The Thompson kids’ dad sold the black walnut trees behind their house for timber and now clusters of big sad stumps spoiled the backyard. Tess was living with and caring for the kids—ten-year-old Miles and eight-year-old Minnie—while the Thompson mom recovered in some facility for broken-down women and the Thompson dad drove a long-haul truck to try and pay for everything. During her first week on the job, Tess rummaged through the drawers in the master bedroom and came upon the receipt from the timber company. Seven hundred and eighty-seven dollars, for all of it. To Tess that sounded like both a fortune and not nearly worth it. Now there was nothing to shade them from the early-May sun already beating down and promising a hellscape of a summer.
Miles acted as if the stumps were the best thing that had ever happened to him, and maybe they were. He was constantly inventing stump games that called for ever-increasing acts of physical prowess that Minnie couldn’t match, which was absolutely his point. Minnie—too old to play with dolls but obsessed with an ugly plastic one dressed in hand-crocheted pastel pink plantation garb that some church lady gave her right after her mom got taken away—set her doll on the lawn chair by Tess so they could both watch as she attempted a wobbly little headstand on one stump while Miles pelted her with ping pong balls from another.
“Be careful,” Tess said because she was the grown up. Twenty-one next month. If Miles and Minnie had taught her anything, it was that she’d never have kids of her own, but as far as jobs went, this wasn’t bad. She could spend much of her time doing the two things she loved most, drinking and reading. On her last library visit she’d checked out a stack of horror books about malfunctioning women that the librarian had helped her pick out. One good thing about quitting the community college: she could read what she wanted now. As for the drinking, she was pretty good on weekdays because she had to drive the kids around, but Saturdays meant no rules. The sun shone directly overhead and Tess was on her third vodka tonic. Lovebug season was the worst in years, thousands of copulating insects stuck end to end for life while they drifted in flight like snowflakes. If snowflakes were black and red and drifted both down and up. Louisiana snow. Tess fished a drowned pair from her drink, flung them on the grass, and sucked from her bendy straw.
After Minnie toppled out of another headstand and Miles yelled, “You suck at this!”, Minnie crawled over to the lawn chair and apologized to the goddamn doll. “I’m so sorry, Thea,”—that was its name, Minnie had announced one night last week after she’d pretended that it had whispered its name into her ear, and ever since then, that name, Thea, had wormed its way into Tess’s brain—“You’re so smart and pretty, if you were playing you wouldn’t fall over like I did. I’ll do better, I promise.”
The phone rang inside the house. They’d left just the screen door shut in the back so that they could hear in case their mom called, which had not happened even one time in the five weeks since she’d left, but the kids were ever hopeful. At the first sound, Miles shot off of his stump and darted to the house. Minnie whined after him, “It’s my turn to answer the phone.”
“Come here,” Tess said. She put her arm around Minnie’s bony shoulders while the little girl sat in the crabgrass next to the lawn chair and picked lovebugs from the doll’s frizzy brown plastic hair, squishing them between her fingers and wiping their guts on her shorts.
Tess noticed something moving in her peripheral vision and looked up to the woods that bordered the property, pine woods that the Thompson dad couldn’t sell because he didn’t own them. The weird girl who everyone called Sister Gail Liebrecht was over there again, watching.
“Go away!” Tess yelled and the girl shifted behind a tree but otherwise stayed put.
Minnie clutched the doll to her chest and whispered, “Hi, Sister Gail.”
“Just ignore her,” Tess said and took another sip of her drink. The girl, who was maybe fourteen, fifteen, wore a thick denim skirt with a hem that brushed the ground, a dingy blouse that covered her neck and wrists. She had scraggly white-blonde hair down to her ass. Pentecostal. Everyone knew that Gail’s family lived somewhere in the woods with well water and no electricity and were the most Jesus people in their entire small town full of Jesus people. This was the third day in a row that Gail had shown up to watch them but wouldn’t come any closer than the trees and ran off if they tried to approach, only to come back later. Tess felt suffocated just seeing that girl in all of those clothes. She took off her t-shirt so that she was just wearing her bikini top and cutoffs. More sun on her burnt skin.
Miles ran back outside and said to his sister, “That was Mom. I would’ve got you, but she told me not to. She didn’t want to talk to you.”
He was obviously lying but of course Minnie started crying. “It was!? You knew I wanted to talk to her, Miles. You knew I did!”
