The sun is just bellying up above the skyline and light filters through the world. I turn Star away from the Deadlands, where there aren’t any trees or shrubs and the sun has scorched the ground into big puzzle pieces. A long time ago, there used to be fertile land here, like our farm a mile down the road, but Nobody happened and now nothing grows.
Nobody’s story is sort of like The Nightmare Man, or the Hissing Man, things that come from Before, back when there was magic all around. The Nightmare Man has long octopus arms with suction cup mouths that let him climb houses in the dark to steal children. The Hissing Man comes while you’re sleeping and hisses little snakes in your ear that slither around your brain. Nobody was a witch who cursed the Old town when she was murdered. They say there’s a tree of life that grew right from her body, but I figure they call it the Deadlands for a reason.
But the stories, they’re not real, you know. The dolls in our living room, they’re the ones who scare me, lined up with their flat dead glass eyes.
They’re my momma’s dolls. She started buying them after she lost the first baby, back when I was a baby myself. They come from a special maker, clear out east of the main cities. She’s got fourteen at last count, all fair skinned and with long sleek hair that she brushes and braids. Momma has lost all the babies since me. They come half formed, months too early. They don’t look nothing like babies. We bury the tiny bodies out at the far end of the orchards. Afterwards, Momma lies in bed with eyes just as flat and lifeless as the dolls.
It’s awful hard on her. She wants a girl something fierce. When she forgets all the sad things, she comes out to watch me ride Star. When she was my age, she used to race all the other kids on her horse. She won every time. She had long hair that ran out behind her like a banner. Then her sister Juliet tried to race with her and the big kids, went off her horse, got trampled. Momma was responsible for her, and she rode home with Juliet’s body all crumpled up and torn, and then she didn’t never ride again.
Today, we are almost two thirds through the baby growing. Me and Momma took a great big white square piece of paper and chalked out two hundred boxes. We made rows of ten, layers of twenty. On good days when the noises aren’t banging into her eardrums and setting off the bees inside her head, she lets me make a big X through a box. Bad days, she does it all alone. Those days she doesn’t come out of bed except to make the X.
Sometimes on good days, her smile comes so bright I can feel my heart bloom inside my chest.
Sweat’s already thick on Star. August is scorching all of us alive this year. Even the trees have leaves browning and shriveling up at the edges. I stuck to the grassy trails on my morning ride to keep my lungs from seizing up. I saw when Grandpa and Dad rode for the bank this morning, clouds of dust spinning up from the horses’ hooves in circles, lazy spinning devils.
I get home, unsaddle Star and turn him out, start chores. I start by feeding the animals. We have about thirty horses, a couple dozen chickens for laying eggs. I collect the speckled eggs, then I count all the yearlings — a dozen — and stop to watch the foals playing near their mothers, with their soft fuzzy tails and long stilt legs. Pretty soon, we’ll have to separate them from their mothers. When that happens, both sets of them will cry for a couple days. The sound hurts me inside. I sit with them, the babies, as long as I can, trying to console them with tiny crab apples from the orchards, and petting them, but it just takes time.
You can get used to anything, over time.
After chores, I stay outside and lay under the trees, chewing blades of grass. I love the taste of grass. Mama complains about my teeth turning green, but I can’t stop. There’s nothing like a fresh blade of grass. It tastes like everything’s beginning again.
“Alvie!” Momma screams, her voice uncoiling from the house down towards me.
I run up to the house, through the front door, catching it with my back foot so it doesn’t bang, then past all the dolls with their wide open eyes, straight to her door. I knock soft, and she says, “Alvie, come now!”
She’s sitting up in bed, her hair in dark ringlets hanging around her face. She’s sweating, and it darkens the neckline of her thin gown, sticking it to her. She’s got her hands down between her legs, and though it’s dark, lit only by a glass lantern on the bureau, I can see dark streaks of blood on her knuckles.
“Go fetch the doctor, and hurry, boy,” she says. “There’s still time.”
