There was an instant, between the backdoor’s swing and its blunted strike, where my mother called out to me, “Danielle, hol’ your sister’s han’!” Her voice swam, arresting as a lullaby as it mingled with the rustle of firm maple leaves and notes of honeysuckle in the thick August air. She said this and I didn’t bound down the steps, remembering that Lacy was behind me. She said this so often that I couldn’t be certain if my mother had truly spoken or if my mind had summoned her voice all on its own. So I did, and whenever I held Lacy’s hand I was reminded of how tiny her fingers were. And how slowly her little feet moved down the wooden stairway in that careful one-two-pause rhythm only small feet and unfamiliar stairs are acquainted with. And then it was hard for me to be mad with her for tagging along, even later when I caught her picking her nose.
Our favorite place in our new home in Virginia was the pond in the backyard adjacent to ours. Lacy had found it chasing a lavender butterfly on the day our father was deployed; it was the greatest thing she’d ever done. Overgrown bushes sewn along the hem created a hidden spot so we knew our neighbors wouldn’t mind us there. We sat on stones, wriggling our toes in the muddy ebb, and watched mosquito larvae dance in heated rays beneath the surface. Sometimes a frog would poke its head through into our realm to speak to us. That always gave Lacy a good laugh. Only at the pond would I talk about Texas, North Carolina, and California, none of which Lacy could firmly recollect, except to add sentiments of being fond of certain playgrounds and enamored when Daddy would come home and swing her around in his chair at the office.
The pond was where we first met Owen. He stumbled out of the woods with a book pressed under his arm the day I was explaining to Lacy about the particular loveliness of California ladybugs. Blue faded to white in the legs of his jeans, boring holes in the knees. He had amassed more dirt underneath his fingernails than I had ever dreamed of preserving. The way Lacy looked at him when she asked him to play couldn’t hide the fact that she thought he was beautiful.
When I learned he was a rising third grader, just one grade above me, I decided it couldn’t hurt if we were friends, and once I got to know him, he really wasn’t that bad at all. He was quiet, mostly, except for when he indulged us in elaborate tales about our new neighborhood in Fort Belvoir in which he had no trouble moving his lips over words like astonishing and marvelous. He shared what few toys he did have with us and even lent me his storybooks when I asked for them, though I suspect he knew I’d never be able to understand them as he could.
My mother liked him too. She called Owen a little gentleman because he always called her ma’am whenever he stopped by the house to see if we could come out to play. My mother liked that he wore me and Lacy out. She said whenever we were outside with him she knew she wouldn’t have to fight nobody about no bedtime. More importantly, I liked Owen because he almost always took my side in arguments with Lacy.
Owen was pacing near the lilies when we finally arrived at the pond that day in August. His cheeks were red and he’d soiled his white undershirt somehow and I thought I must have missed something good walking slow holding Lacy’s hand. His dark eyes were wild as he sat down next to us and stirred his foot around slowly in the water.
“Owen, Danielle and I are gonna stay and see the frogs light up today.”
I shot Lacy a look. “Maybe,” I said, holding the first syllable in midair before shooting it down with the second.
“Yeah, maybe,” Lacy said, removing her shoe and sock to copycat Owen, stroking her foot in the pond.
Lacy was always good at reminding me of things I couldn’t do, like staying outside after dark. Owen, however, always managed to linger long after the porch lights went on. He told us once of how the lightning bugs glowed in frogs’ bellies like lanterns after they’d been eaten.
“Don’t they beat you for it?” I’d asked him then. “Staying out after dark, I mean?”
He’d shrugged. “No one’s ever home till after dark.”
A tremor played out in his brown eyes like plucked strings on a guitar.
I’d wondered to my mother about Owen’s parents coming home after dark. She’d clucked her tongue at my dirty sundress and told me sometimes both parents have to work hard for all they’ve got and that I should be more appreciative that she got to stay home with me. But when I saw him wandering around through our darkened window, I felt more appreciative for what he had. He was already a grade higher and, though he hunched, he was stretching more than a few inches taller. In the wild of the backyards we were equals, but I couldn’t help feeling that being out after dark afforded him some knowledge I would never possess.