“Shut up, Miles,” Tess said. “We all know that wasn’t your mom. Anyway, she’d want to talk to Minnie way before she’d want to talk to you.”
The way Miles’s shoulders hunched in on themselves at her words made it apparent that she’d gone too far. A low blow, but come on, Miles, don’t dish it if you can’t take it. A few days before his mom was taken away, after things had gotten really scary though Tess didn’t know all the details, Miles had said that he couldn’t live with her anymore. The Thompson dad had told Tess a little about it to explain that, although Miles acted like a bully, he was carrying a lot for a ten-year-old boy. Tess shouldn’t have suggested his mom might not want to talk to him. But the kids grated on her, and that Gail girl was over there still staring and creeping her out. All she wanted in life was to read her books and finish her drink so she could make another while the sun beat down on the unshaded yard and the bugs got all over everything.
“Hey,” Tess said, reaching over and circling her hand around his skinny ankle. “I’m messing with you so you can see how Minnie feels when you mess with her like that, okay? Of course your mom will want to talk equally to both of you when she calls, which I’m sure will be soon.” Both of the kids still looked miserable, so she added: “Know what? I’m ordering pizza tonight.”
Minnie jumped up, still embracing the doll, and Miles yanked his leg from her grasp. “Really?!” they said in unison.
“Hell yes,” Tess said. By which she meant … maybe. If Miles was still really upset, it was possible. But if he’d gotten over it by dinnertime, well then, she wasn’t going to spend money on something like that when she could open a can of soup.
The kids ran off to play some more on the stumps. Tess flipped over so she didn’t have to look at Gail Liebrecht, who was still standing over there motionless, staring. Tess lay on her stomach with her head hanging off the edge of the lawn chair, her books and notebook and drink on the ground below. She caught the straw with her mouth and continued “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which she’d actually read through last night, but the ending was hazy because she’d started the weekend early, drinking-wise. She couldn’t tell what was really happening, if the woman in the book had actually gone insane at the end, creeping around in a circle on the floor of her room, her “shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall”—Tess flipped her notebook open to a fresh page and wrote long smooch—or if she’d really hung herself with that rope mentioned a few pages back and this whole last part wasn’t even real. But it’s scarier to picture her crazy and hunching and CREEPING around the wall, circling with her shoulder in the LONG SMOOCH than it is to think she killed herself, Tess jotted down in her notebook. There was something on the previous page she’d written down so hard that she could see the ink through the paper and a few spots where the pen had poked through. She flipped back. SMOOOOOOOOOCH!!!!!! took up almost the entire page, the letters scribbled over many times, although she didn’t remember even reading the part with the long smooch before now. Most of the white space on the page was taken up with the doll’s name written over and over, Thea Thea Thea, in Tess’s handwriting. She shut the notebook and felt light-headed.
Both of the kids started yelling—those exhausting kids—and then Minnie ran into Tess’s lawn chair and started shaking her. Tess sat up. “Tell him to stop, tell him to stop,” Minnie said.
Miles came over to the closest stump and kicked up into a perfect handstand. “You’re such a baby,” he said. “And that doll is butt ugly.”
Tess expected Minnie to start crying again, but instead she got really quiet for a second and then charged at her brother, tackling his upside-down body. His sister knocked him off the stump so violently that Tess rushed over, dizzy, terrified he’d broken his neck. He lay there groaning, his arm splayed out at an unnatural angle.
The girl, Sister Gail, came darting at them from the edge of the woods.
On New Year’s Eve a few months back, Tess had left her friend’s party early after getting a beer poured over her head by the girlfriend of a guy she’d just hooked up with in the upstairs bathroom. On the way home, a cop had pulled her over. They’d known each other in high school, the cop had been a senior back when she was a freshman. The surprise on his face sobered her up a little, and she could imagine the way she looked—beer-matted hair, beer-paunch not at all hidden by her strapless dress, still wearing beer-logged glasses in the shape of 2000 and made of cardboard and glitter. The fact that she’d been well-loved throughout high school—voted class favorite each year, always fun and easygoing in a way that people had appreciated back then but for some reason did not appreciate now—paid off, because he didn’t arrest her but made it clear that he would if it happened again.
