Sissy is too old to be telling anyone she dreams of Gypsies. She is too old to speak of women who crawl through the window to snatch her from bed, too old to be frightened by their long faces, their pellucid eyes and wrinkled, drawn skin. Baba,
they call. Little doll. Come with us, Baba,
they insist. The Gypsies sing: Child, you are ours.
They linger at the brink of her waking, at the border of her dreams. Sissy is too old to confess that she wakes with a sharp start still, or that when she awakens, she calls instinctively for Eva, and then waits and waits yet a moment more before turning on the light atop her bedside table. Hunched down in the sheets, she imagines the mist that hangs outside her window, phantom shapes that emerge from darkness. Her mind races over the always-present dream.
In the moment Sissy awakens, there are no clutching fingers but the disconsolate hurtling of a black bird against the window, the sound of beak hitting glass and then a flutter of wings. Sissy knows this is wrong, that birds and Gypsies have no place together. But, between her dreams and her waking, they are still there—bound. Then, suddenly, nothing: magically, both bird and Gypsies vanish.
Sissy is nine—an unlucky number—and she is too old for such nonsense. She knocks five times, a bumpity- bump- bump
rhythm, a language she and her sister, Eva, share through the walls at night.Where are you?
the knocks urge. Can you come here?
It happens in a small town in Pennsylvania, one known for the predictability of its days, in a neighborhood with faint yellow light and tree- lined streets curved like crescent moons. Here the houses are spotted with roses around the mailboxes and peopled with working families who tend to crabgrass on weekends and gather afterward on front lawns for idle talk and an occasional cookout of burgers and franks, Miller and Bud. This happens in a time when peeling burns, shiny knees and flip-flops are preferred to practical shoes and sunscreen, and children practice Travolta Grease
moves in the driveway—a little hip, a little lip. In the evening hours, these same children roam the streets with flashlights in hand, playing lightning tag and hide- and- seek in the neighbors’ hedges. Years from now, the remnants of their days will still speak through the markings on tree trunks and pledges of love and forever. It happens on a Tuesday in late June, during a summer of abysmal heat, a summer when, after a thirteen- year silence, cicadas crawl out of the ground and set about their buzzing, shrill hums and calls from trees. You can hear them everywhere you go, drowning out the robins’ chatter. Here, in this town, aboveground pools litter backyards. Flowers scent the air.
The first girl who goes missing: Vicki Anderson, known to Sissy Kisch but hated after the horrible incident involving Precious. Vicki: ten years old with braces and a clever, round face, a girl with a habit of twisting a curl of cropped hair around her index finger. Last seen wearing mustard- colored slacks and a white shirt embroidered with bees.
She vanishes only four blocks from Ellis Avenue, where her house is the third on the left, a yellow house with a picket fence lining the yard. On the day of her disappearance, Vicki is just leaving the park down the street from her house. She has just freed her bicycle from the bike rack, kicked back the stand, and mounted the Desert Rose for home.
Vicki: thin- boned, boyishly tall, with a sloped nose like her mother, Ginny’s. It is Ginny who, suddenly concerned with the time and a cooling dinner, drives her paneled station wagon down the skinny road that leads to the park. In an hour or so the sun will turn red and set. Neighbors will draw the curtains. Porch lights will burn and fireflies luminesce, and crickets will sing. The cicadas will cease their calls, their tymbals silenced. Now the sky appears not lustrous but a dull blue, throwing off a shade of lavender, a trace of pink.
The park is much like any park you might find in a small town: cracked, dusty asphalt; a basketball court, its metal fence curling back like a question mark; the tennis nets grown haggard from use and sagging in the middle. Swings line the playground, the ground packed solid beneath them. To the right, a baseball field. When the boys and girls slide into home, clay and dust float through the air, and their screams and laughter carry to the bleachers. Behind the field, the dark shapes of trees rise up— cypresses, maples, birches, pine—tearing through the sky. Quick currented, Monocacy Creek cuts through the woods and winds through town, the steep banks ridden with ferns and cattails and limestone.
Ginny looks around. “Vicki!” she calls. The smell of tar drifts up to her, the paved surface below still holding the day’s heat. As she walks, she feels the tackiness of her sandals against the ground. She finds Vicki’s Desert Rose lying on the asphalt, the wheels stopped, the wicker basket adorned with plastic flowers still holding the scraps of the day’s journey. Indecipherable to Ginny: a twig shaped like a slingshot; a rock with a depression in the center, as if a finger worried it there.
