It couldn’t be called kidnapping because that wasn’t what it was. Not to me anyway. Even if the picture could be drawn to suggest it. My sister placed me in the passenger’s seat of our mother’s Toyota when I was six years old. She was sixteen. As she tossed a duffel bag under my feet she told me we were going for an ice cream cone. We hadn’t eaten dinner yet and so I thought that was a little funny. Ice cream before dinner. We always ate late back then–sometimes at seven. Sometimes at eight. Then she loaded a suitcase into the trunk and I waited until she had gotten into the car and closed the door before asking if our mother was coming along. My sister replied quite simply that our mother was dead.
It wasn’t as shocking as it sounded. Anna used to say it all the time and so I did not put much stock in the claim. It was never true. Instead of calling her a liar I just pressed my heels against the dashboard and hugged my knees close to my chest while Anna started up the car. It was dark outside and the late November frost could be felt below the skin. The Monday before it had snowed and there was still enough of the stuff leftover to keep the lawn white. Everything felt peaceful with that snow. It made us both so very calm.
Once we hit the highway Anna tried to mess with the radio dial, but all she got was static. Fragments of songs I didn’t recognize. After a while she turned the radio off and there was only silence. Time dragged. We drove for an hour and then two and then three without stopping. The car grew comfortably warm and I remember slumping down in the seat, staring with my cheek against the window as stars came out and hung like freckles against the black sky. Close to midnight we stopped at a motel and Anna let me watch television while she combed my hair, and later I fell asleep beside her on that king sized bed.
The following morning we ate breakfast at a diner across the highway and she let me order whatever I wanted, provided it came with a glass of milk on the side. Then we headed back to the room, where she read books and I played with some toys and counted squares on the tiled bathroom floor. We lived like that in the motel room for three days before a police officer recognized our car in the lot from the license plate number and brought us down to the station to be picked up by our mother. Those were a good three days though. Most people go a long time without three days like that, and so I considered myself lucky. Anna didn’t slip into the sphere of her malcontent the whole time we were there. She used to have this way of screaming–shouting through her eyes without saying a single word. She didn’t do it once at that motel though. In fact, she mostly smiled. Anna had a beautiful smile, when she bothered to show it, that framed her perfect teeth. I always wanted teeth like hers. As a kid mine were like crooked little stones in my mouth. Running my tongue over them was like licking pebbles. I hated them and so I made a point of keeping my mouth clamped shut whenever I could. I was never miserable though–not like Anna was.
My sister grew up unhappy. People just assumed it was in her disposition and so not much was ever made of it. I was deemed quiet like our father, which I took for being true since there was no one around to contradict it. They claimed that I stole his fair eyes. His flat hair. His crooked teeth. Our father was a Marine, but he didn’t act like one. He was too passive. At least that’s what Anna used to say. I couldn’t tell the difference–not until I was much older, when things like that no longer mattered to me.
When she left for good it hurt. I always knew it was coming, but I hadn’t been ready for it when it did. At first I tried to stand it, and when that didn’t work I tried to find her. It was harder than I thought it would be. For some reason I always imagined we’d have that kind of information lying around in the house somewhere, on the fridge or in an address book. We didn’t though. I looked and I looked, but it had taken some time to find out where she was living and where she worked. It had taken even longer to get up the nerve to go there myself and say what needed to be said.
Standing in that hallway then–trying to remember the snow and the motel and the diner from all those years ago–I pressed my palms together before cracking each knuckle one by one. The walls were flat and white and clean. The air smelled like warm copy paper and plastic plants.
I took in a deep, forced breath, but it wasn’t enough. I took another and then another. After a few moments of diligently inhaling and then exhaling I walked up to the front desk and asked to speak with Miss Walker. The secretary–a short little woman with thick curly hair and a little bit of fat in her chin–asked if I had an appointment.
