I'd been kicking Josh's headstone.
In retrospect, I should've gotten the flat kind of stone instead of the sticking-up kind, because before too long the thing would probably be on the ground anyway. I'd been to the cemetery four times in the week since they'd laid the stone, three of those times without the kids, which meant I'd come for the express purpose of kicking. Which felt good while I was doing it, but once it was over all I'd gotten was a sore foot and, on the fifth day, a funny look from an old man one row down, who'd been clipping the grass around a stone with a pair of orange-handled children's scissors.
It was retribution for Toby who hadn't said a word in two months, for Anna who pretended she wasn't hurting, but still came downstairs every night to stare at the photo of herself on Josh's shoulders. And most of all for me, for leaving me with two broken kids, no money, no home, and no job. And no explanation for why he'd left.
It was Josh I really wanted to kick, of course. But mostly, mostly I just wanted to hold him.2
My dad was a hero soldier. I looked up hero
in my dictionary, and this is what it said:
1) A person who is admired for great courage, noble character, and good deeds.
2) A sandwich, usually made with crusty bread, a.k.a. submarine, hoagie.
3) An illustrious warrior.
My dad was the number one and number three kinds of hero both. A double hero.
He died in the war. Mom didn't tell say exactly how he died, but this is what I worked out. What happened was he went on a mission without telling us and was gone all night, after which he got shot, after which Marines men brought him home to our garage, to rest in his new Pathfinder because Mom told them it was one of his most favorite places to be. After which Toby found him. In my opinion it was not the sort of thing he should've seen.
I've thought a lot about what's the right thing people could have said to us, and have come up mostly with wrong things. These are some that came out of Ms. Thomas, Amanda Greer, and Tim Emerson, in order. Number one: "Oh, sweet baby, are you going to be okay?" Number two: "I totally
know how it feels because my cat died last spring." And worst of all, number three: "What did he look like without a head?"
The right thing is probably what Madison, who is my best friend, did. She didn't say anything for my whole first morning back to school, just followed me around wherever I went, sat next to me, and gave everybody else dirty looks.
The day Dad came back from heaven was, I have to say, an especially bad day. Not just because it was Friday, math test day, and I do not understand long division, but also because of art. We were doing this thing where you color patterns on paper, smear over them with black Cray-Pas, and then draw, and voilà
, magic colors. What I drew was me, Toby, and Mom in front of our house, which looked boring so I added rain, after which Mrs. Goldberg hugged me from behind and said, "Your daddy will always be part of your family too." Which, for whatever reason, is also not a right thing to say. It makes you feel alone.
So I was not in a good mood when we found my dad's present. I had what Dad used to call "the weight" when what I used to think he meant was "the wait." Because that's what he did when he had it, hung around in bed until he felt better. But now I understand what he meant. For him the weight came after he got back from Iraq, and for me it started after he died, a punch in the stomach that makes the hurt spread heavy up your chest and down to your legs, so all you want to do is fall over and sleep.
I sat next to Toby on the bus ride home. It used to be I wouldn't be caught dead, but now he needs me so I don't care what people think. Also, the truth is that by the end of the day I need him too, because he's the only person who understands, and also he is part of home.
He rode with his forehead against the window, and I shoved up close to him. There was a white spot on his sweater and I wiped at it. "That milk?"
He didn't look at me. I licked my hand and wiped at it again. "Okay, it's pretty much gone," I said.
Sometimes I wanted to shake him and yell so loud it broke through to the inside parts of him. I knew his not talking was a sickness, like when you need to throw up. You can yell at someone all you like, but if they have to throw up they will not be able to stop themselves.
I rested my chin on Toby's head and tried to memorize everything I saw out the bus window, because in a few days this wouldn't be our home anymore. What I saw was: houses, all with roofs made out of flower pot material and little lawns; dirt that was the same color as the roofs; an empty bottle; a girl playing hopscotch. I wrote these things down in my notebook so I would remember. I had a list of everyone in my class along with who I liked and didn't like, and the color of all the carpets and curtains in our house, and my favorite places to walk. You wouldn't think you could forget these things, but you do.
I also started a list about my dad, but it didn't really work because people aren't like words in the dictionary, you can't explain them. I wrote things and then scribbled them out and tried again. He was nice. He was funny. He used to crawl around with me and Toby on his back. He liked coffee. He had yellow hair.
But it all just sounded like I was explaining somebody who could've been anyone.
Where we were living was called Camp Pendleton, and why we had to move was because it was a place for only families of Marines to live. My dad's rank was posted outside our door, Staff Sergeant, which was no longer applicable.
Where we were moving to was my grandparents' house in a place called French Creek. Me and Toby would have to share a room, which was okay except that Toby had nightmares that woke me up. Which was also okay, though, because I'd go lie in his bed and we'd just rock until we both fell asleep. Except sometimes when he wet the bed, which was gross and not okay.
Our house was the color of chocolate milk, with yellow and pink flowers outside the door that Mom was supposed to water but usually forgot. She was waiting for me and Toby by the front door when the bus pulled up, wearing the kind of funny smile she gets sometimes, like she just tasted bad food and doesn't want to hurt the cook's feelings. She bent to hug me, right out there in the street, which normally would've been embarrassing but since Dad died I didn't care. "There's cookies in the kitchen," she said. "Anna, don't look at the pile of fabric on the bar. It's not supposed to be a scary costume but at the moment it's kind of freaky, like a black potato with eyes."