I don’t mess around. Back past the dolls, out the door, stop, don’t let it bang, run to the stable. Star picks his head up when I enter and I just grab the bridle and slip it on. I don’t bother with the saddle, just open the stall door and stand on his water bucket to mount. Then we’re out and into a trot, even though I should warm him up with a walk. I’m trying to keep from digging my heels into him, let him set the pace. Maybe if I ride fast enough, pray hard enough, the baby will live.
I’ve been so quiet this summer, making sure I’m not even hardly around. The problem with being quiet is that everything makes noise. Peeing, chewing food, even just rolling over in bed. Forget getting dressed and chewing. Sometimes Mama hears the noise ten times as loud and it turns into bees that buzz around her head so she can’t sleep or eat. It stresses her out, sends out bad feelings.
This summer I mostly just used the house for sleeping, spent most of my time at the stables or with Grandpa, living in the house he and Grandma built, just over the hill. Grandpa and I play a lot of rummy at nights, because he won’t teach me poker until I’m fourteen.
I ride for the doctor’s. He’s the only other person within five miles of us. I don’t take the road but cut Star towards the orchards. He’s not much to look at, knock-kneed and his overbite that makes him look sort of dumb, but he’s sure-footed and quick and he can manage the tree roots and the trail winding up through the trees to the doctor’s farm.
Star gets us there quick in spite of the heat. Theodore, the doctor, is sitting on his porch, watching me race up the drive. When I get there, he asks, “Addalynn?”
“She says the baby’s coming,” I say. Star’s sides are heaving, and I dismount so’s to lighten his load.
“Aye,” he says. His hair gets more silver every year, even though he isn’t that old through the face. I think he’s about halfway between Momma and Grandpa’s age. I’ve only ever ridden by before, and I sneak a peek around him to size the place up.
You can tell the mettle of a man by the way he takes care of things. That’s what Grandpa says. And the doctor is always neat and clean, his horse groomed well. His house is glossy wood, and there are plants and flowers blooming everywhere. They crawl up the side of the house, curling around the shutters, explosions of bright red and violet ad yellow. The leaves span as big as my hands, with saw toothed edges and veins of blue and dark green running through them.
“Had a feeling,” he says. “Why don’t you saddle up my horse, Alvie. I’ll gather my things.”
I tack up his bay mare he rides, and a little chestnut filly watches me from her stall. She’s got big liquid brown eyes, and I wonder why I haven’t seen her before. I bring the mare back around to the front of the house, stick my hand in my pocket and pull out grass to chew. My nerves are shaking, and the grass helps.
He comes out and places his saddlebags across the back, mounts up. We start down the drive together. I gesture at the trail that snakes down through the orchards.
“I took the back way here,” I say, “but it’s pretty uneven. Star’s real sure of foot.”
“Take the back way again,” he says. His eyes crinkle and I think it’s his version of smiling. “This mare of mine’s big, but she’s nimble.”
When we get back, Grandpa and Dad’s horses are in front of the stable. Their reins are tethered but they’re still saddled, sweating in the sun. It’s the hottest part of the year, and I’m surprised Grandpa left them like that. Without being asked, I reach over and take the doctor’s horse’s reins, tell him I’ll guide the horses in and cool them down. He nods once, dismounts with his bags, and disappears inside. He stops to let the door close softly, so he knows Mama’s condition.
I take the horses out and unsaddle them, lead them to the south corral, smaller than a pasture, but shady with a big water trough. I leave Star, Grandpa’s horse, and the doctor’s horse in the corral and take Daddy’s stallion to the barn. Doesn’t appear anyone’s in heat, but best to be safe. Dad always rides a stallion, but Grandpa prefers mares and geldings, says they’re loyal, says a stud will abandon you when his blood is up.
Grandpa comes out after a while, fitting his wide brimmed hat down and shielding his eyes. He’s already got his pipe out to pack it, and he’s pinching fat shreds of tobacco between his fingers. His hands are heavy with yellow calluses. He’s got thick twists for knuckles, from his arthritis. He smokes all the time unless he’s eating or working. Sometimes he even smokes while he works, his pipe clenched between his teeth.
He’s the one who showed me how to get a skittish horse to come to me. He always smells like burning wood, and he always shows me how to do things.
“How you doing, Alvie?” he says, clapped me on the shoulder.
“Ok. How’s Mama?”
