What Happened to My Sisterby Elizabeth Flock
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This stand-alone, follow-up to Me & Emma is a dazzling novel of two unforgettable families bound together by their deepest secrets and haunted pasts—perfect for fans not only of Me & Emma but also Ellen Foster and The Lovely Bones.
Nine-year-old Carrie Parker and her mother, Libby, are making a fresh start in the small town of Hartsville, North Carolina, ready to put their turbulent past behind them. Violence has shattered their family and left Libby nearly unable to cope. And while Carrie once took comfort in her beloved sister, Emma, her mother has now forbidden even the mention of her name.
When Carrie meets Ruth, Honor, and Cricket Chaplin, these three generations of warmhearted women seem to have the loving home Carrie has always dreamed of. But as Carrie and Cricket become fast friends, neither can escape the pull of their families’ secrets—and uncovering the truth will transform the Chaplins and the Parkers forever.
ISBN-13: 978-0345524430/Published by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House/Publication Date: 2012-08-07
Original Paperback/304 pages/US $15.00
Buy the Book
“Elizabeth Flock has created a young heroine who will win your heart. Caroline Parker is fierce, bright, and endlessly lovable. Amid this well-plotted mystery, there’s a story of great hope, survival, and resilience.”
– Julianna Baggott, bestselling author of Girl Talk and Which Brings Me To You
“Readers who loved Me & Emma will pounce on the sequel.” – Booklist
“From the opening sentence of Elizabeth Flock’s exceptional new novel, I was at its tender mercies. I kept asking myself, How did she accomplish this storytelling feat? [What Happened To My Sister is] heart-wrenching and funny in unexpected ways, beautifully told and so satisfying. These memorable, lovable characters jumped off the page and have lodged themselves in my heart.”
–Elinor Lipman, New York Times bestselling author of The Inn At Lake Devine and Then She Found Me
“Haunting, harrowing, and exquisitely told, Flock’s brilliant, bold novel is all about imagination, grief, and one stunning young narrator’s struggle to transcend an unimaginable past in order to carve out a future. Absolutely unforgettable.”
– Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You
“What Happened To My Sister is a gripping read that is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. Flock masterfully combines a deeply affecting family drama with relentless suspense. You’ll find yourself reading late into the night to find out what life has in store for the indomitable Carrie Parker.”
– Heather Gudenkauf, New York Times bestselling author of The Weight of Silence
“[Elizabeth] Flock conjures the world of young Carrie with the pathos and heartbreak of Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club. You will not put it down.”
– Antoinette van Heugten, USA Today bestselling author of Saving Max
“Carrie Parker is one of the toughest, scrappiest, most endearing child protagonists I’ve ever encountered in a novel. I fell in love with her immediately, and also with the rest of this wonderful cast of survivors—compelling characters the world has kicked hard, but who rise up and become stronger at those broken places. I was rooting for every one of them and haven’t stopped thinking of them since.”
– Katrina Kittle, author of The Kindness of Strangers and The Blessings of the Animals
If you’re reading this, I must be dead and maybe you’re going through this notebook hunting for clues. It always bugs me when I’m looking real hard for something and after a long time it turns up right under my nose where it was the whole time, so I’m going to tell you right here in the beginning all I know for certain. It may or may not make sense right now but who knows, maybe it will later on.
The first certain thing I know is that Richard’s not ever gonna hurt Momma again. The second thing is that I had a sister named Emma. Here’s what else I know: we were moving to my grandmother’s house but now we’re not. Momma says in the river of life I’m a brick in her pocket, and I’m not sure what that has to do with her changing her mind, but Momma is most assuredly not driving in the direction of Gammy’s house. So until I figure it all out, the number one most important thing you need to know so you can tell everbody is that I, Caroline Parker, am not crazy. I don’t care what anybody says—I’m not. I swear. People think I cain’t hear them say things when I’m in town like shh, shh, shh—there goes that Parker girl bless her crazy little heart but I’m not deaf, y’all. I’m just a kid. I’m not peculiar or crazy as an outhouse rat. And I’m gonna prove it once and for all. You wait and see. They’ll be lining up to say sorry and they’ll ask for a hug or something embarrassing like that but the best part’ll be when everbody finally admits they’re wrong about me. I’m gonna do ever-thing right from now on. I’m gonna be like the other kids. I’m gonna be the best daughter in the whole wide universe—so good Momma’s not going to believe it. Just you wait and see.
