Read an Excerpt
Fly By Night by Susan Addison Allen
I watched my house from the second story bedroom at Great Aunt Sophie's. I could see that the lights were on in my living room. A shadow passed by the windows there, and the curtains moved like fingertips had brushed them.
My mom was slowly walking around our house next door, in and out of each room, like she was looking for someone. The kitchen light went on once, then flicked back off.
"Louise!" Great Aunt Sophie called from the next room, and my elbows jerked off the window sill where I was kneeling. "Go to sleep."
There was no door, just a doorway, between Great Aunt Sophie's bedroom and the one I was sleeping in that night. As I knelt at the open window, pretending I was in bed asleep, I could hear her turning the pages of her book, the low mumble of the radio station out of Asheville that still played big band music, and sometimes I even heard the rattle of ice cubes as she poured iced tea into a hard plastic cup from the thermos she brought up from the kitchen. They had the easy, sleepy echo of sounds repeated night after night. Great Aunt Sophie herself was like that. She was worn in the best possible way, like the way your oldest shoes fit, the shoes that wouldn't slip when you ran on dewy grass and gave you traction when climbing hickory trees.
I ignored Great Aunt Sophie with the hope that she was just checking to see if I was asleep. If I didn't say anything, she would surely believe that I was. I turned back to the window I was kneeling in front of and continued to watch my house. The night outside was the thick black of a new moon and lightning bugs ticked away in backyards as far as I could see. My bedroomnext door was dark, but suddenly light spilled faintly into the room, as if the switch in the bedroom across the hall from mine had been turned on. The light covered my doorway and outlined the toy horses I'd placed on my window sill that very morning.
"Louise," Great Aunt Sophie called. "Don't make me say it again."
I should have known that she knew. She knew everything. She knew things nobody else knew.
I got up and walked to the doorway separating the two bedrooms. Her room had side-by-side twin beds, both covered with pink, quilted polyester bedspreads. She slept in the one on the left, farthest from the door and nearest to the open window. The bedroom I was staying in had one full bed with a knotty pine headboard pushed against the wall. The mattress was an old featherbed, and it felt a lot like sleeping on a nest of pine needles. I knew this because I fell out of a pine tree once and landed in a pile of needles, breath gone, thinking I was dead, and I looked up to see Great Aunt Sophie in her straw hat. I thought that was a horrible way to go, lying in resiny needles with Great Aunt Sophie's frown the last thing I would see. She told me to go home because she was in no mood for my antics and she hadn't raked that pile of pine needles just for me to jump in. I thought she had no respect for the dying, so I went home to tell my mother, who didn't believe me because I was breathing again.
Great Aunt Sophie and her husband Harry used to sleep in the featherbed room, but Great Aunt Sophie moved into the room with the pink twin beds after Harry died. My mom told my dad this once, as if trying to explain away some of Great Aunt Sophie's peculiarities. I didn't like the thought of sleeping in the featherbed room. I had never met my great-uncle and I didn't know if it was possible to be haunted by someone you had never known, but I didn't want to risk it.
"Go to sleep," Great Aunt Sophie said, laying her open book page-down on her chest and folding her fingers over it tightly, hiding the picture on the cover.
"It won't come. I tried."
"Then get yourself into bed. Sleep can't come into your head if you're sitting up at that window."
I walked into her room. There were places in Great Aunt Sophie's house where certain scents pooled. As you walked in the front door, you smelled Blue Grass perfume right away. Great Aunt Sophie kept the spritzer in a table drawer beside the door and always sprayed her gloves once before going to church. Then there was that place on her staircase, about three steps up, that for no reason smelled like lavender, as if just moments before a beautiful lady had walked up the stairs ahead of you. And in the twin bed room, it smelled of yellowy paperback romance novels and Rosemilk lotion, the kind they advertised during The Lawrence Welk Show.
