Jamie watched, silently and smiling, as the young girl in a long t-shirt and ankle socks went sleepwalking right past her and into the kitchen, where she promptly lied down on the floor and began snoring loudly.
Following her into the kitchen, Jamie stood over the young child and giggled quietly at the six-year-old girl curled up on the linoleum at her feet. She took a moment to stand with arms crossed, smiling. Picking up the little girl with both arms, effortlessly, she made her way past the kitchen, back up the staircase, in the house that owed no small amount to child support. The walls were practically layered in family pictures, some with and some without Kristen’s father, some when Kristen was just a baby, but most with Kristen and her mother, an older friend of Jamie’s from school. On the table at the end of the hall, there was a container of potpourri and a black and white photo of Kristen holding Baby, a Calico kitten that was her 6th birthday present. Jamie remembered all the pictures Kristen’s mother had brought to class. The entire class remarked on how Kristen looked exactly like her mother.
She pushed open the door to Kristen’s room with her foot, flicked the light switch with half a hand, and slowly made her way through the clutter and toys that populated the floor. The walls had ripped out posters from Tiger Beat on them and the ground was nothing but an ocean of dolls. A Ken doll nearly penetrated the bottom of her foot and she cursed silently.
Jamie was the only girl out of a family of six kids that was required to have constantly cleaned rooms. Joe was the closest to her age, but assumed none of the responsibilities she had. Her older brothers were in constant arguments with their parents, as there is nothing to do in rural Illinois besides drink, or, for the truly ambitious, start a meth lab. Tanner and Isaac were younger and when Jamie was just turning 15, they still needed to be walked to school, have their hands held, noses wiped and hair brushed, and that responsibility fell on her fairly often. Even after all the trouble Bill and Kenny caused, her mother always had the time to tuck someone in when they needed it, or listen about a bad day at school or anywhere else. She never breathed a word of complaint though. Not once. None of them were ever the same after she died.
Jamie started to bend down and place the young girl in her bed, when she stopped.
“Huh,” she whispered. “That’s weird.”
The bed was fully made and looked like it hadn’t even been slept in.
She was positive that Kristen was asleep in her arms; there was no pretending in those linoleum snores. “Do you make your bed in your sleep, Kristen?” She whispered to the little girl in her arms. “Or is there a ghost in the house?”
She shrugged and carefully set the girl down at one end of the bed and pulled the covers back on the other and gently tucked her in. Making her way through the same clutter path she used to get to the bed and closing the closet door on her way out, Jamie shut off the light. The girl mumbled something sleepily.
She stood there in the doorway, listening for another sound. She looked into the dark room. And listened.
Nothing but the steady breathing of a six-year-old and Jamie’s own slow heartbeat. She closed the door.
They were all still living together on her dad’s farm, before she went to school on the East Coast, before Bill and Kenny joined the army or Joe got drugged out and went to California, before Tanner was old enough to write his own name or Isaac played his first game of ball, and long before Jamie’s mother died that day in October, lying on the bed she’d shared with her husband for one year short of thirty years, with no noise around but the crackling of dried leaves being blown across the driveway.
Before they reached the age when it was uncool to be seen hanging out with siblings, Joe and Jamie had spent their entire summers together. They had already explored every square inch of the soy fields, despite their father’s protests, and toyed with the few animals their family kept in various fields and yards, so they began to focus on activities of a more competitive nature. Joe had been showing off his tree-climbing skills one day while Jamie sat in the grass and watched, sullenly. She remembered that uncomfortable, dry feeling of her first tampon on that day and wished she could have joined him. Joe had attempted a risky limb-to-limb jump and bounced off a branch and into the ground. Three apples hit the ground in rapid succession – thump, thump, thump – and then Joe’s shoulder and then finally the rest of Joe.
In her memory, Joe’s shoulder had caused the loudest snapping noise she could imagine at the time – a house splitting in two. Although as a grown woman with a semester of Psychology and a basic knowledge of human anatomy, she knew this couldn’t be true. That sound, though, kept her awake for several nights, as Joe slept soundly in the bunk bed above her.
After he hit the ground, for a seemingly eternal moment, she sat, mouth open, amongst the fallen apples and the overripe ones, watching Joe scream and grab his shoulder. She stood, finally. “Come on, Joe. Come on, Joe.” she said, pulling him to his feet. “Let’s get mom,” throwing his good arm over her shoulders and slowly walking him towards the house. “Come on, Joe,” she repeated up the porch stairs. “Come on, Joe.” Across the patio. “Come on, Joe. Come on, Joe.”
When she pushed the door open, she screamed “Mooom!” and that brought her mother into the room instantly.
Her mother wasted no time, sitting him down in a kitchen chair and giving him a hand towel. “Put that in your mouth, Joe,” her mother told him. He groaned, clutching his shoulder and looked at her with a confused look. “It’s so when I put your shoulder back in its place, you don’t break your teeth,” she said. At the word teeth his eyes had widened and he swallowed hard. He complacently placed the towel in his mouth and bit down, eyes down, gripping the table and the bottom of the chair.
