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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

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BOOK: Meteors in August
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The pictures have no colors, only shades of gray, but I remember. Mother's hair had a red glow when she stood in sunlight. Every morning she drew it back into a perfect knot, held fast with half a dozen invisible hairpins.

There are deep lines at the corners of Father's eyes. No matter what the season or time of day, he seems to be squinting into the sun. I see him squeeze Nina's headless shoulders. He is blond, like her, the handsome father of a beautiful girl. His nose is too big, his brows too dark for his fair hair. By afternoon his stubble makes his face look dirty. These imperfections save him. He cannot stop grinning. He pats my head, but he is thinking only of my sister. I scowl. He stoops to kiss her cheek, and she's not there.

3

THE FIRST
year Nina was gone I kept telling myself she'd be back any day. The second year my mother cleaned out Nina's drawers and closet. She took the clothes to the Salvation Army in Rovato Falls and stopped at the dump on the way home to heave a garbage bag into the pit. The bag split before it touched the ground. Makeup and perfume, tarnished jewelry and barrettes, tattered romance novels and ticket stubs with boys' names on the back spun and fluttered toward the rotting heaps of strangers' refuse, toward the junked cars and the decaying corpses of the rats that young boys had shot with their fathers' rifles.

After that day Nina began to fade. I couldn't open the closet and catch a whiff of her, lingering on all her clothes; I couldn't see her leaning close to the mirror, worrying over one tiny pimple on the side of her nose.

Nina had always protected me. She saved me from a thrashing that day at the Last Chance Bar, which made my outburst all the more unbearable. She knew Father was apt to strike first and ask questions later. Better to punish unjustly than to let a child escape without rebuke. If I wasn't guilty of that crime, surely I had done something else, something unknown. I deserved every blow. But Father never touched Nina, not until the night she left. She could tease him out of anger, cajole him with laughter, leave him helpless with her smiles.

As I grew older I learned to fool Daddy but not to charm him. Four years after Nina disappeared I still longed for her to leap to my defense, to shelter me and speak for me. I remembered the last winter she was with us. Late one afternoon in early December my cousin Jesse and I pegged snowballs at the Lutheran church. Jesse had shaggy light hair and his teeth were too big for his mouth. He was always in trouble, but the snowballs were my idea. How were we to guess that Reverend Piggott would be at church on Wednesday? How were we to know that the thud of snow would jar him from his prayers and turn the frail minister into a raving prophet, a man with a vision of our imminent doom?

Reverend Piggott believed in the evil of children; he depended on it. Twisting our ears, he dragged us inside and made us stare at the crucifix above the altar, the image of our Lord. I wasn't afraid of God. I couldn't imagine He'd plunge me and Jesse into the fires of hell for throwing a few snowballs, and I thought Reverend Piggott was a bit of a fool to suggest God might be so petty. But I didn't argue. The reverend kept a ruler beside his Bible at the pulpit; I had seen him use it in the heat of a sermon, slapping wood on wood, creating his own thunder. As we stood before the pained Jesus, Reverend Piggott took the stick to our palms, those wicked hands that had packed the snow hard and hurled it at God's holy house. Jesus hung. His palms bled. My eyes burned. Jesse kicked Reverend Piggott in the shin and ran, and I took a second licking for his sake.

“Ask Jesus to forgive you,” Reverend Piggott hissed. And I did, but the wooden Jesus did not speak or raise his head.

At home, Nina helped me hide my wounds. Father would have given me a set of marks on my butt to match my palms if he knew what I'd done. Mother would have marched down to the Lutheran church and told Reverend Piggott she'd have him arrested if he ever laid a hand on one of her children again. I didn't want another whipping, but I feared I didn't deserve Mother's fierce defense. Only Nina could save me, my sister who hid me and kissed my palms.
There, baby
, she whispered,
all better
.

The fourth year Nina was gone I discovered I still wished for her protection, and the need rose in me like a living thing. It had to do with Gwen Holler.