Halloween was coming, and my costume was a penguin. Skeptical
is a dictionary word that means having doubt, and this is how I felt about my costume. Having doubt.
We went inside for our milk and cookies, and I pulled out the Cray-Pas picture I drew in art. "Want to see what I did?"
But Mom didn't look. "How d'you guys feel about ravioli for dinner?" she said, pulling out the milk. These days she only made the dinners she thought we liked, including hot dogs, bologna sandwiches, grilled cheese, and sometimes ravioli. Which was okay in the beginning, but after a while I started feeling like if I ate another ravioli I might die.
I traced my finger around the Cray-Pas Anna, and then I squashed my picture and stuffed it back in my knapsack. "Look at this," I said, and I ran to the middle of the family room, did a cartwheel, and ended with my arms in the air. "Give me a rating."
Mom smiled and said, "That was a perfect ten!" But she wasn't even looking. She was reaching for my milk, and she chugged it down in three gulps. Which hurt my feelings so I grabbed a cookie and left.
"Anna?" Mom called, but she didn't come to get me.
I went to my bedroom to read, lying on my sleeping bag because we had sold my bed. It was a good day in my reading life. I had discovered a book every person should read, with the title of A Wrinkle in Time
, and it was everything a book should be. Scary but not too scary. About things you know you will never see but that are real enough you believe someone else might have seen them. It was the kind of book you stay up to read until your eyes feel like they are filled with glue, and it was because of that book that I was able, that day, to believe in magic.
I was there on my sleeping bag when Toby came into my room. It took all my strength to come back into the world, and I almost yelled at him for ruining the dream of it, until I saw that he was crying.
There was a Secret Special place in our house, in the upstairs bathroom, under the cupboard where Mom kept the towels and toilet paper. The cupboard had these golf ball feet that made a space only my and Toby's hands could reach inside. It was a space that only us, and my dad, knew.
It was Dad who found the space and decided what it was for. He showed us the first day after one of his bad weeks. First days, this is how it was. His eyes would still look flat like they'd been painted on, and bruised like he'd been rubbing his fists into them hard. He still wouldn't be able to hug us or even look at us, no room to let us in. But on the day he showed us the space he'd been able to sit on Toby's bed, with me on one side and Toby on the other, and he could talk. "I have something for you," he said.
He reached into his pajama pocket and he pulled out a little heart. It was the exact size of my palm, and made out of soft fabric the color of a banana, a little mouse pillow. "Smell," he said, and he held it first to Toby's nose and then to mine. It smelled like winter and like fog, like washed clothes before they've gone into the dryer. "That's called lavender," he said.
I smiled, to be polite. It seemed like about as good a present as getting socks, and definitely not a kind of thing me and Toby could share. But that is because I didn't know.
"Thanks," I said, because I couldn't think what else to say. But then he took us up to the bathroom.
I loved our bathroom. Everything in it was white except the walls and ceiling which were blue. This is what I wrote in my list of things: Upstairs bathroom–crack in sink shape of Big Dipper, have to wriggle toilet flusher, faucet handle shaped like jewelry.
This is what I could have written too, that when you laid in the tub you felt like you were floating on a cloud.
When we got up to the bathroom, Dad bent down and he pointed. "This," he said, "will be our Secret Special place. We'll be the only ones who know. And on days when I can't be with you, I'll do this." He held up the heart for us to see, and then he tucked it under the cabinet. We watched it disappear.
"Now take it out," he said.
Me and Toby reached under the cabinet and we both brought it out, me holding the pointy end and Toby holding the bumps. Dad held out his hand and we gave it back. Wondering.
"On days when I can't be with you," he said, "I'll leave this here while you're asleep. And in the morning, when you're missing me, you can look under the cabinet and find it. This'll be my secret message to let you know that I'm thinking about you." He gave a smile that was not a real smile, and then he said, "What it means is that I'm okay, and that I love you."
I understood. I understood exactly, and I think Toby did too. On days when he couldn't talk, the heart would be his words.
So that is what we did before my daddy died, the times when he couldn't unlock his bedroom door. Toby would wake up and he'd come to get me, and we'd both go together to feel under the cupboard. We'd take the heart out and we'd hold it, smell it. And then when we felt better we'd put the heart back in the Secret Special place, to show Dad that we loved him too. Also that we were okay, even when we weren't.
This is what I did on the day Mom told me. I couldn't breathe and so I ran up to the bathroom. And I knew what dying meant, and I knew it would not make sense to look, but I couldn't stop myself. I swept my hand around first carefully but then faster, faster, back and forth, grabbing for nothing until my knees got sore and my shoulder got sore and I got a deep indented line in my arm from the edge of the cupboard.
The heart wasn't there. Of course it wasn't, he was dead. What was there were dust and a black ball of lint. There were four little brown pellets. There was a dead ladybug. I put them all into a sandwich bag. I hid them under my mattress and slept on them every night, I don't know why. I guess because they might have been some kind of message, like a rebus:
But the heart, the only message that meant anything, was gone. Until. Magic.
Toby stood in my room, watching me. He was crying, a shaking, underwater gulping kind of crying like he couldn't get enough air. He walked over and he put something on my bed, and there it was.
"Where'd you get it from?" I whispered.
He didn't answer because he couldn't talk, because seeing my dad dead and maybe bloody had swallowed up his voice. He just turned away and walked out of my room and so I followed him. He walked into the bathroom and then he looked at me, and there was a rushing through my stomach, a dark wind.
Excerpted from Promise the Moon by Elizabeth Joy Arnold. Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Arnold. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, 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.