Her father was clearly in no rush to get the test results. He slouched, shelling boiled peanuts in the rocking chair he had made, the one she helped him sand when she was nine. That was when they still looked at each other directly. Before she was born, her father had also built the small house with the low porch they rocked on now. A wooden walkway stretched to the edge of the field where he once said he would put in an above-ground swimming pool so the youngest members of his congregation could use it during vacation bible school. He never had.
“Daddy, the doctor’s office will be closed tomorrow,” she said. “Maybe you should call them now.”
He stared out at the soybean plants waving languidly in the heat and ignored her. It was already 4:30. There was no chance of changing his mind in half an hour. Kim wanted to be back on I-40, driving home to Chapel Hill as soon as possible. She did not want to stay the night in the house she had grown up in.
Early that morning, while she was still in her bed, her father had called to say he finally had the tests run just to shut up that Yankee doctor with the Ivy League papers framed on her wall. Someone would call with the results that afternoon. He asked her to drive down. He wanted her there by lunch.
Kim hung up and told her husband, Simon, all the reasons she should not drive the two hours down east to her father’s house like he wanted her to.
“When’s the last time he called you?” Simon was doing his sit-ups on the floor on his side of the bed. Kim watched his blond head appear and then disappear below the horizon of the sheets. He never could sit still. “Mama told me he let Terry preach the last two Sundays. That right there should tell you something.”
Simon was right. If Kim’s father was calling, on the actual telephone, someone was probably dying. In this case, it was him.
Her father brushed soggy peanut shells from his bloated belly onto the wooden deck planks below.
“Daddy, do you want me to call the office?”
“No, they’ll call when they have something to say.”
He rested his head against the back of the rocker and closed his eyes. Kim inspected his face, which was more sallow and slack than the last time she had seen him at her oldest son’s birthday three months before. At that birthday party, he casually mentioned his recent night sweats and the vomiting. It was not like him to discuss the body, ever, unless it was the breaking of Jesus’s.
Kim looked now at his distended belly. His arms that had once been hard with muscle now seemed bones wrapped in sagging skin. Whether it was named or not, something was very wrong. She didn’t know what they would turn up, but the rough knot tightening in her gut told her, something was there inside of him.
“Your parents should have taught you not to stare,” her father said without opening his eyes.
Kim looked away to the edge of the two-acre field now rented to a soybean farmer. The sun was dropping behind the pines hiding a creek that ran to the Cape Fear River, then on to the Atlantic. Across the uncut grass next door was the small clapboard house that had been Kim’s grandmother’s. The drapes in the windows of that house were pulled shut. The tomato plants on the porch looked scorched and dry.
Both houses were in decent shape. The property values were rising in Wrightsboro. There were subdivisions going up everywhere on old tobacco fields. It was only a twenty-minute drive into Wilmington from what had been primarily a farming community when Kim was growing up there. If something happened to her father…when something happened to her father, all of this would fall on her. She would have to decide what to do with the houses and the land, and more importantly, what to do with her sister. She had no idea what to do with Mary Ellen.
“Is she home?” Kim asked her father.
“Mary Ellen? What do you think?” He turned in his rocking chair and looked directly at her for the first time since she had arrived. She knew it was just the color of her father’s irises, a shallow-water blue, but she always felt he could see straight into everything she hid. When he looked away again, Kim felt relieved. This is the best we can do, she thought.
“She hardly ever leaves anymore,” he said. “She doesn’t even work the two days at the church anymore.”
“Are you charging her rent?” Kim asked.
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business.” He ran his hand through his thick grey hair and scratched at back of his scalp.
“If she had to work, she might leave the house.”
“She doesn’t want to go anywhere.”
Kim knew there was no convincing him of anything on the matter of Mary Ellen. Kim’s father and her sister dug into her like a splinter just under the first few layers of skin. Something buried but visible that she just couldn’t leave alone or pull out completely.
Ten years before, Mary Ellen didn’t even make it through her first semester at Campbell College, a small Baptist school 45 minutes inland. Mary Ellen was terrified to leave home, but their father convinced her she had a calling and told her to major in Christian Ministries. Kim could not see how her father could mistake Mary Ellen’s quiet nervousness for what he called “the reverence and reflective nature required for those working in the faith.” Kim saw it for what it was: fear. Mary Ellen called home almost every day, usually crying, but nothing seemed all that out of the ordinary until just before Thanksgiving when her roommate called instead. Kim, still in high school then, had been the one to answer.
