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Feeling for Bones
By Bethany Pierce
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2007 Bethany Pierce
All rights reserved.
at the age of sixteen, I suffered recurring nightmares. I was running as hard as I could while my destination on the horizon receded to a pinpoint and vanished like the white pop of an old television screen winking out. Awake, I lay in a trance at the bottom of a pool, suffocating beneath an invisible, silent weight: people's voices reached my ears across a great distance, and the reflection of my body was always before me, wavering in myriad and grotesque distortions.
It was the year Dad lost his job. He was given severance pay, but finding new work was only half the problem: part of his salary was our family's tenancy in the parsonage. I spent the first of those suspenseful weeks in a quiet circuit between school and the dinner table, navigating the maze of moving boxes to disappear into my bedroom each night.
To spare my little sister the final dismantling of our home, Dad arranged for both of us to leave for Great-aunt Margaret's a week before he and Mom would arrive with the moving vans. As a six-year-old, Callapher nursed anxieties about the move that were as imaginative as they were ridiculous. When she first learned we would be leaving the flatlands of southern Ohio for the Appalachian Mountains, she locked herself in the bathroom and cried for an hour because she was afraid she would fall off. Dad said, "We'll just tie a rope around your waist and secure it to the table." But Mom arched her eyebrow at him, so he stopped. Mom kept her eyebrows perfectly groomed, delicate and sharp like the moon crescents above the painted long-lashed eyes of Callapher's Gone With the Wind collector Barbie.
I envied my sister the naiveté of her fears. But after saying goodbye to my friends, I was surprised to realize there were none I would miss terribly. I felt a little ashamed of the fact, but at the same time strangely proud: proud that I didn't need anyone. When we boarded the bus for Great-aunt Margaret's, the sunrise was just a line of budding pink on the horizon. Taking my seat, I felt a flutter in my stomach, the kind you get when the crush you've had for a month walks into the room. A sense of anticipation.
It was the first of March, but unusually warm for spring. Callapher and I shared the bus with half a dozen other passengers. In a silent stupor, they swayed to the rhythm of the Greyhound as its engine roared against the Pennsylvania terrain. Twisting the heavy weight of my hair into a bun, I wiped the sweat from the nape of my neck. Callapher fidgeted in the seat beside me.
"How much longer?" she asked.
"We're almost there." I just wanted her to be quiet. "Sit up. It's too hot to be so close."
Sighing dramatically, she flopped back against the seat. Her legs were too short to reach the floor. She swayed them back and forth, watching the sunlight glint off the sparkles in her jelly slippers. She winked her eyes at them. First her right, then her left. Right, left, squinting.
"Something in your eye?" I asked.
"Look, when I do this it makes the colors change."
"I am looking."
"No, I mean try it." She covered her left eye with the palm of her hand so that she could only see from the right. She covered the right eye in turn. "See, everything looks different. Like more purple."
I said, "I see," but I was looking down at the book I'd brought. Callapher walked her finger people up and down my arm.
"Stop it," I murmured.
"Olivia," she repeated.
"I said 'what.'"
She squirmed to her knees so that her face was level with mine. "Why do my eyes do that?"
"That's how they work together. One sees one set of colors and the other sees another set and then your brain puts the two together," I lied.
"I heard your eye flips things upside down and then your brain turns them around again." She projected her palm forward, like a policeman halting traffic, then turned her arm so that her fingers pointed down. "Like this." She repeated the gesture several times, rapidly.
"Where did you hear that?" I asked.
"Well, it's true."
She sucked on the zipper of her jacket meditatively. I told her not to be disgusting and to spit it out. She kicked the back of the empty seat in front of her. She slid around and sat backwards. She laid her head in my lap.
She asked, "Are we there yet?"
"Almost," I said. "Probably almost."
The road passed beneath the wheels of the bus, its path never-ending and monotonous as the slats of a treadmill. I stared out the window, excessively disappointed with the view. Nothing more than hills buried in blurred brush, brown and green. Bloated land. I closed my right eye to stare at the landscape with my left. I switched eyes, winking one then the other. The mountain jumped back and forth, shifting like an object in a room lit by strobe light.
I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from? The psalm occurred to me as clearly as if someone had whispered it in my ear. That's what you get as the daughter of a minister: a mind full of Scripture. My Sunday school teacher used to give us verses printed on thin scraps of paper the shape and size of the slips folded in fortune cookies. These printed papers littered my brain. The inside of my head, a ticker-tape parade.
We passed a bait shop, a gas station, and a spattering of whitewashed houses, all sandwiched between city limits posted on leaning green signs. One after the other, these sparse islands of civilization gave way to greater and wider stretches of untamed land. Just seconds after passing the line of a little town named Cedarville, the engine of the bus roared up in protest, sending a shudder down the length of the floor that tingled the soles of my feet. We veered off the road slowly, coming to a complete stop at the curb.