Alarm shoots through Ginny as she indulges, first, the worst of all possibilities. She calls out again and tries to calm herself with thoughts of her foolish child, her unpredictable, headstrong child. Vicki is the
type of child, Ginny tells herself, who instead of coming home might walk off with another girl to go to another house, or go in search ofmore treasures: a penny with a worn patina left lying on the pavement, an arrowhead nestled in the dirt, a sprig of laurel. This is the child who, after all, jumped from a tree branch ten feet high and sprained an ankle, the child who, on a dare, pushed her own fist through a window and then tried to hide the jagged lashes on her knuckles and wrist. “Daredevil stitches,” Ginny remembers explaining to the doctor, a young man with reddish hair and a careful walk. His stare pierced through her, as did his questions. He noted her responses, dressed the wounds. “Be careful,” he advised, lookingmore so at Ginny than her daughter.How angry Ginny was. She didn’t speak to Vicki for the rest of the day and sent her to bed early, without television. Now she glances toward the long line of swings and tells herself that Vicki is
the type of child who might leave her bike without concern. She’s the type to get a good yelling at for worrying a mother so. Thirty years ago (when such a thing was acceptable) Vicki would have gotten a good thrashing for this, which is just what Ginny’s own mother would have done to her.
“Vicki!” she yells, irritated that her daughter might play a foolish game at her expense. A breeze moves the swings and sets the chains squeaking. She calls louder as she walks by the slides and monkey bars. She jogs toward the tennis courts. There she sees the Kearnses’ sons, from down the street. Tall and muscular, courteous and smart, these high school boys make honor roll. They make prepubescent girls blush. They hire themselves out for yard work and give bored wives a quiet pleasure, a secret thrill and recollection of their own lost youth.
The boys swing their rackets back and forth, their faces stern with effort. The ball lets out a sharp pucker. A solid stroke from Brian, the older boy. Agile, smooth movement from Josh, his normally feathered hair plastered against his face and sweatband. Vicki often fawns over Josh and lingers around the courts, though this is something Ginny has not learned from her daughter’s lips but from her diary, the countless
entries strewn with chain- linked hearts. Ginny can pick the lock with a bobby pin.
She calls to them, her voice shaky. Sunlight hits her chestnut hair, highlighted with streaks of blond. “Boys,” she says. “Boys, have you seen Vicki? Has she been here with you?”
When Josh glances over, he misses the ball and curses under his breath. He adjusts his sweatband, positions it higher on his forehead. Mrs. Anderson lives a few blocks away from his house; she once paid him twenty dollars to paint her fence, a task that took two days and left a sunburn on his legs and arms. Her daughter leaned against the porch rail, her hands propped against her chin. “You’re gorgeous,” she said. Then, embarrassed, she laughed and ran into the house. He didn’t see her the rest of the time he was there, nor has he seen her today.
“Well?” Ginny asks again. Her face is pinched and sharp, etched with worry. She remains, to all who see her, a lonely but attractive woman, someone once pretty in those years before her husband’s death, in that time before gin in the afternoon and cigarettes that have dulled her skin. She wears black shorts and sandals, a red tank top with loopy ties at the shoulders that show off her arms.
Josh ambles over to the side of the court, lifts his thermos, and takes a long drink of Gatorade before approaching her. When he does, he notices her glassy, bloodshot eyes, the thin lines that spread like small fingers around her mouth, the faint sourness on her breath. He laces his fingers through the fence, determined to look Mrs. Anderson in the eye and not be ashamed for her.
“It’s time for dinner,” Ginny explains carefully. She leans forward, as if she is going to whisper a secret, but Josh rights himself. Gradually, so she won’t notice, he inches back. She tries to stay calm but is aware of a frantic quality in her speech, a slur, a certain pointedness that cuts forth, accusing, though she knows these boys would do her daughter no harm.
Josh runs a hand through his hair. "Haven’t seen her all day." He squints from the sun. He adds, "Mrs. Anderson, are you okay?"
"Of course I’m okay," she says. "It’s just that she’s late, and you know Vicki. My God, that girl, if you don’t have an eye on her, she just does what she wants, all the time.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, and he is. “But I haven’t seen her.”
She lets Josh’s statement register. Does this mean the boys have been here all day and Vicki hasn’t walked by the tennis court? Or that she might have walked by, and the boys, engrossed in their game, didn’t notice? But Vicki, seeing Josh, would have surely stopped and lingered; she surely would have sought this boy out. Still, both boys have been here all day and have not seen Vicki. And yet, the Desert Rose lies on its side, the red tassels fanned out against the ground.
Her thoughts run as dry as the baked pavement. Brian looks at her strangely, and she feels suddenly ashamed by her inattentiveness. Ginny’s gaze moves beyond him, beyond the tennis court to the woods, to the rows of cypress and Scotch pine, slippery elm and black oak. “Thanks,” she says. She walks and then sprints across the scorched grass, the sharp blades scratching against her sandals. The air presses down on her skin, thick like metal. Beads of sweat form on the nape of her neck and brow. When she reaches the ridgeline, blackbirds scatter from the canopy of branches, and, panting, Ginny peers into the dense underlay where mountain laurel grows. She smells earth and pine. She bends for a moment. She places her hands on her knees.
