There are mice.
Lots of mice. Running all over my room. Letting out crying sounds that grate on my ears. They crawl on my feet. My legs. I feel them on my arms. Soft things with toenails like blunt needles.
"Momma?" I say. She's dressed in a long nightgown. Her fingernails are sharp like the tops of just-opened cans. "We gotta get rid of the mice. We gotta call an exterminator." I hand her an old-fashioned phone.
"You're right, Lacey," Momma says. But instead, she cuts at her face with her nails. Deep wounds open up, split wide, and blood, dark blood like ink, makes paths down her face to the floor. She cries.
"Stop that," I say. "Stop it now."
But Momma doesn't listen. Just cuts and cries.
* * *
I AWOKE with a start, my heart thudding in my neck. My whole body felt like I'd been dunked in an ice bath.
"Only a dream," I said to myself, then glanced at the clock: 3:46 A.M. I started to close my eyes. The wind nudged at the house. I could smell the magnolia tree.
Something moved in the corner.
"Hello?" I said, clutching my sheet to my chest. "Someone here?"
There was no answer.
The floor creaked near the closet.
"Hello?" I wanted to sit up in bed, but I couldn't quite move.
"Granddaddy?" My voice came out small. It felt like all the hair on my head was trying to get away from me.
Fear flashed a white streak behind my eyes. I gave a jump. "Granddaddy?"
Momma! It was Momma! Crying out a second time from her room. Her voice sad and scared and weepy. So the crying part of my dream was real. And maybe there was a mouse near the closet. A mouse coming from my dreams, alive and real? That was ridiculous. Of course that couldn't be.
"Are you okay?" I called to Momma. I kept my eyes toward the closet. Straining to see. Just darkness. No movement now.
The night breeze pushed into my room. The smell of the ocean. So peaceful. No more sounds from the closet. Good. Good. I took in a breath to push my fear away.
"Granddaddy," I said, hoping he wasn't close enough to hear me, "this is my room." A girl should at least have privacy in her bedroom. My heartbeat slowed.
"Lacey? I need you."
Man, was I tired. My eyes burned. But I threw my feet over the side of the bed. As soon as I touched the cool wood of the floor, fear surged in behind me. Run! I hurried toward my mother's room. It was like something chased me down the hall though I knew … Did I?… nothing was there.
A few more steps Go, go! and I made it. "What is it, Momma?" I leaned against the doorjamb. Her nightlight showed the pattern of flowers on the carpet.
"I'm scared." Her voice was shaky. Did she have a nightmare, too? "Granddaddy keeps bothering me. Has he been coming into your room? I've told him not to. To let you sleep because of tomorrow." Momma's voice wasn't even as loud as a whisper. I had to walk to the side of her bed to hear. I could see her slender form under the blankets. "And I told him I have to sleep too, because of you-know-what."
I nodded but Momma didn't look my way. Just gripped the sheet and blanket in her fingers and spoke like maybe I was glued to the ceiling.
"But he won't let me alone," Momma said. She glanced in my direction, then back again. "If you get in bed with me, Lacey, I think he'll stay outta here for a while."
Had he been to my room? For a moment I felt something behind me. Like someone watched. The feeling was muddy, heavy. Almost on my shoulder. Almost pushing me toward Momma. I refused to look back. Not that I could have seen much of anything. The darkness was fat, almost difficult, in the hall.
"Will you sleep here?"
"All right, Momma." Forcing myself not to hurry, Quick, move it!, I took my time. Granddaddy might be the boss of this house, but I wasn't going to let him know he scared me, too. I climbed in next to my mother and snuggled close. "Turn on your side and I'll scrooch up to your back."
"Okay, Lacey. Okay."
Momma was so thin I could feel her ribs. Could have counted them. I could smell her sweat, too. "You go on to sleep," I said. "If Granddaddy comes back in, I'll send him out."
Don't let him come in here. And then, You know he won't. And another, He could.
"Thank you, baby," Momma said. "You watch for him awhile. But wake me if he tries anything."
