My first day of seventh grade, I waited for the junior high bus by the row of mailboxes down on the main road. I had chosen my outfit only after setting all my options out on my bed and trying on each one. I went through various movements in front of the bathroom mirror before settling on the wide-wale corduroys and the green blouse with the large pointy collar.
I crossed my arms in front of my chest and angled my head. From practising, I knew the pose I wanted to present when I stepped on the bus. My chin had to have a delicate look and my lips had to be relaxed and slightly parted. I wanted to look mysterious like a Victorian heroine, with pale cheeks and sunken, glittering eyes. In Philadelphia I’d blown the first day of sixth grade by acting friendly and wearing a shirt I’d tried to sew myself out of calico fabric. I swore I would never let that happen again. I had a new persona I’d been planning to introduce the first day of school: a girl wise beyond her years who was not at all nerdy or spastic or prone to crying jags. When people asked me where I was from I was going to say Northampton or Old Lyme, as if my life were resplendent with rope swings and sleeping porches. But now that I was out on the bus stop I realized nobody really cared.
Sheila was the only one I wanted to meet. I’d watched her from our deck, lying out with her girlfriends on towels in her small backyard. She was fully developed, as grown-ups liked to say, and dressed like Julie from The Mod Squad. She wore a choker around her neck, a floral blouse with lace at the wide cuffs, and rose-coloured corduroys.
I was convinced there was a direct connection between breast development and the way girls lost interest in playing jacks and singing along to John Denver songs. In the sixth grade, my friend Kelley had been happy to jump rope with me until her chest began to swell and the creases around her nose got greasy. After that she drifted to the back fence where the boys hung out. I had noticed that once a girl went over she was impossible to get back unless you yourself went over too. Then you could be friends again and talk about pop idols and blue mascara.
Besides Sheila and Dwayne – a sullen older boy in tight bell-bottoms and a Skynyrd T-shirt – the only other kid at the bus stop was Jill Bamburg. She lived in the duplex next to ours at Bent Tree. She looked exhausted, with grey pouches under her eyes. During her mom’s parties, I’d watched Jill and her little sister, Beth, in white nightgowns, and her older brother, Ronnie, use home-made wands to make bubbles the size of small dogs. After the liquid soap ran out, they dropped objects from their second-storey window and timed how long it took them to fall.
I moved closer to Sheila. She smelled like musk oil and Eve shampoo. She jumped away as if she might catch geekiness from me, so I sunk back to where Jill stood. I spoke to her, hoping, idiotically, that it might make Sheila jealous.
‘What a drag school’s starting,’ I said.
Jill looked at me with her flat brown eyes. ‘I guess so,’ she said, looking past me up the road to see if the bus was coming.
Finally the bus pulled up and the double doors swung out with a loud metal click. I got on last and saw Sheila sitting next to a red-haired girl wearing a Tweety Bird T-shirt. Dwayne sat with the boys in the back who were singing a Doobie Brothers’ song. Junior high went from sixth to ninth grade, but Dwayne looked much older; he must have flunked and been held back. Jill sat with a friend in the middle of the bus. Only one girl was alone. She sat by the window, her white-blonde hair long in the front to hide a port-wine birthmark that stained her cheek. She looked up at me hopefully but I decided that sitting beside her was too big a risk.
I took an empty seat near the front instead. I knew that proximity to the driver offered a certain amount of protection. This period of grace lasted only for the first few days, though. After that, being close to the driver became a liability.
In school Sheila moved among a flock of shiny-haired girls in coloured corduroys, cheesecloth shirts, and Earth shoes. They were like jewels dropped in the muddy hallway waters, with their bright fingernails, glittering eye shadow and peacock-feather earrings. At lunch they sat together and talked about lip gloss flavours and whether patchouli oil smelled better then musk. They looked so alike it was hard to tell one from another.
I knew, with my short haircut and knobby knees, that I would never join their group. If I were a boy I would have escaped into a football obsession, comic books or Star Trek reruns by now, but girls, girls had no such escape hatches.
I hadn’t always been like this. Before we moved from the rectory I rode my bike everywhere and all the neighbourhood kids loved me, because I was the best at making up games. We often enacted scenes from the Bible. My favourite was the raising of Lazarus, where I’d make my brother rub dirt on his face and lie down on the grass. I’d stare at him with my glowing eyes as I commanded Rise!
But that period was over. In Roanoke nobody cared if you had a good imagination, if you knew everything about mummification rites or had acted out every detail of the burial rituals of the natives in Timbuktu. The teachers at Low Valley Junior High were mostly female, with thick Southern accents, heavy make-up, and carefully teased-up hair. At lunch I saw my homeroom teacher, Mrs Remsly, eating devilled eggs out of a Tupperware container. The only men were the grim-faced janitor, the young AV guy wearing bell-bottoms as he rolled his overhead projector down the hallway, and the principal, whom so far I knew only as a deep baritone coming over the intercom, leading the Pledge of Allegiance and asking us not to throw food in the cafeteria. I darted from class to class like a small stunned fish. Nobody was particularly unfriendly, but nobody was nice to me either.
I needed a guide to help me negotiate the local customs, and that guide had to be Sheila. She had the power. At lunch, I saw the birthmark girl, whose name was Pam, sitting alone at a table in the middle of the room. Pam had a Holly Hobbie lunch box and thermos and she ate while she read, not caring if she had milk on her upper lip or a smear of mustard on her chin. She invited me to sit with her, but I pretended I didn’t hear. Instead I sat alone and stole glances at Sheila, who sat with a bunch of girls, laughing and nibbling her sandwich.
