Chapter 9: Gone, Just Like That
A little girl lay on the riverbank, a frightened little boy crouched over her. Her jet black hair was matted on the side of her head with bright red blood that ran over the slippery river rocks and continued on out to tint the muddy water. Her eyes were shut and she looked to be sleeping peacefully. It was quiet there on the river bank except for the sound of the water rushing over the rocks here and there. He shook her.
"Wake up," he said. But she didn't stir. He shook her again. "Julie, wake up," more panic in his voice than before. But she slept on. He shook her harder, more violently. "Wake up! Please wake up!" he cried, eliciting no response from her lifeless little form. He kept on, though, shaking her and beseeching her to awaken.
"Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!"
"Wake up! Jack, wake up!" came Kody's voice in a whispered hiss when he finally shook him awake. "You're gonna wake the whole house up."
Jack swallowed hard and looked around his little bedroom, then down at his cousin in his pallet on the floor. This was not the riverbank and he was not a little boy. "Thanks, man. Sorry about that."
"Yeah, no problem." Kody laid back down and turned his back toward him.
The familiar tossing and turning and thrashing and moaning and little whimpers that would ultimately progress to loud, frightened cries had alerted him that Jack was having one of those dreams. It had been a long time since he and Jack had last slept in the same room and he'd hoped those dreams had stopped by now but they obviously had not. Jack had been having them since he was six years old, when he'd found his twin sister who'd hit her head on a rock and drowned in knee- deep water.
Everybody- everybody- knew Jack wasn't right, but probably only Kody knew just how much so, knew that the confident, happy-go-lucky demeanor was a facade to a young man teetering on the brink of madness most days. There were places for people like Jack, he knew, but he didn't think he belonged there, nor did he want him to go, so he kept mum. Jack liked to think that he did a pretty good job of looking out for his smaller, weaker cousin, but Kody knew who was looking out for who.
He covered his head and tried hard to drift back off to sleep, all the while hoping that Ralph wouldn't stay longer than he had said he would. He wanted to sleep in his own bed. He hated the dreams not just for Jack's sake, but for his as well. They made him think about things he didn't want to think about. Sometimes, he didn't want to think at all.
Ralph kept his word and left back out on Thursday. The rest of the week had gone on pretty uneventfully and here it was, Sunday again. Kody looked up from his locked gaze on his fishing line and over his shoulder at his sister on that ratty old rope swing, catching a glimpse of her scraped up shins below her yellow Sunday dress. "You get in a fight with a mountain lion?" he asked.
She looked down at her skinny, beat-up legs and shrugged. "Something like that."
He turned back to his line, satisfied with her nebulous explanation. As long as it wasn't a person she got in a fight with, it's fine by me, he thought.
She hopped down off the swing and walked over to the creek side, seating herself beside him. She picked up a stick and started drawing in the mud, acting very nonchalant; he could tell she wanted something but she didn't say anything for a long time. Maybe she didn't want anything after all, maybe she was just tired of the swing. But then, just when he was sure she was content doodling in the mud, without ever looking up from her work of art, she asked, "What was Daddy like?"
It took him by surprise but he tried to hide it by continuing to stare at his fishing line. She'd never asked anything like that before and he wasn't entirely sure exactly what she was asking or how to answer. When he didn't say anything, she elaborated. "Do you remember him?"
He furrowed his brows and looked at her, still drawing in the mud. "You don't?" he asked. She shook her head. Of course she didn't. How could she? She'd been so young. But it had never occurred to him like that. Of course she'd be curious. She couldn't remember and she couldn't ask Mama; even after all these years and despite Ralph's presence in her life, it still upset her. Who could she ask? Uncle Bill? Maybe, if she wanted to know what kind of little brother her father had been or what he'd been like as a boy. But that's not what she wanted to know, he knew. How sad for her, he thought, to have only Ralph in mind in the role of father; Ralph, who was nothing like a father in any way. Ralph, whose mere presence in the house in their mother's absence had caused them to take shelter elsewhere.
He cleared his throat. "Yes, I remember him. Maybe not a lot, but enough, I reckon."
She looked up at him beseechingly, abandoning her mud art.
He sighed. He didn't talk about his father, never had. The subject was like Jack's dreams, made him think thoughts he'd rather not, of memories best left in the past. But she wasn't going to let him off the hook. And maybe she shouldn't. Maybe she deserved to know what little he remembered. And he was surely her only source for the information she sought, which was certainly information she should know. Where to start?
