Previous scene: Elisha receives a mysterious letter.
9 · Birds
It had been a long time since Elisha ran so hard. The wind whipped her hair across her face as she raced down the gravel driveway in record time. If Martha were there, the competition would have been fierce. They would have both ran as if their lives depended on it, one trying to keep up with the other, and then finally they would finally collapse, limbs flailing onto the front room floor. Mom or Grandma would have come in and told them to pick themselves up and start their homework. They would have had no excuses, and even if they had managed to conjure up a few, the sisters would’ve been too out of breath to verbalize them.
Elisha occasionally looked look back, half-expecting Martha to be grinning furiously right behind her. In fact, she wanted to see that so bad, she swore several times that her sister was right behind her. The image was so vivid in her mind. Martha had on her red cotton shorts and a white t-shirt with matching red rings clutching her skinny biceps. It was an outfit that Elisha had borrowed sometimes, that is, when Martha hadn’t known about it. Sure, they had been close, but Elisha had learned long ago that sharing clothes was off-limits. And by sharing clothes, Elisha meant wearing Martha’s because Martha would have never been caught wearing anything of her sister’s. Now Elisha never had to borrow Martha’s clothes because Mom had put them all in Elisha’s closet for her choosing.
The only race taking place today was against the clock. Elisha wanted to quickly put away her schoolbooks and head out to the lake. There was no date or time associated with the letter she received, so she had no idea of when to go other than right now.
When she reached the front door, Elisha absentmindedly turned and pushed on the knob only to meet stiff resistance. She’d forgotten that Mom had locked the door all the time now. In a small town like theirs, that was unusual. But it was just something Mom did. Elisha assumed it was out of a need to protect what was left of the family, but she couldn’t be sure. These days, the only times Mom wasn’t closed up inside and keeping the world at bay was when she had to wait tables or to buy groceries. Elisha doubted locking the doors provided anything other than a false sense of security.
She quickly remembered the jingling in her pockets–a pair of keys, one for the top deadbolt lock, the other for the bottom knob. Through labored breathing, she reached into her pocket and pulled out the tiny keyring. Her hand shook. She always seemed to insert one of the keys upside-down on the first try.
Once opened, Elisha slowed down and caught her breath as quietly as possible. She gently opened the door and peeked her head in to see if Grandma was knitting in her chair. The sound of television came from the backroom. Elisha thought of just closing the door and sneaking out again, but decided that was a bad idea. Grandma would almost certainly wonder where she was and come looking for her. Might even get the neighbors involved. That would only lead to more questions and Elisha felt that the situation was too precarious to waste on being careless. This may be her only opportunity to find out what happened to Martha. What really happened.
Elisha closed the door. The smell of a beef roast made its way in to her nose, wafting out of the kitchen. It was the usual Monday dinner, thrown into a dutch oven with a handful of potatoes and carrots. Leftovers would be eaten the rest of the week. She realized that she may be at the lake for awhile, so it was best to eat a quick snack.
The kitchen was in slight disarray. It was never as clean as it could have been, even after Elisha had spent her chores wiping up the countertops and sweeping the linoleum. It would be a mere day before it was messy again. She opened up the pantry and grabbed a jar of peanut butter. She unscrewed it and violated the oft-spoken rule of keeping her dirty fingers out of it. She dipped in once, twice, three times and savored each scoop. A watchful eye kept out for Grandma, in case she snuck in the other side of the kitchen. No one was there. Muffled sounds of the television could still be heard through the swing door. At least she didn’t have to worry about Mom. She was working swing shift today and wouldn’t be home until late.
Elisha put the jar back in the cupboard and walked into the living room. Grandma’s eyes briefly acknowledged her and went back to her program.
“Hey hon,” she said.
Elisha was unsure of what to do with her hands, her backpack still firmly strapped over her shoulders. She doddered in the hallway, looking intently at Grandma, who was looking equally intently at the television. Grandma loved to rock in her living room chair and watch television almost as much as she loved to rock and knit in the front room. Those were two images that Elisha felt would be ingrained in her mind, up until the day she was herself old and ready to move on to the next plane of existence.
“How was school?”
An uproarious laugh-track emerged from the television, filling the entire room. Elisha waited for a pause in the action.
“Good,” she replied.
Music queued up and then an ad for motor oil began to play.
