Previous scene: Elisha falls into the clutches of her intended target.
8 · Talk
“Don’t forget to turn in your essays before you leave today. Any excuses, or reasons masked as such, I will not hesitate to give you an ‘F.’”
The room was filled with sounds of shuffling papers and kids riffling through backpacks.
“And ask you to turn it in again next week.”
Focused on her doodle, Elisha couldn’t bring herself to raise her head and meet the teacher’s prodding eyes. Ms. Lum would be disappointed today, though. Elisha managed to complete her essay on James Buchanan and his unsubstantial presidency. That paper ought to buy her at least a week of respite. Elisha may not have been consistent in completing her homework, but did enough to float by.
She glumly followed the children out, dropping her paper in the teacher’s basket. The walk from the classroom to the bus was a blur, a perfect metaphor for how her school year had gone. There was a time when Elisha excelled at academics, but that time had past. Now, she was always so tired. Tired at night. Tired in the morning. Tired all the times in between. Sleep proved to be elusive over the past year and bags had formed permanently beneath her eyes, leaving her feeling like an extra from Night of the Living Dead. She was completely disinterested in anything school had to offer. There was no getting around the fact that her life had been turned upside down by the disappearance of Martha, schoolwork being only one of many things that had suffered.
If Elisha had had any true friendships, those may have suffered as well. The fact of the matter was that Martha had been her only real friend. With her sister gone, Elisha found herself reading incessantly, exchanging the world she knew for others. Whether locked up in her room or during recess, she would lose herself in books pulled from her mother’s bookshelf or borrowed from the school library. She preferred her mom’s collection since many of the books had been shared with Martha and rereading familiar science fiction stories would remind her of those times they spent together.
It was only occasionally that she was asked by classmates what had happened to her sister. Of course, Elisha explained in great detail how Martha had gone to live with their father. Sometimes they were in another state, other times another country. She didn’t worry about staying consistent and actually turned the whole thing into a bit of a game. The stories were all the more easy for her to make up because she had never really known her father. Like Martha, he seemed to exist only in words, but more so. His life was composed of simple fragments that Mom or Grandma had held fit to dole out. Given what she knew about Martha, Elisha also began to wonder just how much truth there was to those fragments.
One thing she believed is he must have been a heck of a storyteller. Elisha figured she had to have inherited her gift from somewhere, and it wasn’t Mom. Maybe that’s why Mom married him, being the big reader that she was. Elisha began to enjoy how big of a yarn she could spin without telling the actual truth, or sometimes better, wildly basing things on a smidgen of that truth. The sad fact was the falsehoods sounded more real than any truth ever would. As a lark, she had told people that a mysterious cloud had come and taken her sister away, and predictably, they would laugh and tell her to stop making things up.
Elisha felt the bus slowing down and the hiss of the pneumatic doors snapped her out of her reverie. She put on her backpack, walked down the steps, and began the two mile hike toward her house.
“Are you going home?”
As the bus motored out from the stop, Elisha saw Alex Barnes standing in its trail of dust. He was a year older than her, but had been held back a grade. Elisha wasn’t too sweet on many boys. They were immature and smelled gross. Sure, she found a couple of them cute, occasionally, but Alex was not one of them. He was nice enough, but when she thought of boys at all, she was drawn toward the smart, quiet ones. The ones she could imagine reading books with, whose imaginations might be great enough to believe what she would them if she could.
“Yeah, where else would I go?”
Alex’s hands appeared to be digging around in his pockets but never seemed to find what they were looking for.
“I know a couple of guys that built a bike track. Down by the McNichol’s farm. I’m gonna watch them race.”
They both stood in silence for a few uncomfortable moments until Elisha started to walk away.
She turned around and smiled.
Elisha didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but she didn’t feel like company. There was no reason to make friends with people that she couldn’t share secrets with. Making up stories to acquaintances was fine, but she felt like she couldn’t be friends with someone and not tell them everything.
“Yeah. I need to get started on Ms. Lum’s next assignment.”
“It’s not due for a week. You’ll have time.”
Elisha just shrugged her shoulders. “I write slow,” she said, half smiling.
He didn’t seem to be buying it, but relented anyway.
“Ok. We’ll be there awhile if you change your mind. We usually leave right after it gets dark.”
Elisha hesitated. “Ok, thanks.” She didn’t want to be harsh and tell him she’d rather be alone. Some boys seemed to take things so personally.
Alex looked like he wanted to say something else, but before he could try and change Elisha’s mind, she turned and walked away quickly.
In all honesty, she had to check in at home, not for Mom’s sake, but for Grandma. It seemed she was more “mom” these days than Mom was herself. Elisha tried to picture Mom scolding her for showing up late. It made her laugh and want to cry at the same time. She couldn’t remember the last time she had received a talking-to from her. Even when she had gotten in trouble at school because of her change in behavior, she hadn’t seen much in the way of punishment. Her mom would put on a show when called in to see the teacher, but as soon as they left, it was as if nothing happened at all. They would occasionally even stop for ice cream. Mom would tell her that she needed to do better, but that was the extent of the discipline.
Elisha decided she would run some of the way home. She was usually a sweaty mess by the time she made it to the driveway, but she enjoyed the challenge of trying to get there faster each time. With the weight of the backpack and all, it took her only a half-hour to make it.
Even if she was given to distraction, the scenery was light along the way. Branches on haphazardly spaced willows swayed lightly along the sides of the road. An occasional pair of crows flew overhead, landing in the surrounding dirt fields. Neighboring homes were far and few between. The monotonous views meant Elisha’s focus was usually on the Eastern mountains, standing tall and peering back at her as if they were challenging her. Challenging her to come and find her sister.
Before Elisha realized it, she was standing at the edge of the driveway. She instinctively reached up to pull open the mailbox flap, but it was already open.
The mailman must have forgotten to close it.
Elisha reached inside and grabbed a pile of paper. She shuffled through a mishmash of ads and envelopes.
Today’s mail was heavy grocery coupons and kitchen renovation brochures. Most of the envelopes seemed to be “the usual junk mail,” as Mom called it, but in the middle of the pile was a really strange pink one, shaped more like a greeting card. There was no return address, or really any “To” address; only Elisha’s first name written in faded pencil. She didn’t recognize the handwriting but whoever it was had worse penmanship than she did.
Elisha’s mind raced, wondering where and whom it may have come from.
As she opened the envelope and slid out the card, her hands were shaking. It was a blank white card, no “Happy Birthday” or “Congratulations.” Cracking it open revealed three short sentences.
“We need to talk. Meet us after school tomorrow by the lake. It’s about Martha.”