowed as the frozen pellets struck the tops of our cars.
“Just let me get home,” I said under my breath.
I turned on the radio just as a storm warning came on, interrupting a mattress commercial. We were told to expect high winds and flooding in some places. Our cars continued to inch along, waiting for lights to turn green only to be stopped by blocked intersections, stalled cars, and then a head on collision between an SUV and a mini van. At impact both vehicles spun in the opposite direction crashing into three other cars in their paths.
For a moment all was quiet as we waited for the drivers to stir and prove that miracles do happen. The battered metal, however, suggested otherwise. Rain continued to pour and the sky rumbled, brightened with sparks of electricity.
A man in the car next to me got out, pulling his hood over his head as he ran towards the SUV. I did the same but ran towards the mini van. I could hear children crying in the back. The driver was slumped over. Three children were still strapped in their car seats. I pulled on the door, but it didn’t budge so I went around to the passenger door to see if I enter from that side. It was locked. The three children stared at me still crying. I looked around for something to break a window with. Nothing. Until a woman was behind me holding a crowbar, telling me to watch out. She broke the back window away from the children and then instructed me to climb in.
“You’re smaller,” she argued.
Sirens were in the distance but were still too far away. I made my way to the driver and unlocked her door; the woman who had broken the window was there ready to take charge.
“She has a pulse, that’s good.”
“Ma’am, can you hear me?” the woman rubbed the driver’s arm then tapped her hand. “Do you know where you are?”
I tried to calm the children, who I now noticed were triplets, two boys and a girl. Their faces were wet and puffy.
“See if she has a cell phone,” I told the woman, hoping there was someone we could call.
I heard the woman rummaging through the driver’s belongings in search of a phone.
“I don’t see one.”
The sky rumbled again and lightening followed. Firetrucks pulled onto the scene followed by several EMTs, and police officers. The woman waved the firefighters over to the van.
“She’s not conscious, but she has a pulse,” she said and stepped out of the way.
I did the same and headed back to my car. Once inside I started the car and blasted the heater, shivering now from cold and shock. I watched as drivers and passengers were questioned and tended to. The entire intersection was blocked, so we waited for police officers to redirect us. The hot air blew against my face, erasing the chill. I decided to call Mark and let him know I’d be home late.
The phone rang and rang before going to voicemail. I waited a few minutes and called again. A man answered.
“Is this Mark’s phone?” I looked at the number.
“Uh, I believe so…we’re at McCarthy and Ford…there’s been an accident.”
“Is he okay…is a little girl with him?” I panicked.
Each second that passed felt long, lonely.
“Hello?” Mark answered.
“Honey?” I felt my body relax a little.
“There was an accident… it involves lightning. But we’re okay. I tell you all about it later.”
She walked onto the property like she had been there before. Not many people know we’re here, so the light knock on the door was alarming. Is someone hurt? Are we being asked to evacuate? Has someone escaped from the jail work program again?
I looked out the window and saw a girl in a yellow raincoat.
“Harold,” I yelled towards the back of the house. “There’s someone at the door.”
“So, open it,” he yelled back.
The heavy mahogany door squeaked as I cracked it open to find the girl fiddling with a red, ripped backpack.
“How can I help you?”
She looked up at me with big, swollen eyes, but she didn’t say anything. Instead she pointed towards the path and then squeezed past me.
“Harold,” I called again. “We have a visitor.”
He came out of the bedroom wearing a plaid robe and one sock with a hole over the big toe.
“Hi Missy,” he adjusted the belt on his robe and cleared his throat. “Where are ya headed?”
The girl set her backpack next to the blue sofa and slipped out of her raincoat, handing it to me as she headed for the kitchen.
“Excuse me,” Harold followed.
She stood in front of the refrigerator, staring at the doors.
“What’s your name?” I touched her shoulder and she turned to face me. “Do you want something? Are you hungry? Thirsty?”
She stuck out her tongue and made loud panting sounds. Harold pulled a glass from the cabinet and filled it with water. We both watched as she gulped the water, holding out the empty glass for more. Harold shrugged as I handed him the glass to refill.
After finishing two glasses of water, the girl sat down at the table and lay her head on her hands. I sat next to her and waited.
“I’m going to go check the road and see if I see anything,” Harold grabbed his keys.
“Oh…let me put on some pants.”
The girl sat up straight as the door shut. She looked around and then put her head down.
“Where are you coming from?”
She stayed silent but held one hand up at a time so I could see the deep cuts in her hands.
“Oh my goodness,” I stood up, headed for the medicine cabinet.
I came back with peroxide, Neosporin, and Band-Aids. She let me clean her hands without so much as a whimper. And when I was done she hugged me, tight, until her body began to shake and words sunk deeper inside the part of herself she couldn’t reach.
“It’s okay,” I ran my hand through her hair, stumbling upon a large wound that now had a loose scab. “What is this?” I parted her hair and exposed the crusted skin.
She pulled away but then froze, looking around the room.
“I’m sorry…did I hurt you?”
She stared at my feet.
“What happened?” I held my hand out. “You’re safe here.”
Harold was back. His key was in the door when the girl found her way back into my arms.
“What’s going here?” Harold asked.
“Did you see anything?”
“No, it’s raining pretty hard out there. I’ll try later. In the meantime…”
“Don’t” the girl whispered, her voice raspy, as though her vocal chords had been strained.
Harold’s eyes met mine as our minds raced.
“Let’s go sit down in here,” Harold led us to the living room. “Now, what’s going on? We’re not going to hurt you, and we’ll do anything we can to protect you, but you need to tell us what’s going on.”
“They’re out there…” the girl started, again in a whisper. “They’re looking for me. They’ll come here,” her body began shaking.
“Who are we talking about?” Harold probed.
“Elias,” she stared into our eyes. “And Cian.”
“They’re in a van. It stopped on the freeway…”
“That’s a ways from here,” I thought aloud. “You walked here?”
She shook her head and stood to leave, reaching for her backpack and raincoat.
“Now I can’t let you go back out there like this,” Harold stood up. “We’ll call the sheriff’s office and let them handle this matter.”
“Okay,” she agreed, sitting next to me on the sofa.
“Let’s get ready for dinner,” Harold cheered. “And by the way, what should we call you?”
We ate dinner together as night fell and then settled in. After an episode of Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, Harold and I were ready for bed.
“Feel free to stay up and watch TV,” Harold said. “Just not too loud.”
“I think I will go to sleep too…I’m tired.”
Once inside our room we asked all the questions we had been holding in, poured out our concerns as the stranger slept in our guest room, thought about what Sheriff Conley had said. “She’s probably a runaway…be careful.” We said our prayers, begging god to keep us safe.
Around midnight we were awakened by three heavy knocks on the front door. We waited, and then there were three more knocks, harder, louder. Harold tipped into the living room to find a van parked behind his truck. I went into the guest room to wake Celia, but she was gone.
I stood in the hallway, motioning for Harold to come to me.
“She’s gone,” I whispered.
“What?” he walked into the guest bedroom and looked around. He froze when shadows appeared outside the window. “They’ve surrounded the house,” he sat on the bed, defeated.
I sat next to him. The knocking turned to pounding. He squeezed my hand as we waited for an intrusion. It didn’t take long for the front door to come caving in, and two men to enter. They bound our wrists and ankles and sat us in the living room, as they ransacked the place.
“Where is she?” they kept yelling.
“We don’t know,” we cried.
“If we find out you do know where she is…” one of the men started. “Cian, the van,” he yelled and they started running.
Someone was in the van backing down the path. I saw yellow, the same yellow as Celia’s raincoat before I heard the gunshots and saw the two men collapse. We wondered if we were next as the stranger exited the van and walked back into the house. She cut the rope that bound our wrists and ankles and then went back inside the guest room.
I stopped by for a short visit just to see how things were going. The new arrivals were packed tight on carts, separated by genre. I let my fingers glide against the titles pausing when one caught my attention. But aisles filled with my favorite authors beckoned, and I followed, ready to revisit their tales.
Stories wild and tame, pulled me into their worlds, where the slow tug of words stopped time and the fast pace of images unfolding propelled me into the future. I fell in love and slayed enemies, sided with detectives who solved mysteries. I slipped into happiness, real and contrived. And I succumbed to plot twists wide-eyed.
My favorite characters’ tears were my tears as new life entered and death took the old away. We ventured into caves, discovered new species, and built time machines. Witches cast their spells, sing-songy riddles with the power to paralyze. Slimy tentacles wrapped around us and squeezed tight until we revealed what had been hidden. In the air we flew over tall buildings. Our super powers saved lives, rescued the innocent. And on the last pages of hard and soft covers, we said our goodbyes, promising to meet again.
We lived in a small apartment above Fatti a Mano’s for two years. The first year my mother was a dishwasher. The second year she worked as a waitress. I helped her hand wash her uniform after her shifts. We both leaned over the bathtub, scrubbing stains off the black and white cotton-polyester material.
“I got you something. I put it in the refrigerator,” she winked.
After she soaked her feet in a basin filled with warm water and Epsom salt, she climbed into bed, falling asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. I lay next to her listening to the music coming from the lounge a few buildings over, routine fights and arguments in the street when drunk patrons were removed from an establishment, and mice scurrying across the kitchen floor.
This was a tourist’s playground and at different times of the year, strangers flocked to the center of the city to consume alcohol and eat unfamiliar foods just for the experience. Most nights I stayed alone, watching the action below. When the streetlights came on, the first wave of tourists trickled in looking for a place all ten members of their party could eat comfortably. They packed into Fatti a Mano’s with their children and elderly, leaving with to-go containers filled with food that wouldn’t be as good the next day. The second wave of tourists filled the lounges, ready to dance and party with a freedom they’d never experienced in their own country. They mingled with other tourists, caught the attention of locals with their mannerisms and attire. The third wave of tourists went straight for the bars and bistros. They were quick to get agitated, quick to raise their fists and litter the streets with garbage, copping big, foreign attitudes when police officers escorted them away at four in the morning.
In the calm the smell of Italian dishes waned, and the noise disappeared only to be replaced with the smell of explosives, the sounds of grenades, cries of the frightened, cries of the injured. We weren’t tourists, but we also didn’t belong, not the way other locals did. Our stay had been granted by the government. It was temporary, and one day we’d return to our homeland, to the emptiness, and I wondered if, in the still of the night, I’d think of the tourists, how at home they felt in their foreignness.
I sat up and looked at my phone. It was 6am. I had nineteen missed calls from my mother. She had filled my inbox with messages ranging from kind and caring, to enraged, savage. Her texts were long and rambling. She told me to stop what I was doing, but wanted to know how I found out about Eunice Bishop. She dared me to tell dad, but also begged me not to. She told me how proud of me she was but that these days liking me was hard. Her last message was to let me know that Eunice Bishop was not as innocent as she claimed to be. It was, after all, Eunice who recommended Hannah come work in our kitchen. She set up the meeting.
My dad suggested I stay at the hotel while he went to work, so I did. He dropped off breakfast from the bagel shop down the street.
“I’ll be back around lunch time. Stay here,” he warned, sensing I would roam. “We can continue the detective work when I get back.”
“Okay, Dad,” I agreed.
“Oh…did you hear from mom by chance?”
I put a thick layer of strawberry cream cheese on a plain bagel and went back to my search, starting with Eunice. I found details about her education, her career as a legal secretary, her charity for women’s education. Pictures of her in a red blazer and white shirt, her hair curly, hanging at her shoulders, were found in every article about her charity. And then I hit the jackpot. I found an abandoned Facebook account and a conversation between Odessa and Eunice twenty years after Hannah went missing.
Today I saw one of the Payton girls, Eunice wrote. Will you send me that picture of me and Hannah, the one at her engagement party?
I’ll get Birdie to show my how to send it, Odessa wrote back
What does this have to do with the Payton girl?
I think I saw her wearing Hannah’s ring.
My heart raced as I thought about the things my mother and aunt had tossed into the brush where Hannah’s car stopped. I had to contact Eunice and tell her what I knew. But what would I say? And would this conversation further incriminate my mother and aunt? Would they be thrown under the jail for their participation in Hannah’s death? Was love or allegiance a good enough reason not to tell?
I tried not to think too hard about it as I called the number to Eunice Bishops’ charity. Her assistant answered, and I panicked.
“Hi…uh, my name is Shelby Payton, I decided to use my mother’s maiden name. May I speak with Eunice Bishop?”
“She’s in a meeting right now. Can I ask what this is pertaining to?”
