By Abby Bardi
Published by Washington Square Press
September 2002 (in trade paperback); 0743411943; 304 pages
When Little Freddie took sick, I knew things would change, and change fast. We sat next to his bed all day, laying our hands on him and saying the Beautiful Prayer, but he just got hotter to the touch and more shivery. His skin looked yellow, like he was turning into old paper. I laid my hand on his forehead and said "Get thee hence" a bunch of times, but it didn't help. That night I had a dream that the Archangel Willie came to me and said, "Lo, Mary Fred, thou wilt be traveling down the road. Thou wilt be somewheres else when the Big Cat comes. So look to yourself and say Ho."
When I woke up, I said Ho a bunch of times. Then I went to see Little Freddie, but he was already gone.
So when Little Freddie went onward, I didn't feel as bad as I might have. I was getting used to these things, and I figured he'd be happier where he was. The only bad thing was we couldn't bury him with Fred, we had to bury him up at the Outpost, and not as many people were at the funeral, and the Reverend Thigpen wasn't as jolly and nice as the Reverend Smith. He talked about the mountains covered with snow, and I wished Little Freddie had taken a coat with him because it sounded mighty cold up there. After the service, we had some sandwiches in the main hall, and then we went back to our cabin to wait. Papa said he knew it would only be a matter of time, and he was right.
It took two days for the County to come out to see us. Mama had cleaned up the cabin as best as she could. She made up Little Freddie's bed real nice, and the rest of us tidied up our stuff so things looked neat. I swept out the kitchen and the bathroom, which got a lot of spiders in them generally, and I raked the leaves out front so the grass looked clean and orderly. I raked really hard because I knew something would happen, and I was hoping to make it go as easy with all of us as possible. The Book says that the One told us to sow lots of grass, because grass is the word of the sower. That's why we planted so much, because it spread the Good News more quickly.
But it was a dry June, and the grass was dying all across the Outpost. That's how I knew.
Diane kept talking to me about stuff outside the window. She'd say things like "Look at the cows," and I'd look and say the cows were nice, though personally I liked pigs better because they were smarter. "Did you learn all about animals in school?" she asked me. I said of course not, I had learned about them from feeding them, and anyway, she probably knew I hadn't been to school in some time, not since we'd left the Compound. "Would you like to go to school?" she asked. She had a way of asking questions with this bright face that made you want to give her the right answer just to keep her from busting out crying. So I said yes, even though I didn't want to go to school. I wanted to go back to the Outpost, but since I knew Mama and Papa were going to be gone for a while, my second choice was the Compound. I knew that wasn't going to happen, so I decided to travel hopefully in the One.
I watched Diane as she drove. She had gray and black hair standing like wires all around her head, and red marks in the corners of her mouth. Her skin was spotty, and her eyes were squinting through her glasses while she watched the road. As we drove, the road got bigger and more full of cars and trucks, and things started to look more city-like on either side. I could see rows of little houses in lines, and all the green began to disappear. I thought of asking her where we were going, but it didn't matter that much to me. I knew that wherever it was, Mama and Papa wouldn't be there, and I would dwell among Lackers, like the Book said not to, and the Littles would be somewhere else, wondering where we all were and needing us. The thought made me want to cry, but I just stared really hard out the window and pretended I was running down one of the city streets, then flying up to the World Beyond, and in a while I felt a bit better.
After about an hour of driving, Diane got off at an exit and drove to a square building. We went up in an elevator. She asked if I wanted to push the button, and I did. When the doors opened, we went down a wide hallway to some glass doors that said County something or other. Only it was a different county from the one the Outpost was in. Both the Outpost and the Compound were in Frederick County, only they were two different Frederick Counties. The Reverend Smith always said that was no accident, that the counties had been waiting for the blessing of our Coming, and when we had come, we had fulfilled the prophecy of the county fathers.
This county was not a Frederick, but that didn't surprise me. I was ready to spend some time with Lackers. It had happened once before, when I was small. We got taken into custody because Papa was brought in for illegal possession of firearms, and it took a few weeks for us to get home to Mama. That was in Tennessee, before the Compound was located. We always say it was located, not found, because as far as we're concerned, the Compound was always there, we just didn't happen to be there with it.
I had been to school with Lackers, back at the Compound, and I didn't mind them. They left us alone and we left them alone, and most of the time we all got along just fine. Every so often one of them would beat up one of my brothers, or one of my brothers would beat up one of them -- usually for saying something about our clothes. We always had to wear something brown, since brown is the color of prophecy, and sometimes people said mean things about that. But most of the time even the Lackers knew that the Big Cat was coming, and coming soon, and they seemed to want to stay on our good side just in case we turned out to be right about everything else.
I sat in a chair next to Diane's desk while she filled out forms. One form after another, she wrote and wrote, asking me questions every now and then. Did I wear glasses? No. How old would I be on my next birthday? Sixteen. Did I have any food allergies? No, but I didn't like beets. Had I ever had any serious illnesses? Chicken pox, measles, German measles, and mumps, and the One had seen me through all of them just fine, thank you for asking. What grade was I in? I would have been in tenth this year if we'd stayed at the Compound. Fred would have been in twelfth, and Little Freddie in seventh. She didn't ask me about them, but I thought that. I thought about them a lot and wondered how they liked it where they were.
"You'll have to stay at the shelter for a day or two, until this all gets processed," Diane said.
"Thank you, Miss Diane," I said. I was pretty good with my please-and-thank-yous. You never knew when you'd need them.
"Just call me Diane," she said.
"I don't think I can," I said. "Mama always says that adults are your olders and betters. I'd feel funny calling you just Diane."
"Try," she said.
"Okay. Diane. I'll do my best. Diane." It sounded odd to me, but then, I knew that a lot of things would be odd from now on.
They gave me a stuffed dog to sleep with the first night there. We had never had any toys like that, since Papa said they were craven images, but when I tried to go to sleep, I found myself petting the dog and thinking about Little Freddie. I'd close my eyes and see him playing hopscotch with my sisters, and throwing stones at cans in the woods. The hair at the back of his head wouldn't lay flat, and we were always licking our hands and patting his head to get it to stay down. His hair was soft and straight, and he smelled like boys do, of sweat and dirt and the air. I felt the smell of him, and as I breathed in, something caught in my chest, and I put my arms around the stuffed dog and held him while I tried to sleep. All night long, I dreamed I was home, at the dinner table with my whole family, but then sometimes when I'd look at Fred, or Little Freddie, they would seem to be disappearing, turning all filmy and see-through like veils. I'd try to call out to them, but the words would stick in my throat, and once I woke myself up trying to shout. It was hard to get back to sleep after that, but finally I did.
That morning, the sun shone in the window and woke me, and I knew it was the light of the One telling me to get up and get cracking. I jumped up and put on my clothes. Some of the little kids in the room were still sleeping, so I dressed real quietly, then went downstairs to wait for Diane. One of the volunteers made me some oatmeal, and I ate it, though I don't like oatmeal in summer and it was already hot out, not really an oatmeal kind of day. By the time Diane came at ten o'clock, the little kids were up and watching TV, and one of them was jumping up and down on the sofa but nobody seemed to mind. Diane came and filled out some paperwork while I tried to shush everyone, and then we got back into her car and drove some more. I was just as glad to get away from the children, since being with them was making me think about the Littles and wonder where they were and if they were sad like I was.
It felt weird to be in Diane's car, since we didn't ride in cars at all back at the Compound, though at the Outpost we did it a lot more since stuff was more spread out and the town was nearby. I liked looking out the window, so I watched the road as it got wider and busier still, and then we turned off the highway onto a street and went past a bunch of apartments. Kids were playing outside, and though they were brown, mostly, they reminded me of Little Freddie. Everywhere I looked, I saw little boys playing with their sisters, throwing balls to them, chasing them down the street and laughing.
After a while, the streets got more winding and narrow, and they were lined with houses, the kind of houses with porches and flowers climbing up the side of them. Some of the flowers were big and bushy, with wild purple blossoms, as if no one had ever trimmed them. The houses weren't the new kind you see all over the county, but old, with funny angles and peeling paint. I knew that the Book said something about flowers, but I couldn't think of what it was. "The flower falleth, but the proverbs of Fred endureth forever." Something like that. It worried me that I had forgotten.