Right now Momma and me are riding in our old beat-up station wagon with all we got to our names stuffed into Hefty sacks in the way-back. Momma has an old-fashioned square little bitty suitcase she calls her travel case locked up next to her in the front seat. I never saw it before in my life. Heck, I never knew it existed till we lit out of town. She must have thought I’d go breaking into it if I’d found it back at the house and truth to tell I probably would have because I love little bitty things of any kind. What I dearly love more than anything in the universe is little bitty animals. We don’t have any pets but I’m hoping that’ll change in our new life because I want a dog so bad and I’m thinking if I’m real good and I never say the name Emma and I do ever-thing Momma wants she’ll give in and we’ll get a puppy. I promised Momma she wouldn’t have to do a dang thing because I’d take care of it but ever-time I bring it up she says I’d probably kill it along with ever-thing else. But I swear I wouldn’t. I’d take perfect care of her. I’d name her Pip. Short for Pipsqueak. Along with boring stuff like clothes, I own this notebook I like to draw and write in. My favorite thing is making lists. I can make a list out of anything really. You name it and I’ll make a list out of it. It’s something else. That’s what Mr. Wilson our old neighbor says about my list-making abilities. That’s something else, he said when I showed him how I was making a list of his guns and bullets and holsters. But that was before I used his gun to shoot Richard and now I ain’t allowed to mention Mr. Wilson or guns anymore.
What I Own Personally
1. Two pairs of shoes if you count flip-flops, which I do.
2. One polka-dot dress I hate because it’s a polka-dot dress for goodness’ sake and it’s a dress and no one wears dresses to school if they can help it. I cain’t recall when I ever wore it outside of church, back when we used to go to church.
3. A button-down shirt Momma calls a blouse that I’ve hardly ever worn on account of it being fancy and I haven’t ever done anything even close to fancy because we’re dirt-poor.
4. A book of words with the title Vocabulary 101.
5. Two pairs of shorts and one pair of blue jeans that don’t fit no more.
6. Five old T-shirts from the Goodwill truck that used to come a couple times a year to sell things in the lot out back of Zebulon’s.
I just turned nine. One year from double digits. One more year till I’m a young lady—that’s what my teacher in my old town, Toast, where we lived before moving to Hendersonville with Richard, used to call the older kids in school. The little ones—the single digits—she just called them kids. I wish I could be ten back in Toast just to hear Miss Ueland call me young lady. My birthday must have slipped Momma’s mind because the first thing she said to me two days ago was “Go on get dressed I need you to run to the post office and get a change of address form.” I waited a second just in case she remembered what day it was but when she told me to quit lollygagging and move my lazy behind I knew it’d just be another regular day. I walked to town and when I was sure no car was coming in either direction I sang myself the Happy Birthday song real low. I doubled up and sang the “smell like a monkey” version too.
But our plans changed yesterday, after Momma went to use the pay phone in town. When she left the house the plan was to go stay with my momma’s momma, Gammy, but when Momma came back home, all the sudden we weren’t. Just like that. She said she wouldn’t go where she wasn’t wanted. Even though I didn’t say so, I know just what she meant. That’s how come I know the outside of our house better than the inside. With my eyes closed I could find the little hole behind the lichen and vines that grow over the mossy old tree stump out back in the holler. I know which rocks to step on if you want to cross the creek and which ones only look like they’ll hold steady. I could draw from memory the dead tree trunk crossing the path between Mr. Wilson’s and our house. To me it always looked like the thicket’s taking that tree back to where it came from, with moss over most all of it, vines choking it to crumbling in parts, and a big opening where a gnome would live if gnomes were real and lived in piney woods. I liked it better outside anyway. I pretended little bitty forest creatures were watching, looking out for me and Emma. Whoops. I mean, looking out for me. I figured they liked for me to be there because they knew I’d never let anything hurt them, no sirree I wouldn’t and that’s a fact. Whenever I went back inside the house, when the screen door slammed and Momma looked up from whatever she was doing, she’d see it was me and the air would go out of her like a day-old birthday balloon. Then she’d say oh, it’s you and turn back to her chores. I don’t know who else she thought was gonna be coming through our door.
