Sundays were made for drinking cherry lemonade.
Celeste walked through the grass, her feet bare and filthy, her purple pants rolled up to just below her knees. She carried a wide plastic cup, chasing a bouncing straw around the brim as she walked. Cherry lemonade, from a purple plastic cup and through a straw, was better than any other kind of cherry lemonade that there was.
It was just past bologna-and-ketchup-sandwich-time, and the day was starting to get hot. Sweat beaded on Celeste’s neck and ran dirty down to the top of her shirt, painting a dark stain.
She reached the willow tree at the back of the yard and crawled beneath its still branches. She sat down, cross-legged, looking out through the branches and willing them, with all of her might, to swing back and forth, to howl in circles, to sing and dance like the windy days that she loved.
The branches stayed still, sweltering beneath the Sunday sun.
Celeste reached into her pocket and took out two necklaces with large plastic beads, tangled and wrapped and knotted around each other. With her dirty hands she set to work untangling them. The branches of the weeping willow offered her shade from the sun and she took a great gulp of cherry lemonade, dribbling pink drops down the front of her shirt. As she fiddled with the necklaces she sang to herself, barely above a hum but loud enough for the bees and the crickets to hear.
A purple hippo walks in the dark
Taxi cab needs a place to park
The song reminded her of her sister, her only sister, who used to sit on the edge of the bed and make up nonsense songs, singing her to sleep each night. Celeste pictured her face in her mind, blonde-haired and freckled.
She missed her, and she didn’t know when she would get to see her again.
It had been a few weeks, or maybe a month, since Charlotte had left. The policeman had told Mom that Charlotte was a teenager, that it was what teenagers did, that she would be back and that she would be okay.
Mom didn’t believe him, though, and Celeste could tell. She sat in the kitchen at the Formica table most days since then, sitting in front of a warm mug off coffee until the coffee was cold and she could dump it down the sink and pour herself some more.
When Dad finally got home from work each night, he would eat dinner and then he would leave, and sometimes Celeste would go with him. They would drive around the city, peering into backyards and scanning parking lots and looking, anywhere, for a sign.
They hadn’t found her yet, though, and as Celeste sat beneath the tree she wondered when they would. A bird that sounded quite like a monkey hooted and hollered from somewhere above in the tree, flittering through the branches.
Celeste uncrossed her legs and pushed her hands into the dirt, standing up. The untangled necklaces hung from her wrist, great turquoise beads and small golden beads clinking and clanking against one another. She circled beneath the willow tree, searching and stopping at the saddest branch that she could find. It was browner than the rest and hung still at the center of the tree, silent.
Celeste reached to her tiptoes and circled the beads around and around the branch, tightening and tying them in thick messy knots until they were secure. She backed away and watched the branch sway back and forth, glittering a golden turquoise. She smiled and wiped her hands on the side of her pants.
Ducking back out through the branches into the yard, Celeste took a sip of lemonade, skipping back toward the house. She turned around to look back at the tree and smiled again, glad that she could turn it a few shades happier.
Celeste looked out the window, a fond smile painted upon her face. She watched the next-door neighbors, a mother and her son, getting into their SUV and driving away. The scene brought her to the present, dampening her mood, and she turned her head away from the outside, focusing, instead, on a potted tulip plant sitting beside her. The bright reds, oranges, and pinks should have made her happy but made her think, instead, of a nursing home. She turned her head again, looking down at her lap. A patchwork quilt painted with stars and stripes lay across her legs, boasting a patriotism that was foreign to her. She wondered who had given her the blanket, and what that person had been thinking.
Her head hurt, again, in the back. Stronger today than yesterday and more concentrated, almost debilitating.
Celeste stood up in an angry act of rebellion, the quilt falling to her feet and a flash of pain surging behind her eyes. Today was a good day, and she had a craving for cherry lemonade.
The frosted mug sat on the corner of her desk, sweating down into the wood. Celeste stood up from the notebook before her, stretching her arms high above her head and wiggling her toes into the shag carpet.
It was a warm Tuesday, just warm enough to be pleasant but just cool enough to fill her with ambitions. The ranch house was silent and her notebook was a blank page before her, a canvas to her racing mind. She was pleased with her progress and wanted to take a moment to feel the weather, to adore the day.
She walked from her desk and into the hall, feeling the breeze from the open windows rush against her face and down the hall as she walked.
She turned her stereo on, Paul McCartney’s voice bellowing down the hallway and throughout the house. Music was happiness to her and made her feel, instantly, carefree and at ease.
She walked into the kitchen, her frosted mug in hand, stopping as her cat, Baxter, twisted through her legs as she walked.
“Hey, my little Baxter, how’s life treating you today?”
Baxter peered up at her with great eyes, and Celeste crouched to pat his head, rub his back, stroke his tail. Baxter let out a high pitched meow as he spotted a bird through the patio doors, his body straightening as he stood, cautious, ready to stalk his prey.
Celeste stood up, running a hand through her pile of curly hair, fluffing her bangs and setting her mug on the countertop.
She loved her Texas home. It was her sanctuary and she liked it best on warm days, like today, when the windows were open and the outside was just as in as it was out.
