Read The secret hum of a daisy Online

Authors: Tracy Holczer

The secret hum of a daisy (page 2)

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Grandma took forever to answer. “Yes. I sent her away.”

I stopped pacing. “Just like that?”

“Nothing is just like that.”

I went to work untying the rope holding down the tarp. I took one last look at the house, picked up the closest box, and headed toward Grandpa's workshop.

4

Getting Stuck

That Way

Later that night,Grandma made threats about my staying in Grandpa's shed, but we didn't know each other well enough for them to have teeth. Short of slapping a padlock on the door, there wasn't a thing she could do. She must have figured it out, too, because after getting rid of a few old containers of paint thinner, a saw blade, and two rat traps, she took her tall self out the door and left me alone.

The workshop wasn't a bad place to stay. There was a wood stove in the corner to keep me warm. Sort of. But at least I knew how to keep it running from the six months I'd had in King City with the Girl Scouts. A bucket took care of the drip from the ceiling. There were glass jars lined along the back wall that held nuts and bolts and other metal doodads in case I needed to fix something. It smelled like wood chips and oiled hinges. I didn't care, though. As long as I had Mama's quilt and sofa, I could stay out here forever.

Best of all, I couldn't hear the river.

Trying to ignore the blasts of rain against the tin roof, I dug a flashlight out of one of the boxes and laid my sleeping bag and pillow on our flower-garden sofa. I took my latest notebook out of my duffel and climbed into the sleeping bag.

I hadn't written anything in the six days since Mama died, and the words were scratching at me in the way they always did. I hoped to find the end of that string inside myself—the string that tended to work itself into knots—and pull it straight. That was how the words felt sometimes as I wrote them down. Like I was taking something scrambled and unscrambling it.

My need for words was because of Mama. Not only did she give me my first journal, but every night of my life, as I'd drift off to sleep, she'd whisper Robert Frost poems into the quiet. I mostly didn't understand what the poems meant, but the rhythms gave me a feeling of comfort and they made me want to come up with my own sets of words. Mama told me I knew a lot for a kid, having moved around as much as we had, and that it was the living more than the poetry that made me smart. The last couple of years, she looked a little sad when she said it, like she wished my smarts had come a different way.

I settled back on the sofa and tried to let my mind drift toward something good. Something that might give me a few minutes of comfort. As I closed my eyes, though, the only thing I could see was Mama when I found her, and I would never write about that. Not ever.

It felt like the knots inside were about to cut off my circulation, so I read the last entry in my composition book to give me a place to start.

Riding the Bus

The smell of plastic seats

and Mr. Jenkins whistling like a bird

instead of saying hello,

his mustache curving around puckered lips.

Which made Lacey and me giggle

every time

because we couldn't picture

a Mrs. Jenkins smooching those lips.

We'd walk to the middle of the bus

making small kissing sounds

against the backs of our hands

while Mr. Jenkins' birdcall

followed us into the smooth green seat.

A good way to start the day.

It was weird to think how the girl who wrote that was gone. Like so gone, I could put up a missing-person poster. Then I realized all ten of my notebooks were Before, and what I was about to write would be After.

I couldn't do it. I wouldn't talk about it or write about it or think about it. Ever. Maybe if I kept After from happening, I could keep Mama close somehow.

I tucked deep into the sleeping bag, scared of the darkness just beyond the reach of my light, and brought Robert Frost with me. I read his words out loud, like Mama always did.

And when I come to the garden ground,

The whir of sober birds

Up from the tangle of withered weeds

Is sadder than any words.

• • •

Eventually the sound of my lonely voice was worse than the quiet, so I put the book away and shut off the flashlight. As I lay there, wide-awake, I felt the knots of my unwritten words pull even tighter.

For the first time, I worried about getting stuck that way.

5

Zombification

After ten daysof trying to talk me into the house, Grandma tossed up her hands and said the word “independent” as though it were a curse word. But Mama always told me I was stubborn as a rusted hinge, so Grandma was no match. She hadn't bothered me yet today, anyway. Maybe she took Sundays off. Besides, I wasn't going anywhere unless it was with Mrs. Greene.