"Um...he laughed a lot."
Ginny looked unimpressed.
"He had a laugh that was deep and real, like you'd never forget, and he made Mama laugh a lot, too."
"And music. He loved music. I don't think the man could even write his own name but he could play the strings off a fiddle- not to say he wasn't smart- he was. He was smart in ways that mattered. And he could dance like you wouldn't believe. He'd turn on the radio and sweep Mama up and dance her all over the house. Sometimes he'd dance with her to no music at all."
Ginny listened intently, soaking up every word. Kody was on a roll now and he didn't usually speak with such passion in his voice, not to her anyway, and she wasn't about to interrupt him with a question. She'd just let him keep going because the way he was reminiscing, she could tell she'd learn all she wanted to know and then some.
He chuckled a little. "Now, he couldn't sing at all but that didn't stop him. He was always singing some little ditty whenever he was busy doing something and he'd take me with him fishing and sing songs I can't remember and have never heard since, but if I heard them now, I'd know they were Daddy's songs. He'd carry you around and sing little songs to you that didn't make a lick of sense. I guess he just kinda made them up as he went along. And he loved to tell stories and he was really good at it. He could take the most humdrum thing and make a fantastic tale out of it, such that folks would say, 'David, tell us about such and such,' and it wouldn't be about anything of any importance but they'd all just laugh and laugh and ask him to tell it again and again. And he'd tell us stories at night after supper or whenever I asked him to, really."
He stopped to take a breath and Ginny feared he was finished. "What kind of stories did he tell us?"
"Fantastic stories, nonsense stories, about unlikely people and places. Some were fairy tales but most were stories he made up or had been told by his mama and daddy. I would say, 'But, Daddy, that ain't real,' and he would look at me all sad-like and say, 'It's as real as you let it be'. He said he wanted us to see the wonder in the world and to believe in magic and miracles and in things we couldn't see or touch. Said once you stopped, then it was all over for you."
"What did he mean, it was over for you? You just...died? There wasn't any reason to keep on living?"
"I don't know, Ginny. Maybe he meant he just wanted us to stay little for as long as possible. Daddy said a lot of things I didn't really understand. I was really young, too, you know."
But now that he said it aloud, not entirely a little boy anymore, it did make sense. His sentimentality faded back to sadness, not for Ginny this time but for himself. He didn't see wonder in the tired, black faces of the miners, or in the dirty faces of the destitute children, or in the hopeless faces of the women in the suffering little town in which they lived. He knew from the newspaper that the world outside it was just as ugly. And he didn't believe in magic or miracles or in anything he couldn't see or touch. It was probably for the best that his daddy wasn't around to see that it was already over for him. Then again, maybe if he was still around, it wouldn't be. Maybe everything would be different.
He had been quiet too long and Ginny was afraid he was done. She didn't want him to stop. "What did he look like?" she goaded.
He snapped out of his melancholy and back into the present moment. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "To be honest, I don't really even remember. Me, I'm told. And you, too, I guess. Makes sense. We sure don't look much like Mama."
She nodded in agreement. "Poor guy."
"He seemed taller, though. Then, too, I was very small..." he trailed off for a moment but was clearly thinking of what to say next. "I do remember how he smelled," he said when he picked back up. "Like coal dust. Even on Sunday morning. It must have lingered in his hair or something. I guess I can't remember really what he looked like because he was always covered in it, like a talking, laughing, singing, dancing, fiddle-playing shadow. It was always late, after dark, when he would get home from work, and he'd walk across the yard with this big, wide grin on his black face and he looked like the Cheshire Cat coming at us."
"What's that?" Ginny interrupted this time. "The chester cat?"
"The Cheshire Cat," he corrected. "You don't know the Cheshire Cat?"
She shook her head. He frowned at her and continued reminiscing.
"And once he was home, he just wanted to play with us. Whatever we wanted to play, he was in...I only remember one good whipping, and I don't remember what I did to earn it but I'm sure I deserved it because he was always fair about everything, and he always talked to us the same way he did Mama and every other adult, even if we didn't really understand."
He bit his lip and Ginny knew he was through.
" 'S all I got for now," he lied.
She went back to drawing in the mud.