Owen picked up a pebble and tossed it into the dark water. A gold fish raced over to swallow it, then spat it out and jerked away.
“Hey, Owen, how come your shirt’s all dirty?” I asked.
He lifted his head to face me and I noticed the purple of a bruise forming just above one of his flushed cheeks. A tremor played out in his brown eyes like plucked strings on a guitar as he struggled to level them with mine.
“Your shirt’s dirty, too,” he said, putting a finger to my chest. I looked down and he flicked me right in the nose. Of course. Whenever Owen wanted to keep something good and secret, he told a joke, like the time he’d had a knot on his forehead and a bottom tooth out and he told me he’d gotten in a fight with the tooth fairy. His laughter came out clear and full like the ripples moving over our pond. I knew he had gotten me good when I heard Lacy laughing too. I scoffed and splashed him in the face, but he didn’t seem to mind. When he dipped his hand in the water to retaliate, I held my breath.
“Do it. Get my hair wet, I dare you.”
When he realized I wasn’t playing any longer, he stopped grinning and cleaned his wet hand on his pants. “Aw, calm down. I wasn’t going to do it.”
“Yes, you was. And if it gets tangled my mama’s gonna say I can’t take care of nothing and she won’t let me wear it out no more.”
“So what if your mom wants your hair braided? What does it matter anyway? I bet it feels nice to have her hands in your hair.”
I could’ve punched him then because no matter how I had tried to explain it, Owen didn’t understand about braids. Their neatness made it hard to believe how much hurt a comb could do. He didn’t see how the paddle brush tore the dead ends, making them fall like flakes of snow. He couldn’t imagine the weight of my mother’s hand giving direction: sit up, lean forward, tilt back. I couldn’t explain the horrible vacuum I experienced between her purpled knees. Owen only saw the delicate arrangement of cornrows afterward and mistook hair braiding for something like love.
My eyes flattened on him. “Do you want me to push you in?”
He laughed. “My mom won’t mind.”
We spent the rest of the afternoon chewing on mint leaves and trying to catch frogs. Owen caught two, even though I was pretty sure he caught the same frog twice after letting go. I was sitting closer to Lacy and all her splashing and heavy breathing scared everything and made me lose focus. I didn’t catch anything. When the crickets began to scratch their legs, he offered to walk us home. He even held Lacy’s hand, despite my telling him where I’d seen her put it. He was good with her that way. The summer sun gave Owen’s skin the complexion of honey. His hair was getting longer too, and I thought that if it grew out curly like he told it, he might even pass for our brother. I wonder if Lacy thought it also because she looked up at him and asked, “Owen, do you want to come over for dinner?”
“I would, but who’s going to eat dinner at my house if I do?”
Lacy nodded her head in understanding, as if she’d forgotten something essential. “Oh, yeah.”
My mother was good at that—turning something small Owen did into something remarkable.
But I knew that what was more important than Owen wanting to come over to our house was his parents not allowing him to. I had asked him over before to see the size of our brand-new TV, but he had said he’d already seen it when the movers brought it up. He wouldn’t come over to help me read through my father’s paperwork, and when he didn’t want to come in and try my mother’s banana bread, I ignored him for an entire day until he gave in and told me that his mother had said no. I was mad at him for not questioning her as to why at first, but forgot it quickly when he showed us how useful karate was in fighting off flies.
“Owen’s not like you. He’s obedient,” my mother had said. “He know better than to talk back.”
My mother was good at that—turning something small Owen did into something remarkable, like when he taught Lacy how to tie her shoes. Still, I could see from the clenched way that she held her brows that even she couldn’t help wondering about the Olmsteds and their son who could never seem to let his eyes meet hers in conversation. The Olmsteds, that’s what his family was called. They lived in the house across from ours with the teal green door. It was the only door on our street of that color.