We pulled up in front of a pink house with purple trim that looked like it had just been painted. The pink was the color of rare meat, and looking at it made me a little queasy. As we were driving, Diane had explained to me that I was going to stay with a foster family, the Cullisons, for a while, and that I would like it there. She said they were a nice family and that they would take good care of me. I asked if all my brothers and sisters were going to nice foster families too, and she said yes. So I tried to make myself feel relieved about that, but I didn't -- I felt jittery and out of sorts.
We walked through a wooden gate in the front. When we swung it open, it leaned sideways on its hinges. Papa would have hammered a few nails in it right away, but he wasn't there, of course, so we just walked right in and up some steps. The steps had been newly painted purple too, and they were a little bit sticky. The front door was heavy and wooden, and it had a piece of glass in it with little diamond-shapes around the edges. Through the glass, I could see someone approaching. Her eyes seemed to widen, and then she threw the door open and stood there smiling at me but in a nervous kind of way, like someone seeing a skunk on the path on their way back from the well.
"Mary Fred, this is Alice Cullison. She's going to be taking care of you for a while."
"Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Cullison."
"Oh," Alice Cullison said. She had straggly graying brown hair, pulled back in a ponytail, and very pale skin, and her eyes were light gray-blue. Her cheeks got a little bit red, and she said, "Oh, not Mrs., dear. Could you just call me Alice, please?"
I knew better than to argue, having gone that round with Diane. "Sure, Alice." I felt all smart-alecky saying it, and I grinned a little.
"Come in, come in," Alice said, smacking herself on the side of the head with her hand like she'd forgotten something. "It's so hot out already today, isn't it? I'm sorry we don't have air-conditioning, Mary Fred, but it's cool in your room. I put a fan in there, and it works pretty well. It sort of sucks the air in from the window and stirs things up."
We walked into a small, dark sitting room with some old faded sofas in it. The sofas had blankets thrown over them but you could still see that their arms were worn out. Alice went on chatting with us as if she hadn't seen another living soul in a week. "Would you like some lemonade? It's just Country Time but I made a whole pitcher of it. Of course, it has aspartame in it and -- Mary Fred, you don't have a seizure disorder or anything, do you? I hate aspartame, but Heather likes it so I always -- Diane, can I get you something? Mary Fred?"
"Yes, ma'am, I'd like a lemonade please, and thank you."
Alice gave Diane a funny look, like she was panicking and needed help in the kitchen, but Diane sat down on the sofa and motioned for me to do the same. "Do you have any questions for me, Mary Fred?"
"No, ma'am. Diane."
"Don't you want to know something about the Cullisons?"
"Not really, ma'am. I'm sure I'll find out soon enough." The truth was, I knew the Cullisons were Lackers -- I could tell the minute I walked in there and saw no brown in sight, nor an ark, nor the Holy Books. All Lackers were pretty much the same to me. Some were nice and some weren't, and it didn't matter because where I was going, none of them were going to be there anyway, and the time was coming for the Big Cat, and coming soon. It was already 1999, and the signs were manifold. That was what Papa always said, "manifold," which was also part of a car engine, he said. I could tell Diane wanted me to ask a question, though, so I said, "Well, Diane, how long do you think I'll be here?"
"It's hard to say, Mary Fred." Diane looked at me like this was not the question she was hoping for. "It depends."
"What does it depend on?" I asked in spite of myself, though we were always taught that it's not polite to ask adults questions, especially not two in a row.
"Well, there's the trial. Both trials, actually. And then after that, it's impossible to say."
"To say what?" I couldn't believe my impertinence, asking her a third question. The Reverend Thigpen would have said that I was being presumptive and told Mama and Papa about it, then I would have gotten a beating. But Diane didn't seem to think it was odd, though I could tell she didn't like this question any better than the last one.
"It's hard to say if they'll be convicted and if so, how much time they'll have to serve."
"Well, our lives are service," I said cheerfully.
"I mean, in jail," Diane said, biting her lip. "It depends on what the judge says."
"I know," I said, trying to make it easier for Diane, though I was getting a knot in my stomach. "So how long do you think it will be?"
"I don't know," Diane said, looking at me. Her eyes looked so sad behind her glasses that I wanted to say something to comfort her.
"I'm sure I'll like it here," I said. "I'm sure it will be just fine."
"Here's your lemonade." Alice came through the kitchen door carrying a tray with three different-sized glasses on it. "The big one is for you, Mary Fred," she said, stooping in front of me. I had never seen an adult serve a child before, and certainly not from a tray, and I felt funny taking the big glass, but I did. I waited for her to give Diane her lemonade and to sit down, and then I took a sip of mine. It tasted like old sweat, but I drank it all down fast so I didn't notice it. I decided to get me a bunch of lemons and some sugar sometime soon and show the Cullisons what real lemonade was. It looked like I'd be here for a while, so I figured I'd get a chance.
"Alice, why don't you tell Mary Fred something about your family?" Diane said, waving her hand in the air like she was trying to swat a fly.
"Oh, okay!" Alice brightened up and pressed the palms of her hands together. "Well, Mary Fred, it's me, and my daughter Heather, and my brother Roy. We've lived in this house for about thirteen years, since Heather was two."
"Heather is just your age," Diane added, in case I couldn't do the arithmetic for myself.
"I work in the library at the college near here. Heather just finished the tenth grade, and she'll be going into eleventh next year."
I waited for her to tell me what Roy did, but she didn't. I also wondered where Heather's father was, and how you could call one woman, her brother, and her daughter a family. I thought about my own family, the seven of us kids, and Mama and Papa at the dinner table, all of us saying the Beautiful Prayer together. But of course two places at the table were empty when I tried to imagine it, and that just made me feel worse and more confused. For a moment I felt like crying, and I wished I'd been able to bring the stuffed dog with me from the shelter. I'd gotten kind of attached to him.
"Would you like to see your room, Mary Fred?" Diane asked. It seemed like Diane was the only one who knew what to do. Alice jumped to her feet like she was about to dance, and started up the stairs. I followed her. The stairs were made of scuffed wood, and they twisted up onto a small, dark landing. Alice flipped a light on and I could see five wooden doorways. One had a flowered name tag on it that said "Heather" and stood open just a crack. I could see an unmade bed, a bunch of stuffed animals, and a lot of clothes on the floor. Two doors were closed, but the third was open, and I could see a bathroom. Alice opened the fifth door wide so I could look in. There was a bed with a flowered bedspread and a big piece of the same flowered fabric across the window. It didn't look like any curtains I had ever seen.
"This is your room, Mary Fred," Alice said, waving me in. "It used to be the guest room, but I fixed it up a little and tried to make it look more, well, feminine." Diane gave her a disapproving look that I pretended not to notice. We went into the room. It was all nice and neat, and a little fan was blowing as hard as it could next to the open window. Through the window, framed by the flowery fabric, I could see a big oak tree. It was a spready oak, the kind in the Book, and I made a plan to stand under it for a while in case the One wanted to send me a prophecy, or maybe just some idea of what was going to happen now.
"It's very nice," I said to Alice, who smiled and looked pleased altogether. "It's a fancy room." It was just the kind of fanciness Lackers seemed to like, so I figured I ought to say that.
"You can put your things down, Mary Fred," Diane said. I was carrying my overnight bag. I put it down on the bed.
"Why don't you get unpacked, and maybe you'd like to wash up," Diane said.
I knew it would only take me about two minutes to unpack, but I said I would, and they left me there. I opened my suitcase and started taking things out. I had brought my two best dresses, in case we went to church, though last time I'd been with Lackers that hadn't happened. I looked for somewhere to hang them up and sure enough, there were a bunch of plastic hangers in the closet. The closet was big enough for another twenty dresses or so, but needless to say I didn't have them. I had a pair of brown dungarees for working in the garden, in case there was a garden, and I folded those up and put them in a drawer in the dresser next to my bed, along with five pairs of cotton underpants. Next to them, I put my stripy yellow and brown shirt, the one that Fred used to say made me look like a skinny little bumblebee. "A bee in the body of a lion," Mama would add, smacking Fred for making fun of me. I would make a loud buzzing sound and swoop down on all the Littles like I was going to sting them, and they would scream and run away, laughing. It would be a hot day, like this one, and we'd all be out in the yard raking and watering, chasing each other with the hose. I put my hands over my ears because all I could hear was laughing in my mind and then the terrible silence of this house, with nothing but the fan humming.