After lunch I watched how expertly Sheila rolled her combination, swung open her locker, glanced at herself in the little mirror she’d taped inside, then pulled out her math textbook. When I walked behind her I wanted to place my finger on her delicate collarbone. I wanted to ingest her like one of my father’s communion wafers and let her instruct me, like Jesus, from the inside.
One afternoon when I got off the bus, I walked behind Sheila. It was still hot. A warm breeze blew through my hair and in front of 3B I saw the leaves of the ratty sunflowers dropping, the dirt around them dry and red. I’d been rehearsing what to say to her. Saying I liked the braids in her hair sounded too intimate, but complimenting her clogs didn’t seem personal enough. All day I’d weighed which part of her perfect body to concentrate on. Finally I decided to tell her I liked the birds stamped into her leather belt. It showed my eye for detail without being creepy. But before I could say anything, Sheila swung around.
‘Are you following me?’
‘Why are you walking so close to me then?’
‘I’m not,’ I insisted.
‘And why did you touch my hair in health class?’
It was true. During the menstruation movie, while the soap opera music blared and the egg made its way down the fallopian tube toward the uterus, the projector light had been so silver on Sheila’s head that she had not looked real. That’s when I reached out beyond the edge of my desk and set the pad of my index finger gently against the back of her head.
‘I was brushing away a spider.’ It sounded lame even to me.
Sheila looked at me. She had her hands on her hips and her head tilted sideways.
‘Yeah. Right,’ she said. ‘You should just admit that you’re a lezzbo.’
Jill ran up behind us.
‘Leave her alone,’ she said. ‘She’s just trying to be nice.’
Sheila looked from me to Jill.
‘Freaks,’ she said. ‘Go off to freakland and do your freakazoid things!’ She hurried down toward her duplex, her clogs sounding on the asphalt.
‘Don’t mind her,’ Jill said. ‘She’s a double-dutch bitch.’
I felt as if my brain had been scooped out with an iced tea spoon. As Jill talked about Sheila her words moved around the empty space inside my head. True, I was walking up the incline, but I had no sense of my legs moving, just a floating feeling, like a dust mote careening around in an angle of light. I watched Jill’s mouth move.
She had a painfully long, pale face and hair that fell limply around her cheekbones. At her mother’s parties, men with moustaches drank beers. Along with watching Jill and her sister make bubbles, I’d also watched them play badminton, hitting the birdie back and forth. As the night wore on, their games got more surreal. I’d seen them volley both an ice cube and a banana.
While her mother didn’t allow after-school visitors, Jill said if I agreed to hide in her bedroom I could sneak inside 11B. But we’d have to be quiet. We slipped through the screen door into the living room and I was confronted by a number of smells: sandalwood, beer and some third thing I’d never smelled before. The couch sagged and the coffee table was covered with puddles of dried wax. An Indian-print bedspread hung behind the TV and there was ivy dangling from a macramé holder in front of the window. It was identical to the hippie crash pads I’d seen on TV and in movies, but different because instead of grown-ups in tie-dye shirts and macramé belts, it was filled with children. Beth, Jill’s third-grade sister, sat on the floor surrounded by math books. Ronnie, her older brother, was slumped on the couch watching General Hospital.
Neither of them looked in our direction. Upstairs, Jill had the same room as mine, though hers was decorated more sparsely, with a mattress on the floor and a cardboard dresser. She’d taped pictures from magazines up on the wall, mostly baby animals and photographs of sunsets. In one corner, a giant stuffed panda, whose name was Barnabas, slumped over as if he’d been shot in the back.
‘I didn’t talk to you at first,’ Jill whispered, ‘because I wasn’t sure I could trust you.’
‘Why are you whispering?’ I said.
Jill pointed to the wall. ‘My mom is sleeping.’
She told me how in sixth grade Sheila had pretended to be her friend but once Sheila got her braces off she’d told everyone at school that Jill was a dirtbag.
‘She announced that I had leg spasms, which was true, but it only happened once. And she said my farts smelled like dog food.’
‘Whose farts smell good?’
‘Hers,’ Jill said. ‘They smell like cinnamon.’
She shook her head.
‘She’s just the worst sort of person,’ Jill went on, ‘two-faced and a bitch.’
Jill cast her eyes down to her blanket, a nubby afghan of triangular blue and pink strips.
‘Were you planned?’ she asked.
This was a common question. If you were planned it meant your family wanted you, you’d come into a friendly spot, you were loved. But if you weren’t planned, that was a whole other story.
‘I was,’ I said. ‘But my little brother wasn’t.’
My parents had never actually admitted this, but my mother had implied it a few times.
‘None of us were planned,’ Jill said. ‘Not a single one.’
It was hard for me to figure out how this could be true. But before I could ask Jill more about it, her face got very serious. She was suddenly deadly serious.
‘Before we can be friends,’ she said, ‘you need to know that the Bamburgs are a tragic family.’
‘In what way?’
‘In just about every way you can imagine,’ she said. ‘You name it, we’re tragic.’
She pulled out a drawer. ‘For instance –’
She took out a black comb with dandruff lodged in the teeth and a key chain with a Harley Davidson medallion. She laid both on the bed.
‘That’s it, that’s all I have left of my daddy.’
‘Motorcycle wreck. He’s buried in that graveyard on 419 next to the Taco Bell.’
‘That’s terrible,’ I said. I never knew what to say when people told me sad stuff. Jill took the comb into her open palm and looked at it as if the thing had the power to transport her back to the sixties when her dad was still alive. I wanted to change the subject.
‘Did you know the lady who lived in our unit?’
‘Miranda? She had a Dolls of the World collection.’
‘What about her ex?’
‘He’s a freaky hippie guy. He threw her clothes off the deck once. But for around here, that’s nothing. Did you know a lunatic roams the woods at night?’
I shook my head.
