I walked out of the bedroom and there was my sister, sitting on the pea-green carpeting on the upstairs loft of our aunt’s bungalow. Sandy’s hands grasped the thin rails of the banister and her legs were folded like a pretzel.
I opened my mouth to ask what she was looking at, but just then our Aunt Hilda bustled across the room and waddled to the front door as the bell called out in a tone more cheerful than anything inside the house, dusty knick-knacks included. In a way I sort of missed the barrenness of the shack in Maine; at least our old house didn’t pretend to be anything it wasn’t, or try to cheer itself up with faux-glass cat figurines.
A tall, dark-haired man stepped into the living room and I could see Aunt Hilda’s blush from the second floor.
“Do come in, Father James,” she simpered, following the priest to the couch with her hand out behind his back as if she were supporting him. “Now, may I fix you anything to drink? Eat? Really, it is such a blessing that you’ve come today; I can’t thank you enough. Oh, let me get the children, I’m sure they’ll be delighted to see you!”
Before the priest could respond, she turned toward the stairs and–not seeing either Sandy or me–blindly called us downstairs. Sandy stayed sitting, and though her waist-length auburn hair shrouded her expression, I could almost feel its blankness.
“San, let’s go downstairs, okay?” She turned to me slowly, unsurprised at my presence, and nodded. I helped my sister up and we walked toward the living room hand-in-hand.
The priest turned his head toward us and our aunt breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, there you are! Well, let me go and get the boys, I believe Jessup took Linny outside to burn off some energy. Now I’ll be right back.” Something about the way she said she believed they were outside irked me; after all, she was the one who sent Jessup outside to make sure Linny ran off enough steam so he wouldn’t have what she considered an “outburst” in front of Father James. Meanwhile, we sat.
After enough seconds of awkward silence, I concluded that the priest was pretty terrible at communicating, for a spiritual leader, at least. Then, nervously, Father James spoke.
“Now, remind me of your names again, girls?”
“I’m Regan, and this is my sister Sandy,” I said.
“Very nice to meet you, Regan. And you too, Sandy.” He tried to make eye contact, but Sandy’s glassy blue orbs were fixed on the priest’s car parked outside.
“Sandy’s a bit shy,” I interjected at Father James’s confused stare.
“I see. And how old are you girls?”
“I’m sixteen and Sandy is eleven.”
The back door slammed abruptly and Aunt Hilda, Jessup and Linny entered the room . Our aunt, still flustered, motioned for my brothers to sit on the floor below Sandy and me. Then she took her place by Father James, being noticeably careful not to sit too close to him. The priest looked less out-of-place and more relaxed now that he was addressing a larger and more mixed crowd. Like Sunday mornings.
“Well,” he began – and I filled in we are gathered here today in my head – “it is a pleasure to meet all four of you and begin our journey of getting to know each other. I am looking forward to being a spiritual mentor to the four of you, as well as assisting you children in any way possible. I would like it if you thought of me as a father figure who is here to support and guide you.”
I tensed at the visibly angry expression on Linny’s face. For ten years we’d heard from classmates on the playground, town gossips in quaint Rockland and teachers whispering in the principal’s office about how our own father walked out while Momma was pregnant with my youngest brother.
Meanwhile, Aunt Hilda was positively glowing, and glanced at Father James as if he had given her eternal life.
He went on to point out the two clear plastic trash bags by his side – “suitable” clothing for us courtesy of church donations – and to tell us that he would drive us to the church school on Monday to register us in our appropriate grades.
I wondered what they would do with Linny, who was ten and still didn’t know how to read, and hadn’t been in school since last December, or with Jessup, who was only thirteen but already knew calculus. And of course there was the fact that Sandy – who could do grade-level work when she wanted to – lived entirely in her own world.
Later that night, after dinner with Father James, Sandy and I were back in the small bedroom we shared – adjacent to the one in which Jessup and Linny slept – sorting out the clothes in the trash bag. As I unpacked long, dowdy dresses and worn blouses and skirts and knee socks, I heard my sister speak for the first time all day.
“Her colors are bright bright and fizzy sometimes, but it isn’t because of us.”