I yawned big. "I will." Here I was, all of fourteen years old, and I was crawling into bed with my momma.
You big scaredy cat, I thought. Don't let him come in here. You know he won't. He can't. Not possible.
With Momma so near, my fears faded some. My heart slowed. And at last I was asleep.
At 10:32 a.m., I moved away from Momma's sleeping body and eased myself outta bed. I sucked in at morning air, glad for daylight.
Today was to be a big occasion. Big for Momma and me. Both the Peace City Library and the Winn-Dixie grocery store had a nice surprise waiting for them. Us! We were headed their way to start our new jobs.
Please, please, please.
Into my room I went, walking on tiptoe, the hardwood floor smooth under my feet. I glanced at my closet door, but it was closed tight.
"Just your old imagination, Lacey," I said, making my voice loud enough anyone listening in would hear me. "So get on with the day."
Before bed last night, I'd pulled out my clothes: a dark blue shirt that Momma said looks real nice with my eyes and a pair of tan shorts.
Now I was so excited, I felt a little sick. This was something I had wanted for a long time. I gazed at myself in the dresser mirror, pushing back my hair. My face looked okay, a little wrinkled on one side where the pillow had bunched up under my head. But I didn't appear too tired. I'd slept most of the night. This time.
"Peace City Library," I said, almost smiling. "I'm a-coming."
Jumbled-up nerves made me feel like I could take off running fast as the hummingbirds flit from hibiscus flower to hibiscus flower in our side yard. That's how excited I was about my new job. And jittery, too.
"Lacey," I said, leaning close to my image and running a brush through my long, heavy hair. "This summer is gonna be okay." I thought for a moment. Closing my eyes and letting my imagination spring out with the good crazies. "Maybe," I said in a whisper, "maybe I'll meet a friend." Opening my eyes, I wiggled my head at my reflection. "A girlfriend. And she can . . ." I hesitated then took in a breath ". . . she can spend the night. We can talk on the phone. Go to the mall maybe."
Nervousness and exhilaration ran out to the tips of my fingers. Anything could happen. Anything at all.
"Lacey," Momma called from her room. Her voice sounded weak. My stomach dropped a little. "Where are you?"
"Getting dressed. I'm coming," I said, but didn't move from in front of the mirror. I threw my nightshirt onto my bed, then slipped the shorts and top on. Flip-flops from under the bed Don't look there and I was ready to go.
"Is your granddaddy back?" Momma said.
I glanced at the closet. "No, he's not."
"Lacey, I need you to come talk to me." Her voice had gone whiny. Puny even. Still, her words were like Batman's Mr. Freeze. They stuck my feet to the floor. Cooled the blood in my veins. "I don't think I can go today."
"Oh yes you can," I said, low so she wouldn't hear me. There was no way. No way would I let this happen. I plopped the brush onto the bed, my hair half done.
"Unthaw, girl," I said. "Get going." In the mirror I could see two splotches of red on my cheeks. I turned fast and headed from my room toward Momma's. No arguments. Not now. I wanted out of here.
"You are in charge. This time, Lacey," I whispered, "you are in charge of the day and this job. Just . . ." I could only think of be strong. But be strong was like a sitcom. Be strong was what people said right before the end of the show and everything turned out good.
"Don't worry, Momma. I can help you get dressed."
Now that I was defrosted, I hurried, quick, into Momma's room. It was dark and stuffy, the nightlight throwing a small, yellow splash on a bit of the wall and the carpet, too. Those old flowers, plum-colored and different looking in the day. Not that you would even know that the sun waited outside if this was the only room you went into.
I flicked on the overhead light and then the lamp next to Momma's bed. Sat down next to her.
"Now Momma," I said. Something like desperation tried to claw at me, but I wouldn't let it. Stomped it flat. Pushed it away. "Remember how we practiced? Remember how we rode the bus downtown? Stopped you in at the Winn-Dixie and everything? Got the application. Filled it out. And they called you. You remember that?"
Momma looked at me, all dark-eyed, from the bed. Her body almost not there under the covers. She gripped her blanket and nodded.