The woman took this as fact, even though it wasn’t true, and asked for me to take a seat while she picked up the phone and dialed a number. I chose one of the lumpy oak chairs lining the wall and sat in it. I flattened my palms on my knees. Jeans. Jeans. I shouldn’t have worn jeans. And a t-shirt. I looked like a hoodlum. Rubbing my lips together, I tried to lick off the lipstick. It was too pink. Too glossy. I had only worn it because Jessie Pillar had assured me that it looked sophisticated. What did Jessie Pillar know? She was wrong and I felt stupid.
After a few minutes the secretary assured me that Miss Walker was in fact in her office and told me to go all the way down to the last door on the right. I thanked her quickly and awkwardly followed her instruction. Half a dozen broad, wooden doors lined each side of hall. I felt like I was going to an execution. Or deeper down the rabbit hole.
When I reached the last door on the right I knocked once. It was a hallow sound in a higher pitch than I had expected. When I was told to enter I did, and as I stood there in the doorway in those jeans with my cheap t-shirt and that ugly lipstick I tried to smile.
“Hey,” I said, my fingers buried so deep in my pockets that I could feel the muscles in them preparing to snap from the strain.
She recognized me. It should have been a surprise but it wasn’t. “It’s good to see you, Anna,” I said.
Her dark hair curled loosely around her shoulders. She was pale. Anna had always been pale of course, but she was paler still now from being inside day after day. It made her freckles look starved for light. She stared at me, her mouth slightly ajar but not gaping. We had the same lips. And the same inability to act all right when things were not. She didn’t offer me a seat and I was not so bold as to take one myself. Her office was small, just as I had imagined it, with no windows. A desk barely fit against the back wall. An empty chair sat snugly on the left and some kind of artificial tree lurched in the far corner.
“So you work here?” I asked.
She nodded, unable to stop staring at me like I was some kind of anomaly. Concern settled uncomfortably in the vague lines of her face. “Mallory,” she said again.
I shrugged, looking around the room. “It’s nice. Home-y.”
I was full of it but she didn’t seem to mind. “Are you still living in Tanner?” she asked.
“Yeah. Still in Tanner. With Dad. And Mom.”
She glanced down at the papers that sat between her fingers and smoothed them flat on her desk. “Come in,” she said at last, and though it was what I had been waiting for I could not go inside. Not right away.
Instead I scraped the heel of my foot back and forth against the carpet. “What do you do here exactly?”
“Organize events,” she said. “I make phone calls and recruit volunteers. Does Mom know you’re here?”
“Does it matter?”
“No,” she replied. “I guess not.”
I nodded. “Good.”
She stood up–tall like she always was–and pulled that chair away from the wall and situated it facing her desk. She told me to sit and I sat. She went and closed the door and then moved back to her seat, sliding into it and then leaning over her papers to look at me.
“You’re in high school,” she said then. It wasn’t a fact or a question. It came as sort of a realization to her. I was older. She hadn’t expected that.
“I know,” she replied tersely. I hadn’t meant what I said as an accusation but she took it that way all the same.
I should have called first. I should have called and asked if it would be all right to stop by while she was working. But I didn’t have a number. And I wouldn’t have known what to say.
I slid my fingers down along my knees. “How long have you been working here?”
She asked if something was wrong–if Mom was sick or if Dad had died. I told her neither of those things was true but she didn’t believe me at first. I had to convince her. All the while she watched with careful, flat blue eyes. They were darkly lit and attentive. When she found out that I had skipped school to see her she told me I was stupid for having done it.
“I know,” I said.
“How are your grades?”
I started to smirk. The question sounded so funny coming from her–she who had not called once in such a long time. “Fine. Average I guess. Could probably do better.”
“Then why don’t you?”
“Because there’s more out there than Shakespeare and chemistry.”
