Emily’s mom left a month after Rose’s birth, two weeks after Rose started crying, not with the half-formed gaspy cries of an infant but with a determination reserved for two and three year olds. Emily woke several times each night to Rose’s circus screams like an elephant trumpeting for everyone to look! Now! This moment! even if two states away, so as not to miss the finale, her finale. Beneath Rose’s wail ricocheted her dad’s lion-roar snores and occasional wisps of her mom’s deep voice trying to soothe Rose with lullabies. Those soft songs made Emily want to take her sister’s place on their mom’s warm yeasty lap, to rest in the cradle of her large arms that sometimes sheltered Emily from the hectic world of kindergarten and her parent’s fights, and the hard-to-breathe air stiff with beer, cigarette smoke, and the tension that accompanies broken promises. Instead, Emily drifted back to sleep.
The next morning Mrs. Rodriguez picked Emily up, as usual, and drove her to school with Carlita, Mrs. Rodriguez’ daughter. Five sons, all grown and out of the house, and suddenly a baby girl whom she called God’s gift since Mrs. Rodriguez thought she was long past child bearing when Carlita took up residence in her womb. She didn’t even know till she was twelve weeks pregnant since she thought menopause finally hit: no period, sudden weight gain, constant hunger, increased warmth, fluctuating moods, yet none of the nausea she’d had with her boys. But when her breasts ballooned like a pubescent girl’s, she went to the doctor.
Emily loved that Mrs. Rodriguez called her Emilita. The staccato sound made her feel special for being little while implying a sense of nobility, as if everyone should stand when she entered a room: Emilita!
“You’d be Carla if my mom named you,” Emily told Carlita during lunch, which they always split. They especially enjoyed Fridays when they shared Emily’s peanut butter and jelly and Carlita’s flan and tostada, ten whole pitted olives included so they could play their black-tipped finger game.
Since both were right handed, they alternated decorating their dominant hands so that their hands mirrored each other. Giggling, the girls raced to cover the fingers and thumb of one hand with olives and then mirror-tapped each other’s bulbous fingertips from thumb to pinky, clap their uncrowned hands twice with sharp smacks, then tap their black-tipped fingertips together five times before plucking the olives off with their mouths, from pinky to forefinger, quickly swallowing each before snagging the next. Giggling harder, they’d twine their capped thumbs around each other, olives crowding the tight spiral, then squeeze their olived-tips five more times, snatch the olive from the other’s thumb and eat it.
“Or Rose,” Carlita said, wishing she could stick her tostada in an oven to make it smell better and dry the shell a bit after soaking in beans and tomatoes all morning.
“You don’t scream enough.”
“I might have.”
“You still wouldn’t be Carlita.”
“Lucky the stork brought me to the right house then.”
The words stabbed Emily in a place she didn’t know existed, sliced through her semblance of belonging and stopped at a hard little knot of doubt. What if she was in the wrong house? What if she belonged to another mom and a dad who’d carry her piggyback and take her to the park? But the blade was so thin that the entryway disappeared by the next sentence. Yet doubt’s sliver remained as a lump in her throat, a clutch in her stomach, masked in shyness and hunger.
The house was quiet when Mrs. Rodriguez dropped Emily off after school. Emily crept through the house, its silence startling as summer snow, and found Rose and her mom sleeping in her parents’ bed. Emily tiptoed out and down the hall to the kitchen, opened the stepladder, sat on its first step to remove her shoes, then climbed up, her hand pressing against the cupboards for balance. Listening for her mother, Emily stepped on the counter, opened the top cabinet and, stretching on tiptoes, grasped the box of cookies. She slipped three in her pocket and returned the box to the shelf, though as she slid the stepladder back between the fridge and wall, she wished she’d taken four.
She jumped at the banshee’s wail, a sound so piercing, Emily thought Rose was beside her, but she was alone, relieved her sister had waited till she was off the ladder. Within a minute her mom, Rose in arm, rushed in the kitchen. She was pale with dark hollows under wide bloodshot eyes, a family of rats, as they called knots, nesting in her hair.
“Oh! You’re home. Get a pot for Rose’s milk, Em.”
Emily pulled a three-quart pot from the lower cabinet. She set up the step ladder so she could reach the faucet and half-filled the pot with water as her mom mixed the baby’s formula while Rose hollered, red as her namesake flower, the color popular on Valentine’s day, a day observed only by Emily in this house.
