Therese Wolley made a promise. She works as a secretary, shops for groceries on Saturdays, and takes care of her two girls. She doesn’t dwell on the fact that her girls are fatherless, mostly because her own father abandoned her before she was born, and she has done just fine without him.
Even though her older daughter regularly wakes with nightmares and her younger one whispers letters under her breath, she doesn’t shift from her resolve that everything will be fine. She promises . . . and they believe.
Until the morning an obituary in the newspaper changes everything. Therese immediately knows what she has to do. She cannot delay what she has planned, and she cannot find the words to explain her heartbreaking decisions to her daughters. She considers her responsibilities, her girls, and a promise she made years ago. Then she does the only thing that any real mother would do. She goes on the run with one daughter . . . and abandons the other.
Left is told from the perspectives of Franny, the younger sister who is left behind; Matilda, the troubled older sister who vows to go back and save her; and Therese, a mother on the run.
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|Product dimensions:||8.80(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.90(d)|
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By Tamar Ossowski
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2013 Tamar Ossowski
All rights reserved.
The second time Matilda asked where we were going, my mother turned the radio up louder. It had been an hour or maybe two or maybe more — I didn't know because, at that moment, all I could hear was the tapping noise she was making against the steering wheel. We were stopped in traffic, which made her drum faster and harder, and then I felt it coming like a volcano about to erupt, the letters, mostly A's and R's sitting inside the rounds of my cheeks, readying themselves to pop out. Big and unwieldy, making my lips ache, but then just as they were about to slip past, Matilda reached over to hold my hand. I closed my eyes and thought about electrical storms. Matilda told me that I was born during one and that the first time she saw me, the lights flickered, and in that moment of darkness, my sister leaned over and whispered, "I missed you".
Like I had just returned from a trip.
I squeezed her hand tighter and she turned toward the window. I tried not to think about leaving our grandmother's house or how our mother stuffed our things into garbage bags that got so big and misshapen, she could barely drag them out of the room. I had watched as she packed the blanket my grandmother made for my ninth birthday. It was pink and soft and had a big F embroidered in the center. Now those garbage bags were crammed inside the trunk and I imagined my things swirled together tightly with no room to breathe.
The car stopped in traffic and the sound of engines rumbled through me. Matilda was still staring out the window and I could feel the letters slowly creeping back. They were steady and strong and constant and I wanted them to come and make everything happening fade away like the tiny dot on a television screen that disappears when you turn it off. Effortlessly, they slid across my tongue, this time smooth and silky and not bulky at all. I closed my eyes until they were all I could see, floating randomly, innocently in the darkness. Matilda took a long, exaggerated breath and, suddenly, the car came to an abrupt stop.
My mother pulled over to the side of the road and, as gently as if she was powdering her nose, folded into herself and began to sob. Matilda got out of the car and seconds later was in the passenger seat. Matilda and my mother had an alliance to which I was never invited.
The radio played. The car filled with the voice of an enthusiastic DJ commanding his audience to dial in and win a shopping spree at WalMart. My sister hovered over our mother, who was crying so softly that I was no longer sure that she was. Equally as quiet were the words she said when she finally spoke. "Forgive me."
Alone in the backseat of the car, I broadened my shoulders and tried to convince my body that it was brave. Matilda's arms were folded across her chest. Even though sometimes it's hard for me to tell when something is wrong, this time I knew. I knew it when the fighting between my mother and grandmother got so loud, I could hear the words without pressing my ear up against the door. It was my mother's voice that was the loudest.
"There is no other way!" My mother yelled and then grumbled something that sounded like bullets being shot underwater. Their bitter exchanges continued over the next few days, my mother's voice humming like a sewing machine, chasing my grandmother from one room to the next. She was relentless until finally one night she reached into her purse, pulled out a brass-colored key, and laid it on the table. My grandmother swiped her arm across the surface, sending it flying to the floor, and then she ran out of the room.
That night their fighting was too quiet to hear.
Matilda and I stayed in the kitchen, watching television on the small black and white perched on the counter. We sat in red vinyl chairs until it was time for bed; we turned up the volume so loud that it made the air around us shake. In the morning, we acted like we always did. My grandmother was making toast and I remember breathing in the smell.
I wondered what my grandmother was doing now while I sat in the backseat of my mother's car, counting the number of times her shoulders bounced up and down. My sister reached over to twist the radio dial, first slowly and then faster, until all I heard were electrical bleeps and broken, cracked words. My mother wiped her face with her fingers and then pulled back into traffic. This time, instead of tapping out the rhythm of a song, she gripped the steering wheel tightly and focused with a determination that reminded me of a heavy rainstorm. We turned streets and passed neighborhoods that grew less familiar until finally we pulled up beside a small white house. We got out of the car, my mother first with Matilda and me trailing behind. I reached out to hold my sister's hand.