“Someone better come and get your sister,” the roommate said angrily. “I don’t know how to say this, but she hasn’t left the room in days. She hasn’t eaten anything, and, well, this is embarrassing, but she had accidents and won’t leave the room to clean up.”
Their father had coaxed Mary Ellen out of the dorm room by promising she would never have to go back. Since then, maybe out of guilt because he made her go in the first place, their father had fed Mary Ellen’s isolating fear with open, outstretched palms.
“She needs a therapist or a prescription or something,” Kim said, knowing that as long as her father was taking care of Mary Ellen that would never happen.
“Yeah, that will fix her right up,” he said with a nasal laugh. “You should have brought Justin and Caleb down. That would have made her happy.”
“I invited her to the birthday party,” Kim said.
“You knew she wasn’t going to go to that,” her father said. “They doing alright?”
Kim swatted at a mosquito that tried to land on her leg, but the rush of air from her hand sent it tumbling away from her skin before she could kill it.
“They’re OK. Justin loves his new teacher. Caleb hates preschool,” Kim said.
“Have you thought any more about Durham Christian Academy?” her father asked. “I’ve already called Billy Wells who’s over there. He’d be happy to have them. He owes me anyway.”
“Not going to happen, Daddy.”
“Nothing wrong with a private education that focuses on a strong moral path. That’s what I tell my congregation about the church’s school.”
“Well, you keep telling them that.” She waited for him to get angry, but he continued to rock at the same pace.
He tossed the rest of the bag of peanuts over the railing into the yard and said, “Nothing tastes right anymore.”
Shells fell from the bag and scattered across the grass. Kim remembered those shells from when she was a child. She and Mary Ellen would pretend the remains of their father’s snack were tiny poison pills or landmines. They were princesses with murdered parents who had been tragically dismembered, their blood staining the decks of their sinking clipper ship. They were spies whose parents had been killed by Communists or atheists. It was always some version of this story, always loss then escape, and it ended with the girls army crawling through the grass. They would dare themselves to crouch down between the soybean plants even though they weren’t supposed to be in the fields. Copperheads waited there. Danger waited there.
Running in between the plants, the sisters pretended they were being chased as they ran all the way to the creek and stripped down to their underwear. They wouldn’t be safe until they jumped in and swam to the country on the opposite bank. In that other country under the pines on the other side of the deep creek, there was a beautiful mother and kind father and cable TV and as much Pepsi as you could drink and warm, no, piping hot, burning hot dinners made on a stove and not reheated in a microwave. There was fried chicken and hushpuppies, nothing that could be served in another casserole dish brought by another desperate woman from the church. In that country, there could even be skirts that didn’t have to touch the floor when you knelt, there could even be MTV.
Later, when Kim was a teenager and she and Mary Ellen hated each other, it was hard to say who had turned against the other first. As a parent now, Kim knew all blame could be placed on their father. It was always the parent’s fault, even a good, kind parent was to blame for what was wrong with her children. Their father was neither good or kind, thus increasing his culpability. Kim could not imagine doing to her children what her father had done to her. Of course, hers were still small, and they were boys, so it was hard to say if the two lines could be drawn as parallel. Still, she would never have her father’s physical strength. She would never have the ability to catch her sons the way he had caught her sneaking out, again, grabbing her in the dark driveway. When he clamped his hands on her arms, the points of his fingers drilled into her own bones, reducing any flesh between them to bruised pulp. With her struggling and kicking, she managed to throw him off balance, but he eventually got the better of her. He sat on her back, pinning her in the gravel, her face pressed with the jagged stones until she heard the two neat pops as her ribs snapped.
Then there was the time when she was 16 and supposedly at youth group but he caught her in the Applebee’s parking lot with her first real boyfriend. With a handful of the hair at the crown of her head, he pulled her out of James’s Honda Civic. People from the church watched from their tables inside the restaurant. There was always someone from the church watching.
That night, they drove most of the way home in silence until her father said, “You know what happens to loose girls like you?”
Looking out of the car window, Kim said, “You’re going to tell me.”
She barely flinched as he smacked her in the mouth. The danger of his heavy seminary class ring was on his left hand.
Her father had been violent and unbending, but Kim was to blame too. She used his congregation as a sharpened blade. She learned early on, a white button-up on Sunday with no bra could cause an usher to drop the collection plate, distracting everyone during the Doxology. Once, she found an empty fifth of whiskey in an irrigation ditch. She fished it out of the Queen Anne’s lace weeds and later dropped it in their kitchen trashcan on Bible study night. She knew the women who scraped the plates would see the bottle there nestled among the balled-up paper towels in a dry house in a dry county. When she was in 10th grade, Kim ripped six pages at random out of his King James, her hands shaking. Weeks later in a prayer group, around their kitchen table when he couldn’t find the passage he was looking for, her father’s eyes immediately found hers where she stood at the counter making a tuna sandwich.
