Then There Were Three

Published in Hair Trigger 33

Who knew that a three-acre property with a stream in the back and a spacious two-story home with a slate fireplace and all could squinch up into hardly an inch of space and be sucked up and back into the galaxy as if it never existed in the first place?  The climbing tree in front of the house folds and twists until it’s a speck of flashing phosphorescence like the inside of a firefly.  The tulips along the driveway splinter into butterfly wings and retreat in a fury of flutters.  Whoowit.  All of it sucked away.

“Don’t worry,” Maria says as we sit on the floor in her empty room.  Axl Rose, Sebastian Bach, and Brett Michaels have been peeled off her wall, and all that’s left are chinks in the paint where the tape wouldn’t come off.  Beside the door, where her bed had been, are two suitcases, the last of her stuff.  I am cross-legged not a foot in front of her, sitting closer than she likes, but for me, I am never too close to her.  I would sit on her lap if she wouldn’t punch me for it.

She shakes her mousy, gelled-up brown mop.  “Mom would never leave me,” she says.  “You’ll see.  Mom won’t be able to do it.”

For once, maybe the only time in our entire lives, I am the pessimist.  My bed has been sold.  My school friends have all said goodbye.  The car is being packed as we speak.

“What do you mean?” I say.  “Everything is gone.  The house is sold.  Nikki,” I sniffle, a sure sign that I’m about to break out in tears and completely lose it, “Nikki is gone.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Maria snickers, shaking her head with conviction.  “Mom won’t leave me.  She can’t.”

Ethan yells from the hallway, “Come on, Gina.  I need some help.”  Then I hear him walk outside and the front screen door smack closed behind him.

“What an asshole,” Maria spits out.  “She can’t pick him over me.  No fucking way.”

I lean forward and put my hand on Maria’s knee, but what I really want is for her to pull me into her, to squeeze me so tight that I won’t be able to dislodge myself.  She might not believe it, but I know I’m leaving.  My backpack is in the backseat already.  Mom, Ethan and I have a date with a London-bound plane.  I’ve got my boots on and I’ve said goodbye to almost everything I know and love in Detroit that I can, except her.

“Maria,” I say, looking into her eyes that are the same hazel color as mine, orange and streaked like a lion’s tail, and I am sniffling as the words come out like sobs, “I don’t want to go.  I want to stay with you.”

Her eyes mirror mine.  They are wet, too, but Maria doesn’t cry.  She is fierce will.  “Don’t worry,” she says, grabbing both my shoulders in her hands with enough force to jolt me.  “It’s not gonna happen.”

“Come on!” Ethan yells as the screen door slams again.

I get up and run out of Maria’s room.  Every room I walk out of, I think, last time.  Last time to leave Maria’s room.  Last time to run down this hallway.  Last time to see the midday light beam rainbows through the crystal in the window.

It’s a warm day in January, warm enough that the snow on the deck has melted and the rust-colored planks bake in the sun.  The driveway is dry and shiny black, but piles of snow hide in pockets of shade beneath the pine trees and beside oak trunks.  The sky is too blue, too much like summer with all its promise and possibility.  It’s the wrong sky.  Mom and Ethan’s grey sedan is parked at the edge of the deck stairs.  I walk across the deck, down three steps and onto the driveway where Ethan stands beside the open trunk.

He is curved like a question mark, with his knees bent and his shoulders rounded to look deep into the trunk.

“This one won’t fit,” he says, tapping the hard black top of the suitcase like a bongo.   “It’s hitting something in there.”

“Duh! We’re not supposed to go,” I want to say.  “The bag knows.  Maria knows.  Everyone knows but you and Mom.”  I look over my shoulder at the house.  Soon it will be the last time I see it from the driveway, the last time I look at the slanted planks of the deck and the sun bouncing off the glass dining room door.  Last time I look at the black shingled roof where those raccoons teased Nikki until the day when she wasn’t on her leash and she waited for them to come down and got them.

“Oh,” I say.  Not “Let me help” or anything useful.  Just “Oh.”

“Well come on,” he says.  He stands up straight and waves his hand toward the trunk.  He looks sharp in a dark amber sweater and dress slacks, with his beard trimmed close.  He’s got that look of a man on the edge of destiny who’s not afraid of anything, not even that dragon who’s about to sneeze fire.   “See if you can squeeze your hand in there and move something.”

I sit on the trunk lip and lean in as my hand meanders behind the suitcase.  The edge of the case is caught on the trunk hinge.  Angled just a little more to the left, it should slide right in.  I pull it an inch in my direction and the bag slides easily.

“Thank you, Dear,” Ethan says, and he shoves the case in where he wants it while I hop down.  “We’re almost ready!”

