|Publisher:||Whitman, Albert & Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||13 - 18 Years|
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The summer they moved in was the hottest on record since 1980. June, July, and August raged with hundred-degree days and the kind of steam-pot humidity Houston had come to be known for. Despite the wall of urban perspiration that greeted every citizen at every door, every morning across the city, we were knee deep in an unprecedented drought that had meteorologists twittering like canaries in coal mines. Looking back, maybe I should have known. Maybe the heat and the drought — the boil — were all signs, if you believe in such things. By then, however, by that desperate, cloying, relentless summer, my family had ceased to believe in anything.
It was three years to the day that the moving truck pulled into the cracked, weed-ridden driveway across the street. There was something wrong with June 9. Something that set that day apart from others. Something that caused it to stew in its own juices. A day of ferment. Three years before, on that same fated date, my three-year-old brother had drowned in our backyard pool. My parents had since had it filled in — a great, devastating show of jackhammers, wheelbarrows, and truck beds full of soil. The final act in a tragic play we were now trapped in. The closing curtain: a layer of fresh-laid sod. Our yard was now a giant grave to all the memories we would deny, all the words we refused to speak.
You could never trust a day divisible by that many threes.
And so, when their sixteen-foot moving truck pulled in across the street with Haul It Your Way plastered down the side in faded orange-and-blue letters, I should have known a mountain of shit was coming our way. I should have seen the cracks beginning to mark the dam and read our fate in their design. But it was hard to see past the curtain we'd closed over our lives, past the green lawn, where my little brother had once played and died, past the giant oak withering in our front yard — a testament to summer's brutality — past the smothering heat and the suffocating grief that surrounded us like the ash of Pompeii. It's a wonder I noticed them at all.
Of course, they were pretty hard to miss. From the beginning, there was something separate about them. They and June 9 deserved each other.
I was sixteen, with no car, which meant I was trapped inside the hollow, ringing, soulless structure we once called home. School was out, and without my studies to throw my energy and attention into, I was restless. I prowled. I stirred within the confines of our house with dust motes for company. My mother was upstairs in her room, locked behind her blackout curtains, wandering the land of the dead in a haze of OxyContin and Xanax. That's what she paid the ferryman with — prescription drugs. At best, they made her absent. At worst, they made her mean. My dad was ... well, he was out. In truth, I didn't know where he was when he wasn't at work and wasn't at home. Neither my mom nor I did. He was just gone mostly. And when he was home, he wasn't present, so it didn't matter.
That house across the street had been vacant for years. It was a foreclosure. A Victorian wannabe with wood siding and a wraparound porch that made it seem older than the other houses on our street. The last family who'd lived there, a widowed mom with four kids, whose husband hung himself in the master bedroom, left it completely trashed inside. Once when I was a kid, long before Robby died, my mother used her real estate license to get the code on the lockbox. Curious and nosy, we let ourselves in and looked around.
"Shame," she'd said, running her squared nails over holes in the Sheetrock and gouges in the countertops. Mom was polished then. Professional. I watched her key in the code and used it to sneak back in. I would dare myself to go up to the master bedroom, get as high as the top step on the staircase, then the moment I'd hear a noise of some kind — a squeak or a groan — go running back out again.
We thought the tragedy and the bank's high asking price had rendered it untouchable. That was before we understood the ease with which tragedy could strike, before our own personal family tragedy blossomed like a corpse flower in our midst. Now, the two homes squared off across from each other, both vacant for all intents and purposes. Both haunted by their own ghosts.
Until they moved in.
Three women. Correction — three generations of women. A single mom, her daughter, who looked roughly my age, and the rheumatic grandmother, blind in both eyes and frail as bat bones. I watched them unload the moving truck from between the blackout curtains in my mother's room, her gentle, drug-induced snores sounding like prayer bells. The women watched as their movers hauled mattresses and vanities, potted plants and marked boxes in through the front door. I wondered if they knew the truth about this place, about the man who swung from their rafters and the ghost of a family buried in the yard across the street.
Mostly, I wondered what they were like. The old woman stood on the front porch smoking a cigar, craning her clouded, sightless eyes up to the window where I watched, as though she could smell me. Behind her, the daughter loitered in the open doorway, leering at the moving guys, her crop top barely covering the underside of breasts far more developed than my own. And the mother failed to notice or care. She smiled, the look radiant and full of an eastern wind that had long since drifted from our sails. What was it like to smile in the face of tragedy? To look at the wreckage and see ... possibility?
As dusk fell and our new neighbors tipped the moving guys, I let the curtains drop closed and skirted the edge of my mother's bed, pulling open the door to the closet as silently as I could. If I pushed her slacks back, I could just make out the pale blue of Robby's old walls. Mom moved into his room three weeks after the funeral, after they'd boxed up all his old things and called in a crew to repaint. She and Dad hadn't shared a bed since.