“What was that?” I was used to my sister speaking words that didn’t always fit together, especially when it came to colors and shapes. “Aunt Hilda’s colors say that she likes life, or some part of it.” My sister always spoke in a soft, sweet voice that matched her angelic looks. Sometimes she smiled, but now she didn’t. She looked straight ahead and went on. “Her colors changed when Father James came in.”
I walked through those first two weeks on eggshells, and perhaps it paid off. Life at our aunt’s house passed along fairly quietly, without major incident. Before dinner every night I warned Linny to behave and Sandy to answer any questions Aunt Hilda asked her, promising them a bedtime story every time they were good. There were minor road bumps with the school placements; as I had expected, there was a report from Sandy’s teacher about her not participating in class and there were the few times Linny had started eating before we’d prayed at meals. But I’d handled that.
There was our first time going to church with Aunt Hilda on Sunday, which was mildly awkward. None of us had ever been to any religious service before, and I could tell that even Linny, who fidgeted the entire time we sat in Mass, was amazed at the ceiling-high stained-glass windows and the way Father James’s voice echoed across the hall.
After Mass we stood outside in a neat row, Sandy and my skirts ruffling gently in the still-cool mid-April breeze, while Aunt Hilda beamed and showed us to her pastel friends. They each uttered the expected “Bless your heart” or praised our aunt for being so charitable toward us, chatting with her for a minute or two before turning away. I didn’t need to hear what they said to their friends after biding us good day; their glances were enough.
Still, I couldn’t have asked for much more in the way of a decent two weeks. I just wondered how long it would be until my luck ran out.
That Monday after our second time in church, I was completing the list of chores our aunt had left for me when I ran out of wood polish working on the coffee table. I climbed the stairs to the loft, where we slept, and unhooked the tiny latch-door that led to the crawl space, ducking for fear of the slanted ceiling. I figured it made sense that our aunt would keep the polish and other cleaning supplies here – but I didn’t know for sure as Momma never cleaned and really didn’t care if I did either.
I fought my way through the roughly six by eight space behind the wall, a rectangle masquerading as a square. I bypassed a few crates piled with winter clothes and old theology books that I was almost positive my aunt had never read, until I finally came to a large box of various cleaning things toward the back of the small storage closet.
But it was the smaller, closed box sitting on the floor behind the cleaning products that got my attention. It wasn’t a cardboard or a metal crate like the others in the crawl space, but wooden, a small box about eight inches deep and as long and wide as a shoebox. It was oak-stained and looked hand-painted, with a swirling floral design. It was surely the fanciest item in the entire loft crawl space, very likely in the entire bungalow. And unlike the other boxes containing Windex and wool sweaters, this one was sealed up.
I took it in my hands, slowly, and held it. A pang of guilt shot through my chest at the idea of snooping around my aunt’s house. I ran two fingers across the beveled edge of the box’s lid. With a flip of the hand, I could know what was inside. But it was too dark at the back of the crawl space, so I turned around, box in hand, and fought around the boxes and back toward the light. I shut the door behind me, fixed the latch and listened for the sounds of the little ones playing outside. I was still safe. Jessup was still out and wouldn’t be home for at least another half hour. Another hour for Aunt Hilda.
I went into the small, white, slant-ceilinged room I shared with Sandy. I sat down on the bed farther from the door. Outside the back window I could see my sister playing tag with Linny, a stream of tumbling auburn curls trailing behind her as she ran gracefully from her brother, who pumped his sturdy tan legs and reached ahead of him, shouting as he chased her down and finally tagged Sandy with a flourish. I heard her laugh. It was eerie in a way: one of the few times she actually engaged with people was with my combative little brother, and he was protective of her.
Turning my attention to the box, I stared for a few more seconds at the handiwork on the lid and sides. Who made this? Who would make such an ornate piece for Aunt Hilda, and why? Most of the things our aunt owned were far too kitschy, from the religious figurines to the faux-glass cat ornaments.
Without thinking I lifted the lid. A large piece of white cloth covered whatever else was in the box. Holding it up, I realized that it was an elaborate christening gown. Underneath it, a photo album and a rag doll, and a yellow-papered journal with a floral-print cover. Lining the inside of the box, there were dozens and dozens of seashells and pebbles and dried-up flowers, wildflowers and ones that look as if a child had picked them from an unsuspecting neighbor’s garden.