The driver unlatched himself from his chair. It buoyed up in his absence. Standing at the front of the bus, he adjusted his belt beneath his overhanging belly. "Sorry, folks," he apologized. "Engine's overheated again. Gonna be a few minutes."
He stepped down from the bus, which, I imagined, lifted with a sigh like that of the chair in being released from the particular burden of that one man's excessive weight. In that same moment, a grouping of heavy-bellied clouds covered the sun. The darkness of a premature dusk raced over the land with all the speed of a heavy curtain drawn shut. Of their own accord, reading lights flickered to life along the perimeter of the bus's ceiling, creating green halos upon the heads of the passengers beneath who eyed the changing landscape with suspicion.
Callapher fussed to be free of her buckle. "I have to go to the bathroom," she announced.
I sent her to the toilet in the back. She returned with her face screwed tight in pain.
"I can't go; there's somebody in there." She did an impatient dance in the aisle.
"Hold on," I said, undoing my own seat belt. I remembered passing a gas station just at the city limits. "Get your jacket."
"But it's hot."
"I know—but it might rain while we're out."
At the front of the bus, I told a woman that we were going out for a second and not to let the driver pull away without us.
"Sweetheart, we're not going anywhere," she replied. "But I'll tell him."
The gas station was no longer visible from the road, but above the wall of trees an artificially white light glowed bright. We ran down the street in its direction.
"Slow down," Callapher demanded. She ran with the stilted gait of a one-legged man, her legs locked together at the knees.
"C'mon, it's not that far. You can hold it in; no one's looking."
She pinched her hand between her legs.
When we reached the station, a chime above the door announced our entrance.
"Bathroom?" I asked breathlessly.
Raising his eyebrows, the attendant pointed to the back. I helped Callapher pull her pants down as we ran. With her underwear around her ankles, she half tripped into the stall. I closed the door behind her.
"You make it?" I asked.
"Yeah," she managed.
Leaning against the door, I saw my own reflection looking back from the square mirror opposite. My skin was pale. The single light above the sink cast the bathroom in a yellowish hue, pulling deep shadows from beneath my eyes. I turned away.
The toilet flushed. A pair of twins about Callapher's age emerged from the handicapped stall. They wore matching pink dresses that fanned out, pleated and shaped like lampshades. Red curls kinked tight in the humidity had escaped from the once carefully arranged ballerina buns atop their heads. Together, they stood on tiptoe to lather their hands over the shared sink.
"You look very pretty," I told them.
"Thank you," they replied in unison.
"Were you in a wedding?" I asked, noting the stump of a withering bouquet on the edge of the sink.
"Yes," one of the twins answered with pride. "Our mother's."
They patted their hands with brown paper towels, and one wiped her palms against her dress for good measure. They skipped from the bathroom.
When Callapher emerged, looking better, I told her to wash her hands. "Use soap," I said. "Don't just rinse them off."
At the counter, I bought her a shrink-wrapped sub sandwich and a large soda. We sat for a moment at the single plastic booth situated between the coffeemaker and the row of candy machines.
Outside the window, parked beside the second gas pump, a blue minivan chugged in place. Pink and yellow streamers trailed the pavement behind it. White balloons hung from the side mirrors and the rear door. A sign had been duct-taped to the back, just covering a hairline crack that cut the length of the glass. In handwritten cursive it read Just Married. I couldn't see the bride's face, but a cloud of white fabric and lace was visible just over the rim of the passenger side window. Occasionally, the great bundle moved as the bride readjusted herself; once, it trembled.
It was the groom who drew my attention: a man in a white tuxedo waiting beside the open van door, one hand behind his back, the other straight at his side. The twins ran the length of the parking lot, the second throwing herself into the groom's arms. He lifted her into the air and kissed her affectionately on the cheek before setting her in the van and closing the door behind her. It slid along its rusted hinges with the roll of a gentle thunder.
I was struck with a peculiar desire to study his face, but he got into the front seat without glancing back my way, and his features remain indefinite in my memory. The van drove away, white balloons bouncing with the eagerness of hands waving farewell.
"Come on," I urged Callapher, glancing at my watch. We'd been gone fifteen minutes. "You can eat the rest on the bus."
"I don't want anymore." She offered the remainder of her sandwich to me.
"I'm not hungry."
The rain began as soon as we started back. In seconds it was a torrential downpour. Lightning flashed on the horizon. Callapher screamed. When she was really scared, she grimaced with a deep and rigid downward turn of her bottom lip that made her chin jut forward and left her bottom row of teeth just visible. Her plastic shoes quickly filled with water. She tripped. I offered to give her a piggyback ride. Once on my back, she pitched her coat over her head and mine.
"You're choking me!" I called through the roar of rain on pavement. "Don't hold on so tight—it's only rain. It's nothing to be afraid of."
"I amn't scared," Callapher stated.
"You aren't scared," I corrected.