As Ethan and I are carrying the last of the suitcases to our car, Dad’s black Thunderbird pulls in the driveway.  Ethan walks in front and doesn’t nod or wave to Grandma and Dad as they park several yards behind the sedan.  Dad kills the engine and I hear the rubber pop of the doors opening.  Dad is swagger embodied, wearing jeans and a black leather jacket with a blue cotton collar framing his neck, standing in the open door of his shiny new car.  Grandma steps into the sunshine with her red winter coat wrapped snug around her belly and her red lipstick bright as ever.

I try to smile at them, but my head sinks.  Maria is wrong.  This is really happening.  I don’t know what to say or do.  My stomach clenches.  I don’t want it to, but my body still obeys orders, carrying the bag to the trunk, lifting it up and in.  I don’t want them to see me doing what Ethan says.  I don’t want Ethan to see how happy I am to see them.

Dad and Grandma walk to the front of Dad’s car but no farther, like there’s an invisible line that they are not supposed or willing to cross.  Dad’s car is their island and they’re staying on it.

“Hello, David and Mary,” Ethan says, perfunctory and cheerless, as he walks quickly back into the house, looking at them just long enough to see them nod in response.

Once I’ve punched the bag into an empty corner of trunk, I run across the dividing line into Grandma and Dad’s zone and into their arms like they are a pillow I could fall into and sleep.  The leather and wool of their coats wrap around me as I squeeze both of their torsos, pulling them in with both arms and burying my face between them.

“Oh, Baby,” Dad says, patting my hair. I can feel his breath in his chest, how it sputters, and I look up to see Dad crying for the first time in my life.

Grandma pulls my face in next to hers and presses her cheek to mine.  I can smell her flowery dime-store perfume and face powder.  Her strong, petite arms cinch in around my shoulders.  “Damn it all,” she says.  “Damn it.  Damn it!”

“I don’t want to go,” I cry.  “I want to stay here.”  I relax against Grandma’s shoulder as my body heaves from sobs.

I hear the screen door slam and there is Ethan watching us from the deck.  “Maria,” he hollers toward the house.  “David is here.”

The door springs open in no time and Maria is running out past Ethan without looking at him.  She leaps down the stairs right into Grandma’s open arms.

“Hi, Little Girl,” Grandma says, smiling at her.

Beside Grandma and Dad, Maria is fortified.  Her strength is tripled.  She stands loose between them, one arm around each.  And it occurs to me that Maria is being saved.  She’s survived Ann Rose Court.  She’s survived Ethan.  And, somehow, she believes that Mom is about to snap out of it and not go to England.  Things are finally falling into line.

“It’s time,” Ethan yells from the hallway through the screen door.  “Sally,” I hear him scream.  “Come on!  We’re going.”

I am standing on my driveway with the people that I love most in the world all within earshot and yet I feel the whoowit, the galaxy pulling everything up and back, that Maria doesn’t foresee.  The house is about to fold up origami style and flap off into space, and I will be flown off too.

“I want to look around one more time,” I say, and Dad pats me on the back nodding.

I sprint around the side of the house hyperaware of the minutes closing in, that last minute here calling us all away.  I stop quick at the pine tree whose boughs I’d made into my own little house that I swept each day, clearing away the needles, and where I nailed pictures to the trunk.  I pop my head in, lay my hand on the bark.  Remember this, I tell myself.  Remember the sap and the pine smell.  Remember the grooves that my fingers followed up and down the trunk all these years.

That last minute presses against me and I run along the side of the house, past my window and Mom’s window, out back toward the stream.  But there’s not time.  I can feel that there’s not time to run all the way to the water or run past it to Grandma and Grandpa Stein’s house like I could even yesterday, so I stop there.

I take in our house from the back, seeing full into the walk-out basement, seeing Maria and I wrestling on the floor a million times, then me flying above her with her feet holding me up at my belly.  Last airplane.  Last time seeing the basement.

I look up at the window to the living room, the library, Mom’s room.  I see the house as a whole, the wide rectangle of it rising tall above me.  The grey brick and white shudders.

Then Mom’s face appears in her window.  It is the done-up face, the dark red lipstick so feminine, the waves of her hair beautiful in their ess shapes.  Then her hands clasp together and she leans her head down with her eyes closed.  I watch for a few seconds wondering at her prayer, wondering what she could possibly be hoping for.  For help?  That Maria will change her mind?  Is she praying that someone else can make these choices instead of her?  Praying for forgiveness?

I turn around and survey the yard.  Last time.  Then I am running, because that minute will wait.  The slope of the backyard is hard with last year’s grass pressed down where snow had been as I race to the stream, letting the decline speed me up, the fragrant pine-hued air whipping into a wind around me, tousling my hair.

It feels so good to move, to let my legs stretch as far as they can, let my arms pump.  I feel strong and young and free.  I brake fast into the woods and slow down at the edge of the stream.  It’s low, with just a trickle flowing over the rocks and dirt.  One hop across and I could run the five minutes to the Steins.  Or I could sit here and wait for someone to come find me.  I take in the shape of the stream, the way it curves around the oak root and swivels around the boulder.  My stream.  Last time.