“Trouble,” Emma would say. “Momma looks scared ever-time the door opens because she’s used to Trouble coming through it.”
I’d tell her, “But we come through it all the time and we ain’t Trouble.”
“You and me are small,” Emma’d say, looking up from playing with the dirty old Barbie doll who lost her hair before we found her, “we’re small but as far as Momma’s concerned we’re Trouble.”
That’s Emma for you—always knowing more than me about pretty much ever-thing that matters. If she were here I bet she’d probably even know where Momma and me are moving to. All I know for certain is it’ll be a place we’ll be wanted. What with us fixing to leave town for good there just wasn’t time for a birthday fuss anyway. I don’t mind. Really I don’t. Emma would have remembered, though. I know, I know—like Momma said, she ain’t real. She was made-up, I’m supposed to say. But if she’d been real—if I’d really had a sister named Emma—I bet she’d have made me a real nice daisy-chain necklace with White Rain hair spray all over it so it’d last forever. Hair spray makes things last to infinity, just so you know. I’m not kidding.
We’re starting fresh. That’s what Momma says. To get ready for our drive Momma even cleaned out the crumbs, empty RC Cola cans, and chew-tobacco tins left over from Richard so the inside of the car would look spiffy. When she’s in a good mood Momma says words like that. Spiffy. Or Jeez Louise. Jiminy Cricket. And when something surprises her, she says well I’ll be. I helped her get the old car ready and when I opened the ashtray up front and asked what all I should do with the cigarette butts crammed in on top of one another she said well I’ll be, that sure is one full ashtray in need of emptying all right. Once I even heard her say jeepers. That was when there was a long line of ants marching into our kitchen outside. Momma’s mostly been in a good mood getting ready to start fresh. That’s also on account of her feeling loads better, I bet. Today Momma’s neck bruise is about as wide as the rope Mr. Wilson tied his dog Brownie to the tree with. It’s been fading pretty slow but at least it’s thinner now. Last week it was wide as a hand, the exact shape of Richard’s hand. In back, where his fingers dug in good and hard, it’s red mixed with black but the blue is turning the same yellow ringing the mark on her left cheek. When a bruise gets yellow that’s good news. It means your skin’s trying to be normal again. Momma hates it when I watch her closely. She says I been doing it all my life but I’m good at pretending I don’t do it no more because I once overheard her telling Richard I study her like I was gonna be quizzed. She said to him it makes my skin crawl, her looking at me like that. So ever since I make myself think about other things when I’m around her so I won’t make her skin crawl. That’s where my vocabulary book comes in handy. I found that the best way to memorize a new word is to squeeze your eyes closed and picture it being spelled out on a chalkboard. Now, if Momma looks like I’m making her skin crawl I shut my eyes and pretend I’m working on vocabulary. It’s worked real good so far because I usually end up leafing through the book (to make it look real) and landing on words I really truly do want to learn. Peculiar. Plethora. My mind wanders real easy, though, so before long I find myself wondering if Momma smiled much when she was a kid. Penultimate. I wonder if she knew how to dance. If she liked candy. Palatial. Did she love my real daddy when they got married? Puny. Did he carry her in through the front door after their wedding? Were they happy when they found out they were gonna have me? Plebeian. Does she know who killed my daddy? Why’d she have to go and marry Richard? I watch her close in case any of it comes out and if it does I write about it so I won’t forget. You never know: she might do or say something that will be a clue about her life. I’ve gotten good at watching from the corner of my eye so it looks like I’m staring straight ahead but I’m really not. Like right now, for instance. Right now it’s easy because Momma’s got to keep her eyes fixed on the road to starting fresh. But to start fresh we’ve first got to pass through Hendersonville to get to the interstate.