Ginny threads through the maze of trees. At the place where the cypresses give way to oaks, at the place of the brambly bushes and the swimming hole that children have dammed over the past decade, she stops. There the current swirls, and dense trees rise up on the other side of the creek, the brush and ferns more difficult to navigate. She scans the woods. There on the banks, wet leaves smell of rot and mud. The sound of trickling water floods her ears, washing over everything. The cicadas hum—shrill, resolute.
She did not want this to happen. She did not want to come out this evening. She did not want to leave her home already snookered, nor did
she wish to face the boys and see in them that dread that made her ashamed.
What those boys must think, what they must tell their mother. They must have so many stories, so many lies, passed from house to house.
She did not want to be out searching for Vicki. She wanted nothing more than to feed her daughter dinner and feign interest as Vicki showed her the treasures of the day: the rock, the twig, the flowers already wilting from the heat. “Guess, Mom,” Vicki might say, turning her head, pushing a stray curl behind her ear. “Guess what each means.”
“I don’t know,” Ginny might respond. “You tell me.”
And Vicki would smile wryly, keeping from her mother the significance she placed on each, turning over each item in her hands as if they held magic. Ginny might have felt good then as she settled back and flicked on the news, the voice of the anchorman spilling out into the room: the threat of layoffs at the steel plant, the union workers picketing; a lawsuit filed against the company for pollution; the plumes of smoke rising above the south side. The world would all be so distant then, with her daughter sitting on the floor, Indian- style, happy enough despite everything. She did not want any problems at home, and now even her stomach betrays her. The world spins. Light- headed and dizzy, Ginny feels the weight in her legs like stones. She sinks to earth, falling upon it on bended knees. She grips at leaves that break apart in her fingers. The light filters through the branches overhead and then down through the water. The algae- covered rocks catch a floating leaf. A dragonfly touches down on half- submerged debris. It flutters to the creek’s edge, a buzz of translucent wings.
Victoria, her girl with a sweet face and a grizzly bear’s courageous heart, is gone.
By the end of the evening, Ginny will call her neighbors: Milly Morris, Edna Stone, Matt Brandt, Ellie Green, and Jenny Schultz, despite the rumors she knows this will instigate. "Have you seen Vicki?" she will ask dumbly. "Did she stop by your house, any chance? No, I
don’t know where she is; that’s why I’m calling." Within days, police cars will frequent her driveway. A sturdy- looking officer with a crew cut and glasses that pinch his temples will file the official report. When they see flashing lights, neighbors will emerge from their homes to check on mail that has already been retrieved. They will linger on their sidewalks. Concerned, Frank Kisch will call late at night, after work. “Are you okay, Ginny?” he’ll ask. “My God,” he’ll say, “is there anything I can do for you, anything at all?” Police will search the park and will find a lone clog in the dirt, a piece of rope, a strap that might belong to the Desert Rose. They will scour the woods, search the old stone house at the corner of the park property, the one built during the Revolutionary War. Eventually neighbors will organize a community search, Matt Brandt and Edward Morris deciding to take matters into their own hands. The children will mimic with their own search, a game, flashlights in the bushes, tales of woe. “Vicki,” they’ll say in a whisper, “are you there? We’re coming for you!” Canines will track scents. There will be rumors of a bark, an alarm call, a half- mile trek through the woods, the dogs alert to a smell, and then—suddenly—nothing.
This will mark the first disappearance, in a town in Pennsylvania where nothing ever really happens. This will mark the beginning of fear. But now, with the Desert Rose piled in the back of her station wagon, Ginny speeds along her street.
The Morrises, who own a purple house—“that eyesore,” people say behind their backs—are sitting on their front porch tonight. Milly notes Ginny’s speed and glances over at her husband in a knowing way. She leans forward, causing two rolls of flesh to appear in her midriff. A mass of short gray curls hugs her broad face. She tells Edward, “That woman could kill someone, driving like that.”
“We’ve no need for gossip, Missus.” Edward feels as easy and calm as the night itself and loves the stillness of evening, the stars that form a wide canopy above them—Orion, lazy on its daggered side. “Does the gossip really matter?"
"Oh, I’ll say it does." But even so, Milly laughs a little foolishly.
They look out to the street. For the first time in the town’s nearly two- hundred- year history, local officials have issued water restrictions; hoses lie coiled like green snakes against the houses, limp and useless. The lawns have turned gold and then brown. No one is to wash their car, but Edward snuck out in the middle of the night, bucket and sponge in hand, laughing like a teenager. Even in the near dark, his Ford gleams, the gray smokiness catching the moonlight. He stands up and checks on the potted marigolds that he bought as a gift for Milly. “Dry,” he says, and heads into the house.
She calls in, “I’m just saying that maybe that woman should lay off the liquor.”
“As if the poor woman hasn’t been through enough,” he calls back.
Milly shakes her head. “I’m just saying that if she doesn’t watch it, she’ll have a death on her hands.”