‘I heard from a kid in 4A that he loves the taste of children’s pinkies. Eats them like chicken wings.’
We heard her mom get out of bed. Jill put her finger to her lips as she left the room. It was her job to get her mom a bowl of cereal and bring her the black pants, white blouse, and apron she had to wear to waitress at the Western Sizzler. While I waited, I poked around Jill’s room. In her closet a dress hung sideways off the hanger and a metal back brace lay on the floor over her shoes. On the shelf above, there was a line of dirty stuffed animals. The pink kitten had a lazy eye.
After her mother left the house and I heard her car head down the road toward the highway, Jill called up the stairs that the coast was clear. By the time I got down, she had thrown the couch cushions on the floor and Ronnie had pulled the bedspread off the wall and tied it around his neck. He was repeating the lines of Barnabas Collins from a recent episode of Dark Shadows. Inside the mausoleum, Maggie was questioning Barnabas about a sheep that had been killed. The creature had been found drained of blood. I watched until the scene changed to Parallel Time and Jill dragged me up to the bathroom, made me get into the tub, close my eyes, and grub through the bathroom shower curtain. I had to close my eyes tight and push through the plastic until I’d moved into another dimension.
The night before Halloween, I lay in my bed, imagining spirits seeping out of the earth, swirling in the air over Bent Tree. I finally drifted off but I didn’t sleep long. It was still dark when I awoke to the sound of a voice calling my name. I wasn’t really surprised; I knew it was just a matter of time before creatures from the netherworld tried to contact me. I . . . hear . . . you, I whispered slowly. But the voice just kept on saying my name until I realized the voice was outside, and that Jill was standing in the street in front of our duplex, her ski jacket pulled over her nightgown, her feet stuck into her brother’s huge tennis shoes.
When she saw me at the window, her face lit up and she motioned wildly for me to meet her down at the front door. I pulled the knob and she shoved her social studies notebook at me, showing me the list she’d written out in pencil. As I read, she leaned over me, her face pale and anxious. Under the heading Haunted House, she had written Dracula’s Cave? Mad Scientist Laboratory? Dr Frankenstein Workshop? Under the heading Games, she had written Bobbing for Apples, Musical Chairs, Drop the Clothespin in the Milk Bottle, The Limbo.
Jill looked at me, her black pupils huge even in the near-dark.
‘I couldn’t sleep,’ she said. ‘In the night I started thinking about sickos that stick razor blades in candy apples.’
I was familiar, through my mother’s stories, with how hippie drug culture had collided with freaky homeowners to create lunatics who seemed to enjoy poisoning candy in an effort to kill off neighbourhood kids. I’d heard about the heroin-sprinkled chocolate-covered raisins, needles stuck into Snickers bars, cyanide in Pixy Stix.
‘But what can we do?’ I said. I ran my hands up and down over my goose-pimpled arms. The sky was grey and low and branches blew around all over the side of the mountain.
‘We’ll have a party,’ she said, ‘a safe place so the creeps can’t kill them.’
I was learning that Jill had the spark and intensity of a downed electrical wire. Her notebooks were filled with lists. Ten Qualities of a Friend. Why Dogs Are Better than Cats. How to Survive in a Blizzard. She was always the first to raise her hand in class, and even though she’d ended up getting only eleven votes, she’d run for class president, telling us during her speech that she would make chocolate milkshakes available for sale in the cafeteria and that for the winter dance, she and her team would build a Transylvanian castle, transforming the gym into a Gothic wonderland.
During the physical fitness tests in gym, I’d watched her hold on to the metal bar. The narrow muscles of her neck stood out like hot-dog meat, and as she grimaced I saw her skull and collarbone, her skeleton gripping the bar for dear life.
She was determined to educate me about the ways of Bent Tree, as if the place were a country of its own with history and ritual that only she could impart.
First, practical danger. The guy who lived with his mother in 3B might offer to take my picture. He’d say I had a certain look and imply he had contacts in Hollywood. NEVER EVER EVER go into his duplex under any circumstance.
There was an older lady who lived with her sister in 9A. They might seem friendly but it was important never to be seen speaking with them.
‘Why?’ I asked.
‘Because they’re Eldridges!’
‘What’s wrong with that?’
‘You don’t know?’ Jill was incredulous.
I shook my head.
‘Their ancestors took in Union soldiers during the Civil War.’
‘That was a long time ago,’ I said.
‘Not really,’ Jill said. ‘Once a traitor, always a traitor.’
She told me to watch out for the Christers in 2B, 7A and 20B.
‘They have big smiles and they act all friendly,’ she said, ‘but the next thing you know they’re offering to drive you to their prayer group.’
People moved out at the end of every month; August and January saw the biggest loss of occupants. She’d watched and written down lists of the things she saw floating out duplex doorways: a taxidermied cat curled up on its satin cat bed; a giant Styrofoam strawberry; a red, white and blue life-size cutout of Evel Knievel. In the boxes left behind, you could find treasures: zodiac medallions, Mexican handbags, ponchos covered with dog hair.
She believed that Mr Ananais had a secret yin-yang method of pairing people in adjacent duplexes so that they balanced each other out. Next door to her family lived an out-of-work brakeman for the railroad, a sweet chubby guy who ate hamburger patties and heated up Tater Tots for dinner every night and who told Jill and her brother stories of ghost trains and haunted railroad stations. Without him living in the building, Jill was convinced the place would rip free of its foundation and float into the sky. And beside Sheila was a lady who was so annoyingly friendly that she balanced out Sheila’s bitchiness. I could see Jill was right. Mrs Smith, who lived next to us in 12B, loved Nixon and was still sad because the South had lost the Civil War. Her duplex was filled with teddy bears and Civil War memorabilia. The year before, she’d been chairwoman of the Daughters of the Confederacy’s Civil War Ball. According to Jill, Mrs Smith balanced out my dad’s hippie tendencies. (He now believed Jesus was a real person, a rebel like Che Guevara or Cesar Chavez. God, he was convinced, was as much in the rushing Roanoke River as inside any church.)
