Lost Her Way

Without Allie, the world is hushed. Even when my brothers roar like lions, Mom stomps around on clunky heels before church, or Jeff—Mom’s house-arrest boyfriend—gets restless and plays Norwegian Metal at decibels that could split an eardrum, I don’t hear much. Everything is static without my sister.

I imagine what Allie would say about Mom’s new ambition to become a full-time beauty consultant/model or the single gig she landed late August. I had to babysit my brothers that day as Mom spent hours posing in a skin-colored bathing suit, arms akimbo, in front of a green screen. Allie would’ve gone with her had she been around; she would’ve read and reread the small print on the contract. Instead, Mom came back with $300 in crisp bills and a Xeroxed copy of the agreement that would act as little more than proof that she had signed away rights to her image, and any manipulation thereof, in perpetuity.

Online customers of Lee’s Mature Fashions can now view my mother, at 360 degrees, wearing any of the company’s outfits. Not only can customers dress and undress her to that nude bathing suit, they can widen or stretch parts of her body to better replicate their own hips or height. Mom almost broke her laptop when she saw herself in a flower-print dress she couldn’t afford, her breasts plumped and cheek bones severe to offset the innocent print.

I can’t find a way to comfort my mother. Her dreams are erratic, and her decision-making skills are questionable, but she reads self-help books that tell her she can manifest everything, and she believes she is entitled to do just that. There are dream boards in her bedroom and drawings of a huge house with a pool on the fridge. Mom works at a steakhouse, works more than anyone I know, and she’s often exhausted. Exhausted people don’t make time to read small print, but they always have time to dream.

I don’t think of things like reading the small print until it’s too late, but I realize I’m the only one to do such things now. As much as they used to fight, my sister looked out for Mom, and when things didn’t go well, she solved problems. Allie had a soothing way about her, a constant song in her voice. Mom was stronger in her presence, if only as an opposing force.

I used to imagine that Allie would one day come home for good. Now, I struggle to imagine her returning for a short time, even a day or two. My powerhouse sister, clapping her hands and radiating laughter, the way she used to, would be enough to heal all wounds. It would probably overwhelm her to see my brothers, how tall Joey got this year. She’d squeeze Myron’s plumped up cheeks and make fun of how skinny my legs are.

The day she left, Allie promised me she wasn’t leaving for good. “I’ll come back for you when you’re old enough. A few years. We’ll take over the world together, kiddo, you and me.”

I believed her that day, but I couldn’t help her pack. She’d asked me to hand her a book, a bra, but I just stared dumbly at the wall, finding comfort from the soft mass of fur in my lap. Cream, our cat, purred loudly, warming my legs as Allie traced a circle on my back with her fingertips and leaned in, resting her forehead against mine. “I mean it, Molly May.”

“Got it,” I said, wanting to pull away, wanting to throw a fit.

“In the meantime, be strong. Don’t blindly accept what’s around you. This shit’s limiting.” She tilted her palm up and made a sweeping motion around the room that signified everything, our home, our community, our reality. My reality.

She left notebooks filled with poems about the awkwardness of freedom and the agony of the very constraints that she has since left behind. I imagine that she reads late into the night in a small swanky apartment, and that there’s always a soundtrack threading through her teal headphones as she rides public transportation with the detached cool that comes with independence. I never imagined she could be right around the corner, until recently; my sister, so absent, is a stone’s throw away. She’s still watching out for me, in her own way.

I gave Allie permission to leave me because I knew she’d pave the way. She asked for my blessing on New Year’s Eve almost two years ago, and I gave it because she said she was suffocating. She needed to find herself, to get away from Mom. I never worried about her, not even when Mom began to list all the immoral and violent things that people, especially men, are capable of when in the presence of an underaged young woman.

“Your sister lost her way. She will never come back now.”

Mom cried nightly for weeks after Allie left. My brothers acted out, more than usual. A few days after Allie ran away, Myron burnt his thumb on the oven and had to go to the emergency room. Joey sashayed around the living room in Mom’s bikini, until she caught him and came so close to slapping him that he recoiled from the heat of her palm. Everyone was on edge. Mom spent every waking moment in church, or sounding like church, those weeks. She confessed on my sister’s behalf, had everyone she knew pray that Allie would come home. Nights, I would curl up next to her, reminding her what a strong person Allie is. I wished I could summon my sister’s voice those days, hum something in tune at least, but all I could do was be there.

