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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

Meteors in August (25 page)

BOOK: Meteors in August
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“Ain't here.”

“When will he be back?”

“Next month.”

The yellow dog seemed to grin, exposing his stained teeth and dark gums.

“You know how I could find him?” Mom said.

“No way to find him. He's trapping. Gone in the mountains.”

Mother and I both knew he wasn't trapping in August. Animals have more skin than hair in summer. Mom coughed. “It's awful hot out here, Miz Furey. Could we just trouble you for a drink of water before we go?”

She pointed one thick finger toward Bear Creek. “There's a whole river, and I won't stop you from drinking as long as you do it downstream.”

“Miz Furey,” Mom said, “I don't believe Red Elk isn't here.”

“You callin' me a liar?”

“No, ma'am. All I'm saying is I'd like you to let
decide whether or not he wants to talk to me.”

“He did decide. He said, ‘Get 'em off and don't take too long.' He said, ‘Tell 'em the dog got bit by a rabid skunk.' And I'm saying it might be true. That dog don't look too good to me and he won't drink.”

She was right. The yellow dog's tongue hung out of his mouth and his ribs jabbed at him from inside his mangy hide.

“You give him a message,” Mother said. “You tell him my husband's sick and I want to find my girl. You tell him if he knows where she is, he can call me. I'll write down my number.”

“We ain't got no phone and your husband can die and rot in hell for all we care.”

“I'm sure that's true,” Mom said, “but I'd appreciate it all the same if you'd just give Red Elk the message.”

“I'll think on it.”

The hairless creature crouched lower and lower till I thought his belly might scrape the ground. He looked more lizard than dog; I imagined him flicking his tail and skidding across the dirt, snapping my leg before I had a chance to unroot my feet.

“Come on, Lizzie,” Mom said, “no sense in wasting the day.”

I backed up all the way to the truck—that dog wasn't going to get a look at my hind end.

By the time we got the truck turned around, Mary Louise had disappeared, and I saw a hulk of a shadow in the doorway. Mom saw him too. She stopped and told me to keep my eyes on the road, not the house. We waited. I thought we'd fry in the cab of the truck with the sun beating down on us through the glass and the air still as the last breath in a closed box. Finally I felt him coming toward us. “The road, the road,” Mother whispered, as if glancing his way might make him vanish, as if he were a spirit we had to charm.

He stuck his head in my window. I flattened myself against the seat. He smelled of sweet tobacco and wood fires, of the animal fat that greased his braid. “I'll look,” he said, “but I won't promise. She's not with my boy.”

He was already walking back to the house, stooping to pat the yellow dog, before Mother could thank him.


Indian rolled up to the house two days later. He'd brought some girl. She hunched in her seat, and he had to yank her from the dusty blue Dodge. She shook off his grip, but he stayed close to her, just in case she tried to make a break. The girl was small and skinny, no match for the man; he could have snapped her in two with one hand. She wore tight jeans and a sleeveless blouse that might have been white before she made the long drive with Red Elk. Her peroxided hair frizzed, a head of yellow wire.

I stood with my nose pressed to the screen door, wondering why Red Elk was bringing a girl like that here. Maybe she knew Nina, I thought, but she wasn't the kind I expected my sister would choose as a friend.

Just then Mother pushed past me saying, “Oh God, my baby.” I thought all the fuses in Mom's brain had finally blown. This girl looked less like Nina than I did. But my mother grabbed the stranger's hands and squeezed. Funny little sounds caught in her throat as if she were being poked from the inside. She tried to hug the girl, but the wire-haired stranger smirked and cocked her head. She knew my poor mother was crazy, but she had no sympathy.

Mom invited her up on the porch, real polite, keeping a proper distance. She said, “Lizzie, Lizzie honey, look who's here.” Red Elk climbed back in his car, turned the key and revved a tired engine, pulled away and left the girl with us.

Mom said, “Come out here, Lizzie, say hello.”