The thing that haunted Jill was how once people moved out of Bent Tree they seemed to disappear completely. People claimed they were moving to cheaper apartments like Sans Souci over on Garst Mill Road or Guilford Manor out by the airport. But Jill had never seen anyone after they left. It was as if, after pulling out of the entrance, they entered another dimension completely.
I was learning that when Jill got an idea in her head, it was hard for me to resist joining her. I put on my clothes and we walked to Kroger, where we used our babysitting money to buy mini candy bars, pretzels, potato chips and a turnip. Jill said her Grandmother Brendy told her that turnips would protect us from evil spirits. Back at Bent Tree, we went to work cleaning up her family’s duplex. All afternoon we worked, wiping down the bathroom and the kitchen, vacuuming the shag and trying to air out the living room.
We let Ronnie choose from Jill’s list of party themes. He opted for Mad Scientist Laboratory. He boiled spaghetti for guts and twisted apart a few of Beth’s dolls for body parts. He wasn’t all that interested in looking like a mad scientist with crazy hair and a white lab coat. Instead, he wrapped his mother’s boa around his neck, outlined his eyes with black liner, and played his Bowie record on 78 so the music elongated. I had noticed Ronnie’s fondness for eyeliner and that around the house he sometimes wore Jill’s skinny turtlenecks. As we cleaned, we heard him laughing maniacally into his cassette player.
Beth mixed Kool-Aid in a plastic pitcher and set out Dixie cups. She poured snacks into bowls and arranged them on the table, then retreated to the bathroom to draw dots on her cheeks in imitation of Pippi Longstocking.
Once we finished cleaning, Jill and I lay on her bed making a schedule for the party; our legs were touching and she pressed her shoulder into mine. Jill smelled like muddy rainwater and her breath still had the afterburn from the bag of barbecue potato chips we’d split on our walk back from the grocery store.
Was I a lezzbo? This I considered a very good question. I didn’t really know what lezzbos did. When I closed my eyes at night, I never imagined our naked bodies twined together. I envisioned the two of us walking up the side of the mountain holding hands. I thought of myself like a tree or a flower. I had longing, but it was not explicitly aimed at anything.
At four, with his hair gelled back, the boa around his neck, and lipstick blood flowing from both sides of his mouth, Ronnie went to wake Mrs Bamburg for work.
‘Bad news,’ he said, speaking with a sexy-evil Transylvanian accent. ‘She does not answer.’
‘I’ll get her up,’ Jill said.
Jill had a trick to lure her mother out of bed. She put on the Allman Brothers, went to the kitchen, and got out a can of beer.
‘It’s near the anniversary of Duane’s death,’ Ronnie said. ‘Hearing that might make her worse.’
‘Oh, you’re right!’ Jill said, running back to the stereo, lifting the needle, and putting on the new Thin Lizzy single her mother had brought home from Woolworth’s.
I followed her up the stairs. Even though I’d spent as much time as I could with Jill, I’d seen her mother only a few times. She had a frizzy perm and wore wire-rim glasses above her chubby cheeks. She looked more like an older sister than a mother and, like an older sister, she was usually too tired to do anything around the house. Jill did the laundry, made the beds, cleaned the bathroom. Mrs Bamburg brought home groceries, once a week, but she just left the food on the counter for Jill to unpack.
‘Mom,’ Jill called through the door. I stood in the hallway. I remembered trying to lure Miranda out of her bedroom. Maybe we should sing a song. Jill and I knew the lyrics to several John Denver songs and to ‘I Got You Babe’. She was always Sonny so I could be Cher. I tried to stand very still, so still I could feel my heart pump and my brain hum.
There was no answer. Jill turned to me and motioned that I should stay in the hall. As she opened the door, I saw that with the curtains closed, the room was dark. Her mother had the comforter pulled over her head so her body in the bed resembled a mountain range. Warm air tinged with cigarette smoke spilled over me and into the hallway.
Jill went to the blinds and raised them a few inches, then sat on the side of the bed.
‘Please, Mom,’ she said.
From under the covers her mother gave a grainy moan. Jill tried to pull back the comforter but her mother held it tight over her face.
‘I’m sick,’ she said. ‘I need you to call in for me.’
‘But I did that yesterday!’
‘I don’t feel good,’ she said. ‘I can’t go in.’
‘You got to,’ Jill said, yanking the comforter.
The soles of her mother’s feet were chalky. Her toes looked delicate and sad, the baby toe curling into the bigger one beside it as if it were lonely.
‘Give me back my blanket!’ she said, sitting up and reaching toward Jill.
Jill didn’t say anything, just stepped away from the bed so her mom couldn’t reach her.
Downstairs Jill picked up the receiver and dialled the restaurant. She asked to speak to the manager.
‘This is Jill Bamburg.’
She listened, nodding her head vigorously.
‘Yes. But. No sir. OK.’
She hung up the phone.
‘If she doesn’t go in today, she’s fired.’
This news, delivered by Jill through her mother’s bedroom door, elicited only a grunt. Her mother slept on as we filled the buckets and dropped apples into the water, rolling and shiny. Jill taped the picture of a pumpkin Beth drew on the front door and we made a list of the children we knew who lived in Bent Tree. There were eleven all together, plus two babies and, of course, Sheila and Dwayne, the older kid from the bus stop. He was what the kids in school called a dirtbag, but all I really knew was how he tortured us on the bus, dared us to lick the seats, and called all the younger boys faggots.