“Not so good, son. Remember last year, when that little bay mare got a foal hung up in her?”
I remembered. She was laid up on her side, heaving with it, two tiny hooves hanging out of her. Grandpa had to push the foal back in that time, turn it. It took some doing, the veins in his neck says. The mare survived, but the foal didn’t. Grandpa was mad at himself for it. He doesn’t like losing life.
“Can’t the doctor get it out?”
“He’s getting it,” he says. “But-well, there’s a lot of damage.”
The best thing about Grandpa is he’s no bullshit. He says so himself. “She’s going to be alright, though, right?”
“Aye,” he says. “But she won’t be having any babies, Alvie.”
It takes a minute to sink in.
I’m thinking on it, trying to figure out if that means Mama will get better or worse, when I realize Grandpa’s tapping the ashes from his pipe and grinding them out with his heel. He looks as tired as I’ve ever seen him.
“Need a favor, Alvie,” he says.
“I need you to ride back up to Ted’s house.” My grandpa is the only person I ever heard call my momma Addy instead of Adalynn, or the doctor Ted instead of Theodore. “Fetch his wife Mattie.”
“I didn’t know he had a wife,” I say.
“Aye. Ride my horse up and tell her Hans needs her help with his daughter.”
“Yes, sir,” I say.
He puts his heavy, wrinkled hand on my shoulder. It’s warm, like always, and my muscles loosen a little. Grandpa always knows what to do.
I don’t have to look for the doctor’s wife. She’s in the yard, a big mass of gold red hair sprouting from a knot on the top of her head. She hears me coming and stands up. She’s just a tiny splinter of a woman. She’s about as tall as me, slender bones and big bright eyes. She’s got a shimmer about her, something shining inside. It’s not anything I can put words to. It does something inside me, makes me ache. It’s like a beautiful horse full out running, or a foal perching for the first time on their own legs, wobbling in the moonlight, or what it’s like to kiss a girl.
“You must be Alvie,” she says, song like.
“Mattie,” she says. She brushes her hands on her pants and comes towards me with her hand reaching out.
I lean down and shake it, after rubbing my own sweaty hand on my leg.
“Is everything all right?” she asks.
“My grandpa says to ask you to come help,” I say. I squint to see her better, but she’s all wrapped up in shimmering light.
“Aye,” she says. “Well, then. Would you mind getting my horse for me?”
“Aye,” I say, and dismount, tethering Grandpa’s mare to the little post by the porch. I fetch the chestnut filly and get her ready. Bring her around and Mattie’s ready, different pants, hair wound into a braid that creeps over her shoulder and down her side.
We start back towards home.
“I’m sorry to hear about your momma,” she says. “Are you all right, Alvie?”
“It’s Momma who’s sick,” I say. “Not me.”
“Yes, but it can’t be easy for you, either,” she says.
I don’t say nothing, just put my head down.
She hums for a minute. “Ted and I don’t have any children, you know.”
“Why?” I ask. I know she wants me to.
“Some sort of incompatibility,” she says. She shrugs. “Not meant to be. Most people would only think about how hard it is on me, but it’s hard on Ted, too. Just like this must be hard on you.”
My stomach twists up in a knot. I take out more grass, start to chew it. “I’m all right,” I say. “I just hope maybe this time she’s far enough along. I prayed every night, since I knew.”
“Aye,” she says. “To the old gods?”
She doesn’t say anything else. We get home and find Grandpa and Dad stone still on the porch, waiting. We ride right up to them, and Mattie asks what the word is.
“Ted says she’ll be all right, but he’s got more bleeding to control,” Grandpa says.
Dad wasn’t looking anywhere but at Mattie, who kept silent. “What’s this, now?”
“Send Ted out,” Grandpa says, and Dad goes like he always does when Grandpa tells him something.
The doctor comes straight out. “What the hell’s this, Mattie?”
Mattie slides from her horse, dropping the reins to the ground, and goes right up to him. “Easy, Ted,” she says. She rests her hands on his waist, her cheek against his chest. He puts an arm around her but his eyes, dark and narrow behind his lenses, never move from Grandpa’s.