“I wanted to speak with her regarding the Payton family,” I said.
“You do know this is a charity, right?” the woman questioned.
“I’ll let her know you called, Shelby Payton.”
“Can you tell her to call me back after her meeting?”
“Have a good day, Shelby.”
A few hours later, after getting no response, I decided to send her an email, including details about the ring, dress, purse, and shoes I thought she might want, along with my dad’s work cell phone number, deciding that since he left it on the dresser, I’d use it. Within an hour she called.
“Shelby,” she said as I answered.
“How can I help you, Shelby from R&S Financial Services?”
“I uh…wanted to talk to you about the Hannah Mae Bridgewater case,” I stuttered.
“Yes, Shelby Payton who called the office earlier,” she reminded me. “I just had to see what this was all about.”
Her voice was deep, an unexpected characteristic after looking at her pictures.
“Um…” I couldn’t find the nerve to run through the details I had, nor offer my mother and aunt’s confessions. “Did you send the letter?”
She was silent, except for her heavy breaths. A lump was building in my throat.
“Let me guess, you’re Kimberly’s daughter, so not really a Payton,” she laughed. “I remember when she met Daniel; that’s your dad, right?”
Now I was silent.
“You’re not the only one who knows how to do a little research,” her voice low, ominous. “
She wasn’t the friendly cousin I imagined her to be. I thought about my mother’s words, “Eunice Bishop is not as innocent as you think.”
“You know what I hate?” she asked. “I HATE when a Payton calls my office and tries to rattle me…”
“That’s not why I…”
“Sure you did,” she laughed. “The Facebook message, the ring, her dress…blah, blah, blah. You want to know why there’s a hit on your family member’s lives?”
“Because of what happened to Hannah…they kidnapped her.”
“Very good,” Eunice’s tone was confirming. “You’ve been taught well,” she cackled.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, Shelby Payton…you poor, naïve girl,” Eunice was quiet. “Hannah worked for the Payton’s…that is until a tiny indiscretion involving your Aunt Belinda was discovered. I didn’t blame your grandfather for what he did, beating her and Belinda, shackling them in the barn the way he did. It was a different time,” she paused. “But to take her life was taking things too far.”
I swallowed hard.
“Someone had to pay for what happened…but no one did, even after I gave them chance after chance after chance,” her voice became louder as she spoke. “That was the deal! Tarnish their family name with that story of kidnapping and abuse, donate all proceeds from the wheat field to my charity, and because I’m a religious woman, I wanted an eye for an eye, a life for a life.” She paused again. “That’s what I wanted,” She pronounced each syllable. “Justice!”
I heard my dad put the keycard into the door, but as the door opened it wasn’t his face that I saw. It was hers: Eunice Bishop’s.
My father got us adjoining rooms at the Marriott. He called my mom, but each time her phone went to voicemail.
“Don’t go home,” he pressed. “I don’t want to say why over the phone…call me, please.”
He called my Uncle Jake, Aunt Belinda’s husband, to tell warn him about the threat against our lives.
“We should have stopped by…” he told me as he waited for Uncle Jake to answer. It turns out the same letter was delivered to their house as well. And when he called the police, they told him it was probably a prank. He was unmoved when my dad told him we got the same letter.
“It’s probably one of Belinda’s students,” he theorized. “Someone didn’t get the grade they wanted…I’ll tell her when she gets back from the teachers conference she went to.”
My dad wished him a good night and hung up the phone. We glanced at each other, acknowledging the lie. He started unpacking his bag, putting his clothes in the dresser, his toiletries in the bathroom.
“Dad…check your phone!”
“The security camera…maybe we can get the license plate number of the car.”
We replayed the video and there it was driving up and down the street four times before the driver threw the bottle out of the window and rolled away. My dad wrote the plate number down on a napkin, and I opened my laptop to start the search.
“I’m not sure you can find information on a plate through the internet,” he doubted.
“Dad, you can find anything on the internet,” I laughed. “Read me the number.”
The car was registered to a man named Woodrow Walters.
“We look up Woodrow Walters in Brookings.”
He was fifty-seven, a father of nine, a former writer for the Brookings Daily Newspaper. He was a recipient of several awards, and later fired for his article Moving Past Illegitimacy where he congratulates his cousin, Eunice Walters, who had married David Bishop, Brookings’ Mayor. Mrs. Eunice Bishop was the illegitimate daughter of Marshall Davis who was raised by her maternal grandmother, Jeannette Walters.
I started writing these names down on a Marriott notepad. When asked about the article, Woodrow claimed that he was trying to prevent a town outrage when they learned that the mayor was marrying a woman whose mother and father were unmarried and rejected her, whose life had been threatened by old beliefs held in the fragile minds of residents who had never traveled more than one hundred miles in any direction.
Marshall Davis died when Eunice was twelve years old. Her name was included in his long list of children. His sister, Odessa Davis, shot down anyone who made a fuss.
“Odessa…” I recalled seeing that name before.
“What are you doing over there?” my dad looked up from an episode of Law and Order. “Creating a family tree?”
“I think there’s a connection…” I looked up the name Odessa Davis.
“Dad! The driver is related to the mayor’s wife, who is related to Hannah.”
“They’re cousins…first cousins.” I stood up. “I wonder if they knew each other…do you think Eunice is behind all of this?”
“We need to go see Eunice Bishop,” I decided.
“I don’t think we can just go see the mayor’s wife,” my dad laughed.
“Let’s write her a letter…she wrote us one.” I paused. “We could drop it off in her driveway.”
My dad called my mom’s phone again, still no answer.
“She’s fine, dad.”
“I think I’m going to call it a night,” he said.
“Dad?” I turned to ask as I was going into my room. “If it’s true that mom and her family did, you know, that to Hannah, is it okay for Hannah’s family to…”
As soon as his head hit the pillow, he lost consciousness, slipping into what I knew would be a long night of sporadic snoring. I closed the door and sat on my bed, deciding to text my mom to see if she would text back.
I know about Eunice Bishop.
Less than thirty seconds later my mom was calling. I let it go to voicemail.
Mom called to say she and Aunt Belinda were headed back to Brookings. I didn’t ask why.
“Tell dad we’ll be with grandpa.”
“But you won’t be with grandpa.”
“Just…” she hung up.
Dad stopped off to get food from Luigi’s, and then we headed home.
“By the way,” I began. “Mom went back to grandpa’s.”
“Did she say why?”
I shrugged and focused on keeping the food from spilling inside the flimsy plastic bags. At home we each grabbed a plate, set the to-go containers in the middle of the table, and dug in. The sound of chewing drowned our thoughts. Dad turned on the evening news and opened a beer. I grabbed my laptop and continued my research on Hannah Mae Bridgewater.
Hannah was married to Robert Bridgewater, who worked for the county sanitation department. They were married four years earlier at The Church of Christ. She was the mother of two children, ages two and four, when she went missing. She was a part-time student at Brookings Junior College, studying to become a legal secretary. And she worked at the sewing factory in Mountainview making men’s dress shirts with price tags too high for most residents. It was unclear why she was returning from Mountainview on her day off until Cassidy Rogers stepped forward to say that she saw Hannah in the parking lot on her way into the building.
“I asked her why she was there on her day off, and she said she forgot the schedule had been changed. She turned around and got back into her car. That’s the last time I seen her.”
The car was later towed from the highway and returned to her husband who said it was the radiator that had gone out on her. All able-bodied members of the church joined the search bringing bibles, prayers, and faith. They rummaged through the overgrowth. They canvassed nearby neighborhoods, showing her picture to all willing passersby and those who opened their doors out of curiosity.
“Shelby, I think that’s mom out front,” my dad moved to the couch, plopping his feet up on the coffee table.
I pulled the curtain back expecting to see my mom’s silver, mini SUV.
“Uh, Dad…” I stared out at the white Lincoln, the driver smiling and waving. “Dad,” I screamed. “It’s the man, the car…”
He leapt up and met me at the window just as the man threw something out the window.
“Fire,” I yelled, but there was no blaze.
“Wait here,” my dad went into his gun safe and grabbed his pistol.
“Dad, no,” I begged.
“Go in your room…” he cracked the front door and then tipped out.
I watched from window as he examined the splattered glass in the driveway. Next to it was piece of paper. He looked around for the white Lincoln, but it was gone. I met him at the front door as he carried the rolled up piece of paper between his fingertips.
“Get some gloves,” he headed for the garage.
He made me stand back as he opened the letter. He was suited up in dirty, black overalls, a face guard, and a pair of latex gloves under a pair of black, fitted mechanic gloves.
“It looks like we got ourselves a message in a bottle,” he laughed. “Let’s see what it says,” his body relaxed.
The Payton family’s blood will spill out onto the land, payment for a crime conceived in the sick mind of a predator whose cravings for flesh unlike his own raged in his dark heart, extinguished only when Hannah was safe in his truck, oblivious to the torture to come. There were five; now there are two. Shackles await. Ready to squeeze life out of their wicked bodies. The same way they shackled Hannah, abandoning her inside the wolf’s dungeon. I’m coming for you.
“Shelby,” my dad dropped the letter. “Pack a bag…”
One thing was clear, my mother and aunt, the two women who I trusted most, were panicking. My grandfather’s body was burning in the field, and they were worried about evidence they had hidden years before, and not very well. As they loaded the car with things they believed were incriminating, sirens in the distance were getting closer.
“Get in,” my mother yelled at me.
“No,” I shook my head, coughing as black smoke now filled the air.
“Get in,” she reached for my wrist, prepared to drag me into the car.
I got in next to Mary, her and Kensley watching my defiance, their mouths wide open, their bodies frozen. We made it out just before the fire reached the road, passing the firetrucks about a half-mile later.
“Where are we going?” I demanded.
“Just sit back and relax.”
“Are you joking?” I leaned forward in my seat, talking right into my mother’s ear. “You’re criminals!”
They ignored me, keeping their next steps to themselves.
My mother drove back to the place they had offered Hannah Mae Bridgewater a ride twenty-five years earlier and dumped her stuff deep behind the wild overgrowth. My aunt tried to light the pile with an old lighter from the glove compartment. I took out my phone and hit record. The flame was weak, but flickering, a sign that it might grow if left alone. I thought about uploading the video, writing a scathing caption to express my disappointment, my angst, which I now recognized was rooted both in morality and teenage hormones. I had so many questions; my mind was still processing the past twenty-four hours. Our family legacy was false, and now somehow, the summer before my senior year in high school, the truth was exposed. I felt sick, guilty by association. Who were these people?
They got back into the car without saying anything, and my mother drove the five hours to our house.
“I’ve been trying to call you,” my dad raced out to the car. “Your parents’ field is on fire.”
My mother just stared. There was no sense in lying; we wreaked of smoke.
“What’s going on?”
“The field is on fire,” my mother said, walking past my dad towards the front door.
“Shelby,” my dad came around to my door. “What’s going on? Is everyone okay?”
“No dad, we are not okay.”
Every time I closed my eyes that night, I saw flames whipping through the wheat field. I saw Hannah Mae Bridgewater rising out of the fire with her purse under her arm, dressed in a light blue, tea dress with black shoes, her walk bold, alluring as she headed towards the house and then disappeared.
The next morning my dad woke me up as he was leaving for work.
“Dad, I need to talk to you about something,” I pleaded.
“Can it wait until I get home?”
“I heard you and mom fighting.”
“Can you be ready in fifteen minutes?”
I nodded and jumped out of bed.
He was twenty minutes late for work, but when his boss saw me, he decided against lecturing my dad on tardiness. Between important phone calls and follow-up emails, I showed him the video.
“What am I looking at?” he leaned back in his chair, confused.
“It’s mom and Aunt Belinda throwing away things that belonged to a woman named Hannah Mae Bridgewater. She was murdered on grandma and grandpa’s property,” I divulged. My heart raced.
“Shelby, sweetheart, that’s an old myth,” he explained.
“It’s not,” I argued. “Did she tell you what happened?”
“That grandma and Uncle Grady are in the hospital?”
“What?” I stood up. “They’re dead…and so is grandpa.”
“No, he’s at the hospital.”
“He was burned alive.”
“Shelby, where is all this coming from? I know you and your mom aren’t the best of friends right now, but this isn’t funny.”
“Call the hospital,” I challenged him. “Call them, and then call the morgue.” I left his office and went outside to get some air.
A few minutes later I saw him walking towards me, his hands in his pockets, his demeanor somber. He sat next to me on an iron bench and exhaled.