She walked through the kitchen, the olive green tile feeling smooth beneath her feet, aiming to open the window that stood closed above the sink. It was her favorite window in the whole house, and she only opened it on the best of days, when the earth was cooperating, when the wind was just windy enough and the heat just as hot as she liked it to be.
Today was a perfect Tuesday and she unlatched the lock, pulling the window open. The warm wind gusted in and her home was filled with a faint chiming as the necklaces clanked against each other with the breeze.
They hung from the curtain rod in a long row, beaded purples and reds and turquoises, long enough to reach, almost, down to the countertop. They spun and clinked and as Celeste stood before the sink, rinsing her hands, she thought that the music of the necklaces was as beautiful, if not more perfect, than the sound of any other music she had heard. She smiled, drying her hands and running a finger from one end of the necklaces to the other.
Her sister was out there, somewhere, and the music was always for her, wherever she might be.
Celeste stood at the kitchen sink, the palms of her hands planted heavily on the counter and supporting her as she paused to rest, to gain her breath, to revitalize. Her mind raced, distorting images past with those present. She reached her hands toward the window, wanting to feel the cool solidity of the beads running through her fingers, but her fingertips were met, instead, with the fabric of a thin, lacey curtain.
Some days were better than others, these days, and today was a day that was wanting.
Celeste longed for the beauty of tomorrow and she leaned over the sink, her head pounding heavily with the force of the tears welling behind her eyes. She looked down at her hands, cracked and bare, and felt a surge of desire for the past, when her hands were smooth and delicate, the hands of a writer.
She pushed her bending body back up, straightened herself, walked to the refrigerator with an empty glass. A half gallon of skim milk and a half gallon of chocolate milk sat alone on the shelf.
Acidity, these days, bothered her stomach.
She reached for the chocolate milk, knowing quite well that it was a chocolate milk kind of day.
The large porch framed the house and it was there that Celeste sat on a Thursday afternoon, her hands on her knees and her palms flat against the fabric of her skirt. She crossed her arms, uncrossed them, and then clasped her hands together in her lap. She smoothed a hand, again, through her freshly dyed hair. No longer graying, just golden blonde again.
She picked up her discarded romance novel from the table beside her, crossing her legs. She sat up straighter in the chair, holding the book before her but looking out above its words to the empty yard and drive in front of her.
The story of her sister’s life, of Charlotte, was like some sort of bad novel in its own right. A teenager turning up missing without a word, without a note of contact for years and years. A tragedy, a promising young girl presumed kidnapped, dead, or worse. A promising young girl living in the stages and clubs and bars of New York, alone and indignant, forgetting where she came from and those who waited for her there.
Charlotte sighed, shaking her foot back and forth nervously, feeling a surge of anger bubble up inside. She squinted out toward the road.
The car that finally drove down the long, winding drive was old and beat up. It wasn’t loud, nor was it dirty, but rust was beginning to dot its way onto the hood and the finish was painted with nicks and dents. Celeste watched the car as it approached, trying to peer inside for a look at the driver. She caught a glimpse of long, red hair.
As the car pulled to a stop Celeste put her book down and stood up, her anxiety subsiding a bit.
The woman driving the car opened the door and climbed out, her long hair reaching nearly to her waist, a small purple gift bag clutched in her hand. She turned toward Celeste and smiled uncertainly.
Her hair was different but her face was the same. Freckled like summer.
Celeste ran down the steps to the woman, not at all as she had expected herself to react, throwing her arms around her sister before pulling away to study her face. The same Charlotte that she had known so long ago, hidden behind a few wrinkles and a maturity in the eyes.
“I can’t believe it’s really you, Charlotte.” She paused, uncertain why she wasn’t feeling angry, vindictive, spiteful, anything but happy. “I’ve missed you.”
Charlotte smiled, her front teeth still just a little crooked.
“I’ve missed you too, Celeste.” She paused, holding the gift bag out in front of her awkwardly.
Celeste took the bag and turned, leading her sister to the house. As they walked, the Thursday afternoon sun shone on Charlotte’s long red hair, gleaming and bouncing from the golden turquoise beads strung around her neck.
It didn’t matter so much now, Celeste knew, where she had been.
What mattered was that she was here now.
It was growing dark, now, just the point in the day when the summer milkshakes faded gently to sunsets and crickets. Celeste sat on the little porch stoop, remembering how much she had loved her wraparound porch, sitting in her patio chairs and listening to music, writing, reading.
She leaned back, stretching her legs to the grass and perching herself in a corner where the iron handrails met the concrete of the steps. Her back hurt, but she was used to that now.
Her thoughts pounded, too, inside of her head, and Celeste was unsure how she planned on getting up, when the time came, to go back inside. She was alone, as she always had been, with no one waiting around the corner to help. She pushed her hands against her temples, bending her head up to look at the sky.
The bright sky, easing into a sunset, was one of life’s pleasures that had kept her in the warm south all of her life. She smiled, looking up at the marbled color, content there on the uncomfortable stoop. She fingered the beads that hung around her neck, small and misshapen, with rough edges. They had been a gift from her sister, many years ago, on the only day that she had ever seen her as an adult.
Celeste shut her eyes, alone on the stoop and feeling the heat of the sun fading, as the minutes passed, to a cool and closing breeze upon her skin.
Carrie Bachler is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2008, Carrie Bachler