She glanced at her fingers as they laced together. Anna loved Shakespeare. She used to lie on the sofa in the living room while I dressed my dolls in dresses that always had too many buttons. She’d lie on her back with a bent library book against her knees, her voice high and clear as she read Hamlet aloud to me with all the heart and intensity of a seventeenth century stage performer. Whenever I was sullen she called me her poor little Ophelia. Her darling Ophelia. Mom never liked that much.
“You don’t have to worry. I’m passing English.”
“And everything else?” She arched an eyebrow. It was always amazing how she was able to do that so easily. A lot of people wouldn’t have been able to pull it off, but she carried it well.
“I like history,” I said. It wasn’t a lie and that made me feel good.
“What do you like about it?”
“The Civil War.”
She shifted her weight, allowing her shoulders to rise and fall as her fingers loosened on the desk. There was a beauty mark just at the bottom of her left thumb. Growing up I thought it looked like a rabbit, though sitting there in her office I could no longer make out the shape. She said something then, but I didn’t catch it. I glanced up at her and she was frowning.
“What are you doing here?” she asked for what must have been the second time. That line in her forehead had creased.
“You left me with the freaks.”
“That’s not true.”
“You left me with Mom.”
“It’s taken you four years to get up the nerve to tell me that?”
“It’s been five years,” I said.
She sighed. The sound was low and soft. “What’s going on?”
“Maybe I’m in trouble at school.”
I shrugged. “No. But I could be. Why didn’t you ask?”
“If you were in trouble?”
“Because,” she said, “You’re not.”
“But how do you know that? Maybe I got caught selling pot. Or maybe I’m pregnant.”
A grin. For the briefest moment a grin slipped across her face, the spaces around it filled with a clear and conscious sense of certainty. “You’re not pregnant.” She might as well have been laughing.
“How do you know?”
“Because you’re not,” she said.
I hunched forward, wrists together. “You really think I’m that straight-laced?”
“You’re a good kid. You always have been. Momma’s perfect little peach.”
I scowled. Dissatisfied. Everyone had a place in the family and that was mine. It was Anna’s fault really. The only reason I became the good child was because she so eagerly took up the role of the family disappointment. She was a clever girl, but it wasn’t enough. She had to hate home–leave home. I became the favorite by default. Momma’s perfect little peach. What an ignorant, whiny thing they had raised me to be.
“Not perfect,” I mumbled.
She shook her head. “You have no idea how much she loves you.”
“I’m really busy,” she insisted. “So don’t waste my time.”
“Why’d you take me with you?” I asked.
Anna looked at me.
“When you stole Mom’s car and drove to that motel outside of Hartfield. Why take me?”
She shook her head. “I would have missed you.”
It stung. The words stung. She had really meant to look out for me. She did so much for me, she really did, but eventually my sister realized that the only way she was going to get out of that house was by herself. I was only a kid. She couldn’t have taken me with her. It was impractical. Irresponsible. And more than just a small part of me hated her for knowing it.
“So this is what a non-profit looks like?” I asked, glancing absently around the office so that I wouldn’t have to meet her gaze.
“We actually have to cut down on staff,” she said. “We’ll probably end up firing a few computer guys. Edith might have to go.”
“The woman out front who answers the phones,” my sister explained. “There’s just not enough money to pay everyone. The only reason I’m still here is because I’m organized. And I’m underpaid. So how is Dad?”
That was the real question. She had been itching to ask it since she saw me in the doorway. One look at me and she saw him. Our father. Neither of us ever really knew what to make of him and so Anna spent such a great deal of time trying to figure him out. He was away so much when she was growing up. Anna probably saw him once or twice a year until she was about eight or so. Then maybe she started seeing him a bit more. While our mother was pregnant with me he stayed for weeks at a time. It was only after I was born that he started going away again. Work. Our mother claimed it was work that kept him away, but he needed The Marines much more than they needed him. The Marines were what made him tangible. Without them he only faded away.
I glanced at my palms. They were pink. It was so warm in that room. “He was at that desk job for a while. He retired about a year ago,” I said. “He just sort of mopes around the house now. Doesn’t say much. Doesn’t eat much. It’s like living with a cat.”
