Authors: Joshilyn Jackson
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Also by Joshilyn Jackson
gods in Alabama
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2006 by Joshilyn Jackson All rights reserved.
1271 Avenue of the Americas,
New York, NY 10020
First eBook Edition: July 2006
For Bob before me and Sam after
I have taken some liberties with Georgia’s geography; Between exists, but I have never set foot in it. If its landscape and people resemble my version, then I will pray fervently that their Bernese moves far, far away, and state for the record that it
a coincidence. Also, in the forties and fifties, there was not a deaf day school within fifty miles, so I grabbed a corner of the Georgia School for the Deaf and pulled it east. I wanted Stacia to grow up with her family, but learn ASL in an environment that would value her resilient spirit. I promise I put the school right back after.
I’ve had untellable amounts of help from the Helen Keller National Center (especially Susan Lascek and Linda Collins) here in Atlanta, and all the deaf and deaf-blind people, interpreters, and CODAs who let me hang around them like a groupie. I am especially indebted to Bethany Jackson (she of the glossy brown hair), Jill Sheffield, Nancy Hold, Sylvia Primeaux, Darlene Prickett, and the fabulous Mariann Jacobson.
If you think a deaf-blind woman who came of age before feminism did couldn’t be as strong and independent as Stacia Frett, then you need to come meet my friend Alice Turner. Although they are around the same age, Stacia is not anything like Alice in looks, personality, or spirit. But Alice showed me how to create a character with both a rich, fulfilling life and type-one Usher’s syndrome. Alice is the president of the Georgia Deaf-Blind Associa-tion. She babysits her three small grandkids, bakes kick-butt brownies, and, when we go out to eat,
where to turn by feel and timing. She was infinitely patient with my wretched finger spelling and generous with her time—thanks, Alice.
Thanks for everything.
I am deeply in karmic debt to my agent, Jacques de Spoel-berch, and my editor, Caryn Karmatz Rudy. If I could, I would kiss the living personification of Warner Books right on the lips.
I have gotten such astounding levels of support and encourage-ment from every person in the building, including, but certainly not limited to, Jamie Raab, Karen Torres, the non–hell-bound Martha Otis, Jennifer Romanello, Penina Sacks, Emily Griffin, and the gifted Anne Twomey. Thank you, Beth Thomas, for tarting up the pages that still had bed head. I feel slavish gratitude toward fellow writers/readers Lily James, Jill James, Julie Oes-treich, Amy Go Wilson, Anna Schachner, and the patient saints of the In Town Atlanta Writers Group.
My amazing family never ceases to support me and make life taste sweet in my mouth; Scott, you are my love, my partner, my best friend, and a dern good kisser as a bonus. Big love to Sam, Maisy Jane, Bob, Betty, Bobby, Julie, Daniel, Erin, Jane, Allison, Lydia, and all my family at PSFUMC.
THE WAR BEGAN thirty years, nine months, and seven days ago, when I was deaf and blind, floating silent and serene inside Hazel Crabtree. I was secreted in Hazel’s womb, which was cloaked in her pale and freckled skin, which was in turn hidden by the baggy sweatsuits she adopted so she would look fat instead of pregnant. Which was ridiculous, because who ever heard of a fat Crabtree? They were all tall and weedy, slouching around like wilting stems, red hair blooming out the top.
Hazel Crabtree was fifteen years old, and no one thought twice about her expanding waistline as she crept around the edges of rooms, watching her mother ignore her and ignoring me in turn as I kicked at her and spun and grew myself some lungs.
I never heard Hazel’s side of the story. She birthed me but was never in any sense my mother. I heard an expurgated version from my aunt Genny; to hear Genny tell it, I frolicked blood-lessly into the world attended by singing rabbits. From Aunt Bernese, I got raw medical data and a flat recitation of events in the order they occurred.
But my mother, Stacia Frett, told it to me as a love story, hers and mine. It wasn’t a declaration of war to her, it was simply the tale of how we found each other. My mother’s version, with every nuance communicated by her expressive face and flashing hands, dominated my imagination. Over the years, I interwove her story with what I had gleaned from Genny and Bernese, until I had an interpretation that felt like truth. It was as if my soul had been floating above the scene, watching, waiting to be sucked into my body with the air of my first breath.
I don’t know why Hazel Crabtree went to Bernese for help the night I was born, and Bernese did not think to ask her. The why of things did not often trouble Aunt Bernese, but she was a master at discovering the how. Before agenting my mother’s art became a full-time job, Bernese had worked in labor and delivery over at Loganville General. I like to think Hazel came to the Fretts because she knew Bernese was a former nurse and pragmatist savant who, beneath her bluster, had a kind heart. This was a distinct possibility: At that time , had a population of about ninety people. Everybody knew everything about everyone.