I checked my watch—8:17. Mrs. Greene and Lacey were set to come at nine o'clock. I'd been calling every day and night since I got here just to make sure.

I fished out Mama's cracked eyebrow-plucking mirror and patted my hair. I hadn't washed or brushed it since Mama's funeral. It was a glory of tangles, as Mama would have said. I unzipped her makeup bag and carefully opened her charcoal eye shadow. I touched my finger to the soft powder and rubbed a bit of it under each eye, trying to do it the way Mama had last Halloween when I'd been a zombie.

Next, I took out my biggest pair of jeans and cinched them with a belt. I found a ratty T-shirt Mama had used for sleeping and put it on over my ratty training bra that I'd trained myself right out of at least two months ago. I stood back for the full effect.

I looked awful and I hadn't been eating, and if that wasn't enough to worry Mrs. Greene right into taking me with her, then I'd have to keep going with Plan B—driving Grandma crazy enough that she'd let me go of her own free will.

I practiced my zombie walk, just for good measure.

It was 8:21. Enough time to do another sweep through Mama's room in the house before they got here.

• • •

Not wanting Grandma to see me, I tiptoed around the side of the house and hid behind a thick cedar to make sure she was in the garden. I'd been spying since I got here and I'd discovered a few things that, if I were writing in my notebook, I would write in my notebook. Instead, I had to keep it all floating around my mind, which was stressful. Like standing in a room full of bouncing Ping-Pong balls.

She didn't sleep. This I'd discovered when I tiptoed into the house the first night to snoop and found her reading by the fire in the living room. She asked me to join her, but I didn't. Each night after that, I went later and later, but still found her sitting in the same broken-down rocking chair.She barely left the garden, even when it was cold and misty. She was constantly moving things around—trimming, digging, pulling—and she stormed everywhere she went. I wasn't sure if her storming was her way of being sad, a permanent condition, or something brought on by my being here. Considering she'd had twelve years to get used to Mama's being gone, her not wanting me here seemed a whole lot easier to believe.She didn't talk on the phone or have anyone over or go for walks or make lists or pie like a normal grandma. She didn't ask if I brushed my teeth or combed my hair, if I had on clean underwear, or if I'd eaten the trays of food she'd left for me. She didn't ask about Mama, not that I would have told her, or whether or not I liked oatmeal for breakfast, which I didn't.When she was in the house and not in the garden, she played classical music all day, every day. Violins. Piano. Clarinet. Even in her room. It was soft but always there, like a hissing wind.

I left my boots at the door, per Grandma's standing orders, and climbed the stairs to Mama's room to wait for Mrs. Greene and Lacey. The room was empty except for a twin bed, a nightstand, and a dresser. I sat on the bed and looked at the blank walls, the clean floor, and wondered again if this was how Mama had left it or if Grandma had stripped it down years ago, the way a yellow jacket will strip meat from a bone.

Mama's things were stacked neatly in the closet. A whole life's worth of things. White baby shoes and pointe ballet slippers—all that time watching Lacey dance and Mama never mentioned she'd been a dancer too. There was a Girl Scout vest covered in patches, journals filled with sketches, and all sorts of other stuff that told stories I would never know. A porcelain angel with a broken wing. A small jade elephant. Lavender soap.

The sound of a horse neighing came from outside. I jumped up, worrying one of the horses from next door had gotten into Grandma's garden. I didn't think Grandma would take kindly to a garden-munching horse since she worked so hard to keep things perfect. When I got to the window, though, I was surprised to see Grandma at the fence, patting the horse I'd seen my first day, the pretty whitish-gray one with the round belly. Grandma reached in her sweater pocket, pulled out a huge carrot, and fed it to her in chunks. She wiped at her cheeks, and her shoulders shook a little. I wondered if she was crying and tried not to feel bad for her since this whole sorry mess was her fault. She was the one who kicked out her own daughter when she needed a mother most.