When she finally did come down in her bathrobe, Mrs Bamburg was holding the beer Jill had brought up earlier.
‘What is all this?’ she said, blinking at the streamers, the scarves thrown over the two lamps, the chairs set up for games.
‘The party,’ Jill said. ‘Remember?’
Mrs Bamburg nodded without enthusiasm and turned into the kitchen, where she picked up the phone and called her friends one after another, telling them that the little shit manager had finally fired her. She told the story so many times, with the exact same words, that I felt like the earth might have gotten stuck and stopped rotating.
By seven o’clock, though it was fully dark, not one trick-or-treater had rung the bell. Ronnie had gone down to his room and Beth was doing math problems from his high school textbook. We’d even seen my brother and Eddie, in green fatigues and bleeding ketchup from their heads, walk right by our duplex with my dad. They were headed for the subdivision down the road, where it was rumoured they were giving away full-size candy bars.
‘It’s evil spirits,’ Jill said, her eyes wide. ‘They are keeping people away from our party.’
‘That’s crazy,’ Beth said, pushing her glasses up on her nose. It was funny to see her doing math problems because everyone knew the real Pippi Longstocking would never do homework.
Jill walked into the kitchen, got out the turnip, and motioned for me to follow her around the side of the duplex. We walked next to where the siding met the cement foundation. We circled clockwise three times. I couldn’t keep up with Jill. She was upset not only that we’d worked so hard on the party and nobody was showing up, but also that kids right now could be biting into Mars bars filled with razor blades and M&Ms sprinkled with angel dust. Abruptly she stopped and swung around. I followed her three times counter-clockwise around the duplex, all in an effort to ward off evil spirits.
We sat on the stairs in front of the house, the turnip beside us, the stars splattered above us. I took hold of her hand. Even though it was cold outside, her palm was warm and moist. Holding it was like holding a small, soft animal.
Jill decided that the problem was that we hadn’t advertised our party enough. We should go down by the main road and let everyone know. At the edge of Bent Tree, right by the mailboxes, we saw the girls from 4B. The older one was a cowgirl in a red felt hat and matching vest, and the younger one, who threw around a furry tail and meowed loudly, was a kitty cat.
‘We’re having a party in 11B,’ Jill said to the mother, a short-haired woman in a yellow trench coat. ‘We’ve got all kinds of safe, fun activities.’
The woman looked at the hand-made poster with a drawing of Dracula in his coffin and then up at us. Unless she was deaf, she’d heard music blasting from Jill’s duplex and sometimes men having fistfights on the front lawn; this mother thought we were the sort of people that Jill wanted to have the party to protect the kids against.
‘Thanks honey,’ she said. ‘But I got to get these kids to bed.’
‘Please come up.’ Jill grabbed the woman’s arm.
‘Maybe another time.’ The woman moved away and hurried down the path toward her front door.
‘Meow,’ the little girl said, but then grimaced like a mean cat and hissed at us.
We walked across the road into the subdivision with the brick ranch houses. There was a girl in a Cinderella mask with tiny eyeholes jumping on a trampoline. A jeep drove past with a dead deer tied to the top. I thought it was a Halloween prank, but Jill said hunting season had just started and I had to get used to seeing deer sprawled out on the roofs of cars. Most of the ranches were decorated for Halloween with dried cornstalks tied to their mailboxes and jack-o’-lanterns that lit up their front doors. Jill passed fliers to a group of teenagers in hooded sweatshirts wearing zombie masks and carrying pillowcases full of candy and a father taking around his toddler dressed like a lion in brown pjs, black whiskers drawn over the kid’s chubby pink cheeks.
When we walked back up and sat on the steps again, I could tell Jill was disappointed; nothing had turned out the way she’d planned.
‘Kids might still come,’ I said. ‘It’s not too late.’
I could see now, though, that there were Pintos and Mustangs lining the street in front of Jill’s duplex, and I could hear Lynyrd Skynyrd blasting out the windows. No children would be coming to our party. We went back inside, where her mother was slow-dancing with a guy in an Indian kurta. We could see his red chest hairs poking out the top of his shirt. Her mother, who’d been drinking ever since she got up, pressed into the man like a soft stick of butter, her mouth attached to his, and I could see by the way her cheek shifted that his tongue was fully in her mouth.
‘That’s so gross!’ Jill said, pulling me up the stairs. Two women and a man sat on her bed smoking. She told them to get out, that she needed to do her homework, but they ignored her and kept talking, the man explaining how to make dandelion wine.
We wandered back downstairs.
A few people wore costumes. Sandy, dressed like a bunny, in rabbit ears and an aerobics leotard, was talking to a man wearing purple-tinted glasses and love beads. She’d taken on more shifts at the nursing home so she could pay her own rent. Most of the other outfits were half-committed – a guy in a funny hat and a girl wearing rhinestone sunglasses. I saw that my father was in the corner. I’d told him earlier about the kids’ party and though it hadn’t worked out how we wanted, I was still glad he had come. He wore his wire-rim reading glasses and a surplice from when he’d been a minister. At first I thought he had come as a priest but then I saw that he carried a gold-trimmed book and realized he was supposed to be Prospero from The Tempest. I waved to him from across the room and he waved back. He was talking to a man with a moustache.
I didn’t like the look of the man. Any guy who looked like Charles Manson even a little gave me the creeps, and I could tell by the way the man kept holding his hands up to replicate a rifle that he was telling my dad about hunting trips. Before we left the rectory, my dad might have come to a party like this to actually minister to lost souls, to tell them they were not alone, that there was a halo of presence around each of us and while you might feel separate from God, this was only an illusion. Now he was more like an anthropologist doing fieldwork. By the way he laughed and shook his head I could tell he was interested and amused by the man’s story.
