Authors: Terri Blackstock
“Seems like it. But the kids are under the impression she left on her own. Maybe it was typical of her to leave without her purse. It’s hard to predict what an addict might do. You never know if she was sane when she made the decision to leave.”
“Yeah, but would any mother really leave her kids alone at a time like this? Could anybody be that selfish?”
“Of course, they could,” Doug said. “We’ve already seen what people are willing to do out of selfishness. It’s no surprise. And addicts neglect their kids all the time. That’s why Human Services stays so busy.”
She opened a cabinet and bent down to look. A stack of papers sat on a shelf. Deni pulled out the top few. They were brochures about drug rehabs. Had Jessie been looking for a way to break her addiction? Deni flipped through the stack: page after page of medical records, prescriptions for painkillers, xeroxed copies of other people’s driver’s licenses and credit cards.
It looked as if Jessie’s drug-buying operation was a full-time job.
She flipped through the xeroxed identities and stopped when she came to a Gatlin. “Bingo.”
“What?” Doug asked.
“Looks like this might be a relative.” She handed him the xeroxed page with a woman’s driver’s license. “And there’s an address.”
He studied the card. “Yeah, but this expired five years ago. Tuscaloosa address.”
“Maybe they still live there.”
He crossed the hall and took the page to Aaron. “Aaron, do you know who this is?”
The boy took the page. “My grandma.”
“Great,” he said. “Then we’ve got an address.”
Aaron said nothing.
Deni pulled more papers out of the cabinet and a handwritten letter fell out. She picked it up and skimmed it. It was from Jessie’s parents, dated three years before. The paper was limp and wilted, as though it had been handled often. “Dad, come here.”
Her dad came back into Jessie’s room.
“A letter from her parents,” she said in a low voice.
He looked over her shoulder. “What does it say?”
Deni read quietly.
We can’t watch you ruin your life anymore. These drugs are killing you and you know it. It’s one thing to do that to yourself but another thing entirely when your children are involved. Your kids deserve better than a drug-addicted mother who can’t love them enough to clean herself up.
Your father and I have decided to file for custody. It breaks our heart to have you declared an unfit mother, but that’s what you are. We’ve turned our heads over the years when you’ve stolen from us, lied to us, abused us, even been violent against us, but we cannot turn our heads when our grandchildren are suffering. We’ve tried offering you treatment, wasted thousands of dollars trying to get you help, and believed your lies so many times. But nothing has changed. It’s only gotten worse. If you care anything about your children, you can surrender them to us now before we have to get the state involved. We love you and pray for you, but we realize there’s nothing more we can do for you. It can’t be all about you anymore. It has to be about your children for once. Please do the right thing.
Mom and Dad
Doug sat down on the bed and glanced toward the other room. “Man.”
“They sound like decent people, Dad. Like they love the kids. It probably would be good for them to raise them.”
“So why haven’t they come for them already?” Doug folded up the letter. “I’ll take this to the sheriff and let him try to contact them.”
“I think you and Mom should do it. Sheriff Scarbrough is way too busy right now. He might not get around to it for a long time.”
“But he might have ways to get in touch with them faster. Maybe he could send a messenger by car. The sooner we reach them, the better.”
N HIS BEDROOM
ARON FOUND A GARBAGE BAG AND PACKED MORE
stuff they would need to take back to the Brannings’. He threw in a ragtag Barbie doll with tangled hair and a torn dress for Sarah to play with, Joey’s favorite baseball cap, a Superman cape for Luke …
Peering across the hall, he made sure Doug and Deni were busy. Then he went to the hallway and opened the cover for the air conditioner filter. A small revolver lay there, right where he’d hidden it. It had been his mother’s hiding place for both of their guns. The sheriff had taken the other one from him. But he hadn’t found this one. He took the gun out and stuffed it into his garbage bag. Now he’d feel a little more in charge.
And if anyone messed with his family, he would be able to stand up to them. The guns had always protected him before.