As I watched, a girl came to the fence with someone I took to be a small boy following close behind. The girl looked around my age, bundled in a pink jacket and matching scarf. I moved closer to the window to get a better look at the boy, whose entire face was covered in gauze bandages. He wore a Yankees baseball cap. The girl smiled as she talked to Grandma. The boy turned his head and seemed to look right at me. I stepped back from the window, wondering what was wrong with him. If maybe he was burned or had that weird allergy to light.

After a few seconds passed, I looked again. The kids were leading the horse away from the fence. Grandma stood there, hands on her hips, looking up at me as though I'd seen something I shouldn't have.

• • •

At twelve minutes after nine, the doorbell rang and I almost tripped as I ran down the stairs. I flung the door open and threw myself into Mrs. Greene's cushy arms. She was dressed in one of her usual crazy-colored shirts and I noticed she'd cut off her long dreads. Lacey dug her head in under our wrapped arms, even though she was usually careful not to mess her hair, so that we became a giant blob of sadness.

“I wanted a new look,” Mrs. Greene said, tapping at her tight curls. She had wanted to cut her hair for a long time and Mama had encouraged her, telling her that short hair would show off her beautiful face.

“I like it,” I said.

Grandma came down the hallway wiping her hands on a green-checked towel. She took in my zombification but didn't say anything. If Mrs. Greene noticed, she didn't let on either. A spark of panic lit in my belly that this might not work after all.

“It's nice to see you again, Mrs. Greene,” Grandma said.

Mrs. Greene wrapped her in a cushy hug, too, and Grandma stiffened before patting her a few times on the back. There was no evidence of crying on Grandma's face. Maybe she'd just gotten dirt in her eyes, or an eyelash. Maybe her shoulders had been trembling because she was cold.

Grandma led us into the living room, where at some point she'd started a fire and put out some crackers, cheese, and an apple cut into pieces. She sat on the edge of a chair. I noticed that she'd changed out of her gardening clothes.

“Well, this is just lovely, Mrs. Jessup,” Mrs. Greene said as she looked around the room. She was clearly telling a white lie because the walls were bare and needed a fresh coat of a livelier paint, and the shabby brown sofa sagged in the middle to the point that Mrs. Greene and Lacey were tilted toward each other like the walls of a teepee.

But then I looked past the sofa to the large stone fireplace, where a shiny white wood stove sat gleaming, and to the hardwood beams that went across the high ceilings. I noticed a pretty glass window above the doorway into the hall. The wooden floors were clean and polished. The house was okay, I supposed; it was just Grandma's furniture and walls that needed a makeover.

Grandma fidgeted with one of the blue cloth napkins she'd set out. “I imagine you want to visit with Grace, so I'll just . . .”

“Actually, I'd like to speak with you for a few minutes,” Mrs. Greene said. “Go on, Grace, show Lacey around outside.”

I tried not to smile, thinking my plan might have worked. Why else would she want to talk to Grandma first?

I pulled Lacey toward the door and caught our reflection in the hallway mirror. My ratted-out hair looked ridiculous against Lacey's perfect ringlets. We were like before and after pictures.

Just outside, I shoved on my worn boots, and then we walked down the trail arm in arm, Lacey careful to walk over patches of mud in her perfectly clean and new-looking boots.

“Do you think my plan worked?” I said. I'd talked to Lacey every day, and we'd come up with lots of ideas for Plan B, just in case. First I was going to attack Grandma's cleanliness by tracking mud into the house and mixing up her counter and dish sponges. Then I planned on never eating her food, and instead, if I ever got hungry again, sneaking stuff out of the pantry like peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff. The next part of the plan was “misplacing” things like the can opener and toilet paper. Plus I'd be obnoxious all the time. Lacey thought it was brilliant.

“I hope so,” Lacey said. She flipped my knotted hair. “Nice touch. Where are we going?”