“How are you doing?” he put his arm around me and kissed my forehead. “You’re not too old for this are you?”
“I don’t know who she is anymore.”
“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” he promised. “What did you say the woman’s name was?”
“Hannah Mae Bridgewater.” I showed him her picture on my phone. “Mom and Aunt Belinda told me that they saw her walking and offered her a ride and then took her back to the barn and shackled her…”
“Wait…when did they say this?”
“After grandpa walked into the fire. They went into the barn and got Hannah’s things.”
“Your grandfather just walked into fire?”
“He had a hose…”
“Still…who does that?” He rubbed his face. “How do three people in the same house all die in less than twenty-four hours?”
“That’s what I want to know.”
“Start from the beginning…tell me what happened, and don’t leave anything out,” he turned to face me.
I replayed the day and then the evening, finding new details as I went along.
“Uncle Grady was the only one eating olives.”
“Who gave him the olives?”
“Aunt Belinda put the olives next to Uncle Grady’s hat as we were all headed outside for cake.”
“When did Grandma go to bed?”
“I don’t know. They were all in the living room crying,” I recalled. “Mom went to the kitchen to get grandma’s pills for her,” I looked at my dad’s face, the gray hairs in his beard. “Oh…grandma asked about one of the pills, and mom said it would help her sleep,” I remembered.
“How did the fire start?”
“A man in a car drove by, waved, and threw something out the window.”
“It wasn’t a Lincoln was it?” my dad laughed.
This time he stood up, running his fingers through what was left of his hair.
“Your mother called me and told me a man in a white, Lincoln was following her,” he explained. “Did you see anyone following you guys?”
“No…it must have been when they went to pick up Uncle Grady.”
“She said he yelled something out the window like ‘Time’s Up.'”
The urgency of that night returned, squeezing me so tight I threw up.
Mary and Kensley chased each other around the property, their laughter loud and annoying.
“Be quiet,” I yelled, looking up from my phone. “You two are doing too much. Do you want to go inside?” I threatened.
“You can’t catch me,” Mary sassed and ran towards the barn.
“Yeah, you can’t catch me,” Kinsley copied, taking off after Mary.
I stayed seated, regretting that I had agreed to watch my wild cousins while my mother, aunt, and grandmother went to town to pick up my great-uncle Grady . Instead of chasing after them, I turned up my music and leaned back against the porch steps. After a few minutes, I walked over to the barn expecting to find Mary and Kensley playing. But I didn’t. The barn doors were wide open, all of my grandfather’s tools and equipment exposed.
“Girls,” I yelled. “You’re not supposed to be in here.”
I examined the chain lock, wondering how they had gotten it open. When they both came running out, their dresses were dirty; in their hands were old, rusted shackles.
“Look what we found,” Kensley put the shackle around her neck and made choking noises.
“That’s not what it’s for,” I explained. “It’s for animals; now go put them back where you found them.”
“There’s more stuff,” Mary added and then held up a newspaper clipping. “Who’s Hannah Mae Bridgewater?” she stared into the faded picture.
“Put that back,” I yelled. “How did you two get in here anyway?”
“The key was in that box,” Mary pointed to a flower box next to the door.
I closed the barn, locked the door, and put the key in the white box before we headed back towards the house. In the doorway, my grandfather stood with his arms folded.
“What were you doing out there?” he asked.
“Nothing…they were just playing.”
“We went inside the barn,” Mary blurted.
“Who’s Hanna Mae Bridgewater?” Kensley snickered.
Admittedly, I didn’t know my grandfather very well. We only spent a couple weeks on his farm a year, and much of that time he avoided us. Never would I have guessed he had in him the rage of ten bulls.
He stomped onto the porch, slamming the screen door so hard it was ripped from the door frame. Mary, Kensley, and I fell backwards. He walked towards us, the heel of his boots scraping against the wood. Somehow I managed to stand up and grab Mary and Kensley’s hands. We ran towards the road, not daring to look back.
My Grandmother was pulling onto the property as we reached the road. Uncle Grady yelled out the window when he saw us.
“Look a here,” he laughed. “Just how tall are you going to get?” he looked me up and down.
“What are you doing out so far from the house?” my aunt Belinda asked, her tone serious.
“Grandpa’s mad,” Mary said, making a scary face.
“What did you girls do to him?” my grandmother defended.
“We went in the barn,” Kensely admitted.
There was a long pause before grandma sped onto the property. They all got out at the same time and entered the house in procession. We waited next to the rusted mailbox until the front door opened again and my mother and aunt walked out towards us. My mother was the first to speak.
“What possessed you to go into your grandfather’s barn?” her body was stiff with disappointment.
“I told them not to go in there,” I started.
Mary and Kensley began to cry each grabbing onto one of their mother’s arms.
“Your grandfather is very particular when it comes to his barn, even though it’s all junk now,” my aunt explained.
“We’re going to go inside, and I want each one of you to apologize to grandpa,”
I walked behind, my steps hesitant. I didn’t know which version of my grandfather was waiting for us once we got inside. Before entering, I looked back at the wheat field, the yellow glow of the setting sun intensifying the golden color.
The apology was uneventful. My grandfather sat in his chair waiting for dinner. It was as if nothing had happened. We ate fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans. The chocolate cake on the counter was for dessert, to be eaten on the porch where more memories would be replayed and laughter would connect us. When we were done, frosting and cake crumbs littered our saucers, neither of us too undignified to lick the residue. My great-uncle collected our dishes and returned with a pack of olives, the green ones still with the pits. He ate as he talked, but by this time no one was listening. Crickets chirped and the wind blew through the field, the soft sound of long wheat stems crashing into each other. I embraced the end of the day like I wasn’t from the city where chocolate cake and a sunset didn’t mark the day’s end. This newfound peace was interrupted when my great-uncle started chocking on an olive pit.
“You okay, Grady?” my grandmother asked, scooting to the edge of her chair.
“Grady?” my aunt Belinda and my mother called as my grandfather stood up and walked towards him.
After they all attempted the Heimlich, they pulled him into the car and drove with one headlight to the county clinic. I stayed behind with Mary and Kensley. They fell asleep in the same bed, and I covered them with one my grandmother’s thick quilts. I waited in the kitchen first listening to music, and then, out of curiosity, I searched the name Hannah Mae Bridgewater. There were hundreds of news articles and reports on her disappearance twenty-five years earlier. She was last seen leaving her church one county over when her car broke down on the side of the highway. Some people said they saw her walking, but no one stopped to help. She disappeared into the night never to be seen again, leaving behind a family to forever mourn. The room spun as I thought about the newspaper clipping, the shackles, the family’s cautious gaze when they heard we had been in the barn.
Five people drove away from the house in my grandmother’s loping Buick, but only four came back, each wearing the news of my great-uncle’s death on their faces. They settled in the living room, leaving me to grieve on my own. The uncle who always found quarters behind my ears and stuffed ten dollar bills in my hands when my mother wasn’t looking was gone. And I still didn’t know the family’s connection to Hannah Mae Bridgewater.
Around four in the morning, I woke to the sound of water running in the upstairs bathtub. I ignored it and fell back to sleep, awakened by loud screams sometime later.
“Kim,” my aunt shouted for my mother. “Dad…”
No one believed my grandmother locked herself in the upstairs bathroom to take her own life. We just couldn’t wrap our minds around that. But two people were dead in less than twenty-four hours. Mourning was now layered with anger, with fright. Who was next?
My mother and aunt made breakfast for the girls, both ignoring their questions about grandma, but like little detectives they persisted.
“Let’s go play outside,” I offered, sensing my aunt was nearing a breakdown she didn’t want her girls to see.
I watched them play jump rope until sweat beads slid down their faces. Then we played Simon says and a short game of I-Spy. An old, Lincoln drove by slowly. The driver waved and smiled as he threw something out of the driver’s side window. He wasn’t even half-way down the road before the wheat field was on fire. Mary and Kensley ran into the house. I watched the flames rip through the dancing stems, unable to process why our world was crumbling.
My grandfather raced out of the house, headed for his long, farming hose. At first he stood on the edge of the field, trying to contain the fire so it didn’t destroy all of his crop. Then he moved closer into the flames.
“Dad,” my mother and aunt screamed. “Come back. It’s not worth it.”
We all stood waiting for him to walk out, but somehow we each knew he wasn’t going to. Our bodies were numb. I waited for my mother, my aunt, for someone to direct our thoughts, our steps. And it wasn’t long before my aunt raced towards the barn, throwing rocks and dirt at it. My mother unlocked the doors, and my aunt raced to the back where the girls had found the newspaper clipping. She pulled it out, along with Hannah’s wedding ring, dress, shoes, and her purse still with her belongings intact.
“Why do you have her things?” I asked, taking a couple steps back.
“This is all because of me,” my aunt sobbed.
“Belinda, no,” my mother warned. “We’re all responsible.”
“What happened?” I yelled.
“Hannah died in the wheat field about twenty years ago.”
“Twenty five,” I corrected. “How did she die?”
“We saw her walking on the highway,” my aunt started. “We told her we would give her a ride. Instead we brought her to the barn and shackled her so she couldn’t get away.”
“But somehow she did get loose,” my mother picked up. “She hid in the field, and grandpa thought she was a fox or something and,” she stopped.
“And what?” I demanded.
“Do I really have to say?”
“You guys killed her and didn’t even bother to let her family know.”
“You wouldn’t be here if we had,” my mother asserted.
“Where did he put her body?”
“She ‘s buried in the field,” my aunt whispered.
“There’s blood in that field. It should be your blood,” I said aloud, but the words were not for them. They were for me, for Hannah.
It was Priscilla’s idea to got to the lake, but she canceled the night before when her daughter, Jerika came home with a broken arm.
“It’s okay, girl. Tend to your baby.”
“My thirteen-year-old baby,” she laughed. “She’s fine, but she wants her momma.”
I thought about changing my plans as well, do some deep cleaning, catch up on my reading, sleep. Then I thought about the non-refundable boat tour fee. I had two tickets and needed to find Priscilla’s replacement, someone I didn’t mind spending three hours with.
Everyone I called already had plans or feared boats and didn’t dare step foot on one, even if it meant spotting sea lions, dolphins, seals, and whales up close. I put down my phone and went outside to water the grass, bound through marriage to Lyle’s “grass should be green” expectation.
Mrs. Griffin, the widow who lived next door was sitting on her porch watching me.
“You waste water,” she complained, scratching underneath her hairnet.
“How are you doing, Mrs. Griffin?”
“Tell your husband not to park his car in front of my house when he comes home for lunch,” she stood with her hand on her hip. “And there’s two of you…you’d think one of you could bring your garbage can in from the street on the same day it’s picked up.”
“We will try harder,” I smiled and then had a bright idea. “How’s Julia?”
“Would you tell her to call me? I have an extra ticket to a boat tour tomorrow. Do you think she’d want to go?”
Mrs. Griffin sipped tea from a “Best Grandma” mug and then looked out across her yard. A collection of garden gnomes sat along the perimeter protecting blossoming perennials.
“Give me the ticket,” she demanded.
“It’s on my phone, “I tried to explain. “Tell her to meet me at…”
“Write the address down for me.”
“I’ll write it down and bring it to you in a little bit.”
After a late lunch, I got ready, put on several layers of clothing, as suggested, and then hopped in the car. The drive took forty-five minutes, long enough for me to listen to two chapters of my audiobook. I parked on the far end of the marina and headed towards the line forming near the dock. A yellow cab pulled up next to me, the driver waving to get my attention.
“Hey,” he called.
“Hi,” I stopped, looking over at the driver.
He pointed behind his seat as the back door opened and a woman in a red jogger suit got out. On the chest of her jacket were yellow and white flowers. Her hair was curled. I could still see where the rollers had been. She turned to face me with her bright red lips, blue eyeshadow plastered on her eyelids, and layers of rouge on her cheekbones.
“Mrs. Griffin,” I stuttered. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m going on a boat ride,” she walked ahead of me, slapping her cane against the ground.
As we boarded, Mrs. Griffin clung to me until we got to our seats. I obliged, but inside I was screaming. There was no way I was going to spend the next three hours with the neighbor from hell. She didn’t speak right away, and neither did I. Once the boat was a safe distance from the dock, we settled in, rocking back and forth.
“I know this isn’t what you were expecting,” Mrs. Griffin’s tone was apologetic. “Julia is not speaking with me right now.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that.”
