I leaned against the windowsill of our upstairs den and watched cedar waxwings attacking the berry tree in our yard, tipping their heads back in glee and gluttony with each thieved berry. Their shrieking had awakened me on my cot in my makeshift bedroom just as light was crawling over the dew. Now I slapped the pane with my palm to shoo the raccoon-faced birds, but they didn’t even flutter, so I turned and kicked a pile of clothes, happy that my T-shirts arced and then flopped like a scarecrow in a storm.
I walked the carpeted hallway in the dark, sliding my hand against the paneling, and opened the door to my bedroom—my rightful bedroom—which Aunt Shaina had taken over when she moved in with us in June, right after my tenth birthday, and which everybody now called “Vickie’s old room.” It had a sour smell that Aunt Shaina’s perfume didn’t cover.
I sat in the rocking chair across from my bed, hugging Floppy Bunny and waiting for Aunt Shaina to wake up. I could see a white line between her eyelids, like something secret, like the white you’d find inside a mussel shell.
“Yippee kay yie yay,” I sang softly to Floppy Bunny, “Git along little doggies.”
Aunt Shaina raised her hand and touched the headboard like she didn’t know where she was. “Vickie? Not again.” She sat up and squinted at me. She wore one of her pretty silk nightgowns with lace stitched at the neckline. “What time is it?”
“Stupid birds woke me up again.”
She peered at the clock. “Fantastic. Not even six.”
“I’m bored. I can’t sleep.”
She sank back onto her pillow.
“Why can’t you sleep in the den?”
“Your mom decided. Look, you can use my nail polish if you want. Sit by the window, paint your nails. It’s on my dresser.”
I threw Floppy Bunny at her shoulder. “Tell me what you’re sick with.”
She threw the stuffed animal back at me and rolled over, facing the wall. “They don’t know, Vick, I told you.”
“Well, what does it feel like?”
“Go back to bed.”
“You take the cot. Then I’ll go to bed.”
Aunt Shaina groaned. Then she leaned forward and squinched her eyes tight. She threw off the covers and ran down the hall to the bathroom. I got into my bed—my real bed—and snuggled under Aunt Shaina’s covers.
When I woke up and walked down the hall, my brother Zack was sitting outside the closed bathroom door, reading an old comic book. I sat next to him and rested my head on his shoulder. He smelled like feet. He pushed me away.
I scooted over to the opposite wall. You could still see the gray ridge under the skin of Zack’s nose from where Kurt Kline pushed him down in the school parking lot last year. Zack had sat in the nurse’s office, his nose plugged with bloody tissues, calling Dad over and over and not reaching him. He didn’t bother calling Mom since she was in Cleveland visiting Aunt Shaina, before Aunt Shaina took over my bedroom. Finally, Zack’s science teacher took him to the ER and they made Zack wear a brace with green foam underneath that I said made him part robot. He scowled when I said it, but he liked it. That was a year ago but his nose still looked funny now, like his face still wanted to hold onto the broken bone.
I sank my head in my arms. The bathroom fan whirred. We heard crying, a flush, and then the shower spritzed on. Zack banged his head against the wall.
“Can I go next?” I asked.
“Melanie said you can die from having to go to the bathroom. Can you die from having to go to the bathroom?”
“Yes.” He wiggled his toes in his plastic sandals.
“What do you mean ‘yes’?”
He said an astronomer had died that way. He flipped a page in his comic book. “Tycho Brache.”
“Just… squeeze your legs together.”
“For half an hour.”
“Well, go to Melanie’s and use their bathroom.”
Now I banged my head against the wall. “They just have one bathroom, too. What if they’re using it? And people can see you through the keyhole. If you can’t find the skeleton key.”
“You’re crazy. Who wants to watch you pee?”
“And what if I don’t make it, huh? Then I knock on the door and say, ‘Hi, I peed on myself.’”
He said to go pee in the woods behind our house, only be careful not to pee all over my underwear. So I walked pretty far into the woods and peed on some ferns.
A drunk cedar waxwing had cracked its neck and lay by the back window when I got home from Melanie’s that afternoon. I had rounded the side of the house to come in through the back door, and there it was, its beak stuffed with berries that oozed like jam, its head snapped sideways. I knelt on the grass and petted its feathers. Resting on my palm, the bird felt light, like I was holding a 50-cent piece instead of a whole animal. I forced one of its eyes open to touch it—cold and slippery.
I brought the dead bird to my room where Shaina was lounging in my old bed with her knees up, still wearing her nightgown, talking on the cordless phone. She snapped her fingers and waved for me to leave. Instead I laid the bird down on my dresser and dumped the jewelry out of my jewelry box. I scooped up the dead bird, rested it in the box, and closed the lid. Then I went to the den and stashed the jewelry box under the cot beneath a T-shirt while Mom hollered up, “Dinner’s ready! Vickie, tell Shaina.”