“Do you know how to drive?” Tess asked the Pentecostal girl from the woods who was now with them in the backyard. The way everything had gone dark for a second at the edges of Tess’s vision when she’d jumped up too fast hinted that maybe she shouldn’t get behind the wheel. But looking at this odd girl up close with her dirt-smudged cheek and a big toe sticking out of a homemade leather shoe, maybe a more appropriate question would be, have you ever been in a car? Have you ever even seen a car?
Gail shook her head. She was kneeling over Miles and was, for some reason, holding Minnie’s doll. Miles kicked his foot up and onto the ground, hard, groaning in pain, while Minnie hid behind Tess’s leg and muttered “I didn’t mean to” on repeat.
“Are you okay, Miles? Do you need to go to the hospital?” Tess asked. She did not want to be doing this job, caretaking. Clearly unqualified. The Thompson dad was due to come home on Wednesday for a couple days off, and an injured kid was the last thing he needed. “It would cost a lot of money, and your dad would probably have to work even more hours to pay for it. But tell me if you need to go.”
Gail placed a steady hand on Miles’s forehead and said, “Can you touch your shoulder? Like this?” She brought her left hand up to touch her right shoulder. “Try and do that now.” Her voice was unexpected, strong, deeper than Tess would have guessed from looking at her. Miles stopped moaning and strained to lift his injured arm, which barely lifted from the ground before he gasped and shook his head.
Gail stood up. She looked at Tess. “It’s dislocated, I think. His shoulder. We have to get him up on something high, so his arm can hang and not touch ground.”
Tess nodded. “Kitchen table. Minnie, go and clear it off, okay?” The relief on Minnie’s face to have something useful to do matched the relief Tess felt that this strange teenager was taking charge. Before she ran inside, Minnie reached out to Gail to take her doll back. Gail hesitated a moment, but then handed it over.
Tess helped Miles off the ground, careful to avoid his injured arm, and the three of them walked into the house. Minnie moved the last of the breakfast dishes to the countertop, and they propped Miles on the table, face down, with his bad arm hanging off the side.
Gail lay down on the floor and grasped his arm above the elbow with both of her hands. “Deep breaths, relax if you can,” she said. “I’ll be gentle.”
Minnie sat in a chair on the opposite side of the table and took Miles’s good hand. Tess stroked his sweaty hair; sometimes she forgot what a little boy he was. And Gail pulled, pulled and held on tight for several minutes until finally they all heard a dull pop when the shoulder snapped back into place.
They stayed inside for the rest of the day. Tess gave Miles an Advil and Gail made him a sling out of one of his mom’s old scarves, on which he kept resting his cheek, breathing in deeply, eyes closed. Tess and the kids had gotten into the habit of sleeping in the living room for the week-to-ten-day stretches that they were alone. The kids’ mattresses were shoved together in front of the TV, piled with pillows and blankets, tangled sheets, many days’ worth of dirty clothes that Tess would clean up and put away on Wednesday in time for the Thompson dad’s evening return.
The kids, Gail, and the doll lounged on the mattresses in front of the TV. Tess turned the tower fans on high, both because the house was stuffy and because Gail stank of someone who’d gone through puberty but hadn’t discovered hygiene products. Then she got the basket that held their collection of VHS tapes, old movies from Blockbuster sale bins. Miles’s all-time favorite movie was The Little Mermaid, but he would rather die than admit it. If asked, he’d always choose either Misery or Die Hard: With a Vengeance, both of which technically the kids weren’t allowed to watch but had several times after promising that they wouldn’t tell their dad.
Tess pretended to consider the options and then picked up The Little Mermaid. “Have you seen this before?” she asked Gail.
Gail shook her head.
“Let’s watch this one,” Tess said. “For our guest.”
“Sweet!” Minnie said.
“Oh, man, no. Not that one,” Miles said. Very convincing.
“You’re going to love it, Sister Gail!” Minnie said.
Tess turned it on for them and then went and got her drink from outside. The ice had melted, and there were several dead bugs floating on the top, which depressed her, the reality of her life, but she couldn’t afford to waste the alcohol, so she drank it anyway. Protein.