“I know I’m a stubborn old lady, but once upon a time I was a young lady like you on a boat ride like this with my Kenny,” she paused. “We went out every Sunday after church. I called it Sweet Sunday.
“That’s adorable,” I felt myself relax. “I wish Michael liked to do stuff like this.”
“Well, forget about it. You married the wrong man.”
I felt my body tense up again, but I knew she was right.
“Where were you five years ago?” I laughed and so did she.
Standing in a canary yellow dress, she greeted the crowd, thanked them for coming. Moments later, under the bright spotlights, she picked up her guitar and started to play. The arrangement was her own, a warm, refined melody. Then came her voice, delicate at first, weaving through notes like water flows through a stream, growing into a guttural expression, marked by hard, poignant sounds. Her voice told a story of love and pain. She reached inside of us awakening all that was dormant. Acoustic sounds cradled broken hearts. Planned pauses were heavy against our ears. And at the end of her song we rejoiced, applauded, thanked her for unraveling us and putting us back together again.
“Merrillee Sanders, everybody!” the owner of Bluebirds shouted, and we applauded more.
For a little over an hour she chatted with other musicians and fans, her approach with each person modest, kind.
“I’d love to perform with you,” she offered over and over, unsure how to navigate this new scene.
Until that night she had only played for us–during family get-togethers, our father’s company Christmas party, in the kitchen on Saturday mornings. We knew she had a beautiful voice, but the world didn’t know yet.
We hopped into the car, deciding we’d stop off for malts and fries on the way home. I drove so that she could sit back and bask in the joy of this night. She went on and on about how it felt like a dream, and I assured her it wasn’t. I told her it was her big break, that more doors would open and she’d find herself on even bigger stages across the country, then the world.
Joann was working the evening shift at Dairy Queen. She knew it was us when I shouted our order through the broken speaker.
“Maddalyn? Is that you?” she laughed, static pouring out of the speaker.
“It’s me,” I squealed. “And Merrilee.”
At the window we chatted with her until the drivers behind us began honking.
“Come over after your shift ends,” Merrilee told Joann.
“I sure will. I hate that I missed you sing.”
“I recorded it,” I admitted, and we all laughed.
I turned left onto Country Road 4717. We nibbled on hot fries and sucked thick malt through small straws. The long dark road was one we knew well, one I could drive in my sleep if it weren’t for the occasional wild animal darting from one side to the other. On Sweetgum Lane I knew to slow the car, let it roll itself over the rocky path. I knew that. The driver barreling down Jackson Road did not.
At the end of Sweetgum, we collided with a red Camaro. We rolled. Through Tommy Kenton’s field. Down into the ravine. I don’t know how long I was unconscious. The sound of metal slamming against the ground rang in my ears. My body trembled with shock, but I managed to unbuckle my seatbelt and climb out the window.
“Merrilee,” I called, expecting her to do the same. “Unbuckle your seatbelt…come on.”
I kept calling for her, as I made my away around the overturned car. I couldn’t see her through the dark. Instead I saw the outline of the mangled frame where she should have been.
Small flashlights shone on us as men in blue overalls and work boots got closer. I heard your voice climbing those familiar octaves, trailing into a warm, angelic whisper.
I saw you sitting on the bench by yourself watching everyone else participate in the Meet-n-Greet festivities. You gave a half smile, swung your feet back and forth, and then went back to reading your book.
Maryanne, my new worker, said the Meet-n-Greet would be fun. But she didn’t know that I was shy. She didn’t know I was sad.
There were face painters, magicians, and lots of games and prizes. And at lunch time hot dogs and hamburgers appeared on carts, kept warm in stainless steel trays. Lines formed, but you didn’t join in.
I don’t like hotdogs or hamburgers, never have, but I watched people pile one or the other onto their paper plates and squeeze mustard and ketchup on top. Maryanne waved for me to come and eat.
I filled my plate with veggies and ranch, hesitating before I treated myself to a bag of cheddar Sun chips. When I looked over at you, I thought you saw me, so I approached.
Your pink hair caught my attention. I’d never been allowed to get my hair dyed. It was against the rules. I didn’t mind that you were coming towards me. I put my book down and waited.
My heart was racing. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted you to think I was interesting. A quick glimpse at your book and I was ready. “Blessed be the fruit,” I said with a big, yet cautious, smile.
I couldn’t help but smile back at you as I said, “May the Lord open.” No one ever paid attention to what I was reading. No one cared that I was fifteen reading a book that had been banned by most high schools.
I sat next to you and held out my hand. “I’m Iris. Can I eat with you?” “Yes…I’m Vada,” you responded.
You loved books, told me about the ones you were reading. We talked about our favorite authors their writing styles. We were shocked to find out that we both wanted to go to an upcoming book signing at the local bookstore. “We should go,” you said.
You lit up when we talked about your favorite books. I got lost in your descriptions of the characters, their strengths and flaws. You walked me through different themes, applied them to life, your life, and I listened.
I was surprised by you, how easy it was to talk to you, how easy it was to feel safe next to you.
I was surprised when you shared with me the events in your past that made life hard in the present.
Maryanne was happy to see that we had made a connection and was quick to write our names together in her folder, quizzing you on your intentions. “Adoption path…or mentor path?” I held my breath as I waited for your response.
Adoption was always my plan.
I hadn’t thought about adoption, not in a real way. Now I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to have a family, to be a part of someone else’s life.Every time I thought about you, I smiled.But the past was always there to remind me not be so eager, to wait and see.
It was just before 5pm when my boss, Derek Mansfield, the most meticulous man I’d ever met, came into my office for a chat.
“Hey, Aria…can I talk to you for a minute,” he walked in, closed the door, and sat in the chair across from me.
“I was looking over the samples for the Sutter account, and I was thinking…”
I felt frustration rising in my chest, racing to my throat, to my face.
“I can work on it tomorrow,” I offered.
“I was hoping you could get started on it tonight,” he tapped the desk. “Say an hour?” he stood to leave. “You’re the best.”
Once the door was shut behind him, I let out an angry sigh and mocked him under my breath. Then I called the babysitter to let her know I’d be late.
“Any day but today,” Nadia explain. “I’m picking up my sister from the airport.”
“I see,” I rubbed my eyes. “I’ll see if Aaron can pick her up.”
“By 5:30pm,” Nadia asserted.
I hung up and texted Aaron to see if he had time in his schedule.
Can’t. We’re short a guy. Won’t be home til closing. Luv ya.
A text from my friend, Desiree, came in right after Aaron’s.
It’s Hump Day! Happy hour?”
Instead of texting back, I called her.
“Hey girl,” I smiled. “Are you driving?”
“Yeah, I’m picking up Johnny and dropping him off with my mom,” she cheered. “Miranda and I are meeting for happy hour…you down?”
“I have to work late, and I need to find someone to pick up Leah in twenty minutes.”
“You know I’d help you, but I have to go all the way out to Brentwood.”
“I know. I’ll find someone, or I’ll just have to tell Derek…”
“Good luck with that,” she interrupted. “You know that man is unstable.”
“I don’t want to lose my job.”
“I know. Do what we do,” she advised.
“Make it work!”
I stared at the back of my door, listening to Derek gathering his things to leave.
“I’m headed out…I’ll see you in the morning.”
I watched him from my window. With his briefcase in his hand and his jacket over his shoulder, he walked towards a black Lexus and got in.
It was 5:15pm. I slipped the Sutter account in my work tote, waited until I heard Michael deep in conversation with Mr. Campbell, one of our biggest accounts, and then made my exit. On my way to pick up Leah, I planned my evening–make dinner, put on a load of clothes, give Leah a bath and let her watch Frozen until she fell asleep, and then get to work on the Sutter account. I imagined myself crunching more numbers, creating charts, graphs, and planning our next meeting.
When I saw Leah sitting on a plastic chair waiting for me, I knew my evening plans had been sabotaged. Her eyes were glossy, her affect flat.
“She’s been sneezing, so I figured it’s allergies,” Nadia explained, all but shoving us out the door. “But if she’s still like this tomorrow, you’ll have to keep her home.”
“Thank you,” I said, carrying Leah to the car. “You’re not sick, right?”
She leaned her head against my chest and nodded no.
At home I made dinner while Leah sipped on a juice box. She sat in a chair watching and then uttered the words no mother ever wants to hear.
“Mommy, my throat hurts.”
I made her a cup of lemon-honey tea and fed it to her on a spoon, blowing each spoonful until it was lukewarm and she opened her mouth to swallow. Then I sat with her on the sofa as she fell asleep, waiting for Aaron.
At 8:15pm Aaron arrived home dirty, smelling of car fumes.
“Hey babe,” he leaned in for a kiss.
“I’m going to hit the shower…what’s for dinner?”
“It’s on the stove.”
“Did you make me a plate?”
“Yeah, it’s on the stove.”
He took a peak under the foil and then went to shower. I tried to lay Leah in her bed, but she resisted, throwing her warm arms around my neck, and letting out a soft whimper.
“What if you lay here and Mommy sit over there,” I pointed to the small wood table across the room.
“No,” she whined. “Sit here,” she tightened her arms around my neck.”
I leaned back against the headboard and waited for Aaron to get out of the shower. My body relaxed as the room grew darker.
“Yeah?” Aaron poked his head in Leah’s room.
“After you eat can you take her for me? I have some work to do…I was actually supposed to work on it before I left the office, but I left early and…”
“Babe, I’m tired,” he complained. “I just want to eat and relax.”
I tried to lay Leah on the bed and again she latched on to me.
“Okay,” I gave in and got comfortable.
A small nightlight in the corner brightened the room a little but not much. I looked at the basket of dolls against the wall, some clothed with impeccable hair, others naked with wild, matted hair. On one side of her closet were dresses, jeans and shirts on the other. In another closet were sweaters and jackets for all forecasts, shoes, and leggings. I counted the fish on the wall across from her bed, keeping sleep at bay. I was half-convinced that if Leah fell into a deep enough sleep, I could lay her on the bed and still have plenty of time to work on the Sutter account. But that didn’t happen.
Aaron ate his dinner and then moved into the office that had become a game room in the last year. Instead of making a fuss, I stayed quiet. His loud rants rattled Leah and she clung to me even harder, her body like a blanket against me. Somehow between his rants and her body heat, I fell into a dark sleep.
It was morning. An eerie fog hung over the city, an empty city. The Sutter file was next to me in my tote bag, secured by the seatbelt. I looked down at my gas gauge and it was at Full, so I kept driving, waiting for something familiar to come into view. This is the way to work, I assured myself. The sound of my tires against the old road was louder than the radio, which now played an episode of Mystery Theater. Ominous footsteps were behind my car. I didn’t dare stop. The gas gauge moved from Full to three-quarters, to half, to one-fourth tank in what felt like seconds. Panic set in as my car came to a stop. The footsteps got louder and louder. The Sutter file leapt from my bag and danced in the air. I reached for it and it jerked back. I reached again. This time Derek’s face plastered on the side of the file, mouthing “How are you doing on the Sutter file, Aria?” I screamed and opened my door. The footsteps were even louder. I looked back and it was Desiree.
“Happy hour, girl!”
And then everything disappeared. The Sutter file, Desiree, and my car. I was alone. My breath was heavy, my thoughts racing.
“How am I supposed to do this?” I cried.
“Aria, Ari,” I heard Aaron calling.
“You were having a nightmare,” he picked Leah up and motioned for me to move over. “Go to bed,” he said as Leah now clung to him.
Our next-door neighbors called Child Protective Services one summer night when my mother made me sleep in the car while she and her friends partied all night.
“I love you, baby,” my mother cried as Yolanda from CPS made me pack a suitcase.
Through my tears I could still see the red and puffy track marks on her arms. She fidgeted in the doorway. I knew once I was gone she’d be on to her next fix. The bed was piled high with clothes, some clean, some dirty, some mine, some hers.
“Just get enough for a week’s stay,” Yolanda suggested.
“I’ll be back in a week?” I perked.
“That’s not what I meant,” her expression apologetic. “You can do laundry at the group home.”
“Oh,” I avoided her eyes. “Okay…Will I be able to call my mom?”
“I don’t know,” Yolanda absorbed another tough question. “Probably not at first, but we’ll get all of that worked out.”
My mother tried to chase after the car as we drove away, her body skeletal, weak. I sunk in the seat and pushed fear away. Yolanda turned up the radio to distract me,
“Do you like this music?” she asked.
“It’s fine,” I looked over at Yolanda, but she was far away focusing on the road, and the task at hand.