After the Applebee’s scene, her scalp ached and burned for days after, so Kim told Katie Knight from youth group she had lost her virginity to a UNC Wilmington student at Kure Beach State Park on a picnic table. Katie’s mouth had dropped open, her hand flying up to cover her exposed braces.
“You did not,” Katie said, her eyes wide.
It wasn’t true, but Kim couldn’t help but push it further. “And you know who else I did it with? That guy Terrance, the black guy who works at the Sonic. You know him?”
Telling Katie in particular ensured the rumor would spread around her father’s church and reach him as quickly as possible. When she came home the day he found out, he was pulling a potato casserole someone had dropped off out of the oven.
“I heard what you did,” he said. He didn’t yell like she expected. He didn’t come after her at all.
Kim leaned in the doorway of the kitchen, arms crossed over her chest. She smacked her gum like she didn’t care, but her heart was pounding.
“You’re going to public high school.” Her father tossed his oven mitt on the counter. “I don’t want you anywhere near the good families at my school.”
“Can I go now?” she asked.
“I wish you would.” He cut into the casserole.
She couldn’t believe he would let her go so easily. For years, she had been campaigning for an escape from his school. After that, his punishments seemed half-hearted, like what he was trying to protect had already been lost. He didn’t force her to come to church anymore although she occasionally did still go, mostly because she knew he would probably rather she didn’t.
She truly became a lost cause to him when she got pregnant at 17 with her first son Justin.
“Is there anyone’s life you don’t plan on ruining?” he asked when he found her throwing up behind a shrub around the side of the house. He leaned one hand against the siding and watched her. “You need to be out by the time you’re showing.”
Now from his rocker, her father released a deep, ragged cough and crossed his arms over his chest, tucking his balled-up hands into his armpits.
“Are you cold?” she asked.
“Not too bad,” he answered. “Are you staying the weekend?”
“I don’t know. Do you want me to?”
Not answering, he looked over to Mary Ellen’s house. “Someone should go see if she’s eating supper.”
Instead of going over to Mary Ellen’s, Kim went inside. Her father still had a rotary phone, which seemed to take a century to dial. It seemed to take even longer for Simon to pick up. She guessed he was probably grading papers from his middle school English summer school class.
“Have you heard anything yet?” Simon sounded far away.
“He won’t call the doctor.”
“Do you want me to come down with the boys?”
“No, I think I’m going to drive back tonight.”
“Maybe you should stay a few days. I can call Tammy at the store and tell her you have a family emergency,” he said.
“I just asked him if he wanted me to stay, and he didn’t say anything.”
Simon kept silent. He had known both Kim and her father all his life.
“How are they?” she asked, shifting to Justin and Caleb, who were probably in front of the TV.
“They’re watching some National Geographic thing about Africa on PBS.”
“Something? What is it?”
“I don’t know, something about the Sahara. It’s educational,” Simon said.
“Are there any lions eating gazelles or anything?” she asked. “Remember the time you let them watch the thing on PBS about outer space and Justin thought his closet was a black hole and couldn’t sleep for two months?”
She heard Simon sigh. “It’s under control, Kim. We’re all just fine. Go worry about your father and sister for once.”
She hung up the phone and imagined Simon on the other end mashing the OFF button on the handset and returning to his papers. His family was nice, actually pleasant to be with, so he could never really understand.
Kim made her way to the bedroom she and Mary Ellen once shared. Her father had stripped the room of their childhood things. He used the room now to house missionaries passing through between assignments. Kim lay down on the twin bed that used to be hers and turned off the lamp by the bed. Her father had nailed up a layer of thick foam and black cloth over the window to help his guests back from Brazil or Malaysia fighting jet lag. The room was pitch black. She knew it was early, but she felt like she could sleep all night, so she did.
The next morning, when she opened her eyes to a still black room, she had no idea where she was. She pressed the Indiglo button on her watch and thought it must be 8:30 at night. When she opened the door to the hallway and light flooded in, she was completely disoriented.
In the kitchen, she opened the refrigerator and was shocked to find it almost empty. Her entire life, even when one of them just had a cold, there was a flock of women who sent casseroles to the house.
Kim looked at the answering machine. The number 15 glowed in red. She was sure they were all from people from the church worried about him, but one could be about the test results.