Back in the living room, Gail sat at the edge of the mattress cross-legged staring at the screen every bit as intensely as the little girl in Poltergeist. From how everyone talked about the way her family lived, it was likely she’d never watched television before. Gail clutched one arm of Minnie’s doll while Minnie held the other. Miles sprawled across both mattresses. The kids whisper-sang along, “Look at this stuff, isn’t it neat? Wouldn’t you think my collection’s complete?” Tess sat on the couch behind them, and, instead of starting her next book, took some more notes on “The Yellow Wallpaper” and tried out a few lines of her own about a woman named Thea, taken from her children and forced to rest for her own good. When the movie was over, Gail asked if they could watch again, and they did.
At dinnertime, Tess made herself another vodka tonic, at first with only one shot but that was too disappointing, so she topped it off with another splash or two. She got some carrot sticks from a bag out of the fridge and a couple cans of Chef Boyardee from the pantry. When Tess closed the pantry door, Gail was behind her, crowding her. Tess flinched. She hadn’t even realized the girl was in the room.
“What are you doing?” Gail asked.
“Making dinner.” Tess said.
“Miles said we were to have the pizza.”
“Do your parents know you’re here? Shouldn’t you be heading home?”
“Miles said that you said we were to have the pizza.”
This girl had no social skills, made eye contact and held it fixed.
“Pizza’s expensive,” Tess said. “And you can’t undertip the delivery guy because he knows where you live.”
“The delivery guy doesn’t know where I live. No one knows where I live.”
“No, I didn’t mean—”
“Even if I told you where I live, you couldn’t find it on your own. Too many winding paths. Too many trees.”
“All I mean is we’re not getting pizza.”
Underneath the dirt, Gail had a perfect little heart-shaped face, and when she smiled at Tess, a charming smile in spite of—or because of—her overcrowded teeth, Tess couldn’t help but smile back.
“No, I see you,” Gail said. “I know that you are a woman of your word.”
Tess couldn’t help but laugh at that. A woman. This kid telling her she was a woman of her word. Uh, nope. And what was everyone’s obsession with one’s word? Before she’d quit a few weeks ago, she’d been taking Miss Rachel’s Louisiana Literature class; it had been one of Tess’s favorite things even though it had zero long-term practical value. Miss Rachel had been so disappointed when she found that Tess had snuck a flask of vodka into the first class and made her promise she wouldn’t do it again. She hadn’t done it again, not technically. But in a class in late March she had put the tiniest bit of Everclear into a water bottle. Miss Rachel had zeroed in on the bottle right away, didn’t believe her when she’d said it was water, and in front of everyone had poured a little from the bottle into the palm of her hand and tasted it. From the expression on her face, you’d think Tess had physically slapped her. The class had gawked while Tess packed up her books and left.
Tess got the can opener out of the drawer and was just about to puncture one of the Chef Boyardee cans when Gail called out, “M and M, we are getting the pizza!”
The kids both cheered from the other room. The voices on the TV switched off, and they came shuffling in with little dance steps, whooping in excitement.
Tess put down the can opener and closed her eyes for a moment. When she’d brought in the Everclear, it was only to help her face some people in her class she’d just been camping with over the weekend in Kisatchie National Forest. Tess had woken up the final morning sharing a sleeping bag with her patchy-bearded classmate who she wasn’t even into, her boobs on display for everyone in their six-person tent.
Another benefit of this babysitting job, in this secluded house nearly a mile away from the closest neighbor: it was a great place to hide out.
“Okay,” Tess said. “One pizza. One large pepperoni is all and if you’re hungry for more we’ll have something here. And minimum five baby carrots per slice. With no whining.”
The three of them nodded in unison.
“You,” Tess said, pointing to Gail. “You need to get on home.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Gail said. “I’ve never had the pizza.”
“Let her stay,” Minnie said, stroking Gail’s arm with her doll’s plastic hand.
“Yeah, let her stay,” Miles said. “She’s never had the pizza.” He winked at Tess when he said it and they both pressed their lips together to keep from laughing.
After dinner, when Gail made it clear that she was spending the night, Tess suggested she take a bath. Gail asked Minnie if the doll could keep her company, and Minnie sulked but handed it over. Gail propped it on the tank of the toilet where it could watch over her.
“Why do you like that ugly doll so much?” Tess asked.
With a painful little hitch in her voice, Gail said, “I’ve never once in my life had anything of my own. Not once. I’ve never been permitted.”
