When Jennie’s eyes opened, she was no longer in the dryer.
Her mother knelt over her cupping a cold, wet washrag to her forehead. Sarah stood behind her mom, screaming. A little cold water was dribbling down the side of her face as her eyes opened. She wiped the water from her ears and then threw up.
This made Sarah scream louder.
“Shut up, Sarah!” Kathy said. “She’s gonna be fine.”
“I got hot,” Jennie said, and threw up a little more. Her stomach was empty, and vomit collected on the tile floor in phlegmy pool of pale yellow.
“I know. It’s okay now,” her mom smoothed a few bangs back to her damp hairline. As if someone else had done it. As if Bad Mother had come and gone. She started to sit up and her mom held her hand, supported her back, repeating easy, easssy.
“Sarah, clean this mess up before she gets sick again!” her mom said, and Sarah scurried off. “We need to get you some food. Want some pizza?”
Jennie nodded and her mother walked her to the table and pulled out a folding chair.
“Let me heat you up a piece,” Kathy pulled a slice from the greasy box. It was topped with hamburger, which Jennie detested—one bite of stray gristle was a bite too much in her mind. But she was hungry, and she knew better than to complain.
The topping didn’t matter anyway; she devoured the pizza with such fervor that the she barely tasted it. The dinner was presented to her on a shiny black plate (a real plate) paired with a stack of generic brand “chock-full-o-chips” chocolate chip cookies from Kathy’s secret underbed stash. An edible apology.
She couldn’t eat all of the cookies, so she slipped one to Sarah after she had finished wiping up the sick and left the rest on the plate, knowing her mom would finish them before making Sarah wash the dish. It was dark out; she didn’t know how late it was, but it must have been pretty late, so she asked to be excused to bed.
She knew she must have finally slept because the next thing she knew it was 3:00am. The witching hour, Mom used to say. The time for hauntings. The time for ghosts. Her bedcovers had been pulled up to her chin; the swatches of pink and green from her quilt were neatly folded back, a crease across her chest revealing hand stitched backing and the words “FOR JENNIE, LOVE GRANDMOM” written in the tiniest of permanent pen. Her legs stretched against her sheets with delight, still appreciating the space, the freedom. Her knees popped a little as she stretched, and they felt good even through the bruising.
She looked around her room, but there were no ghosts. Not the hint of spirit or flicker of the netherworld. No eerie moon shadows against the wall, no spooky sounds, just the low rumble of a five-year-old’s snore. She got out of bed and ventured to the kitchen, telling herself that it was because she was hoping her mother had forgotten to hide the cookies again, but secretly hoping to see her father (apparition or no) puttering around as he always did this time of night. He was nocturnal even without his night work schedule, and Jennie would go to bed earlier and try to train herself to wake when she heard him come in after his shift. Feigning insomnia, she’d sit while he had his after work brew, venting about the gas pump that stopped working again after Jeff had said he would fix it 800 times, or the air conditioner dying and his spending all night putting the counter chocolates in the cooler in shifts.
She didn’t find her father that night, but she found each of the cookies that she’d left on her plate wrapped in cellophane on the counter. As she took them and unfolded the plastic overlapping corners, mouth-watering, she could hear the sounds of her mother crying in her bedroom.
Jennie felt bad. Bad for making Bad Mother come, bad for not protecting her sister, bad for not realizing how one day Dad could just go away, bad for not getting one last hug before he went. Bad for not being a better kid for her hurting mom.
She rewrapped the cookies without taking one and went back to bed.
Saturday morning Jennie awoke the sound of a storm and the smell of bacon. Her dad always made bacon when the weather turned, using an old, hand-me-down iron skillet and somehow—without a press or any fuss—he made the bacon evenly crisp, with no parts limp or fatty.
The last time her dad had made bacon was the day that the tornado came. She had woken up then just as she did this morning—knowing it was day but with the sky still dark as night—and the smell of bacon the only comfort in the eerie air. Jennie remembered that she couldn’t find her father that morning, and she felt a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. The kitchen counter had two paper plates piled with cooked bacon and canned biscuits, both left long enough to have gone cold. Every seven minutes the TV ticker alarm bleated its breaking news: TORNADO WARNING.
Eventually, Jennie had found her father standing outside. She realized that they sky was not the black that it seemed, but a furious, churning grey. “Shouldn’t you go inside?” Jennie had asked her dad.
“You are no more safe hiding out than you are in the open, Jennie,” her dad had answered. “Either way it is not wise to ignore danger. Indoors you wait for things to happen. Outdoors you watch and prepare to take action.” Then Jennie had watched her dad push beer caps filled with milk through the grate by the trailer’s foundation. “There’s a litter of kittens,” he explained. Jennie thought it was funny to see the big, foreboding presence of her dad humbling himself to the infant creatures. She could see a bold one nosing toward the tiny saucers through squinty newborn eyes. “I call that one Elton Dan,” her father had said, and Jennie had laughed, but her dad could still see her fear.