“Aye,” Grandpa says, but that was all.
Something’s twisted up between the three of them, that I can see sharp edges on but can’t make out the shape.
“No,” the doctor says, but he says it to Mattie this time. He drops his chin on the top of her head. They go together so easy I can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.
“Addy’s my only child, Ted,” Grandpa says. “I aim to get her a baby girl. She won’t quit trying until she’s dead.”
“She’s got a handsome son, and hell with that damned tree,” the doctor says. “She won’t let you take a baby from it without taking her own pound of flesh.” The color’s gone from his lips but rising his cheeks.
“Aye,” Grandpa says. “I understand there’s a price to pay.”
“Then go by yourself, you damn fool.”
“I have to go,” she says, and she catches his eyes again for a long moment, and I see his answer in the way he looks back at her, like she’s the entire universe. “I’m Nobody’s daughter, Ted. Maybe that means something.”
“Mattie, it won’t matter.”
“Ted,” she says. “I love you, but I owe Hans and your mother my whole life.”
Ted’s lips get even thinner, scar tissue white against his teeth. “If anything happens to her—”
“On my life, nothing will,” Grandpa says. “You have my word.”
Grandpa leaves them, goes to fill his canteen. I follow behind him, so close I step on his heels. “Where are you going? What tree?”
“Nobody’s tree. The baby tree,” he says, short.
“You know about Nobody, everyone knows that story,” he says.
Nobody was a girl stuck between worlds, who stumbled out of a pond one day in front of a bunch of kids. She couldn’t speak, and no one knew what to do with her, but a girl took her home to her family. They tried to make her normal, but Nobody couldn’t be normal. She had something inside her, maybe like the doctor’s wife, that made people go sort of nuts. One day, she got tired of our world and tried to go back home, through the pond, but whatever door she had come through, was gone. When she climbed out of the pond, some boys had followed her. No one that tells the story will say exactly what happened after, but Nobody died. The boys didn’t want to get caught so they cut her body open and filled it with stones from the shore. She sank to the bottom, and all the fish died. The pond became covered with silver green algae, and a tree grew straight up from her body. It bloomed babies. All the land around the pond died, and became the Deadlands. Now the tree grows alone in a strange oasis haunted by her ghost.
“You’re going to steal a baby from Nobody’s tree?”
“Aye,” he says.
“But it’s cursed,” I say.
“Aye,” he says. “But once someone took a baby from there, before, and she grew to be a bright light, as bright as you can stand to see.”
I think about the doctor’s wife, cocooned in her shimmer. “It’s her, Mattie, isn’t it?”
“Aye. When Juliet passed, I stole Mattie away. Your grandma took sick right after. Fevering, had the body shakes. She passed soon after that. always knew it was a coincidence, but others, they didn’t.”
“Is that he meant? The doctor? You have to pay?”
“Everything requires sacrifice, Alvie,” Grandpa says. “Now, you stay here, alright? Watch over your mama. Mattie and I will go and come straight back.”
It takes fifteen minutes to reach the dead lands. The land is baked and cracked like a dropped egg, wide zig zags through all of it. Star’s hooves ring flat against my ears and the silence presses me down in the saddle. I go to drink from my canteen, but it’s already half empty, so I put it back. I gave them a decent head start, enough so I wouldn’t catch up until it was too late to send me back.
Mattie looks back first, shakes her head at me. They rein in their horses, wait for me and Star. “What the hell, Alvie?” Grandpa says.
“Don’t go without me,” I say. “Please. I just want to help Momma.”
Mattie looks at Grandpa. Then they both sigh, heavy.
Mattie speaks first. “Alvie, I know you love your momma,” she says. “It sorts of makes me feel hollow inside, just seeing it. I wish I had a boy like you.” Her shine dulls with the words. “I see Ted, the way he talks about the children he sees. He doesn’t ever complain about not having any, but sometimes the look in his eyes-it’s like being burnt up inside. I know your momma feels the same, like she’s got to have this to be full. But this isn’t a place for you.”
Right then, we come on the line the land divides, where the brilliant green foliage erupts from nothing. It’s knitted together like a hedge, with the trees and their leafy ceiling looming behind it. We stop at the border, there, and Mattie turns to us.