Mom had had the day off and actually made dinner for once, chili and cornbread, which was what she knew how to make. Aunt Shaina, who had changed into a sundress and joined us outside at the picnic table, said it smelled delicious, really, but she’d better not. She ate saltines out of a package.
“Mmmm,” I said. “More for the rest of us.”
Mom was coming out of the house with a gin and tonic when Aunt Shaina gave a yelp and put her hand to her side. Shaina stood up quickly and slammed her knee into one of the bench supports. Trying to come untangled from the picnic bench, she tripped forward and sprawled on the grass. Her skirt bunched to reveal the veins in her long white legs. Zack looked away and his neck turned red.
Aunt Shaina took a deep breath and giggled. “And the klutz of the day award goes to…” She laughed, but then her body stiffened. “Pat, help me up.”
“Let’s get you inside,” said my mother. “Zack, help.”
While they were gone, I polished off three squares of cornbread and hoped she really was fine so I could get back to Melanie’s to watch Jaws, which Melanie wasn’t at all allowed to watch but had smuggled back from the library.
Zack returned, hugging two two-liter bottles of cream soda. We poured it and drank it so fast it hurt, glass after glass.
“Ugh. It tastes gross now.”
“Weak.” He topped off my glass. “Chug! Chug! Chug!”
I sipped the foam and tipped back the glass. When I’d finished the last drop, I tight-roped across the picnic bench and jumped to grab a tree branch. I swung from it like a gibbon while Zack laid his head on the picnic table.
“It’s getting old,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s not even fizzy anymore.”
“No. Aunt Shaina. Melanie and Jason’s house. I don’t like it here. I don’t like it there. I’m a man without a country.” He waited for my sympathy. “Oh, maybe I’ll just stay home tonight.”
“But—you said Jason just got the new Punisher War Journal.”
“Tell him I’m sick. Tell him I’m puking up my gall bladder, okay?”
“Whatever,” I shrugged. Zack and I headed into the house where I picked up the cedar waxwing in my jewelry box. When we walked to Melanie and Jason’s together—Zack couldn’t resist Jason’s new comic book after all—I carried the dead bird across the field with me. Melanie had seen a ton of movies and would know all about a proper funeral. But we’d wait till morning.
Melanie and I had to pause Jaws four times because of all that cream soda. Every time I came upstairs to use the bathroom, I had to pass the kitchen table where Emmie—Mrs. Peters—cranked the handle of a funnel contraption clamped to the table. As she mashed strawberries and kiwifruit into the funnel and cranked, juice trickled into one bowl and clumps of pulp fell into another.
“Having fun, Vickie?”
Ignore her, Melanie always commanded.
I heard Zack and Jason laughing upstairs.
Emmie asked me what we were watching and I told her Anne of Avonlea, the title Melanie had given me. Emmie said it was her favorite. She asked how Aunt Shaina was doing.
I had started across the threshold but stopped now and turned back to Emmie. I felt like I wanted to perch next to her and tell her everything: my room taken over, the stupid birds, peeing in the woods, how Zack’s neck kept turning red, and Mom responding to every question with “mmmhmmm.”
“What’s for dinner?”
“How long is Aunt Shaina staying?”
“When can I see Dad?”
I thought about trading in my mother for this one, this mother who asked me questions.
Emmie’s hand paused on the juicer handle and the machine stopped creaking. “Has your aunt been feeling any better?”
“I dunno,” I said. I leaned against the doorframe.
“But they know what’s wrong with her now?”
“No. But I think she’s really sick. I used to think she was faking it, like she was a fake invalid. But tonight she looked scary.”
“No trips to the ER lately, though?”
“Thank heaven. I worry about her—and you kids.”
She started cranking again, resting her white Reeboks on a rung of her chair.
“You know,” she said, still cranking. “I used to nurse you, when I used to babysit you. While your mom was at work. Poor thing. Your mom would leave formula for you, but really.”
I felt stuck, unable to unglue my feet from the threshold even though my bladder ached. “Here.” Emmie pointed to a Pyrex pan on the counter. “I made zucchini brownies. I’ll bring them down once I’m done with this juice.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks, Emmie.”
She smiled, showing berry seeds between her teeth.
Melanie slapped the basement door open. “Are you coming, or what? Gilbert Blythe has scarlet fever and it’s ever so romantic.”
I ran upstairs to the bathroom and when I returned past the kitchen, Emmie asked, “Hey, does your mom have a juicer, Vickie?”
“Nope!” I slammed the basement door and locked it behind me with a skeleton key. Later, we heard the doorknob rattle and Emmie calling, “Girls! Brownies!” The doorknob shook. “Mel-an-ie! What’s our rule about doors?”
I woke up and realized I had to pee all at the same time.
“Melanie,” I whispered.
“Mm.” She rolled onto her stomach.
I heard creaking from upstairs.