Jill and I pushed through the crowd and went back outside. It was dark and the tops of the trees blew left and then right; nearly all the leaves were off now and the evergreens sat smoky in the darkness. The mountain was above us, wild and unknowable. I was cold in my white leotard and painter pants. I had made myself a unicorn horn out of tinfoil and attached it to my forehead with masking tape, but it had bent sideways and looked less now like a magical horn and more like someone had stuck a knife into the side of my head.
Jill was Victoria Winters from Dark Shadows in a black dress with a lace collar.
‘This is the dress my mama wore to the funeral.’
‘Doesn’t it give you the creeps to wear it?’ I asked her.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘But aren’t you supposed to have the creeps on Halloween?’
‘I guess,’ I said. I sounded noncommittal, but what she said hit me hard. She wanted to honour the dead even if it made her uncomfortable.
We watched people moving in the windows like fish in an aquarium.
‘Do the speech,’ I said.
‘I don’t feel like it,’ she said.
‘Oh come on,’ I said. ‘It will make us feel better.’
‘You think so?’
‘My name is Victoria Winters,’ Jill began. ‘My journey is beginning. A journey that I hope will open the doors of life to me, and link my past with my future, a journey that will bring me to a strange and dark place, a world I’ve never known.’
Later, back in my own bed, trying to fall asleep, I heard a voice. This time I knew it wasn’t a spirit. Jill stood outside my window in her nightgown. I went down and opened the door. It had warmed up a bit, so the ground sent up a fine bluish mist.
‘My mother split to get beer,’ she said, ‘but she’s still not home.’
‘Was that before the fight or after?’
As the party was breaking up, two guys had gone at it in the street under the dusk-to-dawn lights.
‘After,’ Jill said.
‘Maybe she decided to spend the night someplace else?’
‘Maybe,’ Jill said.
‘Do you want to come in?’ I said. ‘I’ll sleep on the floor and you can sleep on my bed.’
She shook her head.
‘Beth might wake up.’
‘She can come too.’
Jill shook her head again.
‘She’ll come back,’ I said.
I knew Jill was worried about kidnapping, but her biggest concern, and mine too, was sex slavery. There was a long history of sex slavery, one Jill and I had studied. I had noticed that older boys liked to talk about gory scenes in horror movies, and that Phillip and Eddie enjoyed pretending to shoot people, but Jill and I spent much of our time talking about girls held captive by men. Most horrifying were the Manson girls, particularly the one near our own age named Snake. There was the girl in California chained to the toilet in the day and kept in a box during the night. The crazy thing was, the thing we could not get our mind around no matter how hard we tried, was that even during the trial, she was calling her captor on the phone. We often told each other that David Cassidy wanted us as his sex slave. We wrote this in notes and folded them up in intricate triangular patterns and tossed them to one another in health class.
We walked duplex to duplex looking in basement windows. Did the inhabitants seem like people who would keep sex slaves? A guy who lived alone in one of the lower duplexes was high on our list of possible sex slave masters, but when we looked into his basement all we saw was an exercise bike and a poster of Liberace. What about Dwayne? Jill shook her head. She was convinced that the person who kept a sex slave wouldn’t risk bad behaviour; it would be a quiet guy, a guy who always ordered the same thing every time he went into Long John Silver’s.
We walked out into the subdivisions. Under one carport was a large wooden box, but when we got closer we saw that the box held tools and a lawn mower. Another split-level had a row of mums that Jill thought looked suspicious, and I didn’t like the lawn jockey, his black face painted beige. Across the street, we spotted a man coming out of his front door, heading for his station wagon. He was wearing a wide tie and a powder-blue leisure suit. I thought the leisure suit alone made him a candidate, but when Jill saw that he carried a Bible she was more convinced than ever that the man might be hiding a sex slave.
After a few days, the Bamburgs grew accustomed to their mother being gone. As Beth pointed out, it wasn’t as if they saw her much anyway. Life with parents was unnatural and full of rules, and it was only when their mother was gone that the Bamburg children could live as they pleased, cozy and chaotic as puppies in a box.
Jill nailed sheets to the ceiling, tenting the living room, and spread blankets and pillows over the shag. The television was on day and night. Nixon, who to my dad’s horror had won the election, was always on the screen, his huge head smiling down at us like a distant emperor, as we played Operation and Mystery Date.
For the first days, we feasted on strips of bacon and chocolate milk and searched for Mrs Bamburg in all the subdivisions along the highway. Jill decided that her mom had entered Parallel Time and was running a home for lost dogs in a big house in the country, pulling burrs out of long-haired dogs and giving the small, nervous ones lap time. People left Bent Tree all the time, Jill reasoned; it was in the very nature of the place that souls who completed their trials drifted out and new sinners, like my family, made their way in.
After we ran out of bacon and chocolate milk, Jill heated up frozen pizzas and pot pies. We downed sugar by the spoonful, first granulated, then the confectionary. The Bamburg kids ate through the canned soup, the tuna fish, even the condensed milk, which they spread like jelly on saltines. On the two-week anniversary of Mrs Bamburg’s disappearance, Jill served boiled potatoes covered with corn syrup and passed around a jar of maraschino cherries.
‘All that’s left,’ she said, ‘is this bar of dark chocolate and a half bottle of apple cider vinegar.’ She sat on the floor with her legs crossed and her back curved, her spine sticking up through the material of her turtleneck sweater. Jill broke the chocolate into four parts. I passed mine to Beth, who looked at me gratefully before popping both squares into her mouth.
‘If only we could photosynthesize,’ Beth said, ‘all our problems would be over.’
‘You could go to the food pantry at First Baptist.’