I sat there for a moment, still holding my ears and shaking my head to get the fan sound out of it. Then I made myself get up and close the dresser drawer, and I looked for somewhere to put the toiletries that I had in a small plastic bag. I didn't want to leave them in the bathroom in case they were in anybody's way, so I put them down on the nightstand. I put The Book of Fred right down next to them, but that seemed kind of disrespectful, so I put the plastic bag on the floor. Then I noticed a little bookshelf next to the window, so I put my book there, squeezed in between a bunch of what looked like picture books. On top of the bookshelf was a plastic pony with long, braided, wavy pink hair. What will they think of next, I thought to myself. We used to braid our horses' manes sometimes, but of course they were never pink. I had to admit, though, that the plastic pony looked awfully pretty that way.
When I had unpacked everything, I slid my overnight bag under the bed and sat down on the comforter for a while with my hands in my lap. I figured that Diane and Alice might have needed to talk about me some, so I gave them a little time. Then I went out on the landing and found the bathroom, and I splashed some cold water on my face and washed my hands. I said to myself, "The water of life is bright as crystal," and then, "Blessed is the one who keepeth the words of the prophecy of the Book." I looked at myself in the mirror and said, "Amen." I wasn't used to mirrors, since Mama didn't believe in them, and my face always looked like a stranger's. But I said hello to the girl in the mirror anyway, and gave her a little wink.
Diane and Alice were sitting on the sofas talking when I came downstairs. I was sure they had been talking about me before, but now they were on the weather and how hot it was, and Alice was saying that she really wished she could afford air-conditioning but it was just one of the many things, something or other, and she mentioned some man's name and looked sad. Diane looked bristly, and her wiry hair seemed to pick up an electrical charge and quiver, but she didn't say anything, just shook her head and stood up. "Mary Fred, I'll be leaving now. Is there anything you need to ask us?"
I thought for a minute. "What are my chores?"
Diane and Alice both laughed, like this was funny. "Oh, Mary Fred," Alice said, touching me lightly on the arm, "it's not like we want you to be our servant or anything. We want you to feel like you're part of the family."
I said I figured that anyone who was part of a family had chores. They laughed some more, so I gave up and asked about school. Diane told me that school was just about over so I didn't have to worry about it until fall, but that they would try to get a tutor for me over the summer so I could catch up with my grade. "Heather can help you," Alice said, though Diane looked at her funny, like she thought that wasn't likely.
"Is Heather at school right now?" I asked.
"I hope so," Alice said. "I mean, yes."
"Well, Mary Fred, I'd better be off. Welcome to your new home. I know you'll like it here." Diane gave me a little pat on the arm, and then handed me a card. "Call me if you have any more questions, or if you just need someone to talk to."
"I will, ma'am," I said, putting the card in the pocket of my dress. Diane smiled at me and said, "I'll talk to you later," to Alice. She went out the door, pulling it shut behind her. The air whooshed around us as the door closed. Alice turned to me, smiled brightly, and said, "Are you hungry?"
"Not really, ma'am. Alice. But thank you."
"Would you like to go lie down for a while?"
"No thanks. I'm not really tired."
"Would you like to watch some TV?"
"Oh, no, ma'am." I didn't want to explain that only Lackers watched television, that we would never, ever poison our brains like that. That would have been a rude thing to say, so I just said, "I don't care for TV, thank you."
Alice looked like she had no idea what to do with me, so to bail her out I said, "Why don't I bake something for dinnertime?"
"You mean like cookies?"
"Yes, ma'am. Alice. I can do cookies, or a cake if you'd rather."
"Do you like to cook?"
"I like it fine. That's what I'd be doing right now. If I was at home. So I figure since this is home for a while, I ought to do what I'd be doing. At home."
"Oh, of course, honey. Well, let's go see what ingredients we've got. It's awfully hot for baking, isn't it?"
"Well, yes, I guess it is. In the summer, we generally do it in the morning when the day is still cool. Mama says the heat is just a little reminder for us of what it would be like to go to the other place. She says baking concentrates the mind because of that."
Alice opened her mouth as if she was about to say something, then closed it again. We went into the kitchen and she started pulling open cabinets and peering into them. There were a lot of cabinets, but they were full of things all jumbled together, not in lines or rows or anything. In one of them she found a bag of flour, but when she looked inside, she made a tsking sound with her mouth and threw it away. There was another bag of flour in another cabinet, and that one had never been opened, so she handed it to me. She found a can of baking powder and gave me that too. I checked the date on the bottom -- it had expired, but it would probably still work. She found sugar in a large canister and some walnuts in the freezer.
"Do you have any vanilla?" I asked. She gave me a bottle of extract with the cap kind of stuck on and gooey. "Any ginger?" She handed me a little jar with a red cap. "How about butter?" She found me some on a shelf in the fridge. The fridge gave off a sour smell when she opened it, so she shut it back up quick. "Cookie sheet?" Alice was smiling now, like we were having our own little game, and I have to say I was kind of enjoying it too. It felt good to do something normal, something I was used to. When everything I needed was piled up on the counter, I asked if she had some matches to light the oven. She said the oven lighted by itself and just to turn it on. I had a feeling Alice wasn't really interested in baking at all, just in entertaining me, so I said that if she had other chores she needed to do, I would be happy to do the baking all on my own. She said that actually, she had brought some work home and needed to see to it, so I thanked her and she left. I found some mixing bowls in a cabinet under the counter and got to work.
When I had put the cookies in the oven, I went back out into the living room. It was dark and a lot cooler than the kitchen. I listened for Alice but didn't hear her, so I sat down on one of the sofas. It was dark green and kind of prickly underneath a blanket with moons and stars on it. All around me were tall shelves crammed full of all kinds of books. I looked at some of their titles but I had never heard of any of them. We never read books by Lackers, or as Mama says, not by anybody unless they had heard the trumpet sound. A television was next to me, staring at me with its big blank eye.
I had been sitting there for a while, not doing much of anything, when the front door opened and a girl came in. She looked surprised to see me, but then seemed to realize who I was. "Oh, hi," she said, throwing a huge book bag down on the sofa opposite me. "I'm Heather." The way she said her name it sounded like it had a thousand Rs at the end of it.
"Hi, I'm Mary Fred," I said, looking at her. She was tall, with wavy hair like Alice's only darker brown, with a few streaks of orange and even a bit of what looked like blue but couldn't have been, since hair is never blue. Where Alice was thin and wispy, Heather was more solid-looking, and her face was tan, though she seemed to have some kind of white makeup all over it. She had a lot of dark stuff on her eyes that had smudged. I stood up and went over to her in case she wanted to shake hands, but she just waved and threw herself into a big armchair.
"So you're, like, going to live with us for a while?"
"It looks that way."
I stood above where she was flopped in the chair, her arms and legs sticking out in all directions, and neither of us said anything. I started to wonder if Heather was happy about getting a new family member. She didn't look all that happy.
Alice came down the stairs that moment and said, "Puffin, what are you doing home?"
"Half-day," Heather said. "We had a final."
"Really? Already? What was it in?"
"Bio." Warming to the topic a little, Heather said, "It was so horrible. I thought I was going to die right in the middle. One kid actually started crying."
"Oh, it was Danny Fox. That dork."
I wasn't sure what a dork was but it definitely didn't sound good. I expected to hear Alice tell Heather that we are all creatures of the earth and none of us are dorks, but she just said, "Mary Fred is baking cookies. Smell? Mmmn, Mary Fred, they smell great."
"Oh, cookies," Heather said in a miserable-sounding voice. "Just what I need."
She didn't sound happy at all about the cookies, so I wasn't sure why she thought she needed them. Alice went into the kitchen and returned with two glasses of lemonade. She handed one to each of us and I knew I'd have to guzzle mine down just to be polite. Heather swallowed hers in one gulp and put the empty glass down on a wooden end table, and Alice picked it up, saying, "Not on the wood, Puff, you'll leave a ring." She took it into the kitchen, then went upstairs. Heather picked up a plastic thing and pushed a button on it, and the television came on. "Do you watch All My Children?" she asked. I had no idea what she was talking about, but I said no. On the screen, a man and a woman were in a bed, the man on top of the woman. It looked like they didn't have any clothes on, but when the police came into the room and the picture got bigger, you could see the woman was wearing black underwear. The man stood up -- he was wearing pants -- and the policeman put handcuffs on him and led him away. Then a woman came on and talked about vitamins. I finished my lemonade and brought it into the kitchen. I had washed all my dishes from baking, and I rinsed the glass out and put it on a wooden rack next to the sink. There were only a few minutes left till the cookies would be ready, so I decided to wait by the oven, since I figured the half-naked people would be back on the television pretty soon, and I knew Mama wouldn't want me to be anywhere near them.