I started with the photo album. The outside was lace-trimmed and lined with ribbon, and I could tell that once it was white, but it now had a dull beige tinge. I opened it and the binding creaked a little. I wasn’t ready for what I saw, and my heart skipped a few beats. Even though the black-and-white print was slightly yellowed, even though the two girls in the photo were now grown women, I hadn’t expected to find myself staring into the faces of Aunt Hilda and Momma. They were in their Sunday best.
It must have been taken at least twenty-five years ago. Momma looked about Sandy’s age, so our aunt couldn’t have been any older than her early twenties, twenty-two or twenty-three. Both girls stood together on the front porch of what must have been their parents’ -- my grandparents’ – house. Aunt Hilda’s hands were perched on Momma’s shoulders. She wore a navy blue dress with pearl buttons and looked plain except for the bouncy, curly bob of her hair. She was smiling, though here eyes were already sad.
In the picture, she looked much older than twenty-something, and Momma’s expression had the blankness of a newborn’s. Her eyes stared off past the camera and her white-gloved hands were clasped in front of her. Between them she held a bouquet of wildflowers. Momma’s hair hung in loose waves that ended in ringlets around her waist, and on her head she wore a white bonnet with flowers in its brim. Both girls were well-dressed, and I remembered vaguely that our grandparents had been wealthy. It was Hilda who had given the inheritance to the Church after their death.
Linny burst into the room – I hadn’t locked the door or even shut it all the way – and bounced from the bed by the door to the one I was sitting on. His energy scattered the items on the bed and knocked the photo album to the floor.
“What are you doing? I thought you were playing outside with Sandy ...”
“Was, but then she didn’t wanna play no more. She’s out there lookin’ at the grass now, see?” He pointed out the back window. “So I came in on account of I was bored.”
Through the window I could see my sister crouched on her stomach in the yard, her hair and dressed fanned out behind her. I hadn’t heard Linny’s footsteps, or noticed the fact that the noise in the backyard had stopped.
At first I didn’t say anything. The album was sprawled face-down on the floor below our feet.
“What’s this?” He reached for the book and turned it over to the first page, the page with the picture of Momma and Aunt Hilda as girls.
“That looks like Sandy. Is it?” Linny pointed at Momma.
“No Lin, it’s Momma.”
He paused, alert. “Momma?”
“Yep, they look a lot alike, right?” I tried to smile.
I held the photograph in my hand and then extended it to him. I had to. My brother perched closer to me, hunger in his stare.
“And that’s Aunt Hilda,” I continued. “They were sisters.” I figured he knew this much, but he hadn’t asked for more, so I didn’t give it.
He turned to me, ten-year-old expectancy in his hazel eyes.
“Tell me about Momma when she was a girl. What was she like?
“Linny, I don’t– ”
“But you found this!”
I sat there, just sat there; I watched Linny grow quiet and for the first time in his life. I almost wished he kept on yelling.
“She was always beautiful,” I told him on an impulse, then paused, “even though Aunt Hilda was clearly a plain girl.” I indicated the photograph. “And Momma, being so much younger than her sister, got all the attention. It’s interesting, Lin, how sometimes the people who pay the least attention get the most.”
He didn’t say anything, and I’m not even sure he understood. But I was thinking of our eleven-year-old sister Sandy, who at that moment was lying on her stomach in the backyard as her mouth moved, whispering to an idle blade of grass.
“Momma didn’t talk very much, so her parents – our grandparents – took her to many many doctors, because they thought something was wrong with her.”
“But she was okay, right?”
“Well, she … she didn’t really want to talk. You remember Momma, right?”
After all, it had only been a month since we left Maine.
He nodded, looking down at the bed.
“When she was a girl, everyone looked and looked at Momma, but they couldn’t find anything wrong with her, other than the fact that she kept to herself, she lived in her own world. Some people said her eyes were empty – her head was empty – but really it was, well… really the world was too full, and she liked it better on her own.
“When she did speak, her voice was soft and quiet. She ran through the sunlight and came inside with green streaks on her stockings from running through the tall grass. The maid always tried to clean her up, her governess always tried to clean her up, but they always ended up leaving.”
“But Momma didn’t need nobody, she could take care of herself, right? That’s what you mean, right?”
“Well… I don’t know if she knew how to need anybody. That’s different from not needing anybody. Does that make sense?”
“No. I wanna hear more about Momma. What kinda games did she play when she was a girl?”