At school last week she cut red construction paper hearts and decorated them with crayons and cut-up doilies. With Ms. Schaeffer’s help Emily wrote For Mommy and Daddy and Rose. Love, Emily in the middle of the heart with a blue crayon. She used sky blue since she longed for that color after so much rain but the lighter color darkened on the dark paper, as if reflecting the sky’s lack of contrast. Her mom seemed happy to get the card and put it on the refrigerator after making space between other pictures that Emily had made. But Rose kept crying and her dad wasn’t home the next morning when Emily would have given it to him. Her mom said Daddy had to work a double shift. Emily was surprised the factory was open all night. She thought maybe it was like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory with workers producing extra candy for the holiday, but her mom didn’t want to talk about it.
“You said soy milk would make her stop crying.”
“It doesn’t always work.”
“Then can we stop it?” Emily said, disgusted by the sickening sweet stench permeating the house from Rose’s poots and poos. Even Rose’s head didn’t have that fresh baby scent. She smelled like an undercooked pinto bean.
“Be patient, Em!” her mom said, not looking at Emily. “I have to focus on Rose. Colic’s not easy for a baby.”
“Or me,” Emily mumbled, low so her mom wouldn’t hear.
“That’s enough water, Em.”
Emilita, Emily thought.
After dropping the bottle in, her mom shifted the pot to the stove and Rose’s scream took on a siren-like modulation, louder and slightly softer, pitched painfully high at its loudest. Feeling as if she might explode or go deaf, Emily went in her room. She didn’t know how her mom could stand Rose’s crying the past two weeks. What if Rose never stopped? Her mom looked terrible. Could moms die from lack of sleep? That would leave Emily no choice. If it comes down to Rose or her mom, Rose would have to go.
But how? Could Emily find someone to take a screaming baby? Maybe she could leave Rose on someone’s doorstep, but everyone probably knew Rose belonged here since she hadn’t heard of another newborn in the neighborhood. Could she throw Rose out with the garbage? No, she reasoned. The garbage men would hear Rose and leave her behind, maybe even ring the bell to find out why Rose was thrown away and then Emily would be in trouble. The more she thought about it, the more convinced she was that there should be a place to bring babies that people don’t want anymore.
Just past midnight Emily was startled out of sleep when her dad slammed the door and pounded down the hall to the living room.
“Jesus, get that damn kid to shut up, would ya! How the hell is anyone supposed to sleep around here?”
Emily trembled, scared of her dad’s anger, yet too upset to stay in bed, so she pulled on her robe and cracked open her door and saw her parents by the front door, her mom still wearing the sweats she’d been in all day while her dad wore only his black pajama bottoms with its stampede of bulls and red lassos. A peculiar smile distorted her mom’s face as she passed the baby to her husband.
“What the hell are—”
“Going out.” She grabbed her purse and long coat off the stand.
“What do you mean out?”
She opened the door in response, stepped into the backlit rain, and the shut the door, slow and soft, as if hesitating, Rose suddenly quiet in a vacuum that had sucked the house clean of sound, leaving only the hollow rain and latch’s click.
“Out?” Though said with the force of a shout, her father’s question emerged a whisper yet hung in the air like thick smoke till the car’s rumble dispersed in the rain and Rose screamed as if making up for the transient silence that had passed during those nine swift heartbeats, as if ensuring that her anger would supercede her dad’s.
He stood in the hall’s keyhole for several minutes, Rose screaming in his bulky arms. As he turned toward her, Emily jerked out of sight.
“Come on, sweetheart. I know you’re up. Come take your sister.”
Though Emily knew that his kindness couldn’t be trusted, she also knew better than to disobey him, especially with Mommy gone, so she walked down the long hall and opened her arms for Rose.
“Want some earplugs?”
Emily nodded, starting to cry herself.
“Don’t you start now. You have to be brave for Rose, gumdrop.”
Warmth whooshed through her at the sound of her favorite nickname. It reminded her of gummy bears and something glistening and pure like a rainbow-colored raindrop. So she held her breath, held it deep in her belly, held it while Rose screamed and her dad went to his bathroom to get them both earplugs, held it till she was longing for air, till she thought she couldn’t hold it anymore, took in a little more, held it to the count of ten then pursed her lips and let it out slow, tears no longer leaking out her eyes, sobs no longer flinging themselves across her chest. She’d stopped and her dad rewarded her when he returned with two pieces of a quartered silicone earplug.