When the cookies were ready, I put them on a plate and brought it into the living room. Heather took one and said, "I'm trying to lose weight. I'm only going to have one. How do you stay so thin, Mary Fred, if you bake cookies all the time?"
"I'm just made this way I guess. My brothers always say if I turn sideways I'll disappear. They say the crows will see me and fly away as fast as they can." There, I had done it again -- I had said it as if they were still alive and were going to come in the door any minute and tease me about my skinniness. In spite of myself, I felt tears come into my eyes, but I blinked them away before Heather saw. I wouldn't want her to pity me, though I wasn't sure she was the pitying type anyway.
"I'd give anything to have your body," Heather said, taking a second cookie. "You look like a model."
"A model what?" I asked, but Heather just laughed and didn't answer.
I sat with Heather for a while in front of the television, doing my best to ignore what was on it. I was going to have to remember to leave the Book in the sitting room in case I got stuck here a lot and needed something to do. I hoped no one would think it was rude if I read to myself instead of participating in the family activities, whatever they turned out to be. I was a tiny bit curious about what was going to happen to the man on the television, but I didn't let myself look up because I could just about feel Mama smacking me on my hand and saying, "Mary Fred, now you know better." So I sat staring at the carpet, which was one of those round knotted ones, faded and flattened in spots, and tried to think about all the nice things there would be about living here for a while. I would have my own room. I would have an opportunity to experience something new. And maybe if I was here long enough, I could share the Word of the Book with the Cullisons. That was a good thing, I thought, and I said "Amen!" to myself, though I knew that in actual fact, Lackers would never hear the word, not in a million Sundays.
I sat on the sofa most of the afternoon with Heather, trying not to pay any attention to whatever she was watching on the television. Whenever Alice would come into the room, I would look up at her and wait for her to tell us to get on with our chores, or for Heather to do her homework or something, but she would just pass through the room with a look on her face like she was thinking and disappear for a while. Heather sat with her leg over the side of the armchair, flipping the channels back and forth on the television. A bunch of the channels had people talking to large audiences about the strange things they had done, such as courting their sisters' husbands and stuff like that. I figured that nobody would ever do anything that terrible, and I couldn't understand how Heather could waste a whole day watching them as if they were real. Heather looked pretty bored too, and every so often she would say something to me about the people's clothes, or their hair, but apart from that, we just kept quiet, which was fine with me.
At about five o'clock, a man came in the front door. "Hi, Puff," he said to Heather. I guessed that they called her Puff for some reason. He looked at me like he wasn't expecting to see anyone else, then said, "Oh, you must be -- " He stopped, like he didn't know what my name was supposed to be.
"I'm Mary Fred," I said, walking over to him and shaking his hand.
"This is my uncle Roy," Heather said, waving her hand
toward him but not looking up.
"Hi, Uncle Roy," I said. I figured that was what I should call him too.
Uncle Roy was carrying a big plastic bag. He put it down on the floor and looked at me, like he was trying to see if I was someone he would like or not. He wasn't much taller than me, with sandy, wavy hair like Alice's, and a scraggly little beard. His hair was thinning in patches on top, like he'd been tearing it out. He had one big, dark eyebrow and dark eyes. "So, Mary Fred, tell us about yourself," he said, walking into the room and sitting on the sofa across from the television.
"There's not much to tell. I guess I'll be here for a while. You probably know all the rest."
"More or less." I expected him to say his condolences like most people did, but he didn't. "Are you going to be a good influence on our Puffin here?"
"I don't know, Uncle Roy. I hope I'm always an influence for good."
"Roy," Alice said in a sharp voice, as she swung through the kitchen door, "are you already giving Mary Fred a hard time?"
"Not yet," Roy said. "I was just working up to it. I hadn't even gotten started yet."
"Give it a rest, Roy," Alice said, sounding snappish. "Just take the day off from being you. Mary Fred, how would you like to help me in the kitchen?"
"I'd love to." I jumped to my feet, relieved to have something to do besides not watch the stupid television shows or talk to Uncle Roy.
"Did you see that, Puffin?" Roy said to Heather. "That's how it's done. When someone asks you to do something, you respond in the affirmative. You don't just continue to sit like a lump with a hearing impairment, or scream like someone is disemboweling you."
Heather seemed not to have noticed that Roy had even spoken. She was still flipping channels as I ran out of the room with Alice.
It turned out that Alice didn't really have any particular chores in mind for me, but I managed to find plenty to do. After I had washed the remaining cookie sheets, I sorted through the fridge and threw out some old food that was making it smell bad, while Alice poked around, looking for something to make for dinner. "I'm sorry, Mary Fred, I meant to go to the store and make you a special meal for your first night, but I just didn't have time. I brought work home today so I could be here for you, but it took longer than I thought, and I -- "
"It's perfectly all right, ma'am," I said, though I felt a little sad about not getting a special welcome dinner. Then I decided well, I'll help make dinner special for all of us one way or another.
"What do you like to eat?" Alice asked me. "Is there anything you don't like? Do you have any dietary restrictions?"
"No, I'll eat anything, ma'am. Though we tend to eat a lot of fish. Like the proverb says, If the child asks for a fish, give him a fish."
"I'd never heard that," Alice said. "I'll get some fish tomorrow, I promise. Let's see, what do we have for tonight?" She started rummaging around in the freezer and pulled out a bunch of plastic containers and old boxes until she found a big package of frozen lasagna. We put that in the oven and then I found a bunch of carrots in the fridge and grated them for a salad. I put a little yogurt on them and some honey and raisins, and I scooped the salad into a pretty flowered bowl I found in a low cabinet. Next I went into the dining room to set the table. There were stacks of books on it, so I had to move them first, but I managed to find all the right plates and silverware and some paper napkins, and pretty soon it looked nice. The lasagna had to cook for an hour, so I found a bunch of little things to do before dinner. I put all the clean dishes away, and I rearranged a couple of cabinets. I mopped part of the floor that had some sticky stuff on it, and I cleaned all the counters.
When we sat down to dinner, Heather said, "Why is everything so fancy?" She sounded grumpy.
"Puffin would rather eat out of a trough," Roy said. "It's more efficient."
"Mary Fred made everything nice," Alice said. She smiled, and I could see that she was glad about how nice things were. She seemed like the kind of person who liked things to be calm and sweet and pretty, but from the looks of it, nothing in her life was like that. I resolved to try to make things a little better for Alice, as part of my stay here.
"Great lasagna," Roy said, digging in. "My compliments to the chef at Le Club de Price."
"Try the carrot salad," Alice said, pushing the flowered bowl toward him. "Mary Fred made that." She smiled at me, and I felt almost happy for a second.
When I came downstairs the next morning, I was expecting to see everybody at the table already, since it was nearly eight when I finally got up. I'd been dreaming I was at the Compound and I was trying to feed the chickens, but every time I looked in the big cabinet in the barn where we kept their food, bats would fly out at me, or birds, or giant bees, and I don't think I ever did find the chickenfeed. The whole floor of the barn was mud, and as I walked across it, trying to get back to the big house, my feet stuck to the ground and I couldn't pull them up. I tried yelling for Papa but I knew nobody could hear me, and when I woke up, I was making little P sounds with my mouth, like I'd started to say Papa but hadn't quite finished.
But nobody was in the dining room when I got there, and when I looked in the kitchen, it was empty too. I opened the fridge to look for something to cook, but there weren't any eggs, and all the breakfast things I knew how to make had eggs in them. Finally, I went back out into the sitting room and sat down on the sofa to wait for Alice to get up. I watched the clock as I sat there, humming to myself. I hummed "Holy Sanctuary" and "Where Is the Word to Be Found." I hummed until my throat started to hurt, and then I just sat there, thinking the music instead. At about ten, Alice came downstairs in a flowered bathrobe. Her eyes looked sleepy and her hair was standing up all around her head like she'd had a bad dream. "Oh, Mary Fred," she said when she saw me, like she had totally forgotten I would be there.
"Good morning, ma'am," I said.
"Did you help yourself to something to eat?" Alice asked. "I'm sorry, I forgot to show you where everything is."
"I was waiting for everybody else," I said.
"We never eat in the mornings," Alice said. "I'm so sorry, Mary Fred, I should have said something last night. Let me get you some cereal."
She stood there kind of twisting her hands together, like she felt really guilty for forgetting, so I said, "I never eat in the mornings either. It makes me kind of bilious."