“She played wonderful games, Lin, games outside where she could talk to the clouds and the butterflies and the sun, they smiled back and she would talk to them and nobody else...” I stole another glance out the window. “They were wonderful games...”
“Reg?” I hadn’t realized that Linny was staring up at me again. “We was a family. How did Momma end up with us four?”
There it was. I took a deep breath.
“Well Lin, you know how I said the world was too much, too full, for Momma?”
He nodded again.
“So she left, when she was a girl she left home, left her parents and Aunt Hilda, her sister. She struck out on her own, like the pioneers from the West, see? She gathered up her things and went away, to wherever her world took her. Sometimes she stayed on the streets, or in the homes of kind strangers. But she kept them as that: strangers. She made artwork on the streets – out of trash, out of nothing – and never put out her cap for money, but people gave it anyway. She found herself in New York City, and she recited poetry for anyone who would listen. She stayed beautiful. A young man named Ferdinand noticed. She noticed him, probably because he was the only homeless subway violin player in New York City named Ferdinand.”
“She was fifteen then, and they stuck together. She thought he was a wonderful man, and he liked her smile, her sunny laugh and the pictures in her head. Soon she wanted an ocean, so they ended up striking out to Maine to live by the dunes. They ended up by the ocean, which was the color of her pretty blue eyes, and they had four children. But over the years Momma had started to get sick, sick like everybody thought she was as a little girl. Ferdinand – our father – tried and tried to save her, but it was almost as if she had wanted to drown in herself. And then, when he knew he couldn’t save her, he left. He knew she needed help, and… and he went…” – I took one last look at Linny – “he went off to find someone who could save Momma, someone who could make her get better.”
Linny was silent. And then, “So when is he gonna come back with the person who can save Momma?”
Sandy appeared in the doorway. “Regan, can I have a snack? I’m hungry.”
“Yes,” I said, standing up and gathering the items back into the box. Go ahead down to the kitchen and I’ll make the two of you peanut butter crackers. But promise me you’ll finish your dinner tonight, okay?”
“Yes, Regan,” Sandy said, turning to run down the stairs. I bent down to Linny’s level. He was looking at his hands. “And Lin, the picture of Momma is our little secret, okay?”
He nodded, forgetting his question, or at least burying it, then turned to follow Sandy to the kitchen.
I knew it was just over an hour until dinner – which I needed to start; I shouldn’t have given in to the snack, but I had gotten in the habit lately of rewarding Sandy for any effort she made to communicate.
And apparently I had gotten into the habit of thinking ignorance was bliss. But maybe Linny deserved ignorance. I tucked the photograph of the silent girl and her sister into my skirt pocket and joined my siblings downstairs.
Everything else in the box I kept tucked in the space under my bed, hidden by the overhang of the thin paisley comforter. Sometimes, when I came home before the others I would take out the christening gown and smooth my fingers over it. As the weeks carried into May and the weather warmed, I often took Momma’s diary outside after my chores and made myself comfortable in the grassy backyard, passing my eyes over some of the most simple, most unintelligible descriptions I had ever read: “The glass oceans in the sky sing in white church songs” and “When grass sways my heart feels every tri-angle in blue” and “Mother’s fuchsia lines buzz when she talks to Father.”
In a way those weeks were a reprieve. I revisited the photo album, too, turning each page and laughing at whoever had said a picture was worth a thousand words. That was more than Momma ever spoke. But these were beautiful, and I started to enjoy learning about my mother, watching her black-and-white childhood through the cracked plastic sheeting, as long as she was my secret and I didn’t have to explain unknown history to the little ones. Maybe we could have a place here, I let myself think. Maybe we could stay.
But soon I realized that Aunt Hilda’s bungalow wasn’t a refuge. It was during our fourth week in Maryland that my English teacher, Sister Bernadine, had approached me outside of the classroom before the bell rang that period. She wore a worried expression under her thick-rimmed glasses.
“Miss Regan, a word, please.” Forever formal.
She lowered her glasses a notch. “It seems as if you are needed at the lower school to attend to your two youngest siblings. I have just been informed by Father Andrew that there has been an–ah–situation on the playground this afternoon involving Sandy and Linny.”