She found her father sleeping where she had left him outside the night before. His mouth was open, revealing teeth full of silver fillings and gold caps. For all of his preaching about avoiding indulgence, he could not resist candy. In his desk, his glove compartment, his bedside table, were curls of white paper from Life Savers, gold foil from chocolate bars, empty plastic bags of jellybeans.
Kim walked closer to the rocking chair and leaned over him, unable to tell if he was breathing. She reached her hand out to touch him, but couldn’t make her fingers connect with his rumpled flannel shirt.
“Dad?” she said softly, then louder, “Daddy!”
His eyes shot open. When he saw her close to him, he pulled back, startled. “What?”
“Nothing. Have you been out here all night?”
“It hurts to lie down, so I’d just as soon stay out here.”
“Where’s the food?” she asked.
“The refrigerator is empty, and you haven’t checked your messages.”
“Did you tell the people from church to not come by?” she asked.
He rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. She leaned against the deck railing. The morning was still wet, and the sun hadn’t cut the chill.
He waved his hand to dismiss her suggestion. “I don’t need a bunch of old biddies running around causing a fuss about nothing.”
“You don’t know it’s nothing. There might be a call from the doctor in those messages on your machine.”
“Mind your own business,” he said. “Don’t you mess with my machine.”
It was a constant, draining effort for her to refrain from the urge to throw something at him. She knew he didn’t want anyone to see him weak. He had always believed himself better than the rest of them. His arrogant distance had not deterred the single women and widows from the church who tried to coax him into remarrying. Even at her most defiant, Kim never threw back at him how often she heard the front door click in the middle of the night, a woman leaving, or her father coming back from being with one.
“Daddy, why did you ask me to come down here, if you don’t want me to help?”
“I do need your help. Come on inside.” He pushed himself up from the rocking chair gingerly. When Kim saw how much pain he was in, she felt it in her own body, not sharp but a mirrored ache that filled her with fear.
They spent the morning in his study. He had her open each dusty box marked with dates in his nearly illegible handwriting. He suggested which seminaries might be interested in all the books, which old sermons might be useful to Billy Wells or Terry.
“And then there’s Mary Ellen,” he said, from his desk chair. “You’ll have to figure out what to do with Mary Ellen.”
Kim turned from the step stool where she stood. “So I guess I’m my brother’s keeper,” Kim said.
He said sternly, “Mary Ellen can’t be alone.”
Kate turned back to flipping through the box, and didn’t say that she and Simon couldn’t just uproot their lives and relocate from Chapel Hill so that Mary Ellen could stay in the house she didn’t like to leave. She didn’t say to her father that couldn’t just move Mary Ellen into their apartment with no extra bedroom. She wanted to ask her father if there was a will, life insurance, anything to help her carry the burden of her sister, but he was still talking around everything. He did not speak about what he wanted for a funeral. He had not pressed play on his messages.
“I need you to get Mary Ellen out of that house.”
Kim had to swallow away the rock lodged in her throat before she could say, “I can’t do that. If she doesn’t listen to you, she is definitely not going to listen to me.”
“I need you to take care of her.” His face was reddening. He shifted in his chair, twisting away from some invisible discomfort. “I need you to go over there and get her.”
“And do what with her?”</p<
“Get her to go get some dinner somewhere, maybe go up to Wilbur’s. Or come with us to the grocery store. I need you to take me up to the grocery store later on, and she could come.”
“Why don’t I just go for you, Daddy?”
“Because I need us all to go, you hear me?” He was getting himself worked up. “And yes, you are your brother’s keeper. That’s the way it works, you need to be the one to help her. I can’t anymore.” His face was reddening, and he was out of breath the way he sometimes was in the pulpit.
“OK, OK!” Kim put down the box she was holding. “I’ll go see what she’s doing.”
Her father settled back in the chair and took slower breaths now that he had what he wanted, or at least movement toward it. “It’s about time.”
Kim did not remember her grandmother who lived in the house that Mary Ellen was now holed up in. Kim’s father had built his own house right next door to his mother’s, but she was the second woman to leave him behind with two girls he didn’t know what to do with. Kim’s mother had died four years before in childbirth, bleeding to death after Kim was born. That kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen anymore, but it did occasionally on Indian reservations like the one two hours north of Albuquerque where her father and mother had been doing mission work. After her mother had died, her father brought his two daughters home, one a newborn, the other not even two years old, to the same plot of land in Wrightsboro where he had grown up.