Anna nodded. “How does he look?”
“Terrible. Nothing new.”
“He sent a card last year,” she said. “For my birthday.”
I smiled, realizing then that if I had asked my father for her address he most certainly would have known it. “Yeah. He remembers dates. Not always names, but he knows the dates.”
Her phone rang then but she did not answer it. She kept looking at me–watching me. It was like there was something in my face that she had missed but she wasn’t quite sure what it was. I asked if she should get the phone and she assured me that it could wait. Her staring made me want to squirm but I resisted the urge. I was not so little anymore. I did not want to look like a child.
“So this place,” I said, clearing my throat. The ringing stopped. “It’s for teaching? Is that it?”
“We provide tutoring for children with health problems,” she explained. “We send people in to help them keep up with their education during chemotherapy or after operations that cause them to miss a lot of school. So they don’t fall behind.”
“So cancer kids.”
“Lots of kids,” she replied. “Sometimes its cancer. Sometimes heart defects. Children with blood disorders or who have been in accidents that require a lengthy recovery process.”
“Sounds noble,” I told her. “What you’re doing here. It’s a good thing.”
“I think so.”
I nodded–feeling the weight of my head as it bobbed up and down. Silence began to build between us and so I turned my attention to the floor. The carpet was old and blue. I tried to follow the path of the geometric shapes with my eyes but then Anna said my name and I looked up.
“So what about you?” she insisted. “Tell me something about yourself.”
I shrugged. “Like what? My hopes? My dreams? My favorite color?”
The sarcasm did not amuse her, but it didn’t upset her either. It would take much more than that to get a rise out of my sister.
“Are you going to college?” she asked.
“Do you know where?”
“No. Not yet.”
“What about after college? Any ideas?”
“You mean a job. Like a career?”
I crossed my arms rather casually. “Dice inspector.”
She wanted to laugh. I could tell. “A–what?”
“Dice inspector,” I repeated. “Like at casinos. You make sure everything is on the level.”
She leaned forward in her seat. “And what would one study for something like that?”
Anna shook her head and she released a hiccup of a laugh as she sat back again, folding her arms slowly and hugging them close against her stomach. “That really what you want to be?”
I shrugged. “Better than being a doctor, or a teacher–helping people who don’t really want or deserve your help. No offense to what you’re doing here though. It’s different.”
She smiled slowly and the lift of her lip caused a slant in her brow. “Right.”
I shifted my weight and rested one leg along the other. “There’s this guy in my history class. Jim Baskwell. He has an older brother who draws cartoons for some newspaper in New York.”
“I always thought that was pretty cool,” I said only to then frown. “But I can’t draw.”
Anna nodded. “When you were little your stick figures always had too many arms and were sometimes missing legs.”
I laughed, knowing she was right in spite of the fact that my memory of it was too vague to be reliable. It was nice though. Talking. Relating. If only that was the sole reason I was there to see her.
“Jim wants to study cars,” I went on. “Engines I think. He likes history a lot though so I don’t know why he just doesn’t stick with that.”
“He probably has his reasons.”
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
Anna moved her arms and started flattening the papers on her desk again. She didn’t say a word and slowly I felt myself beginning to squirm. She was the same Anna I had grown up with, only she seemed more sophisticated. More in control. I, on the other hand, still felt like a little girl. Her changes outweighed mine. “Tell me,” I said. Both of my feet dropped onto the floor with a light thud.
Her expression sobered and she stared at me. Unblinking.
“What happened?” I asked.
Anna did not stir. “When?”
She tilted her neck back so that her chin stuck out. “Mallory. Please.”
“You left me there with her and with Dad and there had to be a reason for it,” I insisted, my heels digging into the carpet as my knees slanted back. “There had to be a reason. Especially if you missed me. Five years is a long time not to call.”
