Eleven-year-old Grace Carter has a talent for hiding things. She’s had plenty of practice, burying thoughts and feelings that might anger her strict Evangelical pastor father, and concealing the deep intuition she carries inside. The Knowing, as Grace calls it, offers glimpses of people’s pasts and futures. It enables her to see into the depth of her mother’s sadness, and even allows Grace to talk to Isaac, her twin brother who died at birth. To her wise, loving Aunt Pearl, the Knowing is a family gift; to her daddy, it’s close to witchcraft.
Grace can’t see into someone’s thoughts without their permission. But it doesn’t take her special talent to know that her small community is harboring its share of secrets. A young girl has gone missing. Within Grace’s own family too, the cracks are widening, as her sisters Hope, Joy, and Chastity enjoy the normal life that eludes Grace. It’s Grace’s kinship with other outsiders that keeps her afloat—Lyle, a gentle, homeless man, and Lola, a free-spirited new girl at school. But when her mother lapses into deep depression after bringing home a new baby, Grace will face a life-changing choice—ignore her gift and become the obedient daughter her father demands, or find the courage to make herself heard, even if it means standing apart . . .
“A heartfelt and beautifully crafted coming-of-age debut. Don't miss this one.”
—Lesley Kagen, New York Times bestselling author
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I make people nervous, even Daddy. Especially Daddy. I know this by how they look away, as if their darkest secrets will be exposed like tea leaves scattered in the snow. The truth is, I can't know another's thoughts without their permission. I have to be invited. It's one of the rules that goes along with having what I sometimes think is a curse but what Aunt Pearl calls a gift. I'd give anything to be normal like the rest of my sisters.
If you asked when I first realized I had the Knowing, I wouldn't be able to say. It started like a seed and then grew bit by bit, just slow enough not to notice. I guess I was born with it. Maybe it was just supposed to be a regular amount of intuition. Maybe when Isaac died I ended up with a double dose, like dots sliding off dominoes placed end to end on a crooked table.
Even Billy Wolf — the meanest kid in Cherry Hill — won't give me the full Evil Eye. He aims it at my shoes or my chest or lately at my crotch, yet he still looks away sooner than he does with other kids. It's hard to imagine out-creeping Billy.
I know things, such as when the telephone's going to ring. Sometimes I hear and see things, too. Like the red bulge inside the back of Hope's head that no one else sees or the lilies under the snow that I can smell long before they bloom. And that I really do hear my brother's voice. We talk to each other all the time.
I don't remember when I started hearing Isaac's voice separate from my own. To me they were always just thoughts, my thoughts, from a different side of me that was still part of me. According to my family, from the moment I was able to make sounds I talked aloud to myself, babbling on and on in a language nobody but me understood. When I was about three years old I saw a photograph of Mama when she was pregnant with us. I was filled with wanting something I couldn't name. When I pointed to Mama's belly in the picture, she said, "That's you in there with your brother, Isaac."
I tried to grab the photo. She wouldn't let me have it. I searched the house for days, but she must have hidden it away. I kept crying, "Isik! Isik!" They thought I was saying "I sick" and kept taking my temperature and feeding me soda crackers. Mama asked me where it hurt, but I couldn't describe the pain. I was screaming in my head that I wanted him, that Other I couldn't name before she showed me the photo. Nothing soothed me until I heard the voice in my head and realized for the first time that it wasn't my voice, it was his. Ours.
I'm right here.
And just like that, I stopped crying. From then on I carried on full conversations with my brother. Up until this year my parents ignored it, calling Isaac my imaginary friend. "Isn't that sweet," they'd whisper, "how little Grace talks to her dead twin?" Then they'd sigh like it was so sad.
Since I'm now eleven I guess I've outgrown cute. The last time I got caught talking to Isaac was on my birthday. I'd saved a piece of cake and a candle and brought it up to my bedroom closet. I was singing "Happy Birthday" to Isaac when the door flew open and Daddy stood glaring down at me. My sisters snickered behind him until Daddy stomped his foot and yelled, "Stop it!"
I was so startled by his booming voice I dropped the piece of cake and the candle landed in my lap, catching my dress on fire. Daddy grabbed me and furiously patted away the flames.
"No more, Grace! You could have set the house on fire, do you realize that? Burned us all down."
Mama came up later and tried to comfort me. She lay on my bed and curled herself around me.
"Why can't I talk to him?" I said through sobs.
"Because he's gone and talking doesn't bring him back."
"But he's not gone, Mama. He's here."
Then she started crying and it was me comforting her instead of the other way around. She begged me not to talk to Isaac because it upset Daddy and made her sad. I don't like when Mama's sad. I promised her I'd stop. I didn't stop. I just hide it better. I'm good at hiding things, especially my feelings.
I love my Daddy so much, but it doesn't feel like he loves me the same way back. Like he loves me because he owes his devotion, not because I've earned it. I don't think anyone in this family knows how lonely I feel sometimes. Just once I wish Daddy would look at me with the same gleam in his eyes he does with Joy and Chastity or even poor Hope.