Tess didn’t know what to say, so she just ran the tub. The faucet was finicky, the temperature either freezing or scalding, no in-between. Tess alternated between the two temperatures until she filled up a hot tub with lots of bubbles. Before she could finish and leave, Gail stripped naked with no hesitation, surprising Tess with her lack of modesty. The girl was thin, undernourished, with pinkish nipples and pale blonde pubic hair, unshaved legs and armpits. Tess tried not to stare, though she couldn’t help but inspect Gail’s body for marks. She had cuts and scrapes like any kid, but were those also fading bruises circling her ankle? Tess couldn’t tell for sure.
Gail got right into the tub, held her nose and dipped her head back underwater. “Are you going to wash my hair for me?” she asked when she came back up.
Tess moved the shampoo and conditioner to the edge of the tub so Gail could reach. “I think you can manage it yourself,” she said. She looked at Gail’s filthy clothes crumpled on the floor, her greyish underwear with a hole at the seam near the hip. She couldn’t even imagine the type of life this girl lived. “I’m going to put your clothes in the wash, okay? You can borrow some pajamas.”
She picked up the dirty clothes and almost stepped out, but Gail said, “Your hair. It’s like a boy.”
Tess put her hand up to her short hair.
“Why is it like that? I’ve never seen a woman with hair that short.”
“Well, it’s easier. Better in the heat. And sometime during the last year or so, I started chewing on it, compulsively. I couldn’t stop. Now I’m used to it. I like the way it looks.”
Gail nodded. “I like it, too.”
Tess was still holding the dirty clothes. She gave a tight smile and tried to leave again, but Gail said, “Sounds to me as if you had a problem and you found a solution.”
“Uh-huh,” Tess said.
“M and M both really want their mother to call,” Gail said.
The phone had rung three times while they were inside that afternoon. Telemarketers twice, and once the crocheting church lady neighbor asking if she’d see them at service tomorrow. She wouldn’t. The kids were hyper-excited and then disappointed each time. Watching them, Tess was almost grateful her own parents here worthless. Treated her exactly the same when she’d aced the state assessment test in reading comprehension as they had the time she got caught shoplifting from McKee’s. They thought as little of her when she’d been the town’s golden child as they did now that her reputation was trashed. A stance that was oddly freeing. There was no scenario in the world that could make her care about her parents the way Miles and Minnie did about theirs.
“Do you think she’ll call? Their mother?” Gail picked up the shampoo bottle and squeezed it directly onto the top of her hair. It started to ooze down her forehead.
“Watch out, don’t let that get in your eyes,” Tess said, and tossed Gail a washcloth from underneath the sink. Maybe she should just help the girl, but it was too awkward, this naked stranger in the tub.
“I bet you could get her to call. You’d figure out a way.” Gail rubbed the washcloth into one tiny spot on her scalp. Not a very good technique.
“I don’t think so,” Tess said. “I even told Mr. Thompson that maybe she could just call and read to them. Something comforting, like Anne of Green Gables. I could put the phone on speaker, put us on mute and there wouldn’t be any pressure on her. But they’d at least be able to hear her voice. Anyway, he said she’s not doing well right now.” And Tess didn’t even know where she was staying, though she’d looked, rummaged through all the drawers trying to find out where they’d taken her.
“But you’d figure it out if you were forced to. You could make it happen.”
Tess didn’t want to push it with the Thompson dad. He was either too distracted to know how everyone in town had turned on her, or he was too desperate to care. For now, this job was the best thing. “Look, I’m going to put these in the wash, and I’ll have some clean pajamas waiting right outside the door.”
But before she could step out, Gail let some soap suds get in her eye and Tess caved and helped the girl wash her damn hair.
The kids said they were going to pull an all-nighter and that was fine with Tess. She had an entire unopened bottle of vodka if she got through the current one, and she was starting The Turn of the Screw. Plus, Sunday sleep-in.
Tess was on the couch and the kids sat cross-legged around Gail, who looked almost like a normal teenager in Tess’s Nirvana t-shirt and a pair of sleep shorts. Tess hadn’t really been paying attention to them, but then Gail said:
“Thea told you to do it, didn’t she? To hurt your brother. Thea is boo-sah.”
Minnie started to whine, no, but Tess cut her off. “She’s what?”
“Boo-sah,” Gail said. “It’s German for evil.”
Tess opened her notebook and handed Gail a pen, tapped on the page and Gail wrote, böse.