But more likely, she was being practical. Bernese and her husband and their boys lived on the lot at the dead end of Grace Street. Her sisters, Stacia and Genny, lived together in the house next door. There wasn’t another house on the block, and Bernese’s backyard overlooked empty miles of Georgia pine trees. The only other nurse in town lived on one of Between’s more populated streets; she had close neighbors. The last (although perhaps the most important) factor was that Hazel had to know going to the Fretts for help was a surefire way to piss off her family.
Bernese woke to the sound of someone banging on her front door a few minutes past four in the morning. She came down the stairs pulling on her robe, getting her gun hand stuck in the sleeve. Her husband, Lou, trailed behind her, saying nervously,
“Is the safety on? Is the safety on? Hand the gun to me and then put your robe on, Bernese. Is the safety on?”
Bernese got herself untangled and tucked the gun into her armpit, barrel down, while she tied her robe belt.
“Is that the thirty-eight?” asked Lou. “Lord-a-mercy, why didn’t you get your little purse gun?”
Bernese opened the door and there was Hazel Crabtree, holding a wad of her mucous plug cupped in both hands and saying,
“This came out. Is this a piece of baby? I hurt.”
Bernese said, “Holy monkeys! You’re pregnant? Lou, call for an ambulance.” Tiny towns like Between didn’t have 911 service in 1976, so Lou went to get Bernese’s emergency-numbers card from the drawer. But Hazel shoved past Bernese and grabbed at him, falling to her knees as she yowled, “No, no, you can’t call anyone. My mother can’t know.”
Then she let go of Lou and said in a high, panicked voice,
“Something’s coming. Something else. Something bad is coming.” Hazel scrabbled at her belly and crotch, frantic. Her sweat-pants were soggy, and she shoved them down to mid-thigh. She wasn’t wearing any panties. Then she tilted and tipped over, writhing on the foyer carpet.
Bernese looked up and saw all three of her young sons huddled in a clot on the stairs. They were clutching one another on the second-floor landing, staring down through the banisters with wide, horrified eyes.
“Never you mind,” Bernese said to Lou. He was tugging at his earlobe as he watched Hazel flail and howl on the floor. He set the phone back down in its cradle on the hall table. Bernese said,
“Get up there with the boys. Tell them something. I will fix this.”
Lou trotted obediently upstairs and picked up the toddler, herding the two older boys back toward their bedroom. Hazel’s contraction subsided, and she rose up on her hands and knees, panting.
Bernese’s front door opened into a carpeted entryway. A wide doorway on the right led to the den, and straight ahead was a long hallway to the kitchen. On the left, the stairs went up to a landing that overlooked the foyer. There was a heavy table, almost a sideboard, that ran the length of the staircase. The phone was on the edge of the table, close to the front door, and the rest of it was taken up by the huge glass terrarium that housed Bernese’s beloved luna moths. The adult moths were awake, some fanning their wings as they posed on the perches and twigs. Others had paired off, attaching end to end to make the kind of desperate love that comes with an extremely short life span.
Bernese tried to step around Hazel, heading for the table so she could set down her gun and pick up the phone, but Hazel reared up on her knees in front of Bernese, crying, “No, you can’t! No one knows I’m this way. No one can find out!”
She was grabbing for Bernese’s arm, but she fell short and jerked at her hand, squeezing. The gun went off. The bullet whizzed past Hazel’s head, smashing through the glass of the terrarium and burying itself in the staircase. Glass showered down, pattering onto the carpet and sprinkling Hazel’s wild red hair.
Hazel and Bernese froze in the sudden silence, their eyes locked on the smoking hole in Bernese’s stairs. From upstairs, Lou yelled, “Bernese? Bernese?” They heard his footsteps clattering across the upstairs hall, the little boys running in a panicked herd behind him.
“Stop!” screeched Bernese, and the footsteps stopped dead.
“No one is hit, Lou. Stay with the boys.”
“I asked you was the safety on,” Lou called down, aggrieved.
Bernese hollered back, “Maybe you better put the safety on your mouth.”
Next door, the gunshot woke up Bernese’s sister Genny. Genny bolted upright, clutching the covers to her bosom. Her bedroom window overlooked Bernese’s front lawn, and she saw the downstairs lights blazing and Bernese’s front door standing open.
Genny got up and ran on tiptoe down the hall to Stacia’s room.
She flipped the light switch and sat on the bed, shaking Stacia awake. Stacia sat up, her gray eyes opening wide, immediately alert. She held her fist up to her chin, thumb and pinky spread wide, asking by sign and her expressive face what was wrong.
Genny shook her head and signed back,
She cut her eyes to the left to indicate Bernese’s house, then signed,
on, door open. What do we do?
As soon as she finished signing, she moved her right hand to pluck at the fine dark hairs on her left forearm, tugging hard enough to lift her skin in points. One of the hairs popped out, torn root and all from the follicle.
Stacia signed. She gently peeled Genny’s fingers away and gave her a bracing pat, then signed,
I’ll handle it.
Stacia climbed out of bed and pulled on her robe. She tied the belt with savage efficiency, then spun on one heel and took off for the front