T. Kira Madden
Aunt Helen comes at night.
Slicked hair pulled back into pins, stabbing a knot behind her neck.
She says, How you getting along?
The Holmes children know she means if they’re hungry, if they’re feeling all right, any new scars. Squirrel for dinner, a plastic bag of rice—they did fine for the day—Aunt Helen tells them so. But still she brings them cans of soda, MoonPies in their wrappers, hardboiled eggs.
Tonight, Aunt Helen doesn’t say much. She only ever cleans their daily wounds—the sting, the bandage—serves food from an open hand as if avoiding an animal’s teeth, Slow down, slow, you’re making a goddamn mess. She wears rubber gloves too big for her fingers. Ties a ruby scarf around her face when the smell is too thick.
The dead squirrel lies shocked on the floor, spun down by lightning last night, claw-up and crusted. The little girl uses a knife to split the thing down its belly and starts peeling. Lucky, she says to her brother. You’re lucky I’ll share with you. Aunt Helen brushes their hair, one by one, picks insects and sticker vine from their legs. A night like all nights: She leaves through the front door without saying goodbye. The children blow kisses. They pray for their mother. They sleep.
Seven Devils, North Carolina. There is no address to write above the space for a city—no stamps or pen pals—only six wheels, scabbed yellow paint, the serial number, 693, tagged across the back. The school bus measures 30 feet long and 8 wide. The front is missing, without engine or hood, just a flat black face of equipment spitting cords, leaking midnight pus. No one looks inside. T-shirts are thumb tacked against the windows, mud taking care of the rest. The Holmes children have been living here alone for fourteen months and six days.
Bonnie is eleven years old and wears the freckled, round face of a toad. Her brother Lucky is six and has difficulty speaking. Like his tongue’s stuck to the roof of his mouth, like he’s swallowed a comb. The bus sits on an abandoned lot halfway up the mountain—a creek, the uprooted veins of trees. A tire still swings from a branch behind the bus. An old Indian reservation, their mother had said when they arrived. Ghosty, every square foot. No one’ll go picking for us here.
Their mother has the popping neck of a chicken when she speaks. Long nails. Scrambled cursive. Fiona Holmes, in a cement cell in Ashville, her name coming at night during the I remember, I remember howls of her babies. The children do not call her mother, because mother was never their mother. Fiona, with hair so tangled black it’s purple, teeth too big for a face—the front two peek out from even a closed mouth. Fiona, cobwebs tattooed faded blue-green on the inside of a forearm—the place she’d scratch and often smacked, feeding herself, molars clenched on rubber-cord to see Jesus. Fiona has the voice of dust, gone but hanging in the air—but oh, a mother’s voice! A mother’s breath and nails against a back, sharp and too strong, the memories hushing past nights that reek this hard.
She named her firstborn Bonnie for no particular reason. She had wanted a child the same as her, no soft spots to identify, no yolk to the heart. But Bonnie came out of the body tender and sweet, red and curled in the backseat of Lloyd’s Delta 88, not even kicking. Fiona loved her anyway, her makings, the same eyes, earlobes. Mine, she couldn’t stop saying it. Can she still hear the girl? Of course she can. Every night, she says, They call to me. Wolves in their youth. You’re mine, mine, every inch of you.
Lucky came screaming in the middle of the night. Underweight, throbbing, four months too soon. It didn’t take long for Lloyd to skip town. Without shoes, he hit the road palming Marlboro Reds, two skinny calves in rolled-up blue jeans, chest-hair coiled as a nest. The runner, the baby. The children wonder if he misses their weight on his shoulders, if they have his flat nose. Slingshot knuckles and a stubbled chin, they can barely remember now. They make up stories about their papa: a preacher, a miner, a captain taking the Mississippi by boat, spitting seeds in its current. Lucky, the dumb boy, the double, addicted to his mother from birth—the only man left in this world.
On the bus, the children are ankle-deep in clothing and leaves.
This is what Home looks like: The back seats of the bus were removed by daddy before he went away. Now there are only five rows of seats, eleven windows on each side, a mattress in the rear. Mother’s things are left mostly untouched: photographs, soft packs of Merits, the children taking care of them until her return. On the mattress is a sheet, a blue galaxy of cartoon monkeys and dogs tumbling through zero gravity, tongues hanging loose, the sheets yellow and unchanged since before Fiona disappeared (Lucky wakes damp and sorry when he’s not sleepwalking, quick to nudge his sister who will use the leaves to sponge his bottom and cheeks). Windshield wipers hang gritty and stuck; putrescent arms unable to wave. This town is the size of a postcard—little people in toothpick homes, backaches and pinch. The school bus lot has become a waste yard for those of the mountain, a forgotten place for the Devils, their fuzzed-over meals, smashed up radios, miniature sofas, a blue garden hose, No one to see, No one to smell it, Just this ole’ stunk-up bus rotting up the land. Mallosay Ranch used to breed the track horses, saddle-up kiddies on their trails—place looked green, weed-whipped, nothing like this, till the whole place choked up in flames while the family slept in its hayloft. Poof! No one ever came back for it. Not even the postman. Now we’ll dump, dump, forget our jewels and run. Bonnie rakes through the trash in search of their neighbor’s food, treasure, heels kicking up when she dives headfirst through black plastic bags. Lucky is the taste-tester, Keep what you catch, the exhale of the wrong cans popped still make his throat ache.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
This is what tradition looks like.
It’s Sunday morning and the children wear their Sunday best—the bathrobes of their mother, yellow flowers tucked behind their ears. Eggs, they’ll eat Aunt Helen’s eggs for breakfast. They’ll toast to the sky, with a brass candelabra spilling cranberry juice from its sockets. No one dumps their trash today, so the children dance free. Songs hummed they can no longer remember. Ring around the rosie.