Grandma finally looked up at Elisha.
“Good. Did your teacher like your report?”
Elisha nodded quickly.
“Good, good,” Grandma said. “I’m glad you picked someone like Buchanan. I’m sure most kids picked Kennedy or Lincoln.” Except for a tiny chip in the middle left tooth, her falsies gleamed with an obscene brightness as she smiled. “It’s good to go outside the norm. Good to be a little different.” She reached for a cup of lemonade that she had mixed up on Sunday. It was one of Grandma’s favorite drinks, but they way she made it, was always too sour. Elisha found herself heaping in sugar if she ever had to drink it.
She wasn’t sure what to say next. Elisha was afraid her body was telegraphing her next move as she instinctively leaned back toward the hallway. She was already fighting thoughts of what would actually happen at the lake. If she let herself think too much about it, Grandma would know something was up for sure.
“I already have the next assignment,” she blurted out, louder than she would have liked. Thankfully the television was turned up loud enough to mask her uneasiness.
“Oh?” she said. “What’s this one about.”
And just like that, Elisha’s mind went blank. She couldn’t remember what she was supposed to say. She knew what the assignment was. It just happened to be hiding in some dark recess of her mind and not wanting to be found.
“Birds,” she quickly said.
Where that came from, Elisha was unsure, but the rest of it seemed to come out of her mouth as if it were sliding on a stick of butter.
“We’re supposed to look at the birds that live in the area and record things about them. Size. Color. Types of feathers.”
“Oh?” Grandma said again.
“Yeah,” Elisha said. “I was thinking I should go outside before it gets dark and see what kinds I can find.”
Strings began to swell and a brass trumpet played a swaying melody. The music for Grandma’s show was starting up. Her eyes flickered back to the television, and then back at Elisha. The changing angles reflected the light of the tube off her thick glasses.
“Your mom will be home late tonight. I don’t want you going outside without her permission.”
“But it’s for school, Grandma. I need to–”
“When is the paper due?” Grandma asked pointedly.
Elisha could have lied and said it was due tomorrow, but that would have been unrealistic.
It was hard to lie to Grandma. She had a way of penetrating Elisha’s thoughts with her eyes, taking them and twisting the truth right out.
Grandma took a deep breath. She sat up in her chair and looked outside through the back window and onto the porch. Then she took another big swig of lemonade and turned back toward Elisha. Her eyes swung to the television and a look of disappointment crossed her face. She had missed some of her story it seemed.
“You be back in one hour and you stay close. Don’t you dilly dally and don’t make me come looking for you.” The smile on her face had gone away at some point, but Elisha couldn’t recall when. Grandma’s eyes were glued to the television, but she was shaking her finger, causing the wrinkly skin beneath her arm to flap back and forth.
The words were spoken as Elisha was already heading down the hallway toward her room. She almost dropped her backpack and took off running, but that would have given up the jig. She quickly pulled out a notebook and pencil and rushed toward the front door.
Waves of nausea churned through her stomach. Elisha stood at the lake, slightly out of breath and feeling ten pounds lighter. She was filled with nervous anticipation as her eyes searched the area. There were nothing but trees, water, and plots of mud in the immediate vicinity. Ten minutes must have passed as she marched back and forth looking for someone. What if she was on the wrong side? She thought of circling the whole thing, but if she did that, she may miss them. What if she came at the wrong time? She should have looked closer at the card. Maybe a date and time were written, but she just missed them. No. She was sure she had looked the whole thing over and there were only the three simple sentences. Questions continued to crowd her mind, each subsequent one more agonizing than the last.
Tired of standing, Elisha plopped onto the ground, dropped her notebook and pencil, and wrapped her arms around her knees. The weather was warm and the world seemed so empty. Sometimes the lake had a fisherman or two, but they were usually out on the weekends. Right now, the only thing confronting Elisha was a serene body of water untouched by even a slight breeze. An upside-down world projected itself almost perfectly on the wet, glassy lake. She began to wonder if the fish below saw the same image. A stupid thought as soon as it entered her mind. She had been under the water before and all that was down there was seaweed, mud, and rocks. And that was when you could see through the murky water at all.
