That night Jennie had finally gotten some quiet.
Her sister Sarah was spending the night at a friend’s house, so she wasn’t following her around for once, and her mom was engrossed in the new computer she had just bought at Wal-Mart. They didn’t have a desk, so Kathy set the computer up on the card table they used for eating (when they weren’t eating in front of the TV, which was most times). So Jennie sat in her room reading a magazine, doing nothing, hoping her mom didn’t realize how late it was, appreciating the quiet.
Then the phone rang.
For the rest of her life Jennie would be afraid of the quiet. As if, somehow, The Bad News was because of the quiet. As if The Bad News wouldn’t have happened if she had been paying more attention. Thinking. Worrying.
As her mother talked to her through sobs, Jennie just nodded—numb, dry-eyed, silently cursing herself. She reached a hand out to touch the bib of Dan’s empty overalls hanging over the back of a folding chair, her eight-year-old subconscious swearing to never make the same mistake again.
She stayed up that night listening to her mom’s muffled words behind the core doors, trying to understand. Robbery. Gun shot. Hadn’t caught the killer. She unlocked her windows just to lock them again, and then repeated the process just to make sure they were tight. Sarah was now back and sleeping in her bed in the room the two shared; she was sleepy, so they hadn’t told her anything. Jennie looked at her resting peacefully and was envious, but still was careful not to wake her.
Eventually her mom had gone to bed. She had left the TV in the den on late-night infomercials, and every whirl of the industrial ice-crushing blender or chop of a can-splitting knife sent Jennie diving under her bed.
She still hadn’t slept when morning came. She got ready for school, partly because no one told her not to (and she didn’t want to get in trouble) but partly because she hoped normal would make it all go away. Sarah was tired and threw a fit to wear her purple pants with a pink iCarly shirt. They didn’t go—Jennie knew she’d probably get her butt whipped over it later—but she didn’t feel like arguing so she let her wear them. A substitution of Fruity Pebbles for her usual Cheerios kept Sarah quiet while Jennie packed their lunches: peanut butter and jelly with some stale Cheddar Pufz in a plastic grocery bag. They donned their backpacks, throwing a favorite stuffed animal in Sarah’s for her kindergarten’s weekly “show-and-tell,” and headed for the bus stop. Their dad had won the stuffed animal in the crane machine at work; it was wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt that said “I Y YOU.” When he brought it home he and the girls argued whether it was a dog or a bear; Jennie couldn’t remember which he thought it was, but he had felt strongly about it. It was near impossible to win that crane game (her dad thought the store owners had rigged it), and Jennie thought he’d either spent a hundred dollars on winning it or jimmied it out with a bent coat hanger.
Jennie was thankful to see the bus was already at the stop, so as they ran, backpacks slapping, Sarah would not see her tears.
The day passed in a blur of multiplication tables. She flunked a quiz about Benjamin Franklin because she hadn’t read the material, but she didn’t feel bad. It felt right. She enjoyed the rules of class, the order of bodies in a single file line, hands raising, hall passes. Here’s what you can expect; here’s what you get. If you don’t read your assignment, you get a bad grade. Cause and effect. She took some comfort in that.
Still, Jennie was distracted, worrying about how her sister would handle the news, worrying about what her mom was doing right now, worrying about what would greet her at home. During recess she avoided the other kids except to pick up after them, humming an undefined tune while throwing away a juice box she found lying on a bench. She looks like a little grandmother, her teacher thought, cleaning up after a whirlwind of neighborhood kids. And when the recess bell rang, she was the first in line.
But when Jennie got on the number six bus at the end of the day she felt her heart fall into her shoes. Sarah was already on the bus; the elementary school was loaded before the middle school. Sarah’s eyes were red and puffy, and she was clutching the stuffed animal by the scruff of the neck holding it out accusatorily.
“What happened to Dad?” Sarah said. “Jennie? What happened to Dad? Did something happen to Dad?”