On the porch, Kim saw the dying tomato plants in their pots. She went around the side of the house, then held the hose loosely in her hands, letting the water pour out into the hard, dry soil. She could hear the TV blaring from inside. She hoped her sister would just come out so she didn’t have to come in. Kim pulled the pots closer to the edge of the porch, closer to direct sunlight.
Kim knocked on the front door. “Mary Ellen, it’s just me.” Still nothing. “Mary Ellen, I’m going to come in.” Kim tried to turn the knob, but it didn’t move. She banged on the front door, until she heard the metallic slide of the lock. The door opened and Mary Ellen’s pale moon face emerged from behind the other side of the door. The smell of the musty house wafted out but was mixed with something else like the interior of a new car.
“Hey!” Mary Ellen squealed and threw her arms around Kim’s neck. Mary Ellen squeezed Kim hard.
“I watered your tomatoes,” Kim said.
“Bless your heart, but I think they might be a lost cause. Did you just get here?”
“No, yesterday.” Kim looked over her sister’s shoulder at the living room.
Everything in the room was new compared to since she had been there last. There was a new leather couch and two leather recliners. A huge flat screen TV. A tall glass cabinet full of the Hallmark Precious Moments figurines her sister collected.
“I was wondering whose car that was out there. I called Daddy’s to ask. I left three messages, but no one called back.”
“Why didn’t you just walk over and see?”
Mary Ellen didn’t answer the question. “Well, come on in.”
Kim stepped out of the sun on the porch into the dark house. Light reflected off the table, and Kim immediately thought about how her two boys would wrestle right into that glass case and someone would slice their arm or forehead open. They would crash right through it, wrecking the display of ceramic angels and peasant boys with straw hats and the baby Jesus surrounded by cows painted in the same muted blue greys and pink of all the figurines.
“Where did you get all this new furniture?” Kim asked.
“It’s nice to see you too, Miss Nosey.” Mary Ellen dropped down into one of the recliners. She picked up the remote from an end table that was littered with catalogues and several empty glasses that seemed precariously placed on the pile. Mary Ellen muted her game show and looked at Kim. “What can I get you?”
“Nothing, I’m fine,” Kim said, shutting the door behind her. “It’s just that this place is completely different than last time.”
“Well, you haven’t been down to visit in a while,” Mary Ellen said.
Mary Ellen’s thin blonde hair was the same as their mother’s in pictures, always pulled back in a low bun, frizzy ends escaping the elastic tie. She looked like their mother had in every way, except Mary Ellen had their father’s blue eyes, only without the same intensity behind them.
“Listen, Mary Ellen. If Dad’s giving you money, you can’t take it anymore.” Kim heard herself using the clear, even voice she used with Justin or Caleb when she was explaining why you couldn’t kick your brother or why it was very important not to take gifts from strangers. “We’re going to need money if he’s sick for a long time.” Kim touched the back of the new, leather couch. It was a tacky rose pink color, but the leather felt expensive.
Mary Ellen waved her hand in front of her face like she was swatting at a fly. “He’s just got that bug that’s been going around. It’s the change of the seasons.”
Mary Ellen turned the sound back up on the TV, but not as loud as it was before.
Kim noticed a grandfather clock on the wall behind the door. She walked to it and ran her fingers down the smooth wood.
“Can you not come in here and fondle everything?” Mary Ellen said.
Kate sat down on the firm leather couch, so different from hers, a hand-me-down from Simon’s parents. “Daddy said you don’t work up at the church anymore.”
“His secretary, Judy, was talking behind my back,” Mary Ellen said, jaw clenched.
“Judy always loved you. More than her own children I bet.”
Mary Ellen frowned and chewed on her thumbnail, a habit both she and Kim shared. “How would you know?” Mary Ellen asked. “You haven’t seen her in years.”
“Daddy’s worried about you staying in this house all day.”
“What’s wrong with this house?” Mary Ellen abruptly stood from her recliner and walked into the front bedroom. Kim didn’t follow her sister.
Mary Ellen had been the more outspoken of the two as a child, but somewhere in middle school they flip-flopped. Mary Ellen grew quiet while Kim blossomed brazen, good with boys, an expert at angering their father.
Kim couldn’t imagine the awkwardness of asking, but she was fairly sure her sister had never had a boyfriend. The week she left for college, Mary Ellen had walked in on Kim and Simon in the back bedroom of their grandmother’s house. Then it had been uninhabited, the old furniture covered in plastic. Shortly before Mary Ellen had found them, Kim and Simon had carefully taken the plastic off the bed to preserve the layer of dust so her father would not realize it had been used.
