“Do you see her?” Buckley asked Nate as they climbed the stairs, Holiday in tow. “That’s my sister.”
“No, “Nate said.
“She was gone for a while, but now she’s back. Race!”
And the three of them-two boys and a dog-raced the rest of the way up the long curve of the staircase.
I had never even let myself yearn for Buckley, afraid he might see my image in a mirror or a bottle cap. Like everyone else I was trying to protect him. “Too young,” I said to Franny. “Where do you think imaginary friends come from?” she said.
For a few minutes the two boys sat under the framed grave rubbing outside my parents’ room. It was from a tomb in a London graveyard. My mother had told Lindsey and me the story of how my father and she had wanted things to hang on their walls and an old woman they met on their honeymoon had taught them how to do grave rubbings. By the time I was in double digits most of the grave rubbings had been put down in the basement for storage, the spots on our suburban walls replaced with bright graphic prints meant to stimulate children. But Lindsey and I loved the grave rubbings, particularly the one under which Nate and Buckley sat that afternoon.
Lindsey and I would lie down on the floor underneath it. I would pretend to be the knight that was pictured, and Holiday was the faithful dog curled up at his feet. Lindsey would be the wife he’d left behind. It always dissolved into giggles no matter how solemn the start. Lindsey would tell the dead knight that a wife had to move on, that she couldn’t be trapped for the rest of her life by a man who was frozen in time. I would act stormy and mad, but it never lasted. Eventually she would describe her new lover: the
fat butcher who gave her prime cuts of meat, the agile blacksmith who made her hooks. “You are dead knight,” she would say. “Time to move on.”
“Last night she came in and kissed me on the cheek,” Buckley said. “Did not.”
“Have you told your mom?”
“It’s a secret,” Buckley said. “Susie told me she isn’t ready to talk to them yet. Do you want to see something else?”
“Sure, “said Nate.
The two of them stood up to go to the children’s side of the house, leaving Holiday asleep under the grave rubbing.
“Come look,” Buckley said.
They were in my room. The picture of my mother had been taken by Lindsey. After reconsideration, she had come back for the “Hippy-Dippy Says Love” button too.
“Susie’s room,” Nate said. Buckley put his fingers to his lips. He’d seen my mother do this when she wanted us to be quiet, and now he wanted that from Nate. He got down on his belly and gestured for Nate to follow, and they wriggled like Holiday as they made their way beneath the dust ruffle of my bed into my secret storage space.
In the material that was stretched on the underside of the box spring, there was a hole, and stuffed up inside were things I didn’t want anyone else to see. I had to guard it from Holiday or he would scratch at it to try and pry the objects loose. This had been exactly what happened twenty-four hours
after I went missing. My parents had searched my room hoping to find a note of explanation and then left the door open. Holiday had carried off the licorice I kept there. Strewn beneath my bed were the objects I’d kept hidden, and one of them only Buckley and Nate would recognize. Buckley unwrapped an old handkerchief of my father’s and there it was, the stained and bloody twig.
The year before, a three-year-old Buckley had swallowed it. Nate and he had been shoving rocks up their noses in our backyard, and Buckley had found a small twig under the oak tree where my mother strung one end of the clothesline. He put the stick in his mouth like a cigarette. I watched him from the roof outside my bedroom window, where I was sitting painting my toenails with Clarissa’s Magenta Glitter and reading Seventeen.
I was perpetually assigned the job of watching out for little brother. Lindsey was not thought to be old enough. Besides, she was a burgeoning brain, which meant she got to be free to do things like spend that summer afternoon drawing detailed pictures of a fly’s eye on graph paper with her 130-pack of Prisma Colors.
It was not too hot out and it was summer, and I was going to spend my internment at home beautifying. I had begun the morning by showering, shampooing, and steaming myself. On the roof I air-dried and applied lacquer. I had on two coats of Magenta Glitter when a fly landed on the bottle’s applicator. 1 heard Nate making dare and threat sounds, and I squinted at the fly to try to make out all the quadrants of his eyes that Lindsey was coloring inside the house. A breeze came up, blowing the fringe on my cutoffs against my thighs.
“Susie, Susie!” Nate was yelling. I looked down to see Buckley on the ground.
It was this day that I always told Holly about when we talked about rescue. I believed it was possible; she did not.
I swung my legs around and scrambled through my open window, one foot landing on the sewing stool and the other immediately in front of that one and on the braided rug and then down on my knees and out of the blocks
like an athlete. I ran down the hall and slid down the banister as we’d been forbidden to do. I called Lindsey’s name and then forgot her, ran out to the backyard through the screened-in porch, and jumped over the dog fence to the oak tree.
Buckley was choking, his body bucking, and I carried him with Nate trailing into the garage, where my father’s precious Mustang sat. I had watched my parents drive, and my mother had shown me how a car went from park to reverse. I put Buckley in the back and grabbed the keys from the unused terra-cotta pots where my father hid them. I sped all the way to the hospital. I burned out the emergency brake, but no one seemed to care.
“If she hadn’t been there,” the doctor later told my mother, “you would have lost your little boy.”
Grandma Lynn predicted I’d have a long life because I had saved my brother’s. As usual, Grandma Lynn was wrong.
The adults changed as they surrounded him in the huge hospital bed. He had seen them that serious only one other time. But whereas in the hospital, their eyes had been worried and then later not, shot through with so much light and relief that they’d enveloped him, now our parents’ eyes had gone flat and not returned. I felt faint in heaven that day. I reeled back in the gazebo, and my eyes snapped open. It was dark, and across from me stood a large building that I had never been in.
I had read James and the Giant Peach when I was little. The building looked like the house of his aunts. Huge and dark and Victorian. It had a widow’s walk. For a moment, as I readjusted to the darkness, I thought I saw a long row of women standing on the widow’s walk and pointing my way. But a moment later, I saw differently. Crows were lined up, their beaks holding crooked twigs. As I stood to go back to the duplex, they took wing and followed me. Had my brother really seen me somehow, or was he merely a little boy telling beautiful lies?
“Wow,” Nate said, holding the twig and marveling at how over time red blood turned black.
“Yeah,” said Buckley. His stomach felt queasy with the memory of it. How much pain he had been in, how the faces of the adults looked.