I run back up the yard, but I lose strength fast.  I am huffing.  My stomach twists.  All the windows of the house are bare.  Mom is gone.  The basement is empty.  The blinds and curtains have come down.  This is how a house says farewell.

I walk around the other side of the house, by the door to the library, past the basketball hoop over the garage, past the line of blue spruces that separates our yard from the cranky neighbor lady.

As I round the corner to the front of the house, I see Mom standing beside our car and Ethan walking across the deck.  Dad and Grandma haven’t moved from their spots in front of Dad’s car, and Maria sits on Dad’s hood between them.

I run past Mom, up the stairs and into the house. Last time going in.  I run through the house grasping at it all with my eyes, trying to take it with me.  Everything I see infuriates me because it is staying behind and I am not.  The stone tiles in the entryway feel mean that way.  My pink bedroom carpet and the windows that framed my world every morning and evening don’t seem to care at all.  They are as intact as ever.  Our pink bathroom is mute.  The kitchen counter is smug.  None of it is mine anymore.

Then it’s the last time I walk through our door, my last footprints on the deck, my last hop down to the driveway, and that last minute is here.

“We’ve got to move,” says Ethan, swinging the driver’s door wide.  “Come on, Gina.”

Mom walks across to that line between the two families, ten steps from where Maria is.

“Give me a hug, Maria.”

Just about now, maybe Maria starts to get it.  This is real.  But maybe not, because she walks toward Mom, hugs her, and lets Mom’s arms enfold her for a few seconds.  But then she pulls back to look Mom in the face.

“If you leave me,” Maria says, “I will never forgive you.”

Mom’s eyes close and she takes a slow breath.  “I’m not leaving you,” she sighs.  “You’re the one who won’t come with me.  I would never choose to be without you.”

Maria backs up, like she’s been pushed, and shouts, “You are leaving me.  You are!  And I will never forgive you.  I mean it.”

I stand on the dividing line wanting to wrap around the two of them like a blanket and bind us three together maybe with a steel, ten-pound chain and lock.

“Maria,” Mom sighs, exhausted.  “You’re making the choice.”  Mom’s face tightens with hurt like a child’s.  “You’re leaving me.”

Maria backs up until she stands between Grandma and Dad.  “I will never forgive you!” she yells.  “Never!!”

“Come on, Sally,” Ethan yells across the top of his car.

Mom stares at Maria, but Maria turns her head to face the house.  “I love you,” Mom says.  “You know how much I love you.”

Maria shakes her head, still looking away, not watching as Mom finally turns around and heads for the sedan.  “Get in the car,” Mom says to me, which she does without looking back.

So then it’s me, standing on the division, last time as part of what has been our life on Ann Rose Ct.

I run to Grandma, Dad and Maria.  Everything about them is Detroit and familiarity and love.  Wrapped in their arms, squeezing into them, I feel both the soft comfort of our shared lives and the sharp edge of this last moment cutting us apart, cutting me from them.

“Gina!” Ethan yells from inside the car.  “Now!”

“You’ll be okay,” Dad says.  “You’ll be back soon to see us.  Don’t worry, Baby.”

Dad pulls out his wad of hundreds and slides two crisp bills off the pile and into my hand. “If you need anything,” he says, pulling me into his chest one more time, “You let me know.”

I nod, full on bawling, wiping the money against my cheek to soak up the tears and shoving it in my jeans pocket.

“I don’t want to go,” I cry, each of their faces just inches from mine, like they three make a cave of safety around me.

Maria starts to cry, too.  “I can’t believe it,” she says, and I can see in her eyes that she knows now that Mom isn’t coming back for her.  “This can’t happen.”

I hug her hard, the final seconds scraping at me.

“Now!” yells Ethan, livid.  “Right now!”

Grandma kisses me on the cheek, and I turn away from them and run to the car.  Last time my feet are on the driveway.  I fall into the backseat and close the door.

“Get your seatbelt on,” Ethan says, calmer now, but I don’t listen.

I kneel on the backseat to watch Maria, Grandma and Dad through the back window.  The car jolts ahead, smacking my stomach against the seat.  I hold on to the seatback and wail, “I don’t want to go!” I am shaking my head, snot and tears flowing, a royal fucking mess, as Maria, Dad and Grandma huddle close together, linked by arms around each other’s waists and shoulders, like a solid barricade against the world.

“Turn around,” Mom says.  “Buckle up.”

The driveway curves and the amputation is complete.  I do not turn around.  There goes the climbing tree.  There goes Ann Rose Court.  I watch as Whoowit, all of it is sucked back and away into some great beyond, some great no place, like an image on a TV that shrinks on all four sides at the same time then disappears.  It’s gone.