My mother decided it was a good time to meet the Olmsteds one Sunday after Mass. She baked butter cookies that Lacy and I were careful not to eat, touched up our edges with the hot comb, and we marched right over and slapped on that teal green door. Only one Olmsted was home: Owen’s mother, Camille. She invited us in and offered us Earl Grey tea that she was certain would go well with our cookies. The afternoon sunlight streamed in through the soft curtains, casting the living room in a useless golden glow. Mrs. Olmsted waved us at a brown sofa and followed the whistle of a kettle behind crumbling floral wall paper. We stepped carefully between dusty piles of old books and magazines to reach the couch. My mother, still in her lavender crepe Sunday dress, sat down stiff. She touched everything only a little: the saucer, the teacup, the coffee table, the armrest which her slender brown arm hovered over in an attempt at polite recline.
Mrs. Olmsted sat down in the bay window and picked at the edge of her blue china teacup with a chipped fingernail. She smiled, chirping away about toffee bars and Brazilian coffee, tilting her head every so often in soft fragile movements at mentions of Owen. The golden-brown color of her hair had a likeness to Owen’s but the commonality ended there. Her porcelain face was marked with red lips that resisted the movement of words to reveal amazingly bright teeth. Their snowy coloring yielded a frightening blue tinge of electricity when they meet the pale blue cup. She was almost pretty. Her hand instinctively moved over her swollen stomach every so often midconversation as if to right herself from losing balance. The acrid scent of stale cigarettes wafted through the air.
“I had not heard that Owen was having a little brother or sister,” my mother said, biting down on each word as she smoothed her short brown hair behind her ear. “How far along are you?”
“Oh, just getting into the seventh month, I suppose.”
A cookie spilled from Lacy’s lap and split against a book at her feet. My mother apologized with her napkin, wiping up more dust than cookie.
“Time is truly an amazing thing,” Mrs. Olmsted said, smiling.
“Yes,” my mother agreed. She briefly looked around for the trash and, not finding it, she hid the napkin in her fist. She smiled. “They all play so well together. Danielle tells me Owen is very smart. You must be very proud.”
“Yes, Owen is a reader just like his father.”
“Oh, really? What does he do?”
“Oh, Tommy? He’s a nurse’s aide now. Yes, but that won’t last too much longer.” Mrs. Olmsted took a sip of her tea. “He’s going to be a doctor,” she said, winking at Lacy who smiled and squeezed both eyes back in reciprocation.
“Yes. As soon as he finds the time to return to school. As soon as he finds the money to return to school with.”
Mrs. Olmsted flashed us another smile. I waited for my mother to fill the silence with my father the marine, but she didn’t.
“Well, we’d love to have Owen over to play sometime.”
“Owen likes playing outside.”
“Oh, of course. But on evenings when you and your husband—”
“On evenings when you and Tommy both work, he’s welcome over with us. He don’t have to be out there all by himself.”
“Oh, I don’t have to work. Tommy’s going to be a doctor. That’s work plenty for the both of us.”
My mother cut her eyes at me, but I knew better than to interrupt grown folks to tell her that it was Owen’s lie—not mine. Her eyes shifted back to Mrs. Olmsted. “Well, in any case, we’d still love to have him. Danielle is always saying how she wants him to come for dinner.”
“Owen likes to play outside. There’s so much for him to explore out there. I don’t see any good reason to limit their play to your home.”
My mother’s arm was remiss in its lingering and slipped and hit the sofa. When she lifted it up again, a long golden hair spooled around her elbow. She made a show of peeling it off real slow, holding it at a distance like it was something alive, and letting it drop. Mrs. Olmsted watched it float down to the cluttered floor, then patted her stomach and tried to smile.
“I didn’t invite anyone over,” Owen squeaked.
“You know, I was saying to myself the other day that I’d have to get around to straightening up, but I couldn’t—I was saying to myself, I’d better straighten up because you never know when there might be something. And the house is never like this. It isn’t like this. The one day where I don’t—and now, here we are with things everywhere and, look, no tea trays or even coasters for that matter.” She dipped the cup into her mouth. “I’m a terrible host. I’ll have to get the recipe for these cookies; they’re delicious.” She pushed her hand into the windowsill to stand. “Wouldn’t you like some more tea?”