Three days after the disappearance of Vicki Anderson, and the June heat settles over everything—the tree in the Kisches’ backyard, the stifled song of the ice-cream truck as it passes down the street, cranking out a jaunty melody. Children flock around, money in their fists; they purchase Creamsicles and Nutty Buddies that melt as soon as the paper is torn off. They laugh and drop sticky napkins onto the sidewalk, pitch some into a nearby yard. The heat resonates and throbs, creating a yellow glare, a pulsating tenor.
Three days, and life pushes on, despite. In the afternoon, Eva and Sissy are left alone while Frank Kisch goes off to work the three- to- eleven shift, first gathering his lunch pail and then making his way out the back door. Today he tells Eva to make sure the dishes are washed and dried and put away. He tells her to pick up her clothes and to vacuum the rug. Standing in the kitchen, he delivers these instructions in a voice that is perhaps sterner than he intends. At the doorway, Eva lingers, her dark hair falling over her shoulders. She’s seventeen and almost always ignores him, and there is, between them, a tension he cannot bridge or
fix. Frank regards her and thinks again how Eva is like her mother, right down to her temperament, her slight frame and hair. And that look she gives him now—her expression crestfallen, a crease forming between her eyes—is so much like Natalia’s. He doesn’t know when Eva managed to grow up, when his once ungainly child stretched in the arms and legs.
There was a time when, as a child of nine or ten years old, Eva would slip into bed between him and Natalia after having a bad dream. Her small voice would call, tentatively at first, into the darkness, and he would hear Natalia turn and sigh before lifting the covers. “Come here, little one,” she’d say, kissing Eva’s forehead, and Eva would lace her arms around Natalia first, and then crawl over her mother and bury her head under Frank’s neck. She had always smelled to him like honey and milk. There was a time when Eva adored him, times when, in the summer, he’d lift her and toss her into the pool, and she’d swim underwater, darting away from him before she’d reemerge and squeal, “Again, Daddy! Again!” Thinking of this, he grows irritated with Eva even though she has done nothing wrong, even though her only fault is growing up. She watches him, arms folded across her chest, the line of her jaw hard. He turns his attention to the backyard and glances out the screen door, past the empty pool, to the maple tree that he suspects has a fungus—the leaves have wilted and dropped months earlier than they should, the trunk turned black. He adds: “And I thought I told you already to rake up the goddamn tree leaves.”
“I got busy,” Eva says, shrugging. “There’s a lot you want.”
Frank ignores this, though there is something faintly conciliatory in his tone. “I don’t want you two going out today, either. I don’t want you near the park at all. The police have been down there. I don’t want Sissy to get upset. Watch your sister.”
After Frank leaves, Eva calls Sissy down from her bedroom. The girls rake. Or rather, Eva rakes. The blanched afternoon passes over her. There are leaves, so many leaves--they drift and float around Eva. She yells at Sissy to come down from the lip of the aboveground pool and
help. She loves her sister as much as she did when Sissy was a baby and Eva would carry her around, pretending Sissy was hers, but there is bitterness, too, that trumps everything on days like this, a resentment that shadows her love. Eva wants only to be rid of Sissy, rid of responsibility. Today, Eva wants only to see her man.
She rakes. “Personally,” she says now, “I think the Anderson girl had it coming to her because she didn’t listen. Do you hear me, Sissy? I said she never listened, just like you. I told you to get down now. I told you to get down and help.”
“You’re wrong,” Sissy says, “about Vicki. And you can just forget it if you think I’m going to help. Dad told you to do work, not me.”
Eva’s eyes slant. She rakes and gathers, stuffing leaves and pieces of bark into a trash bag, carrying it with an outstretched arm so as not to ruin her skirt. It is her favorite skirt, one that looks good against her sunbaked legs. Catlike, she strides down the walkway, dramatically, with a flair she only half believes she possesses. She opens the back gate and walks past the carport to the bins in the alley that smell of rotting fruit—thick, sweet, already drawing flies. She dumps the trash. She smacks her hands together and tosses her hair back over her shoulder. She glances up and down the street, waiting to be noticed.
Back in the yard, she finishes her wicked stories, tales involving knives and torture, and Sissy, if Sissy is not careful. Satisfied by the look of horror spreading across Sissy’s face, she ends with a moral: “That’s what happens to girls who don’t do what they’re told.” She makes a slicing motion across her throat. Then, the dreaded evil eye. It is a game, a lark, though Eva sometimes feels that even if made- up stories were true they wouldn’t surprise her. She’s a bit too world- weary at the age of almost- eighteen and sometimes believes she has seen enough for a lifetime.
All this makes Sissy wince. “I don’t believe you,” she says, indignant. “I don’t believe any of your stupid stories.”
“Would I lie? Have I ever lied to you?”
"Still," Sissy says. She extends her arms, her body perched on the metal lip of the pool that her father hasn’t bothered to fill this summer, the hottest of summers. She could fall to her death now with that evil eye, she could live a damned life where no wish earnestly wished for would come true. Over the past months, more so since their mother left, she has begun to think of Eva with dread, a sudden unfamiliarity that disarms even her most tentative attempts at connection. That her sister also has the capacity to be kind—to braid her hair or allow her to eat ice cream or let her sneak into bed at night—only confuses Sissy, only makes the summer stranger.