"Nope," she insisted. She grasped her arms tighter around my neck as a second peal of thunder shook the ground.
We arrived at the Greyhound dripping and panting. Through the narrow aisle, we managed our way back to our seats, avoiding the indignant grunts of passengers sprayed with rainwater by our passing. Callapher cradled her jumbo soda pop with both hands while I helped peel away her soggy shoes.
"Let me take off your shirt," I said.
"No. I don't want them to see me naked."
"You're soaked. No one will care."
She whispered, "They'll see my boobies."
I laughed. "You don't have anything to hide. Put your arms up."
Too tired to complain, she obediently raised her arms. The tight T-shirt pulled from her body with a wet slurp. Her skin was clammy and cool in the sallow yellow light. I took my own jacket down from the storage compartment where I'd left it neatly folded, and wrapped it around my sister's bare shoulders. We sat down. She laid her head on my shoulder and closed her eyes. In minutes, she was sleeping.
Half an hour later, the driver took his seat, and we began again up the road. This marked the second pit stop we'd been forced to make in two hours. It occurred to me too late that we should have called Margaret at the gas station so she wouldn't worry.
I tried to remember my great-aunt. The first years of my parents' marriage, they made an effort to keep in touch with that corner of my mother's childhood, but it had grown increasingly difficult to make time for a lone relative living so far from the rest. Margaret single-handedly maintained the old farmhouse and the great tract of land left to her by her late husband. The marriage was so long in the past that no one remembered it well or spoke of it often. Ten years ago Mom heard that Margaret had taken in a housemate, an unmarried friend by the name of Ruby Alcott. Together, she and Margaret were known in town as the Old Maids.
This permanent addition to Margaret's otherwise solitary life alleviated the burden on my mother's conscience. In the years that followed, each Christmas brought one excuse or another why we couldn't accept Margaret's annual invitation. We had never met Ms. Alcott. We knew her only by pictures and by the new signature adjoining Margaret's on each year's posted holiday greeting card, which we kept in a shoe box with the other rubber-band-bound Hallmark Christ childs that lay in beds of heavenly gold hay.
In anticipation of our arrival, Margaret had mailed us weekly installments of Bethsaida life: postcards, clippings from the local newspaper, church bulletins with all the exciting announcements circled in red. She sent me a help-wanted ad for a housepainter. The envelope had been addressed to "Miss Monahan," and the enclosed note said, "Possible employment opportunity. Thought you might be interested, since your mother says you are a talented artist." Mom scolded me for laughing at the note. "Humor her, Olivia," she'd said. "She's only trying to help."
I didn't need to be reminded of Margaret's help. You could praise my dad's credentials all you wanted, but I knew that she was the reason Bethsaida Christian Academy agreed to hire him for the coming year. No one would have overlooked the events of the past year without sufficient sway from a sympathetic party. And Margaret's was about the only sympathy we'd found so far; the rent she required for the cottage on her land was nothing less than outright charity.
The vision of the cottage as I had long since imagined it rose up before me. A picket fence lining a carpet of moist, spongy grass. Little shutters and yellow-checkered curtains blowing in the breeze. Tufted pollen of dandelion seeds bursting in a puff to become stars that spattered the air, soaring up in an explosion of gold ...
My head banged against the window, and I woke up. Through the indistinct reflection of my face on the glass, the pavement wound, wound never ending, roadside weeds ripping through the shadowy half moon of my cheek. The cabin grew warmer as my head grew thicker. I lost concentrated vision to gathering splotches of brown. As if lifted from beneath, my seat tipped forward. I fell out completely, my body light and arms outstretched in abandon. Then I stood at a precipice beneath which churned a great swirling beauty. A red cloud shrank down from a pull at its center, as a stomach flushing, or a galaxy upon its axis spinning. There was a flashing sheet of an unbearable glory. I had to jump to live. Plunge to the bottom and spring up, reborn.
Lightning flashed. I blinked my eyes, grasping at consciousness. I tried to remember the bus and Callapher's heavy head against my arm. The road stretched without end toward the unknown. Another gas station passed, so exactly like the last that I expected to find the same minivan parked beneath its overhang. I wondered about the man and his bride. Now they were speeding in the opposite direction, streamers wavering behind as they rose up from the road to fly into the sky. Instantaneously, I found myself on the road. The bus had disappeared and I was running, desperately, my feet soaked from the puddles that mirrored the darkening sky, my lungs burning, my head on fire. I had to run after him. I had to find him. I had to run before that for which I ran shrank to nothing.
I stopped. Before me stood the man, a liveried servant dressed in a suit of white. He stood before an open door. A door, perhaps, to a carriage. Or a blue van or a chariot. His garments glowed with brilliant heat in the purple fog of rain. He stood at the open door, his open palm extending the invitation.
Excerpted from Feeling for Bones by Bethany Pierce. Copyright © 2007 Bethany Pierce. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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