"You can do this. And you yourself said we're running outta money."
"I know." She turned her head. "If only there was more. If only I hadn't spent it all. But you know I had to, Lacey." She looked me in the eye. "I had to."
"I know it," I said. "I know it."
"For you," Momma said. "I have to keep you safe, Lacey." Momma dragged a breath in. Sometimes the way she breathed sounded like work. Like it was all she could do. "A mother's duty is to take care of her only child."
"I know that," I said, "and you going downtown? Well, that is like you taking care of me."
She nodded a little. Looked away. Stared at the ceiling.
I reached out and took her hand. Her fingers were like little pencils. "The people at the Winn-Dixie are waiting for you. They want you to work for them. They want to pay you. You're gonna do just fine."
Now Momma stared in my direction. Her face smudged from not sleeping. Her eyes almost empty. But after a moment, she gave me a little smile. "I'll do it," she said. It almost sounded like there was an energy to her voice. "I'll do it. For you. For duty."
I grinned at her, relief coming to take the place of the almost clawing. "And I'll get breakfast going while you dress."
Momma sat up and I squeezed her tight in a hug. "I sure do love you," I said, my words like feathers.
"And I love you, baby girl." She patted my back, thumping her hands on me like I was a drum. "You are such a help."
Before she could change her mind, I ran from the room and down the stairs to the kitchen.
"Granddaddy," I said, grabbing the makings for pancakes. There wasn't anyone in the room but me, so I spoke to the air, throwing my voice where he would hear me if he was near. "Granddaddy, don't be bothering my mother today. She needs to be away from here."
Soon as I said those words, I remembered Aunt Linda. Right before she left she'd said almost that same thing to Momma. "Angela," Aunt Linda had said, "you need to get away from this house. You need to get free of those memories."
Momma had watched Aunt Linda, quiet. It had been like a showdown, something from TV. The two of them standing there, squaring off, face-to-face, eye-to-eye. If it had been a movie on television it would have been a western, and one of them would have drawn a gun. Shot the other right down. Dead in the street.
"It's not good for you to stay here." Aunt Linda had brushed back the hair that fell into her face. Her cheeks were colored bright pink. It's hard to stand up to Momma, but she had. Yes, she had.
And Momma had said, "This is my place. Don't you forget it. You hear me, Linda?" The words squeezed between her teeth. Shot into the air. Hit their target.
Momma had drawn the guns that day.
The thought of that fight still made me ache. And it was more than a year ago.
"Don't go there," I said, and started working on breakfast.
I had pancakes and eggs frying when Momma came down the stairs dressed for her first day of work. The window over the sink was cracked open an inch, and a morning breeze came in at us, freshening the room some, pushing pancake smell around. Momma's steps were slow and quiet—almost like a ghost. Outside green tree frogs called for rain.
"Close the window, Lacey." Momma flung her hand in a get-away gesture, like the motion could shut out the air, close the window itself. "You know they can't be opened. Not a good thing. Too much comes in through openings like that."
"Right," I said, and pushed the glass shut.
"New day for both of us," Momma said. "How do I look?" She turned in a little circle to model her Winn-Dixie apron. Her almost-black hair was swept up in a loose ponytail. I could see she was clean. Good, good.
"Whoo-eee!" I said. "Momma, there won't be a prettier checker in all the Winn-Dixies in the whole wide world."
She gazed at me, big-eyed. Her voice got all soft. "You mean it?"
She was quiet a moment, leaning onto the counter. Thinking right over the top of my head. "Your granddaddy? I bet he'd be proud of me this morning. Yes, Daddy would be proud." She straightened tall, then glanced over her shoulder, toward the stairs that entered the kitchen. "Wouldn't you, Daddy?"
There was no answer.
"Absolutely he would," I said, throwing a quick look in the same direction. "Starting a new job and all." Outside, the sun fell through the trees and lit up the yard in splotches. I could see the bushes move with the wind. A squirrel sat at attention waiting for something.
Momma didn't say anything about my new job, just let out a sigh. A little grin came to her face. "I'll wait in the dining room," she said after a minute.