Simon, unlike Kim’s ex-boyfriend James, had always been a member of her father’s church. Kim had never really been attracted to him the way many of the girls at the church were. When Simon started sitting next to her in the church pew, started calling her at home when he knew her father wouldn’t be there, she was still driving past the Applebee’s every day after school looking for James’ absent car, her heart broken with the missing of him after her father had scared him off.
That day in the back bedroom of their grandmother’s house, Mary Ellen had come through the bedroom door with a stack of the kind of fashion magazines their father banned tucked under her arm. Kim saw her sister just over Simon’s shoulder.
“Stop. Simon, stop,” Kim said grabbing his T-shirt from the bed, holding it to her chest.
He didn’t hear her. Mary Ellen stared at Simon’s naked, moving back, unable to turn away. Kim finally pushed him off. “Get out!” she shouted at Mary Ellen.
When Simon turned and saw Mary Ellen, he flushed bright red and clasped the sheet to his waist. He blurted out, “Mary Ellen, please don’t tell the Pastor.”
Mary Ellen stayed frozen until Kim threw a shoe at her, hitting her square in the chest. “What’s wrong with you? Get the fuck out!”
Later, Kim sat on the floor between their matching twin beds, watching Mary Ellen pack for college. Kim begged in a whisper so their father wouldn’t hear, “Please talk to me. I’m so so so sorry.”
Mary Ellen didn’t respond as she folded sweaters and tucked them carefully into the hard shell of the suitcase.
“I didn’t know you’d be this upset,” Kim said. “You know that’s what goes on at college, even little Baptist ones.”
Mary Ellen looked up from her packing and said, “You knew I liked him.”
It was true that Kim knew Mary Ellen had a crush on Simon. She had seen that Mary Ellen was excited when they found out he would be going to Campbell too. But her sister had never done anything about it, had barely spoken to Simon in all the years they had known him.
“But you never told him,” Kim said. “You were never going to tell him.”
“You knew, and then you went and did—that.” Mary Ellen zipped her suitcase hard so that the sound was like a ripping apart even though technically the two sides of the zipper merged together.
The last Sunday before Simon and Mary Ellen left for Campbell, their father clapped Simon on the back in the receiving line after church and said, “Simon, I’m depending on you to keep an eye on my daughter up there.”
Simon nodded. “Yes, sir, I will.” He looked miserable. Standing behind him in the line, Kim saw his anguish. She realized she was dealing with a good person. She knew by then she was two weeks late and wished she wouldn’t be the one dragging him down so soon.
A few months later, sitting on the front steps of her father’s house, Kim said, “Simon, there’s no reason to get married. I think everyone’s got it figured out already.”
She touched the slight, hard bulge that was getting harder to hide under her jacket. He leaned and put his face against her belly and said to the baby perhaps more than to her, “I want to be with you. This is a gift from God.”
Mary Ellen emerged from the front bedroom wearing a flowered bathing suit with an attached skirt that hung nearly to her knees. Kim thought her sister had always had the better figure but still she always hid it.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going down to the creek to swim,” Mary Ellen said.
“Our creek?” It seemed an impossibility.
“Yes, I go every day. Like you said, I can’t just stay holed up in the house.” Mary Ellen threw a pair of shorts and a tank top at Kim. “I don’t have another suit.”
Kim could not imagine swimming there now. The water was slow-moving and completely opaque because the minerals that ran off from the soil in the fields turned it black. God only knew what was in that water.
“Daddy wants us to go to the store.” Kim stood up from the couch.
“I don’t want to,” Mary Ellen said, taking a bath sheet from a laundry basket by the TV. Kim could see they were the kind from the top shelves at places like Kmart, double the thickness and the cost of the ones on the lower shelves.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Kim said. “Come to the store with us, and I promise I’ll go swimming with you later.”
“I don’t need you to swim with me.”
“Listen,” Kim said, trying to forget that soon she might have to deal with Mary Ellen every day. “It will make him happy. And just in case he is sick, then shouldn’t we try to make him happy?”
Mary Ellen considered this. She had always gotten along with their father better. She had not tested his patience or done anything out of line, but still she said “I can’t.”
“Yes, you can.” Kim was now determined. “It will only be for a few minutes, Mary Ellen.”
“I watch the news,” Mary Ellen said. “I know what goes on out there.”
“Out where?” Kim walked up to her sister and took the towel from her arms. “Please do it for Daddy.”
“Daddy doesn’t care if I stay here.”
“He’s worried about you.”
