Christmas Eve, 1958
Charlotte heard the crash and raced to her mother, who leaned on the counter cradling her stomach like that would hold the baby inside.
“Mama, what happened?” Broken yellow shards and cookie batter oozed over the linoleum.
“Honey, please listen. Go find Rose, fast as you can. “Tell her I’m afraid the water might be breaking.”
She burst outside into freezing rain, too scared and numb to feel the stiff grass and gravel that lined the black highway under her sock feet. Cold air scraped her lungs on the half-mile run to Mile Post 48, where, without looking, she raced across the highway, ducked under dead Kudzu and up the dirt path to Rose’s tarpaper house. She banged the splintery door.
“Rose? Rose? We need help!”
The doorknob wouldn’t budge. No sound from the dark house. No footsteps over the dirt floor. No smoke from the black chimney. Only Molly, Rose’s dog, perked up then went back to slapping her tail in the dirt.
“Rose? Coker?” Wind raked through her throat. She ran back of the house. Medicine plants lined the wall, waxed paper covers blowing over the yard toward the briar bushes and pine trees of the deep woods.
They said “Alabama” was an Indian word that meant “the Thicket.” She wished an Indian would race out of that thicket now, but nobody could get through the briar bushes without a knife.
Above the treeline a pointy-winged bird glided through thick clouds. Oh please, not buzzards. “Nature’s undertakers,” her father called them. Awful creatures that circled over dying animals, even people, waiting to eat dead flesh. But this was just one, a hawk. Rose said hawks meant a message would come in twenty-four hours.
Thinking of buzzards made the Dead Boy–her little brother that nobody spoke of–knock into her mind, like Gracie meowing to get in. She covered her ears to shut that out. It isn’t real. My brother is dead and buried by the river back of our house, she told herself. He can’t bug me every time I think of death, because thanks to him, that’s a lot.
Our father blames you for what happened to me. The Dead Boy’s voice in her head was as high as the three-year-old who died, but creaky-old like Methuselah in the Bible.
“I blame our Father too, so go away now. I’m busy,” she said out loud into the wind.
Think of Mama, who she loved more than anything. But Mama smiled with her mouth not her eyes and didn’t laugh much after her brother, the Dead Boy’s…accident. She was afraid Mama blamed her too and that she might leave them.
The sky broke open a flood of icy rain. This downpour couldn’t be what “afraid the water might be breaking” meant, could it? Ice and snow never happened down here and this blew storm blew in like a hurricane. Yesterday they didn’t even need a fire but last night the wind droppedthe temperature thirty degrees in one hour, Father said. She woke up as cold as if she’d had a beating.
This storm is God punishing you, the Dead Boy said. For what happened to me. You were there.
God’s 40-day Bible flood punishment lasted forty days. If it rained that hard, the river would float his grave up and he’d find her.
No. That’s just a Bible story and they don’t happen anymore. If God did send a flood to punish her, he’d have to punish Father too and he’d fight God if he had to.
She turned from the wind but it stalked her with stinging sleet. Rose’s house didn’t have a porch or overhang for shelter. She folded arms against the wall and buried her head. Don’t cry, she said, swallowing tears caught high in her throat.
Do something, anything. She could run back to the house, try to call Father, but where? The store didn’t have a phone and if he was at his deputy job down in Briggs, something was bad wrong. Everywhere was too far from here, and she didn’t know the way.
She ran back front again to yell louder and beat the door harder, in case Rose was asleep. She pounded till her knuckles peeled. Her voice cracked. She leaned back, slid down the door to the cement stoop. Head down with arms wrapped around knees, her pajama top stuck to her like a second skin of ice.
“Please, somebody, help,” she said. Like an answer, Molly lumbered up.
“Hey, sweet Molly. I forgot about you.” She slung an arm over the yellow dog and pulled her close. She peeled her frozen snowman socks and spread them for Molly, who sniffed them like two bacon strips. Sliding her bare feet under the dog’s furry belly stopped her shaking for a few seconds. Molly’s breath and heartbeat made her feel not so alone.
No telling how long she’d been here, ten minutes or an hour. She remembered the metronome’s ticking fast while she practiced “Easy Christmas Carols,” just this morning, a million years ago.
“Molly, I’m gonna sing two Christmas songs and wait a little, but I’ll have to get home and, you know, take care of things.” She didn’t know how to do that, but Molly’s brown eyes rolled over like she believed in her. “Maybe you can come with me.”
She patted beats on Molly’s side and croaked “Silent Night” into her wet ear.
When she got to the part that Albert, her real live younger brother sang as “Round John Virgie,” no matter how she tried to teach him the right words, Molly raised an ear like she’d heard something. A car on the highway? That happened about five times a day way out here.
No matter who, she’d wave them down for help. Halfway to the highway, she peered through the rain. A truck turned onto Rose’s dirt path. Father’s 1948 truck. She always called it 1948 because that was the year she was born. For a truck, eleven years was old. It rumbled in the storm, windshield wipers like two wobbly metronomes –slow, fast, stop. She made out the cowboy-shaped rim of her father’s Deputy hat leaning way over the steering wheel.
Two smaller figures were with him. One slumped to the side window even over the bumps and craters. She shielded her eyes, Please be Rose. Rose had answers when everybody else caused more questions.
But the Dead Boy only talked to her. Even Rose couldn’t answer a ghost.