I sat on the edge of the twin bed next to her. She had taken the thin pink bedspread off her bed and it was folded neatly at the bottom of the bed I was sitting on. She was on top of her sheets in deference to the cloying summertime heat, and her sunbrown bare feet were crossed at the ankles. She had reddish-orange polish on her toenails and caked around her cuticles and skin, like she'd had trouble aiming the brush. For as long as I knew her, she'd always painted her nails this way, and I had no choice but to believe she did it on purpose.
"Mom can't sleep, either. I was watching her. She's walking around the house."
"It's understandable, Louise. Let her walk and tire herself out. Then she'll sleep. You'll see her tomorrow," she said as if tomorrow weren't so far away.
Great Aunt Sophie was as practical as a pin. She intimidated me sometimes with her perfect rightness. She never had any children. I never asked why, but sometimes I thought it was because she didn't like kids. She didn't have much patience with me. Her husband Harry died when she was in her forties, and she never remarried. My dad had once said he could never imagine Great Aunt Sophie married. My mom told him that there were certain hurts that Sophie chose not to show, but that didn't mean they weren't there.
"Do you ever miss Harry?" I asked her, just to keep her talking so I could stay longer in her room.
Great Aunt Sophie looked straight ahead, not at me, as if seeing long ago things I couldn't see, maybe even the ghost in the next room. "Of course I do."
"After so long?"
"Yes," she said shortly, closing up her secrets. "You shouldn't be asking me these questions. You should be a-sleep."
"I miss my dad," I finally said. I had been afraid to say it all day, afraid that I was the only one.
Great Aunt Sophie paused, then nodded, just once. "I know you do."
I was surprised. Mom and Great Aunt Sophie had acted so normally that day. They smiled and accepted condolences as easily as they would have accepted a compliment, graciously and without fuss. I didn't understand. I didn't feel normal. It hadn't been a normal day for me. "Do you miss him, too?" I asked, because Great Aunt Sophie and my dad didn't get along and I was afraid that she was glad now that he was gone. They were friendly enough, I suppose, but Great Aunt Sophie couldn't put the fear of God in him with just a look like she could with most people and I think that annoyed her.
"Your daddy was a dreamer. He could dance, and that was in his favor." She slanted her eyes my way. "Never marry a man who can't dance, Louise."
Knowing how to dance was important to Great Aunt Sophie. Sometimes, when she took her bicycle out of the garage, she would do a little two-step with it if she was in a good mood. She loved her bicycle. I could remember seeing her once, dressed in her Sunday-go-to-meeting finest, pedaling past our house on her way to church. Then I remember seeing the back of her dress fly up right in front of old Harvey Williams, who had opted to walk to church that morning with his wife Annie because he was having one of his good days. From then until the day he died, he referred to that incident as his Sunday morning revelation. When my mom wanted to vex Great Aunt Sophie, she would bring this up.
I scratched at a circle of poison ivy on my leg, just above my knee. It had been hard to sit still at the funeral service that morning and not scratch. I had tried to think of everything I could remember about the last time I saw my dad to take my mind off the itch. I was in my nightgown in the kitchen, waiting for my Lucky Charms. He had his steel lunch box. He checked the refrigerator again to see if he had forgotten his thermos of orange juice. I could remember things he usually said: Goodbye. I love you. Where's my orange juice? But I couldn't remember if he said those things that morning or, if he did, in what order.
"Louise, stop scratching that or it will never get better," Great Aunt Sophie told me.
I did as she said. "I want to be home."
"Your mama needs to be alone tonight. You're a yard away. It's silly to miss a person who's only a yard away."
I opened my mouth and thought about that for a minute, knowing Great Aunt Sophie didn't suffer talking off the top of your head. "But it's okay to miss the people far off, right?"
Great Aunt Sophie nodded twice. "That's when you should miss them."