"Where are we?" Matilda asked.
My mother kept walking, as if she didn't hear.
"Why are we here?" Matilda now asked, this time the shake in her voice broke up her words and made it sound like she was out of breath.
"Everything will be fine," my mother answered as she used a brass key to open the door. "Just come inside."
How do I describe what I smelled the moment I entered that house? Simply put, I smelled art. It smelled of paper and charcoal and glasses tinged with colored water. It smelled of sweat and risk and inspiration. The old wood floors creaked as we inched closely behind my mother. She turned to us and smiled and then I heard a voice coming from the other room. It was soft and gentle and then the woman to whom it belonged entered the room.
She said her name was Leah.
Matilda stopped dead in her tracks the moment we laid eyes upon her, but she never told me why. Leah's hair had shards of light that glistened even though she wasn't standing in the sun. Her lips were the shade of pink that mine sometimes got after I sucked too many cherryflavored Lifesavers. Her voice was so melodic that, as she spoke, I got lost in her music and forgot to pay attention to what she was saying. Her name was beautiful, too. Like my mother's, it had a silent H, except the H in Therese's name hid behind the T like it was scared to be noticed. The H in LeaH stood proudly at the end, and if you listened very closely, it would make itself heard.
"You must be tired from your trip," Leah said.
Matilda stood in front of me. "Who are you?"
Leah smiled and then looked down at the ground. "I am an old friend of your mother's."
When she looked back up, I realized she was staring at me. I felt my sister shift so that she covered me even more. "Why are we here?"
"We are having a visit." My mother smiled and then whispered something to Leah, who then led us upstairs into a room the color of cucumbers. It took a few minutes for me to notice little painted pixie fairies on the walls — each standing on her toes and fluttering her wings as if she were about to go soaring around the room. I eased myself onto one of the beds and Matilda sat opposite me, her eyes fixed upon the fairy directly above my head. After Leah and my mother left, she came and sat beside me. She held my hand and we sat together, silently.
Side by side.
I don't remember when I fell asleep, but when I woke the room was caught in that space between darkness and light. The kind of color that makes you wonder if the day is just about to begin or end. Matilda was curled up on the bed opposite mine so I tried to be quiet, but secretly hoped my movements would wake my sister. She barely stirred.
Downstairs, my mother was curled in the same position on the couch in the living room. I found my way into the kitchen, which was entirely white from the cabinets to the countertops to the floor. I walked over to what I thought was the door to the pantry and nudged it open and inside, with her back to me, sat Leah. The room was small and on either side sat two long tables. She turned and motioned for me to come in and then, without saying a word, handed me a watercolor set.
I sat at the table beside her and held the brush in my hand. Next to spelling, my favorite thing to do was paint and, when you're nine, part of the magic of painting is that you can also color water. I spent the first fifteen minutes watching the paint spiral and float into the water in my jar and turn from red to orange to brown. I listened to the sound my paintbrush made as it scraped against the fibers of the sheet. I filled the page with broad strokes of rainbows and clouds and butterflies and then I looked up to see what Leah was doing.
There was an orange on the table. A very large piece of paper was clipped to her easel and she was drawing it in such enormous scale, it didn't fit into the confines of the sheet. Her work was so detailed I could see each and every bump on the fruit's surface. I looked around the room and, for the first time, noticed other samples of her art — everyday items blown up to cartoon-like proportions. I saw a hairbrush and a can opener and a slice of pizza. All enormous and exposed in such an intimate way that even though I didn't understand what I was feeling, I felt myself blush. It was only days later that I realized that all of her work was in black and white. Otherwise, I might have found it strange that she had a watercolor set to give me.
She peered over my shoulder. "That's beautiful." She pointed to a swirl that looked surprisingly like a wave in the ocean. My favorite parts of art were the things that happened when you didn't mean them to, and I tried to nod, but she was too close and I could feel my face turning red.
"Want something to eat?" She put down her pencil and stood. I followed, waiting to be told what to do.
"What kinds of things do you like?"
I didn't answer, and then I saw my mother standing in the doorway rubbing her fingers across her forehead like she was trying to erase something from her brain.
"Eggs?" Leah asked.
My mother nodded and jumped up onto the counter. She and Leah whispered to each other, but I was too busy folding my napkin into the letter V to pay attention. When I looked up, Matilda was standing in the doorway rubbing her forehead in the same way that my mother had. I watched Leah crack the eggs and then I heard her say something about an art museum and my mother say something about shopping. Their voices started to jumble inside my head, so I tried to focus on how much prettier an egg looked raw than cooked and then the letters came spinning and I watched them dance until it was quiet and peaceful around me.