“He really wants you to come. Can’t you at least drive with us? Just drive to the store and back.”
Reluctantly, Mary Ellen said, “Fine, but I’m not getting out of the car.”
As Kim eased her father’s old Buick out of the driveway, she could not remember the last time they had been together in an enclosed space like this.
“Go down Route 10, so we can drive by the church,” her father said, pointing right at the intersection as if she had never been there before.
Mary Ellen was in her bathing suit in the back seat, the big towel wrapped around and tucked under her armpits. Kim thought there was something unnervingly childlike about her sister enduring the adult errand in order to get to the swimming.
“Well, I declare. Look at that,” their father said a few minutes later as they came up on the church. “Slow down,” he commanded.
Kim eased on the brake, careful not to cause a jolt. She noticed her father winced every time they hit a bump. She checked the rearview mirror to make sure no cars were coming up behind them and hoped he would not ask to go inside. Kim had not been in the little church since she had left home, but she could still smell the dusty, velvet pew cushions. She could still hear the thump of the hymnals being dropped into the holders. She could see her father in the pulpit, his fingers curled over the edge of the wood, could feel Simon’s hand moving up her leg in the back row.
“I can’t believe it. Terry didn’t change the marquee,” he said. “I asked him to use first Corinthians 4:12.” His brow creased with concern. The sign by the road currently read, “There are only two choices: the right path and the wrong.” Then below that permanently engraved and then painted in gold: Sunday Service 11:00 a.m., Rev. Thomas L. Carter.
When she was young, her father would hand her the flimsy, plastic letters and she would slide them, one by one, into the slots of the marquee. Back then with the cars driving by, some honking because they knew her father, she still felt important.
Kim asked, “Which one is 4:12?”
Mary Ellen answered from the back seat. “When we are cursed, we bless. When we are persecuted, we endure it. When we are slandered, we answer kindly.”
“That’s too long to fit,” Kate said.
Their father sat back and adjusted his seat belt around his hard belly. He looked disappointed. “You ask someone to do one thing for you…”
Mary Ellen’s voice was high-pitched when she said, “Do we have to sit here in the middle of the road or can we get going?”
When they reached the new Harris Teeter, Kim was surprised to see how many cars were in the parking lot even for a Saturday morning. She circled twice to find a parking space closer to the entrance. Her father eased his way out of the car. Through the window, he said to Mary Ellen. “You coming, Baby Girl?”
Mary Ellen drew the bathrobe closer around her. “I’ll wait here. Hurry up, OK?”
Kim and her father looked at each other over the top of Kim’s car. Kim shook her head slowly while staring at him. This was as far as she could move her sister, at least for today. He nodded in acceptance.
He went straight for the candy aisle. Kim could see him leaning a lot of weight on the cart as he pushed. Kim prayed they wouldn’t see anyone they knew. When she had lived here, she couldn’t go anywhere without running into people from the church, but today she recognized no one. Listening to the people in the store on their cell phones and asking which aisle for the pasta sauce, Kim heard most of them didn’t even have accents. She recognized them as the same transplants filling Chapel Hill, coming down from New England and New York for the weather and the lower cost of living.
Kim walked behind her father who was examining a Halloween display already set up at the beginning of September.
“Daddy, if you’re having problems with your stomach, maybe you shouldn’t be eating candy. How about some soup?”
“Did you bring my glasses?” he asked, holding a pack of snack size Snickers as far away as his arms would reach, trying to read the print.
“I didn’t know you wore glasses.”
“How many bars are in this bag?” he asked, handing her the package of Snickers.
She took it from him as he threw a bag of Kit Kats in the cart.
“25,” she said, watching him load in more bags of each kind of candy. “What on earth are you doing?”
“I’m getting a couple bags of each kind, until I find one that tastes right.”
Kim left her father to walk through the brightly lit aisles to look for canned soup and white bread. She knew then she couldn’t stay to watch it happen. She would rather remember hating him in the Applebee’s parking lot, his hand setting fire to her scalp than this way, his flannel shirt untucked, leaning on the cart, shuffling along like a man much older than 52. Anything but this. She could not do this.
The sun was a swollen red fruit sinking down in the pine branches as Kim dove off the dock behind Mary Ellen. Immediately she could feel them around her, leeches, water moccasins, alligators. Everything she had grown up with had become threatening. Her sister made no sense. If there was anything to be afraid of, it was here in the dark water, not in the grocery store or church office. Kim kept feeling things brush against her legs underwater. She bobbed on her back close to the dock, but not too close because living, lurking things liked the cover of the floating wood. She kept her toes as close to the surface as possible.