Mama says how I was born is how I live, my thoughts racing faster than what I know what to do with them. She claims I came hurtling into the world screaming bloody murder as if I were trying to raise the dead. Then she gets a faraway look that feels as if someone has pulled the scenery from the room and you're left standing in the dark with no walls and no ceiling. I know she's thinking about Isaac and that if I'd been born second they'd have their boy, the wish God never granted them and the thing I believe she's never forgiven Him for.
I got the rest of the story from Aunt Pearl. She told me our family was in Mississippi visiting Daddy's relatives when Mama's labor started early. The doctors were confused because normally boy-girl twins don't share the same sac. "It was quite unusual," she'd said. "Probably why Isaac got strangled by the cord and died before the doctor could save him."
Mamma was distraught. We stayed with Aunt Pearl until after the funeral; then Daddy drove straight through the night back to Michigan. He couldn't wait to take Mama away from the place that housed all that sadness. What he doesn't understand is that she brought the memory of that dead baby with her, packed her grief into every last bag before we drove out of Rankin County. Of course I brought Isaac with me, too. We might no longer share a womb but we share most everything else.
There's something else I carried with me from Mississippi. Even though I learned to speak in the North just like my sisters, people say I sound a bit like my Aunt Pearl. I guess when I was born part of me got planted in the South. A twang rides on my words and I can't do anything about it. To tell you the truth, I don't want to. When Aunt Pearl visits us I know why. Her voice is like honey, slow and dripping. She calls me Sweet Pea, but it comes out all at once missing the t. "SweePea," she'll say. "Come here, shoog, and sit on Aunt Pearl's lap." Not only do my knees wobble when she talks to me like that, but Aunt Pearl has about the best sittin' lap I've ever been in. Her big bosoms like to wrap around each side of my face and hold me tight just like when Isaac and I were in Mama's belly.
Folks don't believe me when I tell them I remember being in the womb. They think it's my wild imagination. "There goes Grace in her fantasy world," they say. But I know what I know. The thing is, they could remember, too, if they wanted. Maybe they don't because they'd be sorry they were ever born if they recalled the sweetest place they've ever been and how they had to leave it.
I don't remember being born so much as I remember being unborn, when it was just the two of us wrapped around each other, waiting for everything and nothing at the same time. I remember those moments right before we separated and then all that light blinding me, a sudden sorrow, my lungs filling with air. As soon as I was out, a door closed behind me and I forgot him until much later when I saw that picture of Mama pregnant with us. When the images and thoughts came back, they were like a movie playing on the walls of my brain.
That's why I love the closet in my bedroom. It's the closest I can get to being back where we started. I like to sit on the rickety board over the heating duct that runs between my room and Hope's. If I'm real quiet I can imagine the thrum of the furnace is Mama's heartbeat. And this is where Isaac sometimes comes to visit me. Not in his body, but in a place that is both inside and outside of me. I hear his voice and I feel his presence just like I know my cat, Pippy, is at the end of my bed even when we're not touching. I only have to call my brother inside my mind and just like Pippy he shows up.
* * *
After breakfast I sneak upstairs and close the closet door behind me. I'm not afraid of the dark.
"I was just thinking. What if I killed myself so I could be with you?"
But you are with me.
"No, I mean with you. Out there."
Oh, Grace. No. That wouldn't be a good thing.
Because then we'd have to start over.
"What do you mean? Start what over?"
Well, we're like parts of a story. If you died the story would end too abruptly and without completion. We'd have to start the story all over again.
Isaac uses big words because he's not a baby anymore. But the way he says them I almost always get the meaning.
"Maybe you could remember not to get tangled in the cord and we could be together."
That's not how this story goes, Grace.
I lean back against the wall, hoping the dresses hanging on the rod will muffle the cry in my voice. "Why does our story have to be such a sad one?"
He's quiet for a minute.
Grace, do you love me?
"Of course I do. More than anyone in the whole wide world."
And I love you. This isn't a sad story. It's a love story.
The back door slams downstairs, lifting me off the board. Mama's already started taking laundry baskets outside.
"How come nobody else can hear you?"
Because they're not connected to me like you are.
"Not even Mama?"
Not even Mama.
"I don't feel like I'm connected to anyone in this family besides you."
Oh, but you are. You're very important to them.
The door slams a third time. Three baskets. We've got a lot of hanging to do this morning.
"I better go."
Yes. She needs your help.
And just like that I feel him go. Not like something leaving the world. More like just leaving the room.
* * *
Saturday is when we change the bedding. Mama says nobody has whiter sheets than she does. I can tell by the way she says it she's real proud of this even though Daddy preaches that pride is a sin. Mama hands me a pillowcase from the basket and takes one for herself. She snaps it out straight like she's done a thousand times before. I try to do the same but it flaps back in my face. Mama laughs. It's the kind of laugh that makes you feel loved, not teased. She peels it off my face and kisses my damp forehead.
