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By Joan Bannan
Abbott PressCopyright © 2013 Joan Bannan
All rights reserved.
I was only four when my sister died and my mother kidnapped my brother and me. I've tried so hard to remember more about the town we lived in and other clues that would help me find my daddy. Both that town, and the tiny house we lived in, were hot, hot, hot! I supposed it couldn't have been perpetually hot, but I don't remember autumn, winter, or spring.
I've read that a child's personality is formed by the time she is five. I wonder how different my personality would have been had I not experienced the brutal shock and grief of my sister's death before those formative years were complete. And although my mother and I were already at odds, I wonder if she may have had a kinder disposition had she not lost her firstborn child to such a heartbreaking accident. Perhaps our relationship would also have fared better if we had not both blamed me for Laura's death.
I have lived for seventeen years with my shame and my guilt, unable to talk about it with anyone. The only person near me who knows I had a sister is my mother and she doesn't talk about it either. The lingering humiliation preoccupies my consciousness and my nightmares. It should have been me, not Laura, who died that day. I didn't pull the trigger, but it was my fault.
All I can remember about where we lived is the street name, Nueva Lane. Daddy worked at a Texaco gas station and was attending a college. My mom worked at a hotel, and whatever she did there paid tips. For this, she always wore black capris and an ironed white blouse. Memories preceding our tragedies have dimmed and faded, but I clearly remember all the details of the day Vanessa shot Laura.
* * *
"Mama, do you have to go to work?" I looked up, trying to catch my mother's emerald eyes.
"Yes, Margaret, you know I have to work." She always seemed to be mad at me. She wasn't angry at Laura or our brother, Ray. Just me. I often followed her around so closely that when she turned quickly, she would trip over me. The angrier she got, the more I tried to cling. I felt that she didn't love me as much as she loved them.
She was standing over the foldout ironing board that was housed in a cupboard in her bedroom wall. I could smell the bleach steaming from beneath the iron as she savagely pounded it down and then slid it across her white blouse. Her face was red and her nostrils f lared. "Permanent press, my a—" She f licked a glance at me and didn't finish her sentence. "If your father had taken this out of the dryer last night, I wouldn't be running so late!" She whipped the blouse from the ironing board, slipped it around her shoulders, and f lipped the pearly buttons through the buttonholes as she simultaneously slipped her tiny feet into black flats.
"Excuse me!" She barked furiously. I backed up so she could bend over to unplug the iron.
"You look pretty, Mama," I volunteered sheepishly.
"Thank you, Margaret." I think she agreed. She caught her ref lection in the mirror, tapped the bottom of her bobbed brunette hair, puckered her red lips slightly, and lifted one eyebrow. She tucked the blouse into her slim black capris, and then, resting her hands just below her tiny waist, she turned sideways, then far enough to look over her shoulder to appraise her butt. As she turned her face toward me at last, she grimaced, but she was not looking into my longing eyes. She was frowning at my bandaged arm.
"Now remember. Stay in your grampa's yard. Don't go to Vanessa's, OK?"
I felt the blood beating in my face as I looked down at the bandage. Grampa's yard had turned into a place of torment and misery since Vanessa, a much older girl, had taken to bullying me. At first she'd just used words. She mocked both Laura and me for wearing the cool, colorful sundresses that Grama Estelle was always sewing for us. "Oh look. Little prim and proper misses."
Vanessa always wore dirty, raggedy jeans that were too long on her. The bottoms had worn off into uneven fringe. I had seen her wear only two T-shirts. Both were several sizes larger than her thin frame. One was faded red and had the remnant of a picture on the front that looked like a brown whirlpool. The other was faded navy blue with crinkly yellow letters on the back that probably spelled the name of a restaurant or something. Whatever the word was, I didn't know the meaning. Both shirts looked like the kind that men wore when they worked in the garden or on cars—not the kind they wore to work or to church. Her curly dark-blond hair was matted. After all the strands of hair had woven into one knotted mass, someone had pulled it all back behind her head and cut the matters straight across at about chin level.
Vanessa had singled me out as her favorite victim. The teasing progressed to poking and pushing as she rudely taunted me. She usually waited until she thought I was alone, as she had yesterday. She said, "Is that a new dress?" She grabbed the front of my dress, wiped her dirty hands on it, then pushed me hard enough to rock me out of balance. I fell against a tree. As I tried to break my fall, my arm got chewed up by the rough bark. As soon as she saw that I was crying and bleeding, she turned and ran home.
Our house was the first house on Nueva Lane closest to the main road. Grama and Grampa's house, and their huge apple orchard, were at the end. Halfway between our house and Grama's house was a tiny building where Vanessa lived with her mother, who never seemed to be home. Daddy called it a shack.
My chest felt like someone was squeezing me too tightly. "Oh, Mama, I don't want to go to Grama and Grampa Taylor's today. I want to stay home." I knew I was whining.
"You can't stay home. You and Laura need to be Grama's helpers with Ray. That's what big sisters do." She grabbed my hand and pulled me at adult speed through the bedroom door, then into the hallway. "Come on now, let's go get see what They're up to. They're awfully quiet!"