She shook her head. “You were so small.”
“That’s the point,” I said–feeling angrier than I sounded, surely, for my voice was still level. It didn’t squeak. It didn’t snap. “I was small and you were gone.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. It was genuine. Anna always used to make it perfectly clear when her heart wasn’t in something. Her eyes narrowed and her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. Sitting there though she did neither.
“So what made you leave?” I asked.
“Knowing is really so important to you?”
“But even if you knew,” she said, “you wouldn’t understand.”
My cheeks burned. The room was so warm. The staleness of it wrapped around my throat and sank into my pores. I stood up then and it made me dizzy. She seemed surprised. Gingerly lifting the right edge of my shirt, I leaned in to show her the bruise above my hip. Shades of purple and yellow blended together to create a festering, swollen stain of color.
Anna didn’t raise a hand or say a word. Only her pupils seemed to react, for they contracted quite suddenly as her eyes widened until they shined with disgust–not at me, but at the violence that had been committed against my body. One of my fingers accidentally slid against the bruise then and I winced before lowering the shirt again and waiting to see what she would do next.
“What happened?” she asked, her expression unchanged though her voice was wound so tightly that it lacked all breath and could barely be heard.
I sat down. “Momma’s perfect little peach fell off the tree.”
“It’s nothing I can’t handle.”
“But what happened?”
I grinned and it made me feel sick. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Cut it out and tell me,” her voice almost boomed. It was so low.
“I’m a clumsy kid.”
“Who did it?” Anna asked starkly.
The room was too hot. I felt ill. “You think someone did this to me?” She didn’t say anything and I all but rolled my eyes. “We both know what you’re fishing for.”
“Who do you think did it?”
My sister blinked. The line in her forehead creased. “She did that? She did that to you?”
I leaned back in my seat, but fearing the chair would tip over I did not rest my full weight against it. “How could you know?” It wasn’t fair. “How could you know the kinds of things our mother did and leave an eleven-year-old in that house?”
“Because she loves you.”
“No more than you.”
Anna shook her head–her neck tall and tense. “It’s really not the same thing. You were special to her. She always made it very clear how special you were.”
“And what did that make you?”
“A brat with a mouth.”
“No,” I said. “You can’t divide her like that. There are good mothers and there are bad ones. It doesn’t change from child to child. She’s no better as my mother than she was as yours and you should have told somebody.”
“This isn’t a matter of right and wrong,” she explained. “It’s much deeper than that.”
“So it wasn’t wrong of her to hit you?” I asked.
Anna scowled, so many words perched at the end of her tongue and yet she could not utter any of them. She looked at me, that silent scream echoing around us. And it was clear she wanted me to understand, but doing so meant her telling me what she did not want to say and that my sister could not bring herself bear. Instead she laced her fingers together and waited. The room remained quiet. She tilted her head.
“You got the flu,” I said suddenly.
She squinted. “What?”
“After we got back from that motel. The next day I got ready for school and Mom said you had the flu. Did you?”
Anna exhaled. “She made me sleep in the garage.”
“It was November.”
“She didn’t want me in the house,” she continued. “With you. She didn’t like that I took you away and so she gave me a sleeping bag and told me to sleep in the garage. The next morning I was completely numb. She let me stay home.”
“You should have told somebody.”
Anna nearly laughed, only she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead she exhaled heavily. “No one would have believed me.”
“What about Dad?”
“He wasn’t around.”
“What about when he got back?”
“Dad couldn’t help me.”
“You don’t know that.”
“He’s a walking vegetable Mall, have you ever noticed that?” she asked. “He walks. He talks. He knows numbers and the fastest way to load a gun. The man’s a machine, but that’s all he is. A machine. He doesn’t function properly. I’m not sure he ever did.”
“That’s not fair,” I said. The words sounded softer aloud than they did in my head.
“Tell me something that is,” she replied.
“What about when you broke your arm?” I asked. “Was that her?”