She closes her eyes and tries to ignore Eva’s stories. One more step,
she thinks, and everything can change.
“Get down!” Eva yells, exhausted.
One scuffed Converse poised in front of the other, a lace dangling precariously off the ledge, Sissy does not get down. Too much is at stake to come down now. The metal rim sags under her weight. One step, then two. She pretends that she is walking high above the world, on a wire. She feels distanced from everything—Eva, her tales of Vicki’s disappearance, the demand of chores, the pull of gravity. She tells herself: One pirouette at death- defying heights and she will bring back not Vicki but her mother. One pirouette and she will return her life to normal.
“Are you listening?” Eva asks. “I said get down, Sissy. Get down now.” Irritated, she stands with her hands on her hips. Could she demand, Obey
? Could she tell Sissy that occasionally, and more so since their mother left, she has wanted to break Sissy into pieces, rip apart her limbs, devour her in anger? Or worse, could she confess that on those days when she leaves Sissy, she wishes she’d come home to find her sister gone, not quite like the Anderson girl, but gone nonetheless? If their mother were here, none of this would happen. Their mother, Natalia, misses everything, of course. She chose to leave in the cold and snow, preferring it to warm goodbyes and sunshine. She has left Sissy to tears in the nighttime and Eva choking on her sense of sisterly duty.
Sissy holds her arms up high in the air. She thinks only of the next
step, the turn she will ease into, her life afterward transformed. When Eva calls again, Sissy ignores her.
And this—this more than anything—angers Eva more. She is not Sissy’s mother; nor does she wish to be. If Sissy does not want to sleep, Eva will not make her. Nor will she run in the middle of the night to comfort Sissy when she wakes from dreams of old women, her head filled with the sound of scraping fingers, her forehead beaded with sweat. She will not check the closet for monsters and sinister men. And if Sissy somehow falls from the lip of the pool and cracks her head, Eva will only say it serves her right. Today, under the weight of chores and the expectation of her man, she is in no mood. She picks up the rake again and digs into the grass. “It’s not funny,” she says.
“I’m not laughing, am I?” Sissy questions.
If Eva does not find Sissy’s actions amusing, neither does Sissy. Dreaming, she knows, is serious business. At nine, she already senses the world outside her is treacherous, easily broken and shattered. She closes her eyes and conjures the world of her mind and heart. She fills the pool with water, sees the light reflecting off the surface—brilliant, forgiving.
Another step forward. She balances herself and feels a discernible risk. If she comes down, she will be simply herself: a square- bodied girl with unruly split- ended hair the color of blanched cocoa beans, breasts that refuse to grow even though she stuffs her shirt with toilet paper and admires the pretty lie. Plain- looking compared to Eva, more the owner of her father’s build, Sissy, if truth be told, pales in comparison of beauty, just as she often pales in courage. She hates to be alone, unlike Eva who always wants away from the house, away from Sissy.
“Get down!” There is a nastiness in Eva’s voice that surprises Sissy. “Grow the fuck up, will you?”Up and down,
Sissy thinks. Get down, grow up.
The water she conjured just a few moments before disappears, leaving only the sagging liner speckled with fake pebbles, the peril of falling. The part of Sissy that is afraid (the part of her that is always afraid) is certain her piroutte will lead to a sudden, spectacular death. A blaze of glory.
A fall, a crack against the empty pool liner, the spilling of blood. Her funeral: well attended. Strangers mourning her, wailing into the long night. Carnations laid atop her casket, a stallion to pull her coffin, a feathery plume on the horse’s harness.
But despite the obvious risk at five feet in the air, she tells herself that one turn can undo time. One death- defying pirouette and the world is hers. Eva will stop being agitated, quick to anger, and return to simply being her sister. Her father will fill the pool. Her mother will emerge from the back door and stand on the steps. Tall and lean, her hair long and wavy like Eva’s, though pinned back loosely from her face and sprinkled with gray, her mother will wipe her hands on a kitchen towel and call Sissy in for lunch. Maybe, Sissy reasons, even Vicki Anderson will find her way home, though this is something she throws in begrudgingly, to assuage a lingering tie in her heart that comes from once being friends, from those long days together, from the many sleepovers where the girls transformed an entire room into a pile of blankets and then scurried underneath them like moles. She can still see Vicki’s face, her dark eyes illuminated by a flashlight, the shadow under her chin. Vicki asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I don’t know,” Sissy confessed. It seemed pointless to plan her life when her desires changed from day to day.
“Well,” Vicki Anderson told her. “If you don’t have ambition, that’s not my problem. I’m going to join the circus. Or ride on trains. Or dissect a heart. Or be a famous ghost detective and end up on TV. Watch, and you’ll see my name around.”
“Anything is possible,” Sissy said, shrugging.
And today, with the light spilling over her, everything does seem possible if she stays up here, away from the ground.