“This place is cursed,” she says. “Things get through, I think. Not just lost girls, but perhaps other things too.”
Mattie turns to Grandpa and says, “We ride fast, and we do not stop, Hans, you and me. Understand?”
“Aye,” Grandpa says. “Alvie, you’ll need to wait here.”
“I’ll give you a moment,” Mattie says. “I need some privacy. Bout to pee myself.” She trots her chestnut down the line a way.
Grandpa dismounts, and beckons at me. When I get down, he kneels so we’re right at eye level. “Alvie,” he says. “I do love you, son. Maybe more than anyone my whole life. You’re a good boy, got a good heart on you. A good head. I’m awful proud of you.”
“I know, Grandpa,” I say. I scuff my toes in the dirt. I can feel the balloon inside me growing. It gets big and presses out on my chest. It happens sometimes, when I see Mama playing with her dolls, or I make a loud noise. It makes it hard to breathe and I feel like the whole world is crushing me.
“Alvie, there’s a chance I might not come out of this place,” he says . Matter of fact. “If it saves your mama, saves your family, it’s the last best thing I can do. You understand that? I’m an old man, and I’ve lived my life.”
“No,” I say. I start to tear up. He hugs me and I smell his tobacco through his shirt pocket and feel his knotted fingers on my back. I don’t ever want to let go.
“Aye, son,” he says. He lets go and looks me straight in the eye. “I love you, Alvie.”
“I love you, Grandpa.”
It all happens quick. Mattie comes back, Grandpa mounts up, and then they disappear into the dark.
I don’t have any way to tell time, but it seems like the sun’s passed direct overhead, and started its descent into the west. I pace around and I think about all the things Grandpa is to me. I can’t let go. I swing on top of Star and signal him to move into a trot. “Be brave,” I say to him, but I mean it for me, and into the dark we follow.
Star steps over the hedge entrance, into the brush. The grass is a long, dark green, and how does it grow in the dark anyway? The blades of grass whisper to each other as we pass. I listen but soon they start to sound like words and the balloon gets big again. I focus on making my mind blank so it goes back down and my breath doesn’t hitch in my chest. I guess it’s bad feelings that blow it up.
There’s a trampled grass path I can follow. I keep my eyes scanning right to left, but I don’t look behind me. The light disappears quick, and it’s just twilight gloom everywhere. There are strange things here. I can sense them in the goosebumps bubbling on my flesh, but they don’t want to be seen, I think.
The trees grow closer together, then thin out, and in front of me there’s the pond. Nobody’s pond.
It’s beautiful in a terrible way. The colors are all vivid and breathe like living things, but they’re wrong. Star-shaped leaves are scattered at the edges of the pond, with smooth flat speckled stones underneath. In the middle of the pond, maybe a three-minute swim, there’s a small bit of ground. From that small patch, the tree of life blooms.
It isn’t big, maybe five feet, like Mattie and me. There is no wooden trunk, just one fat green stalk, veined with brighter green veins twined with purple and blue. From the stalk come two more stalks reaching up in a Y. From each stalk there are three leaves, cradle shaped just as Mattie says] , and they are huge and curved at the bottom. Where the leaf begins, another stalk, much smaller, curls up over the large leaf and then descends into the stomach of a sleeping baby. All the babies’ eyes are closed. I hope they’re sleeping.
One leaf hangs off between the stalk to the right, shriveled and black, rolled into a tight caterpillar of empty.
The horses are tethered to the last tree by the shore. They are moving back and forth as their tethers will allow, nervous. Mattie’s standing at the shore, her fingers in her mouth. She’s chewing at them something fierce. She hears Star, and looks at me, but she’s too nervous to be mad. “Dammit, Alvie,” she says.
Grandpa’s coming out of the water onto the island. His shirt is soaked through. He doesn’t care, because he shucks it off and to the side. He goes up to the tree but doesn’t touch it, just walks up and down and peers into each cradle. After a moment, he reaches in and touches the side of one of the tiny faces.