Gwen and I ran wild in the summer of 1969. We were full of the sudden knowledge that bloomed from the changes in our bodies, or, at least, the changes in her body. Gwen had taken on the shape of a tiny woman. She was already fourteen, a few months older than I was, as she often reminded me. In her basement, she unbuttoned her blouse to show me the swell of her breasts, the dark circles around her nipples. I thought of Nina in the woodshed with Rafe Carson; I heard Mother's hard slaps. I longed to touch her again, to soothe her, just as I longed to touch Gwen Holler. I wanted to have something to show Gwen, some womanly change that would surprise her, but my arms were still too long, my knees too big. I had nothing to reveal, yet I felt sure that what was happening to her must be happening to me too.

For two weeks, we prowled the gully, a deep gorge at the east side of town. We stalked Gwen's brother, Zachary, and his friend Coe Carson, Rafe's younger brother. They weren't difficult to track: in their wake they left a trail of dead birds and wounded rusty tin cans. Zack and Coe raised their BB guns for any flicker in the woods. If they couldn't find a squirrel or crow, the sun glinting off a shiny thing was enough to spark a volley.

Zack Holler was tough. He had solid thighs, a bit of hair on his chest. He had never learned to compromise because his fists were fast and his head was hard. Red-haired Coe Carson, gangly and too loose in the joints to be quick, straggled after Zachary. The boys didn't know that Gwen and I were creeping through the ravine, just beyond their range, shaking bushes and imitating birdcalls to draw their fire. Often we took refuge in a rickety tree house, where we could watch them cutting through the underbrush.

In the middle of June, Zack and Coe took summer jobs at the mill and gave up their exploits in the gully. Boredom led Gwen and me to become hunters ourselves; our goal was to catch Myron Evans in the act. We pricked our fingers, rubbed them together and swore a pact in blood.

Myron Evans lived three blocks from me in a house bordered by two vacant lots. The old gray body of the building blistered in the sun, and the untended garden grew into a tangle of roses and milkweed. The frail pillars of the porch sagged, allowing the overhang to lurch at a dangerous angle. The endless footfalls of Myron and his mother had beaten the front steps bare. They lived alone in the three-story house. People said that when one room got dirty, when the stacks of newspapers piled too high, and they couldn't find the cats' litter box to change it, Myron and his mother locked the door and moved to another room. Of course, no one knew this for a fact; they hadn't invited any of their neighbors inside for a cup of afternoon tea since 1937.

My aunt Arlen said Mrs. Evans was pretty once, before she had a crippled son, before her husband disappeared into the green edge of twilight. This former beauty was difficult to imagine. Now her left eyelid drooped over her eye and made her half blind. She always turned her head to look at you, to stare you down with her one good eye, bloodshot from overuse, yellow as an old egg where it should have been white.

Mom said Mr. Evans died of pneumonia in the spring of '38, but Aunt Arlen told me Mr. Evans went out to get a beer one warm evening in June and never came home. “What a pity,” Arlen said, “and Myron just a boy. No wonder that poor child turned out the way he did, no wonder at all.”

Arlen sipped at her coffee, contemplating misfortune and misery. “And then there was that nasty business with Myron's teacher.”

“Nothing but a rumor,” my mother said.

“Eugene Thornton had to leave town. Myron quit school—never went back after fifth grade. Proof enough for me.”

“He quit school because people in this town talk too much, and even little children turn mean.”

I knew the children Mother meant. They were men now; they were married with sons of their own. Boys loathe the weakest among them, just as a pack loathes a sick animal. Wolves will hound a crippled cub to death. On the playground, more than twenty years before, three boys had pinned Myron to the dirt. They ran their fingers through his hair, called him Darling and Dear One, My Sweetheart, the names the teacher had given him, alone, after school.

He didn't cry or buck. He pulled his head up and then bashed it on the gravel: once, twice, a third time, until his eyes seemed to float in his skull. He moaned and smiled, knowing he made his own pain, knowing no one could take that away from him.

The boys scattered, leaving Myron sprawled on the ground, blood in his hair.

“Poor Myron,” Arlen said again, just to herself.

Yes, poor Myron, everyone in town said so. But people's sympathy didn't keep them from warning their kids not to go near the Evans place after dusk. Rumor had it that Myron was apt to pop out of the bushes and reveal more than a child should see. That's what Gwen and I meant to find out for ourselves.

Some folks said he was retarded and some said he was crazy or just plain evil, but most everyone agreed he should be put away to keep him from annoying decent citizens.

