If you’re reading this, I must be dead and maybe you’re going through this notebook hunting for clues. It always bugs me when I’m looking real hard for something and after a long time it turns up right under my nose where it was the whole time, so I’m going to tell you right here in the beginning all I know for certain. It may or may not make sense right now but who knows, maybe it will later on.
The first certain thing I know is that Richard’s not ever gonna hurt Momma again. The second thing is that I had a sister named Emma. Here’s what else I know: we were moving to my grandmother’s house but now we’re not. Momma says in the river of life I’m a brick in her pocket, and I’m not sure what that has to do with her changing her mind, but Momma is most assuredly not driving in the direction of Gammy’s house. So until I figure it all out, the number one most important thing you need to know so you can tell ever-body is that I, Caroline Parker, am not crazy.
I don’t care what anybody says—I’m not. I swear. People think I cain’t hear them say things when I’m in town like shh, shh, shh—there goes that Parker girl bless her crazy little heart but I’m not deaf, y’all. I’m just a kid. I’m not peculiar or crazy as an outhouse rat. And I’m gonna prove it once and for all. You wait and see. They’ll be lining up to say sorry and they’ll ask for a hug or something embarrassing like that but the best part’ll be when ever-body finally admits they’re wrong about me. I’m gonna do ever-thing right from now on. I’m gonna be like the other kids. I’m gonna be the best daughter in the whole wide universe—so good Momma’s not going to believe it. Just you wait and see.
Right now Momma and me are riding in our old beat-up station wagon with all we got to our names stuffed into Hefty sacks in the way back. Momma has an old-fashioned square little bitty suitcase she calls her travel case locked up next to her in the front seat. I never saw it before in my life. Heck, I never knew it existed till we lit out of town. She must have thought I’d go breaking into it if I’d found it back at the house and truth to tell I probably would have because I love little bitty things of any kind. What I dearly love more than anything in the universe is little bitty animals. We don’t have any pets but I’m hoping that’ll change in our new life because I want a dog so bad and I’m thinking if I’m real good and I never say the name Emma and I do ever-thing Momma wants she’ll give in and we’ll get a puppy. I promised Momma she wouldn’t have to do a dang thing because I’d take care of it but every time I bring it up she says I’d probably kill it along with everything else. But I swear I wouldn’t. I’d take perfect care of her. I’d name her Pip. Short for Pipsqueak.
Along with boring stuff like clothes, I own this notebook I like to draw and write in. My favorite thing is making lists. I can make a list out of anything really. You name it and I’ll make a list out of it. It’s something else. That’s what Mr. Wilson our old neighbor says about my list-making abilities. That’s something else, he said when I showed him how I was making a list of his guns and bullets and holsters. But that was before I used his gun to shoot Richard and now I ain’t allowed to mention Mr. Wilson or guns anymore.
What I Own Personally
1.Two pairs of shoes if you count flip-flops, which I do.
2.Une polka-dot dress I hate because it’s a polka-dot dress for goodness’ sake and it’s a dress and no one wears dresses to school if they can help it. I cain’t recall when I ever wore it outside of church, back when we used to go to church.
3.A button-down shirt Momma calls a blouse that I’ve hardly ever worn on account of it being fancy and I haven’t ever done anything even close to fancy because we’re dirt-poor.
4.A book of words with the title Vocabulary 101.
5.Two pairs of shorts and one pair of blue jeans that don’t fit no more.
6.Five old T-shirts from the Goodwill truck that used to come a couple times a year to sell things in the lot out back of Zebulon’s.
I just turned nine. One year from double digits. One more year till I’m a young lady—that’s what my teacher in my old town, Toast, where we lived before moving to Hendersonville with Richard, used to call the older kids in school. The little ones—the single digits—she just called them kids. I wish I could be ten back in Toast just to hear Miss Ueland call me young lady.
My birthday must have slipped Momma’s mind because the first thing she said to me two days ago was “Go on get dressed I need you to run to the post office and get a change of address form.”
I waited a second just in case she remembered what day it was but when she told me to quit lollygagging and move my lazy behind I knew it’d just be another regular day. I walked to town and when I was sure no car was coming in either direction I sang myself the Happy Birthday song real low. I doubled up and sang the “smell like a monkey” version too.
But our plans changed yesterday, after Momma went to use the pay phone in town. When she left the house the plan was to go stay with my momma’s momma, Gammy, but when Momma came back home, all the sudden we weren’t. Just like that. She said she wouldn’t go where she wasn’t wanted. Even though I didn’t say so, I know just what she meant. That’s how come I know the outside of our house better than the inside. With my eyes closed I could find the little hole behind the lichen and vines that grow over the mossy old tree stump out back in the holler. I know which rocks to step on if you want to cross the creek and which ones only look like they’ll hold steady. I could draw from memory the dead tree trunk crossing the path between Mr. Wilson’s and our house. To me it always looked like the thicket’s taking that tree back to where it came from, with moss over most all of it, vines choking it to crumbling in parts, and a big opening where a gnome would live if gnomes were real and lived in piney woods. I liked it better outside anyway. I pretended little bitty forest creatures were watching, looking out for me and Emma. Whoops. I mean, looking out for me. I figured they liked for me to be there because they knew I’d never let anything hurt them, no sirree I wouldn’t and that’s a fact. Whenever I went back inside the house, when the screen door slammed and Momma looked up from whatever she was doing, she’d see it was me and the air would go out of her like a day-old birthday balloon. Then she’d say oh, it’s you and turn back to her chores. I don’t know who else she thought was gonna be coming through our door.
“Trouble,” Emma would say. “Momma looks scared ever-time the door opens because she’s used to Trouble coming through it.”
I’d tell her, “But we come through it all the time and we ain’t Trouble.”