“You speak German?” Tess said.
“Yes,” Gail said. “My father is German, and my grandfather is staying with us right now. He only speaks German.” She wrote again in Tess’s notebook and then pronounced it. “Meine Enkelin ist böse. My granddaughter is evil. He says that all the time.”
Well, that’s messed up. Concerning. Definitely something she should ask Gail more about, make sure everything was okay, but with Miles and Minnie looking at Tess to see how she’d react, for now she just said, “Are you evil, Sister Gail?” and they both giggled.
“Yeah, are you evil?” Miles repeated.
Gail paused, looked each of them in the eye one by one, and then said, “I’m not. But Thea is. She told you to hurt Miles.”
Minnie protested. “No, she didn’t!”
“Oh, great,” Miles said. “You did it on your own?”
“No!” Minnie said.
“Thea told me she told you to hurt him. You’re saying she lied? Or you can’t hear her when she speaks?”
“No!” Minnie said. She clutched the doll tight as ever and whispered, “I hear her.”
“Shush,” Tess said. “Stop teasing Minnie.”
They were quiet for a moment, but then Gail said, “I had a sister once. Her name was Thea.”
Minnie turned her doll around to look it in the face as if it could confirm. “Really!?”
“What happened to her?” Miles said.
“She was my twin sister. We were always together. The best of friends. But then she died.”
“How?” Miles said. Minnie hid her face in the doll’s hair and peeked one eye out at Gail.
“You don’t want to know,” Gail said.
Tess dog-eared her book and put it down. “You’re saying you coincidentally had a twin sister named Thea?”
All three of them nodded.
“And she died?”
All three of them nodded.
“How old were you?”
“Not even a month.”
“And your parents told you this?”
“No. She did.”
“Look. I don’t think we want to hear the story of your dead twin sister Thea, okay?”
“Yeah we do!” Miles said, and looked to Minnie for agreement, but she shook her head.
Gail propped herself up and knelt in front of Tess. “Then spend time with us,” she said, and gestured for Tess’s drink. Sure, okay. Tess herself had had her first drink when she was only eleven; a taste wasn’t going to hurt. She handed her drink over, and Gail stood up and rushed to the kitchen. Tess went after her, but it was too late, it was already slipping away down the drain.
“What the hell?” Tess said. She felt an odd sense of panic, helpless. This girl in her house pouring her drink down the sink and there was nothing she could do about it. “Go home,” she said. “I’m sick of you.”
She went to get her bottle from the freezer to make another drink, but Gail grabbed her wrist before she could open it. “You don’t need that.”
“Who said anything about need?” Tess said. “Of course I don’t need it, but it’s the weekend, so give me a break.”
But Gail didn’t let go. “I see you. I know you can do without.”
Tess wrenched free from Gail’s grasp. If this girl says I see you one more fucking time. But Miles and Minnie stood in the doorway giving her a look like, yeah, maybe you shouldn’t have another. Ridiculous, because truly she wasn’t even drunk, she’d been pretty good with her pacing since they had a guest and last night she’d sort of blacked out. But hey, fine. She’d wait until tomorrow morning after the Thompson dad’s scheduled phone call.
“Excellent,” she said. “What do the three of you want to do at almost midnight on a Saturday night?”
“Dance party!” Minnie said.
Miles looked a little pitiful in his sling, his face pale and drawn. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I can watch. I like to judge.”
So they danced. Minnie chose Metallica, probably to impress her brother, and they headbanged. Miles chose Pearl Jam and they jumped and jumped. Tess chose Fiona Apple because Fiona Apple was the shit and they mostly twirled. Gail didn’t know any music, so she sang a somewhat concerning song about walking over burning hot coals for Christ, and they all swayed. When they finished, Tess and Gail were tied at four points each, Thea had three, and Miles must have been feeling generous, because even Minnie had a point.
Tess didn’t remember falling asleep, but sometime during what felt like the middle of the night, she woke up on the couch to Gail shaking her. She almost cried out, but Gail put her hand over Tess’s mouth. Outside the window, there was only the barest hint of dawn.
Gail put her finger to her lips, shhh, and pointed down to where the kids slept huddled together, Miles’s bad arm tucked awkwardly to his chest, Minnie with her doll in a headlock. Tess got up and followed Gail through the kitchen and out into the backyard. It was nice out, this time of day. Warm but comfortable, bugs not yet swarming.