‘Take food from the Christers? Have you lost your mind completely?’
I’d forgotten how much Jill hated the born-agains. To her, taking their handouts was worse than starving.
‘I could sneak food from home,’ I said.
‘Would you do that?’ Jill said. ‘It would only be until I start working.’
The next day, after we got back from school, I slipped two cans of ravioli and a couple of bananas under my shirt. As I came into the Bamburgs’ duplex, not bothering to knock, Jill and her sister and brother gathered around me, looking round-eyed like the possum that ate out of our garbage can. Jill didn’t even bother heating up the food; she just opened the can and split the ravioli three ways on the Pyrex plates. They each moved to a far corner of the tent, gulping down the food quick as hungry dogs.
The system worked well enough until my mother noticed a bulge in my jeans. I pulled out the jar of peanut butter and roll of Ritz crackers sunk down my pants. Her eyebrows arched up. I knew if I told her the Bamburg children were hungry, she’d let me take anything I wanted. My mother was funny that way. While she looked down at everybody who lived in Bent Tree, she’d been the first to bring a casserole down to 1B when she heard the old lady who lived there broke her hip. She’d even let Sandy do her and Eddie’s laundry in the basement while their machine was broken. But I also knew if she found out Mrs Bamburg was missing, she’d call the police.
At first I’d argued for calling the police myself, but Jill told me that the last time their mom left, they’d all ended up at a foster home with a lady who raised German shepherds in her backyard.
I told my mom: ‘We’re having an indoor picnic.’ It was a lame excuse but better than nothing.
‘We don’t have money to feed the neighbourhood,’ she said, turning me around and opening the cabinet so I could put the items back up on the shelf.
When I walked in empty-handed, the Bamburgs were disappointed. Beth started to cry. I told them that after dark I’d drop food out my bedroom window. While my mother watched All in the Family, I smuggled a loaf of bread and a stick of butter upstairs. Then I made the signal, turning my lights on and off three times. Jill, who’d been waiting in the shadows beside her duplex, ran barefoot over the yellow grass to pick up the bread.
Ronnie stopped going to high school. At first Jill nagged him, saying they’d get busted if he didn’t show up. But he claimed he’d told the ladies in the front office that his family was moving to Florida and they’d wished him well and taken his name off the register. Jill didn’t like him hanging around the duplex all day, and she warned him that if he went outside during school hours, he’d blow it for all of them. Beth, on the other hand, loved school, and Jill had no trouble getting her up, making sure she showered and that her clothes were clean. Jill told me that if a kid came to school for too many days with stained clothes and dirty hair, the guidance counsellor called child protection. Jill filled out the free-lunch form for her and Beth. In the cafeteria, she wolfed down everything, even the disgusting Salisbury steak and gross gelatinous gravy.
After the bread was gone, we walked down to Kroger. Jill told me she’d seen a hippie the day before pulling food out of the Dumpster. We went around the back and Jill, holding her nose, climbed inside. Standing on a raft of old cabbages, she passed me expired cans of turkey gravy and TV dinners. She found a bag of apples too rotten to eat but perfectly good for apple sauce and several loaves of stale bread. Jill speculated that if the plenitude of the Dumpster held out, they’d be set for food at least through winter. In the spring she could forage for wild turnips and wood sorrel up the mountain and plant tomatoes and zucchini like Mr Ananais did on the sunny side of the duplex. Every few days, I helped Jill scavenge in the Dumpster for what she called ‘Dumpster delicacies’, which made up the Bamburgs’ odd menu. Smoked oysters and week-old cupcakes, tuna fish and crushed pineapple, cornflakes soaked with tomato juice. Her plan appeared foolproof until Beth ate out of a dented can of beef hash and spent the rest of the night hugging the toilet.
After that I snuck over a pound of frozen hamburger in white butcher paper. Our freezer was full of the stuff, and I knew my mom wouldn’t notice. But Jill and I both knew I couldn’t keep doing this. We lay across Jill’s bed, the sides of our heads touching and our bare toes looking so similar we could be a new creature with four feet. Since she wasn’t wearing her back brace, Jill had started to hunch, and her face was pale and ominous even in broad daylight. We were trying to figure out how she could get money. The rent was due soon, and while Mr Ananais would let it slide for a week or two, soon things would get desperate.
‘I could make pot holders and sell them door to door,’ Jill said. ‘But each one takes an hour to make.’
‘All that work and you only get a quarter for them!’
‘I could babysit more.’
I was quiet. It was unclear how Sheila had cornered the market. I’d seen her going in and out of nearly every duplex with children. Nobody wanted Jill and me anymore because Sheila looked so much more like a girl should, with her long shiny hair and baby-blue ski jacket. Even Sandy, who was taking nursing classes at night, used Sheila now instead of us.
‘We could have a bake sale!’ I suggested.
‘How will we get the money for flour and eggs?’ Jill said.
‘We could shovel snow.’
‘Oh please,’ Jill said. ‘The snow never lasts more than half a day around here.’
I hadn’t known that, though I should have guessed. It was already mid-November and still warm. Heat came off Jill’s body and I could feel her anxiety, as if jolts of electricity were making it impossible for her to relax. I took her hand and squeezed her fingers. We both looked up at the ceiling, and I saw some black spots, dead bugs in the glass shade.
‘We could blackmail somebody,’ I said. ‘Find out who’s cheating on their wife or husband, then write a letter saying if they don’t send us a hundred dollars we’ll tell all about it.’
Jill sat up. ‘That would be really low-down,’ she said. ‘I hope we don’t have to do anything like that.’
‘I’m saying if it does come to that, I’d do it if you wanted me to,’ I said. ‘I’d even break into somebody’s house if you asked.’