I pushed the screen door open with my forehead. I didn't like anything about the way that girl looked. She glanced my way now and then, throwing me half a grin, as if we were playing a nasty trick on my mother. Finally she said, “That really you, Lizzie, or is that some no-tongue ghost standing in your skin?” She giggled and I knew, but I was still pretending it couldn't be. I was five-eight; my shoes were nines. I had four inches on this girl who was supposed to be my big sister. She was Mom's height but scrawny in a sick way. The only curve on her body was a little pouch of a tummy, the kind you see on underfed children. Her hair was fried, all its golden light burned out. My heart knew, but my head kept saying the devil had put my sister's voice into this stranger's throat.

She lit a cigarette, and when she sucked on it, dozens of tiny lines creased around her lips. “What're you staring at?” she said to me.

“I'm not staring. I'm just looking.”

“Well, you sure are looking

She squinted and peered at me the way I must have been eyeing her. I don't suppose she much liked what she saw either.

“Why don't you make us some iced tea, Liz?” Mom said. “Your sister must be parched after that drive.” She turned to the girl she called Nina. “Unless you want to see your daddy right away.”

“No,” the girl said, “plenty of time for that. I'm dry from my throat to my knees. That damn Indian didn't stop once. Thought I'd make a run for it. Might have too, but here I am.”

When I returned with the three glasses of iced tea on a tray, the girl was gone. I was relieved. This was all some middle-of-the-day dream brought on by the heat. Mom was going to wonder why I had three teas instead of two. But she didn't wonder. She said, “Nina went to freshen up.” Then she whispered, “What's wrong with you, anyway? You've barely said a word to your sister.”

“She doesn't look right to me.”

“Maybe we're not just what she remembers either. People change.”

I looked at my mother, at the gray strands twisting through her pretty dark hair in the places where a red sheen used to glow; I looked at her lined hands, but not too long, at her ankles swollen from the heat. “But we didn't go anywhere,” I said.

I ran inside, past the girl, and pounded up the stairs. Locked in my room, I could hear their mumblings on the porch, Mom explaining my bad behavior, no doubt, and the girl chuckling, a gurgle that erupted with a rush and thrill like birds' wings, a flock in sudden flight.

But there were silences too, long and heavy, falling between them like blinding sheets of rain.

Later someone knocked, Mom wanting to comfort and scold me, I thought, so I unlocked the door. The girl stood there holding my glass of tea. “Thought you might be thirsty,” she said.

I stared at the tea as if she'd offered me a cup of piss. “Ice is melted,” I said, flopping back on the bed and pulling the pillow up on my lap.

She set the tea on my dresser. “Look,” she said, “I don't blame you for not being altogether delighted to see me. Red Elk told me Daddy was dying. That's the only reason I came. Now Mama says he exaggerated the case, but I'm here all the same.” She slouched from the hips and didn't use her hands to talk. I remembered Nina's hands were always flying, drawing pictures I could see in the air. “Anyway, I won't be staying long if that's what's eating you.”

Fine, I thought, go back where you came from. But that didn't make me feel any better. She left without bothering to close my door and headed down the hall toward Daddy's room. For a skinny girl, she had a heavy walk. I followed. If my father fell out of his chair at the sight of a dead girl, I wanted to be there to pick him up. If he didn't recognize her, I wanted him to be able to look at me, his familiar daughter.

Not even a second passed when he didn't know her. He saw beyond her lined mouth, beyond her brassy hair and lightless eyes to a place where she was still shining, a place that made him shine just to look at her.

“Nina,” he said, “my Nina.”

Father didn't need me to catch him. And he wouldn't need me to read the
Rovato Daily News
or bring his supper on a tray. Nina was there, right in front of him. She was not lost or drowned. “Daddy,” she said, “you look like a miserable old geezer sitting there with a blanket on your lap. I am about to melt, I swear, and there you are, bundled up like an old lady.” Nina, the only one who could talk to Father that way. “Mama says you been laying up here for days with some nonsense in your head, and Dr. Ben says there's no reason for it—unless you're just plain lazy. I don't remember you being lazy, Daddy. You haven't gone soft on me, have you?”

He looked like a man about to choke.

“Speak up, old man,” she said.

He swallowed hard several times and stroked his neck as if he wanted to rub the words out of himself. “Sit down,” he said at last, “let your father look at you.” His voice was hoarse and tender, one he never used with me because I had no power over him, and he did not need my pardon.

I slunk downstairs and sat in the kitchen with Mom. She didn't scold me, but she didn't comfort me, either.