In the beginning, the dead are always with you. It's almost as if they aren't even gone, as though you could round any given corner and see them there, waiting. For months after Robby died, I heard his voice, his laughter catching in his throat, the sound of his footfalls down the long hall upstairs. I could feel his towheaded locks soft against the pads of my fingers still and imagine his quiet breathing in the night. It was all there, floating around me, able to be summoned forward at any given moment. Like a balloon, I had Robby's memory, his soul, on a string.
But that only lasts as long as the pain is fresh. You bleed memories for a while. And then one day you find you've bled them all out. And the sharp sting of loss has waned into a dull ache.
It's the little things that go first. The way light would play across his face at a certain angle. The expression he made when he pouted. The smell of him in the morning. You go to summon some detail up from the depths and it's no longer there. The dead drift away.
And then even the dull ache disappears, and only numbness holds in its place. You stop trying to recall details because the futility of it is worse than the grief. It's no longer the loss of the person you mourn, but the loss of the haunt. And the absence is all that is left when you reach for your pain.
I suppose this is what they mean when they say, "Life goes on." But it's no kind of life. And my parents and I hardly qualified as living. Something presses forward. Some motor that won't stop running. Like automatons, we marched through an endless parade of days. We drank coffee and got the mail. We went to our respective cells: the office, the boardroom, the school bus. We kept breathing and talking and eating and beating. But we stopped living the day Robby died. That's the secret no one knows. No one outside of this house anyway. We all died that day, in the pool in the yard. We were buried, and filled in, and covered up, and forgotten. We were lost. And we've been dead ever since.
I let my fingers trace over the last remnants of a brother I was to pretend I never had. Robby. My little boy blue. He was the only person I could talk to anymore. And he was dead. It didn't say much for us as a family. In the closet, I thought I could even still smell the scent of him — sunshine and baby shampoo and little boy sweat.
"We're not alone anymore, Robby," I told him before putting myself to bed that night. I could still see the orange glow of the grandma's cigar burning from the porch across the way through my window.CHAPTER 2
Everything started the morning after they moved in. It began in a small way, like white noise. An indecipherable hum rising from the lifeless pit of our existence. I might have recognized it as I was making my toast in the kitchen had I not been dead myself. I might have known when Dad shuffled in, his dress shirt rumpled and black moons cradling his eyes. He'd just gotten the coffeepot going when Mom wafted down, her silk robe trailing like ether behind her. We were all answering the call — their call, the mysterious bell that was sounding in the hollows of our hearts, high and silent, like a dog whistle.
The kitchen felt small with all of us in it, crowded by our thoughts. The table was no better. For every full seat, there would always be the empty one. We sat in awkward silence, pretending this was normal — that we were normal. But we hadn't spent a morning together in years.
My toast broke against the pressure of the butter knife, and I pushed the plate away. "We have new neighbors."
My dad put down his iPad and glanced up at me over his steaming cup. "What was that?"
My mom lifted weary eyes.
"New neighbors. The people across the street moved in ... yesterday."
"Oh. I didn't realize that house had sold." He looked wobbly under the weight of conversation.
"Last month," I said.
Mom knew, but she hadn't told him. It proved how little they spoke anymore.
"Did you see them?" she asked, her voice rough and thick against the pull of the drugs in her system.
"And?" Dad said, his eyes rising to the window behind my chair, the one that overlooked the street, searching.
I shrugged. "They're women."
"Lesbians?" Something flashed behind my mother's heavy gaze, something akin to alertness, to sanity, but falling sadly short.
"A family, I think — a girl and her mother and grandmother."
My dad studied the window behind me, the sunlight highlighting all the quiet years on his face. We wouldn't talk about yesterday, Robby's death day. We never did. We wouldn't look at the empty chair at the end of the table or ask one another how we were coping. This was coping, this disregard, this surrender to finality.
"We should take them something," Dad said at last. He looked at my mother. "Rita, you should take them something. Welcome them to the neighborhood. It's the least we can do for them for buying that eyesore of a house."
Mom gathered her robe into a fist in front of her chest, a look of alarm spreading across her features like ice melt. "I–I couldn't possibly. Goddammit, Richard, you know I ... This is no time ... Olivia can do it."
My father turned to me, his face resigned. I looked to my mother, and her eyes found my own, full of pleading, then commanding, then empty again.
"Yeah, I guess," I said. What else could I say? I'd grown accustomed in the last few years to this kind of responsibility, shielding them from the living. I answered the door whenever someone knocked. I signed one of their names to my own report cards. I made excuses when they missed something at my school, ran to the drugstore to drop Mom's prescriptions off, and called for pizza or Chinese takeout whenever Dad came home hungry. This was my new role. I was the ambassador to what had once been the Foster family.