‘Now you’re just talking,’ Jill said.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’ve thought all about it.’
It was true. Lying in my bed in the dark, I’d sworn myself to my friend. I would do anything, even kill somebody, if she wanted me to.
After school the next day, we walked through the subdivisions toward the strip mall. Jill had decided to get a job, and she’d made a list of businesses along the highway. In front of a brick ranch home, a man raked and Jill watched kids jump and roll in the piles of leaves. She had a weak spot for family scenes: kids in bathing suits dashing through sprinklers, families eating dinner together. Even our Halloween party had been an attempt at a wholesome life. I tried to distract her by asking questions for her job interview.
‘Who is your model in life?’
I thought of trying to get her to say somebody like Rosa Parks or Madame Curie. But Jill was honest, and those other ladies didn’t have a chance compared to Cher in her roller skates, multi-coloured kneesocks, and white leotard rolling along the sidewalk in Venice Beach.
‘Do you believe in God?’
Even as I said it I realized it was a mistake. Jill would start up on how God hated her family so much he’d put a curse on them.
She looked at me. To hide the circles under her eyes she’d used her mother’s white cover stick.
‘Do you really think anybody would ask me that?’
Her features came apart a little and I thought she might cry, but instead she laughed and I followed her across the highway, where we waited on the median, cars rushing by on either side.
‘Do you think I look all right?’ Jill asked. She had to yell above the sound of the engines. She wore her mother’s trench coat with a floral scarf around her neck that made her look like a grandma.
‘You look great,’ I yelled back. ‘They’d be crazy not to hire you.’
We walked up into the Hop-In parking lot, first on Jill’s list of possible job locations. The plate-glass window advertised two-for-the-price-of-one corn dogs and cheap gallons of RC Cola. Jill pushed her shoulders back; the ridges of her spine stuck up out of the coat material like beads on a chain.
I followed her into the store, past the rack of magazines that included Playboy and Mechanics Today and the long row of candy bars and chewing tobacco. Shiny hot dogs rolled in their metal ridges beside the slushie machine. The manager was bent over, getting napkins from underneath the counter. We’d spent time here, playing pinball and watching the manager’s girlfriend, a fierce ginger-haired woman, drink free slushies one after another until her tongue was blue. As he turned toward us, we saw one of his eyes was swollen shut.
‘What can I help you ladies with today?’
‘Are you hiring?’ Jill asked.
‘You got to be eighteen to sell beer.’
‘But I guess you don’t have to be eighteen to buy it,’ Jill said.
Everybody knew the manager never checked anybody’s ID. Kids on the school bus said he once sold a six-pack to a nine-year-old. It was a bold pre-emptive move for Jill to mention that. She must have been thinking of my idea of blackmailing someone.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ he said.
‘What’s what supposed to mean?’ Jill mimicked.
The manager squinted at Jill.
‘What about custodial work?’ she said. ‘I could take out the trash and clean the bathrooms.’
He studied Jill the way a cattle farmer might study a cow, looking over her narrow shoulders, her hunched back and arms like pipe cleaners.
‘I’m a lot stronger than I look,’ Jill said. ‘Once I picked up a cement block and there was another time –’
‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘Come back when you’re older.’
Outside Jill hit herself in the head with her fist.
‘Did you hear me in there?’ she said. ‘My mouth just went on by itself.’
We stood by the side of the parking lot, next to a stand of sumac trees. Drops of rain ticked on the asphalt and sprang off the parked cars. My legs inside my jeans were freezing and my teeth chattered. Jill wanted to go in again, but I convinced her it was hopeless. I followed her to the two other places on her list, the pizza place and the grocery store where she’d hoped to be a bag girl. Neither were hiring.
We walked under a low haze of clouds back toward Bent Tree. We passed picture windows where we could see people sitting very still, staring at TV screens. Water gathered at the edge of Jill’s jawbone and dropped down to darken the beige material of her mother’s overcoat. The light was pink behind the grey branches.
In an effort to cheer her up I pointed to a ceramic lawn donkey, his wagon filled with blue plastic roses.
‘How adorable,’ she said at first, looking at it blankly. Then her eyes widened. She ran down into the ditch by the side of the road.
‘Look at me!’ she said. ‘I’m the troll that lives under the bridge!’
She ran back beside me and stuck her arms straight out in front of her like a zombie, walking with her eyes closed over the asphalt. The rest of the way she did crazy stuff like opening people’s mailboxes and yelling ‘Is anybody home?’ Jill was acting like one of my dad’s patients. She taunted a beagle tied up to a front porch and jumped on a Big Wheel that sat abandoned in a driveway.
As soon as we got back to her unit she ran to the record player and put ‘Indian Reservation’ by the Raiders on the turntable. She made Beth turn the overhead light on and off like a strobe.
I jumped up and threw myself against the floor and Jill fell down against me, bumping into my ribs. Inside our skin our bones were sturdy as fat branches; we had weight. With the lights off Jill sprang up again and screamed.
I felt sweat coming up under my clothes and a wildness take hold of me, a craziness that I hadn’t felt for years. Once again I could almost believe I was wrestling a wolverine or a hungry little meerkat.
Beth said her arm was getting tired, so she left the lights off, but we still jumped, throwing ourselves down, then jumping up again.
Jill punched her fist in the air and threw herself at the television, knocking it off the stand. The picture collapsed in on itself and the screen went blank. Before she’d been smiling, ecstatic, but now I just saw her white teeth in the dark.
‘What now?’ I asked.
‘Now?’ she said, jumping on top of me and speaking directly into my ear. ‘Now it’s time to get serious.’
The above is an excerpt from Darcey Steinke’s novel, Sister Golden Hair, published by Tin House
Photograph © Aaron Huey