The morning after Theron leave us, I start talking this way—like no one else I’d ever known in Quincely, New Hampshire. Whenever Mama heard me, she look like she just ate a purple plum and didn’t know what to do with the memory of it, all sweet and sour mixed together in her mouth. But the only thing she say was that miracles are what’s left after everything else is used up, and one morning I’d wake up and talk just like her River again.
I noticed that she never say one day a miracle would bring Theron back to us. Maybe that was too much to hope for. Theron leave us in early March, and the hole that remain grew wider and deeper and more raggedy as each day pass.
By mid-May he still hadn’t returned, but I found out there were worse things than talking peculiar. I could have been that new girl, Meadow Lark, with the popped-out eye and her lurchy way of walking. She have a pretty name but it was one of the only things pretty about her. In homeroom she stood up and introduce herself, just like everyone had to do on their first day. Meadow Lark Frankenfield smiled when she say her name, not like most new kids, who stoop and mumble, or look at their shoes and turn red, and then collapse into their seats and cross their arms. Meadow Lark kept standing, and touch her blue-frame glasses as if she expected questions. But no one ask her anything.
Most kids probably couldn’t have told you her real name thirty seconds later, but by F period, just before lunch, they were already calling her Frankenfemme. Daniel Bunch started that. He say it was a French word. I don’t know French, but you could tell he’d already drawn out a space and put Meadow Lark where she belong in it.
Anytime a new kid start, everyone who is already here rubs the smudges off themselves and act like the spoons from the good drawer, a little shinier than the everyday ones. Sonya Mittell bounces her ponytail higher, DeWayne Green puts more drama into his jokes, and Martin Delboni hunches deeper into his shoulders. Teachers talk like radio ads and show more gum when they smile and call on everybody, not just the usual kids. Everyone brightens up when a new kid start, because they want the new kid to go home and say what a great school it is and what interesting and shiny people go there.
But for Meadow Lark Frankenfield, that didn’t happen. If it didn’t happen the first day, it wouldn’t ever happen. Something was wrong with her—not just her popped-out eye, but with her whole body. She walked as if her leg was glued on backward, like a car rolling along with a flat tire.
I was eating lunch in the quad and watching her that first day, when Daniel Bunch come by.
“I see you looking at Frankenfemme,” he say, sounding so proud of the name he’d given her. No one but Daniel ever talked to me at lunch anymore, though you could never call what we say much of a conversation. “Taking notes?”
I had just bitten into my sandwich when he come along. I looked down at my sneakers and chewed, wishing he’d just go away. I didn’t want to see him, and I didn’t want to see that cast on his arm because it reminded me too much of Theron.
But he stopped in front of me, and I felt his stare. “You two have a lot in common, she being the same kind of trash as you.”
Then he got up real close to my face and whispered, “You know what your brother is, right?”
Keep looking down, River, I told myself, as the sandwich in my hand quivered. I thought of all the things Daniel might call Theron—a runaway, a coward, a fugitive—or maybe he was about to call him trash, too. I’d heard all of them, but I wouldn’t have called my brother any of them.
“I’ll tell you,” Daniel say. “A wimp.”
He is not a wimp, I thought, and blinked.
Daniel tapped his cast. “And a drunk—the worst kind of drunk, the kind that drives into rivers and then runs away. If he ever comes back here, he’ll pay for it. They’ll throw him in jail for it.”
Daniel kept his face up to mine, like he was waiting for me to say something, and hoping I’d look at him. All I could think about at that moment was not inhaling his ham-and-mustard-smelling breath and not crying in front of him. And that he could have come up with a better word than “wimp.” Funny that Daniel thought he was so smart, when everybody knew he had to repeat fourth grade.
“And don’t clamp your jaw like that,” he told me.
My eyes squeezed narrow, and I pressed my sandwich until the jelly oozed out. Theron started paying for what he did the night it happened, and none of those words—“runaway,” “deserter,” “fugitive,” “wimp,” or “drunk”—were true. They couldn’t be.
Theron. The thought of him caught my heart.
Finally, after what felt longer than January, Daniel pulled away, but he left his nasty breath with me.
So when Meadow Lark come over and sit beside me on the bench a few minutes later and held out her open bag of Cheetos, I got up and went to Ms. Zucchero’s room to work on my collage.
No one else was there except Ms. Zucchero, who ate carrots one by one from a lunch bag while grading artwork, so I sat at the big butcher-block table in the middle and spread out my collage. I’d put almost everything I’d ever found on that collage. It was going to be a present to Mama, so it had to be perfect and it had to make her smile.
I laid the little string of gold-colored beads, the bent watch face, and the tiny key on the table. I took six colored pens from the bin and set them down. Glue, scissors, colored paper, paper punches next to them, and then I started to sort, and place and replace, and then glue and write.
Lately when I worked like that, something strange happened. It was hard to understand, but my mind wandered around inside a house. I’d never seen that house before, but it felt as familiar as the smell of my pillow. My mind slipped into that house and walked around in it while my hands worked, so stealthily that I never realized I was there until something interrupted me.
That day while I worked on my collage, my mind went to a pantry room off the kitchen. This was a new room, but I could tell you everything in that pantry (cans of Campbell’s soup and Ever Fresh tomatoes, blue-and-white sacks of flour and pink sacks of sugar, and store-brand Cheerios and oatmeal), the color of the walls (spring-leaf green), and the smell when you go near the shelves (onions and oregano).
Ms. Zucchero say something to me, and quick as spit I was back in the art room and realized I’d been in the pantry of that house.
“Tell me about the beads.” Ms. Zucchero was pointing to the three gold-colored beads on a string. Her fingernails were painted dark purple, and the one she pointed with had a little chip.
The glue the beads sat in was still white, and I pressed them until they hurt my finger.
“I found them in the river. They’re just plastic.”
She leaned over the beads for a few seconds. “No, I think these beads are real gold. My aunt had some just like them. What else did you find?”
I looked at everything glued onto my collage, and pointed out each one to her one by one. The glass pieces—green, red, purple, deep blue—all brushed soft by the water and sand of the river. The porcelain doll head with the nose buffed off, the piece of wood that looked like a hand, the tiny bald plastic baby with arms and legs and head that moved, a black bear’s tooth, the peach-colored leaf that was still soft, an R typewriter key, a bottle stopper made of glass, the bent watch face, the stone that looked like a face, the gold-colored beads.
Ms. Zucchero put her hands behind her back and took another close look. “They all tell a story, don’t they?” she say, and then went back to her desk.
“I guess so.” I never thought they had a story. They just showed up on the sandy beach at the river.
“I hope I can hear that story one day.”
The wall clock say it was almost time for A period, but I wanted to glue one more thing, a tiny metal iron, before then. And I wanted to go back to that pantry, where behind the flour was a jar of chocolate bits that I knew tasted bittersweet. Instead I thought about Meadow Lark Frankenfield and how I’d left her on the bench by herself—but not before I smiled just enough to let her know I knew what she did for me.
Meadow Lark wasn’t pretty, but you could tell she was a cared-about girl by the straight cut of her pumpkin-colored hair and her smooth fingernails. And that bag of Cheetos come out of a paper bag with her name written in curlicues. When she pulled out the Cheetos, a napkin fell out with a tiny red heart drawn in the corner. Someone cared about Meadow Lark and whether she had nice hair and fingernails and a good snack. But even though she come over to the bench after Daniel went away, I knew that her eye and the crooked way she walked would take some getting used to.