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A lost shoe. That’s how it began.
It was nothing more or less than that. A shoe, just one small shoe.
At first, I didn’t recognize it, although I should have. I’d seen it hundreds of times on the front porch or lying in the yard, its shine dulled by red dust. Tess was a typical five-year-old, careless with her things. Not that she had many things to be careful with. The pink shoes had been her only birthday present. I’d been with Mom when she’d picked them out at the secondhand store in town. She’d paid two dollars for them, but that didn’t stop me from thinking she’d gotten ripped off. Pink patent leather with bedraggled ribbon ties and rhinestone starbursts on the sides, they were ugly as hell and louder than Aunt Grace’s good church dress.
Tessie loved them, of course. She wore them everywhere and with everything, even when we went blackberry picking. With hands stained berry purple and hair in lopsided pigtails she’d done up herself, she would skip along in denim overalls, shirtless, ignoring the thorn scratches on her arms, and beam at the sight of those damn awful shoes.
That’s where I was walking home from, selling the blackberries. I had a stand up at the main road. It wasn’t much to look at, a few boards I’d clapped together. A strong wind could take it down and had once or twice in a good old Georgia thunderstorm. I sold paper bags full of plump, gnat-ridden berries for a dollar to people driving by. Sometimes Glory and Tess hung around and helped, but usually not. Five-year-old twin girls don’t have much patience for sweltering in the sun in the hopes of making a couple of bucks. Besides, today was a school day. Glory was at kindergarten. Tess, with a bad case of chicken pox and spotty as a Dalmatian, was stuck at home, and I was skipping. I’d get my ass busted for it, no way around that, but it was for a good cause. A skinny teenager, I was two years away from my license and probably four years away from filling out. If I ever wanted to date, money was all I was going to have going for me. Cast-off clothes and home haircuts weren’t the way to any cheerleader’s heart, not in my school, anyway. Not that cheerleaders were the be-all and end-all of what I wanted out of life. They weren’t, but they’d do until graduation.
Mom worked bagging groceries; it was the same place she’d worked since she dropped out of high school pregnant with me. Boyd, my step-dad, worked on holding the couch down. He was on disability, a “bad back.” Yeah, right. I remembered when he’d gotten the news. It was beer and pizza with his buddies for a week. You would’ve thought the fat bastard had won the lottery. That bad back, along with a near-terminal case of laziness, might have kept him from working, but it didn’t keep him from other things. I rubbed the swollen lump on my jaw as I walked and then fingered the four dollars in my pocket. I liked the feel of that a lot better.
“Dirt poor” wasn’t a new phrase, not in these parts, but it was a true one. That wasn’t going to be me, though. I sold blackberries, delivered papers in a place where most houses were at least half a mile apart, and had an after-school job at the same grocery as my mom. It was hard work, and there wasn’t much I hated more than hard work. But I did like money. One day I was going to figure out how to get one without doing too much of the other. I had plans for my life, and they didn’t involve rusted-out cars or jeans permanently stained red by Georgia mud. I had plans, all right, and plans required money. But it wasn’t going to be made by sponging off the government like Boyd. No, not like that sad sack of shit.
He was lazy. I could swallow that. No one knows lazy like a fourteen-year-old kid. But if I could make myself work, so could he. Instead, he squatted on the couch, scratching his balding head and blankly watching whatever channel happened to be coming in that day through our crappy antenna. He yelled a lot at the girls and me, during the commercials. And on occasion, if he was drunk or bored enough, he would lever himself off the worn cushions to back up his bark with some bite. He was careful not to break any bones. Boyd might not be smart, but he wasn’t stupid, either. Coyote-sharp cunning lay behind the cold blue eyes. That same cunning held his large fists from doing the type of permanent damage that would draw the eye of the police. He hadn’t touched the twins yet, and he wouldn’t. I wouldn’t let the son of a bitch get the chance. Girls were different. Girls were good … well, I amended as I scratched the bite on my calf, mostly good.
As for me, black eyes, bruises, some welts. No big deal. Teenage boys were troublemakers, right? We needed keeping in line. I might not have believed Boyd about that, but my mom didn’t say a word when he pounded the message home. She’d only smooth my hair, bite her lip, and send me off with ice wrapped in a worn dish towel. She was my mom. If she went along with it, it must be true. Boys needed discipline, and a good smack upside the head was the usual way to go about it. I told a kid at school that once, not thinking anything of it. Why would I? It was the way things were, the way they’d been as long as I could remember. But the look that kid gave me … it made me realize, for the first time, that wasn’t the way things were, not always. And when he called me trash, I realized something else. We were trash, and trash hit each other. It was the way of the world. The law of the trailer park. Being trash, I promptly punched that smug punk in the nose so he’d know what it was like to be me.
I didn’t hate Boyd. He wasn’t worth hating. I did despise him, though. He was worth that. A mean-spirited, beery-breathed sponge that did nothing but suck up money. He hadn’t even wanted to make Tess lunch and take her temperature for a couple of days, but he gave in rather than have Mom miss work and bring home a day less paycheck. He hadn’t wanted to be bothered, that was Boyd all over. Just couldn’t be bothered about anything. Tess and Glory were hell on wheels, no getting around that, but taking care of your kids is supposed to come with the territory. Sure, Tess chattered nonstop from sunup to sundown about anything and nothing, while Glory was sneaky and wild as a feral cat, but that’s who they were. You had to accept it. That’s family. I knew I’d done a lot of accepting in my time. The bite that itched on my calf was courtesy of Glory, and the cartoon Band-Aid over it was from her twin. Two halves of a hellacious whole.
I was heading home in the lazy afternoon, still idly scratching the Glory bite, when I first saw the gleam of pink. I’d cut through our neighbor’s property, twenty-five acres of scrubby grass, black snakes, and the foundation of a hundred-years-gone icehouse. Rumor was a plantation had been somewhere around there in the day. Now there was only scattered rock and an abandoned well.
The neon flash came from a foot-long scraggle of yellowing weeds. Hideously bright and a shade found nowhere in nature, it caught my eye. Curiously, I moved toward it, stomping my feet to scare off any snakes. As I bent over to study it, the smear of color finally shifted into a recognizable shape. A typically girlie thing, it was cradled in the grass as bright and cheerful as an Easter egg. Tessie’s shoe.
She’d lost it. When had that happened? It was far from the house. Yet Tess had lost her shoe way out here. I reached out and picked it up. The plastic of it was shiny and sleek against my skin. The only scuff was on the toe, and I traced a finger over it. It weighed nothing in my palm, less than a feather, it was so small. Tess’s favorite shoe, and she’d lost it.
That was wrong.
My grip spasmed around the shoe until I heard the crack of a splitting sole. It was all wrong. Tess hadn’t lost her shoe. The shoe had lost her. I had lost her. Tessie was gone. Smothered in water and darkness, her wide blue eyes forever open, her hands floating upward like white lilies as if she were hoping someone would pull her up. No one had. My sister was gone.
God, she was gone.
How did I know? Easy. It was as simple as the river being wet, as obvious as the sky being blue. Unstoppable as a falling star.
The shoe told me.