Jennie ran to her sister and held her while she cried.
“What did you hear?” Jennie asked.
“I showed my stuffed animal at show-and-tell, and Mark asked me…” Sarah broke down again before she could finish, “if I brought it because my Dad died.” Sarah looked at her sister pleadingly: Say it’s not true. Please. “’Cause he said his dad said that he did. Died. Said he got shot. With a gun.”
Jennie fumbled with her words, and she could see that Sarah could see in her eyes that it was true.
“You didn’t tell me!” Sarah pushed the stuffed animal into her backpack hard, face first, like she was smothering it there. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she said through clenched teeth.
“I’m sorry, Sarah. So sorry. Mom didn’t want to bother you last night.”
“Mom,” Sarah snarled. She began to snort—the sound of an aggravated sinus or wild pig—and was clenching the toy so hard her fingers had gone white. She was bearing her teeth, growling, grunting, guttural. The innocent five year old who had been there was replaced by something rabid, possessed.
The bus fell silent as the other kids stopped to listen. A boy in the seat across from them had removed a contraband cell phone from his backpack and was trying to disguise his recording. It wasn’t the first time Jennie had seen her sister like this, but she was embarrassed—for her sister, for herself—and she didn’t want others to see.
“Sarah, calm down. Everything is going to be okay,” Jennie tried to reassure, when deep down she felt no reassurance. Jennie turned her back to the other kids to shield her sister from view. Her hand patted Sarah’s forearm, moving toward the stuffed animal to gently remove it from Sarah’s grip. As her grip on the toy released, Sarah lunged at her sister, mouth open, as if to sink teeth into cheek or ear. Jennie was quick and deflected with the dog-bear, teeth meeting fur, mouth locking down, ripping. For a moment, Sarah was still. For a moment she sat, animal held tightly in her mouth, a bit of stuffing falling from the sides, her eyes wide. Suddenly Jennie could see her snap back, aware of her precious toy, destroyed.
“It’s going to be okay, Sarah,” Jennie said one more time, and Sarah nodded, mouth still full of shredded dog-bear. She lay down on the seat in the fetal position, her head in her sister’s lap, sucking on the fabric of the toy remains until they reached the girls’ stop.
“Whoa, what freaks,” Jennie heard the boy with the camera-phone say as the bus doors shut behind them.
Sarah’s snorting hadn’t stopped as the girls walked home; it had just softened, morphing into a something that could have been mistaken for sniffling. In one hand Jennie held Sarah’s, and in her other the guts of the stuffed animal as they made their way home.
Jennie hesitated on the front stoop. A part of her still hoped for comfort to be on the other side of that door, for a mother that would gather them into her arms, understand their hurt, tell them it would all be okay. Sometimes that mother was behind this door: the mother of fresh-baked cookies, Christmas card lists, Sunday School teaching. Other times it was something else. Like that show her dad used to watch, Let’s Make a Deal: “What’s behind Door Number Two?” Sometimes they open the door and it’s a Brand New Car and sometimes just a new stove but other times it’s a goat, looking all mean. Jennie imagined the poor people in weird costumes getting kicked by the mean old goat while it ate their nice furniture and pooped on their floor. That’s the chance you take. Never know what’s behind the door.
“It’s going to be okay,” Jennie said to Sarah once more before she turned the doorknob, but Sarah thought she didn’t look like she meant it.
Kathy was in front of the computer when the door opened. The girls couldn’t see her from the entryway, but they could hear the clacking of her too-long fake nails on the keys. Then the clacking stopped.
“Jennifer Lynn, Sarah Beth! Get your butts in here!”
The girls scurried into the den. Kathy’s face fell when she saw her youngest: red-eyed, mouth matted with wet brown fur. Sarah started snorting again, this time sounding more like she was nasally hyperventilating. Kathy rushed to Sarah, cupping her face between her fingers, rocking her gently in her hands.
“What happened to her? Did you tell her?”