I'd never seen Great Aunt Sophie show an emotion stronger than indignation, and that one was her favorite. But I knew she loved me, just as I knew she loved my mom. She raised my mom from the time my mom was ten, when her mother died. My grandmother was Great Aunt Sophie's sister and she married a "no-good sailor man" that Great Aunt Sophie didn't like so much she never even said his name. He was still living, somewhere. No one ever mentioned where.
Sometimes it seemed like she was still raising my mom. She participated actively in everything my mom did, except for when she married my dad. Defiantly, they went to South Carolina and eloped. My dad used to say it took the summer Mom discovered she was pregnant with me for Great Aunt Sophie to finally give her blessing. That was a grand summer, he'd said. Warm weather and the promise of only good things to come.
It surprised me that Great Aunt Sophie wasn't hovering around Mom now, giving her a break from thinking, tonight of all nights. But Great Aunt Sophie had talked to my mom only once since we got home, and that was to say goodnight. She didn't even offer food. Great Aunt Sophie always offered food. Everyone knew that. In times of distress she could whip up green bean casseroles, broccoli cornbread and peanut butter pies, then be at the doorstep of the bereaved before most folks in the factory town of Clementine, North Carolina, even knew there had been a tragedy.
I didn't know whose idea it was for me to stay with Great Aunt Sophie that night. If I had been sure Mom was responsible, I might have been able to talk her out of it. But if it had been Great Aunt Sophie's idea, I knew arguing with her would be like throwing a stone up to try to hurt the sky. She was that vast, that unshakable. She thundered only when she wanted to. So I didn't say a thing as Sophie took a pair of pajamas out of my dresser and took my hand to lead me across our yard into hers after we all got home that afternoon.
She gave me cream of tomato soup which she had made from her own tomatoes, and then she melted some shredded cheddar cheese on saltine crackers in the oven. While I ate at her kitchen table, which was covered with a printed oil cloth, she took her garden shears and went outside. That night I discovered that she'd picked some Shasta daises and put them in a vase in the featherbed room for me.
I tried to scoot slowly, invisibly, to the top of the twin bed, so Great Aunt Sophie wouldn't see what I was doing and order me back to the ghost room. "Why doesn't everybody go to heaven, Aunt Sophie?" I asked as I put my head on the pillow.
"God decides that, not me," she said, though I knew she had her own ideas on the subject.
I stared at the textured ceiling. "Do you think my dad's in heaven?"
My dad knew of heaven. He didn't go to church, but I think he understood the idea.
The winter before, on a cold, still Appalachian night in December, he had come in from somewhere, I don't remember where, and he was smiling. He smelled like the cold and cigarette smoke when he picked me up and carried me outside without even giving me time to put on my coat. My mom only smiled at him the way she always did, as if she loved him so much she couldn't speak.
The snow was frozen and it had hushed the neighborhood. It was so quiet that each step he took in the hard snow sounded like the pop of a paper bag full of air. Once we were in the front yard, he put me down, then pointed up. I followed his finger to the millions of bright stars overhead. There were so many of them it looked like there was no night, just stars, packed like an audience trying to get a better view of us.
"Look at that, Louise," he said in awe. "God, will you look at that. There you go."
There you go.
"Is that where he went?"
Great Aunt Sophie was silent for a good many moments. She reached over and took a bookmark off the table to her right. She marked the place in her book and set it aside. "I've pondered this now," she finally said. "And I believe your daddy's in heaven. Dreaming and dancing are heavenly things. Your daddy would fit right in."
"Your Harry's in heaven, I guess," I said.
"Yes, he is." She took a quick, deep, decision-making breath. "Do you want to know why I took that door away, Louise?" She pointed to the doorway separating the rooms. "It's because I can lie here and look into that room and see where he lived. My memories are in there, but my life is in here. That's the way it is, Louise. You can look at them, but you can't live them."
"I want to be home." I tried to keep my voice straight so Great Aunt Sophie wouldn't know I was crying. She didn't like for people to cry. It made her fidget. She all but left the room last week when Lorelei Horton tearfully told the Sunday school committee that her son was finally coming home from Vietnam.