My younger sister, Chastity, hands us clothespins to fasten the linens against the wind. The three of us make a pretty good team and it only takes half an hour to empty all the baskets. Mama clips the last corner of the last pillowcase, then props the rope up high with a board cut into a V at the end. She stacks the empty baskets one inside the other and turns them upside down to keep any bugs out. When she heads back into the house I close my eyes and lean into a billowing sheet. Hiding behind the smell of bleach is a tiny promise of spring.
Mama pushes through the back door holding a brown coffee cup in one hand and a plateful of powdered donut holes in the other. She sits on the back stoop and pulls her flowered housedress over her bare knees. Chastity and I plop down on either side and wait for her to say it's okay to take a treat. We may have a bit of a wait because Mama has a way of staring off into space when she drinks coffee. She doesn't even look down to dunk her donut, does it by feel, as if she doesn't care about the soggy clumps floating in her mug. I know what that's like. Not the soggy donut part, just the staring into space. My teachers call me a daydreamer, but I'm not dreaming. The me who goes places in my head is a lot more awake than the bored me sitting at my desk.
My sister and I stare at the donut holes, little snowballs with skin-colored patches showing through. Chastity touches Mama lightly on the arm to remind her we're here. She nods for us to go ahead and we each take two. I make a face when Mama tilts the mug back and drinks the last swallow of thick coffee. Chastity nods, holding her powdered fingers out in front of her so as not to get any on her dress. Mama stands and wipes her hands on her apron. I do the same, leaving white handprints on my green corduroy pants. Chastity is a bit of a fussbudget and runs inside to wash up before our walk to the post office.
Mama pulls my head to her hip and smooths my kinky, red hair. "Grace, have I ever told you your hair reminds me of a sunset?"
"Well, it does."
She eyes the brown grass along the edge of the sidewalk leading to the front yard as we wait for Chastity. "Almost time to plant flowers," she says. "What do you think?"
It doesn't matter what I think because Mama plants her favorites every year, but I play along. "How about roses? Big, fat, white ones that you can smell a mile away."
"Maybe," she says, smiling. But we both know that come summer the sidewalks will be lined with red and pink petunias, and bluebells and daffodils will fill the spaces next to the house.
The back door slams and Chastity bounces down the back steps wearing her red plaid jacket and patent leather shoes. Mama pulls a light blue scarf out of her pocket and ties it under her chin before taking our hands.
"Let's go," she says.
"Let's go," Chastity mimics, pulling on Mama as we head down the driveway.
We turn right toward the post office, five blocks away. As we round the corner at Montmorency Street I catch sight of the blind girl swinging high on a board hanging from the branch of a dead elm tree. Tangles of brown hair flap in front of dark eyes that look off in different directions. She's singing a song of nonsense words. I smile even though she can't see me. Funny thing, she smiles too, almost as if she's smiling back at me. I start to wave at her. Mama grabs my hand before it's all the way up and pulls me forward.
"Come on, Grace," she says. "Don't bother that poor child."
The sound of a hammer slamming against a nail startles all three of us. Mr. Weaver, our church janitor, is repairing the roof on the dilapidated house next to the tree swing. He does handyman work part-time, mostly for church members. The blind girl and her grandma don't come to our church, but everybody knows Mr. Weaver. He used to be a drunk before Daddy converted him during his chaplain visits to the county jail. Daddy not only saved him from h-e-l-l but probably from falling off a roof as well. Couldn't save his marriage, though. Mrs. Weaver left town with their two daughters the last time he was in jail and nobody has heard from her since.
Mr. Weaver waves to us from the peak of the Andersons' roof. Mama nods but keeps moving forward. The three of us walk the last block to the post office hand in hand. I love the soft flesh of Mama's warm palm against my own even though sometimes I feel a deep sorrow through her skin. Mama usually does a good job of hiding behind her preacher's wife smile, but sometimes her crinkled forehead gives her away. I wish I could draw her worries into my hand and shake them off like donut powder.
When we reach the post office, Dean VanderPol waves from behind the counter. He's the only person who works here besides Louise, who delivers mail to the rural routes. I wave back but Mama heads straight for our postal box. She lets me dial the combination. As soon as I open the tiny compartment the papery smell of mail crawls up my nose. Mama pulls the envelopes out and shoves them into her apron pocket without looking at who they're from. I'm not sure if this is because she doesn't care or she can tell by the smell who sent them.
Dean waves again on our way out. "Have a good day, Missus Carter."
"Thank you," Mama says back, but not until it's too late and he's out of earshot.
Lately it's as if Mama's one step behind the rest of the world. On Sundays she sometimes waits until the second sentence of a song to open her mouth, and her last note dangles in the air after the rest of us have closed our hymnals. I wonder if it has to do with the extra heartbeat thump-thumping inside her that nobody else can hear. I won't ask because Daddy gives me The Look when I mention things I'm not supposed to know without someone telling me.
The first time it happened I was five. We were all at the breakfast table and I said, "Somebody should get that boy out of the lake."
Daddy said, "What boy?" and I just shrugged.
We went on eating our pancakes. When I looked at the bottle of syrup on the table I saw a boy struggling, then slowly sink to the bottom.
"Too late," I said.
Excerpted from "This I Know"
Copyright © 2018 Eldonna Edwards.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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