It had been my aunt’s room when she lived at home. And after that, when she moved back to teach at the elementary school across the street. Now she lived next door. She would disappear for long stretches in the recesses of her little house, an exact replica of this one.
I lay in the sleigh bed listening to the sounds coming from the bathroom across the hall. An old bed, brought from some plantation, maybe the one they called the Pink House. (We’d driven miles into the country once to see it, nothing but a pile of boards.)
The antique dresser was piled with clothes from Belk’s, some with the tags still on, and stacks of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, gold type repeating up and down the spines. Who condensed the books? How did they decide what nobody would notice was gone?
My sister Lizzie was pretending to sleep. I could tell by the way her arms and legs looked almost coiled. The night before, standing in front of the bathroom mirror brushing our teeth, she’d stared at a corner of the mirror densely plastered with handwritten quotes from the Bible.
“Is it really a sin?” she’d said.
“Is what a sin?”
“Forget it. All this stuff—” The foamy toothpaste stung my mouth and I spit into the sink. “Is just to control people.”Later, in bed with the light on, still playing with her bear, she asked, “Em—did you ever—you know—with a boy?”
I sat up and the bed creaked backward like it might fall apart. “Of course not.”
“It’s not that big of a deal,” she’d said, rolling over to face the wall.
In the kitchen the next morning mom’s face looked like pudding that hadn’t quite set, her bathrobe tied in a knot that was about to untie.
“I was supposed to let Mary Ann know if she should bring a pound cake.”
Grandma leaned into the fridge, the drape of skin on her upper arm swinging as she pulled out a package of bacon and a dozen eggs. “Well, honey, she won’t have time to do anything now.” She put the bacon in the skillet and sat down again. When she moved her elbows they stuck a little on the plastic tablecloth.
The first few mornings here, I could hardly get my breath.
The bacon started going rigid and I turned off the burner, pulled paper towels from the roll and dug at the pan with a spatula.
Lizzie appeared in the doorway in a nightgown so short it barely covered the tops of her legs. I cracked eggs into the pan and watched them turn brown from the grease. Through the bottom of the thin glass plates, you could see black specks that might have been roach turds.
The doorbell chimed and mom pushed herself up out of her chair, tightening her bathrobe. Lizzie was faster. “Don’t open it,” mom called. But the front door gave a sucking sound that made me think of a city bus and I felt a faint rush of hot air.
“What—oh, Em, go see what she’s doing, will you?”
“She’s just annoying.”
I was glad of an excuse, though. It should have been easier not to eat here, where the food all came from boxes and bags, leaving a weird slick in your mouth.
The front room always smelled like potpourri and carpet cleaner, from when the dog went behind the sofa. Out the front windows, I could see Lizzie standing in the road, talking to somebody. He was leaning against his bike and looking down at her. Hardly anybody drove down that road. The houses looked closed up, mostly empty, even when they weren’t. How had she met him? We’d only been here a few days. And he looked way too old.
“Lizzie!” I pushed open the screen door.
The kid—or man—glanced over her shoulder and tried to take a step back but his bike was in the way. Lizzie ignored me and kept smiling up into his face.
“We have to get ready.”
The boy—whatever he was—looked at me, his eyes slitted. As we walked toward the house Lizzie looked over her shoulder, but he was already almost to the stop sign at the corner. A ray of sun hit it, making it dazzle. I tried to say something else. Something that would make everything all right again. Maybe the way it used to be.
A blackbird went cawing up into the branches of the magnolia. Its waxy blooms had a fecund smell and the ground was thick with its big crunchy brown leaves. Daddy longlegs lived on their undersides, and sometimes I’d let them crawl over my hand, gingerly, like they were tasting my skin.
The sound of the rotary dial clicking into place was coming from the kitchen, and the beginning of half a conversation. You’d piece it together, filling in the gaps like a fever dream. That was the way they talked here. Sinking, gelatinous.
Mom came out of the bathroom blotting her lipstick on a piece of toilet paper.
“Girls. You ready?” I could tell she didn’t want to go. These things were like cattle chutes. The cattle had to walk up them even though they knew, somehow, what lay on the other side. “We won’t stay long.”
Downtown was a place nobody went if they had a choice, filled with old stores that used to sell things people used to need. A middle-aged lady made her way down the sidewalk toward a bench where a man was lying, perfectly still, the soles of his shoes worn through, a paper bag with a bottle in it on the ground next to him. We stopped at the Piggly Wiggly to pick up some ice and a bunch of hot dogs and buns. The guy in front of us in line paid for a frozen dinner and a jar of pickles with a pile of pennies. It took almost as long for grandma to write a check in her schoolteacher’s penmanship, and then she had to hunt through her wallet for her driver’s license, scared for a full thirty seconds she’d lost it.
The two-lane highway out to the farm went through countryside that looked like somebody you saw every day on the other side of the street. With the windows rolled down, the sweet smell of deep wet green came in from both sides. It must have rained out here, a cloud that had missed the town.
Lizzie and I were wearing clothes from some of the big outlets in Buffalo. The geometric patterns and colors like sharp notes to distinguish us from them. Cousins we’d never met, covered in a fine sheen of sweat, were setting up a volleyball net. A race of giants sprung from the red soil hauled folding chairs and set up tent poles. The parking lot kept filling with big cars, bouncing when somebody got out and slammed the door.
Lizzie trailed behind me, staring at the ground like she was looking for something somebody else had lost.