Anna shook her head. “No.”
“That welt on your hip when you were in high school? You said you got hit with a baseball in gym class.”
“That wasn’t her either?”
“No,” said Anna. And she meant it. I leaned back in my seat.
“The bruises,” I said at last. “On your back and sometimes your arms. The ones Mom called rashes, only they were never really rashes because they were green.”
Anna just stared–the angle of her eyes meticulous and calculated. For a few moments she did not say a word. She only looked at me.
“Those were Mom,” I said. “And you left me with her, Anna.”
My sister shook her head. “She was never supposed to hurt you–”
“And what made me so special?”
“You didn’t know.”
“A lot of things.”
Anna stopped. She leaned back in her seat to distance herself from me–from our parents. Our mother. She knew more. She had to know more because I had been so young and had known so very little. All I had were fragments. The high pitch of our mother’s voice when she spoke to Anna. The way our mother looked at her across the dinner table or from a doorway. Even when she smiled at Anna it was different from a normal smile. There was a bitterness–an insincerity–to it. She never looked at anyone the way she looked at Anna.
“You owe me,” I said. “You owe me a hell of a lot more than what I’ve got now. Shit.” Swearing felt good. There was a certain catharsis in it. I let the word linger there between us for a moment–a little fizz of bliss–and then I shook my head. “I can’t ask her. I can’t ask Dad. There’s only you, Anna.”
Empathy. I saw it in her eyes, or maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe it was something else–something bolder and more profound. I couldn’t define it though. It rested beyond my vocabulary and the further I reached out for it the farther away it flew.
“Dad was gone a lot when I was a kid,” said Anna. She took in a breath–slowly–as if doing it wrong would let the air escape her. “He was away more with me than he was with you.”
I shook my head. “That wasn’t my fault.”
“I’m not saying it was,” she replied. “It was never your fault. Or mine. Or even his. It was just the luck of the draw–the way he got his orders.”
“Did Mom love him back then?”
Anna stopped. “She always has.”
“The way she loves you?”
Anna lifted her gaze so that it met mine and I tried to look worthy of it. “There was this one winter before you were born,” she said, “when I was about six. It wouldn’t snow. Not for Christmas or New Years or even my birthday. There was just no snow–none at all. It was some kind of record, I’m sure. No snow for months and then on this Tuesday in March it started snowing and wouldn’t stop. It hadn’t been in the weather reports. The schools weren’t prepared. The plows weren’t ready. They had no choice but to send everyone home. This was back before schools called to inform parents that their children would be going home early. They just loaded all the kids up in the buses and sent us home. No note. No call.
“By the time I got to the house there was maybe an inch or two of snow on the ground. I had a key for the backdoor for when Mom wasn’t there to let me in. She fastened it to this string and put it around my neck every morning and the string used to itch all day long–my neck must have itched from the first grade to the fifth without stopping. Well that afternoon I used the key to go inside. I dropped my backpack in the kitchen and hung the key on the post by the phone just like Mom had taught me so I wouldn’t lose it. Her purse was still sitting on the counter and her coat was on the rack, so I assumed she was home. Sometimes she stayed in all day. She didn’t work when I was little–she didn’t have to. She’d go to the grocery store or for walks, but mostly she stayed in. I checked all the rooms and then ran upstairs to see if she was in her bedroom. I was so excited to have no school; I couldn’t wait to tell her the inane little details. How the principal came on the loudspeaker to announce the closure. How my bus driver swore the whole ride home and how Phil Stevens threw a snowball at his brother when we got off the bus that made his brother cry.
“And Mom hadn’t locked the door to her bedroom. I don’t know why. She usually locked the door even when we were the only two people in the house. Even when she was alone.