People I See on Our Way out of Town for Good
1. Mr. Zebulon is standing with his arms crossed in front of the hardware store. I looked straight at him and he looked away.
2. Miss Lettie who cuts ladies’ hair in her kitchen is about to get in her car when she sees us and freezes, still holding her key out, like the game Red Light, Green Light.
3. Mr. Willie Harding from the lumber mill watches our car closely then spits chew tobacco on the ground, showing off he can make a big gob of spit, I guess.
Not a one of them waves goodbye. I guess it figures. Ever-one stopped smiling at me after I went and killed Richard and I cain’t blame them no sirree— who smiles at a murderer? That’s what they call me behind my back. Murderer. They whisper the word but it still reaches my hearing and part of me thinks they know it. Psycho murderer. Now, as we’re driving down Main Street this one last time, they stand there blinking at us, watching our car move along like we’re in a slow-motion movie. I should’ve brushed my hair. Momma calls it a rat’s nest. I close my eyes and make believe I have silky long pretty hair and we’re in a parade like they have on Fourth of July and I’m in a dress that has a bow and sparkles and I’m sitting high up on a chair tied good and tight in the back of a shiny red pickup truck and there’s tons of people from all over waving little flags, waiting to get a look at me and when our truck comes in sight ever-body cheers and claps because I just won a contest that makes me Miss Hendersonville, Queen of North Carolina. So even though when I open my eyes and I see that I’m not in a parade, I got a rat’s nest in my hair, and not a one person’s cheering or clapping in real life, I smile and wave anyway. They’ll remember me all right: to them I’ll always be the child who shot her stepdaddy and smiled good and wide about it.
Momma says there’s nothing but cold stares and loose lips in Hendersonville. I’m writing down what it’s like there in case I read this when I’m in an old folks’ home and I cain’t remember anything about anything. Maybe my grandkids’ll ask me about it and I don’t want to be the kind of granny who cain’t answer even easy questions like What was Hendersonville like? so I’m making a record of it. In Hendersonville they don’t honk at you but for waving. A little toot on the horn and your name’s hollered out like you been lost to the world even if you just saw the person five minutes before. If a dog runs away in Hendersonville ever-one’ll know where he belongs and how to get him there. When someone’s sick, ladies bring food till the sick person’s back on their feet. Ever-one talks ever- thing to death in Hendersonville. Trouble is, most times there isn’t much to talk about so when Mrs. Ferson’s hiccups didn’t stop for three weeks it was big news. Ever-body had an idea of how to get rid of them. She drank water backwards; she hopped ten times on her right foot, ten times on her left, then swallowed whiskey real quick; she even tried to stand on her head (Mr. Ferson drew the line at that which was too bad because we’d placed penny bets on whether a headstand would do the trick and plus who wouldn’t want to see Mrs. Ferson standing on her head?). Nothing worked until out of nowhere Levon the knife sharpener knocked on her door one day and told her to drink quinine holding the glass in her left hand while her right arm was up like she was waving at someone a long ways away. Sure enough Mrs. Ferson’s hiccups stopped right then and there. I wrote the whole thing down in case I ever got hiccups lasting three weeks.