With earplugs already in place, her dad took Rose long enough for Emily to flatten her pieces and press them against her ears, covering the holes so that Rose’s screams were at least a lower tone.
“Your mommy will be back real soon, Emmybear. Daddy needs to sleep. There’s her bottle,” he shouted, pointing at the floor beside the couch on his way to his room.
Emily stared at the red-faced stench posing as her sister. When her parents told her a sibling would be coming soon, explained it was sleeping in mommy’s belly, that Emily would soon have someone to play with, to help care for, this wasn’t what she’d imagined. Though she had hoped for a sister, Emily had thought they’d play hopscotch and jump rope with Carlita. On rainy days they’d color and play dress up with the attic clothes.
She hadn’t pictured a noisy beet that smelled like sickly poo all the time. Nor that she’d be left holding Rose while her mommy drove around town and her daddy slept. This wasn’t what they’d prepared her for.
Emily jumped at the feel of her father’s stride across the floorboards. He opened the bedroom door and shouted above Rose, “Em, honey, take Rose in kitchen and shut the door so Daddy can sleep.”
Without bothering to shout a reply, Emily grabbed the bottle and went in the kitchen, sat on a chair and shoved the bottle’s nipple in Rose’s gaping mouth. Though Emily wouldn’t have thought it possible, Rose screamed louder in response so Emily pushed the bottle between dirty plates on the table, crowded with cereal boxes, building blocks and mounds of soaked paper towels.
What could kill a baby? Emily wondered. Daddy can’t sleep, Mommy doesn’t want to be here, and I can’t make her stop crying. Why won’t she stop? Becca’s sister never did this and Mrs. Rodriquez says Carlita never did either. She says Carlita was a happy baby. Why couldn’t we have gotten a happy baby too? Why’d we get stuck with this screaming scrunched-up beet? And when’s Mommy gonna be back?
Emily looked at the clock, the seconds dragging their way, stop, and go stop, and go stop, around the circle. She wished she knew how long Mommy’d been gone, when she’d come back, how to tell time.
Even with earplugs Emily could barely stand the endless screams. She wondered why Rose didn’t pass out? Maybe her teeth hurt. Mrs. Rodriguez said the only time Carlita cried was when she was teething. But Rose didn’t have teeth. Emily put Rose on the floor so she wouldn’t roll off the table, which had no room for something as big as a baby anyway, and opened the step ladder in front of the fridge, stepped on the first step, reached up to open the freezer, then took two more steps to the top and pulled out an ice cube.
Sitting on the chair with Rose in her lap, Emily tried to rub the ice along the outside of Rose’s tiny mouth, but Rose kept screaming and jerked her head away. Emily gripped Rose’s head so she could rub the ice along her gums, but Rose knocked Emily’s hand unexpectedly. Her grip loosened and the ice slipped. The screaming stopped.
The ice blocked Rose’s throat. Emily didn’t know what to do but pictured Rose going blue then dead like a cartoon character, her daddy waking to find the baby dead and her mom getting really mad after carrying Rose in her tummy all that time and putting on so much weight, which she complained about every day. It would all be Emily’s fault. She shook Rose but only her eyes bugged out so Emily took her by the ankles and turned her upside down.
“Get out!” Emily shouted at the ice cube as she jerked Rose up and down. “Get out!”
Holding Rose by one foot, Emily slapped her back like she’d seen someone do on TV to a man choking in a restaurant. The cube popped out and slid across the floor toward the refrigerator. Even before it hit, Rose screamed, and kept screaming though Emily changed her diaper, sung to her, bounced Rose on her knee, patted her back to burp her like Mommy did, and tried to feed her but Rose spit up the milk so Emily had to change Rose’s jumpsuit again with only two left in the drawer. She even tried to distract Rose by hitting spoons against cups, glasses, and even a pot. Emily was hitting the soup pot with a teaspoon when her dad slammed open the kitchen doors. Emily jolted, almost dropped Rose.
“Where’s your mom?” he yelled, face squashed as Rose’s, red eyes squinting with a look that cut through Emily, who hunched reflexively against the anticipated blow.
“Where the hell is she? It’s three in the fucking morning. What right does she think she has to run off like some goddamn bitch in goddamn…” but his voice trailed off as he stomped back to bed, the kitchen doors slapping back and forth as if he’d just left the saloon, guns blazing. The slam of his bedroom door shot through the house.