"Fine. I'll pick something up and drop it off for you before I leave for the office."
I nodded my assent.
"I'm going upstairs," my mother said, rising from the table. She looked pale in the light.
I watched her walk away with a kind of wistfulness, remembering the big Saturday breakfasts she used to cook in that robe. The smell of eggs and melted butter filled my nose for a split second and then faded. I looked at my broken toast.
"I'm going to shower," Dad said, scooting his chair back. "Thanks, kiddo," he added, giving my shoulder a small pat.
He left the room, and I sat at our table alone, remembering what it felt like to be us before the fall.
* * *
The potted calla lily in my hands looked too perfect to be real. I found it sitting on the kitchen counter when I came back down after getting dressed. My dad was already gone. In his place, this ghostly white flower waited for me, its yellow tongue mute and protruding. I stood on our front step staring at it for a moment before I recalled myself and my task and began the journey forward.
The sun was high, and my shadow crept ahead of me, touching everything a moment before I could. The street felt wider than I remembered; the house, taller. A dry, brown lawn received me, a wide front porch. Its gray-blue paint was peeling away under the strain of neglect and summer heat. The old woman sat in a rocker near the front door. I climbed the three steps and stood before her, but her hazy eyes, which had found me the night before from across the asphalt, now stared at some phantom point in the distance, unseeing.
My shadow lay over her like a dark blanket. I stretched my lips in the semblance of a smile and looked down, but she continued her fragile rocking, her distant stare. I held the potted flower out to her. I waited. My mouth grew dry with the stale greeting trapped in it.
At last, I said, "Hi."
She did not budge. Didn't lift a lash. Was she deaf too?
"Hello?" I tried again. "I'm Olivia, from across the street. I brought you something to welcome you to the neighborhood." My arms stiffened before her, the trembling lily hanging between us like a wintry breath.
She neither saw my gesture nor heard my words. Confused, paralyzed by this cleft in social niceties, I stood silently for a moment. I let my eyes travel over my shoulder in the direction her gaze was pinned, but I saw nothing to catch my interest. Yards. Houses. Trees. Mailboxes. A blue Chevy parked on the curb. An orange tomcat sidling between its tires. Frustrated, I turned back and knelt down. Perhaps if I looked up at her ...
The screech of the screen door sent me tumbling backward onto my rear, but I managed to hold the plant steady. Above me towered a large woman with a mane of red hair flowing over her shoulders. The mother. Her pink face lit with a grand smile as she reached down to help me up. "You must be our neighbor!" she said delightedly.
I dusted my ass with one hand and pushed the plant at her. "Yes. My mother sent this over. She'd come herself, but she's not feeling well."
Everyone on our street knew better than to expect anything from Rita Foster. She hadn't felt well in three years. Her addiction was the Voldemort of the neighborhood — dare not name it for what it was. So there was something refreshing in the ignorance of this exchange. I didn't have to cut my gaze away as I told the familiar lie. I didn't have to stand shrinking under her unspoken judgment. There wasn't any.
The woman's skin was tan with years of trapped sun and her eyes were blue as a jay's wing. They flickered to our house and back to me. Her smile fell momentarily. "Poor dear," she said. "You must come inside and let me give you something for her."
I tensed. Inside? Inside was not part of the deal. "Oh, no. I couldn't. I ..." I sounded just like my mother at the table this morning. My stomach turned on the realization. "Sure," I agreed, deflated.
"You must excuse my mother. She's older than Methuselah and exceedingly blind," the woman told me as she took my elbow. "And even more stubborn," she added into my ear.
At this, the old woman seemed to shake from her reverie. Her face rose. Her eyes rose. And then she rose to her full height before us. Suddenly, her milky eyes found mine with no delay, settling over me with all the warmth of the grave. "I hear just fine," she said as she turned away and scooted toward the door.
My breath stuck in my throat. I felt five years old again, sitting before the principal's desk at school, having been overheard calling my teacher the b word. I was too young to know what I was saying, but I'd heard my dad call my mom that word the night before as they fought over some unknown cause doing the dishes after dinner. They used to fight regularly. It was never serious. Even as a child I knew not to fear it. It was the friction of so much charge pouring off both of them — live wires as they were. A way to release the static. I missed those fights now.
The woman rubbed at my shoulder after her mother had disappeared inside. "You see?" she said jovially.
But the old woman's remark had ignited something within me. Something deep. Something I hadn't actually felt in three years, since the worst of it had been realized — fear.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Resurrection Girls"
Copyright © 2019 Anna Sweat.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
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