A muskrat edged along the lake. Its graceful movements left the tiniest wake, even that, hardly upsetting the placid water. The serenity of it all fascinated Elisha, how the quiet calm could live in such harmony with things in motion. Life was busy, chaotic, and yet nature found a way to remain unperturbed and a source of refuge.
What type of refuge would she find in learning about her sister, Elisha wondered. It suddenly struck her just how dangerous this could be. What if it was a trick? What if the people that came to see her actually took her sister, and would would try to take her too?
Her eyes raced towards the Eastern mountains. The sky was clear. No clouds in sight.
Again, she was overthinking things. If someone wanted to take her, they probably could have by now. This way seemed too obvious, even a little clumsy.
She had made a decision and needed to stick to it.
Her heart nearly jumped out of her chest and she instinctively followed it, hopping forward on the slippery banks.
Elisha’s foot dipped into the soft soil, causing her to tumble slightly toward the lake.
She reared around on wobbly feet.
Her breathing was shallow, fast.
Standing only a few yards in front of her was a young man. Maybe a teenager, but just barely. He had protruding lips, as if he were wearing braces. Beside him was a pale woman. Beautiful curly hair. Brunette. Her dark dress highlighted a slim figure.
Elisha tried to put words together, but her jaw was clenched tightly. She could only be silent. Observant.
The woman smiled gently with a touch of sympathy.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, dear.” She looked down at the boy. Her thin hand was resting on his shoulder. “It’s in our nature to arrive…quietly.”
Elisha was still quiet. She examined the two of them. The woman had a faint voice. It sounded old, but she looked so young. The boy stared back at Elisha. She felt unnerved by him. His smile was crooked and his eyes had a strange twinkle, yet he also had an air of innocence.
A part of Elisha wanted to run away and forget the whole thing. The only problem was the lake was at her back and she imagined getting away would be no easy feat. She wasn’t about to go for a swim.
“Let’s cut to the chase. You should know what’s happened. About Martha.”
Elisha finally mustered the courage to speak.
“Where is she?”
“She’s gone away. With my sister.”
So they were a part of this. The nervous rumbling returned to Elisha’s stomach. She could scream, but Grandma would never hear her through the house and over the television. She would have no idea what happened until it was too late.
“Don’t worry,” the woman said with a raised hand, a sign of reassurance. “I had nothing to do with it. My sister and I, well, we aren’t exactly on speaking terms.”
Elisha had no choice but to hear the woman out. She was determined to question her until she received better answers.
“Who is he?” she said, indicating the boy.
“A student,” the woman replied quickly.
Her reply confused Elisha. What exactly did this woman teach?
“You said you know where she is, “Elisha continued. “How do I see her?”
The woman looked at the boy and he looked back at her, smiling.
“Well, I don’t know exactly where she is. But there is a way to find her.”
Elisha felt a sharp sensation in the back of her skull as she tried to fight back tears. She had thought she was so close, but now the possibility of seeing her sister seemed to be fading further and further from Elisha’s mind.
She couldn’t hold the pain back from her voice.
“Tell me,” she said.
“It won’t be easy,” the woman replied. “It won’t be quick. But if you want to see her again, you’ll need to come with us.”
Elisha looked around. The sun was edging toward the horizon.
“For how long? I have to get home. I’m probably already late and Grandma–”
“I think you know.”
A mix of dread and excitement went to Elisha’s head. She felt herself swaying slightly and fighting the urge to retch.
She did know.
The woman sighed, her face showing cracks of impatience.
“This isn’t a game, Elisha. And I’m sorry you had to be forced into this. But we need your help. Martha needs your help. I’ll leave the choice up to you. Be glad that it was more than what your sister had.” She looked at the boy by her side. “It’s not a decision that any young person should have to make…but life doesn’t always give us what we want. Just know, that if you don’t join us, you will never see Martha again.”
Elisha would have to leave her family, which didn’t feel much like family these days. She would have to leave school. No big deal. There was nothing much for her there anymore. It didn’t take long to make up her mind. If Martha could be brave and face the cloud, Elisha could be brave and face whatever new world she was certain to enter. At least there was the chance, however slight, of seeing her sister again.
As if her body had already made up its mind, Elisha began to feel normal again. The butterflies mysteriously disappeared. It’s as if she was doing what she was supposed to do.
She stepped forward.
“Do I need to pack anything?”
The woman simply smiled back and shook her head.