Nina stayed with Daddy till it was almost dark. I couldn't imagine their talk. In my whole life, I'd never exchanged more than four sentences in a row with my father, except for those nights I'd read to him from the Rovato paper.

When Nina stood at last in the kitchen doorway, she wore a yellow dress, short and loose with tiny white buds. Her hair was damp and pulled into a tight ponytail. She looked almost pretty but not like my sister.

“What've you got to eat?” she said. Mom didn't seem to hear her, and Nina sat down and began rocking back in her chair. “Something wrong?” she said.

“Well?” said Mom.

“Well, what?”

“How were things with your father?”


“Fine? Just fine?”

“Yeah. Fine. What'd you expect? A frigging miracle? We made up, okay? I can't hang round here forever, you know. I've got a job.”

“Just a few more days,” Mom said, “please.”

“What's to eat?”

“Cold chicken. Salad. Potatoes. What do you want?”

“Everything. Some of everything.”

She meant it too. She ate four pieces of chicken, tearing the meat off the bone with her sharp little teeth. She licked her fingers and reached for another piece before the one on her plate was half gone. I fried two leftover potatoes and Nina smothered them with ketchup, then scooped them up with a spoon. Maybe she really was a devil masquerading as my sister, maybe this was how I had to pay for the bad deal I made. Devils were probably hungry all the time, I thought, and gluttonous besides.

She patted her stomach and I could see it was tight and hard, distended under her dress. “I'm gonna burst,” she said. “I'm not used to eating so much. You can fry up the rest of those potatoes for breakfast, Lizzie. You do them just right.” I nodded. We'd have to go to the store twice a day if she kept this up.

Nina lit a cigarette, and Mom said, “I wish you wouldn't smoke in here.”

“Christ, I'm home half a day and you're already bitching.”

“I'm not bitching. I'm just saying.”

“Fine,” Nina said.

“Never mind,” said Mom.

“I said
, didn't I? Don't use your long-suffering voice on me, Mama. I'm too old to fall for it.” She grabbed her cigarettes and kicked the back door open, letting the screen door slap behind her.

“Her father's daughter,” Mom said, “every inch.”

Whose daughter am I, I thought, and almost said it, just to be cruel.

I left Mother in the kitchen under the glare of the fluorescent lights. I was in no mood to keep her company. I blamed her for asking the Indian to bring this stranger home. When Nina went away again, I'd make it up to my mother, but not tonight.

I sat alone on the front porch. Crickets called from the grass, and I let them pull me toward them. I followed their voices across the yard and down the street, one block and then another, until I came to the vacant lot next to Myron Evans's house. A solitary light burned in an upstairs room where Myron's mother must have sat, alone forever to blame herself, to play that morning backward a thousand times, back from the jail cell where her son was hanging, the shirt unknotted and buttoned back over his thin white chest, a chest too delicate for human eyes, the ribs too frail for the arms of Caleb Wolfe as he cut Myron down. Myron's mother would unravel that day, returning the chair to its place against the wall, the safe and harmless chair, unkicked. And in her mind, Myron's mother would see her own endless walk, head held high, a hat with a veil to hide her eyes from the judgment of her neighbors, those neighbors squinting through blinds, peering behind curtains, and Mrs. Evans still walking, clutching her little blue purse. What does she care what they think? And now she is paying Myron's bail, bringing him home. Home.
Make me some tea before you go to bed, Myron dear, make some tea for your mother; that's a good boy. Myron darling

I knelt in the tall grass, lifted my face to the night sky and waited for stars to fall on my wet cheeks. The choir of crickets kept up their song, a song that held neither joy nor sorrow, an endless song for the endless nights of summer. I remembered a time not long ago when I believed each star was a person who was lost, that they watched us but could not come home. Myron saw me now; the girl in the plane followed her lover across Canada—her eyes on him never closed, never accused or forgave; my cousin Jesse had the brightest eyes of all because he mocked death with the knowledge he'd been taken before his time—death had made a terrible mistake. They had stories to tell but no mouths, only eyes. I used to lie on my back and pray for a star to fall, for a lost child to come home, and dozens fell, showers of meteors in August, but none was Nina's star.

BOOK: Meteors in August
7.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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