Levon’s Hiccup Remedy
1. Get quinine
2. Pour it in a glass
3. Hold it in left hand
4. Put right arm up in the air
Anyway, ever-one in town also knew about Mr. Zebulon’s missing right pinkie and how the stump itched if it was going to rain. And ever-one—I’m not kidding—ever-one knew about Richard, my stepdaddy. Funny thing is, Richard was one of those people ever-one wishes they didn’t know. So when he got killed last month the whole place near exploded like firecrackers in a dry barn. Then, when word spread that Sheriff had Momma and me in for questioning, it was almost like birds were flying stories about us from house to home same way they did in Snow White when they flew her clothes to her in their little beaks. The talk never stopped. Talk talk talk talk. Momma’s beatin’ marks were real bright, like someone used black and blue markers to paint her cheek and draw a ring around her neck. After I shot Richard dead, Momma made me stop going to town for supplies. She said we had enough in the cupboard and icebox anyway. People drove real slow past the path leading from the blacktop to our front porch. With us not driving anywhere the grass started growing back in the two lines of dirt the tires used to make. One night two boys from the next county over burnt a cross on the dirt in front of our house because someone told them a white man’d been killed by a black woman. Momma called that the final straw. She couldn’t take it anymore, said we had to leave. I hope you’re happy, she said to me more than once after that but I don’t know what I’m supposed to be happy about so I don’t answer her but to say yes, ma’am, under my breath in case that’s the answer she’s looking for. We packed up sacks of what we were keeping but it was so boring and Momma was crabby the whole time saying things like pitch it and don’t even think of sneaking that into the keep pile, so every once in a while I would sneak out the back door to the creek on the far edge of the holler. The creek is what made Emma real for me. I been real good about not saying her name too often so far. But I cain’t not say it when I’m talking about our creek. The two are tied together in my mind like peas and carrots. Emma loved that creek more than anything and I do believe it loved her back. It’s where I could always find her if she went missing. She’d set on the big smooth rock on the far side and poke at underwater things with a switch, her lips moving like she was telling secrets to the water. If you held a gun to my head right now on this very day I would still swear she was real. I’d be whupped bloody if Momma knew I thought that but dangit, this is my notebook and I need to write the truth. And that’s the truth. Momma says that Emma was just an imaginary sister I made up after my real daddy died, but Emma was real, I could swear it. It got confusing on account of Mr. White at the drugstore back in Toast asking me how’s Emma doing? And Miss Mary working the cash register always inviting Emma to come and visit with her even though Momma’d say she was sick of humoring me about Emma ’cause Emma’s something not very humorous. Anyway, I take care not to mention Emma’s name in front of Momma since Richard died, and even in my pretend world Emma mostly stays outside, out of Momma’s sight line much as possible so they won’t overlap in my brain. Like when we hauled out all our stuff for a yard sale on one of our last days. I wanted to put up signs about the sale in town but Momma said folks would find it without us having to say a word. She said the smell of us fixing to leave would reach them like how hot biscuits tell kids when to come in for supper. Sure enough, right when we put out the last of the chipped plates Gammy gave Momma and my real daddy when they got married, ever-body started up the dirt path like they’d been watching us the whole time which they probably were. I heard someone say they were gonna tear down our house after we left on account of no one wanting to live in a place where a man got murdered even if he did have it coming. We watched them pick through our stuff and somehow we knew no one wanted to buy a dang thing . . . they just wanted to look at us like we were zoo monkeys. They turned ever- thing inside out and upside down. Some tall string bean giant man I’d never seen before held up a glass pitcher and asked Momma how much she wanted for it and Momma said best you got and looked away. When she wiped her eye while she was fishing in her coin purse for change I couldn’t right tell if she got something caught up in there or if she was crying. I never seen Momma cry ever—even when her shoulder got popped out of its socket the time Richard came home and dinner wasn’t ready and he dragged her over to the stovetop to make sure she got it done. Momma always had dinner ready and waiting from then on.
“Look how he’s holding the pitcher, Momma,” I whispered.
I wanted him to get in trouble like me and Emma surely would have if we’d gone and held the pitcher that way. I wanted Momma to grab it back out of his hands. I wanted him to get skinned alive like we sure as hoot would’ve been. But she looked away. We watched the Jolly Green Giant carry away the pitcher, dangling it from his fingers. She’d brought it out from the kitchen hugging it to her chest and for a split second I thought maybe she was gonna change her mind about sellin’ it because she didn’t put it on the table right away. She held it gentle to her chest, like it was a hurt dog or something. I pretended I hadn’t seen her do that because something told me she’d want that un-seen. She never said so but I know Mr. White gave that pitcher to her and Daddy for their wedding. The three of them went to school together when they were kids growing up in Toast. Momma kept that pitcher high up on a shelf where no one could get at it. We never used it ever. It sparkled so clean and pretty like it just came from the store. The pitcher lasted longer than both Momma’s marriages.