“Dad’s going to die,” Kim said to the treetops arching over the water. Mary Ellen was behind her in the middle of the wide creek.
“We’re all going to die.” Mary Ellen swam back towards Kim.
Kim rolled over from her back and treaded water. Mary Ellen’s blue eyes were bright in the dying light, but there was something blank there, something distant that sent a charge of electric fear through Kim.
“Mary Ellen, you can’t swim down here by yourself. It’s not safe.”
Her sister dove beneath the surface splashing water towards Kim. When they were young, Mary Ellen would do this to scare her. She could stay down over a minute and Kim would shout out, sometimes dive down after her, her eyes burning with the sediment in the water. Mary Ellen would always come up laughing, finding the entire thing hilarious. In the past, the trick had terrified Kim, but this time, she turned away and swam back to the dock. She pulled herself up and wrapped one of the thick towels around her shoulders.
As she watched the ripples move across the creek’s surface, she felt the same old rising panic. She wouldn’t be surprised if one day they had to dredge Mary Ellen’s body out of here. Kim put her head down on her slick knees and felt the weight of both of them.
What the doctors found, they called stage IV stomach cancer. It would only take her father a few weeks to die. Toward the end, he called her almost every night from his house because he refused to be admitted to the hospital. He called her more in those two weeks than the decade since she had left. He sounded feverish, crazy. For the first time Kim could remember, he talked of her mother.
“Have you seen your mother?” he would say, his voice filled with real panic. “The oven’s on and the front door’s wide open. I can’t find her anywhere.”
“Daddy, where’s Mary Ellen? Go get Mary Ellen.”
She would hang up with him and call Mary Ellen, getting no answer. She called and called, letting it ring, until it finally went busy because Mary Ellen must have taken it off the hook.
Terry from the church called Kim and asked if she was coming down soon? Terry had gone to her father’s house. He knocked for twenty minutes. The doors were locked and the lights were off, although he could hear the Pastor inside talking to himself. She was coming down soon, right?
“You have to go.” Kim’s husband Simon said, exasperated, the day before Terry went back and found her father dead in his rocker on the porch. “Go, or I’m going myself.” Simon almost shouted when he spoke.
But Kim couldn’t do it. She couldn’t turn the ignition even when she sat in the driver’s seat, digging the keys into her palm as punishment for leaving him there. She could not make herself go the way a good daughter would have, but she and Mary Ellen were not good daughters.
The last time Kim saw her father had been the night after swimming with her sister in the creek. Kim had crossed back across the field alone. Mary Ellen wanted to stay down in the creek longer, and Kim didn’t know how to fight her. She would have to get better at it after their father was gone.
Kim felt little again, wrapped in a towel with her wet hair falling back against her shoulders, clothes stuck to her skin. As she came up on the house from the darkness, she saw her father in his rocking chair staring out toward her in the field. She knew he probably couldn’t see her as he sat in the light of the porch and she stood in the dark field. She did wish things could be different.</p<
When she reached the deck, she put her hand on the back of his chair, still unable to touch him directly. She sent up a silent but desperate prayer to anyone who was listening, “Just let him be gone. Just let him hurry up and go.”
He stood up from the rocker slowly and faced her, wincing from some secret, rotten space.
“You been in the creek with Mary Ellen?”
She nodded and noticed how the light from inside the house cast deep shadows in the hollows of his face.
“I’ve been thinking. Maybe tomorrow we could go up to the church before you leave, and I could get that marquee taken care of.”
“Sure,” she said, her throat tightening.
“You’re leaving tomorrow, right?”
“I should get back to the boys.” She swallowed hard.
“You probably should.” He turned away and walked toward the house. “I put on some of that soup you got. It smells pretty bad, but it should be about ready.”
Kim followed him into the orange glow of the house, pulling the sliding glass door closed behind her, hoping to leave Mary Ellen and the rest of it out there as long as possible, out past the field, across the sound of the cicadas. For a little bit longer, she would leave all that sinking weight to find its way down into the darkness of the slow-moving creek.
Sara Johnson Allen was raised (mostly) in Raleigh, North Carolina. She received her MFA from Emerson College. Her fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Harpur Palate, Redivider, and The Bangalore Review. She was awarded the 2018 Marianne Russo Award for Emerging Writers by the Key West Literary Seminar for her novel-in-progress, We Make Them Pay. Most recently, she was awarded a MacDowell Fellowship for the fall residency period and a 2019 Elizabeth George Foundation artistic grant.