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As Emily pieces the fragments of her past ...
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As Emily pieces the fragments of her past together, she begins to understand the truth of her brother's death. Stay is a novel of love and redemption in which Emily Stone rediscovers her voice and moves back into the world.
"Time for confession," my sister whispers in my ear. "You better talk to us or you'll end up like you know who."
I follow Hope through the kitchen, past Mum's oatmeal bread rising in the gold mixing bowl. Hope points up the street, but I can't see beyond the overgrown pine and juniper trees, the dogwood and the rhododendron bushes blooming around the end of our driveway, closing in around us. It feels like all of Cawood is right here in our yard, full of trees and pussy willows, chickens and swamp.
"Come on, Emily, now or never," Hope says from the top of the stairs. "Are you coming?"
"Yeah, are you coming?" Elizabeth Ruth asks. Hope's my oldest sister, then Sarah, Elizabeth Ruth, and me.
I reach around and pat along my shoulders until I think I find a bony lump right at the back of my neck which seems to grow bigger right under my fingers. Elizabeth Ruth sees me and says, mimicking Mum, "That's what happens when all that badness piles up inside — tchh, tchh, tchh." I don't want to be like old hunchbacked Mr. Kosik with his back so swollen up and hunched over with sins that his head is like a turtle's tucked into his chest. I'll go with my sisters, but I won't tell them anything. I follow Elizabeth Ruth into Hope's room next to the bathroom, where we'll confess our sins.
"We'll see who's going to heaven," Hope says, spreading the bathroom mat in front of the tub and draping a towel over the curtain rod of the bathroom window to block out the morning light. Then she stands in the doorway and nods, meaningshe's ready for Sarah to come and kneel inside the tub to make her confession.
Hope shuts the door on me and Elizabeth Ruth sitting on the edge of Hope's bed, waiting for Sarah to finish confessing and kneel by the pillows we've set on the floor by the window to say her penance. Hope has a small paper plate of Ritz crackers on the windowsill. Afterwards, when it's my turn, Hope will take one of the crackers and say, "The body of Christ." I'll answer, "Amen," and stick out my tongue, lust like the Eucharist when we used to go to church, the Ritz will dissolve in the few seconds before I swallow it. Then I'll start laughing with them, covering my mouth, because we know we're not supposed to.
"Do you think she has any sins?" Elizabeth Ruth asks.
I shake my head.
"What is she saying, then?" She marches up to the door and puts her ear on it.
I don't know what Sarah could possibly confess. She never does anything wrong. I try to listen and hear only a murmur.
Water drips steadily from the sink and a housefly buzzes, banging its head against the windowpane. No one's going to find out what we're doing. Dad's in the garage, where he always is, working on a new invention, and Mum's nursing our newborn brother. When I saw them in the rocking chair, I thought that he looked just like one of those shriveled-up things in the huge pickle jars lined up at the traveling circus behind the Cawood elementary school. Hope paid a nickel for each of us to see them floating in the thick yellow water. Sometimes when I practice holding my breath underwater in the tub I can still see those ugly little things, curled up around themselves floating, some with their heads hitting up against the side of the glass. That was the last time we went to the traveling circus show. After that, we weren't allowed because, Hope told us, they were abortions, which is equal to murder in Mum's eyes. That's an absolute sin, the kind that's impossible to get rid of.
I hear the metal rings holding the shower curtain knock together and Sarah steps out of the bathroom quietly smiling, putting two fingers up, two, four. Two Our Fathers and four Hail Marys.
Hope's voice rises and falls as she sings from the bathroom, "Bluebells, bluebells, eevy, ivey overhead, Mum's in the kitchen making bread, Daddy's in the parlor, cutting off his head. How many chops did he receive?" She pauses, staring squarely at me and Elizabeth Ruth. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven —"
"You're disgusting." Elizabeth Ruth interrupts Hope and steps quickly in to confess. Right away they're giggling, then the toilet flushes. I bet they're making up sins. I don't want to go in there. I can't talk. Why can't they understand that? I've heard them say to strangers, "She doesn't talk." I don't know why they don't tell themselves that.
I hold my breath. I can hold my breath longer than anyone I know. I can, until the sound of the ocean fills my ears. I do it until the braid running down Sarah's narrow back turns white. Everything turns white, pure white. If Mum saw me, she'd say, "Emily. Now stop that, Emily. You're going to pop a blood vessel if you don't watch out."