Momma never went into town because Richard used to say a woman’s place is in the home so she didn’t know half the people going through our things. I knew lots of them though. Mrs. Dilley was flipping through Daddy’s old Johnny Mathis records in between staring holes in Momma’s head. I guess Momma noticed it too ’cause she said take a picture it lasts longer under her breath on her way up the porch steps in the one dress she owned. When I asked her why she was in her Sunday best she told me we might be the talk of the town but we got our dignity. Momma’s the most beautiful woman I ever saw, even with her black eye and cracked lips and a huge bear-claw-like mark on her arm. If you saw her all done up like she used to get for Daddy, you’d swear you’d seen her in the movies. Her skin is smooth without a single solitary freckle. Her mouth looks like an ad on the TV for lipstick. But it’s really her eyes that make people stop and stare. They’re big and blue (extra-blue when she’s mad or been crying) and in school when we got to the chapter on Egypt it was like they’d gone and taken a picture of my momma even though it said Cleopatra was her name. Back in Toast, Mr. White used to say she’d been the belle of the ball in high school and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him a bell isn’t what anyone would rightly call beautiful so I just smiled and said yes, sir. Mr. White said you be sure to take care of your momma, y’hear, when I went to tell him Richard was moving us to Hendersonville. You’ll be fine out there, he said that day, but your mother needs someone looking out for her so you be sure to do that, understand? I said yes but I didn’t really understand. Momma had a husband looking out for her, didn’t she? That’s what I thought at the time. It didn’t take long for me to see what Mr. White meant but by then it was nearly too late.
The people crowded at our things for sale like they were made of gold and found in a treasure chest. A man with a mustache curling up at the ends like a cartoon bad guy was at Momma to sell him the kitchen chairs with plastic seats for a good price. She waved him off and walked away but then he jingled change in his pocket and called to Momma that she drove a hard bargain like it was a compliment but she didn’t look like she took it that way. After he loaded the third chair into the back of his truck and drove off, Momma called him a cheap son of a bitch. Thing is, he was dressed fancier than I ever saw in person—he had spit-shined black shoes without a speck of dirt on them and pants ironed so hard they had a line down the middle—and there he was jawing at Momma to lower the price from three dollars a chair to two. His truck looked good as new—no mud on the tires even. Momma said he probably didn’t use it for work. It was just for show. If I had a car to drive for show it sure as heck wouldn’t be a truck. And then something real weird happened. It started when Mr. Wilson went and paid ten dollars for the three-legged table we had to prop up with a tree branch. Momma looked at him hard and I heard her say something about charity case but Mr. Wilson bought the table for ten dollars anyway, saying he’d be back later to pick it up. Momma watched him go and then looked over at me like I had something to do with it but before she could say why Mr. Wilson buying the kitchen table made her mouth go tight, Mr. Zebulon with no pinkie finger handed her a five-dollar bill for a beat-up cookbook that had Momma’s loopy handwriting all through it, like “a TBS more of butter” and “set oven to 375 not 350.” Mr. Zebulon walked away without taking any of the change Momma tried to hand back. Five dollars for one book! It made Momma madder, though. I could tell by the way she shoved the five dollars into her money pocket—she crumpled it like she was going to throw it in the trash bin then jammed it in all while she was shaking her head. She clicked her tongue to the roof of her mouth to make the tsk sound she does when she don’t like what’s what. Then the men who played guitars at Zebulon’s every Tuesday started coming up the hill, trudging along the dirt lines everyone’s car tires made into a driveway again. It was like the Civil War picture book Daddy’d kept by his bedside— they looked like those army men marching their bloody ripped-up selves home after the war. Mr. Harvey tipped his hat at Momma and put down two dollar bills for a Bic pen that was out on the table by mistake. Right behind him was Mr. Jim, who’s colored black and who never once opened his mouth to sing or talk but played his guitar so good at Zebulon’s the other men would stop and let him take long parts of songs, his hands flying up and down on the strings like they couldn’t make up their mind where to be. He was the best player of all them—I could tell by the way ever-body watched him play. One time I saw Richard in town on a day I’d thought he’d be at work at the mill—I didn’t yet know he went and got hisself laid off . He didn’t see me because he was across the street going into the Fish-N-Fowl where you could find fish bait or a wallet or a head of