“We best be heading back,” my mother said, rising with her.
Lacy and I jumped up just as the front door latched open and slammed closed and Owen’s father was standing there, tall as the entryway. His eyes were the same muddy color as Owen’s, but they locked into mine with a sharpness that wrung tears into my throat.
“What the hell is this?” he asked.
“Tommy, these are our neighbors. These are Owen’s friends. They’re just—”
“We’re leaving,” my mother said, pushing Lacy and I toward the door.
“These are your friends, Owen?”
Owen had materialized from behind him, his arms stiff as logs at his sides. He shook his head no like a dog attempting break loose from a leash. “I didn’t invite anyone over,” Owen squeaked.
“Let’s go,” my mother said firmly.
“Go on,” I said, shoving Lacy, who had slowed at the door to wave good-bye.
My mother rushed second to the decision that I was only to play with Owen outside. Things weren’t any different from how we’d always done, only now he was not welcome. His not being welcome was not stated but felt, in the way my mother slammed windows closed after dusk, and the increased frequency with which she asked, “Just where do you think you going?” Owen and I never talked about it. Not Mrs. Olmsted’s belly, or his father’s frightening eyes, or no longer being welcome, not even without Lacy on the damp lawn the following Saturday morning. Dew seeped through the front of my shirt, threatening to muddy my outfit, but I didn’t move. We were waiting.
“Just keep still,” he whispered.
I lifted an eyebrow at him the way I’d watched my father do when he was reading the paper. I hadn’t thought to ask what exactly it was that we were waiting for.
Still. I focused on quieting my breath, imagining it winding down like a clock on the wall. Ever since the day we’d gone over to his house uninvited, Owen had started telling me that something was coming. Every afternoon when I came out after lunch he smiled at me in that funny way that he did without letting his teeth show and said, “It’s coming today. It has to.” But those afternoons were mostly spent knocking the heads off wilting dandelions. And every evening when the sun sank behind the trees I would catch him mumbling under his breath, “Dear Father, Lord in Heaven, please protect us, keep us safe.” A prayer. I tried to teach him Our Father and Hail Mary but he still mumbled his broken one just the same. The day before, when he walked Lacy and me home, he’d said, “Tomorrow, for sure,” and asked me to come out earlier than I usually did, so I knew he had to be getting desperate. I’d slipped out of the house after breakfast while my mother was busy in the bathroom with Lacy. By now, Lacy was probably crying to Mama or calling out for me in the backyard, but I couldn’t bring her. Not with her pointing at every smooth stone or fallen twig and asking in all seriousness, “Is that it, Owen?”
I felt Owen stir next to me. Tight in his fist he held a small gray rock. I looked out on the lawn to see what held his fixated stare: nothing but grass and clover. I lifted an eyebrow at him the way I’d watched my father do when he was reading the paper. I hadn’t thought to ask what exactly it was that we were waiting for.
He snatched himself up from the grass, catapulting the rock into the air, toward the bushes at the edge of the pond. I searched the ground for a rock to throw and came up with a twig that fell embarrassingly short of hitting what was “there.” But we’d hit something, to my surprise, and with a yelp, Owen was already up and running in its direction. A bird. A tiny sparrow whose breakfast we’d disrupted by crushing its wing. It made a few helpless movements before he cupped it in his hands.
“Wow! What’d you do that for?”
He shrugged. “You threw one too! Besides, haven’t you ever wanted a pet?”
I thought of Rufus, the invisible dog I’d looked after for a few days to show my mother how responsible I would be with a real one. Of course I had.
“Where will we keep it?”
Owen held up the bird to inspect it more closely. “In a cage,” he stated plainly.
I felt my ears tip violet. “Yeah, smarty-pants, but where do we even get a cage from?”
He moved his shoulders up and down helplessly, shrinking away from the question, and I was reminded that I was supposed to be being helpful.