“I’ve got another story for you,” Eva yells. “A doozy about a sister who kicks her younger sister’s ass.”
“Quiet!” Sissy says, daring, arms raised. She doesn’t need Eva’s stories; she has her own. Tucked beneath her bed is a shoe box that contains her favorites--Nancy Drew and Ringling Brothers
and Circus on Rails
and Ghost Detectives.
Also in the box she keeps a stolen photograph, yellowed at its scalloped edges, of her mother as a young girl—Natalia with Frank, her head tilted back, a dark dress with a bow around her waist, a daring V- neck. Under that lies a diary filled with secrets and stories—stories that avenge Precious and murder Vicki Anderson five times over. Stories of old women with gnarled fingers and broken teeth. Stories of birds in the night, their iridescent eyes watching everything. Stories of Eva, who Sissy often refers to as Darth Vader, the Evil Overlord. Stories of her mother, to which Sissy has added fantastic twists: instead of leaving, her mother grew white wings and flew away. Instead of not saying goodbye, her mother sent many regretful letters, pages damp from tears. In one tale, Sissy even made a knife tear at her mother’s flesh, but after she penned those lines, she immediately regretted them and blackened out the entire passage with a marker.
A sullen ache settles in her, and she misses what is gone. She flails her arms forward before catching her balance. Her pulse races. To soothe herself, she begins a familiar refrain: Once upon a time.
Once upon a time, she tells herself, there was a girl perched five thousand feet in the air on a pool top, the daughter of a woman who danced around fires in a country with no name. Sissy strains to complete the story. She does not remember all her mother’s words spoken before bedtime and will, in fact, never remember them entirely—those tales of lost women, wanderers; those who disappeared in ash and dust and were forgotten; a woman left on a street corner, peddling trinkets and reading palms; bits of the stories told in fragments of other languages. My real mother threatened to sell me once because I didn’t listen,
Natalia once said in a bedtime story. She could be a real
Kurva who shape- shifted like an animal.
Sissy remembers to breathe. She adjusts, readies herself. She begins a turn. She hears crunching leaves, smells almonds and coconut butter. Then, a yank. Her legs wobble and strain, pulled by gravity, and then, she alights--flesh and bone hitting the ground.
Eva stands above her with a look that says it all: She will brook no foolishness. "Queen of the morons," she says sharply. "I told you to get down and work.”
Sissy rises and brushes pebbles and dirt from her knees. She wipes away blood and rubs a welt that is already forming. The moment is ruined, the day is ruined. Nothing will change. She will only be herself, an inconsolable girl.
Sissy’s bottom lip protrudes slightly, and Eva knows that a serious tantrum is about to come on, as quick and violent as a summer storm. She’s been brewing this,
Eva thinks. She’s been brewing this up all day.
Sissy gives an exasperated kick, one directed toward Eva’s shin, and one that lands, miraculously, squarely where she intends. A wave of pain travels through Eva before she swoops forward and smacks Sissy’s face. Then she catches herself. She steps back suddenly, saying, “I’m sorry, baby. I didn’t really mean to do that.”
Too stunned to answer, Sissy wipes her nose with the back of her hand.
“For Christ’s sake,” Eva says, bending over, “don’t cry.”
But it is too late, and crying is exactly what Sissy does, although this is not what she wanted to do at all. To cry is to admit that you are wrong, or that you have managed to find yourself somehow terribly alone. When she cries, Eva tells her to toughen up. When she cries, her mother is leaving again. When she cries, she hurts all over, for everything. She chokes back her tears, and, indignantly, says: “You’re trying
to kill me. You’re trying to goddamn kill
Eva rights herself. It is senseless, she knows, to argue. “Goddamn kill you, Sissy Kiss?”
“Goddamn it all to hell,” Sissy says, and kicks at the ground. She notices a cicada crawling there. She stomps it with her foot, feeling a guilty pleasure.
“Goddamn it all,” Eva ventures, “to mother- fucking
Sissy’s eyes widen, and Eva senses Sissy will not press the limits of foul language as far as that,
despite however much Eva might encourage it behind their father’s back.
Eva takes Sissy’s arm and pulls her closer. With her free hand she straightens Sissy’s KISS T- shirt; it has managed to crawl up on one side, simultaneously scrunching Gene Simmons’s face and revealing skinny flesh and rib. “If I were trying to kill you, Sissy, you’d already be dead by now.”
“Thanks a lot, jerk.”
“Don’t be a Neanderthal.”
“Don’t use big words.”
Eva steps back again and looks Sissy over. Something in her chest constricts and she feels it then—obligation, a pestering love. “You’ll be fine,” she says. “No permanent damage.” She sighs the sigh of the ages and looks over Sissy’s shoulder, down the yard, and out to the alley. “Forget the chores,” she says, finally. “I’ll make up some excuse with Dad. Just go—go inside. There are franks in the fridge. I’m going out.”
“Where?” Sissy asks. “Are you going out with Greg?”