The eyes open. I see Grandpa cradle a hand under its head, and body, and pluck it from its cradle. Then there is screaming, an awful shrill undulating noise. I can’t tell where it’s coming from, but I watch Grandpa run into the water with the baby. The wind happens with no warning, gusting across the pond so hard drops of water fly from the surface and dash against us. Then the babies left in their cradles open their eyes and begin to shriek the most terrible sound. I clap my hands over my ears.
Grandpa’s still there, the baby’s head just visible from above his shoulder. He’s swimming like hell’s chasing him and then the water behind him grows dark, rises in up angry, a monster wave. My hands still on my ears, I scream “Grandpa!” but the water knocks the baby off his shoulder, covers him. I’m running for the water without even thinking about it.
The baby is maybe twelve feet away , floating in all the restless murk, and Grandpa’s head rises above water again. I swim for the baby as another wave starts to raise itself. I snatch the baby, who isn’t crying but has eyes round and fixed on mine, the same brilliant blue as Mattie’s. I’m not as strong like Grandpa so I rest the baby on my chest and swim backwards. The water feels like mud. My legs get heavy and start to shake with each kick. I think they might give up all together, when I realize my feet touch the bottom of the pond. I stand up and fight for shore, realize Grandpa is ahead of me.
I reach the stones of the bank and fall on my knees. My breath comes hard and hot and I work for each one. My vision blurs, clears, then blurs as the whispers start again. Through a great distance, I hear Grandpa yelling. I don’t know how long I’m there, sightless and lost in the humming words of the grass, when I feel a hand land on my shirt collar, and I am yanked up.
I feel a scream bubble up but it’s only Grandpa, who holds an axe in his hand. “Get on your horse, boy, and ride like hell,” he screams. Something rises from the pond behind him, something that maybe used to be a girl. Stones are falling out of the shadow, like raindrops on the shore.
There’s little shadows all around Mattie too, and she’s running from them. I veer towards her but then Grandpa shoves me forward hard. “Ride, Alvie, NOWWWWW!”
I shove the baby in my wet shirt to get my hands free, one hand left there to steady her, the other to untether Star. His ears are back, and he’s already moving as I undo the reins, and I’ve got to swing a foot in the saddle while he dances around. I don’t even have my seat when he takes off at full speed. I just duck down, hunched over the baby, one hand white knuckling the saddle. The brush clutches at us, and leaves like hands pull at my shirt, my pants, but Star doesn’t stop and they fall away.
It’s the longest few minutes of my life, until Star hurdles the hedge and sprints into the dead lands. I rein him in even though he doesn’t want to stop. I turn him in circles, looking at the brush line, but there’s nothing.
The baby squawks and I take her out of my shirt and look her over good. She’s wiggly, so I carefully dismount and take off my wet shirt, spread it on the ground. Star is calmer now, so I get my canteen out and give her a sip of water with my finger. I know babies need milk, but I don’t have any.
There’s nothing to do but wait. I’ll wait until my shirt dries in the sun, I decide, then I’ll have to go for help or go back. But I’ll have the baby, either journey. I could use my shirt as a pack, tuck her in, have my hands free. At least go in a way, and holler for them, see if anyone answers. I’ve talked myself into it now and my shirt’s dry enough. I tear the baby a nappie, so she doesn’t pee on me, and I wrap it around her. I’m just getting together when I hear a tremendous crashing from the brush.
It’s Mattie, draped across her horse. I have to jump to snatch her loose reins, and get knocked off my feet trying to stop her. I jerk the reins so hard it hurts me to do, because I know it hurts the little filly, but she stops.
Mattie slips off her and staggers against me. She’s got terrible bruising on her face, and what looks like finger marks round her neck. Her weight pulls me to the ground and I ease her down real gentle.
“Where’s Grandpa?” I says. I’m trying to be patient, but there’s blood all over Mattie, her clothes, but it’s not hers. A bloody handprint, twice the size of her tiny one, spans her side. She doesn’t answer, so I shake her. “Where’s my Grandpa, damn it?”
She raises her head, and the look in her eyes might kill me.
“I gotta get him,” I says. I feel frantic, trapped like the horses, the balloon choking me.