In no time Elizabeth Ruth has confessed. "Well, go ahead," she tells me, waving me in. They can't make me talk, I tell myself, they can't.
It smells of wetness and soap in here. The bathroom towel hanging from the curtain rod is glowing with a yellowish light shining through it like a stained-glass window. Hope is kneeling on the tiles outside the tub with her hands folded over the edge of the porcelain. It's my turn to step into the tub and fix the curtain so it is between us but I can still see Hope's blurry face. As soon as I kneel down I can feel the lump growing bigger on my back. When she touches her fingertips to her forehead, the center of her chest, to the left shoulder, then to the right in the sign of the cross, I do, too.
"You're supposed to say, Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been however long since my last confession. I have done this and that and this and tell me what happened. So, go ahead. Confess," she whispers, her voice hard and serious through the plastic curtain. "Say something, Emily. You better. Remember Mr. Kosik.
"Why'd you stop talking?" Hope pauses, bending her head lower. "You have to say something. If you ever want to be normal again, you have to talk sometime. Go ahead, Emily. Confess."
It feels like there are fingers pressing around my neck. I can't breathe. Where are you, Ham? William Cunningham. I never want to go back there — to the island.
I think if I hold my breath long enough, I'll never have to talk again. I suck in the dark damp air all around me. I close my eyes tight enough to squeeze all the light out, making everything black then white and the pictures start showing inside my head. I can't stop them. We were driving down Beach Road, the bluegreen water on both sides of us singing, Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. It all comes back so fast, I can't stop it. It was Dad's idea and we already had our bathing suits on.
"I saw kids younger than you jumping yesterday," he said and pulled the Oldsmobile into the sandy lot.
Dad, one of us called.
But he had already walked out to the bridge and was peering into the water below. Ham didn't want to go. "Come on now," Dad called.
"Get right over there," he said, lifting me over the guardrail. "There you go." The birds screamed from under the piling a few feet down, and below that, the water rushed by in white swirls. I tried to turn around. "Emily. Ready? I'm going to say one, two, three."
"Dad." I could barely hear Ham. His toes curled around the wooden edge. Then Dad said three.
He didn't jump with me. He was twisted and falling. The water was pulling me away from Ham. I saw a flash of red on his face before he hit the water.
Take your head out of the water, Ham, I wanted to yell. Nothing came out of my mouth, but a sound came out of Dad, something between a howl and a bark. Dad's face was like one of those rubber masks pulled tight over his skin and his eyes were white. Then I couldn't see him anymore. The flapping and cawing of birds was all around me. Seagulls were flying out from under the bridge toward the light, toward Ham floating with his head down in the water. All I knew was that something was wrong.
He was my twin, my half.
Someone is shaking me by the shoulders. "She's holding her breath," Hope says, ripping the shower curtain open.
When I open my eyes, Mum is standing above me. "Stop it, Emily. Stop it," she tells me. "Just stop it. Hope, I told you, no more of this."
"Her face is purple," Elizabeth Ruth says, peeking in from behind the door.
"For heaven's sake, are you hoops?" Mum asks. Next thing I know, one half of me is being yanked up by Mum's good hand, her fingers like barbed wire under my arm.
"Everyone outside," Mum announces, pulling the towel down from the window, letting the sun pour through. The top of her dark hair and face shine. Hope catches one end of the towel. Holding the two corners, she waits for Mum to get the towel between the stubby finger and thumb of her small hand. When their fingers meet at the corners, they smile to each other somewhere beyond me. Hope takes the corners and Mum takes the middle loop of the towel. Just the towel between them, they are so close they must be able to see themselves in each other's eyes.
I want to be that close to Mum.
"Praise the Cord," Hope says sarcastically to us following her downstairs. The embroidered banner in the hallway is supposed to read "Praise the Lord" but the C looks more like a C.
"Outside, everyone," Mum repeats from the top of the stairs. "Everyone outside. It's the best day I've ever seen." She's always saying it's the best day she's ever seen.
Only one square on Mum's calendar hanging in the broom closet is marked in July and that is today, July 4, 1974, Independence Day. One thing I do every morning is check the calendar. July's photo of Cawood is taken from an airplane and shows all of Main Street from the new Friendly's to Star Savers to the steeple of St. Peter's Church to Donut Haven. On the map, Cawood is just a pinpoint, less than a thumb from Boston, but on Mum's calendar, Cawood is absolutely huge.