He started to close the vent, but something sticking out from the bottom of the filter caught his eye. He pulled the filter out and looked behind it. A stack of letters was bundled there, bound in a rubberband. He grabbed it and glanced through the envelopes. They were all from his grandparents. Why would his mother have kept them hidden? They must have been important to her. He thought of telling Doug, but decided not to. He’d read them first. Then, if it sounded like his grandparents were good enough to take care of his brothers and sister, he’d hand them over.
But if they were like his mother said, then he’d toss them into the fire … and no one would ever find them.
HEN THEY GOT BACK HOME
ENI WENT TO THE LAKE TO
get water. The empty lot where everyone came to get water from the lake was bottlenecked with the morning rush. So much would change when the well was finished. Already, the neighborhood association had forbidden people from washing their laundry in the lake, since the place was getting so polluted.
Leaning on the rolling garbage can she used to carry water, she waited her turn. She saw Chris at the water’s edge, dipping a bucket into the water and dumping it into a rolling garbage can of her own. Chris’s nursing scrubs were soaked. She worked for the one doctor in the neighborhood — Derek Morton. He’d set up a clinic in his home, and Judith (Deni’s next-door neighbor) and Chris took turns working as his nurses. He paid them with whatever he bartered for his services — vegetables, bread, eggs, and sometimes meat from patients who hunted. Once Chris had gotten a chicken. Whatever she earned helped her family.
As she waited for Chris to finish, Deni saw her friend Mark coming up the street with a barrel on wheels. As he passed, the crowd parted, as if he carried a machete and intended to use it. Deni had tried to tell everyone that Mark had had nothing to do with his father’s crimes, but most considered her naive. Still, she knew Mark’s heart. He’d been devastated by his father’s actions, and the shame had kept him home for two weeks. But then he’d emerged to help with the work on the well and his family’s chores. He still had his bad days, and the smiles he’d once worn were fewer and farther between. The neighbors’ cold shoulders only made things worse. But Deni and Chris had made sure the entire neighborhood knew the two of them were still his friends.
As he approached, Chris finished filling her container, dropped her bucket in, and began trying to roll it over tree roots and grass to get it back to the street. Mark left his barrel and came to help her. He easily lifted her garbage can up to the street. He’d gotten so much stronger since the outage. Though he’d already been doing manual labor as a carpenter before the outage, the hard work post-outage was so much more strenuous than anything anyone could have expected. His arms and shoulders had developed a bulk they hadn’t had before, and his skin was tanned dark from the time he spent outdoors. He wore his hair a little shorter than he had before, to combat the heat. He looked like a mature man now, rather than the teenager she’d grown up with.
Deni joined them at the street. “Chris, I hope you’re not going to work in those wet scrubs.”
“As a matter of fact I am,” Chris said. “As soon as I get the water home, I have to report for work.” She wiped her blonde waves back from her forehead. “But it’s so hot they’ll probably dry before I get there.” She shaded her eyes in the sunlight and looked at Deni. “Hey, did I hear right? Someone said your parents took in four extra children.”
“You heard right.”
“Four children?” Mark asked. “What’s up with that?”
She launched into the story, ending with this morning’s search of the apartment. “Do you guys remember a girl named Jessie Gatlin?”
Chris frowned. “I don’t think so.”
“Yeah, you do,” Mark said. “Remember the girl who got pregnant in eighth grade?”
“Oh yeah.” Chris’s eyes widened as the memory came back. “Talk about a scandal. She came back to school after the baby, didn’t she?”
“Not until the next year. She repeated ninth grade and wound up in our class.”
“Then she got pregnant again the next year.”
Mark nodded. “I don’t remember seeing her after that.”
“I think that was the end of her education,” Deni said. “But she’s the kids’ mother, and now she’s disappeared, so we’re trying to find her. I’ve been trying to remember who her friends were.”
Mark looked at Chris. “Didn’t she hang out with John Carrigan and Lacy Frye and that group?”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “Druggies, mostly.”
“You got that right,” Mark said. “Carrigan’s in prison now for dealing.”
Deni’s mind raced as memories rushed back. “I wonder if she still hangs around with those guys. Anybody remember where Lacy used to live?”