The group home wasn’t what I expected. It was an actual house, two stories with double, front doors. Fran, an older lady with deep frown lines, showed me to my room and gave me a list of house rules. For two months I held on to Yolanda’s words, “I will do my best to find a relative you can stay with.” I gave her a list of “possibles” and waited.
Two days after I arrived, Victoria walked up the stairs and threw her things on the bed across from mine. She kept to herself but did share some words of wisdom with me the day I left.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Yolanda picked me up and we headed to Alice’s house, the one person, not on my list of possibles, who agreed to take me in. She lived in the mountains about three hours away, so I settled in, nibbling on the bag of pretzels Yolanda kept in the console.
“So, I do need to tell you something…” Yolanda turned the radio down.
“Okay…” I stopped mid-chew.
“This will be on a trial bases,” she hesitated. “For everyone,” she tried to make the conditions sound better.
“I don’t even know who Alice is,” I admitted, hoping she didn’t turn the car around and take me back to the group home.
“She’s your grandmother, your father’s mother.”
I stared out the window, stuffing pretzels in my mouth two at a time.
Yolanda parked her car in a guest parking spot and then put her hand on mine.
“I guess,” I moved my hand and opened the door. “Pop the trunk.”
I carried my backpack and Yolanda carried my suitcase.
“I have a good feeling about this.”
I nodded, wondering how many times she had made this statement, how many times she had been wrong.
Alice opened the door just before I knocked.
“I saw you coming down the hill, no need to knock,” she complained.
She ushered us into the living room, a large, Mediterranean-styled space with a fireplace. A stack of books rested on the coffee table, a pair of reading glasses next to the hardback classic she was reading,
“I’m Yolanda,” Yolanda extended her hand.
“We spoke,” Alice shook her hand and then looked at me. “I thought you’d look a little like him, but you look exactly like him,” she laughed.
“Where can I put my stuff?”
“Follow me,” she kept laughing. “Is this all you brought?”
She led us to a room with a queen-sized bed, a long black dresser, and a ceiling fan. A dark yellow carpet covered the middle of the room, leaving dark stained wood exposed along the perimeter of the floor.
“Here we are,” she turned on the light. “There are hangers in the closet, or you can fold your clothes and put them in the dresser.”
I sat on the edge of the bed and looked around.
“My room is just down the hall.”
“What do you think?” Yolanda asked with her thumbs up.
“What are the rules?” I asked Alice.
Her list of rules was long, one rather concerning: No visits or calls from Beth.
Yolanda took me outside for a chat.
“It’s just temporary…if you don’t like it here…”
“Can I call my mom?” I asked.
Yolanda looked around and exhaled.
“I just want to see how she’s doing.”
“Five minutes,” she said, handing me her phone.
I called twice, each time the phone rang and rang.
“I’ll talk to Alice, see if we can set up a phone call in a couple weeks.
“I’m only staying a week,” I said and walked back inside.
Alice started each day with a cup of coffee, a walk up the hill, and her favorite morning news show. After breakfast–poached eggs and toast–she picked up her thick, red marker and crossed off a day on the calendar. I went outside following other experienced hikers on surrounding trails. And just before lunch I returned for tomato soup and French bread.
“Did you see anything interesting out there?”
At 4pm we started dinner, roast, sautéed vegetables, and a baked potato.
“Don’t forget your pills,” I reminded Alice each day.
“It’s a good thing you’re here,” she laughed.
And the next morning she crossed off a day on the calendar and watched her morning news, until Thursday. It was the day her groceries were delivered. She opened the door to the delivery driver and watched them set one paper bag after another on her table and countertops.
“Did you get paper towels?” I asked, helping Alice put the food away.
“Gosh darn,” she snapped. “I forgot.”
“I’ll make a list for you, so that next week…you know, when I’m gone.”
“Of course,” she nodded. “That would be great.”
The phone rang filling our silence.
“Will you get that? Take a message.”
I lifted the handle and put the phone to my ear. Alice and Fran were the only people I knew who still had landlines.
“Hailey, it’s Yolanda.”
“Hi,” I said anticipating the details of my new placement.
“How are things going with Alice?”
“Good,” I looked back into the kitchen at Alice as she put a gallon of milk into the refrigerator.
“I want to be transparent with you, so I’m just going to tell you straight,” she paused. “Your mother was admitted to General last night after an overdose.”
“Heroin?” I asked, my tone flat.
“I don’t know…”
“Okay…thanks for telling me.”
I hung up and went back into the kitchen.
“I’ll cut the vegetables, Alice.”
“And I’ll start the roast.”
We gathered everything we needed and got to work. She was on her side of the kitchen, and I was on mine. The sound of chopping, sizzling, and chewing were the only sounds between us. Night came and Alice retreated to her room and I to mine. The next morning, we started over: coffee, a walk up the hill, breakfast, and her morning show.
As she passed her calendar she hesitated, deciding not to draw a thick, red line through the day.
“Why don’t you take me on one of your hikes?” she asked. “A short one.”
It’s been a year since we last met. Your three-month stay was filled with reds, yellows, oranges, greens, and browns. You brought bountiful harvests we drove hours to collect. On hills and in patches, families arrived with wooden buckets and red wagons.
We sat in our kitchens staring out the window at your grey skies while making pumpkin bread, pumpkin butter, and pumpkin pie we put in fall-themed storage containers and shared with friends, with neighbors. We ate hearty soups, sipped hot tea, and wrapped ourselves in blankets as darkness claimed our evenings.
Some days you brought rain. We danced with the soft droplets under the stars and moon. Some days we watched your heavy downpour, racing across our windows, the backdrop to the nightly news and new episodes of The Walking Dead.
Costumes, candy, turkey and stuffing claimed our lives. The walls in our offices were covered with decorations; wreaths hung on the front doors of our homes for everyone to see. We ventured out to festivals and bought crafts, participated in costume contests, and got lost in mazes. Scary music and movies reappeared, updated, scarier, and we tuned in.
Now you’re back bringing shorter days and longer nights, fairytale pumpkins and butternut squash. In jeans, a long tunic sweater, and an oxbow scarf, I will walk for miles along leaf-covered paths absorbing the warm sun and soft, cool breeze, just to see you.
“Betrayal comes as a surprise, a party no one wants an invitation to. It creeps in, silent, like air. It is inhaled, and there in the middle of breath, its gas, thick and suffocating, poisons the lungs.”
I stood in a line so long it wrapped around two buildings. hoping I’d get a bed for the night. Selah’s Sanctuary was the name of the shelter, a place my mother, her boyfriend, Jim, and I had passed weeks earlier on the way to our new home without thinking twice. With just my school bag, the clothes on my back, and twenty-two dollars and seventeen cents, I waited behind a man wearing two pairs of jeans, a holey windbreaker, and mismatched shoes. His belongings were piled into an old shopping cart, it’s wheels stiff with hair and dirt. Behind me was a woman having an argument with someone trying to steal her belongings, all of which she seemed to be wearing. I wondered how someone could be lucid enough to know to stand in line for a bed but still give so much energy to a perpetrator that wasn’t real. The line inched forward. Soon I could see the door, florescent lights pouring out into dusk’s darkening veil. A short woman with wide hips did a head count and then went back inside. I put my hands in my pockets, my palms sweaty as I thought about what might happen if I didn’t get a bed.
My first night on the street I spent walking along the strip hidden amongst an endless flow of late night gamblers and partiers. I just walked, fueled by shock. And when the sun rose I hopped on the city bus headed for the YMCA where I swam, floated mostly, and ate breakfast–a granola bar, an apple, and some kind of berry juice concentrate. I stayed until someone noticed and approached with questions. The rest of the day I roamed, trying to stay out of sight, but not disappear. The park. The mall. The river. McDonald’s, where I ordered the four-piece nuggets and slept until someone asked me to leave. And the next day was a repeat of the first.
Now I was three days in, afraid that this was my new life, afraid that home, as a concept, would become unfathomable. During my stroll through the park, I overheard two women talking about Selah’s Shelter and then spent the rest of the day getting there. A kind barista who gave me a small water cup also let me use her phone to look up the address and get directions.
“Are you from here?”
“No,” I said, unwilling to reveal too many details.
“How old are you?”
“I just turned eighteen.”
When the woman with the wide hips came back out, she let us know that all the beds were now occupied and that she was sorry. The crowd dispersed, leaving behind loud mumbles and groans. I stayed. And just before she closed the doors, I approached.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“We’re all full, dear,” she said.
“I know…I just don’t know where to go.”
She looked me up and down. I didn’t look homeless, not then. But the dark circles under my eyes, my flat hair absent of product, frizzy because my flat iron was across the country somewhere, and in my voice a frailty she had heard many times before made her stop.
“Let me see what I can do,” she said.
She returned with a sleeping bag, a blanket, a large brown jacket, and a grocery bag filled with non-perishables.
“Take this,” she said. “Come back tomorrow…come early, and I’ll get you a bed.”
“But where do I go now?” the jacket fell to the ground and she bent down to retrieve it.
“Got it?” she asked, laying the jacket across my arms.
I nodded. She paused for a long time as she stared at me, her eyes watery.
“Stay safe,” she turned to leave. “Maybe you should think about going home.”
“Thank you,” I said and left.
I wasn’t a runaway, but now I looked like one. Her kindness marked me as vulnerable, defiant, undeserving. I stuffed the sleeping bag and groceries into my bag and slipped on the brown jacket. At McDonald’s I sat again nibbling on nuggets until the night manager came over and asked me to leave for closing. I found my way back to the strip where I sat under a tree watching gamblers come and go, winners and losers living on the edge. Some cheered. Some cried. Some picked fights with their partners who should have cut them off.
But in the moments when the flow of gamblers waned, I thought about home, how two-weeks earlier I had come home after school to find the house empty, a note from my mother on the counter telling me to call her. I did. Many times. She never picked up. And soon my cell phone stopped making calls, connecting me instead with the phone company’s disconnection message. I waited there for fourteen days, living on ramen, crackers, and water.
“They have to come back for me,” I thought.
They never came, but the owner of the house did.
“What are you doing in my house?” he yelled, finding me sleeping on the living room floor.
“Get out before I call the police and have you arrested for trespassing,” he shook his cane at me.
I grabbed my things and left.
Before sleep wrestled me into submission, I heard my mother crying.
“Did you come on to Jim? she accused.
“What are you talking about?” I unpacked my beads.
“He said you did,” she wiped her eyes. “I don’t know what to believe.”
“Believe me, mom.” I said, walking towards her.
“Stay away,” she said and walked out.
Forty-eight hours later she was gone. He was gone.
Every Saturday began the same, my mother coming into my bedroom.
“Get up,” she said, swatting me with the feather duster.
“Ma,” I complained, pulling the covers over my head.
“Get up, now,” my mother repeated. “We don’t have time for that foolishness,” she headed for the bathroom.
I watched her leave the room before getting up and slipping into my Saturday wash jeans and t-shirt. I tied the end of the gray t-shirt in a ball at my side, pulled my hair into a ponytail, the ends frizzy and wild, and grabbed my socks and shoes.
In the living room on the coffee table were two saucers each with a slice of dry toast. I pushed my mother’s blanket over and sat down. The cushions had lost their firm filling, replaced with the imprint of my mother’s body where she slept every night. I put on mismatched socks and an old, worn pair of high-top sneakers. I sat back and listened to the water run, waiting for my mother.
“Eat, Carmen” she said as she stepped out of the bathroom.
She looked the same. The same hair scarf. The same puffy eyes. The same calloused skin from long days in the fields.
“I will Ma. Let me wash my face and brush my teeth.”
When I came out of the bathroom, my mother was standing just outside the apartment with her wire basket stuffed with plastic bags.
“Let’s go, Carmen, my mother rushed.
“I’m coming,” I grabbed my toast.
We walked the mile and a half to the Farmer’s market and there my mother began her weekly bargaining. I stood with the basket watching each exchange.
“I give you .50 cent for a pound,” my mother offered for carrots.
Each time she was refused, but she kept on, proposing a new price until the person grew frustrated and either shooed her away or let her have the items so she didn’t distract other customers. This is how we ended up with a basket full of food for the week even though our food budget was less than what most paid for coffee each week.
Back at home I was in charge of putting the food away while my mother started laundry. She filled a tin wash pan on the patio with hot water she boiled in a large stew pot and then washed our whites, underwear and towels, because she believe dye could seep into our skin and cause cancer. She hung our underwear in the bathroom and the towels on the clothes line outside my bedroom window. And I started on the colored clothes, her work pants and shirts and my school uniforms. We both hung them on the line. Standing at the window next to my mother reminded me of just how strong her body was, but also how beaten it was.