“Look at me.” her mother said, and Joe looked, clearly more frightened than he’d ever been, tears streaming down his cheeks. It was the last time his mother would see him cry, and actually, the last time he would cry until Christmas Eve 2005, when he was sitting on the floor in his apartment in Orange County, a result of mixing drugs and viewing what few pictures he had left.
And when her mother popped the shoulder back into place and Joe let out an muffled scream, Jamie could do nothing but watch and cry and think about the uncomfortable cotton thing in her crotch. That night, when she finally did sleep, she dreamt about apples.
Moving into the kitchen, she grabbed a can of cat food from the bottom shelf and set it to the electric can opener. She occasionally looked over her shoulder.
Watching the cat food slide slowly out of the can, Jamie filled Baby’s dish and threw the can in the recycling, gently calling “Baaabyy. Diiiinner.” She set the dish on the floor and walked into the living room, staring at the open textbook on the coffee table. She plopped onto the couch and folded her arms. She remained like that for a few minutes before closing the book.
It was in the coffeehouse down the street where she had broken up with Rob almost a week ago. It was quiet and dark and when they left they would be walking in opposite directions. The few other people in the coffeehouse with them were watching the snow fall outside.
He shook his head. “I can’t believe this is happening.” Rob was leaning back in his chair, facing the window, but not looking through it.
Jamie remained staring at the table and shrugged.
“Can’t we talk about this or something? I mean, I feel like you’re kinda springing this on me.”
Jamie looked out the window. Rob leaned forward and put his arms on the table, grabbing his cup with both hands.
“At least tell me what the problem is. You can’t just ignore me.”
She faced the lip of the table again. “I just think,” she began, calculating, slow, “that you’re not looking for an...independent girl like me.” She looked at him. “That’s all.”
Rob furrowed his brow and opened his palms upward on the table. “What the hell does that mean?”
Jamie sighed. “Ok, you remember that time you had me skip going out with my friends because I just had to go over to Jason’s? I can’t just drop everything every time you need something.”
“What’re you talking about?” he said, shaking his head. “It was his birthday. I’m not going to leave my friend on his birthday. And I wanted you with me.”
They both looked away from one another and stared out the window. The coffeehouse was silent except for the clicking of a mouse by an apathetic student in one corner, and the nearly inaudible clicks of a barista pushing cell phone buttons. The wood furniture was too dark, and the prices were too high, but this was the only coffeehouse so close to the dorms. Outside, the snow stopped falling.
“And, you know, it’s not like you’re as independent as you think you are. What about all those times you were having a ‘bad day’ and I had to come over and cheer you up.”
“Look,” she said, grasping her cup, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore...”
Jamie continued to stare at her closed book when Kristen walked, swaying and slow, down the stairs. Jamie moved her eyes from the girl to the textbook and back again. The young girl stopped short of bumping into the coffee table and Jamie stared at her with raised eyebrows.
“Back for more, huh?” she asked.
Kristen then opened her mouth and deposited a large amount of vomit all over the textbook.
“Oh god!” Jamie stood up and grabbed her by the hand, leading her to the stairs. “Come on, Kristen. It’s ok. Let’s get you upstairs.”
Jamie quickly walked the six-year-old passed the family photos, and the black and white photo of the little girl and her kitten. The door to Kristen’s room was wide open, and Jamie deftly moved inside, kicking the dolls and toys out of her path, neglecting to turn on the lights. She moved Kristen onto the already-made bed, on top of the covers. The air in the room was heavy.
“It’s ok, sweetie. I’m going to go downstairs and get a bowl for you, ok? Everything’s going to be alright.” She spun quickly on her heels and made for the door.
When Jamie reached the door, Kristen said, without moving and without looking in her direction, “I have to go with them.”
Jamie stopped. “What?”
Moving closer, Jamie asked, “Kristen, what did you say?”
Standing over the bed, watching the little girl breathe slowly and softly, it was then she noticed that the carpet was sticky. A small, dark puddle covered the floor beneath her shoes, seeping from underneath the bed. Jamie stepped back and the light from the hallway shone in, revealing that the puddle was red and thick and new. She held her breath.
Keeping her eyes on Kristen, Jamie got on both knees and slowly lifted the bedskirt. The first thing she noticed was the strong metallic odor of blood. The second was the unmistakable calico coat of Baby. Jamie covered her mouth with one hand. Kristen sat straight up in bed and vomited all over herself.
Still on the ground, Jamie spoke with a hushed tone, muffled by the hand over her mouth, “Kristen. Did you do this?”
“I have to go with them,” she replied. “I have to go with them,” she said lifting a finger and pointing to the closet door, which remained closed.
Jamie stood up. “Kristen...Everything’s going to be alright.” And with that, she walked out the door and closed it behind her.
“Cell phone,” she whispered to the air, walking down the stairs. “Have to get my cell phone.” She didn’t know who to call first, but the seven digits of Rob’s number were the first that came to mind. On her way, she reminded herself to clean up the vomit downstairs before anyone came into the house. She stopped and wondered if she should have checked the closet, but she knew she didn’t want to. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she reached into her pocket and realized her cell phone had been in her pocket the entire time. She sat on the last step and cried and thought about dried leaves.