Kneeling at the face of their home, they bow their heads in prayer. Our Fiona who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Lucky picks a worm from the ground and swallows it. He mumbles his vowels, drools onto scraped knees. For thine is the kingdom, for ever and ever. Fiona, deliver us, let us be, Amen.
Bonnie imagines what her mother looks like seventy-six miles away. She guesses the number of days until her return.
50 days, evening, and she’ll be wearing a blue dress. Lucky nods.
Two weeks and we’ll wake up to her kissing our foreheads. Lucky nods.
On my birthday, in July, and she’ll bring home a yellow puppy. Lucky nods.
Yeah, I thought so too.
The police snatched Fiona on the fourteenth of December, four hundred and thirty-two days ago, wrist-bound and gagged. This was midnight, the moon hanging like a medieval blade. Look how it cuts when you touch it, squint harder, blink. She knew they were coming. Of course she knew. She had been running from nightsticks since the day she turned twelve—a candy-sucking bandit—dirty sneakers and pinwheel eyes, pocketing convenience store items she would only ever look at.
This is what you do when they come for me:
Do not make a sound.
Chew your wrists if you have to.
Stay down, hold your breath, take care of one another.
The children were not home when the officers came knocking. They were not nestled between the front seats or peeking behind the curtains. They were not leap-frogging or squatting beneath the steering wheel. They were not underneath the clothes. They were not tucked into the bed, two letter Cs, stomach to back. They were not curled up beside the potted three-foot tree where Fiona was tying cassette tape ribbons—Knots. Never, ever bows—along the few, prickling branches (the songs stretched and torn: Patsy Montana, Skeeter Davis), the tree’s arms drooping with sparkling pinecones the children’s hands had rolled in glue and tinsel themselves, beside the fifth window near the center of the bus, the few presents wrapped in foil (because they still had presents then: felt mittens, jacks, mint chocolate, a yarn doll named Cassandra—Bonnie’s lips tight as a balloon knot when she opened the gift the next morning, tears swelling over new, awkward teeth, gnawing at the doll’s hair).
You can always tell a mother by her Christmas tree.
The Holmes children were never found because they were down at the Devil’s ski lift, swinging on the wooden chairs, two night crawlers with bare feet. So much was dropped every day—wallets, change, crochet gloves—and Fiona sent her darlings into the dark to collect, to retrieve.
This is how it went:
The entry door of the bus cracks open.
Let’s see what you dug up, You can keep what you catch.
Criss-Cross Applesauce in the front of the bus, knees bent, waiting. A 300-watt flashlight’s glow seesaws through the air, the yellow of it bouncing off the glittering backs of watches, combs, illuminating their noses from beneath—so red and veiny—Hey Lucky, I can see your insides. And their hands would pick through the piles—a compass, a ring, lighters that flick—I saw it first. A mother who was never their mother’s voice, calming and strong: The treasure. Fiona’s treasure! Lucky’s mouth choking on his every syllable, proud, smiling so hard his lips curl up like burning paper, his sister’s fingers gripping his own. These are the nights little Bonnie still dreams of, still remembers: A family loving one another, huddled in the dark, kissing their souvenirs.
But four hundred and thirty-two days ago, up in the ski-lift, ten feet below Bonnie’s feet kicking in the wind (calloused and tight by now, for the girl could walk on glass, asphalt in summertime heat, arrowhead stones, without the slightest flinch), to the east of Lucky crawling below her, palm gliding over an ivory pocketknife—Errrrrg! his noises a D-flat, his arms swinging wild at the prize, past the homes with tires slung onto their roofs, past satellite dishes, sprinklers that hadn’t hissed in three months, the postman asleep with his mistress, past mattresses piled on front lawns, the plastic yard-art of reindeer, Santa Claus, clowns, past their neighbors’ fallen mistletoe, fruit and evergreen woven wreaths, past the Bait & Tackle hut, the trout ponds, past wooden crosses pegged into soil and snow—some carrying the body of Christ, some naked structures to remind, winding round and round and round the mountain of Seven Devils, twenty paces behind a dented green gate, beside a creek, the ashes of a farm, below the slit of that waxing crescent, four policemen in pressed-navy blue came crashing through the bus door, looking for Fiona.
The back of the school bus. December fourteenth.
The smell of cologne like a spiced liquor. Handcuffs crackling against their belts.
A man, the men, gunshot pops of bubblegum between their two front teeth as they held the mother down by her shoulders and ankles calling her dangerous, a menace, you have the right to remain silent.
Stay gone, hear me, lay flat.
You have the right to an attorney.
Who else is here? Nobody. Alone as the day I was born, alone in this here bus. A zero in this town, unknown, ask anyone. Just a tramp looking for love, looking for peace here after I went running from my life, sprinting from trouble. School bus ain’t stolen, husband left it when he got bored, doesn’t run, held up by cinderblocks, no engine, just look. The sheets? Nothing but a little fun. No, no children, not yet—one day, maybe, and I’ll love them and be good. I’ll be good goddamnit, clean arms. I’ll stand tall as a skyscraper in those black and white cities, I’ll be rich and pregnant one day, cakes in the oven and red painted nails. God’s child, God as my witness, I’ll learn to talk right. Get learned in school one of these days. Take me, already. No need to look around. Just trash, some dope, my sister will drive in from Boone and clean up the mess. Forget what you saw. I’ll pay the price, just let me. . . .
When the children returned, they knew before they looked. A Christmas tree on its side, a chain of footprints circling their home, Lucky, unable to scream, twisting the pocketknife in his hand.