Mattie’s long delicate fingers close around my hand. “No, Alvie, she’s got him,” she says. She’s crying big fat tears. “I’m sorry, Alvie, please, but he’s gone.”
We don’t talk much the way home. I ride, staring at my sister in my lap. She’s beautiful, and there’s nothing from that dark place in her. Her own shimmer is bright, like a halo that makes everything hurt less. She shines.
I don’t want to look at Mattie, because her shimmer has turned dark and gray. It hurts to see it.
“Your grandpa,” she says.
I don’t say anything. I don’t want to talk. I can hardly listen.
“Ted’s mama’s the one who took me in,” she says. “Your grandpa’s sister, you know. We’re all sort of related, I guess.”
“That’s sort of gross,” I says, without thinking.
She laughed. “Ted was a lot older, he was out learning his trade. We didn’t hardly see each other, until I turned sixteen. They hid me away, because everyone knows the tree’s cursed. People in town would have hurt me, I think, if they found out. Ted and I just happened, the way we were meant to. There’s all kinds of love in the world, Alvie. Sometimes you just can’t see it.”
“I know,” I says.
“I loved your Grandpa just as much as my father,” she says. “I thought if I came back to her, she wouldn’t hurt him.”
I can hear her crying, but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t do anything but take my sister home. The doctor must hear us coming. Man’s got a set of ears on him. We come right up to the porch, and I says, “Grandpa died.” The balloon goes up, up, up and then I’m the coldest I’ve ever been, and everything goes dark.
I wake up in a strange bed, soft, that doesn’t squeak when I turn over. There are cool fingers on my wrist, checking my pulse. Mattie’s musical voice, calling, “Ted! He’s awake.”
The doctor is beside her by the time I blink my eyes open and they both take my hands. “Alvie, how do you feel?” he asks.
“Where’s my sister?” My voice is rough at the edges.
“Here,” he says. Mattie disappears.
“But what about Mama?” I feel the balloon rising again, too big for my body.
The doctor folded his hands together, and says, “Your mama isn’t well, Alvie. Do you know that?”
I guess I do, so I nod.
“She got very upset on your return and accused me and Mattie of making deals with the devil. I wish I had a better explanation for you, but she’s not right up here right now.” He taps his temple.
Mattie reappears with a bundle in her arms. She sits back by my bed, on the floor, watching me with her bright ocean eyes. The same blue mirrors look out from the blanket.
“Well, I have to go, then,” I say, and sit up. “I need to take care of Momma.”
Mattie and the doctor exchange a look. “Alvie,” Mattie says. Her eyes are wet, and I know she doesn’t want to tell me what she has to. “She doesn’t want you to come back right now, darling. She’s very confused, and upset, and perhaps it’s best if you come to stay with Ted and me for a bit. We’ve talked with your father, and he’s going take your mother away to get some rest for a while. Maybe when she gets better…” and her voice trails off, because no one here believes that.
“Why would you do that? Because of Grandpa?” I bite my tongue, hoping the pain punctures the balloon pressing on my chest.
“Well, no,” Ted says. “Because you’re our family. “
The balloon deflates all at once, and I take a breath bigger than I knew was possible.
“You and this one,” Mattie says. She kisses the bundle, hands her to me.
The baby yawns, showing me her pink gums, and wraps her tiny fingers around my thumb. She’s the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen.
“Besides, she needs her brother to protect her,” Mattie says. “She’s got a touch of magic. And I can’t be your mother, but maybe I could be like your aunt?”
Ted puts his arm around her, and I can feel their goodness, their love, in the beating of my heart. I look at my sister, and I think of the lifeless dolls and how Grandpa did everything to get her a real girl, and then I think about Grandpa, how his hands showed me how to hold reins, how to brush out huckleberries, to dig out hooves. And I know that I belong here, where I can understand and be understood. I nod, just once. “Aye,” I say.
Mattie beams so bright it would blot out the sun.
“Now,” Ted say. He squeezes my hand gently. “What will you name your sister?”
“Hannah,” I says, without a thought at all. “Her name is Hannah.”
Outstanding debut. The crafting of the dialogue mixes well with the strangely affecting mental scenery. It raises images in the mind; yet these are ephemeral and shapechanging.