"Crappy Cawood," my oldest brother, John, says, passing by.
I run outside, away from all of them, to the back of our house, where the loose threads of pussy willow tickle and scratch my throat. When I get to the muddy stream I jump from stone to stone until I am across. I put my arms around the reddish brown trunk of my cherry tree peeling sideways in strips and shimmy up to where there is a flat space in the crook of the branches bursting with cherries. The cherries are like small stones, eggshaped, hard, and deep purple. They've never grown to full size, all pulpy and sweet, like they're supposed to. A sparrow dives through the sky, swooping down to spy on me, reminding me of what I've done. The flutter of its wing tips touches the edges of my ears.
My younger brother Luke yells and hoots Indian cries, runs and swipes at the clean towels, sheets and pillowcases, underwear and socks hanging out to dry on the clothesline in our backyard. All twisted by his boxing fists, the linen looks like ghosts floating back and forth. The sparrow has disappeared.
I can see our whole backyard from here. Elizabeth Ruth pulls her T-shirt up over her head and flings it to the ground. The sun glows off the white of her chest and belly. Even though she's only thirteen, two years older than me, she's much taller and curvier, and already has pink tips. I don't take my eyes off her as she marches over to where the wildflowers and bramble grow along the edge of the swamp and plucks off the heads of two black-eyed Susans which she places on her tips.
I slide down from my tree to get closer to her. I stand like she is with her elbows jutting to the sides as she holds the flowers there. As soon as Luke sees her, she drops the flowers and runs through the tall grass in the vegetable garden yelling, "Betcha can't catch me." He yanks a pair of Dad's boxer shorts off the clothesline so hard the clothespins pop in the air.
Elizabeth Ruth shrieks and runs faster as he chases her. My heart jumps. I want to stop her from breaking the rules before she gets us all in trouble. When she gets to the chicken coop, she turns around, hitching her thumb inside the top of her cutoffs, swirling her hips around and around like mixing beaters. "Gimme that," she yells to Luke, who has her shirt in his other hand. He throws it up on top of the wire meshing of the coop.
Fluffing her dipped feathers and tossing her white-crowned head, Gertrude lifts herself off the ground and floats a couple of feet beneath where Elizabeth Ruth's T-shirt landed. Gertrude, the only chicken we've ever named, is our best layer.
The whistle sounds.
A burning heat sears through me. There is Dad, holding the whistle strung around his neck. He walks backward, cutting a long line into the wood chips with the heel of his work boot. If there's one thing about Dad, it's that he always thinks he's right. "Am I right or am I right?" he says to us when he's in a good mood, which isn't now. We run for the lineup because we have to. Dad likes everything in top order. I stand up as straight as I can, combing my hair back and wiping my nose with the back of my hand. Elizabeth Ruth is shaking, goose bumps running up and down her. I feel them too, going up and down me. When I glance at her again, I notice something else. At first I think the sun is playing tricks on me, but her eyes are bright blue, like Ham's. I can't stop looking at her.
We fall into our places, all six of us in order: John, Hope, Sarah, Elizabeth Ruth, me, and Luke. Dad drags his eyes over us, with our toes on the line, arms at our sides, shoulders back — all except Elizabeth Ruth, who has to hunch over herself, her arms folded across her chest to hide herself. Luke still has Dad's boxers bunched in a ball in his fist. Dad takes a last gulp of beer before he sets the can on top of the chicken coop. As soon as he turns his back, Hope arches her body to us, zippering and unzippering her imaginary fly, then pointing to Dad. Her arms fall straight against her sides when Dad faces us again. His zipper is down. His eyes are black circles and his whistle dangles around his neck as he marches in front of us, staring at us like he's trying to figure out who we are, who he's getting back into order.
The chickens are squawking and flying under their cover, fluttering across the water vessel, blowing the dust everywhere, to get back into their nests in the chicken coop. I don't know why we have to have chickens, nobody else does. Hope says nobody in the suburbs has chickens. We all hate them, except Dad, who eats his eggs every morning and says to Mum, "We'll never have to buy eggs again." Mum just nods.