“She’s fine, Mom,” I said.

“Tell me she’s fine. Tell me she’s not like your father.”

“She’s not like him, Mom,” I promised, but I felt sick after I said that, because I never really knew my father. “She’s not like him,” I repeated. I said it because I knew that this was the reassurance that Mom needed to hear, and I had no other words.

In prison, Jeff tells us, there’s a code for everything. Letters are kites, and the treasured correspondence comes from outside prison walls, otherwise known as The Free. I often feel as though I’m the one locked up, forced to go along with whatever Mom says. Allie lives in The Free.

I dream about what it’d be like to no longer slide down in my car seat and pretend not to listen to Mom call out “Murderer!” when we drive past the free women’s clinics. My sister is no longer shushed when she disagrees, nor is she called a heathen if she doesn’t go to church. My sister, always unafraid to plant her feet, is able to do and say as she pleases.

My bedroom window faces a gravel parking lot. I can hear the spewing of tiny rocks from under tires at all hours. The nearest building is a pizza place with a neon sign that changes regularly. It was Pizza Cottage, Casa de Pizza, Jimbo’s, Pizza Plate, and now High St. Pizza. The owners are the same, but the store is often closed after health inspections and reopened under different names or with a new look, as though people wouldn’t notice and the Yelp reviews wouldn’t carry over. I suppose some of them don’t.

The delivery people carry bright red warmers, and customers tote brown bags with expanding grease stains. I’m waiting to see my sister’s face. I hope I recognize her, the shape of her, the upright posture and long neck. Allie reached, spy-style, out just last week. She did so by way of a letter, handed to me by a kid at school I’d never seen. It said, simply, “Meet me behind the pizza place at 2 a.m. on February 3rd.”

I recognized her handwriting, and immediately, the world felt alive again. I read the note dozens of times on the bus ride home, careful to thoroughly destroy it by ripping it to shreds, then pouring water over the paper before balling the wad up and aiming it toward a dumpster. This was all very top secret.

Today is February 3rd. I’m passing the time by reading 1984. Everyone’s reading it at school, but it’s not assigned. Unassigned books are delicious things, and since the world has been muted, at least for me, reading has become more immersive. I glance out the window after every few sentences, feeling like Big Brother could be watching. My mother, that is, could be watching.

I eye the door, expecting to see her, even though my door is closed. I eye all surfaces and corners. I wouldn’t put it past her to plant a camera in my room.

I watch people come and go, waiting for a pizza to fall through a customer’s bag, the weight of the grease too much, waiting for my sister, waiting for my new life to begin.

It’s 1:52 a.m. My window is cracked, and the air is chilly. Jeff’s habit of falling asleep on the couch makes it tough to sneak out the front door—a thing Allie couldn’t know. I’ll have to crawl out the window, shimmy down the tree. My brothers do it all the time, or used to until Mom took a broom handle to their butts, so I’m confident I can do it, too. I’m realizing now that I should’ve practiced.

When I push the window up another foot, it makes a loud, sweeping sound. I wait a minute, to be sure no one hears, then I fold at the waist, stepping one foot out onto the side ledge, and duck my head. My back arches up just enough to scrape against the window as I pull myself up and out. The oak branches are Jenrous, like arms reaching out to embrace me.

“Get me to my sister,” I tell the tree, and it acquiesces at first. I hold onto one thick branch as I crawl on all fours along another. It’s just wide enough that my knees have to kiss, making it a slow-moving crawl. When I reach the top V of the trunk, I try to stand and balance before making the first step down. I remember watching Myron jump onto this tree like a cat. I’ve never been the daredevil he is, the daredevil my youngest brother, Joey, will likely become. But today, I have no choice.