The next thing I remember is waking up in a bed in the room with the pixie fairies. In the bathroom, I squeezed toothpaste onto my toothbrush and watched it seep into the bristles, and then I started in the back and scrubbed each tooth three times before moving on to the next. I wondered when my mother found the time to pack my toothbrush. Today was Thursday. I had math tests every Thursday. Were we going to go to school? How long were we going to be gone on our trip? I didn't like missing my math test. I was on my eighteenth tooth and had yet to come up with any reasonable answers to my questions. So I rinsed, spat twice, got dressed, and went downstairs.
Everyone was at the table, my mother and Leah sipping tea from mugs. There was a bowl of cereal waiting for me. I liked that we were finally having breakfast at the right time instead of for dinner, like we had done the night before. It made me uncomfortable when things happened out of order, like eating breakfast foods at dinner time. I poured the milk and listened to the crackling sound of the cereal, which always reminded me of beginnings, and then waited for it to lose its crunch.
"Franny, do you remember that today we are going to the museum?" Leah asked.
I was grateful that I had a spoon in my mouth and could escape without offering more of a response. I didn't like things that were loud and museums were loud.
"Matilda and I are going to do a little shopping. Why don't you finish up and get going, and we'll give you a fashion show when we get back," my mother said.
"We're going to buy new clothes?" Matilda suddenly seemed interested in her excursion with our mother.
"Among other things. Why don't you finish up, and we can get going."
I skimmed the surface of the leftover milk with the bottom of my spoon. Part of me wanted to take Matilda's hand and not let go, but then Leah went to get her coat and brought mine, as well. I slipped it on and Leah put her hand on my back and Matilda waved and then the choice, if there even was one, was made.
My mother turned and hugged me. "Have fun and don't worry about us!" She smiled and pulled me close. "Leah will take care of you." She squeezed the top of my shoulder so hard it hurt and then she whispered something that I didn't understand because I was too busy rubbing my nose in her hair because I loved the smell of her shampoo. She pulled me back a second time, but then Leah held out her hand and I took it. When I turned back around again, my mother was gone. Leah and I walked out the door and into her car.
Dangling from the mirror was a crystal that sparkled in the sun. I fixed my eyes on it, watching it turn the sunlight into hundreds of strands of magical light. Neither of us said a word. Leah turned on the radio and we listened to the music. It was the longest time I had ever spent not spelling in my head.
When we got to the museum, Leah led the way up the steps and I couldn't help but notice the large groups of school children pinching and prodding each other.
"It's okay, Franny." She put her arm around my shoulders and, even though I didn't usually like being touched, I stuffed my hands into my pockets and moved in closer to her. The museum noises flickered in my ears and then blended into one big vibration that bounced around the inside of my head. She took my hand and led me through the exhibits, but I didn't look at the paintings or the people; I just stared down at my feet because the noise felt close enough to touch. Letters appeared like doorways offering escape, but I held on to Leah's hand instead.
She took me to see Monet's paintings. I had seen them in books at the library, but all I remembered were images of lilies and haystacks. Leah pulled me along and I kept my eyes down, counting steps until finally we stopped in front of a painting. "This one. It's my favorite."
She waited until people moved and then, just as the guard looked away, took my hand and ran my fingers across the lower half of the painting. I closed my eyes, connecting through the oil and canvas, feeling the heat of her hand over mine. When we pulled away, she wrapped herself around me, her breath on my neck, slow and controlled, as if she was asleep. I forced myself to look back up at the painting and then suddenly, instead of shadow, there was light. The letters slipping clumsily from my lips stopped and the rattling inside my head calmed and I felt the painting in a different way than when she had let me touch it. I breathed in the color and smell of quiet and then the light dimmed and the ache in my neck released. Leah was watching me, her face soft, like it had been washed in rain.
"You see what I see." When I didn't respond, she pulled me in closer, put her nose in my hair.
We drove home submerged in calm, but as we got closer to her house, I started to feel it — the buzz in my head getting louder and bigger, a static hiss that happened when things around me moved too fast. Leah pulled up to her house and I ran out of the car. I covered my ears and quietly rocked back and forth while I waited for her to fish around in her bag for the brass-colored key. She slipped it into the lock and, with a click, the doorknob turned.
It was the way the pillows on the couch were arranged. The way they all had perfect V's plunged into their middles, as if someone had walked up to each and given them a swift karate chop. It was my mother's style of fluffing cushions before she left a room.
And that is when I knew.
I knew they were gone, and I knew they were not coming back.
Excerpted from Left by Tamar Ossowski. Copyright © 2013 Tamar Ossowski. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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