Clutching my books, I started off down the hallway and toward the entrance to the lower school without another word to my teacher. In my mind I imagined all the possible catastrophes. By situation I knew she had meant a fight, which was no new chapter in Linny’s history. But the outcome was ambiguous and – based on my brother’s track record – could vary. Was he injured? Expelled? Both? Linny was kicked out of our school in Maine after years of angry outbursts, most of them involving violent triumphs over older kids. It was nearly five months now that he had been expelled after sending a student two grades above him to the hospital. These few weeks at the church school were his first since then.
My thoughts were torn from my brother as I rounded the final corner and ran smack into something – someone.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, quickly shifting my weight and excusing myself around his tall frame.
“Regan?” The someone caught my arm as I tried to escape. I spun around. Facing me was a shaggy-haired boy who I remembered from my English class. He came in late every day and more than once had served detentions with Sister Bernadine after school. His shirt was untucked and he carried a worn copy of Hamlet under his arm, a pencil stashed behind his ear. I couldn’t remember his name at the moment, though the pace of his life fascinated me. Or maybe that was the case with everyone who didn’t have three siblings under their charge. I wasn’t sure, but whenever he walked in after the bell, whenever I got my things from the locker at the end of the day and saw him slouched over in his seat, detained with Sister Bernadine, I couldn’t help but smile.
“Aren’t you a little late for English?”
“Aren’t you always? And besides, I’m, um, leaving early today. I just saw Sister Bernadine and she sent me to the office and–”
“Hey, hey, take it easy,” he grinned. “I was just teasing, you know. Oh, and by the way” – he extended his hand and shook a lock of golden hair out of his eyes – “my name’s Alden. I don’t think we’ve ever officially met.”
Trying to be polite, I smiled. “Regan. Nice to meet you – officially...”
He grinned again. “You know what I like?”
“Yes?” I asked, wondering why he had picked now to start a conversation, and wondering why he would start a conversation with such a question. But he continued to stand there, hands in his pockets, fearless of Sister Bernadine’s wrath.
“The fact that you never raise your hand in class, but when Sister calls on you, you always know the answer.”
School had never been hard for me, but I had never gone the extra mile. It was the first time I was complimented on my lack of effort in the classroom, though, so I had to laugh.
“Thanks, I guess. I dunno, I’m usually focused on… other things...”
He looked at me, thoughtfully. “Me, too.”
A creaking noise interrupted the silence as we both stood there in the hallway. “WILL REGAN LEAVENS PLEASE REPORT TO THE LOWER SCHOOL OFFICE. REGAN LEAVENS TO THE LOWER SCHOOL OFFICE. THANK YOU.” More creaking and then the sound of someone fumbling to place a phone back in its receiver.
“Gotta go,” I said nervously.
“Yeah, guess I should get to class. Or I dunno, maybe it isn’t even worth it today. I might skip out… but I was thinking, you know that Hamlet dialogue we’re supposed to get started on?”
“Well, I was sort of hoping you’d want to work with me? I’m not sure I can take partnering up with any of the rest of these saints.”
“And who says I’m not a saint?” This time, I was the one who grinned.
“You don’t raise your hand.”
“Okay, well anyway, see you tomorrow. Maybe sometime this weekend we can meet up and get started, yeah?”
“Sounds good, see you around.”
I waved to him as he disappeared around the corner. As I continued down the hallway I heard one of the side doors slam shut, and I wondered what Alden would do with his afternoon off.
In the lower school office I played mother briefly as the principal filled me in on the details of that afternoon’s playground fight. Then he led me to a small conference room off the main office, where I saw Linny with a black eye and a swollen lip. I was almost ashamed that it didn’t phase me. Sandy was crying silently in the corner, a rare display of emotion.
The school – which was next to the church – was only about a mile and a half from our aunt’s house, so they excused me from class – and Sandy, too, because she refused to go back.
The three of us started off for home. Once we were out of the building, I began: “Alright, what happened?”
He didn’t say anything.
“I mean it, Linny. You realize you’re going to have to explain yourself to Aunt Hilda, explain why you got kicked out of school today? So you better start by at least telling me.”
“It was Sam ’n’ Joe,” he blurted out. Even in the short time we had been at our aunt’s house, the names rang a bell as playground bullies. “They was sayin’ mean stuff about us.”