“I didn’t tell her; I swear! Some kid at school did,” Jennie said.
Kathy was quiet for a moment, but she looked into Jennie’s eyes with disappointment. It was a look that left an ache in her belly—the ache of her mother’s rejection. The “I-Wish-I-Never-Had-You” Look.
“What kind of big sister are you? Just look what you’ve done.”
“I’m sorry,” Jennie said, looking at her feet. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s just stupid is what it is,” Kathy continued. “Hauling off to school this morning. What possessed you to go to school today anyway? After your father died? Couldn’t wait to get away from your poor, sad mother, right?”
“No, Mom, I just didn’t want to get in trouble for NOT going,” and Jennie knew she should stop there, but she didn’t. “Besides, you didn’t tell me not to go.”
“Did I have to tell you not to go? Do I have to wipe your ass, too? Don’t you realize that they give you days off that kind of stuff? It’s a tragedy, for Christssakes. And then you drag your poor sister off to school, too, and look what a mess you made.”
“You could’ve come and got us,” Jennie mumbled.
“Like all I had to do was run after you two today. Like I didn’t have to make funeral arrangements, or try to figure out how we are going to live without your father. Jesus, Jennie, it’s like you want us living out on the street, homeless. Is that what you want?” Kathy said.
“No, m’am.” Jennie looked at her feet.
Sarah began snorting faster again, but Kathy was focused on Jennie. Pants around her ankles, Jennie’s took her licks, her behind beaten with bare hand until raw. Then Kathy opened the folding doors to the washer and dryer.
“Noooo, please no,” Jennie cried.
“Don’t back-sass me. Inside,” Kathy opened the dryer and shoved Jennie inside. It was a tight squeeze with Jenny fighting, and Kathy had to punch her in the knees to subdue her.
“Please, Mom, don’t,” Jennie tried, not today, “Think about Dad.” Once she had said the words, Jennie knew that her plea had only angered her mother more.
“Just shut up. I’m so sick of hearing your mouth,” Kathy had peeled an old black sock off her foot and wedged it in between Jennie’s lips, the odor causing the girl to start to gag as Kathy closed the dryer door. Jennie could hear the closet doors fold together. She swallowed the vomit that was pushing its way up, and it tasted sour on her tongue and burned inside her throat. She moved as best she could to get the sock out of her mouth, but even as the sock was freed it still smelled, even stronger than the smell of “rain-fresh” scent mixed with the sour of clothes left to frequently in the washer. It was the overwhelming smell of mold and rotten, like cheese snacks and trash.
“What am I going to do with you two?” Jennie could hear her mom in the other room through the dryer door, washing off her sister’s face. Her mom’s voice wobbled, like she was panicking, crying. “What’s going to happen to us now? I just don’t know what to do. Just don’t know what to do.” She continued to sob, and Jennie was overwhelmed with guilt for not taking care of all of them like her dad would have wanted.
The dryer was still warm from recent use, and Jennie’s tailbone burned, but there wasn’t room to shift to a cooler spot. There wasn’t room. No, there wasn’t room.
The heat and the dirty sock and tight space and sorrow was closing in on her—she was stuck and there was no one to save her this time, no one, not her father, not anyone anymore—her legs were falling asleep in their weird bend and her knees hurt. She tried not to think about it too much; she had been in there before (and at least it was quiet). She tried to go somewhere else in her head, but as the minutes turned to hours and her stomach growled and she couldn’t get out and WHAT IF SHE NEVER GOT OUT and MAYBE SHE WOULD DIE IN HERE and that thought shouldn’t have sounded so bad (at least she could go to her dad) but she was SCARED and she was TRAPPED and she JUST COULDN’T TAKE IT LET ME OUT OF HERE. She could hear her mom and sister eating right outside the closet, talking, comforting each other, it smelled like pizza—was it pizza? She was so hungry. Her heart was beating so fast she thought it would come through her skin and land inside the dryer drum, and the darkness became more and more dark as Jennie passed out.