“Wait here,” I said, wagging my finger at him before running off.
When I returned to Owen with Malibu Barbie’s beach house wrapped in my arms, he was sitting in the clover with his eyes squeezed shut. He had the bird pressed tight to his chest as he mumbled, “Dear Father, Lord in Heaven—”
“Got it,” I said, dangling the pink and purple dollhouse in the air by its handle. The house was damp from being left out in the yard overnight. I nestled it down in the grass in front of him and unbuttoned its large pink doors. “Here,” I motioned for him to place the bird in Barbie’s blue Jacuzzi, “now it’s a bird house!”
I couldn’t help smiling at my own cleverness. Owen’s lips curled into a grin as he confidently placed our bird in the tub. Its broken wing folded away from its body over the rim. I petted its soft head.
“Hey, Owen, who the heck taught you only half a prayer, anyway?” I asked. His olive face turned crimson and I realized I probably should have kept my big mouth to myself. I turned back to our bird. “What should we call it?”
“Merriam, like the dictionary.”
We took turns wrapping her in the fabric of our clothing and listening to her pulse race.
I didn’t think “Merriam” was very pretty, but I made my big mouth smile this time and I nodded in agreement. In a short while, we had become something like parents. And we were determined. Together, we were going to create something more beautiful than either of us had ever seen. Owen made me spare all the beautiful bugs, so I dug up centipedes and gathered the green berries that the bugs hadn’t gotten to, and crushed them into a meal for our Merriam in the little pink kitchen sink. The sun was beating down on us by the time I finished. Owen agreed to feed her, scooping the thick brown paste onto a twig, and I reluctantly left them to make it home for lunch. Lacy was puffy eyed and quiet at me while we picked at grilled cheese my mother had burned watching for me out the window. “Don’t leave here without your sister again, you hear me,” she said, and I didn’t protest. When she went to put Lacy down for her afternoon nap, I stole away to the pond again.
Owen was sitting patiently on his knees listening to Merriam’s cries as if one of them might have held some meaning. We stroked her gray feathers until the oil from our fingertips coated them a greasy black. We trickled pond water down her head to relieve her from the heat. We took turns wrapping her in the fabric of our clothing and listening to her pulse race against the steady beating of our own.
“I hope she lays eggs and has lots of hatchlings,” Owen said as I kissed her soft head goodnight. “This would be a good place for them, don’t you think?”
He agreed to watch over her in the darkness until he couldn’t any longer. I showed him how to latch the pink doors and windows so no feral animals could harm her while she slept.
Lacy was still offended when I got home, and without turning away from the onions she was chopping, my mother told me to go back outside and cut her a switch. I took my time picking my own punishment, choosing the dullest branch of a shrub that I hoped would have the least sting. I crafted a few points for how I might talk my way out of the whooping: I was only trying to help Owen, we didn’t go far off at all, didn’t she see how crazy his mother was from how much of a mess her house was? But with my mother I knew there was no chance of not getting hit, only getting hit less, so I made sure to pick off any stray buds that would make the whooping feel like getting pelted with pebbles.
“You letting that boy get you into trouble,” she said when I came back in the kitchen nervously twirling the switch between my fingers. She dried her hands on the checkered dish towel and snatched the switch from me, waving it in the air like a conductor as she spoke. “Spare the rod and spoil the child. You must’ve forgotten, huh? You didn’t have no problem with listening before. Now you leaving your sister behind, don’t spend but two minutes in the house before you trying to run out again. And for what?”
I waited out her pause, not sure if she was truly looking for an answer until she widened her eyes at me. “For nothing,” I sighed.
“For nothing,” she agreed, her voice overriding my own. “Not a damned thing.” She dropped her arms, lowering the switch to her side as if she was suddenly exhausted. Her voice softened. “I’m trying to teach you something, Danielle, okay? Not everybody is meant to be your friend.”
