“How did she get here?” Sage asked, looking Mother up and down.
“Aunt Mary brought her.”
“It was time for me to come home,” Mother offered. “I’m better now…I know I have a lot to make up for…”
“You could never make up for what you’ve done,” Sage screamed, her eyes squinting with anger.
“Let me try, Sage.” Mother rocked back and forth on her feet.
Sage turned and walked out onto porch. “I can’t believe this…” she mumbled. Steven followed behind whispering his support.
Mother walked into the kitchen and sat at the table. I stood in the living room waiting.
“It’s okay,” I heard Steven say. “What if she is better? That would be great…”
The night wind hit against the screen door. We were at an impasse.
We awoke to the smell of burning gravy and pots clanking.
“What are you doing?” Sage demanded. I stood behind her, shivering in my nightgown.
“I’m making breakfast.”
“You sure you know what you’re doing?” Sage said, her tone snarky. “When’s the last time you cooked anything?” Sage took the smoking pot off the stove.
“What are you doing with that?” Mother reached for the hot pot.
“Can’t you smell it burning? How are you going to eat this?” Sage dangled the pot over the sink, a smile spreading across her face.
“Give it to me.”
“Fine,” Mother started, looking both of us in the eye. “I don’t want to fight with you. That’s not why I’m here,” she winked at me. “I’ve been working really hard to get back home.”
“Why should we believe you this time?”
“Let me show you that I’m better.”
“Burning down the house isn’t a great first step.”
“So I’m a little rusty in the kitchen?” Mother hunched her shoulders.
“We can help,” I offered, excited by the idea of us all together again. I wanted to give her a hug, invade her with kisses, keep her inside this moment. “I can make eggs.” I looked at Sage; she leaned against the counter with her arms folded.
“I can make the biscuits and…”
“I’ll make the biscuits,” Sage interrupted.
“What do you want me to do?” Mother asked.
I looked at Sage, watched her demeanor change from condemning to consenting. Her shoulders dropped; the tension in her face lessened.
“You can peel the potatoes.” Sage pointed at the bag of potatoes. “Peel them, chop them…and you can chop the onion too. It’s in the refrigerator.”
“Thank you,” Mother extended her hand, but Sage ignored it.
It was a start.
We took our places at the table, Sage and I on one side, Mother on the other. Our plates were piled with eggs, bacon, potatoes, and cheese biscuits—Sage’s specialty. The thick smell of coffee lay on top of all the other smells.
“Are you really going to drink that?” Sage asked.
“I am, why?”
“That coffee has been in the cabinet since you left…and I can’t remember the last time you even thought about coffee. “Sage selected her words carefully.
“Well, now I love coffee,” Mother held up her cup and then took a big gulp. “Not bad for old coffee.”
She opened her pill case and emptied two white pills, a blue pill, and an orange gel cap on the table.
“Here comes sanity,” she threw all four pills into her mouth.
Life wasn’t perfect, but I loved Mother for trying. We had come full circle. Mother was home again, and hope slipped back into our hearts. This time would be different. Even Sage learned to welcome this new version of our mother. She went back to planning her wedding. It was safe for her friends to come over. We left our guards at the door, entering a world of medically-induced stability. Mother’s ticks were white noise. Her eccentric habits and ideas added comedy, a laugh track that played throughout the day.
After school Sage met Steven at his job and waited for his shift to end. I stayed with Mother. We were buddies, jabbering on and on like school girls.
“What do you want for Christmas?”
“Christmas?” I asked. I didn’t want to disturb our new lives with a list of wants.
“Yeah…what do you want?” She rubbed two black rocks between her hands.
“I don’t want anything.”
“You sure about that?”
“I’m sure,” I whispered.
“Well, I got something for you.” Mother smiled.
I forced a smile, wondering what it could be.
Christmas brought a winter storm. I awoke to snowflakes sliding down my window. Sage and Mother were downstairs in the living room. I could hear their voices, low but steady. I washed my face and brushed my teeth and headed downstairs. The tree, a small, potted pine was covered in lights and homemade ornaments. Around the ceramic pot were white rocks and two presents wrapped in brown paper bags. Each had a red ribbon tied into a bow.
“That one’s for you,” Mother pointed at the present on the right.
“For me?” I looked at Sage and then at Mother. “Open it, silly.”