He kept his most vivid memory to himself. It was this memory that kept him from talking, and often even thinking about his father, the scene that any reference to his father always brought to the forefront of his mind. The sirens, the officers blocking the entrance to the site, the anxious people of the town all around, the look of dread on Mama's face, clueless baby-faced Ginny on her hip. He was too little to see over their heads so he pushed between the tightly-packed onlookers, making his way to the front of the crowd. Intermittently, a miner or two or three would emerge, walking, limping, being held up by another man, sometimes carried out, and their loved ones would rush forward praising Jesus. Every man that came out was a relief because he knew most all of them; Daddy had a lot of friends.
The roof had fallen on the No. 3 Mine. The mine officials were talking a mile a minute to police officers and members of the rescue team and there was talk that the mine's owner and even the governor himself were on their way. He strained his eyes to try to make out the faces of the men who emerged but the sun was setting and their black faces all looked the same. He knew, though, that his daddy would see him right up front when he came out.
But he never did.
He hadn't thought about it in so very, very long. And then, from the chaotic scene outside the mine, his mind took him to a quieter place: their house, that same morning. He was sitting cross-legged in the kitchen floor taking inventory of his marble collection; Ginny was curiously looking over his shoulder at the many, pretty, different colored marbles he meticulously dropped into the bag after he counted them. He'd tried to shoo her off but she wouldn't go away. She toddled around to face him and plopped down on the floor, reached out her little hand, scooped up his best shooter, and shoved it in her mouth. He dropped the bag and grabbed her face, stuck his finger in her mouth and commanded, "Give it back! Ginny, give it back!"
Mama responded just as he wrestled the shooter from her mouth. "Kody, what's going on, here?"
"Ginny was trying to eat my shooter! But I got it back." He wiped the slobber off on his shirt and stingily dropped the big marble into the bag but quickly changed his mind and dug it back out. This was his best shooter, after all; better keep it some place safe. He shoved it into his pants pocket.
Daddy joined them in the kitchen to top off his cup of coffee. "What happened?"
"Kody stopped Ginny from getting choked on a marble," Mama answered.
"Is that right?" He picked Ginny up and kissed her on the head; she wrinkled her nose in true Ginny-style. "Attaboy, son. Ya keep looking out for your li'l sister like that and she'll always have your back."
He leaned on the counter with Ginny on one hip while he finished his coffee, then traded her off to Mama for his lunch bucket and kissed Mama goodbye. He squatted and offered his hand to Kody, who shook it enthusiastically.
" 'Til I get home, you take care of things, ya hear?"
By a stroke of terrible luck, Aunt Betty had made soup beans for Sunday dinner; but at least hers weren't disgusting. Still, Ginny had had her fill of beans for a good long while. There hadn't been much conversation around the table, giving her mind an opportunity to wander. She had spent most of the quiet meal pondering the things Kody had told her about Daddy and trying to imagine that person having ever been real. But then her thoughts wandered to that old, abandoned house in town. She was curious about who had lived there and what had become of them. They obviously had children, at least a little girl. This 'Addie' may not have been so different from Ginny herself.
Aunt Betty and Uncle Bill were even older than Mama. If they couldn't remember the folks that had lived in the house, Ginny didn't know who would.
"Aunt Betty, Uncle Bill, do y'all ever remember anybody living in that big old house by the boarding house?"
Ginny could practically see Jack's and Kody's ears perk up. Aunt Betty and Uncle Bill looked taken aback by the question and exchanged concerned looks. Aunt Betty laid her spoon down and said, "Why do ya ask?"
"Just curious. I ain't ever known of anybody to live in it and it's a shame a big ol' house like that sitting empty."
"Oh," she said. "You kids ain't been playing around that house, have ya? It ain't been kept up and one of ya could get hurt."
"Weelll," Uncle Bill began, "They was some folks lived there many a year ago. There one day, gone the next. Real strange."
"They just disappeared?" Ginny asked.
"Yep. Gone, just like that." He snapped his fingers.
"How long ago?"
"Them two was just babies," he said, gesturing at Jack and Kody.
"Do ya remember their name? Did they have kids?"
"No," Aunt Betty replied. "Them folks pretty well kept to themselves."
Her aunt and uncle offered no further information, so Ginny spent the remainder of the meal ruminating on the various theories she'd heard about the house. She supposed those theories were exactly what kept the place empty. There were whispers that a man hanged himself in the attic, that a mother murdered her children there, that a witch had placed a hex on the house and all who inhabited it, that it was haunted. One thing was certain: something horrible happened there and the occupants suddenly left, or as Uncle Bill had suggested, disappeared.