lettuce—ever-thing got sold at Olson’s Fish- N- Fowl. The sign out front said if it ain’t here, it ain’t near. I didn’t want him to see me so I crunched myself small between parked cars and waited for him to come back out and get gone. That’s how I came to see it clear as day: Richard punched the door open like he was a dang movie cowboy ready for a shoot-out. He was so mad he wasn’t paying attention and walked head-on into Mr. Jim. I held my breath, knowing nothing good was gonna come from that, and sure enough, Richard looked up, pulled his head back like a rattlesnake before it bites, and I wanted so bad to yell out for Mr. Jim to run away but it was too late. Richard spit right into Mr. Jim’s face and said get the f—— out of my way, n——, you know what’s good for you boy so loud I could hear it from beside Mrs. Cleary’s station wagon where I was hiding. Richard used the f-word right out where anyone could hear! Normally he just used it hollering at Momma and me. Mr. Jim stepped aside for Richard to pass and it wasn’t till I was halfway to home when it occurred to me Mr. Jim didn’t hurry to wipe the spittle off his face like I would’ve. But I guess Mr. Jim knew Richard right well by then and expected about as much as Richard gave him. Mr. Jim must’ve made a lot of money playing his guitar because there he was standing in front of Momma at our yard sale putting a ten-dollar bill on top of Mr. Harvey’s ones. I bet Mr. Jim’s the happiest of all that Richard’s dead. Momma wouldn’t say how much we made from the sale but I figured when she wasn’t looking I could count it. I knew she was hiding it in a rolled-up pair of socks held tight by a rubber band I used to flick at crickets. If I’d written the number down I’d remember but I didn’t so all I can say is that it’s so much money I could only get the band around twice, not three times like I wanted. While I was at it, I put the bills in order, all with presidents facing right-side up. Ones, then fives, then tens, then the one twenty-dollar bill we got. Momma’d call me crazy for doing that. She’d say my neatness is another sign I’m loony tunes and that I’ll end up talking in tongues and polishing the kitchen floor with a toothbrush at all hours. I say no I won’t but if I did, well what’s wrong with that? Wouldn’t you want polished floors? Not that I would polish them with a toothbrush a’course but if I did, wouldn’t that be a good thing?
This morning, before leaving the house forever, Momma said: “If there’s anything you need to do before we go, you best go on and do it.” She went inside for one last check that we got ever-thing worth taking but I didn’t. Out front by the old tire Momma planted little daisies in is the rock I used to hide messages under when I pretend-played with Emma. It don’t look like all the other rocks around here—they’re all crummy brown, dusty and rough. In my head Emma called them ordinary. My favorite rock is smooth and when it’s wiped clean it’s almost snow-white with thin rivers of gray running all through it. It’s about the size of the ball we played Spud with at recess. I have no earthly idea how it ended up here but it’s plain to see it ain’t from here, no way. We had a system, me and Emma. If I was outside and Emma was inside, she’d put a note saying “Good” if the coast was clear to come on inside. “Bad” meant stay away long as you can. Usually that meant until the beer put Richard to sleep still setting upright in his chair, or like when he gave whippings. He always whipped with the buckle end of his belt because it was his goal in life to get me to cry and I never would even though it hurt real bad. You never saw girls as stubborn as me and Emma. From out by the rock I could hear Momma’s steps on the wood flooring coming back down from checking upstairs so I knew my days as a Hendersonvillian were fading away. One last time I lifted up the message rock and it’d been a while since we’d used it so I jumped a little in my skin when a million bugs skittered off to other rocks, looking up at me ripping the roof off their house. If I spoke bug I’d tell them I didn’t mean them no harm. After they ran for cover, I shook the dirt off the folded-up notepaper to find “Bad.” I snuck it to my pocket for what I don’t know and put the rock back exactly where it was but them bugs didn’t know they could come on home and maybe they never will and maybe little bitty baby bugs got lost from their mommas and they’ll crawl around forever, crying little bug tears, homesick for their old rock and the way it used to be, and then they’ll die alone with no family or they’ll be squished on account of them not having a rock-roof over their heads. I wished I could find them and shoo them back. I wanted to cry I got to feeling so bad. The screen door slammed behind Momma who hollered for me to make haste. She jingled the car keys and lowered her sunglasses from the top of her head. Then a miracle of gargantuan, ginormous proportions happened. I’m listing it as Miracle Number One. We’re about to get in the car when Momma squints at me over the peeling paint car hood and says: “Why you riding in back?”