“Don’t worry, little one. I ‘spect it’ll miss us. Hit over yonder. In about ten minutes.”
It had been fifteen.
Jennie sat upright in her bed. Had her dad come back? Had this all been a dream? A mistake? A cruel, cruel joke?
In spite of herself, she went running into the kitchen looking for him.
And there he was.
Standing in a clean wife-beater and overalls. Hairy back and all, dark hair and slightly hungover moan.
It was a bad dream. Or some kind of curse—a curse only broken by cured meat.
“Dad!” Jennie yelled, joyful tears beginning to roll down her cheeks. “Dad! I knew you wouldn’t leave us—” But as the man turned around, he was not her father. The face looking back was somebody else, a stranger.
No, not a stranger. Deacon Willis.
Jennie was mortified. “Oh my God, Deacon Willis!” Then her face turned even redder. “I mean, gosh. Oh my gosh. I don’t take the Lord’s name in vain. And I know you’re not my dad. It’s just that my dad used to make bacon… What are you doing here?”
“I’m so sorry I startled you! Your mom and I are doing some, er, Bible study today. We thought we would start early,” Deacon Willis laughed a little, but Jennie thought he looked a little embarrassed as well. “Would you like some breakfast?”
“Is there enough for Sarah?” Jennie asked.
“Of course!” Deacon Willis said with a grin. His face was kind but harried, and his eyes were bloodshot and droopy.
Still rattled—but happy at the prospect of a breakfast that wasn’t cold pizza—Jennie padded down the hallway and called for her sister. Outside the wind howled, and rain clattered loudly on the roof.
“Sarah! Deacon Willis is here! And he made breakfast!”
The two girls got dressed quickly and cautiously went to the living room. Deacon Willis hadn’t ever been to house before, but all the church folks had been coming around when their father died—piling out of the van, fussing over them, couch-preaching. Their mom didn’t seem to mind. Kind of liked it, maybe.
Where was Mom?
Jennie looked around for her as she pulled up a folding chair to the card table. Deacon Willis had laid out three paper plates that were unintentionally fashioned like faces: two canned biscuits for the eyes and two pieces of bacon crisscrossing into an “X” for the mouth. Not a smiley face. A dead face, Jennie thought, but she nodded and thanked him.
“You’re welcome,” the deacon said, pouring a thick black syrup onto his plate from a can emblazoned with a picture of Alabama and Georgia that said “ALAGA SORGHUM.” Then he took a teaspoon of margarine and mixed it up with the syrup, turning it into a coffee-colored lumpy pool that he used to dip his biscuits. The two girls looked on in awe.
“You girls never ate sorghum before?”
Sarah and Jennie shook their heads.
“Well, here.” Deacon Willis leaned over, poured a little on Jennie’s plate and mixed it up with the oleo. “Try it.”
The girls agreed it was good—thick and syrupy, but dark like molasses, and nice and rich with the butter mixed in.
“My Maw-Maw used to eat her biscuits that way every morning before she went to work at the mill. Said it was healthy for you. I don’t reckon I believe syrup is healthy for you, but it sure do taste good.”
“Honey butter is my favorite,” Jennie said, sopping a bit of the sticky fluid up with her bread, “but this is even better.” She mopped up the rest of the sorghum and needed three more helpings before she finished her biscuits.
When Deacon Willis finished his meal he gathered up the paper plates and washed the forks. Jennie felt kind of special that somebody cooked for her and cleaned up, even if Deacon Willis did make her uneasy, and she was a little antsy about her absent mom. “Go on and watch some Saturday morning cartoons,” the deacon said.
Jennie laughed to herself at “Saturday Morning Cartoons,” That’s something that old people say. Cartoons come on all the time now. Saturday morning is for iCarly. But she had to admit there was still something special about watching cartoons early in the morning on Saturday, when nobody else is awake to kick you off the TV, and you can eat too-sugary cereal if there is any in the cupboard. When their mom got up she would oust her and her sister from the couch for the rest of the day, so Jennie and Sarah were happy to be given a temporary pardon until her mom finished her Bible study. Both girls wondered why she hadn’t come out, and both of them casually tried to peer into her room as they walked by but the door was shut tight. Deacon Willis made a plate for Mom and took it into her room; the deacon was careful only to open the door as far as was necessary for him to slip through it. Then he closed it again behind him, leaving a plume of Newport Menthol smoke reflecting against the early morning sunlight that filtered through the vertical blinds.
They did not see their mother or Deacon Willis for the rest of the day.