The wind is fierce. It slams into me like a linebacker. I wish I wasn’t so skinny and, losing my faith a moment, reach frantically for balance, digging my nails into the wood when I make contact. I will not fall, but I can feel the shudder of fear work through me. I begin to ease down the trunk, looking out over the fence toward the parking lot. I have no idea if a few minutes or a few seconds have passed. All I know is that I still don’t see my sister.

I take a deep breath and move. I am crawling, crab-like, slowly. I feel secure, until I realize I’m not. I slip, skid. My palms scrape against bark as my butt skids down, and I land on all fours, my palms and knees burning. It is here that I realize I’m going to have to climb back up at some point.

I close my eyes a moment and listen. I can hear the wind and the soft sound of voices. This is the pizza place that stays open till 2:30 a.m. to cater to those leaving the bars on High Street. The bars are starting to make last calls, and zombie-like crowds of drunkards roam the streets. My sister must have picked this time because she knows the hustle, the noise, would be a distraction. No one in the house would notice if they heard me falling out of a tree because this is the time of night that we all ignore what’s going on outside.

“You have no idea what I’ve been through here, what you left me to go through,” I want to tell her. I want to tell her about all of Mom’s antics and strange rules. I will not tell her this, however, because what I want more is to hear what she’s going to say. I need her stories.

I stand next to a dumpster and nod at the occasional person who wanders in or out the backdoor. I can see inside. The place is set up with pews, like a church, and people bring their own cans of beer. Sometimes this restaurant hosts bands that play the kind of music Jeff likes. It was where they used to go, when Mom and he were first dating, but now he rarely leaves the couch for any reason other than to work his stocking job at the megastore near Benton. I think it has something to do with his house arrest restrictions, though this would be within his limits.

Two guys that look like college students, in hoodies with team logos and jeans tucked into boots, come out the back and immediately squawk like birds. At first, I figure they’re just amusing themselves, but then I see her at the end of their gaze.

My sister, secret detective-like in all black and with her hair in a severe bun, has lips the color of cherries and dark lines exaggerating her eyes. It’s an older look, a look that makes her appear eerily similar to Mom—when Mom was a Madonna-obsessed teenager. I feel myself smiling like I haven’t in years.

“Children, children,” she says to them. She’s a few years younger than them, at least, and her tone catches them off-guard. One guy puts his hands up in a stopping motion.

When Allie settles her eyes on me, I remember our connection—the way we can read each other’s thoughts without speaking. I feel everything she wants to say before she so much as runs my way, captures me in a tight hug. I struggle to release my arms so that I can hug her back just as tightly.

“You didn’t hear me calling to you, my beautiful sister?” she asks, looking me over with a smile. “Look at you! I called your name like six times, and you didn’t budge.”

I shake my head, look her over again. I have so much to say, but I don’t say anything. I am dumbstruck, so I just reach out my hand, which she immediately takes. We begin to walk toward the end of the street and around the block, just like we used to. We used to talk about everything on the planet as we walked, from music to Allie’s crushes on boys to the insane way our brothers would act and our mother’s endless hypocrisies.

We would tell ourselves stories about neighbors we barely knew and speculate about the more mysterious figures on our block—the man with the ferrets who wore fedoras and left his house every night around the time we went to bed; Marla, the part-time yoga instructor who seemed perpetually happy for no good reason; the other set of sisters in the neighborhood, who were younger and seemed to never leave their house. “I miss you more than I thought I would,” I say, aloud, at last.

“Me too. How’s Grandma?” She squeezes my hand hard.

“Good. Strong. Mom still lets us see her for the holidays.”

“Who’s that guy I heard in the background? He sounds like an ass.”

“Jeff. He doesn’t do much. Has an ankle bracelet.”

“What’d he do?”

“Aggravated assault. I think over a poker game.”

“You’re living with that mess? What the hell is wrong with Mom?”

“He’s a tree stump. I don’t think he could do anything to us. He acts like he’s hypnotized most of the time.”

“I’ll figure something out.” My sister’s tone is business-like, we’re trying to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and I wonder if she has somewhere to be. She stops walking, looks at me. “I’m getting you out of there. Soon. What about the boys?”

“Crazy, just like before. Really crazy. And bigger. They fall harder.”