This seemed to make her feel better, and she stopped twisting her hands and said, "Are you sure I can't get you some cereal?"
"Not till at least ten o'clock," I said. "I never eat before that."
"I think it's ten o'clock right now," Alice said, turning to look at the clock behind her. It was a big wooden clock, like the top half of a grandfather. "This clock is always ten minutes slow. It's really ten past ten."
"Well then, I guess I should have something to eat," I said, jumping up and following Alice into the kitchen. She showed me some boxes of cereal on a high shelf in the pantry. When I opened the first one, a moth flew out, so I went for the second one, which was something called Tropical Muesli. It tasted kind of strange, like it had perfume in it, but it was okay. Alice asked if I wanted any coffee. I said no, that I had never had coffee before and didn't know if it would agree with me, so she made herself some. She sat across from me at the dining room table drinking it while I ate my cereal. She looked too tired to talk, so I didn't try to make conversation with her, but she kept thinking of things to say like she was afraid of my getting too bored.
"Do you need to go shopping?" Alice asked. "Do you need anything? Socks, underwear? They give me a little allowance for you so I want to make sure you get everything you need."
I didn't think I ought to discuss underwear with someone I had just met, but then again, she was supposed to be my family for a while, so I said, "I brought five pairs of underpants, and we generally do the laundry every other day so they ought to do just fine." Then I thought maybe Alice didn't have a washing machine in her house, and that I had just said something rude, so I said, "Of course, I can wash them out in the sink," but then I thought, well maybe people don't want people washing their dirty underwear out in sinks, where the germs might sit and wait for them, so I was about to say that I could change them every other day if necessary, but then I didn't want Alice to think I was dirty, so I just opened and closed my mouth a couple of times like a fish.
"Well, let me know if you need anything," Alice said. "We can go shopping any time you want to. Clothes, makeup, whatever you need...."
I had never worn makeup in my life, but I just said thanks.
After we finished breakfast, Alice went outside and got the newspaper from the front lawn, and she asked me if I wanted part of it. We had always made a point of never reading the newspaper, since it was all lies, but I didn't want to say that to Alice, so I looked at some of it. I read the comics and then a thing called a horoscope that seemed to be telling everybody what to do. Papa would say that that was how the government controlled people's minds, but it didn't sound like the horoscope was asking anyone to do anything bad. The advice for Aries was to wear mauve and green. I figured I'd watch all day for someone wearing mauve and green and then ask them if they were Aries.
"What's Aries?" I asked Alice, so I'd know.
"That's someone born anywhere from March 21 to April 20 or so. What sign are you, Mary Fred?"
"When's your birthday?"
"That makes you a Sagittarius. That's what I am too. Mine's December 10."
"Well, then I guess we should look beyond the immediate and gain an overall view. Stress ability to make friend of one from foreign land. Question concerning marriage will loom large. Pisces plays dominant role."
"Roy's a Pisces," Alice said.
"Does this mean that when a person's birthday is tells them what they ought to do?"
"Sort of. Maybe. I don't know if it really means anything, Mary Fred, but some people believe in it."
"Not really. Maybe a little. I basically think we're responsible for our own destinies."
Now, I knew better than to argue with this, because of course we're all in the hands of the One, but I understood that Lackers often thought that they were deciding things for themselves. Part of me wanted to try to convince Alice to follow the One and come with me into the Hereafter when the Big Cat came, but I had had enough experience with Lackers to know that they weren't going to listen, and that alls that would happen is they would want to discuss things. And Papa always said those things were best left alone. Lackers would hear when the lame walked and the blind received their sight, Papa said, and meanwhile, it was no use sowing a seed on barren ground. So I asked why they had the horoscopes in the newspaper. Alice said they were for entertainment. "Anyway," she said, "you're too young for marriage to loom large."
"Maybe it's someone else's marriage, though," I said.
Alice shook her head and looked kind of sad.
"Maybe I'm the friend from a foreign land," I said.
She looked at me and smiled. "I don't think Frederick County is a foreign land, do you?"
I smiled and said no, but the fact was, this place did seem like a foreign land to me, in fact, like a whole new planet.
We'd been sitting there for a while, reading the paper and not saying anything, when Heather came down. Her eyes were still almost closed, and she moved unsteadily, like she was sleepwalking. I had seen someone sleepwalking once at the Compound one night and he almost fell into the lake. The men had to holler and wake him. Heather waved a hand and lurched herself into a chair, looking at me like she was trying to remember who I was.
"Good morning, Heather," I said. Heather made a little grunting sound, and Alice told her to say good morning back to me, so she did. I waited for Alice to jump up and ask Heather to help her get some breakfast, but she went on reading the paper. After a while, Heather picked herself out of the chair, went into the kitchen, and came back with a bag of potato chips.
"Don't eat potato chips for breakfast," Alice said, glancing at Heather and then looking back at the paper.
I wasn't at all surprised when Heather went right on eating the potato chips as if her mother hadn't said anything. I was getting the hang of things.
It was just past noon when Roy came down the stairs. He was wearing a green T-shirt and blue jeans with holes in them, and he didn't look very clean. His hair was all messy and his beard looked even more scraggly than before. We were still sitting at the table. I had gone and taken a shower and then cleaned up some in the kitchen until Alice had made me stop. "It makes me feel guilty," she said. "Just relax." Of course I was used to relaxing, but we did it on Sunday afternoon after church. Papa always used to say, "Humankind is made for the Sabbath, not the Sabbath for humankind."
"I left you some coffee," Alice said as Roy went into the kitchen. The big wooden door swung closed behind him and then swung back open a minute later with him carrying a big clay mug that looked like it had been made by someone in kindergarten.
By this time, I knew he wasn't going to say good morning or anything, but I thought I'd have some fun with him so I said, "Good morning, Uncle Roy, did you sleep well?"
Roy nodded and took a big guzzle of coffee.
"I guess you're a morning person," Alice said to me, smiling like the very thought of being a morning person made her feel tired all over again.
"I'm an all-day-long kind of person," I said.
"Like the Energizer Bunny," Heather said. It was the first thing she'd said so far today.
Heather looked at me sadly. "Mary Fred," she said, "you're going to have to watch more TV."
"Mary Fred," Alice said finally as I was beating the hearthrug on the back porch, "really, you don't have to do any chores. We didn't have you come here so you could work."
"I feel better when I keep busy," I said.
"Oh," Alice said, as if she suddenly remembered all about me. "I'm so sorry, Mary Fred. Of course you do. After all, you've been through so much. I should have thought of some kind of structured activity for you to do. I'm so used to Heather. She just kind of sits around all the time, so it didn't occur to me that you might need something more -- " She broke off in the middle of a sentence and stood with her hand on her chin, like she was trying to think of something for me to do. Then she waved both hands in the air and said, "Don't worry, we'll think of something."
"Until we do," I said, "is it okay if I clean things?"
"Sure, Mary Fred. Of course. It's great, in fact, I really appreciate it."
I had just finished scrubbing the bathroom floor when Alice asked if I wanted to go to the grocery store with her. I said sure, and we went to a store that was so big, you could have fit the Compound's general store into it about twenty-five times and still had room left over for all of the Apostles to do cartwheels. They had a gigantic fish counter, full of all kinds of big fish with the heads still on them, so Alice bought one for dinner. We bought some rice, and some green beans, and a lot of strange things that Alice said Heather liked -- pink breakfast cereals, and rolls of tape that were made of fruit, and some frozen things with jelly and icing that were supposed to be strudel but didn't look like any strudel I'd ever seen.
"Is there anything I can buy you?" Alice asked me, her voice almost pleading. "Anything at all?"
"No, ma'am, I think I've got everything I need." We had picked up the feather duster. "Maybe a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup to go with the green beans."
"Okay. Anything else?"
"No'm. I think that's it."
"Oh, Mary Fred," Alice said, looking like she was going to burst into tears. "I just feel so inadequate. I don't know what to do, or how to help you. I want to do a good job at this, but I don't think I know how. What was I thinking? I'm such a terrible mother anyway, and now -- "
I put my arm around her and patted her on the shoulder. "It's fine, ma'am. Alice. Really, I'm happy as can be." We were standing near the express checkout line, since we had fewer than fifteen items, and on the shelf next to it were some long pink plastic tubes with little multicolored beads in them. I didn't know what they were, but I said, "Oh, Alice, can I have one of these?" I picked one up and showed it to her.
"Of course you can, Mary Fred," she said, wiping one eye and looking at me like I had just done something really nice for her instead of the other way around.