“Yeah, about me an Sandy and all of us …”
“It was when we was all playin’ soccer and I scored and then Sam – he’s in sixth grade, you know – was on the other team and he came up and called me homeless and said there ain’t nobody that wants homeless bums around here. And I said no, thats’ not true, so you better not say that, and then Joe – he’s in sixth grade too – came up and said I was a stupid cause… cause…”
“And what did you do?”
“I punched em – Both of em, Sam n Joe. Hard.”
“Linny! You promised me you wouldn’t fight when we came here, remember?”
“Well … yeah … but I can’t help it, I can’t. ’Cause it got worse, see? Sandy was standin’ at the side of the field, nearby, and she came runnin’ over, see? And then Joe says, ‘Oh, here comes your crazy sister to your rescue. What’s she gonna do, stare us to death?’ So then I had to jump on him, and … and they said … they said stuff, and then –”
“And the teachers came over to pull you off of Joe, yes, so the principal told me. He also told me that if you get into a fight again they’ll expel you.”
“– And Sam was so scared that he ran off right when I tackled Joe.” We had stopped on the sidewalk. Linny stood up tall, all four feet, two inches of him, and puffed his chest out, facing me.
“It isn’t something to be proud of, Lin. I understand why you did it, but let’s just say Aunt Hilda won’t. And if we don’t have her on our side, even a tiny bit, then she might split us up, Lin.”
I started walking again to mask my anger, thinking how glad I was that I wasn’t on that playground with Linny earlier that day. I thought back to all the fights he got into back in Maine, and how much pain the other kids caused him in our small-town school, calling our mother crazy before she walked out and laughing because our father had left just a few months before Linny was born. I remembered how he would fight the kids at school for ridiculing Sandy, and ridiculing all of us for our dumpster clothes, our free lunches. Yes, I was proud of him, but I couldn’t let him know.
Nobody said anything else until we had gotten back to the bungalow. I realized that Sandy, walking just behind us, had stopped crying. I unlocked the door, but she sat down at the far edge of the front lawn and hugged her knees to her chest, staring into the sunlight with an oddly resolute expression. Linny stepped into the living room and I followed him. He stopped short and turned toward me, eyes clouded. “Is it true?” He asked, a foreign hesitation in his voice.
“Is what true?”
“What Joe said, about…”
“He said… he said… he said the reason we ain’t got a father is on account of me, and is because our daddy left right before I was born because he didn’t want me. I told ’em that wasn’t true, I told ’em that our daddy left to go and get help for Momma to save her and that she was sick, but he just laughed. He just said nobody wanted me and that’s why he left, and that our Momma was crazy and that Sandy was even crazy. That’s what Joe said. That we didn’t have no daddy on account of he left ’cause of me. I said no it ain’t true but he said that’s what his momma says, he said that’s what everyone says. Is that true, Reg? ’Cause that’s what he said.”
I thought about the women talking after church, hands raised to shield their mouths. I thought about the wooden box under my bed, about the girl whose christening gown and photos and rock collection had lain dead in a hand-painted wooden casket until I dragged them into existence again. I thought of the smallness of the tight-knit church community and how suddenly the entire parish and school knew our biography after just a month. It was as if we were back in Rockland again, even though there were no dunes here.
I clenched my fists as I thought of how what the kids on the playground said was true, how it had been true back in Maine, too. Still, I told myself that it wasn’t. I told Linny that it wasn’t.
After school ended that Friday I waited by my locker until Alden showed up. He wore the familiar untucked shirt and rumpled hair, but his smile was wider than usual.
“Oh, excited for a homework project, that’s a change,” I teased, surprised at my own boldness.
His eyes lit up. “Well, you could say that… c’mon, let’s go so we beat the buses outta here.”
I followed Alden out into the sunny parking lot where the few students who drove to school parked their cars. His was a dark blue one with worn-looking metallic trim, and it reminded me of a station wagon, but with the air of a racing car that decidedly went at its own pace.
“My parents wanted me to get a BMW, but my friend Jake had this guy for sale, and I’m not much of a Beemer guy, anyway.”
As he opened the passenger door, Alden said this to me with a solemn expression, as if I had asked for an explanation, as if I even knew what he was talking about.
“The BMW was more for my parents than me,” he went on. I just nodded.