Her intensity breaks, and I squeeze her hand. “What about you?”

She scratches the back of her neck to stall a moment, then says something I can’t hear. When I ask her to repeat, she gets close to my face and says, “It’s not as easy as I thought. I’m working on it.”

I don’t say it aloud, but I lock her eyes and try to tell her she’s strong. The clicking and scraping of nails against blacktop jars us. We watch a dog run in spurts around to the back of a corner store. It sniffs around an upturned milk crate, sprinting and checking everything out, and I realize it’s our neighbor’s dog. We lunge toward it from the side, so that it runs toward home. We orchestrate this without thinking, because that’s our connection.

It seems we’ve reconnected, really reconnected, when Allie says she must go. “I just wanted to check in,” she says, but before she can rush off, a car with its brights on turns the corner and stops right in front of us. Like deer, we are stunned.

Mom comes barreling toward us, leaving the passenger’s seat door wide open in the street. She grabs my sister by the sleeve, jerking her tenderly, like a dog picking up her pup by the neck.

“Thank you, God! Thank you, Lord! You can’t do this, Allie. You can’t keep doing this. We need to talk.” There are tears in my mother’s voice, and I wonder what she means by “keep doing this.” Had my sister tried to reach me before? Allie resists, trying to slap Mom’s hand away, as I shield my eyes from the light and try to see who is driving. It’s not Jeff, it’s another man. A guy who smiles at me as he turns off the headlights.

“Sorry about that,” he calls out casually as my sister and mother scream at each other. Their voices ring in my ears a moment, but then everything goes silent, and I walk toward the driver’s side door.

“I’m Molly,” I tell the man.

“Molly May. I know. I’m Tim. I work with your mother. Think I’ve seen you before.”

“Ah,” I say.

“Looks like she’s a goner.” He motions to my sister, who is running at track-star speeds toward High Street as Mom stumbles after her in stilettos.

“You’re weak,” my sister yells.

“You’ll see the light! God is your savior!” Mom yells back. She whips her head around and gives me a fierce look. “I’ll meet you at the front door.” My neck tingles as Mom gets back in the car, and they take the long way around the block. I cut through the gravel lot, and when I get to the front stoop, I crouch down and wait, barely able to hear our neighbor’s dog barking.

Mom and Tim stay in the car a long time. She emerges looking far more composed and shakes her head when she sees me crouched down as though I could blend in with my shadow. “How long have you two been sneaking around like this?” she asks. I want to ask her the same question but know better. “Molly May?”

When I assure her that it was just today—the first time—she seems to believe me. “I tried to get her to come back,” I lie.

She stares at me a long time. “Look, don’t tell Jeff about this, got it? I had a sort of late night, and you know how he doesn’t understand things.”

“10-4,” I say. As I watch Tim drive off, I bite my lip hard enough that it begins to bleed before I realize. We take soft steps inside, and Jeff doesn’t budge, though I think I see his eyelid flutter. He gasps for breath between snores, but he always does this; Mom releases a sigh as she removes her jacket and heels.

“Try not to wake the boys,” she tells me, and I nod.

I glance out my bedroom window and watch the people outside, the roamers, the drunkards, the mysterious. I watch as people begin to leave without pizza boxes. I watch for my sister, hoping she’ll reappear and wave, just to let me know she’s doing OK. Mom interrupted us just before I found out where she was living or how I could contact her, but I gathered enough to know she’s still in Ohio, around the way.

I’m about the age my sister was when she left home. I’m almost ready to find my way, but as I crouch down next to my window, settling in with my book, I hear Mom weeping, and I wonder if, at least for now, I can do good here. The world is quiet as I curl up next to my mother, and no one argues. I tell her I love her and that Allie will be OK. I tell her Allie will be better than OK. I see the fear, a yellow tinge in Mom’s eyes. “Why’d she leave us?” she asks.

I match the slow cadence of her breath. We can’t read each other’s minds like Allie and I can; Mom’s beliefs have no room in my head. But my mother is breakable beside me right now, and I am solid. I am the one who can help her, and though this will become my burden for years, it is this night, in this moment, that I first feel what it is to be needed.  

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