I asked if we could get one for Heather too, and she said sure, so I grabbed another one. That meant we had sixteen items, but Alice took us through the express line anyway and the woman at the cash register never said a thing about it.
Heather seemed to like the little beads -- she ate them right up before dinner -- and everyone liked the green beans with mushroom soup. It felt funny sitting around the dinner table and eating the same food I'd be eating at home, but without saying the Beautiful Prayer first, and without my real family. Uncle Roy made some comment about sitting there that made me think that they didn't always eat together, or even at the table.
Still, it was a nice dinner, and I think they liked it. They were all kind of smiley afterward, even Heather, who didn't smile much in general. I had folded up the paper napkins into little swans, and after dinner she wanted me to show her how to do it, so I did. Then Alice made her come help us in the kitchen, while Roy took out the garbage, because it was getting kind of smelly with the fish and all, and Heather showed me where all the dishes belonged and helped me wipe them. While we were working, she talked about her school. She said her French test last Friday hadn't been too bad, the only bad part was that she was concentrating so hard while she was taking it that her foot fell asleep, so when she stood up to go turn the test in, she fell over sideways and couldn't manage to stand upright, and everybody laughed at her. "It was so embarrassing," she said.
"But it wasn't your fault," I said. "I mean, a person can't help if their foot goes to sleep."
"Mary Fred's right, Puffin," Alice said. "It's not like you did it on purpose."
"I don't care, I just looked like the biggest dork in the world," Heather said, rolling her eyes. "And stop calling me Puffin."
"How come everybody calls you Puffin?" I asked her.
"They shouldn't," she said, giving Alice a dark look. "They know not to call me Puffin. But they do it anyway."
"I don't know," Alice said. "Roy, why do we call Puffin Puffin?"
"It's because when she was born, she was all puffy," Roy said, coming back through the kitchen with the garbage can and putting it down beside the sink. "Her face was all red and bloated, like a walrus's."
"That's not why," Heather said, punching Roy on the arm, which kind of shocked me in spite of myself. "It's because when I was born, I looked like a bird. A puffin. That's what Dad always says."
"Does he?" Alice asked. She stopped wiping the dish she was holding and stood staring at Heather like this was some really interesting information. "Is that what he says?"
"He says I had this cute little beak," Heather went on, looking pleased with herself. "And I made these little tweeting noises, like a puffin."
"I don't think your father is up on his ornithology," Roy said. "I don't think puffins tweet."
"They do tweet," Heather said. "And they're really cute. That's what he says."
"You were a cute baby," Alice said. "You had such tiny little hands." She reached for one of Heather's big hands with her soapy, wet one, and Heather let her hold it for about a second, then snatched it away. Alice turned to me, as if to be fair, and said, "Do you have a nickname in your family, Mary Fred?"
"Sometimes everyone calls me M.F.," I said. "We have a lot of Fred names in my family so sometimes we use initials to keep from getting confused."
"M.F.?" Roy sort of smirked.
"That's nice," Alice said. "So other people in your family are named Fred too? Is that a family name?"
"No, ma'am," I said. I had explained this to many Lackers before in the past, but still, I always felt surprised when people asked me this. "It's our religion. People tend to be named after Fred."
"Oh, so your whole family is, um, named after Fred?"
"Well, not Mama and Papa, but all my brothers and sisters."
"What are their names?" Alice asked.
"Well, there are the little ones. Fredericka, we call her Rickie, then Bobby Fred, then Billy Fred, but we call him Biffles, then Boo, who is really Susie Fred, then -- " My voice got stuck when I came to Little Freddie, and I just stopped there.
"Who's Fred?" Heather asked.
"Fred is our founder," I said, staring down at the floor while my eyes watered. "Fred was the man who founded us and found us and brought us into the light. That's how we say it, usually. He brought us into the light."
"How exactly did he do this?" Roy asked. I looked up at him and saw that he had a little smile on his face.
"With his Prophecy. And his Holy Book."
"So your family met this Fred person and followed him to -- where were you living?"
"Virginia, at first. Then we moved up to Maryland. But we never met him."
"No, he lived a long time ago. He died in 1947."
"But his ideas lived on?"
"That's right." Although he sounded polite enough, I had a feeling Uncle Roy thought there was something funny about this, and since I didn't, I resolved to just clam up. This was how things went with Lackers, and while of course I wasn't angry, since as Papa always said, there was no point in being angry with Lackers, it was like being mad at the rain for ruining your picnic, still, I was getting this feeling in my stomach like someone had stuck a knife in it and was giving it a good twist. I decided to try not to talk about my family with anyone, especially not Roy, and it probably wasn't a very good idea to talk about the Book either, since I might as well have been speaking Chinese to them anyway.
The next morning was Sunday, and when I got up, at first I thought I had better get ready for church, but then when I thought more about it, I was absolutely positive that no one would be going to church. I went downstairs and sure enough, none of them were there -- everyone was still asleep. I brought the Book down with me and just sat reading it for a while, though I kept daydreaming in the middle of the page, so then I felt bad, like my mind was going to start Lacking if I didn't watch out. What I kept imagining were my brothers and sisters in their church clothes, and Mama and Papa leading us down the path to the Chapel at the Compound, past the wild raspberry bushes and the honeysuckle that grew all over everything. I could see Fred and Little Freddie running after Boo, trying to tickle her, and how they'd pick her up and whirl her around, and how she would scream and laugh and yell at them to stop but they knew that what Boo really liked best was to be swung in the air. When I started to feel sad like this, I would pick up the Book and find some comfort in it, like I would read about the Sabbath and how we should keep it holy and not do any work, and rest like the Lord rested. I tried to have the feeling of Sunday all by myself, but things kept getting in the way of it -- the sounds of cars outside, and the big TV that sat looking at me with its square blank face. I read the part in the Book about the Imminence, but it just didn't make me feel any more holy, since all I could think about was how I was sitting in some Lackers' living room, and it was Sunday, and no one was going to church, or anywhere else for that matter. After a while I just put the Book down and went into the kitchen and made myself some toast. I wondered where Mama and Papa were right now and whether they were getting enough to eat, and where the Littles were, and if they were living with Lackers too, and watching television, and forgetting the holy Word. I imagined Rickie and Boo wearing fancy dresses and saying a bunch of cuss words, and then I tried to stop myself from picturing that. I knew Rickie would never behave like that, though to be honest, I had some doubts about Boo. She was six and had a dramatic way with her, at least that's what Mama and Papa always said. I wondered what they were doing right now, and it seemed so strange to think they were all out there somewhere and I didn't even know where. Then I wondered why I was feeling so bad suddenly, like I had fallen down and bruised myself all over on the inside.
I went back into the sitting room with my toast on a plate. Back home, we'd never be allowed to eat in the sitting room, but I had seen Heather break this rule several times yesterday so I figured it was okay. I stared at the blank TV while I ate, feeling bored and angry. Here it was, Sunday morning, and I was lounging in front of a TV in my gardening trousers instead of in the family pew at the Compound, and I hadn't heard a sermon in nearly three weeks, and if I wasn't careful I was going to start Lacking, I was going to let Evil into my heart, and before I knew it, I'd be wearing a golden gown and feathers like some hootchie-kootchie woman. That was what the Reverend Thigpen said sometimes. And meanwhile, I didn't have any idea where the Littles were, and I only hoped that wherever it was -- I guessed they had all gone to different families -- they weren't going to start Lacking, and they weren't lonely and afraid and crying for Mama and me.
I picked up the remote from the sofa where Heather had thrown it and flicked on the TV. I flipped the channels around past a bunch of cartoon bears and some ugly puppets until I found a channel that had a church on it. For a moment I felt relieved, like I was going to be okay, because I could spend my Sundays at the TV church and not fall away from the News, but after I listened to the man for a few minutes, I shut the TV off again. He was talking about the same Words we talked about, but I could see that deep down, he was really a Lacker. He was talking about the God of Peace and Kindness, and it was the kind of thing that the Reverend Thigpen warned us was really just Evil talking in a pearly guise. That's what he said. "If Evil cast out Evil, then Evil is divided against itself," the Book said. I felt divided against myself, like I wasn't sure anymore exactly what Evil was. I just hoped none of it had found its way into me and tried to make a home there like someone camping in a ditch.