As we rounded the corner into the kitchen, we saw Laura hoisting Ray down from his high chair. I think my mother knew Laura's determination would give her strength not to drop the toddler; nevertheless, Mama hurried across the room to help. She heaved the twenty-pound, fifteen-month-old Ray from Laura's arms and smiled at her six-year-old-going-on-twenty-one-year-old daughter. "I think he weighs more than you do."
Laura returned our mother's smile and dutifully picked up our brother's diaper bag. The strap reached below her bottom. The bag barely cleared the floor. Laura opened the car door, tossed the diaper bag in ahead of her, then climbed into the backseat of our Ford minivan. She spread her arms wide for Ray.
Mama placed the squirming boy in her lap. "Hold on tight." It was only a mile down the lane. We all knew Laura would win the wiggle match. I scrambled into the front. Mama raced around to get behind the steering wheel.
Our dingy gray-and-white minivan disrupted the dusty road and left a trailing cloud as we passed Vanessa's house. I slid down beneath the dashboard and curled into a small "invisible" ball until I felt the car stop. I watched Mama jump out of the driver's seat, run around to our side, open both doors, and reach in the back for Ray.
When she opened my door, I felt dust settling on my face. As I stepped out into the silent heat, I could smell rotting windfall apples beneath the trees that surrounded Grama Estelle and Grampa Red's gravel circle at the end of their driveway. My mother snapped at me to hurry as she grabbed the diaper bag and jerked it onto her left shoulder. Her face showed strain as she heaved Ray out of Laura's arms to settle him onto her right hip.
My father's mother stood waiting behind the screen door, pushing it open at the last possible minute. Three of the swarming flies opted to rush in. "Aren't you late, Norma?"
"Yes." Mama squinted her eyes, and her neck muscles lined up like little poles.
I was not the only one familiar with my mother's biting tone. Grama Estelle blushingly countered, "I know Frank appreciates you working so he can finish getting his degree. College is where he belongs. He always did so well in school."
"Yeah, well, just try it sometime. It's hard to get three kids out the door, get dressed for work, and be on time" Mama bit back. "Frank will be home before I will. He'll pick them up around three thirty." She kissed Ray on the cheek. "Here ya go, big boy."
Ray started screaming as she transferred him to Grama. He reached back for Mama with both arms, causing our petite grandmother to toddle.
I stayed inside as long as I could that day until Grama pretty much kicked us out of the house. Laura and I went out to the field beyond Grampa's farm-equipment shed. We always used the shed as home base for games of hide-and-seek behind the bigger apple trees. It was my turn to seek first, but before I closed my eyes and leaned against the powdery shed to dutifully start my countdown, I turned and looked longingly toward Grama's house. It seemed very far away. I opened my eyes and brushed off my sundress, hoping the gesture would simultaneously brush away a rising sense of fear. "Ready or not, here I come!"
A shadow detached itself from the shade of the shed and morphed into Vanessa. "I'm ready."
I looked down at my arm rather than into Vanessa's bullying stare.
"Does that hurt?"
"No," I lied meekly.
"Leave her alone, Vanessa." This from my protective big sister, who had apparently returned when she spotted Vanessa.
I bolted around the nearest corner of the shed. I could hear my pulse swishing in my ears. My sweaty palms against the wall of the shed turned the dust into a light film of mud. I peeked back around to see that Laura was alone again. I ran to her. "Where is she, Laura?"
"She went the other way to head you off. She's on the other side of the shed. Come on. Let's go back to the house."
Laura took my hand, and we headed toward the kitchen screen door, but Vanessa stepped out from behind the shed and commanded, "Stop!" She stalked forward with Grampa's rif le cupped beneath her right arm, the barrel resting on her left hand, her trigger finger at the ready. Then she added brazenly, "Or I'll shoot!"
I had seen Grampa's "varmint gun" in the shed before. Grampa told us to never, ever, touch it, and he promised us he would never shoot anything in front of us, like squirrels, gophers, or the feral cats that roamed the fields and howled so loudly at night. We could hear those screaming cats at both our house and Grampa's. The shed was always locked. The door must not have been latched completely.
I screamed. Laura stepped in front of me with her shoulders back; her chin set bravely high; her arms stiff, like a toy soldier. Vanessa fired the gun. Laura fell back, pinning me beneath her in the dirt. I saw Vanessa's jaw drop and her skin turn white except for instant dark circles under her eyes. She looked down at the gun, then dropped it as if it were burning her hands. She turned and ran. This time, though, she ran into the orchard, away from the houses, toward the other road on the far side of the trees.
I wriggled out enough to see Laura's thick lashes flickering up and down like the wings of a dark moth trying to fly away. "Maggie. I'm thirsty. I want some water." Her eyes rolled back and she closed them. "Waa-ter."
"Graaammaa!" I wailed. I could barely catch my breath because I was bawling hysterically. Both my head and my stomach felt like they were water balloons that someone instantly filled up until they were too full. I peed in my underpants and felt humiliated.