"And I'll serve you like you are a queen."
She cocked her head like a bird. "Your granddaddy used to say that to me and Linda all the time. All the time when we were girls just your age. Just ten and twelve. Called us his queens."
"Really?" Her words kinda gelled up my guts some. Had Granddaddy told me what to say in my sleep? Whispered it from the past? From out of the closet? She's a queen. My queen. Had he said that?
I shook myself free of the cold sensation. We had to get moving. I had to. "Now I'm saying it." My voice sounded thin. "I'll have breakfast to you in a minute and then we can go and wait for the bus."
Momma nodded and stepped light-footed into the dining room.
I let my breath out in a slow puff. Real careful I opened the window a little just so I could hear the call of the frogs. I moved the curtain some so it hid what I had done. Then I went back to cooking.
In a few minutes I took Momma's breakfast to her and set it on the dark wooden table. The room had a closed feeling—tight and hot. But the food made the air smell yummy.
"Mmm," Momma said. She looked up from the paper that spread in front of her.
"How'd you get that newspaper?" I asked. I set her plate down.
"Granddaddy gave it to me."
I peered around the room. "You didn't talk to him, did you?"
That's the last thing I needed. My grandfather poking his head in here at this time of day. Especially seeing the plans Momma and me had. He sure could mess things up. Sure could. He sure had.
Momma shook her head and with her fork picked at the pancakes. Her hands, I noticed, shook. I poured the maple syrup for her, watching the pat of butter that sat in the middle of the pancake flatten out and follow the syrup down onto the blue plate.
"Eat a lot," I said. "You wanna make sure you got enough energy to make it through the day. And eat those eggs. You need the protein."
The Gainesville Times covered half the table. I knew without looking that my mother had been reading the section that talks about catastrophes near and far. She seemed all right, though. Not too jumpy. Not ready to head back to bed. Just a little worry rimming her eyes. Shaking in her hands.
I settled into the chair next to her and started in on my food.
"Are you going to be fine without me?" she asked after a moment.
I looked up into her wide eyes. All of us, Momma and me and Aunt Linda and even Granddaddy have the same color eyes—dark like a troubled sky. Momma leaned toward me and smoothed my face with her hand. "You going to be able to do it?" Her hand was silky and cool. Gentle on my face. Tender.
I held still and let her pet me. I imagined her like somebody's momma from school. She's like any other person, I thought, though I knew it wasn't true at all.
"Will you be fine?" she asked again. She moved away, settling her hands on the table, like a bird resting.
"Yeah," I said. I nodded. Tried to swallow. If spit wouldn't go down, would food? "I'll be great." I cut at a pancake that was spread thick with soft butter. For a moment I remembered my aunt in here with us. All of us. An old memory. The way we threw back our heads to laugh. I couldn't have been more than five. All that laughter.
"What about you? Are you going to be okay? Should I go to work with you?" I asked. Hope not. Hope not.
"Me?" she said.
That one word came out so lean I could almost hear Momma's fear in it.
"Yes, you," I said, and fixed my eyes onto her face. All the sudden I wasn't so sure I should leave her. Would Momma be okay alone? She hadn't done any wandering since those first few weeks after Aunt Linda left. And I always found her. That was more than a year ago. But . . .
Momma swallowed a few times. Did swallowing trouble run in the family? She looked off over my head, like maybe somebody waited behind me. But there wasn't anyone there, I knew. I mean, I didn't feel anyone back there. Then she nodded, though her lips seemed thin and too pale. "Oh, I'll be fine. You know that. We always do good. Even with Linda gone."
No we don't.
"I know," I said.
Right at that moment it felt like fire ants ran a path through me. I love my momma like nothing else but I wanted out. I needed to be out. Before Granddaddy started pestering her again. Before he started pestering me.
Get us out, out, out.
I bent over my food then, and ate fast not looking at her. My stomach fwomped at the thought of getting on the bus and riding to the library. Of dropping Momma off for a couple of hours. Of us being separate. So nerve-racking! So exciting! I grinned.