Eventually we pulled up to a two-story brick-and-stone building in the suburbs, the biggest house I had ever seen. The only house, other than our shack in Maine, Aunt Hilda’s bungalow and the few people I babysat for here, that I’d ever been inside.
“They leave me here when they go on business trips practically every weekend, so I always have the place to myself,” he said. “And without parents, I’ve pretty much come to be in charge here, doing everything myself, you know?”
Upstairs we sat at his desk and opened our notebooks. I tried not to stare too much at the television on the wall, the sleek laptop computer perched on his bed, or the sheer size of his bedroom, which easily dwarfed the shack in Maine.
We got to work right away, and I was both impressed and surprised by his newfound focus. He barely looked at me – I couldn’t concentrate. I listened to the passage Alden had read, the words our English teacher expected him to memorize for our Hamlet dialogue. I felt the words more than I listened to them, feeling the way they rolled softly into the space between us, tumbling out of his sturdy mouth with that earthy voice I’d come to know as his.
I forced myself to listen to what he was actually reading. It was the part of the play when Hamlet taunts Ophelia about her sexuality. I hadn’t paid much attention when we read it as a class; now that I was listening, it was hard to believe people ever talked like that.
Alden must have thought the same thing. He stopped after a few lines. “I dunno about you, but I’m surprised Sister Bernadine’s even letting our class read this,” he joked. “I mean, she calls kids out for hugging in the hallway; has the lady even read the play?”
I smiled faintly. “Yeah, I dunno. Either way, you’d make a good Hamlet.”
“Except I don’t have much experience in dueling with poisoned swords, and I actually want to live.”
We laughed again, and then sat there at Alden’s desk, a few seconds of silence that surprisingly didn’t feel awkward. Without looking away, he touched my arm lightly, brushing his touch down past the inside hollow of my elbow and toward my hand, until our fingers interlaced.
“You want to live, too, Reg. You have to start living.”
It threw me off.
“You do everything for those kids. Do something for you. Let me do something for you.”
I felt myself blush and looked down, trying to label the jolt in my heart and settling on a happy medium between embarrassed and surprised.
He cupped my chin in his hand. “You take care of everybody. I want to take care of you, Regan.”
Just then his sturdy mouth pressed to mine and my eyes closed. The first thing I thought was Oh, this for me, really? Then there was the odd realization that even I knew how to do this, this thing I;d never done before. Kissing was for girls who didn’t fill in for a mother-who-wasn’t. Girls who the entire town didn’t gossip about. I wondered how much he knew about me, about all of us, but then Alden had his hands around my waist and I couldn’t wonder anymore. We stood up and he lifted me to sit on his desk, scattering our notebooks and pens to the floor. I withdrew for a moment, pausing to look at his face. I’d seen hungry eyes, but never in this way. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I sealed my mouth to his.
“You know, Reg, we should study together more often.”
I turned to face Alden as we lay next to each other, still holding hands. I realized then that I had gone more than an hour without thinking of Jessup, Sandy or Linny.
“Yeah, I like that idea,” I said, beaming. “Who knew Shakespeare could be so… inspiring.”
We both laughed, and about half an hour later, as I pulled my school uniform back on and re-buttoned my white blouse – as he walked me downstairs, drove me back to Aunt Hilda’s bungalow, and kissed me goodbye – I finally felt like I was sixteen.
I spent the next few weeks balancing my two worlds, my inner self and outer responsibility. Alden was understanding, but didn’t understand. Each time he would promise me there was nothing to feel guilty about. It wasn’t the priests and nuns at the front of our classes – I was more worried about the immediate future, the time I could be spending with Jessup and Sandy and Linny, or trying harder to find work to support us all, Aunt Hilda included.
It was in our sixth week at our Aunt’s house that I realized exactly how much experience she had with guilt. School had just ended and I was walking past the chapel, about to meet Alden in one of the upstairs classrooms, when I spotted Jessup crouched by the outside wall, obviously listening intently to the two voices inside. He put a finger to his mouth as a warning, and it was then that I realized the two voices were familiar.
I gave Jessup a questioning look and he motioned for me to sit beside him.
“Hilda, we are forgiven, but in order to enjoy God’s gift of mercy, we must promise to avoid temptation in the future, and I think this is the best path for you. I know it is. It was for me.”