The can of Busch beer shimmers from the top of the chicken coop. I wonder what he's going to do next. Sometimes when I look at Dad, I see him like he was right after he made the Magic Rose. He was written up in the papers and on TV and everything. Mum bought donuts and we stayed home from school to watch him talk about the Magic Rose on one of those morning talk shows.
"Our next guest is Donald Stone, inventor of the Magic Rose. If any of you don't know what this is yet, the Magic Rose grows overnight and changes color depending on — well, what else? Love. On how you love the person you give it to!" the woman explained, holding one of the Magic Roses for the audience to see. "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, Donald Stone."
Then he was walking across the silver screen in the same gray suit and tie he wore every Christmas as everyone applauded. "There he is!" Luke ran to the set to wave to him.
"Donald, I've got to tell you, when I got the Magic Rose from my husband, I didn't know what to expect. I have to confess, I didn't actually think it was going to work." Titters of laughter came from the audience.
"I gave it a few drops of water before I went to sleep, as I was instructed, and lo and behold in the morning there was my perfect white rose—which I have brought to show you. Here it is, so everyone can see." She held it up to the audience, who hollered and whistled. "And white is the color I want, right? White symbolizes pure true love, isn't that right?"
"That's what they tell me," Dad answered.
There was a pause then.
"I've been told," the woman continued, "that red is for passion, blue constancy, and yellow happiness." The truth is, they didn't start out as love roses, but that's what they turned into.
"Why doesn't he wave to us?" Luke interrupted. "Why doesn't he say hi?"
We laughed and told him to get out of the way.
"Shh," Mum said.
"Why isn't he saying anything?" I asked.
"He said something," Mum said.
"Why isn't he saying anything now?" Ham asked.
Dad nodded. He didn't look very big on the screen. Maybe it was the way he squeezed his hands so tight to his body, or maybe his suit was too small. His face looked frozen.
"Why isn't he saying anything?" I asked.
"He said something before," Mum said.
"Why isn't he saying anything now?" Ham asked.
"I guess you're not going to give any secrets away."
"Oh, no." When Dad shook his head, his face went red.
They had to stop for a commercial break and then they must have run out of time, because when they came back, Dad was gone. The show kept going and we all sat around the TV, waiting for him to return.
"Well, that's too bad," Mum said.
Dad was famous then. Some people even said the rose grew right out of the palms of their hands. But no one buys the Magic Rose anymore. Now Mum says, "Be good children. Your father works very hard." Then she asks us, "Do you know what the secret of a happy person is? To be thankful for what you have. And we have everything we need."
Hope whispers to Sarah and Elizabeth Ruth that the hospital bills haven't been paid and Mum pretends not to hear her. And Dad stays in the garage most of the day trying to invent something new. When he comes out, his mouth smells like beer and his hands are fists. Like now.
Dad stops in front of Elizabeth Ruth and drags his eyes down to her little tips. "For crissake, Elizabeth Ruth, why don't you have a shirt on?" Dad's bulldog Bud sniffs around his legs.
Elizabeth Ruth shrugs and answers, "I don't know."
"Well, you better find out." Dad bends down to rub the loose skin under Bud's chin. Everyone can see the light blue cotton of his boxer shorts behind the open zipper. "Elizabeth Ruth and John, stay right where you are. The rest of you can go find something to do." He sweeps us away with a swish of his hand.
I run as fast as I can to watch Elizabeth Ruth through the bay window in the laundry room, where Dad's tan work pants are hanging to dry. I push them aside so I don't have to stand between the stiff legs. The curve of Elizabeth Ruth's back glows in the sun as her head bobs up and down with her crying. If I were her I'd put something over my face, like my hands. She's just supposed to wait there.
Dad hands John the chicken catcher with the wooden handle and sharp metal hooks on the end to pull Elizabeth Ruth's T-shirt off the top of the chicken coop. After he tosses it to her, Dad nods to him, telling him he can go.
Almost tripping on a baseball bat as he walks away, Dad picks up the bat by the thicker end, steps back, and grimaces as he hurls it far into the pussy willows. Mum says it helps her when he gets so angry to remember the photograph of their wedding day, which she claims makes him look like Cary Grant. So I try to imagine the photo with Dad, smiling and tanned in his black tuxedo, with a lily of the valley in his lapel. I see Mum being thankful for everything as she stands beside him holding the umbrella over their heads. Behind them the rain pours down so hard it is like bright white sheets.