She always locked the door, but this time she didn’t and I went rushing in and she was sitting on the bed and this man was there. At first I thought it was Dad–I thought he had come home early. I ran inside and jumped up on the bed, ready to throw my arms around him. I laughed and stared him right in the face. But it wasn’t Daddy. I didn’t know who he was. He had been buttoning his shirt and he just looked at me with these big blue eyes and light hair and fat eyebrows. He patted my head and smiled so pleasantly as he told my mother what a cute little thing I was. She was furious. I’m sure she was, but she didn’t say a word and I didn’t look at her. I could only stare at him, still thinking that at any moment this stranger would disappear and Dad would just materialize on the spot. But he didn’t. And when the man was finished smiling he got up and put on his tie and his shoes and his coat.
“Mom followed him downstairs to let him out but I didn’t go after them. Instead I sat there on the bed, gazing out the window at the snow. There was so much of it by then. Everything was bright and quiet and calm. Then Mom came back in. She took me by the wrist, pulled me off the bed and started shaking me back and forth like she used to do to get me to listen only this time was different. She shook me so hard it made my head hurt. And she asked if I had ever seen that man before and I said no. She slapped me. She told me that I could never tell my father–that it would break his heart and a broken heart would kill a man like Dad. For a while I thought she was just trying to save her own skin, but she was also right: it would have killed him. So I never brought it up. Never mentioned it. And not once did I ever see that other man again. It wasn’t enough though. Not for Mom. I don’t think she was ever convinced that I could keep her secret. It started to build up inside her. She was always so worried that I would ruin everything–that everyone else would see her the way I saw her. That I would send Dad away from her.”
“But you were her daughter,” I said then.
“You were her daughter,” Anna replied, her head perfectly still. “You were her beloved second chance and you could just love her, and him, without all the trouble in between. You were her baby. Momma’s perfect little peach.”
For a few moments I stared down at my fingers, trying to imagine tall, elegant Anna as a little girl. I tried to envision the look on her face when she walked into that room.
After some time had passed she let out a breath. “Do you understand?”
“She cheated on Dad,” I said.
“Did you ever find out who the guy was?”
“Did Mom ever talk about it?”
I glanced at my shoes–guilty for asking; guilty for sharpening that low edge in her voice. She was angry. Not at me. But it was still my fault for making her say it. “Is that why she did the things she did to you?”
My sister’s brow grew tight only to loosen again. “You need to understand something,” she insisted in that bold, quiet way of hers. “It’s not like one day Mom was sunshine and rainbows and the next she was this miserable person. She was always sharp tempered. Some things changed after that afternoon, but not everything. People don’t change that much that quickly. It had to be there to begin with. Do you understand?”
We sat there. We sat there and we waited; only I couldn’t let it go. “But,” I started. “She had it in her to be like that. She was like that with you. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Anna shifted her weight. The line of her mouth stiffened. “I watched –and that woman never laid a hand on you when you were little. I made sure of it. She’d yell. She’d have fits. But she never did anything to you. Your relationship with her was always very different than mine was. I thought it would be okay. Dad was there–”
I stared. “The walking vegetable?”
She bit her lip then. That silent scream. “I wanted you to be happy.”
“Is this a joke?”
“Doing that to our family,” she said. “Having our parents deemed unfit and watching you be placed in a foster home because I wasn’t making enough money to support you was not the ideal solution.”
“And what about Mom?” I asked–yelling fully then. Yelling as I meant to yell and not simply doing so as best I could. It made no difference to me who heard or what anyone made of it. “She was fit to raise me? This is the woman that did terrible things to you, Anna! How could you really believe that was better?”
“Because she loves you.”
My voice dropped. “Loves me?”
“Because I love you,” she said, her voice louder than I had ever heard it before. She did not shout, but each and every word made me shake. “And because I didn’t have the slightest idea what she’d do to me or to you if I reported her for it.”
I shook my head. It was more than I had meant to ask. She had already told me what I wanted to know, but I pushed it further. I made her say it and so there it was. Fear. My stubborn sister had been afraid of the woman. It was something I hadn’t wanted to see so why I had I gone so far? It wasn’t for her. And it certainly wasn’t for me. I got carried away. Apparently I was good at letting things carry me.