On a warm night in July, Gwen and I camped outside in my backyard. She'd shaved her legs. “Feel my stubble,” she said, and I ran my fingertips over the short, stiff hairs along her shin. Then I felt my own legs. They were neither prickly nor smooth. My legs were covered with fine down, a fuzz I wished to ignore as long as I could.

I knew this was the night we'd catch Myron. My skin was already hot. I wondered what he'd do if he caught us spying. I imagined his pretty white fingers clutched around my throat, his hair flopping forward and back as he lifted me off the ground. And what would we say if we caught him in the bushes doing what people said he did? He was no kid. We weren't going to swat his behind, tell him to zip up his pants and get on home. A boy who could bash his own head on gravel, not once but three times, a child who could beat himself bloody, was frightening in ways I couldn't explain. Now Myron Evans was a grown man; I was scared of what I might have to do if he got hold of my wrist.

Nina had seen him. Nina said she looked out our window one night after I was asleep and saw Myron Evans perched up in our maple tree just looking at her. If anything, I thought this proved Myron was just like any other man in town. Before Nina ran away, boys flocked in our driveway day after day, popping wheelies on their bikes, doing handstands—trying to make her turn her head. Her silky yellow hair fell straight to the middle of her back. She had our mother's fine nose and pale skin, flushed cheeks, and eyes like no other eyes I've seen, green eyes flecked with gold fires. I remembered hearing, more than one time, the ping of a stone hitting our window long after dark and Nina saying to me, “Hush, baby, it's nothing.” That last summer, I saw boys in the trees and boys in the grass. Often, the pained, surprised coo of an owl made Nina stop stroking my head and go to the window. If Myron Evans was one of those owls, who could blame him?

At two o'clock Gwen and I stuffed our pillows into our bags. As we crept down the alley toward the Evans place, we got sidetracked by the sweet smell of strawberries in Joanna Foot's garden. Kids who stole from Mrs. Foot risked a double thrashing: one from her and one from their parents when she called them at two-thirty in the morning to come fetch their thieving hoodlums. She'd been in one foul mood ever since her husband Elliot had left her. Freda Graves had been vindicated; her warnings about the evils of alcohol came true in ways we'd never dreamed. Elliot Foot fell prey to temptation when Olivia Jeanne Woodruff came to work at his bar. She was barely nineteen years old, and she didn't wait till her daddy was cold in the ground before she sold his house and bought herself a Winnebago. She wanted her home on wheels, wanted to be ready to roll. She was ready, all right, and she rolled out of town with Elliot Foot.

Elliot left the week before Christmas, and by summer Joanna was talking about planting a headstone in the family plot. Catching kids stealing berries was Joanna Foot's primary delight these days. Zachary Holler had been dragged out of her strawberry patch by his hair and beaten with a willow switch in her kitchen. She stood barely five feet but weighed close to two hundred. Her bottom was a solid pack of shifting flesh, her neck a roll of lumpy fat. Even Zack Holler had to drop his pants and take his licking; there was no arguing with a woman like that.

Luck was with me and Gwen that night. We gorged ourselves, lifted every leaf, plucked each berry, ripe or not. We left our footprints from one end of that garden to the other and laughed as we ran away, thinking of all the days Joanna Foot would curse any kid who dared to pass her house.

We'd almost reached the high hedges of the Evans place when we spotted two men in the vacant lot. The smaller one was easy to recognize, the curve of his spine unmistakable from any distance, even in the dark. “Who's that with Myron?” I said.

“It's my brother,” Gwen whispered. I knew we had the same thought: neither of us understood what Zack was doing hanging out with Myron Evans in the middle of the night.

They seemed to be talking, but it didn't last long. Zachary's knee came up so hard that we heard the dull smack all the way across the field. Myron clutched himself and fell to his knees, voiceless, his face lifted to Heaven as if in sudden prayer. The only night sound was wind through grass. Zack's arm twitched; I thought he'd slap Myron, but instead he spit on the ground and ran, afraid of something we couldn't see. Gwen and I zigzagged through back alleys, chasing Zachary until he collapsed on the Hollers' front lawn.

“Zack,” Gwen hissed.

He cussed when he realized it was only his sister.

BOOK: Meteors in August
4.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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