"What's funny, Lacey?" Momma said. "Not much that's funny." Her voice was the color blue, cool and worried.
"I know, Momma." The pancake started to get heavy in my mouth. "I wasn't laughing about anything. Just thinking."
"You see that paper? The place where I circled the article in crayon?" With a chewed-off fingernail she pointed at The Gainesville Times.
" 'Tornado Sweeps Through Oklahoma,' " I read the headline out loud. " 'Kills Sixteen.' "
"Two whole families were among the dead," she said. "Whole families." She raised her hand in the peace sign. There was syrup on her knuckle.
"Don't think about that," I said. I breathed deep the odor of maple, trying to ignore Momma's words. I could smell the newspaper. Could feel the wool of the carpet beneath my bare feet where I'd slipped the flip-flops off.
Eat, eat, eat. Don't think. Please don't worry.
"Coulda been here," Momma said, moving her head, her ponytail swinging. "Coulda been right here in Peace." She tapped at the table, then leaned at me. Her voice was low. "Coulda been us." Then her fingers went to work at the necklace she wears. I could hear the pendant making zip, zip, zip sounds on the chain.
"It wasn't here, though," I said, keeping my voice quiet. "It wasn't here. Don't think about it." I wanted to say, "Quit reading the paper. Put it away. Don't look for doom and gloom."
But Momma is doom and gloom. And Granddaddy doesn't help at all.
What would Aunt Linda do right now? I tried to remember everything she would say to help Momma hang on to calm.
"Don't think about the ugly stuff, Angela." "Think happy thoughts. Don't let your mind wander. Focus on something sweet." "God is good. God is good."
Aunt Linda had a saying for every moment. Sayings for me, too.
Putting me to bed: "Sleep tight, Lacey-girl. Me and the stars are looking out for you."
First day of school: "You need anything, Lacey-girl, I'll drop everything and come right to that school and take care of whatever it is."
Early morning on a Saturday before she headed off to work, "The beach is calling our names, Lacey-girl. Wanna go for a run?"
For me, most everything Aunt Linda said was like a salve. Even as Momma got worse. And for my momma, Aunt Linda's words sometimes worked. Sometimes they didn't.
That just how it was.
Just how it is.
And I'd just as well try. Say something. If not, I'd be here another day. And another and another. The thought felt explosive in my head. "You gotta new day before you." My voice was a whisper.
Weak! What a weak thing to say!
Momma pointed at the headline. She worked at the pendant.
Then she glanced up at me.
"That's right," Momma said at last. "You are so right, Lacey. Yes, you are." She mashed her hands together then tried to smile. A bit of sadness seemed to drop off her. It rolled right into my heart. I was so selfish. Why was I so selfish? I squinched my eyes shut for a second.
"You know what I tell Daddy?" Momma said.
My eyes were still closed. I couldn't quite look at her. I shook my head no.
"I tell him that I got me the best baby girl in all of Peace. In all of Florida. In all the land."
I opened my eyes.
Momma stared right at me. "I tell him you are something else. Something else. And when he gets me to try and follow him, I say, ‚ÄòDaddy, I got me a girl to look after.' " Momma reached out and ran her hand over my cheek, touching me with her trembling fingertips. "Yes, I do. I got me a child to take care of."
I pushed at the guilt that hurried through me.
Just let me be selfish for this one day. Just for one day.
And maybe the summer. Just let me have this summer at the library.
"Momma," I said. I took her hand. Squeezed her slim fingers. "Everything is going to be okay. We got each other."
"Yes we do, Lacey," Momma said. "You and me."
Keep her calm. Keep her calm. Keep me calm, too. This'll work.
"It really is going to be okay," she said. "Isn't it?"
"It really is. I promise."
She nodded like she believed my words. Then tilted toward me until our foreheads touched. I could smell her milky breath. Slowly, I rubbed her slim arm. Her skin felt so cool.
And I hoped. I hoped to goodness I had told Momma the truth.
Excerpted from MILES FROM ORDINARY © Copyright 2011 by Carol Lynch Williams. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Griffin
. All rights reserved.