“I fell off my bike,” I said and she looked up at me without a word. “Pretty stupid, right? I pressed the brake too fast and fell clean off. Landed on the street. It’s how I got the bruise. Mom’s never touched me. Not once.” Going there had been a mistake. I shouldn’t have done it. “But I saw what she was doing to you–it wasn’t hard to see–and I knew you wouldn’t talk about it unless you thought she had done the same to me too.”
Anna’s expression changed. Her eyes grew large–wide. Her lips did not part but she went pale so quickly that even her freckles seemed to dissolve. I thought she might faint but instead she rose to her feet and towered over me, her palms pressed against the desk as she leaned forward–staring. She kept on staring.
“I’m sorry,” I said. It wasn’t good enough. I knew that. “Everything else I said was true. I promise. It’s just–she barely talks to me. And when I look at her all I see is what she did to you and with Dad being who he is I just–I–”
“Don’t tell Mom about coming here.”
“I won’t. I was never going to.”
“How’d you get here?”
“Bus. But, Anna–”
“When do you usually get back from school?”
Every awful feeling I had ever had rose in my throat. “Two thirty.”
“If you want to get home by then I suggest you get going.”
My throat dried up.
“You’d send me back?” I asked, only my voice had gone soft again and the words came out like pulp.
Anna sighed. “What else can I do?”
“Is that why you came here?” she asked.
“No.” That wasn’t it. “No–I–How can you expect me to live with her? Knowing what I know, it’s not fair. The things she put you through.”
“So what’s changed?” she asked. “What makes her worse now than she was a year ago? Or two years?”
I blinked, feeling so very small. “I was scared.”
“Of what you’d tell me,” I said. “Or what you wouldn’t tell me. I was worried you’d turn me out.”
Anna frowned, rubbing her face and releasing a breath. “I don’t make enough to take care of you,” she explained. “I have student loans, rent–”
“I’m not a little girl.”
“You know what I mean.”
“You took me last time,” I insisted. “You took me to that tiny motel with the ants in the bathtub only I wasn’t given a choice then. You never asked your six-year-old sister if she wanted to leave her mom and her dad and her house and all her toys. You just did it because you knew I couldn’t stay there. It was the right thing. And it still is, Anna.”
Anna didn’t say anything. She only looked at me, her eyes so soft and yet so decided. My sister had always been confident in herself; certain in a way most people cannot bring themselves to be.
I stood up, barely able to breathe. “Right,” I said, looking at her for as long as I could stand and then turning around and going over to the door. I opened it, hoping she would do something. She didn’t though. She remained silent as I walked into the hall and she remained silent as I closed the door behind me.
Anna knew what she wanted and she knew precisely what she had to do to get it. So I was the trade. I was the casualty of the decisions she made. Being in that office did not change things. Shouting would not change things. She had severed her ties and that was that. I could still see it though–even as my hands began to shake–the way things had been. I could see the snow lying along the highway. I could hear the static of the radio–channel overlapping channel as different stations fought to fill our quiet car. I could still feel her fingers sifting through my hair as I fell asleep in that motel room. Only it was all fading. All incomplete. I only remembered it as I did because I had been reminding myself of each detail over and over again for so long that I knew where the pieces were supposed to fit. The memory of a memory. What a sorry thing to hold on to at such an age.
But I couldn’t unlearn what I knew. And I didn’t want to stop remembering because it was something I needed to have. It had been a good three days. Most people go a long time without three days like that. They go their entire lives, even. And so that was something to remember. And so I considered myself lucky. And as I walked away I thought about Anna in her office, knowing I had to go home and knowing it wasn’t a place to send me. And so I remembered the snow. The buzz of the radio. Falling asleep on that flat motel mattress. Waiting–just waiting–to let go of all the rest.