“I always ride in back,” I say. Sometimes out of nowhere she likes to test me, see if I’ll follow rules, and I didn’t want to fail like I always do. Because I’m dumb. It’s okay—ever-one knows I’m stupid. Once I heard Momma tell Gammy I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. So I thought Momma was tricking me to see if I’d follow the rule to always set in back.
“Best you get on up here with me,” Momma says.
She says it like it isn’t the first time I ever rode in front. She says it like it isn’t my dream come true. I been wanting to ride up front forever. Soon as I come to my senses I say: “Really?”
“Come on, now,” Momma says. “Let’s not make a federal case of it.”
I hurry in case she decides to change her mind while she’s lighting her cigarette. Then, just before the tires push off the crunchy rocks onto the paved road, Momma turns in her seat to face me. She blows smoke out the side her mouth like Puff the Magic Dragon, points her cigarette in the V of her fingers at me, and lays down the law: “From here on out, soon as we pull out of this no-good godforsaken town, I don’t want to hear anything more about anything. I’m laying down the law. You understand me? I don’t want to take any of that old shit with me. You listening? Look at me—I’m serious as a heart attack. You understand? We’re leaving it all behind. You hear me?”
“And by the way, you haven’t said it in a while,” she says—figuring rightly that I’d know what she was talking about.
“Emma was made-up,” I say. I know the words by heart.
“Keep going . . .”
“I pretended I had a sister but I really didn’t. I made her up. Emma was made-up.” Like I said, I know the words by heart.
“I don’t hear a lot of feeling behind those words—you’re sounding like a robot,” she says.
“No, Momma, I know I made her up,” I say, not wanting her mood to go bad like it can do if you’re not real careful.
“Yes, ma’am, I promise,” I say.
Her eyes went to slits like they do when she’s making sure I’m not being smart with her, so I knew yes, ma’am, was definitely the answer she needed to hear. But I’m still not a hundred percent sure if anything about anything also means the murder. If that’s what she was talking about she would’ve said that instead of anything about anything, right? I’m trying to think up a list of what she wouldn’t want to take along with us but other than Richard (who’s dead anyway so he couldn’t come with us even if she wanted him to) and Emma, I got nothing to write down. So it’s not really a list, it’s more like two names taking up space in my notebook. Momma turns back to the steering wheel, puts the car in Drive, and says, “We’re turning the page, Caroline Parker.”
And then Miracle Number Two comes along and near to blows my head clean off my neck. Completely out of nowhere and for the first time in the history of the world, Momma pats my knee. First she lets me sit in the front seat. Then she pats my knee. Momma doesn’t ever touch softly so I figure it’s best not to call attention to it in case it scares her from ever doing it again. I hold real still. I try to breathe through my nose so my body doesn’t move but you got to have a big nose to get enough air in and my nose is little. It’s a kid’s nose. I hope when it grows it’ll end up looking like Momma’s. I cain’t recall what Daddy’s nose looked like but I bet it wasn’t all that bad because people used to say he was a real catch. After a second or two, the pat on the knee ended even though I stayed as frozen as ice in Alaska. When she checked left-right-left to see if it was safe to pull out of our dirt driveway I looked over at her real quick and I swear on a stack of Bibles I caught her smiling big—showing her teeth even. Momma hasn’t smiled since . . . well, I cain’t remember the last time I saw Momma smile. “Here we go,” she said. And there it was again, Momma smiling bright as day right out in the open.
That’s most certainly Miracle Number Three.
Excerpted from What Happened to My Sister by Elizabeth Flock Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Flock. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.