“I got it, Ma,” I said, but she ignored me, pinning another pair of tan khaki pants on the line.
“Go cut the carrots and celery,” she said.
Inside our tiny kitchen I cut the carrots and put them in a pot of boiling water. Then I added the celery pieces and seasoning. My mother was behind me now peeling potatoes and chopping them into oblong pieces.
“Vacuum the floor,” she said.
I plugged in the vacuum and started creating the lines in the carpet my mother liked. Then I watered her frail plants and folded her blankets, transforming her bed back into a plaid couch.
“Ma, you want to listen to Ibrahim Ferrer?” I moved towards the cd player.
“No,” she kept cutting potatoes. “Go see if Esmeralda got food today.”
Across the complex a similar scene played out. Esmeralda was in the kitchen chopping, and Wilhelmina ironed clothes.
“Hey, girl,” Wilhelmina said when she opened the door.
“Hey, my mom wanted to know if you got food,” I stepped inside.
“We got fruit today, and beans, and pork…” she recalled. “My father sent money,” she offered, sensing my envy.
Esmeralda overheard and came over.
“How’s your Ma?” she asked me, rubbing her hands on a small white, kitchen towel.
“She’s good,” I said, eyeing the pie sitting on the counter.
“You want some?” Esmeralda asked.
“No, thank you,” my mouth watered.
“Yes, you do,” she said. “I’m going to make you and your mom a plate.”
“What have you been up to girl?” Wilhelmina asked, sitting on the arm of their leather sofa.
“Not much…school,” I looked down at my sneakers. “What about you? How’s school?”
“It’s good,” she started. “I gotta tell you something,” she teased.
Esmeralda came back with two plates wrapped in foil.
“Let me get you a bag for those,” she went back to the kitchen, got a paper bag and a bottle of apple juice.
“Tell your Ma I got some information for her about a program she might be interested in,” she put everything in the bag and handed it to me.
“Okay,” I took the bag.
“I’ll see her tomorrow,” Esmeralda continued. “Wilhelmina, go with Carmen.”
Wilhelmina walked me back to my apartment, our four year age difference obvious as she went on and on about her boyfriend, George, a college freshman who had a car and three room mates.
“After I graduate this year, we’re going to move in together,” she blushed.
“Are you going to get married?” I asked.
“Eventually…we’re not in a hurry,” she popped her gum. “That’s just not what everybody is doing these days. We want to live our lives and have fun.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“We met at a party,” he laughed. “Don’t tell my mother. I always tell her I’m studying with a girlfriend.”
“I won’t,” I said, uncomfortable with the agreement.
“Let’s go the long way,” she grabbed my arm so that we walked along the perimeter of the complex.
It was an older complex, with a newer coat of paint. The cement paths were cracked, and there were patches of grass throughout, worn from children playing and riding bikes. The parking lot was filled with old cars, some working, some not. People didn’t move in or move out. We stuck together, like family joined by struggle and our stronghold on values brought from another place and time.
“What if you get pregnant?” I asked, the question felt big in my mouth.
“Then I’ll do what I have to do,” she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder.
“Guess what?” I changed the subject.
“I like a boy too,” I admitted, pulling a silver ring from my pocket.”
“What’s this?” she took the ring in her hand. “Who gave this to you?”
“Alex,” I smiled. “He said he wants to marry me when we grow up.”
“Alex from Mass?” she laughed. “No way, you have to give this back to him.”
“He’s a dork, that’s why.”
“But I like him,” I defended. “He comes from a good family, and he works with his father. They have their own business.”
“Sure you do,” she tossed her hair again. “You’ll change your mind when you’re my age.”
She handed me the ring back, and I put it in my pocket, holding on to it like it might slip away.
The pink crape myrtle was in bloom, and we were getting new neighbors. They arrived in an out of state U-Haul with a red ’69 Mustang trailing behind. Sammy sat at the table dipping his French toast in syrup. Greg and I stood at the window peeping through the curtains at a burly man, his long beard braided down to the middle of his chest. He rested big brown boxes against his belly and stacked them at their front door. A bald man in a navy blue jacket and jeans was on the truck moving boxes and furniture to the edge before lifting them up onto his shoulder and carrying them into the apartment. Still sitting in the truck was a woman. She didn’t stir, just sat there until the men had emptied the truck and moved everything inside.
Dressed in Tweety Bird pajamas and yellow slippers, she stepped out of the truck, the burly man extending his arm for her to lean on. She walked the hundred feet with her head bowed, holding on for dear life to the man’s arm, who now had a cigarette resting between his lips.
I looked over at Greg, and he looked back.
Once the woman was inside her apartment, the two men hopped back into the truck and left.
“We’ve got new neighbors,” I said, my eyebrows raised. “Should we go over and introduce ourselves?”
We busied ourselves for hours with Sunday chores. All was quiet next door.
“I think we should go introduce ourselves, see if she needs anything…what’s the harm?” I proposed.
“I think we should mind our own business,” Greg warned, taking out the ingredients for his famous chili.
Sammy made noises as he lined his toy cars on the kitchen floor.
“Not in here, buddy.”
“But, daddy.” Sammy complained and then wrapped his cars in his shirt, moving to the living room.
Greg diced onion and tomatoes. I watched.
“I’m not changing my mind,” he said.
“What if we take her some of your famous chill?”
He kept dicing.
“If no one comes back to check on her, then we’ll go over,” he conceded. “I don’t know if she’s up for chili though…maybe soup or something.”
I smiled and watched him work his magic.
As the chili simmered in the pot, we heard soft coughing through the wall. I looked at Greg as the coughing got louder, harder, followed by strangling noises.
“I’m going…” I headed for the door.
“Wait,” Greg said. “Sammy, come here. We’re going to go check on our new neighbor.”
I rang the bell, and Sammy rang it a second time. It took several minutes, but through the door we could hear the coughing getting louder and louder as she made her way to the front door.
When she opened the door, her face was red, her breathing raspy.
“Hi, we are your next door neighbors, and we heard you coughing…we just wanted to make sure everything was okay.”
She stared back at us and then nodded.
“Well,” I looked back at Greg. “If you need anything just let us know. “
The woman nodded again and moved to close the door. Part of the rubber, weatherstrip at the bottom of the door snagged the end of her right pajama leg, revealing a bulky, ankle monitor. She shook her leg to release her pant leg and then shut the door.
“She’s on house arrest?” I asked when were back inside our apartment.
“Maybe she’s on a medical release,” Greg offered, pouring chili into a glass bowl, ready to move on.
“I’m going to eat in the living room,” he picked up his bowl and sat in his favorite chair.
He flipped on the television and kicked his feet up. The six o’clock news blared in the background–a breaking report about the early release of Marjorie Gibson, who spent twenty-two years in prison accused of murdering her husband and three children, though their bodies were never found.
I ran into the living room, an old picture of Marjorie Gibson still on the screen.
I saw the bags in his backseat as I pulled into the garage. They were for me: perfume, a new Coach purse, candy, and sleepwear from Victoria’s Secret that he’d enjoy more than I would. I waited, expecting him to open the door and greet me with an apology. Instead I heard water surge through the pipes as he turned on the shower. It was Friday evening, and the weekend was just beginning. There’d be food, alcohol, friends, and fights. On Monday I’d return to work with my new Coach purse, my thoughts paralyzing, my body screaming out in pain.
“I can’t do this,” I said as I heard the water turn off.
“Honey? Is that you?” Mike called, his footsteps heavy on the wood floor.
I’m not sure why, but I reached into his backseat, grabbed the bags, and threw them into my car. Then I backed out of the garage and sped away. My body grew numb the further away I got. I was so used to this exchange. The gifts were endless, but the wounds were slow to heal.
I didn’t stop until I had entered the next city. I pulled into a Quick Mart and for what felt like the first time, I breathed.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” a lady with a dirty face approached my window.
“Hi,” I turned to look at her.
“Do you have any change?” she asked, her smile revealing years of tooth decay.
“I do have something…” I stepped out and unloaded the bags. “It’s all yours,” I said and got back in the car.
As I drove away, I felt myself come alive a little. The numbness was waning. I smiled, laughed. And then my phone rang. I answered without even thinking.
“Come home, now,” Mike yelled.
It was Friday evening, and the weekend was just beginning.
I sat on the front steps waiting. My mother busied herself at the counter, looking through the window at me every few minutes.
“He’s not coming,” she yelled. “Come inside. It’s getting dark.”
“He’s coming,” my voice was shaky, but I was firm. I was not leaving that step until I saw my father pull up in his Chevy truck.
My mother huffed as she washed the dishes and then dried them.
“I don’t know,” she threw more doubt out the window.
“I know,” I countered.
She swept the floor, wiped the table, and sat down to read a magazine.
“You sure he’s coming?” she asked.
“Mom,” I complained.
“You know how he is,” she warned.
I knew how he was, and I knew how she was. Six months earlier their marriage exploded. They threw books, lamps, shoes, and dishes across the room aiming for the other’s face; yelled insults shaped like razorblades; and blamed each other for life’s rocky course. At the end exhaustion won, and my father walked out to his truck and drove away, returning the next evening to pick up a box of belongings my mother set outside the door.
Now that same light blue truck with white doors pulled into the driveway. I leapt up and ran towards the red taillights.
“Daddy,” I called. “Daddy.”
He met me with the same enthusiasm, picked me up and swung me around.
“Let me look at you,” he put me down and eyed my six-month growth. “You ready?”
“Yeah,” I looked back at the window and waved at my mother’s disapproving face.
“Hop in, kiddo,” he let me cross the driver’s seat and hopped in after me.
“Where do you want to go?”
“Take me to the beach,” I pleaded.
“Let’s take our bikes,” he said.
He jumped out and grabbed our bikes from the shed and tossed them in the back of the truck. As we drove off my mother was running out the door waving her finger at us. I looked over at my father realizing his beard was gray now. He was thinner. His eyes had wounds behind them.
“Why didn’t you come see me sooner?” I asked.
“I wanted to,” he put his hand on my head, rustling my hair. “We’re working everything out. Don’t worry,” he assured, his words careful.
He parked the truck near our favorite part of the path where the trees leaned in lending us their strength and the water hummed its welcoming melody. We rode our bikes as far away as we could from disappointment and entered nature’s reprieve where father and daughter were free to laugh and love.
“If you can get to the cabin, you’ll be safe,” Honor said. “I’ll reach out to Rodney, but you need to get off that bus,” he warned before hanging up the phone.
Every day I wish I had let that 7:12 am bus travelling west on Lincoln Avenue pass me by instead of running after it, waving for the driver to stop and allow me to board. It was a Thursday, rainy and cold. I was on the schedule to present the Giuseppe account later that morning, and waiting would have meant not having enough time to grab my usual coffee and calm my nerves.
“Thank you,” I said to the driver, flashing my pass.
“Next time, I’m not stopping,” the driver complained. “Whatever happened to being punctual?” he griped. “Where’s Eli, anyway?” he continued as I made my way to the back of the bus.
I put in my earbuds and forgot about the exchange. The cranky driver maneuvered the bus through the city, stopping and starting again to let passengers on and off. Dressed in business casual, gym attire, or the trendy ripped jeans and t-shirts with backpacks and briefcases, we endured the wide turns and slow tug of the forty-foot beast ready to tackle the day.
“When did the assailant get on the bus?” the detective asked.
“I’m not sure. I didn’t know she was an assailant until the driver was fighting her for control over the bus.”
“Get off my bus,” the driver screamed, as the assailant started slapping his face.
“Where is it, old man?” she demanded.
“I don’t have it,” the driver tried to block the woman’s punches.
A man in a dark suit moved towards the driver, but the woman waved her weapon in the air.
“Enough,” the man commanded.
“Sit down,” the woman moved towards the man, still gripping the driver by his thinning hair.
She tied the driver’s hands with a bright yellow rope in what appeared to be a square knot and escorted him to the first open seat on the opposite aisle. His face already showed signs of bruising. He sat quiet as the woman collected our cell phones in a black backpack and got behind the wheel, the engine revving as she pulled away from the curb.
We all sat frozen until two more brave men leapt up and ran towards the front of the bus. Expecting their advance, the woman made a hard, right turn onto Richard’s Blvd, sending the men flying across the bus. A woman prayed as the bus sideswiped three cars. Passengers cried out, begged the woman to let them off.