“Over there,” I said, pointing. “That's the shed.”

Lacey's eyes opened wide as she took in the rusted metal roof covered in dead pine needles, the faded green sides and cracked glass window. She looked from the shed to me to the shed again. “Well, if that doesn't make Mom want to take you home today, I don't know what will.”

But she didn't sound so sure.

• • •

Lacey was pretty in all the ways I wasn't. There were those perfect ringlets, plus she was the shade of brown most people worked for all summer. She complained, though, because it made her feel in between the white of her father and the black of her mother, like she didn't know which side to land on. Not that her father hung around long enough to know what color she'd turn out. We had that in common. She liked to remind me that my father wasn't a deadbeat like hers, and so it was different. But then I'd tell her that her father was still out there, so there was a chance she'd know him someday. We'd agree to disagree on who had it worse until it came up again.

I was jealous of her long-legged, graceful ways after eight years in ballet, because I still managed to fall over my own dumb feet from time to time. When we'd hang out in her room, I'd make her lace up her pointe shoes so I could watch her dance and I'd clap and carry on, since that's what Lacey needed. But more than the pirouettes, I liked thethunk, thunk, thunksound the slippers made as she came down off her toes and waddled across the floor in fits of giggles. She had a great sense of style, too, but fretted that nothing ever looked right. I swear, she'd try on all the clothes she owned, every single morning, often leaving us the option of running all the way to school or being late. It annoyed me that her curls survived intact while mine would frizz somewhere along Whimley Road, so every once in a while I'd suggest that, for heaven's sake, pick your clothes the night before! Until I realized no matter how great she looked, that wasn't what she saw in the mirror, so I'd forgive her until the next time I got too annoyed to keep it to myself.

What I thought about most, though, when I thought about Lacey, was how she liked to write awful poems on purpose so we could laugh about how silly they were, or balance a spoon on her nose and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” How she was certain I'd be a famous writer one day, and she would be a famous ballerina. Then we would perform together—her dancing, me reading my words—and people would pay us millions of dollars.

No matter how many times I told her that I never intended to show all kinds of people my writing, she'd just give me apfftand remind me that I had never intended to talk to Denny Thompson either, but I did.

“That's because you forced me,” I'd said.

“Someone had to. Besides, it's not like you're getting married or anything.”

She'd twirled around the room singing some kind of crazy song about Denny and his cute earlobes and then flopped onto the bed, fanning herself. “Come on. Just say it. ‘I love Denny Thompson.'”

“No,” I'd said, arms crossed. But later that night, I wrote it in tiny letters on a smidge of paper and showed it to her. Then we burned it in the fireplace.

Lacey didn't really care if I said things out loud, wrote them down, or kept them hidden. Being quiet was a part of me, and she liked it just as much as she liked my complimenting her, or my talent for making the perfect bowl of popcorn. Since she was the reason we did things like eat blue lollipops and stick out our tongues at old Mr. Villanueva next door, who'd laugh like he'd been tickled, or climb the tree in the backyard in protest of lima beans, I figured we were a good balance for each other.

“You worry too much,” she'd always said, putting her finger right between my eyebrows where I had a permanent crease. Mama said I'd been born pensive, which I had to look up. It meant I was always thinking deeply. Which was true. I liked thinking things through. All the way through from start to finish. Sometimes I even wrote down all the possibilities in these little bubble maps like we learned to do with essays. Doing that made me feel safe from pesky surprises. I figured one of us had to be this way since Mama was always flying off. Since it was just the two of us, that left me.

But along with Mama, Lacey made me see there was more to living than trying to feel safe all the time. Didn't mean I could do it. But I'd tried to think less. To plan less. To just let myself be in the tree protesting lima beans and not thinking about all the ways I might fall out of the tree or how Mama might be upset.

She was the first best friend I'd ever had. There'd never been anyone like her.

• • •

Lacey sat down on the flower-garden sofa and looked around. “I knew you were stubborn, Grace. But jeez.”

“I'm not being stubborn.”