Grama Estelle was already running across the field toward us. Laura squirmed and jerked a few times, then she lifted her long lashes one last time. She tried to speak, but pink foam was oozing from her nose and mouth so all that came out was a gurgly sounding cough. Her brown eyes were open, but they didn't look like they were seeing anything.
I squirmed out from under her. I was still crying uncontrollably. I pulled Laura up to my height, then draped her arms around my shoulders. I don't know if Laura was helping or if I had some kind of superhuman strength, but we began to move toward the house. Grama intercepted our clumsy journey.
"Stop, Maggie. I'll carry her." She pried the lifeless arms from around my neck. Holding her with one arm, she gently stroked Laura's hair back from her face and wiped her mouth and nose with her apron. Grama seemed to know it wouldn't help my sister to reach the house. They both collapsed into the sandy soil. Laura was lying across her lap. Grama was trying to catch her breath between each wrenching sob. I nestled down into my "invisible ball" alongside them and put the thumb of my left hand into my mouth. I was still crying violently. My chest heaved in and out, causing sharp sucks on my thumb. I used my right hand to lift one of Grama Estelle's arms at the elbow so I could scrunch myself under it. I wanted to feel comfort, like the little chicks that cuddled beneath the wings of Grama's hens.
From where I lay, I could see the gun gleaming in the dust.
Grampa Red came running in from the orchard. I felt him pry me away from the pile of dirty dresses, entwined arms, blood, and tears. He brushed his wife's face gently with the back of his hand and uttered, "I'll be right back."
He carried me into the house. I was so embarrassed because I knew he could feel my wet pants. His shoulders were slumped. He was muttering something to himself, and I could feel his body shaking. He was blinking liquid from his eyes. We passed through the living room, where Ray was crying in the playpen, then down the short hallway, then into their bedroom. He gently lowered my wet, stinky, dirty body onto their huge bed. He pulled a tissue from the box on the nightstand and blew his nose. In spite of near-hundred- degree heat outside and eighty-five-degree stuffiness in the house, he covered me with a thick, fluffy comforter and kissed my filthy forehead. I heard his long, shuddering breaths as he turned to leave.
I yanked my thumb out of my mouth and tried to beg him not to leave me, but no sound came out. My chest was still heaving and trembling each time it pulled in air. I drew the quilt up to my nose and stared at the ruffly curtains. I heard Grampa's voice in the kitchen. It shook as he told someone that there had been an accident and gave them the address. I heard the receiver clunk into the telephone base, then the kitchen screen door slam shut with a bang. Ray, who had quieted when he saw Grampa come out of the bedroom, apparently considered the bang his cue to resume screaming.
I listened beyond the wailing, hoping to hear Grampa or Grama return—or even better, Daddy—but no. Ray's screaming calmed to whimpers, then hiccups, and after a while he was quiet. I tried my voice again meekly. "Grampa? Grama?"
Ray called out, "Deedee!" This was his best attempt at "sister." Laura had been Deedee too.
I didn't want to talk to Ray. I returned to the security of the mound of covers and my thumb, to wait and hope that someone would come to comfort us. My chest, tummy and head ached. No! No! No! No! crashed around inside my head.
I whispered, "Daddy, I'm thirsty." This reminded me of the last thing Laura said, and then I cried myself to sleep.
* * *
Through a groggy wakefulness, I heard Grama's soft voice, then another voice that was deep, with a quality of kindness and confidence. I understood the words he said, but he pronounced them in a way that was different from how I was used to hearing them. I clung to the comforter that slid to lower me until my feet touched the floor. I padded to the bedroom door and peeked through the hall into the living room. Grama was opening the screen door to let in a man.
He had a dark face, black hair, and balding forehead. His clothes—even his shoes and belt—were entirely white. They matched his bright white teeth, which he brief ly revealed in a gentle smile when he greeted my grandmother. Grama started talking, and then sobbing. The man put his hand on her shoulder and helped her settle into her rocking chair. I knew that he could see me through the crack between the hallway door and the doorjamb, but I wasn't afraid of him. In fact, I wanted him to see me and felt drawn to him, but I stayed at my post. I decided he was an angel.
The man moved out of my sight, most likely to sit on the sofa. I listened to the muff led voices on the other side of the door for a while, once in a while picking up a word or two. I heard Grampa's work boots scrape the kitchen floor. He had come in through the side door and was talking to someone who also had heavy footfalls. I caught a glimpse of a man with a tan uniform. He had a badge pinned to his shirt. In spite of a desperate desire to eavesdrop, to hear every word, I was hearing less and less. My eyes blinked heavily several times, each time closing for longer, until I felt my body slump down onto the hardwood floor in exhaustion.
I woke up lying on the couch. My head was on Grama's lap. She was stroking my hair. The man in the uniform was sitting across from me on a chair. Grampa was standing behind him.
"Hello. My name is Officer Morgan—what's yours?"
Excerpted from Halfa Moon by Joan Bannan. Copyright © 2013 Joan Bannan. Excerpted by permission of Abbott Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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