“Absolutely not,” Eva tells her. “And where is none of your business. And God no, not Greg. He’s a juvenile delinquent, practically. Just because you
“I don’t,” Sissy says. But she has already daydreamed what she has deemed an inevitable wedding: white streamers and pink frosting on the cake (peonies, perhaps, or roses) and Greg’s light blue tuxedo trimmed with velvet, Sissy in tulle, and her father in the back of the reception hall, passing out cigars.
“Earth to sister,” Eva says.
“Good God, never mind.” She heads inside, and Sissy follows.
“Is it him? Are you going to meet him
?” She has come to think of him as the mystery man, the man of magic—lean with a pleasant, wide face and smile. Only a week ago, he pulled up in the alley, got out of his van, and hugged Eva, who was waiting for him. He presented her with a flower he had hidden behind his back. “Is it him?”
“I told you that’s a secret,” Eva says quietly. “You promised not to tell.”
“I won’t tell. I’m just asking.”
“Not him,” Eva lies.
“Are you mad at me?”
“Do you know you drive me crazy with questions?”
“Are you mad?”
“No, not really. Are you going to tell?”
In the kitchen, Eva pulls out a soda from the refrigerator, opens the can, and pours a glass of Coca- Cola. “You know what to do if anyone calls?” Eva asks, leaning against the counter. “If Dad calls on break? Especially
if Dad calls. I’m indisposed. Say it.”
“I’m indisposed,” Sissy says.
“Not you. Me. I’m indisposed. I’m counting on you not to tattle. Tattletales get their just due.” She hands Sissy the half- finished glass and watches as Sissy drinks the soda and holds it in her mouth for a moment, leaving it to fizzle.
“I already told you I won’t,” Sissy says finally.
“Good. I’m sorry for what I did before.”
“Do you really mean that, or do you just not want me to tell?”
“I mean it.”
“How much do you love me, kid?”
“Tons,” Sissy says. “I love you tons.”
“You always say that,” Eva tells her. She crosses her arms. “You’re too easy.”
Sissy sips her soda. “Eva?”
“Why didn’t Dad fill the pool?"
"Because he’s an asshole, that’s why."
“Did Mom go where Vicki went?”
Eva squats down, to eye level. “No,” she says plainly. “Mom didn’t go where Vicki went.”
“Maybe Mom was kidnapped.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Why do you conflate things?”
Sissy looks at her strangely. “Maybe,” Sissy says finally, “Mom was kidnapped and that’s why she hasn’t called.”
“You’ve got it all wrong,” Eva says, impatient to be on her way, and, at the mention of their mother, annoyed again. “Mom’s probably still in Italy with Dr. Finley, like she was when she wrote to us. That’s the truth, Sissy. Mom is gone and she isn’t coming back, so you might as well just forget about her.”
Sissy follows her sister down the hall. Eva picks up her purse from the living room chair and opens it. She stands in front of the mirror and applies a coat of orange lip gloss.
“Eva?” Sissy lingers in the doorway.
“Jesus Christ, what
?” She smacks her lips together.
“Do you ever get lonely?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Eva primps her hair. Her chest constricts again, though this time she ignores it. “Everyone gets lonely, I guess.”
“What do you do when you are, then?”
Eva checks the clock—just about three, just about the time he’ll finish—and takes her keys from her purse. “I don’t know,” she says, heading out the door. “I just pretend I’m not.”
Sissy does conflate everything; it’s a mark of her character and disposition, one that she will not rid herself of in all her lifetime. Gypsies and birds and ghosts, her mother and Vicki. What she cannot fully understand becomes a mass of threaded contradictions within her, dancing around in her mind until they form a lover’s knot.
After Eva leaves, the day grows as long as a shadow. By four the house will begin to feel ominous. In the kitchen, the basement door will become a gateway to a place filled with cobwebby terror, unspeakable dread. In the living room, Sissy will be certain someone lurks just outside the window: a mystery man, a murderer. Upstairs, the shuttered closet in Sissy’s room will suddenly hold too many secrets; each slat will cause her worry. She will find refuge in Eva’s room, the room that is, according to the red- lettered sign on the door, strictly off-limits! On Eva’s walls there hang posters of exotic places—Italy, Spain, France—Eva has always wanted to travel to, though she laments frequently that she’ll never get away from this town and from these people, though what people she refers to exactly is mostly anyone’s guess. Clothes cover the carpet, piles of books litter the bureau. The room smells of cinnamon and lemon candles. Eva’s jewelry box stands always open. Black and white with two silver clasps on each side, the box holds a dancer, a ballerina dressed in a white tutu and frozen on pointed toes. Sissy will wind the back of the box and listen, absorbed, as the ballerina turns in circles.