My bladder hurt. I gave up on waking Melanie. I walked up the basement stairs into the kitchen’s blue darkness that turned everything as unfamiliar as if it were underwater. The veiny blue numbers of the oven’s digital clock blurred. A breeze from the open kitchen window blew the blinds against the pane. But the air did not feel cooler from the breeze. I wanted to lie down on the cool linoleum. I could feel sleep pulling me toward it. But then the need to pee shook me awake again.
At the top of the stairs I held onto the railing with one hand and rubbed my eyes with the other. The second floor was a long hallway with all of the doors except the bathroom door closed. It was darker up there, and hotter.
Light trickled from the bathroom window and fell on a pair of shiny, gnarled feet. I remember the deep split in the yellow rind of the heel. And the pink cotton nightgown, black underwear showing through. It was Emmie. She was kneeling beside the door to—where? I didn’t realize it at first, but then I figured it out. It was Jason’s room, and Emmie was peering through the keyhole. Emmie didn’t move. Even when the top stair creaked under my foot and I expected to see her startled blue eyes fix on me, she didn’t move.
I gripped the railing and backed down the stairs, watching Emmie to make sure she never turned. I wished I had not gone upstairs. I wished I hadn’t had to pee at all. Slowly and quietly, I opened the back door, crept a few feet into the dark woods in my bare feet, and squatted to pee. The blackberry sticker-bushes. The shadows and the way the wind lifted the leaves. The back porch light and the moths kissing it.
The porch door had locked behind me. I tried it again and again. I ran to the front door and tried that, and banged on it, kicked it, and hollered, “Let me in! Melanie! Jason! Emmie! Mr. Peters!” When no one came, I tried yelling and knocking at the back door again. I looked up and saw a face at the window upstairs. No upstairs light was on, but I thought I saw the side of Emmie’s face and her long frizzy hair. Her face disappeared as I kept watching and kept banging on the door.
I felt like running back across the field, back home, as timothy and milkweed reached up to grab me, and telling Mom what had happened, just giving it away and letting her deal with this confusion like she used to deal with other things, but I could already hear her saying “mmmhmmm.”
It started to rain during the night. I heard the rain coming across the neighbors’ yards and rooftops, and then I had to scoot under the narrow overhang on the back steps, and still a few drips got me whenever I was just starting to fall asleep.
When the sky turned from black to gray in the morning light, I saw the puffy red the sticker-bushes had scratched into my legs. I stood and looked in through the back window and saw Emmie dishing up bowls of oatmeal for Melanie and Jason. I banged on the door and hollered, and Melanie ran to let me in.
We ate and then carried out our plans for the day. I held the dead bird rolled up in the bottom of my tank top while we slid boots on in the mudroom.
“Going to the creek?” asked Emmie. She stood in the mudroom doorway, grinning. I felt oatmeal sloshing around in my stomach. Melanie was kneeling in the corner, hidden by the washing machine, wrapping something in a yellow towel.
“Melanie,” said Emmie, “I said, are you going to the creek?”
“I was just going to check the water levels,” said Emmie. “I’ll walk down with you.”
Melanie stood up and her long hair swung behind her. She clutched the small towel-wrapped object to her stomach. “No way,” she said, and stuck her tongue out.
I pushed past Emmie. “We’ll be gone two seconds,” I said. “‘Kay, bye!” We made for the back door.
Our boots squelched and squeaked as we walked downhill to the creek. The air smelled like earthworms. My tank top clung to me and itched and I held the dead bird close. I lay on the bridge and held my jewelry box over the creek that bubbled in the downpour.
Melanie sat cross-legged beside me. “Wait,” she said. She unwrapped the yellow towel and brought out her mother’s jewelry box. Smaller velveteen boxes inside held turquoise and amethyst rings, strings of pearls, shiny blue feathers, safety pins, bits of petrified wood and sea glass. As we took out each small box, rain darkened the velveteen.
We knew without speaking what we would do. We took out all of the velveteen boxes and dumped the wealth of Emmie’s jewelry into the bottom of her jewelry box. We let each of the empty velveteen boxes ride the rapids and watched them one by one until they rounded the bend. Then Melanie scooped the dead bird out of my jewelry box and nestled it on a bed of treasure. She closed the lid and handed Emmie’s jewelry box to me. I walked out into the creek and felt the water pull against my boots.
“Let go!” Melanie called. I set the wooden box afloat on the current. It bobbed downstream.
“What does their song sound like?” Melanie called to me. “The bird’s song. Can you sing it?”
I said they didn’t have one. They only shouted, like this— “Zee! Zee! Tsee!”
Suddenly the box bounced, its lid opened, and the bird and jewelry spilled out. The treasures sank to the bottom and did not glimmer. The bird floated till it wedged against a rock. The creek foamed around it, and then all at once the current tugged and it was all gone. Still I stood in the middle of the creek. Melanie waded out to join me and we lifted our mouths to the rain and the air that smelled like earthworms, shouting, “Zee! Zee! Tsee!” until our voices ran out.