Within an hour Emily resigned herself to her sister’s screams and went in the living room so she could sit on the couch and watch TV while rocking the screaming Rose, hoping their dad would sleep through it, which he did for awhile.
“Did you hear me?” he shouted.
Emily jolted awake and tightened her hold on Rose, still crying.
Emily looked at her dad. She felt dopey, wondered if she’d been asleep. She hadn’t heard him come in and didn’t remember anything about the exercise show on the TV.
“Did Mommy call?”
Emily shook her head, so tired of Rose’s crying that she wanted to sit on her and be done with it.
“Has she stopped crying at all?” her dad asked, sitting next to Emily. He muted the TV, his breath a combination of stale beer, coffee and cigarettes, crusty drool to the right of his mouth.
Emily shrugged. “Can I go pee?”
“Go on, Em. I’ll take Rose a minute.” He reached over and lifted Rose to his lap. “You look like you could use a break. Do you know where your mom might be?”
Tired of sound, Emily shook her head, scared something might have happened to her, but too scared to say it for fear the words would make it real.
“What’s the matter?” her dad asked Rose, bouncing her in the air. “Why the hell won’t you shut the fuck up?” he said as sweetly as if he were telling her that she was the most precious baby in the world.
Fear made peeing hard, though maybe it was hard because she’d held it so long. Her dad once told her that she shouldn’t hold it cause she’d have to wear diapers all over again when she got older if she did, but sometimes she was too scared to pee, like when her parents fought or when they were shopping and her mom got mad when Emily asked her to find a bathroom. She’d learned to hold it, though not through the night. Too many times she woke in a wet bed. She was always in trouble when that happened even though she didn’t know she was peeing since she was asleep. Her mom didn’t believe her and made her go to bed thirsty and sometimes hungry the following night so she’d learn. Emily had no idea what she was supposed to learn to keep from peeing in her sleep, but she was trying.
As soon as she returned to the living room, her dad handed Rose back. “Gonna make some calls.” He went in his room and shut the door. When he came out, he told Emily not to worry, that Mommy should be home soon, that she hadn’t been in an accident. Emily was relieved but still wanted to know where Mommy was.
Two days later he filed a missing person’s report. When the officer arrived, Emily brought the screaming Rose in her room and hoped that she wouldn’t be arrested for wetting herself before Mommy left. Emily tried rocking Rose, who pushed at Emily with squat lobster arms and siren wails, so Emily laid Rose on her bed and bounced. Rose looked startled at first, like she might stop crying, so Emily bounced more while telling Rose how much fun this was, how Rose only needed to stop crying and Emily would show her how to bounce too as soon as she learned to walk. But Rose’s moment of silence was merely distraction, a moment of delayed wailing. As sound rushed past Rose’s black hole of a mouth, Emily felt heat shoot through her at the thought that she wouldn’t be allowed to go to school today even though she wanted to play with Carlita more than anything.
She jumped at her dad’s voice, her room too small with him standing between her bed and the door. Scared her wet pajamas had been found, she scooped Rose up, but her dad simply took Rose so Emily could talk to the officer, whose blond hair was slicked in a tight bun. Her lips were pale as two salamanders unlike Mommy’s, which could have been smeared with cherries, but her voice was as gentle as Glenda’s in The Wizard of Oz.
Emily couldn’t answer Officer Lipinski’s questions: where her mom might be, who her friends were, places she might have talked about. When she asked if there was anything Emily knew that might help them find her mom, Emily shook her head. She didn’t want to tell how she had wet herself the night before her mom left, how she saw her mom shake the screaming beet, momentarily mute as a pillow punched into fullness, as their mom repeated Be quiet! Officer Lapinski appeared satisfied and left.
Emily cried herself to sleep that night and woke in pee the next morning. To make Tuesday even worse, Emily forgot her reader and didn’t have lunch for school, though Mrs. Rodriguez gave her money for the cafeteria. At least the rain had stopped and her dad let Emily go to school, the best part of which was riding in the car with Mrs. Rodriguez and Carlita. After Emily told them about her weekend, Mrs. Rodriguez reassured her that her mom would be home soon.