There was mom—talking to a flushed man sprawled in a plastic chair. She beckoned us over with a big smile, the kind of thing she could put in the column of the day’s achievements.
The man saw us coming and reached over to pick a couple of oranges from a bowl. As we walked up he thrust straws in and handed one to each of us.
“Here you go, girls,” he said in a thick voice. We thanked him like we knew we were supposed to and automatically started sucking on the straws. There was hardly any juice. I could see the shiny veined skin swelling in the gap of his tennis shorts.
I took a step back. Lizzie stood there until I pulled on her arm. “We’re leaving,” I said. Mom gave me a look like I should have been more polite. “Come on, Lizzie.”
Somebody had gotten up on stage in the tent and was tapping the microphone. There was a mechanical screech, then a girl started singing, a breathy hymn that dissolved a few seconds later.
People had already begun to gather around the long tables, avid and fidgety. The sun hit a stack of styrofoam plates, shiny as mother of pearl.
“What a disgusting man,” mom said, finally catching up to us.
“Why’d you make us talk to him? Why didn’t you just ignore him?”
But I knew what it was. Social graces were like a religion to her. She’d sacrifice everything to them. Sometimes she reminded me of an insect hollowed out by a spider. Other times I loved her so much that everything good in the world seemed to look back at me with her face.
I picked up a plate and got in line, watching the sweat bead on the neck of the woman in front of me.
The men, glassy eyed with whatever they’d been drinking all afternoon. The women bad-tempered with looking after children. I watched a boy who’d eaten lunch across the table from us play volleyball, embarrassed by his awkwardness.
People were slowly starting to fold up the chairs, clank empty bowls into each other. The field scattered with flattened, oil-stained grass. Aunt Betty’s dogs were barking in the kennels she’d built for them—all thirty of them, strays and the German Shepherds she bred herself. She hadn’t wanted to have this thing here. She’d be complaining for months, smoking Pall Malls at the kitchen table.
Mom was still talking, the conversation an uneven, messy thing that wouldn’t disappear, though it kept getting smaller and smaller.
Two summers ago we’d been trapped here. Mom had sent us—sort of like camp, she’d said. Except we never did anything but watch TV. She’d told us later it was for our own safety. Our father was trying to kill her, was what she told us. What they all told us. I’d never believed it.
A voice sprayed sparks, ragged-edged, light as gunpowder. A short, shrill woman, ran up, mouth open slightly, wild eyed. “Ya’ll seen Bobby?”
“What’s the matter?”
“I told him we had to leave to get on to my mother’s. That was ages ago and I can’t find him anywhere. He’s only six.”
People were already starting to look, walking in one direction or another. Looking uselessly behind coolers and folding chairs. Lizzie was sitting on the ground examining an anthill. She looked up when she felt me standing over her.
“We should help,” she said, staring at the ants, some of them carrying tiny bits that must be our picnic in miniature.
“We’re—kids.” I wanted to get away from the sound of the woman’s voice. “He probably just got bored and wandered off. I’m sure they’ll find him.” I looked around. The dry fields were bordered by piney woods. The trees were skinny but tall, and thick enough that they were already surrounded by deep darkness. I’d read in one of mom’s Redbooks about kids getting stuck in old refrigerators, suffocating there. At the edge of the trees was an old tractor with grass grown up around the wheels. “OK. Fine.”
Lizzie walked a couple of paces behind me, dragging her feet.
Halfway to the porous darkness, she pointed. There was a cabin that hadn’t been visible before. Not really a cabin. More like a few planks of wood still nailed together. In the dusk, it was almost the same color as the woods.
“Let’s go,” Lizzie said. Sometimes I thought something was missing from her—something that would tell her when enough was enough.
“We should get back.”
But she’d already started running. She was fast when she wanted to be.
In the shadow of the woods, the darkness felt like it was trembling. She peered between the slats, moving so the last light would go in over her shoulder.
She craned her neck. “There’s something in there.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I can’t see.”
“Christ.” I’d recently started swearing, and it felt good. Especially now.
“You’re the oldest. You go in.”
“It was your idea. You were the one who said we were supposed to help.”
I looked back the way we’d come. Failed searchers, walking into the ruins of the afternoon.
“There’s nothing there,” I said.
“You didn’t even look.”
The sagging doorway was a gaping hole. A bed, the frame rusted and the blankets stiff.
“I want to see,” I heard her say.
She darted past me. Then she stopped. I thought she looked—interested. She made a noise and I grabbed her hand. As we ran, the sound turned into little sobs, but I made her keep running and they gradually died away.
Our mother was still in the tent, her face now flushed with her habitual panic.
“I turned around and you were—after all this—” she said.
We stood there in a tight, mute angle. I knew what Lizzie was thinking. That we might meet him, whoever had done that, the next time we were here. Without even knowing it was him. He’d be one of the faces in the check-out line. One of the people who came knocking on the door. Got greeted like family.
Mom’s panic was quickly curdling. “Where were you girls?” she demanded fiercely.
“Nowhere,” I said, before Lizzie could answer. “Let’s go home.”
About the author:
Jessica Adams received her PhD in English from Tulane University and published a lot of academic stuff that not all that many people read. While bobbing in a sailboat off the coast of Mexico a year or so after Hurricane Katrina, she decided to try her hand at writing fiction. Since then, her work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Thuglit, All Due Respect, and Avidly. She’s at work on a novel, Me and the Devil Blues.