“What did the woman look like?” the detective asked.
“She wore a black, leather jumpsuit. Her hair was long, black. She had on red lipstick.”
“You’re describing the assailant?” the detective looked at me in disbelief.
The woman made a phone call to let the person on the other end know that she had culprit and was on her way. Passengers in the back, including me, waved at the drivers below, hoping our frantic gestures communicated our distress. And after what felt like eternity, we could see patrol cars in the distance, their sirens and flashing lights a refreshing sight. We joined hands and let out a silent cheer. Up ahead were more flashing cruisers. And we rejoiced.
“Did she say what she was looking for?” the detective asked.
“No…she did call someone, but she didn’t say anything except that she was on her way.”
“This doesn’t make sense…” the detective looked down at his notes and then back up at me. “Does this look familiar? He slid a picture of me across the table. I was dressed in a black, leather jumpsuit, with red lipstick.
“That’s me?” I said, still staring at the picture.
“What I find interesting is,” the detective took back the picture. “That the description you gave of the woman driving the bus is a description of yourself.”
The woman panicked now surrounded by patrol cars. She slowed the bus trying to decide her next move. We sat waiting, expecting the rescue to be swift, but it wasn’t. As she slowed, so did the officers, a move that incited more fear. Her phone rang, and she shouted something at a man named Rodney and then hung up. She then sped towards the barricade officers had made and everyone screamed. Every bump in the road sent us bouncing up in the air, scrambling for something stable to hold onto.
“You think I did it?” I asked the detective.
The bus careened through the guard rail, down a steep slope, and then flipped on its side. Bodies collided. Glass broke. Metal weakened, and the sides of the bus collapsed. The sound of terror carried through the air as dust stirred and fluids seeped. I tried to move, but something was on top of me weighing me down. The side of my face pressed into the cracked window. Small voices in the distance grew louder as passengers stirred from shock. I lay in what I assumed was my own blood listening to the pleas of passengers.
“If you didn’t do it, then help me understand who did,” the detective asked.
“I really don’t know who…” I began.
“Other passengers have said otherwise.” The detective folded his arms.
A helicopter came for those just barely hanging on to life. All other victims were lined up from bad to worse. Medical professionals cleaned wounds and made recommendations for further care while officers investigated. A search for the assailant was in motion, and I was eyeing the white van that passed the scene of the accident twice. I knew it was Rodney and that if I could get to him, I’d be safe from the gun wielding woman who tried to kill a bus full of passengers because the driver hadn’t held up his end of their deal.
“They saw you,” the detective revealed. “All of them.”
“Not all of them,” I felt compelled to say.
I lay on the floor of Rodney’s van, even though he promised over and over that I was safe.
“What the hell happened?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you get the money?”
“No…he gave me crap for being late and then said he didn’t have it.”
“You think he told the police?”
“I don’t think so…plus, I think he’s dead. He was airlifted to the hospital.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Rodney complained.
“I made sure he didn’t have a pulse.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I folded my hands against my chest now, mirroring the detective.
“We have enough to charge you,” he warned.
“Then why aren’t you charging me?”
The detective left the room. I sipped on ice cold water and waited.
Rodney and I arrived at the cabin just before sunset. Honor stood in the doorway watching us get out.
“Well, well, well,” Honor said.
“I’m sorry to bring you into all this,” I said leaning in for a hug.
“What were you trying to do?” Honor asked as we moved into the kitchen.
“I was trying to get to Eli…I thought maybe he could do something.”
“So, you take a city bus?” Honor’s voice was stern. “How many runs have you been on? You know better.” Honor took a swig of whiskey and slammed the glass on the table.
“I had to go to work…”
“You risk everything because you had to go to work?” Honor yelled, and Rodney took a step towards him.
“Boss…we’re good. We’ll get the money.”
The detective came back with a fresh cup of coffee and video footage.
“That’s you,” he said, pointing at me entering the bus. “You’re wearing a long white dress there,” he observed out. “And…” he fast-forwarded the video. “There, you see…you’re walking up to the driver now wearing a black jumpsuit.”
I wash up, put Neosporin on my cuts, changed out of the leather jumpsuit into a pair of jeans and an old Levi’s t-shirt, and then sat outside on the porch. Honor and Eli were inside devising a new plan. It was raining again, and small animals were rustling through the trees. I didn’t feel safe inside nature’s eerie calm where chaos could erupt at any moment. I wanted to get back to my life, start the day over, let that bus pass me by, leaving my brother, Eli, to deal with the mess he had created.
“Mabel Roberts, you are under arrest…” I heard the detective say, his words fading as the woman in the black, leather jumpsuit returned.
At 6:05am Letty came into our bedroom and whispered, “Is it time for pancakes?”
Michael rolled over, yawned, and in a big voice said, “Is it time for pancakes?” He scooped her up and left the room. “Let’s go see if brother is ready for pancakes.”
I listened as Michael tended to the kids, brushing teeth and changing diapers. This was my cue to get up and make my way to the kitchen.
As I walked towards the kitchen, Felix and Domino chased a red light up and down the hallway. Their long furry tails pointed towards the ceiling as their primal hunting instincts kicked in. Michael stood in the living room on the edge of the carpet with the laser, laughing at their futile chase. Bobbie sat on a blanket behind Michael gnawing on his teething ring, letting out an occasional cry. Letty played with half-dressed dolls at her blue, Dora the Explorer table.
“Music anyone? Michael winked at me as he turned to our favorite station.
He grabbed my hand and pulled me close just as Otis Redding played through four wall speakers. Letty jumped up and down yelling, “Pancakes, Pancakes!” and Bobbie rocked back and forth on the blanket.
“Alright, who wants pancakes?” Michael cheered.
“I do, daddy. I want pancakes.”
Michael and I were a team, making buttermilk pancakes from scratch with our semi-patient children. We measured, they poured. We stirred; our hands wrapped around their small, squirmy hands.
“I can do it by myself,” Letty asserted at every step.
“I know you can,” Michael said, still holding her hand.
We watched as the first batch browned in the skillet, the smell of butter permeating.
“Oooh,” Bobbie pointed the tiny bubbles forming.
While Michael cooking more pancakes, Letty and I sprinkled powered sugar on the first batch and watched it sink into the brown, fluffy cakes.
“Who wants berries?” I tickled Bobbie.
“I do, mommy,” Letty stood up in her chair. “I want berries.”
“Okay, sit down baby and wait for mommy to get them.”
She counted out five blueberries and five blackberries for each of us.
“Good job,” Michael said, piling more pancakes onto the plate.
“I think we have enough, daddy,” Letty stared at the pile.
“You think that’s enough for everyone?” he asked.
Letty shook her head, and Michael turned off the stove and joined us at the table with a bottle of real maple syrup.
“I got the good stuff,” he smirked.
He went around the table pouring this delicious liquid on top of our pancakes. I filled our glasses with milk. Our forks clanked. Our tongues welcomed the sweet and buttery flavors. Our empty stomachs went to work on the starchy meal.
“How are those pancakes?” Michael grabbed my hand.
“They’re as good as the first day we met.” I smiled. “I love Saturday morning pancakes.”
“I love Saturday morning pancakes too.”
“Me too,” Letty perked. “I like pancakes from the first day we met too.”
I keep your chair the way you left it, in the corner waiting for you to return. Waiting for you to come sit and read the newspaper while sipping your morning coffee, black with one sugar cube. Waiting for you to come sit with your afternoon tea and crossword puzzles. Waiting for you to come sit in the evening, chatting on and on about grandpa, your first and only love. Waiting for you to come sit on rainy days and listen to the dark sky rumble. Waiting for you to come sit and fall asleep after a long visit with family, grands and great grands all vying for your attention. Waiting for you to come sit and talk on the phone for hours to your sisters and brothers across the country. Waiting for you to come sit and look through old photo albums, remembering how much you were loved.
These days you prefer to sit on the back porch watching the chickens peck the day away. Memory is small now in the back of your mind, elusive, just out of reach. I bring you your coffee, black with one sugar cube, but you tell me it tastes funny. You fill your crossword puzzles with letters that don’t make sense. When I talk to you about grandpa, he’s a stranger to you. The sound of thunder scares you, makes you weep. You shoo the grands and great grands because “they’re noisy little maniacs.” You talk for hours with your sister Mary, but when you hang up the phone you ask, “who was that?” And old photos are painful reminders of what’s missing.
But I wait for you, for those moments when you see me and know that I’m still here and you’re still loved.
Every year, a week before the July 4th celebrations kicked off, we headed east where the hundred-year-old pine trees grew in a thick forest behind our summer house.
“Why can’t we do fireworks?” we complained in the backseat of the Chrysler Town & Country station wagon.
“They hurt daddy’s ears,” our mother said without looking up from her cross stitching.
“But why can’t we do them?” Charlotte pressed.
“And what is Daddy supposed to do?” our mother snapped, this time turning to give us the look.
Our father stayed silent, lost in his talk radio. He drove the five-hour trip, stopping twice for bathroom breaks and gas. My three sisters and I sat in the back seat in birth order. Mariah, twelve, on the far right; Charlotte, ten, next to Mariah; Denise 8, right after Charlotte; and me, 6, on the far end, too small to see out the window without sitting on my legs. We busied ourselves with paper dolls, peanut butter sandwiches, and short naps we drifted into by accident.
The pine forest could be seen thirty miles before we got to the summer house. Mariah and Charlotte made up stories about dark forest creatures.
“They’re looking for people,” Charlotte laughed. “If you’re fast you might be able to outrun them, but if you’re not…” she looked at me.
“I’m fast,” I defended.
At the house our father went in first to check things out. Mother found the cleaning supplies and assigned Mariah and Charlotte the downstairs bathroom. Denise and I were to dust the furniture in the living room. Mother opened the windows and let the old air out and new air in. The strong but sweet smell of pine entered in waves and set the mood for our three-day trip.
While mother cooked, we played outside.
“Don’t go near the water,” she warned, waving a big spoon at us. “And stay away from the forest.”
“Okay,” we promised.
We played tag, and I lost each time, threatening to tell on them. We played hide and seek, but we all knew the hiding spots. We played four-square, hopscotch, Simon Says, and truth or dare. And there at the end of play was boredom waiting with a long list of mischievous ideas.
It started with Charlotte. She threw the orange ball into the forest, and we watched it bounce up and down, hit a tree, and then roll out of sight.
“I’ll give next week’s allowance to whoever goes into the forest and gets the ball.”
“Mother said don’t go into the forest,” I detested.
“Any takers?” Charlotte continued.
“I’ll do it,” Denise jumped up and down.
“No,” Mariah said.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” Denise argued. “I’m doing it.”
“Okay, Denise. You have two minutes.” Charlotte looked at her watch.
“No take backs,” Denise said as she ran into the forest.
Mariah and I huddled around Charlotte and watched the second-hand on her watch go around twice. We looked up expecting to see Denise running towards us with the ball, but we didn’t. So we waited another minute, and then another, and another before we ran towards the edge of the forest and called out her name.
There was no answer, just the rustling sounds of animals minding their own business. Mariah grabbed my hand as we weaved through the trees. No ball. No Denise. We weaved some more until we could no longer see where we had entered.
“What do we do?” Charlotte cried.
“We find Denise,” Mariah shouted.” And then we go back to the house and say nothing.” Charlotte and I nodded in agreement.
The sun was bright, but we could feel it slipping behind the horizon. We kept walking, looking, and shouting for Denise. And after what felt like hours, we came upon an orange tent. A woman in a long plaid dress stood over a portable stove stirring what must have been some kind of soup or stew. On a tree stump next to the woman’s tent was Denise and the orange ball.
We let out a collective sigh.
“Denise,” we called.
She turned but she didn’t come. Instead she waved us in.
“Come over here,” she said.
After a long pause, we made our way down a steep slope and into the woman’s makeshift home.
“Ah, there you are,” the woman said. “Denise said you’d be coming. Can I get you anything?”
We looked around at the tent, a long steel box, a hatchet, some kind of wire fencing, and two gallon-sized water containers.
“No thank you. We need to get back home,” Mariah insisted.
“Bernadette makes necklaces,” Denise offered.
“That’s great,” Mariah said, motioning for Denise to get up.
“Oh, I understand,” Bernadette said. “I’ll show you the way back.”
“Fine,” Denise huffed.
“You’re staying in the summer house, right?” Bernadette asked.