Emily wanted to believe her, but had watched the news with her parents enough to know that missing people were often found dead. If no one knew where her mom was, how could anyone know she’d be back? And Rose wouldn’t stop crying except when she fell asleep, mid-sob. Her dad and Emily had hardly slept for days and he called in sick again today because of Rose. Emily knew he wasn’t the boss so how many days could he do that? Maybe Emily would have to leave school? Maybe she should have left the ice cube in that screaming mouth. At least they’d get some sleep. And her dad could work. And her mom might come home. What if they lost their home? What if her mom never came back?
As mysteriously as she left, Emily’s mother was waiting in front of school as Emily and Carlita walked to Mrs. Rodriguez’ car. Emily looked toward the sound of her name. Six cars away, beyond clamoring kids, her mom stood beside their car. She waved for Emily to join her. Emily hesitated, wanting to go with Carlita and nestle in the comfort of Mrs. Rodriguez’ calm, but was so happy to see her mom that she was running without knowing how her legs knew where she wanted to be before she did.
She collided with Robin, a big boy who struggled with the alphabet. Emily could already read Horton Hears a Who so felt bored as his half of the class learned the ABC song.
“Get off!” Robin yelled.
“Sorry,” Emily said, just wanting to touch her mom, make sure she was real.
Emily leapt in her mom’s arms, but after a tight squeeze her mom said they had to go, Rose would need them. Emily waved to Carlita and Mrs. Rodriguez, still parked and watching her as she and her mom drove past.
“Where were you?” Emily asked, her sight blurred from tears.
“I just needed some sleep.”
“We were so worried. Why didn’t you tell us?”
“So many questions. You’re just like your dad. If you want me to stay, Emily, stop asking these none-of-your-business questions.”
That knot that Carlita had exposed, spontaneously ignited. As it burned, Emily swallowed her other questions like hydrant water so her mom would never leave again. Yet even as she swallowed, Emily feared her dad wouldn’t do the same, that her mom would leave anyway.
In their driveway, even with the windows rolled up, they could hear Rose hollering.
“Emily, stay here and count to one hundred before you come in,” her mom said. “Can you do that?”
“I can’t count that high,” Emily mumbled, still swallowing the rest of her words.
“Then count to ten, ten times.”
Emily could do that. She knew how to count to ten, and began as the floral swish of her mom’s skirt disappeared through the front door. She counted fast, though not so fast that she’d lose track. Carlita could count to ten in Spanish and English and had started to teach Emily to do the same. Emily tried to count in Spanish but had to switch to English at eight since she forgot what came after siete.
After the final round, Emily opened the door and ran across the drive, up the three steps to the front door, Rose screaming, her dad yelling and mom shouting though she couldn’t make out more than random words like “leave” and “ will not” over Rose’s wails. Emily didn’t know why Rose didn’t explode. She’d never heard of anyone crying so long.
Her dad’s face was almost as red as Rose’s, his blue gorged veins straddling his neck like webs strung for the kill. Her mom held Rose at an angle in front of her like a shield rather than a bundled infant. Emily didn’t know whether to run for help or find a way to stop the yelling. In that raveling of tension something ran through Emily as if Rose’s fierce scream had leapt into her before erupting, one mouth no longer enough to release its force.
Emily screamed so loud even her sister drowned in the sound. She screamed like murder, like torturous maiming, like the world would stop in that scream’s wake. And it did. Neighbors listened. Her parents stopped fighting and stared at their pale wild-haired girl, sun streaming past her through the open door, her small mouth releasing a sound so shrill it sent a chill through all who heard it. Even Rose was mute before that sound of jackal kill, of deep night longing, stars exploding.
When she stopped, dogs set up howling. She could hear footsteps running closer on the street, heard a neighbor yell that she was going to call the police. Her mom came over, yanked Emily inside and slapped her so hard that Emily ricocheted off the wall as the door slammed behind her.
She didn’t care. For one sweet moment she’d been free. Whatever else came, Emily knew that she belonged to something bigger than herself or her family, something so loud, so powerful, that everything stopped, even if only for several delicious seconds. Emily now understood why her sister screamed and hoped that she wouldn’t stop till things got a whole lot better.
Elizabeth Weaver focused on writing poetry for her MA and splits her time between the literary, visual and healing arts. The main character of her novel-in-progress has a photoblog at bonegirlpix.wordpress.com and some of Elizabeth’s art and published writing can be viewed at elizabethweaver.wordpress.com.
© 2012, Elizabeth Weaver