For a moment, I felt that I could have gotten away. I felt her relenting, her eyes widening into windows I might climb through. I might have silently nodded or breathed out the “okay” that she wanted to hear and went upstairs to wash up for dinner without her laying a hand on me. But I knew that she was wrong. Owen wasn’t like his crazy mother or father. She’d spoken to him a handful of times, visited his house only once and thought she knew about him better than me. I could keep myself from saying all of this aloud, but I couldn’t keep myself from rolling my eyes at her.
The switch struck my right arm first and I leapt away from her as it reached for my legs, but she grabbed my wrist with her free hand and held on tight while she kept on swinging with the other. I could feel the blood in my legs surging into rivulets of welts, but I refused to let myself cry. I tried to make as little noise as possible; to scream would be an admission of guilt. I wouldn’t give her that, and it only seemed to make her hit me harder. I bit my lip and stiffened a little more after every strike, letting the sound of the words she was yelling blur with the pain in my body until the energy of her anger pulsated above everything in the room. It ended, finally, when she broke the switch on my thigh. She dropped my wrist and, still straining away from her, I fell to the ground. She ordered me to go get in the tub and yelled after me that she didn’t want to hear nothing else out of me for the rest of the night.
When we reached the pond Owen was right where I left him, kneeling, eclipsing the dollhouse. He seemed startled when I tapped him from behind, but he edged over so Lacy could see.
Lacy didn’t speak to me as we sat in the tub. She didn’t feel vindicated by my whooping. I knew that I’d hurt her twice: once for leaving her, and then again for making her watch me and our mother act that way. She went to bed without begging me to read Goodnight Moon to her before she fell asleep. Sunday morning at Mass she didn’t sit next to me, so on the car ride home I whispered that I had something secret to show her. Later, I grabbed her arm, grinning, nearly dragging her through the lawn, making her promise me again that she wouldn’t tell. When we reached the pond Owen was right where I left him, kneeling, eclipsing the dollhouse. He seemed startled when I tapped him from behind, but he edged over so Lacy could see.
“Tadaaaa!” I said, waving my arms in front of the house. But Lacy didn’t squeal with delight in her usual way. Instead the dimples from her cheeks disappeared.
Her voice cracked like dry twigs. “What’s happened?”
Untouched beetles lay overturned on their backs on the pink plastic hardwood. The purple bay windows were etched with long white scratches where Merriam had attempted to fight herself free. Her crusted droppings clung to the pink bathroom tiles and yellowed the pink bedroom walls. In the blue Jacuzzi her still body sank downward with the pull of her limp left wing. I swallowed hard.
“She’ll be fine,” Owen said, water edging in his voice. “She just needs something to drink.”
I watched our bird’s head falling forward toward the faucet.
“All she needs is water.” He grabbed the rusted spoon we used to unearth insects and filled it with liquid from the pond. “She’ll be all right.” He lifted the spoon to Merriam’s beak and her soft head folded. The clink of her beak meeting the stainless steel was a single jarring note before her head lay motionless in the metal. Owen’s fingers jumped back as if the sound had released a wave of voltage; the spoon clattered against the dollhouse floor. Merriam’s head crooked forward and settled once again into the faucet. The air was sharp with the stillness of the world withdrawing a collective breath. My teeth clamped down hard and I tasted the metallic sting of split flesh. Lacy began gasping behind me, choking. I slapped at her back until a cry escaped and she began sobbing uncontrollably.
“Shhh,” I pulled her head to my chest and stroked her braids, blinking back tears of my own. But Owen didn’t cry. He closed up the dollhouse, the heat rising in his face, and for the first time we watched him walk off and go into his house before we’d entered our own. I thought to reach for him. I should have grabbed his hand, taken the rusted spoon, opened up the earth and showed him how to grieve. I wanted to chase him, to grab him and tell him that it was going to be okay, that we didn’t mean it, and that I’m sure he did everything that he could. But I didn’t. I stood there. I watched the grass part and close up behind his steps. I watched the teal swallow him as he shut the door. I just stood there stupidly until I felt Lacy’s tiny hand rubbing across my back and I wasn’t sure who was consoling who