“You and me are small,” Emma’d say, looking up from playing with the dirty old Barbie doll who lost her hair before we found her, “we’re small but as far as Momma’s concerned we’re Trouble.”
That’s Emma for you—always knowing more than me about pretty much ever-thing that matters. If she were here I bet she’d probably even know where Momma and me are moving to. All I know for certain is it’ll be a place we’ll be wanted.
What with us fixing to leave town for good there just wasn’t time for a birthday fuss anyway. I don’t mind. Really I don’t. Emma would have remembered, though. I know, I know—like Momma said, she ain’t real. She was made-up, I’m supposed to say. But if she’d been real—if I’d really had a sister named Emma—I bet she’d have made me a real nice daisy-chain necklace with White Rain hair spray all over it so it’d last forever. Hair spray makes things last to infinity, just so you know. I’m not kidding.
We’re starting fresh. That’s what Momma says. To get ready for our drive Momma even cleaned out the crumbs, empty RC Cola cans, and chew-tobacco tins left over from Richard so the inside of the car would look spiffy. When she’s in a good mood Momma says words like that. Spiffy. Or Jeez Louise. Jiminy Cricket. And when something surprises her, she says well I’ll be. I helped her get the old car ready and when I opened the ashtray up front and asked what all I should do with the cigarette butts crammed in on top of one another she said well I’ll be, that sure is one full ashtray in need of emptying all right. Once I even heard her say jeepers. That was when there was a long line of ants marching into our kitchen from outside. Momma’s mostly been in a good mood getting ready to start fresh. That’s also on account of her feeling loads better, I bet. Today Momma’s neck bruise is about as wide as the rope Mr. Wilson tied his dog Brownie to the tree with. It’s been fading pretty slow but at least it’s thinner now. Last week it was wide as a hand, the exact shape of Richard’s hand. In back, where his fingers dug in good and hard, it’s red mixed with black but the blue is turning the same yellow ringing the mark on her left cheek. When a bruise gets yellow that’s good news. It means your skin’s trying to be normal again.
Momma hates it when I watch her closely. She says I been doing it all my life but I’m good at pretending I don’t do it no more because I once overheard her telling Richard I study her like I was gonna be quizzed. She said to him it makes my skin crawl, her looking at me like that. So ever since I make myself think about other things when I’m around her so I won’t make her skin crawl. That’s where my vocabulary book comes in handy. I found that the best way to memorize a new word is to squeeze your eyes closed and picture it being spelled out on a chalkboard. Now, if Momma looks like I’m making her skin crawl I shut my eyes and pretend I’m working on vocabulary. It’s worked real good so far because I usually end up leafing through the book (to make it look real) and landing on words I really truly do want to learn. Peculiar. Plethora. My mind wanders real easy, though, so before long I find myself wondering if Momma smiled much when she was a kid. Penultimate. I wonder if she knew how to dance. If she liked candy. Palatial. Did she love my real daddy when they got married? Puny. Did he carry her in through the front door after their wedding? Were they happy when they found out they were gonna have me? Plebeian. Does she know who killed my daddy? Why’d she have to go and marry Richard? I watch her close in case any of it comes out and if it does I write about it so I won’t forget. You never know: she might do or say something that will be a clue about her life. I’ve gotten good at watching from the corner of my eye so it looks like I’m staring straight ahead but I’m really not. Like right now, for instance. Right now it’s easy because Momma’s got to keep her eyes fixed on the road to starting fresh.
But to start fresh we’ve first got to pass through Hendersonville to get to the interstate.
People I See on Our Way out of Town for Good
1.Mr. Zebulon is standing with his arms crossed in front of the hardware store. I looked straight at him and he looked away.
2.Miss Lettie who cuts ladies’ hair in her kitchen is about to get in her car when she sees us and freezes, still holding her key out, like the game Red Light, Green Light.
3.Mr. Willie Harding from the lumber mill watches our car closely then spits chew tobacco on the ground, showing off he can make a big gob of spit, I guess.
Not a one of them waves goodbye. I guess it figures. Ever-one stopped smiling at me after I went and killed Richard and I cain’t blame them no sirree—who smiles at a murderer? That’s what they call me behind my back. Murderer. They whisper the word but it still reaches my hearing and part of me thinks they know it. Psycho murderer. Now, as we’re driving down Main Street this one last time, they stand there blinking at us, watching our car move along like we’re in a slow-motion movie.
I should’ve brushed my hair. Momma calls it a rat’s nest. I close my eyes and make believe I have silky long pretty hair and we’re in a parade like they have on Fourth of July and I’m in a dress that has a bow and sparkles and I’m sitting high up on a chair tied good and tight in the back of a shiny red pickup truck and there’s tons of people from all over waving little flags, waiting to get a look at me and when our truck comes in sight ever-body cheers and claps because I just won a contest that makes me Miss Hendersonville, Queen of North Carolina.
So even though when I open my eyes and I see that I’m not in a parade, I got a rat’s nest in my hair, and not a one person’s cheering or clapping in real life, I smile and wave anyway. They’ll remember me all right: to them I’ll always be the child who shot her stepdaddy and smiled good and wide about it.
Momma says there’s nothing but cold stares and loose lips in Hendersonville. I’m writing down what it’s like there in case I read this when I’m in an old folks’ home and I cain’t remember anything about anything. Maybe my grandkids’ll ask me about it and I don’t want to be the kind of granny who cain’t answer even easy questions like What was Hendersonville like? so I’m making a record of it.
In Hendersonville they don’t honk at you but for waving. A little toot on the horn and your name’s hollered out like you been lost to the world even if you just saw the person five minutes before
Excerpted from WHAT HAPPENED TO MY SISTER by Elizabeth Flock. Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Flock. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
What Happened to My Sister