The hollow willow stems break to catch the bat. Bud trots beside Dad, following him wherever he goes.
Elizabeth Ruth has to stand there on the line until Dad comes back. Across from her, a small chicken claws a hole in the dirt, the dust rising and falling in the hot air. I know she hates chickens so much that she keeps scratching her legs and arms as if that'll get the chicken smell and feather dust off of her skin. "Sometimes," she told me one night in our room, "I dream I am swimming in the ocean. I must be on my back because I can see the clouds floating by. Then they start floating down toward me in the water. And I'm naked. I don't have anything on. Then the clouds start falling from the sky. When they get closer, I see they aren't clouds. They're chickens, the clouds have turned into white chickens. They try to land on me and peck me. Whole pieces of me. And their claws stick into me. Yuck." In the silence, she whipped her face toward me and said, "Sometimes I hate telling you things." Then she shivered, holding and rubbing herself around the back like she's doing now.
Mum comes up to the bay window of the laundry room with my new brother. "What on earth did she do now?" Mum asks out loud. She unbuttons her blouse and holds up her breast with her small hand, the first finger like a claw and the rest of her fingers shrunken to reddish stubby things. I stand on the tips of my toes to see more, but all I see is a wet milk stain on the front of her blouse. I don't even mind that her hand is like a lobster's. No one thought she'd have another baby, except Dad. He's the one who wanted it.
Her wraparound skirt hangs loosely on her thick waist. Below her knee is a tiny hole in her stocking, perfect and round. I want to put my finger there on her skin. Mum's so taken by the spitting and sucking noises the baby is making, she gazes into his face, murmuring, "Nothing is going to happen to you, no. You just stay right here.
"Emily," she says, suddenly noticing me, "it was hot like this at Ham's funeral. Remember?" She's not looking at me anymore.
"Before we even got there, we were all sweating. I never should have worn that blue dress. Everyone could see the sweat stains under my arms. How disgusting. I don't know what made me put that thing on, but I really should have thought about it. Your father was worse off in the awful seersucker suit. The sleeves were too long." She sighs.
"There were so many people there. Your father kept saying, `Look at them all. This is when people really stick together. They're all here for us. When's the last time you saw a crowd like this, huh?'"
Mum hasn't mentioned the funeral before. I don't remember her dress or Dad's suit or anything, except a strange feeling, burning through me like hot fluid, rising to the top of my head. And I remember Ernie, Dad's brother, came up behind Dad and put him in a choke-hold. He's much bigger than Dad and I thought he was going to suffocate Dad and I think Dad did too, because he broke down. Fell to the floor in a heap, I mean.
Elizabeth Ruth sees us in the bay window and waves. Mum waves with her good hand. "What on earth did she do now?" Mum asks again, then heads out of the laundry room.
I'm small for almost eleven and can still fit inside the dryer, where it's cool and no one will see me. I lay on my side, my cheek against the linty metal, with my chin tucked between my knees and my arms pulling in my shins. With the palms of my hands, I feel all around me, running my fingers over the curve of the metal in here full of dark shiny holes that remind me of the yellow beady eyes on Bud's sagging face. I think about how much I hate Bud. Ham wanted to get a dog, but Dad said it would be too much work for Mum. Now we have a new brother and a new dog, both with scrunched up faces.
My hand slides between my legs to where my cut is on the inside of my thigh. I pick at the edge, prying the hardened covering loose so I can slip my finger underneath, lifting the scab, waiting for the thin pain to run through me. I keep lifting and picking and digging into the scabby web until blood trickles down and my leg is throbbing.
The sharp blows of the whistle make me jump and hit my head on the curved top of the dryer. I push the door open and spill out into the silvery air. Something metal clinks. I grasp a clean silver coin, a buffalo nickel.
I'm the last one to get back in line. Even Elizabeth Ruth is there, dressed and quiet. My heart's beating so fast, I think Dad's going to hear it and make a new rule: no hearts can beat too fast. Feeling a tiny trickle of blood seeping down my thigh. I squeeze my legs together. I hold my breath. I clamp my top teeth to my bottom teeth and squeeze my stomach muscles as if water is pressing in all around me, as if I am swimming underwater.
Row, row, row your ...
Posted January 6, 2001
I come from mary's hometown I am proud to say My husband and I grew up with Mary;s family This is a remarkable book and I think she should keep writing Kathy and Norman GrayWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.