Now our aunt was sobbing. “I believe so, too. And just months ago I had started to think it could be possible, possible for me to begin studying – oh Father you know I’ve been reading the Bible and following Christ for so many years now, and I finally thought I had enough knowledge to start my training and be able to join the convent after a few years’ time, but now … When I learned that Caddie had children and their situation – I was just horrified at first. But I started to see it all differently when I saw you sitting there with them, lovingly mentoring them and providing for them like a father – you said it yourself!”
“Hilda, I –”
“But just imagine, especially considering the past…”
“We never could have kept… It was wrong from the start, all we could do was keep separate, we must deny ourselves. It’s something I must struggle with every day.”
“As do I, and I agree, joining the convent would be best – it’s just that seeing you as their father… it’s almost as if they were ours and – ”
“I want to help you with them, however possible, but you realize that I want to help you, too, Hilda… I love you… as a sister in Christ.”
There was a long silence and then Father James lowered to a whisper, almost, but I could still hear him:
“Hilda, it is wise if you join. Neither of us wants another episode like thirty years ago. The only way is to devote our lives to serving God – separately.”
She was sobbing, now, and I could barely hear her.
“Caddie! That girl… Father, there is more than their looks. Sandy is Caddie; she’s come back to haunt me, I know it! This is my punishment, oh Father...”
“Now Hilda, be reasonable.”
“She left because of me, Caddie did. Father, she saw us there in the room, you remember, you must! She saw us… I will never forget the look on my sister’s face. Still a baby, and then she ran away that very night, just after seeing us, turned and walked out the door. And I never said anything to Mother or Father and had always, always wished that she was gone, Caddie and her moony ways, then when she was gone… when she was gone because of me… because of us…”
“Hilda… let’s be reasonable. Think if you decide to give your life to God, think if you join the convent.”
“I suppose you’re right, Father. What am I saying – I know you’re right. But…”
“Yes, the children, I know.”
“I don’t want to get rid of all of them; the big girl is good for me; it’s nice having her around to help with the housework. And by the time I am truly ready to join the Sisters, she will be old enough to be married, surely to a nice young man in the parish. And of course I want to keep the big boy – he is such a credit to me, with his intelligence. He is well-mannered and bright, so yes. But I cannot bear to look at Caddie every day. To stare into those empty, mournful eyes. It’s as if the girl remembers what her mother saw. You said you’ve started looking into correctional homes for the little boy, yes?”
I felt Father James’s breath deeply before he began. “Yes, I have started looking, especially after today’s incident. And I’m not sure we can do anything else here with Linny, after all. I mean, Father Andrew caught him fighting outside this afternoon and expelled him on the spot. It was a pretty nasty scene, Hilda. He knocked out a boy two grades above him, and they both went to the hospital. In fact, we should be getting over there to pick him up.”
I went numb as I heard them start to make their way toward the chapel door. My vision blurred and I invented a picture in my mind of eleven-year-old Momma holding hands with Sandy, facing off against present-day Aunt Hilda, hiding a stubborn Linny behind their collective back.
It was Jessup who brought me back to the present, dragging me out of the way and into an adjacent classroom. We stood behind the door and listened to Aunt Hilda and Father James turn down the hallway and take the stairs to the first floor.
We sat for a while, and then Jesusp asked: “What are we going to do, Reg?”
Seeing him look at me like that was unnerving. He was my second-in-command. I thought of all those games of chess together in Maine, after the little ones were asleep. I thought of the first time he taught me to play. He would always win.
Now, my brother looked at me expectantly, just another pawn. It would have to be tonight, after Aunt Hilda and Father James came back from the hospital with a banged-up Linny. It would have to be tonight, while our aunt was asleep.
I thought fleetingly of the box, and the photo still in my school uniform skirt pocket. I didn’t care what they said; it was worth more than a thousand words, more than Cadidria Marie Vaughn had ever said to me or anyone. I stowed it in my knapsack with the crumpled note she left us at the shack in Maine, nearly six weeks ago:
I’ve gone where I cain’t drouwn anymore. Tell my Sandybird to fly south and folow her.
Just then my stomach twisted for the umpteenth time that day. I ran across the room and vomited in the classroom trashcan, spilling hot bile over innocent paper scraps and broken pencils. Guilt sickness was a myth. When I lifted my head, when I saw Jessup’s knowing expression, I realized how little I could tell Alden before we never saw each other again.