I sat down next to the tree and dug into the paper.
“What is it?” Sage asked.
“A doll,” I ripped the rest of the paper off the plastic box.
“She’s a really special doll…take her out of the box.”
Mother came and sat next to me. She opened the top of the box and pulled “Penny” out by her hair.
“Look at her,” Mother smiled, her front teeth thin and failing.
“I love her,” I said. I ran my fingers through Penny’s thick brown curls. “Thank you,” my voice quivered.
“Open yours, Sage.” Mother crossed her legs and put her arm around my shoulder. We watch Sage tear neatly and strategically into the brown paper.
“It’s just a bag. Rip it already,” I said.
Sage pulled a gold locket out of a white jewelry box.
“Read the inscription,” I said.
“I’ll always love you,” she read.
I waited for her reaction, frozen in the echo of her words.
“You shouldn’t have,” Sage said, getting up to leave.
She ran upstairs and that’s where she stayed until Steven came over. I played with Penny. Mother stared out the window.
“I’ll be back,” she said.
“Where are you going?” I stood up. “It’s snowing out there…”
“I know.” She opened the door. “I want to go outside and feel the snow. I’m tired of just looking at it.”
I grabbed my jacket off the hook and followed behind her.
“Well, come on then, little one.”
She walked back to the tree.
“Merry Christmas, Bay-Bay,” she sang. “I miss you.” She ran her fingers along the snow covered dirt.
I bent down and cleared the snow off of the stone Sage found for Grandma Betty.
“I miss her too,” Mother said. “Did she take good care of you?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“Good.” Mother looked out towards the Juniper trees. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here…I wasn’t myself then.”
“I understand.” I shivered.
“Ahhh you’re cold. Let’s go inside.”
Life around us had succumbed to winter’s icy sheath; leafless branches hung in the sky. Dead grass, brown and wilted, covered the yard. But I was living. Breathing. Holding on as tight as I could.
The snow plow inched down the street clearing a path. Mother and I watched from the window, white snow turning brown, exposing the dirt road—its dips, rocky grooves, and tracks laden with memory.
Sage and Steven were arguing again.
“I don’t like the way he talks to her,” Mother said.
“He helped us when you…I mean, when Aunt Mary left us here by ourselves,” I treaded carefully.
“What’s his motivation?” Mother scratched her head.
“They’re getting married.”
Mother wanted more information though. She had a feeling; she called it mother’s intuition, a heavy rumbling in her gut that would be silenced only by truth. So she set out to uncover this truth. I didn’t think much of her quest, not even when she kept me out of school. I had fun being with her, searching for clues, collecting useless items we put in plastic bags. Most of it was nonsense. She’d get distracted and end up rambling on and on about her eccentric wedding ideas. We’d collect rocks from the abandoned railroad tracks, and soil samples she put in old perfume vials. Then it became about something. Something that pointed us in a different direction.
While I was at school she roamed, finding “evidence” she lugged behind her in an old, rusted wagon and stored in the basement.
“What are you doing?” I asked, my heart jumping in my chest. “Why are you going into the basement?” I thought of the tragic scene that had played out before she was taken away.
“This is all of our evidence.”
“What are we going to do with it?”
“We’re building our case…she’s not going to believe us if we don’t have proof…” Mother fidgeted.
“Proof of what?” My breath was shallow.
“Proof of what?” I repeated, but her face still registered confusion. “You said you had proof in the wagon…”
“Oh, little one…my sweet, sweet little one.”
She drug the wagon to the bottom of the steps, ran back up, gave me a pat on the shoulder, and headed out the front door.
“I’ll be back…”she waved, blood on her hand. “This is for Sage.”
Sage got home before Mother did. I was in the kitchen combing Penny’s hair when she arrived.
“Hey, Juni…Where’s the old lady?”
I watched Sage take a glass out of the cabinet and fill it with water. She leaned against the wall.
“What’s wrong with you?” she teased.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” I said, ready to confess my part in Mother’ new venture.
“What?” Sage put her glass down and walked over to the table. “What do you mean by that?”
I didn’t know exactly. It was a feeling, a feeling that something bad was brewing, and right in front of me, only I couldn’t see it. I didn’t want to see it. I bowed my head and sunk in my seat, finding solace in shame.