“She lived across the street from the high school,” Chris said. “I have no idea if she’s still there. Remember the house with the gnomes in the front yard?”
Deni remembered. The kids had teased Lacy mercilessly about her yard. “Well, that’s a place to start. I think I’ll go over there today. See if she still lives there, and if she knows where Jessie is.”
“If you ask me,” Mark said, “a woman who leaves her four children to fend for themselves at a time like this — she should probably just stay lost.”
“But what if something happened to her?” Chris asked. “I mean, wouldn’t that be sad if she was in trouble somewhere and no one ever came looking for her?”
“Who knows?” Deni said. “If there’s ever a time she could get clean, it would be now, wouldn’t it? I mean, drugs aren’t any easier to get than anything else. She certainly doesn’t have any money. I’m going to go try to find Lacy Frye today and see if I can get any information.”
Mark took off his baseball cap and raked his hair back. “I’ll come with you.”
“Great,” she said. “Dad has his well shift, so he can’t go, and I really didn’t want to go alone.”
Mark helped Deni get her water, then she rolled it back home and waited for him. He rode his bike over a little while later.
Though Mark was one of the first ones in the neighborhood to convert his Volkswagen into a horse and buggy, he preferred to take his bicycle on short jaunts like this one. Deni rode her bike alongside him as they headed toward their old alma mater to look for Lacy Frye.
Mark seemed quiet as they rode.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” He forced a smile and changed the subject. “So, how was that letter from the Craigster yesterday?”
Deni didn’t answer for a moment. Part of her wanted to slap on a happy face and pretend the letter was all she’d hoped. But she didn’t have to pretend with Mark. “It was a little … disappointing. I had hoped for poetry, but I got a travelogue instead.”
“A travelogue? What do you mean?”
“I mean, it was a play-by-play of what happened after the outage. Not much about him missing me, or our relationship. And he left it a little open-ended, saying if we’re meant to be together, we will be.”
Mark rode quietly for a moment. “Well, that’s true, isn’t it?”
“If?” She shot Mark a look. “I wouldn’t have said
. I made up my mind that we were meant to be together the day I said I’d marry him.”
“Well, you know, he is a guy. Words aren’t always our best thing.”
“They are for him. He writes brilliant legal briefs, and he’s a fantastic debater.”
“That’s not the same, and you know it.”
Her mouth was dry. “I just wish he’d written me more than one letter. I sent him a whole stack.”
Again, silence. Mark slowed down as they came to a stop sign. “You care if I read the letter? Maybe I could read between the lines, give you a guy’s interpretation.”
Well, maybe he could shed light on it. She stopped at the stop sign and pulled the folded letter out of her pocket. She’d already read it six times that morning, but her feelings hadn’t changed.
He got off the bike as he read. “Well, see? He said he missed you.”
Deni sighed. “Keep in mind that we haven’t talked to or seen each other since May. That I was on a plane just minutes before the outage, and for all he knew I could be dead.”
He went back to the letter. For several moments, he read silently. As he did, his face grew harder, as if he saw the lack of feeling that had crushed her.
So it wasn’t just her.
“He says if there were some way to get to you, he would.”
Deni looked at the words again. “Yeah, that really hurt. There
some way, and I know it, because I tried it. He just doesn’t want to.”
“Come on — that may not be true.”
“Oh no? Read the rest.”
Aloud, Mark read, “ ‘I guess our wedding isn’t going to come off like we planned. But if it’s meant to be, I guess we’ll wait for each other. I really miss you. Hope this will all be over soon, and we can get together again.’ ”
She blinked away the tears threatening her, determined not to cry in front of Mark. Mark sat down on the curb, resting his wrists on his knees. “Well, I can see how you would be disappointed, but he might have written it in a hurry. He also may have been a lot more emotional about this than it seems.”
“No, I’m serious. You know how guys are when they’re emotional, and instead of talking more, they talk less? Like they’re afraid any extra words will get caught in their throat, and they might start crying like a wimp? Well, maybe he was writing like that. Afraid if he got too emotional in the letter, he’d get real emotional in real life, and maybe he was in the office and didn’t want anyone to see him like that.”