“How did you know?” Charlotte perked.
“Every summer, week after week, families from out of town come and live there, taking in its beauty, its essence.”
“You live here every summer too?” I asked.
“Yes, Natalie. I live here in the woods during the summer months,” Bernadette said. “And when all the vacationers leave, I move back inside the summer house.”
“Hey, how did you know my name?” I smiled.
“It’s your house?” Mariah asked, her body relaxing as she processed this information. “Why don’t you just stay in your house?”
“That’s a good question,” Bernadette smiled at Mariah. “Sometimes you don’t know how wonderful life is until you see other people enjoy it.”
“I can’t just e-sign the documents?” I complained, looking at the big stack of case files on my desk. “Do I really need to fly out there?”
“That’s our policy. It’s in the contract…”
“Fine…I’ll see if I can get a flight out tonight and be there tomorrow.” I put down the phone and let out a heavy, exhausted sigh. “Jaymee,” I called to my assistant in the office next door.
“Hey, Lyla…what’s up,” Jaymee rushed in with a clipboard.
“My mother’s house I told you about…”
“Uh huh,” she nodded.
“Well, apparently these people are living in the stone age,” I started reorganizing the files on my desk. “I have to go sign the documents in person.”
“No way,” she scrunched her face. “What about a notary? E-signature?”
“That’s what I said, but I NEED to get this house off my plate ASAP, so if you don’t mind finding me a flight out tonight, I’d appreciate it. “
“Of course, any flight? First class? Direct flight?” she stood ready to jot down the details.
“Anything.” I smiled.
“Okay. I’ll get right on it,” she smiled and left, closing the door behind her.
Before getting back to work, I looked out the window at the cloudy sky. Rain was in the forecast, but so far there had been, at most, a soft mist that covered the tips of grass blades and dampened door handles. I watched pedestrians cross the busy street and make their way to the coffee shop.
It had been over twenty years since I had gone back to my childhood home. To my surprise, at the reading of the will, I became the owner of the old, two-story bungalow. My sister Laila stormed out of the room. I found her crying outside.
“If you want the house…”
“How could she give it to you?” Laila protested.
“I don’t know.”
“You never even came to see her.”
“You know why, Laila.”
“Yeah, I know, but in the end did it matter?”
“It matters to me…” I defended.
“It’s always about you,” Laila grabbed her purse and went back inside.
“At least you got her pearls,” I yelled as she opened the door and stepped in.
But I had the same question. Why did my mother, the woman I hadn’t seen or spoken to in over twenty-five years, leave her home to me?
I boarded the plane and settled into the aisle seat, in the very last row of the plane.
“Great,” I exhaled.
I tried to sleep, but not even Melatonin could stop the wave of memory rolling in. I could hear the sound of plates shattering against the floor, ear-piercing screams echoing throughout the house, and the eerie silence before my mother’s addiction filled her with an intense craving for poison. I could see the emptiness after she sold our furniture, our possessions, the sadness on my baby sister’s face who was too young to know that any mother was not better than no mother, and sketchy friends my mother let stay in what was supposed to be our space.
When we landed, I grabbed my carryon and hailed a Yellow Cab. It was too early to go sign the documents, so I thought I would go see the house one last time. I gave the driver the address and leaned back. Everything looked the same with few changes: a few new buildings, repaved roads, the new tech-center at Laney High School. The same people walked down the streets. The same people opened the doors to the bakery, the laundromat, the post office.
I drifted off somewhere between Bridgeway and Ellington. The driver tapped me with his rolled up newspaper.
“We’re here,” he said.
I looked to my left and there was the Michaelson’s house. I paused when I looked to my right. It took me a moment to see the house behind the tree.
“Who planted that tree?” I muttered as I paid the driver and got out.
I stared at the bare tree whose branches and twigs, some of them, touched the side of the house. Inside I walked through each room, trying to remember one good thing that happened there but couldn’t. I gave up and headed back outside. Shane Michaelson from across the street was approaching, his steps slow.
“Well, look who it is,” he said, holding his arms out for a hug. “How ya been?”
“I’m doing well,” I said, wanting to keep the conversation short. “I just came to see the house one last time…I’m selling it.”
“Oh, I know all about that,” he said.
“It was good to see you, Mr. Michaelson.”
“Did you know your mother planted this tree the day you left?” he said, his breathing heavy.
“I was wondering who planted it…”
“I know life wasn’t easy for you,” he coughed up phlegm. “She took care of this tree, named it Lyla, and when she couldn’t take care of it I did.”
My face burned with anger.
“She wanted to love you.”
“Wanting and doing are two different things,” I said.
“Sometimes we have to learn how to love people. We aren’t all born knowing.”
I watched as he inched across the street back to his house and then looked up at the tree, noticing the way its branches extended to hug the house, protect it. This was my mother’s last attempt to save us from the demons she couldn’t escape.
After the meeting, Vanity, the woman with short white hair, pulled me and three other girls into a room across the hall and “brought us up to speed.” We were given new names and warned against trying anything. Ramona, a tall thin girl whose face looked younger than mine, let out a whimper.
“There will be none of that,” Vanity snapped. “You have a job to do, ladies,” she paced in front of us with her hands behind her back. “At Disturbance we expect nothing less than the highest work ethic…”
“What do we do, exactly?” a girl renamed Destiny asked.
Vanity kept pacing, her eyes large with fury.
“Here at Disturbance,” she began again. “We expect nothing less than the highest work ethic from our ladies. You are responsible for your makeup bags, party flyers, and all recruits before the bus arrives.”
“Recruits?” Destiny interjected.
“Any girls who want to join our modeling school.”
“I want to go to the modeling school…it has to be better than this.”
“Snip it!” Vanity shouted, inches from Destiny’s face.
I stared ahead still, like Destiny, unsure what our job was except that we had to be beautiful doing it.
“Today you will watch the other ladies,” she started to pace. “You will smile…You will join in conversations about our makeup…You will be alert and friendly…You will compliment potential recruits, show them how Disturbance can make their lives better…You will be their best friend until the bus comes, and then you will move on to the next recruit.”
We were assigned groups. I ended up with Daisy, Sofia, Taylor, and Brittany. A lady named Erica dropped us off at a large shopping center where we were each given several bags of makeup, a stack of shiny postcard flyers, and business cards for recruits who were interested in the modeling school.
“Get the job done, ladies,” she ordered. “And Jenny…” she said.
I looked around at the bright buildings, the growing crowd.
“Jenny,” she repeated, this time louder.
“Oh…yes,” I answered, still not settled into my new name.
“I’m watching you,” she said before driving away.
“Let’s go,” Daisy and Sofia led.
I waited until we were farther along the strip before I started throwing questions out for any of the girls to answer.
“What is this?” I asked. “How long have you all been with the company?”
They just kept walking, and so did I. Their silence scared me. Aside from the collective “click clack” of our heels, no one made a sound until Daisy spotted a group of girls our age outside an Orange Julius.
“Follow my lead,” she said.
When we were about ten feet away from the girls, Daisy started laughing, loud like a silly teenage girl.
“And she was like, what?” she laughed again.
We joined in the theatrics.
“I totally remember her face when she realized that half her shirt was still stuck on the fence,” Sofia laughed.
“I can’t believe it took her so long to notice,” Taylor added, Brittany leaning against her unable to hold herself up.
Daisy turned and started walking backwards, her laughter still loud, still strong. She made sure that when she turned around again she came face to face with the tallest girl.
“Oh my god!” she shrieked. “I am so sorry…are you okay,” Daisy put her hand to her chest and then touched the girl’s arm.
“It’s okay,” the girl said, her wire braces showing.
“You sure you’re okay?” Daisy asked again.”
There was no more laughter. Their focus returned to the task at hand: finding recruits.
“Why not her?” I asked.
“Braces,” Sofia said.
In the next three hours we approached at least thirty girls. They either refused our charm or something about them excluded them from being Disturbance material. Around 1pm we met up with Erica and some of the other ladies at Charlie’s Burgers.
“Any prospects?” Erica asked us.
Everyone stayed quiet, staring at the thin menu.
“Well, eat up. You have a few more hours,” she warned. “Eli and Artemis will not be happy if you return empty handed.”
Erica ordered wedge salads for everyone. We chewed the watery vegetable, Erica’s warming still buzzing in our minds. I played out ideas in my mind, fine-tuned the details until they were ready to present to Daisy. Then a mother and daughter walked past the restaurant, jarring me from my mental playbook. I watched as they chatted, all smiles and love. A fiery heat burned in my earlobes as I realized how little time it had taken to acclimate to darkness. I had spent forty-eight hours in literal darkness, with just a few interruptions for water and bathroom breaks. And now even with the midday sun high in the sky, I still couldn’t see. I wrestled with the part of myself that was being chipped away, that had been disturbed, to be replaced with a girl named Jenny who, through coercion, participated in the wounding of unsuspecting girls with already fractured lives.
After breakfast I was showered by a woman named Vivienne, given a robe, and then sent to Charlene who looked to be about five years older than me.
“I’m the head stylist around here,” she said motioning for me to sit down in the chair. She rustled through my wet hair, making sounds of disapproval as she found split ends and signs of a bad dye job.
“You color your hair yourself, Sissy?” she asked, giving me the same nickname she gave all the other girls who came to her chair.
“My mother did it for me,” my body tensed, and my face got hot.
“Uh oh,” Charlene paused to look at me. “Houston, we have a crier over here,” she laughed and went back to evaluating my hair. “I’ll see what I can do, Sissy, but I ain’t no miracle worker.”
Vivienne returned with two outfits, one a size four the other a size six. She held them up and looked me up and down.
“Try this one on,” she tossed the outfit, hanger and all, in my lap.
“Where?” I stood up as Charlene released my head.
“Follow me,” Vivienne led me down a narrow hallway into a small, cluttered room.
In the middle of the ceiling was a yellow lightbulb with a string hanging from a white base. The walls were a dark pink, faded in some spots. A large chair filled with clothes sat next to a sewing table, it’s small light beaming against a velvet skirt. I slipped on the black crop top and ripped jeans.
“How are you in heels?” Vivienne asked, looking down at my feet.
“I don’t…” I started, my mind piecing the details together. “I don’t wear heels.”
“Well, you do now,” she moved to the closet and pulled out a pair of black platform heels. “You have one week to get to these, but for now…” she put the platform heels back and pulled out a second pair. “try these baby heels.”
Vivienne walked me back down the hallway to Charlene’s chair, my baby heels tapping against the scuffed wood floor.
“Wait over there,” Charlene barked, nodding at the bench across the room.
In the chair now was a girl dressed in a similar outfit, getting her hair flat ironed.
“Here,” Charlene picked up a postcard from a shelf behind her. “Read this…”
On one side was the word DISTURBANCE in bold, red letters against a white background. The other side had promotional text about upcoming parties, modeling opportunities, a make up line, written to entice young girls who would do anything to belong.
The girl in the chair stood up and turned to look in the mirror.
“You look good,” Charlene said, her voice prideful.
“Thank you,” the girl’s tone was flat.
“Go on to the meeting, Daisy,” Charlene directed. “Baby Heels, come sit down.”
I sat as Daisy headed towards a spiral staircase. She took a step, sniffed, and continued on to the “meeting.” Charlene flat ironed my hair, burning the tops of my ears and the sides of my face in order to “tame the wild ancestral mess,” as she put it. I kept my hands folded in my lap wondering if I’d see Daisy again, wondering if she could explain what was happening.
Charlene glued fake lashes to my eyelids, applied thick eyeliner, and painted my lips bright pink.
“Go on up that staircase, make a right, and join the meeting,” she turned to put away her supplies. “Go on now, Baby Heels. You don’t want to make Eli and Artemis angry,” she laughed and then smirked.
I climbed the stairs one at a time with a pounding heart and wobbly legs. The meeting was just getting started. Every girl stood in black heels chanting their allegiance to the company. I listened, knowing I’d be expected to embrace the same words. Daisy stood in the back, face forward, engrossed in the sing-songy declaration. A woman with short, white hair and a bony face ushered me next to Daisy. At the end of the chant, Eli and Artemis looked out at us. Their faces were serious. I thought I might pass out as they began their “walk” around the room, inspecting our appearance like we were property, not people. Daisy’s hand brushed against mine, and I took a deep breath. And when it was my turn to be inspected, I followed their commands: opened my mouth, raised my arms, lifted my legs, repeated phrases from the postcard. I did this all while trying to stay mindful of who I was.