Eight-year-old Pepper Prescott woke to find the light shining down the hall from the kitchen. She blinked and, yawning, looked at the clock. The lighted numbers said two thirty-six, and she experienced a surge of triumph, because she knew she wasn't supposed to be awake in the middle of the night.
But that light meant Daddy and Mama were here at last. They hadn't been when Pepper got home from school. The house had been empty, something that had happened only a few times that Pepper could remember, and always involved a parishioner who had had an accident and was dying and a family who needed help coming to grips with mortality. Usually Mama left a note on the table, but this time there was nothing. Pepper even checked on the floor to see if the air conditioner had blown away the paper.
Then she did what Mama would want her to do, and rummaged around and found a snack. Well, not quite what Mama would want her to do, because she had cookies instead of an apple and she ate them in front of the television and watched the shows she wasn't supposed to watch. She enjoyed herself thoroughly until Hope came home.
Then Hope snapped the TV off and made Pepper do her homework at the kitchen table. Sixteen-year-old Hope always did the right thing. At school, Pepper's teachers always said, "I had your sister Hope, and she never talked all the time." Or, "I taught your sister, Hope, and she got straight A's." Pepper got sick of hearing about wonderful, perfect Hope, and she kicked the table leg the whole time Hope was gone getting the baby from the church day care.
She came home with a pucker between her brows, but she wouldn't tell Pepper anything. When Gabriel came home from soccer, she pulled him into a corner and they whispered in a worried tone.
Daddy and Mama didn't come home all evening, and they didn't call.
Pepper had gone to bed feeling like it was her fault because she'd eaten those cookies, but now she could hear voices in the kitchen, and that meant they were home. Flinging back the covers, she padded down the hallway toward the light.
She recognized Hope's voice, and Gabriel's, and they whispered as if someone were choking them. Pepper heard a man speak, but he wasn't Daddy, and she stopped short of the doorway. She had on only her nightgown. Mama said a girl of eight didn't come out in her nightgown in front of strangers.
Pepper peeked around the door and saw that there were two strangers in the kitchen, a Texas man sheriff and a Texas lady sheriff.
Hope was sitting at the table. Gabriel stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders.
And Daddy and Mama weren't here.
The lady was saying, "...Car rolled five times about three o'clock this afternoon on an empty stretch near the Mexican border "
Who was she talking about? Why was she here?
She continued, " and not discovered until almost eight o'clock this evening by a passing officer. Both bodies were battered in a way that "
The man sheriff dug his elbow into her ribs.
She finished, "They were killed instantly."
Killed, who was killed? Who were they talking about?
"I'm so sorry to bring you news like this." The lady looked like she meant it.
But Pepper still didn't understand. Who had been killed instantly?
The man asked, "Do you kids have anyone you can call to stay with you? Aunts? Uncles?"
"No. My parents didn't have family. They met...they were both orphans..." Hope dropped her head onto her hands and gave a sob.
Why did she do that?
Who were they talking about? In the depths of her heart, Pepper knew, but she couldn't believe it.
Gabriel, big old fourteen-year-old Gabriel, made a noise like Pepper had never heard, sort of between a whimper and a groan.
And Pepper...Pepper was making a noise too. She didn't realize it until everyone turned and looked at her. Then she backed up out of the doorway, but the sound coming out of her throat was thin and high and kept getting louder.
Hope came to her feet and dashed toward Pepper.
Gabriel followed her and stood back, staring, the way he used to before Mama made him join the family.
Gathering Pepper into her arms, Hope said, "Sh. You'll wake the baby. Sh, Pepper, you'll make yourself sick. Sh..." She rocked Pepper.
But Pepper stood rigid, one foot on top of the other, her thin nightgown sticking to her suddenly clammy skin, and wailed because she couldn't help it. Her mama...they said her mama was dead. Her daddy...no! She'd seen him that morning. He'd looked tired, but he kissed her and told her to do right today. He said that every day when she left for school, and she never did, and now he was...he was dead? Her mama? Battered? Gone? Dead?
Hope scooped her up and carried Pepper into her bedroom, saying all the time, "Sh, sh, quiet, honey, you'll wake the baby, you'll make yourself sick, don't cry, don't cry."
Pepper didn't think she was crying. She had cried before, but it had never felt like this. This wrenching pain in the gut, the pounding in her head, the emptiness...everywhere.
The two girls sat on Pepper's bed.
Gabriel stood in the doorway. "Can I help?" he asked, but he was awkward and somehow out of place.
Of course. He'd only lived here a few years. Daddy and Mama weren't his real parents. He didn't know what to do.
Pepper sobbed harder. Gabriel was her brother, the one who understood her when no one else did, and now everything was changing, disintegrating...destroyed.
Their lives were destroyed.
Taking Pepper's shoulders, Hope held her. She dipped down until she was on Pepper's level. She looked into her eyes. "Listen to me, Pepper. Listen. Listen."
Pepper calmed a little. Just a little. Agony still ripped at her belly. She understood this was only a calm in the storm. But she caught her breath and listened.
"I will take care of you," Hope vowed. "Trust me. We're a family. I'll make sure we're together. I'll take care of you. Trust me."
Copyright © 2004 by Christina Dodd