By the time everyone got up, it was nearly noon, and I was feeling even worse. I'd been sitting there for hours, I was bored, and I felt restless, like I was all shivery and twitchy inside and needed a good run, or maybe a horseback ride. Alice got up first and said good morning to me in her ghostly way, making a beeline for the coffeepot like she was dying of thirst. Then Heather came down and mumbled something, grabbing a bag of cookies and flinging herself down with them on the sofa. I could see crumbs spraying from her mouth in a fine mist. Finally, Roy got up, looking grim and grubby, without so much as a word to anyone. I just sat there, watching everyone waste a perfectly beautiful Sunday morning when they could have been out serving someone somehow.
"Don't you get tired of just sitting?" I asked Heather.
She looked at me like I had said something ridiculous. "I get tired if I don't sit," she said. "So then I sit some more and I feel rested. That's how it works."
"But don't you feel like the whole world is just waiting for you to get up and do something? Like there's this really important thing out there that you could be doing, and you're just sitting here instead, and the important thing is going to pass right by you and you'll never even know what it was?"
Heather seemed to think for a minute. Then she said, "No."
"It's not that, really," Alice said, staring at a stack of dishes like she'd forgotten what they were. "I just don't want her to be away for her birthday, and for such a long time. And I don't like the idea of her taking a plane. What if something happened -- I just couldn't deal with it."
I thought of telling her that something was going to happen anyway, the Big Cat was coming, and coming soon, but that would just have made her feel worse, plus being a Lacker, there was nothing she could do about it anyway, so why tell her. So I said, "I'm sure everything will be fine. Those planes are really safe. They're big and powerful, so if they run into any trouble they can just fly away from it real fast. And when they land, they've got all kinds of emergency landing gear so if one set of gear doesn't work, the extra ones open right up, no problem."
"I'm sure you're right, Mary Fred. It's just that she's never been that far away from me. Usually he just takes her to Florida or the Caribbean. I don't like the idea of her being across a whole ocean, especially on her birthday."
"It's hard being separated from your people," I said. "But sometimes you just have to make the best of it."
"Oh, Mary Fred," she said. "I'm sorry. I hadn't thought."
"It's okay," I said.
"No, really, I'm sorry. It's so selfish of me to think of worrying about a little two-week vacation, when you're -- really, I'm so -- "
"It's okay," I said in a voice that sounded surprisingly hard to me. "I'm grown up enough to know that whatever the Will has set forth for me, well, that's the path I have to take, and sometimes it's a path I don't much like, sometimes it's a hard path, like when the One decides to just take both of my brothers, it's hard, Alice, but when you truly have faith, then you know, why, you just know that it's -- "
"It's so hard, I know," Alice said, like I hadn't said anything about faith or the One at all. "I know."
"You couldn't possibly know," I said, my voice a little rasp like Evil was starting to possess me and make itself heard. "You just couldn't possibly imagine." Alice started toward me but I held up my hand, palm outward, to ward her off. "It's my own burden, ma'am, not yours. My yoke is easy and my burden is light."
"It's not easy, Mary Fred," Alice said, stopping about a foot from me and looking at me with sad eyes. "I understand that. I wish there was something I could do to help."
"There's nothing you can do," I said, taking a step backward. "There's nothing any Lacker could possibly do. It's just the way things are."
"Let me know, Mary Fred, if there's anything -- " Alice held out her hands, palms outward, almost in a shrug, like she just had no idea what to say to me.
"I apologize, ma'am," I said. "I don't know what came over me. I just lost the discipline of my tongue for a minute there." I said I was sorry, and Alice said it was okay, and we finished the dishes without mentioning anything else about it. The truth was, though, I didn't really feel sorry; I felt stiff and unkind inside, like someone had starched me.
We were going to work in the garden in the afternoon, but right after lunch it started to rain. I wasn't even surprised, since I felt all rainy myself, but it meant we were going to sit in the sitting room all afternoon while Heather changed the channels every couple of seconds. Roy had gone back upstairs. Alice sat at the dining room table with a pile of catalogues. I looked at them for a while with her -- some had books in them and some had movies, and none of them had to do with anything that interested me. She said the fiscal year was ending at work and she needed to order a bunch of stuff for the library by June 30, otherwise the money would just go to waste. I could hear Papa saying in my mind that there was only One Book and One Word, and he didn't approve of movies at all anyway. The Reverend Thigpen said they were all just a bunch of undulating flesh. Every so often Heather would pass a movie on the TV, and she would leave it on for a few minutes and before I knew it, I was wondering what happened to the people on the speeding bus, or the people being chased by dinosaurs, but luckily she'd flip to a new channel before I got too interested, and sometimes she would say, "Boring," like it was two words, Bo and Ring. I began to picture Bo and Ring as two clowns who danced around in the living room, trying to entertain Heather. It was not easy and I felt sorry for them.
"Heather, do you want to come work in the garden with me?" I said after a while when I noticed that the rain had let up a little.
"It's raining," Heather said.
"No, it's stopped. Look, the sun is coming out."
"But it's all wet out there."
"It's summer. It's a nice, warm wetness. The ground will smell nice."
"The ground will smell like cat poop," Heather said. "Trust me."
"Heather, go on out with Mary Fred," Alice called from the dining room. "It'll do you good."
"You're crazy if you think I'm going out there and getting soaked," Heather said. Whenever she talked to her mother, she raised her voice to a little screech. "You're totally nuts."
I stood up and said, "Well, I'm going to go out and do some weeding." As I walked past Alice, she looked up and said, "If you need to, Mary Fred, it's okay, but I don't want you to -- "
"I need -- " I stopped in the middle of the sentence, not exactly sure what I was saying. Then suddenly, I wasn't even sure where I was. It seemed like I had landed somewhere strange where I didn't recognize anything. The room looked small and fake, like I was watching everything on a television. "I need -- "
At that moment, Roy came down the stairs. His eyes were all slitty, like he'd been sleeping. "What do you need, Mary Fred?" His voice was raspy, like he had a frog in his throat, or maybe a big dog.
I looked at him and said, "I don't know." I ran into the kitchen and out the back door into the yard, past the spready oak and over to the toolshed, which was made of metal and kind of leaned to one side, like it was tired. A bunch of stuff was crammed inside, and it took a lot of hunting through it but I finally found a trowel. I kneeled down in a bed of nasty yellow flowers and started digging up the ground between them. It was all overgrown with weeds, and the flowers were being strangled. I could see their sad little faces just gasping for breath. I was used to taking gardening very seriously, partly because we grew all our own food at the Compound, and a lot of it at the Outpost, but also because we believed that the World Beyond was a garden, and we needed to know how to live there. The Reverend Smith had always said we had to develop all our skills in this world because we were going to need them, but that everything would be easier there, flowers would jump from the ground and reach up overhead in praise, and the fruits and vegetables would just bust out all over like fireworks. The cows would beg us to make them into hamburger meat, and the sheep would lay down his life for us, and our table would overfloweth. When the Reverend Smith said this, I pictured a huge table with a white tablecloth, and all my family sitting there, and our friends from the Compound, the ones that had died in the fire and the ones who were in prison, and my brothers would be at the head of the table, and we'd be eating these great big tomatoes the size of watermelons and saying Hallelujah.
When I looked up, I noticed that it had started raining again and that I had been kneeling in the dirt, crying, for some time.
It was strange how all this time I hadn't really cried at all, just a little here and there, because Mama had said not to cry, but there was something about the garden in the World Beyond that must have gotten to me. How beautiful it was, and how when I opened my eyes back up again, I was in a pile of weeds in front of Alice's toolshed. That was the worst part about waiting, I always thought, that though this world was pretty enough sometimes, at least some of it was, the next was going to be so much prettier that I could hardly stand how long it would take to get there. There were things about life on earth that I had liked -- Sunday dinners, and playing soldiers in the woods with Fred, Little Freddie, and Rickie, and riding our horses across the fields. But now it seemed like the happy things about this world were gone, and there was nothing to do but wait for the next. I looked up at the spready oak, and it seemed to lead all the way up to the places that mattered.
When I went back in the house, Alice was standing in the kitchen, talking to Roy. They stopped talking when I came in and then Alice said, "Roy, it's getting late and we have nothing for dinner. Could you go out and pick something up?"
Of course, what I was thinking was that Alice seemed surprised that here it was almost evening and we were going to have to eat again, as if she didn't realize that we were all going to have to eat today, and tomorrow, and very day after that. We had been in the grocery store just yesterday, but she had only bought enough for one day, like she was thinking that she never knew for sure if the next day was going to happen or not. I could have told her that she was right about that, because the Big Cat was coming, and coming soon, but I didn't see the point of mentioning it.