She stays away from the open window in the hallway and the attic door. She races down the steps. In the kitchen, Sissy quarters an onion and places each wedge at a corner of the living room, an act designed, her mother said, to keep away evil. Natalia performed this ritual every time there was misfortune—a fight with Frank, a tiff with Mr. Schultz, the migraines plaguing Edna Stone. Worry, Natalia warned, has no sense of boundaries or distance; it simply lurks, waiting to find you. There were constant rituals, in fact—digging a hole in the dirt and filling it with coins to bring money, rubbing vinegar on foreheads to chase away headaches—all designed to keep disaster at bay.
Not quite satisfied with the onion cutting, and the tears it has caused, Sissy crosses herself, throws salt over her shoulder. There will be no worry, not in a near- empty, vulnerable house.
She eats a hot dog, makes a mess with the ketchup.
She turns on the television to Scooby- Doo
. This much she knows, even when she is alone: If she had a dog, the world would be better. If she had a dog, she wouldn’t ever feel lonely.
In the living room, the light filters through the curtains. Dust floats in the air. It will be after dark when Eva arrives home, if she arrives home at all, her hair mussed, the smell of a man all over her, though this will not register to Sissy until years afterward—the deceit, the lovely lies of summer.
Unlike Rocky, the mutt down the street who nips at the neighbors and who used to scare Natalia half to death, Scooby- Doo is a bona fide coward; still, he chases a phantom.
Sissy yearns for her mother. She thinks of Vicki, despite—
Last summer, the girls were inseparable, which made the mothers happy. Both women didn’t do well with many of the other women in the neighborhood, those who wanted to sit and gossip over iced tea and talk about how they loathed their children’s teachers, or their mothers- in- law, or their husbands. Natalia would have none of that public airing of grievances. She preferred a certain measure of appearance, of not saying too much to any one person. Natalia was that sort of woman—whatever awkwardness she may have once felt as a youngster had transformed itself into a formality that often grew more pronounced when a neighbor showed up, inexplicably holding a crumb cake. “Strangers,” she often said. “I don’t know why they would want to sit and talk.”
Except for Ginny Anderson. They met at the school’s bingo night, and the women hit it off. In the weeks following, Ginny would stop by for coffee and they’d talk while the girls were left to solidify their friendship. “Go outside,” Natalia would say, patting the children on the back with her palm, nudging them forward. “Go play.”
Last summer, the girls hunted the neighborhood. They transformed themselves into private eyes and schoolmarms, Indians and cowboys, wardens and prisoners, dancers and thieves. They were sharks who circled around in the pool. They were dead swans, floating on the water. They were divers, plunging down to the bottom of the sea in search of gold doubloons. They planned routes, drew maps, knew shortcuts through alleyways and hedges and broken fences. They worked out elaborate rescue plans. They brought chalk to mark trees.
They shared blood and claimed sisterhood. They told stories until they erupted in laughter and Eva had to bang on the wall and yell for them to be quiet.
Together they made entire worlds from nothing. Throughout the long summer, they were always running away, always finding a way home.
But Precious! Sissy will never get over the incident involving Precious, one that led to the dissolution of friendship. A gift from her mother, a porcelain doll that had traveled as Natalia’s first mate on a boat years before, Precious was Sissy’s most beloved possession: her peasant dress the color of pumpkins, her lips painted red, her hair long and black and still smelling faintly of ocean salt and faraway places. When Vicki wanted to play with Precious, Sissy adamantly refused, and when she refused again, Vicki engaged the doll in a tug-of-war, until it broke, literally, in two.
In her anger, Sissy threw her half at Vicki, missing, hitting the wall. And then on the floor was Precious’s shattered face, her tiny hands disembodied. In the middle of the night, to avenge the horrific incident, Sissy snuck into her mother’s sewing room, unsheathed the metal scissors, and lopped off Vicki’s hair as she slept. How her hands trembled as the blade went down, catching the moonlight; Vicki woke, felt her head, and screamed so loudly the entire house woke up. And this was followed by Vicki leaving at three in the morning, and by Mrs. Anderson’s anger. Sissy’s punishment ensued: three days alone in her room, like a common criminal.
A secret Sissy holds: She saw Vicki on the day of the disappearance, and this is a thought that, despite her hatred, she worries like a strand of hair. If Vicki is really gone, if she didn’t just run away, could Sissy have stopped any bad luck and misfortune? Could she have called out, offered reconciliation, a game of hopscotch on the pavement? Instead, she let Vicki ride by the house and watched, resolute, angry, as Vicki stood up on the pedals and popped a wheelie with her new bike, the Desert Rose. “Later, Gator,” Vicki said, and Sissy stood with a cocky expression as Vicki disappeared down the hill, out of sight. How her thoughts circle around what might have been, what was and is. She wonders if what she saw was a real or a phantom girl.
Maybe Sissy’s mother, that Gypsy soul, stole Vicki away, and all of this and none of this makes sense in Sissy’s mind, and all of this and none of this seems real.
Scooby- Doo shivers in fright. “Scooby- Dooby- Doo!” he says.
Sissy finishes her hot dog.
The light filters low.
She steps outside and heads to the park.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Precious by Sandra Novack. Copyright © 2009 by Sandra Novack. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.