“I watch the sunrise every morning,” Gail said. “I thought you’d want to join me.”
Gail was back in her own clothes and was carrying Tess’s notebook. They sat on two wide stumps situated close together halfway between the house and the woods.
Gail opened the notebook. “I’m writing you a little letter. It’s in German.”
“What does it say?”
Gail smiled. “You can figure it out later.”
Tess listened to the scribble of the pen and smoothed her hand over the surface of her stump. So many rings, once-grand trees that had been here long before Tess was born, before they’d been cashed in for a fraction of a hospital stay. There was a time not long ago when Tess’s life had been good. So many friends and they’d all laughed together, ran wild, queens of the open country, always a good time. Something rustled through the grass, a small brown snake slithering toward them from the pine trees. Instinctively, Tess whipped her legs up into her chest, but Gail reached over and put a steady hand on her knee.
“She’s okay,” Gail said, nodding toward the snake. “Not going to hurt you.”
Still, Tess’s sudden movement had startled the snake, made it change course and rush back to the woods.
Gail handed Tess’s notebook to her, finished with her secret note.
“I have to get back in time for worship or they’ll be out looking for me. Miles said if I stayed for breakfast, we could probably convince you to make the pancakes. But I can’t.”
“How’s everything at home?” Tess asked. The girl’s clothes, isolation, bruise that may or may not have circled her ankle. Tess was supposed to be the grownup, but instead she was inadequate, unqualified for this job, life in general. “I hate getting involved, and the last thing we need around here is any trouble. But, you know, tell me if you need help or anything.”
Gail tilted her head, fixed on Tess’s eyes for a moment, but then shook her head. “Don’t worry. I’m going to live up north with my aunt at the end of the summer. My mother’s sister. That’s why my grandfather’s here, to try and talk me out of leaving. But he can’t.”
Something in the girl’s face seemed less certain than her words, but Tess left it there, hating how relieved she felt to not have to deal with anything.
They walked back toward the house so that Gail could say goodbye to the kids, but just before they opened the back door, Gail gave Tess a hug and said, “I’m sorry about this, but I know you’ll figure it out. I know you will. I see you.”
Before Tess could react, Gail went inside and was flipping on all the lights and clapping her hands, yelling for the kids to get up, get up! “M and M,” she said. “Great news! Your mother is going to call today.”
And the kids were stirring, confused. Tess was confused. Miles wincing, holding his shoulder, trying to adjust his sling back in place.
“Do you hear me? You mother will call! Thea told me.”
“She is?” Minnie said. “She did?” Miles just seemed stunned, woken from a dead sleep, looking from face to face trying to get a handle.
“Stop,” Tess said. “What are you doing?”
“But,” Gail said, her voice so loud for the time of day, for the barely awake children, for Tess. “Thea will only allow that to happen if she comes with me.”
“Really?” Miles said, his eyes filling with tears.
“Gail, you go on home. Now,” Tess said. Minnie had made herself into a tiny ball, wedging herself with her doll between the mattress and the foot of the couch.
“Mom’s okay?” Miles said. “She’s going to call?”
“Ignore her,” Tess said. “We barely even know this girl.”
“Thea’s been preventing the call,” Gail said. “Because she belongs with me. She’s been calling to me.”
Miles stood up over his sister and poked at her. “Give it to her,” Miles said.
“No!” Minnie said.
“You have to give her to me,” Gail said. “Or your mother won’t be okay.”
Miles started jabbing his sister hard with his foot. “Give her the ugly-ass doll, Minnie. Do you hate Mom or something?”
“Quit it,” Tess said. “Please.” Miles kicked his sister and Tess pushed him off. Not very hard, but he tripped backwards onto the mattress and onto his bad arm. He shrieked in pain.
Minnie sat up and looked at her brother, and then at Tess, total panic on her face. She loosened her hold on the doll. Minnie nearly hyperventilating, Miles writhing on the floor, a fire in Gail’s eyes that could burn down the world. What might that girl be capable of if she didn’t get what she came for? Tess took the doll from Minnie’s little hands that relinquished it without much of a fight and she handed it to Gail. Gail took one deep breath, the most blissful smile lighting up her face, before she sprinted out of the house, across the bare yard, and soon disappeared into the tangle of trees.