Roy was saying that he had stuff to do and he didn't see how he was going to have time to go pick up dinner, but Alice just handed him two new-looking twenty-dollar bills and gave him a firm, mean look, at least it was mean for Alice. Bad as I still felt, I almost laughed at the way she knitted her eyebrows together and took in her breath like she was about to start yelling at him, though we all knew that she was never going to yell at anyone. Roy took the money, wadded it up, and stuffed it in his pocket, but then he sat down in a chair next to Heather in the living room, like he was too tired to go anywhere just yet.
"Mary Fred, you're soaking wet," Alice said, looking at me. "Let me get you a towel."
"I'm okay," I said, though she was right, I was soaked to the skin.
Alice went upstairs and came back with a long stripy towel. She wrapped it around my shoulders and started rubbing me dry.
I found myself pushing her arms away and taking a few steps backward. Alice handed me the towel, like she hadn't noticed how rude I'd just been. I took it, draped it over me, and began to dry my hair. The towel got all wet and smelled like rain, and I held it in front of my nose, just breathing, in and out, taking in the smell of the water. I stopped drying myself and stood there, just smelling, and pretty soon my shoulders started to shake. I felt myself drop down to my knees, onto the hard floor, and lay my forehead down against it, still in the towel. I was making this howling sound, like wolves had gotten into me somehow.
"Mary Fred?" I felt Alice's hand on my head.
I shook my head underneath the towel and kept on howling.
"Mary Fred? What can I do for you? Tell me."
I didn't say anything.
"Puffin, go make Mary Fred some chamomile tea. Mary Fred, come here, I'm going to help you over to the couch." I felt Alice's arms lift me up and walk me over to the sofa next to where Puffin had been. I felt myself sit down, and Alice's arms go around me. I let her keep them there for a moment, but when she peeled the towel away from my face, I pushed her arms away. I saw her face, puzzled and concerned, her graying hair all in a frazzle and the glasses that she wore sometimes on the end of her nose a little bit crooked, and I just shook my head again.
"What can I do for you, Mary Fred?"
"Nothing. There's nothing anyone can do. The One will wipe away every tear from mine eyes and guide me to the water of life."
"You want some tea?" Heather asked. She was holding a steaming cup out to me.
"No, thank you," I said. My voice was sounding so evil again that it scared me. I looked at the three of them. I was amazed that Heather had actually done something her mother asked her to do and gone and made me tea. Alice was sitting next to me, staring miserably at me like she was waiting for me to snap out of it. Roy was standing a few feet away from me, looking more awake than I'd ever seen him. "There's nothing I want from any of you Lackers," I went on. "I just have to wait for the Imminence, and then I'll be in the garden and everything will be fine. The Big Cat is coming, and coming soon, and I'll be leaving you all behind anyway. You'll all be down here broiling in the lake of fire, and I'll be at the white table with my brethren, feasting on the feast of true foods, while the flowers reach around me like the hands of the Apostles, and fruits fall from the sky like holy rain. Yea, then it will rain and rain true -- fire for you, holy water for me. I'll be in the kingdom of the Eternal One for all eternity. It won't be long now, no, it won't be long." By now, a mixed-up bunch of the Reverend Thigpen's words and the Words of the Book were pouring from me like hailstones. I shut my mouth to stop them.
There was a moment of silence, and then Roy said, "What brought this on, Mary Fred?" The stupid look had gone from his face and he just looked worried and confused. "Is it because it's Sunday?"
I felt my eyes fill with more tears.
"You miss your family worse on a Sunday, don't you?" he said.
I didn't say anything.
Roy took a few steps backward, nodding the whole time like he'd just made a brilliant discovery. He looked at Alice, who shook her head like she was too tired to know how to speak, and then he went out the front door. When he had gone, I let Alice put her arm around me. Heather went back into the kitchen and I could hear running water, like she was doing dishes or something. After a while, I felt so limp and tired that I just laid my head down on Alice's shoulder. Her shoulder smelled funny, like her shirt had been in a closet for a long time, and the skin underneath it smelled a little sweaty, but it was a comforting smell. I hid my face in the towel again and we just sat there like that for a while.
When I was done crying, Alice held both of my hands and looked into my face. "Mary Fred, this is hard, I know, but we'll get through it somehow."
"How long will I have to be here?" I asked, still sniveling.
"I don't know. The court has given us custody of you indefinitely. It all depends on -- on what happens. It's hard to adjust, I know -- everything is so different...."
"So different," I said.
"And we must seem strange to you. But you know, you're strange to us too. We're just all different, that's all. Every-
"I know that," I said, sounding grumpy like Heather. But the truth was, I had never liked anyone who was different. Or rather, no, it wasn't that I hadn't liked them, but I had just felt sorry for them, for all the suffering they were going to have that I was going to miss out on, and it didn't make me want to know anybody like that very well. There was too much pitying involved.
"Come on," Alice said, standing up, still holding my hands. "Let's set the table. Do you have Sunday dinner at home?"
"Let's make it fancy. Can you make those swans out of napkins for me now?"
"I'll get the dishes." Alice went into a wooden cabinet and took out a bunch of flowered plates with gold rims that I hadn't seen before, and some glasses with stems. She went into a drawer and drug out some silverware that looked all old and tarnishy. I sat down at the table with a stack of napkins and started making swans, though every so often I'd have to use one to dry my eyes or blow my nose. When I had finished the swans, I went upstairs to the bathroom and washed my hands. I looked at myself in the mirror. My eyes were all red and the lashes were stuck together, and my cheeks were pale but with pink spots in them. I splashed cold water on my face until it was all reddish, and then I patted myself dry with a dirty little hand towel. When I came downstairs again, the table was set, and Alice had put yellow candles in big brass candlesticks right in the center and lit them. She had lowered the lights in the room so that the candles lit most of it, and the TV had been turned off and music with violins was playing.
The front door swung open and Roy walked in, carrying three big paper bags that said "Chicken A Go-Go" on the side. He took them into the kitchen, and before long, he and Alice came back out carrying plates full of food and laid them down in the center of the table. We all sat down. Roy was about to start eating, but Alice asked, "Do you have a prayer you want to say?"
At first I just sat for a minute, not saying anything. I could hear the sound of my breaths as they passed in and out of my body. But then I said the Beautiful Prayer, and we ate.
© 2001 Abby Bardi
Filled with soulful humor and quiet pathos, Abby Bardi's boldly drawn first novel marks the debut of a joyfully talented chronicler of the quest for connection in contemporary life.
Mary Fred Anderson, raised in an isolated fundamentalist sect whose primary obsessions seem to involve an imminent Apocalypse and the propagation of the name "Fred," is hardly your average fifteen-year-old. She has never watched TV, been to a supermarket, or even read much of anything beyond the inscrutable dogma laid out by the prophet Fred. But this is all before Mary Fred's whole world tilts irrevocably on its axis: before her brothers, Fred and Freddie, take sick and pass on to the place the Reverend Thigpen calls "the World Beyond"; before Mama and Papa are escorted from the Fredian Outpost in police vans; and Mary Fred herself is uprooted and placed in foster care with the Cullison family. It is here, at Alice Cullison's suburban home outside Washington, D.C., where everything really changes -- for all parties involved.
Mary Fred's new guardian, Alice, is a large-hearted librarian who, several years after her divorce, can't seem to shake her grief and loneliness. Meanwhile, Alice's daughter Heather, also known as Puffin, buries any hint of her own adolescent loneliness beneath an impenetrable armor of caustic sarcasm, studied apathy, and technicolor hair. And the enigmatic Uncle Roy is Alice's perennially jobless and intensely private brother. As Mary Fred struggles to adjust to the oddities of this alien world, from sordid daytime television and processed food to aromatherapy and transsexuality, she gradually begins to have an unmistakable influence on the lives of her housemates. But when a horrifying act of violence shakes the foundations of Mary Fred's fragile new family, she finds herself forced to confront, painfully, the very nature of the way she was raised.
With a knack for laying bare the absurdities of daily life, Abby Bardi captures, with grace and authority, all the ambivalence and emotional uncertainty at the heart of these quirky characters' awakenings.
Abby Bardi, born and raised in Chicago, has worked as a singing waitress in Washington, D.C., an English teacher in Japan and England, a performer on England's country-and-western circuit, and, most recently, as a professor at Prince George's Community College. Author of a column called "Sin of the Month" for The Takoma Voice, she is married with two children and lives in Ellicott City, Maryland.