For months I had wished and wished the baby would be a girl, a little sister. Maybe I shouldn't have wished so hard. A boy might have lived.
Weren't wishes kind of like prayers? Maybe my wishing really did make things worse. I knew that didn't make sense, but nothing in this whole terrible day made sense.
Grandma closed the front door with a bang, as if announcing the end of a chapter in a book about our lives. "What a day," she said, dropping her purse to the floor. "I'm going to lie down. You should take a nap, too, Annie. None of us got much sleep last night." Grandma headed to her room, not waiting for an answer.
A nap? I was almost eleven. I hadn't taken a nap for as long as I could remember. Besides, how could a nap change the way we all felt? We'd still wake up. It would all still be the same.
"She means well, Annie," Grandpa said. "We're all worn out." He looked like he wanted to say something more. I waited. Grandpa had grown older, just in this one day. His glasses were smudged, and his mouth and shoulders sagged. Gray stubble covered his chin.
"I thought . . ." Grandpa reached out to smooth my hair. "We all thought it would be okay this time." Another pause as he started down the basement stairs to his workshop. "She had red hair, you know. Very much like yours. A downy, reddish cap."
My baby sister had red hair like mine. If only I could have seen her, just once.
The house was silent. I walked from room to room with that heavy, tired feeling you have after you've cried for a long time. I looked out the windows. How could the sun still shine like it was just any normal day? The kitchen clock showed that it was only 2:45. Maybe I'd go down to the Millers'. If the Miller kids didn't know about the baby, I could pretend things were normal.
The walk down the winding dirt road to the Millers' farm seemed longer than ever before. Maybe it was because I usually ran down and didn't even notice passing Loggers Hollow Church with its small fenced-in graveyard. But this time that little graveyard was all I could think about. I won't look, I won't look, I repeated over and over to myself, but it didn't keep the vision of gravestones out of my mind. Soon my little sister would have a gravestone of her own with her short, one-day life carved into it. Born July 13, 1963. Died July 14, 1963. Grandpa had buried her there earlier this morning--all by himself while Grandma and I stayed with Mama at the hospital.
"Aren't we having a funeral?" I had asked.
Grandma was quick to shush me. "We're trying to make it easier for your mama. Less for her to go through," she whispered, while Mama lay in bed with her eyes closed, looking like she was asleep. But I could see tears slipping through the cracks and sliding over Mama's face, soaking the pillow beneath her head. Grandma patted her hand, and I tried squeezing Mama's other hand, but she didn't squeeze back.
Easier? Nothing could make things easier right now--except if I were miles and miles across the ocean in Germany with Daddy, who didn't even know anything was wrong. This was probably something I should write down in the journal Daddy had given me before he left. Something I should tell him about my summer, but I didn't know if I could ever write this feeling down on paper.
After another curve in the road, the Millers' brick farmhouse was in sight, and the yard was spilling over with grandchildren. They lived in their own houses nearby, but today was Sunday. I knew they were all there for the big Sunday dinner old Mrs. Miller always cooked with the help of the four younger Mrs. Millers. If it wasn't raining, they set up long tables in the yard under the shade tree and carried out platters of ham and biscuits, cole slaw, sliced tomatoes, corn on the cob--more food than even all those people could eat. And there would be a fluffy coconut cake that Bobby's mother, the young Mrs. Miller with black hair, liked to bake. After I scraped those tiny flakes of coconut off the frosting, it sure tasted good.
Whichever Mrs. Miller was closest would always set one more plate for me if I was around. I slipped in like I belonged there, just another member of their overflowing family, from crawling babies all the way up to the three older teenagers, who weren't around so much now. The only not-so-good parts were old Mr. Miller spitting his brown tobacco juice on the ground--once right next to my foot--and all the buzzing flies that flew straight from the cows in the meadow to the food on our plates.
By now their Sunday dinner would be over, but it looked like all the kids were playing dodgeball, including Bobby. He was twelve and only a year older than me--kind of like the big brother I never had. His curly black hair, just like his mama's, stood out above the heads of all his cousins and younger brothers and sister. Why couldn't I have all those brothers and sisters? At least a few cousins or . . . just one sister. Someone to have fun with, but also to have around during sad times like this. Someone to share this emptiness.
By the time I reached them, I could tell the kids already knew about the baby by the way they didn't look me straight in the face--even Bobby. The same way I couldn't quite look into Mama's eyes when I first walked into the hospital room that morning. They had stopped playing ball and stood in the driveway, kicking stones around in the dirt.
Finally Caroline, Bobby's nine-year-old cousin, asked, "Did you get to see the baby?"
I shook my head, not trusting my voice.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Road to Tater Hill by Edith M. Hemingway. Copyright © 2009 by Edith M. Hemingway. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, 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.