Jenny L. Rife
There were warnings for days and by now, Brandy recognized them. Cigarette butts spilled over the brim of her mother’s turquoise ashtray, and more were stubbed out on the dishes piled in the sink. Her mother paced the floors at night; sometimes Brandy heard her crying, whimpering, or moaning low in her throat. Her hands trembled, her hair went greasy, and this morning, little Maggie had fussed over some minor thing and Barb had shrieked, “Make her stop!” and buried her face in her hands. Brandy had taken her baby sister to play in the bedroom they shared, but she knew what was coming next. She could tell, the same way Grandma could tell about thunderstorms. So when Barb stumbled into the room and told them to get ready, Brandy was somewhat prepared. She had an old handbag that used to be Grandma’s; in it she kept a few essentials—crayons, a washcloth, and some pennies, among other things—and she grabbed it, along with her pink chenille bedspread and Maggie’s ducky blanket.
It was March, more spring than winter, but dark was coming on quickly as Barb waved the girls into the Dodge, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. Brandy buckled Maggie’s seatbelt across her round belly and tucked her blanket around her. Barb dropped the keys twice, cursing, before singling out the right one. She drove silently, as she usually did, with the radio turned too low to hear. She cracked the window and chain-smoked. It would be different on the way home, Brandy knew. Her mother would be like a whole new person.
Barb pulled up in front of the QuikMart, and for Brandy, this was the exciting part: whenever Barb stopped for cigarettes, she bought a surprise for the girls, some kind of snack, and it was rarely the same thing twice. Once, it was a can of sliced peaches; the girls used their hands, diving after those slippery yellow moons as slick as goldfish. Once it was sweet pickles, and another time, it was a box of party crackers in pretty shapes like flowers and butterflies. Brandy was hoping for something big, because supper had been forgotten about and Maggie had begun to chew her fingers. Barb forgot about a lot of things when she was sick. It was Sunday; when Grandma was alive, they would go to her house on Sundays and eat homemade pot pie. The thought of it made Brandy’s throat hurt.
Barb returned to the car with her cigarettes, a handful of cash and a box of Frooty-O’s cereal. She handed the box to Brandy, who held it for Maggie to see. Maggie clapped her hands and beamed; Brandy thought she looked just like her father, Jimmy. From there, they drove a while to an empty lot flanked by crumbling buildings. Barb’s instructions were the same every time: “Don’t get out of the car for any reason.” With that, she stuffed her cash into her jeans pocket, raked her fingers through her dirty brown hair, and glanced quickly in the rearview mirror. As she got out of the car, she looked into Brandy’s face. “Be good,” she said.
“We will,” Brandy promised.
“Take care of your sister.”
“Okay, Mama.” Brandy watched her mother head down the alley and disappear.
“Lookit here, Maggie,” Brandy said, “this one is blue. Say blue.” Maggie laughed and reached for the cereal. “Say blue, dang it!” Maggie had turned two at Christmastime, and in Brandy’s opinion, she had a whole lot to learn. She refused to get the hang of colors, and potty-training was an ongoing fiasco, even though Maggie had her own big girl pants. And Maggie wasn’t the talker that Brandy was, which made evenings like this one seem a lot longer.
Brandy was determined to teach Maggie to spell her last name, Wandelewski, before the little girl went to school. It was a pretty name, much prettier than Brandy’s own, which was Abrams. On the other hand, being at the beginning of the alphabet came with the privilege of being first at things; she got to sit in the first row at school, in the first seat. She would have been up front anyway, because of her lazy eye. She wore eyeglasses with a patch, and Dougie Adams, who sat behind her since kindergarten, poked her in the back and said, “You look like a tall skinny pirate.” She tried to explain about her lazy eye, but Dougie thought it was funny. “Lazy eye,” he teased. “Hey, Lazy Eye!” Brandy didn’t care for the nickname, but it stuck, along with a few others. Showoff. Crybaby. Tattletale. Barb said she should ignore the name-callers, that they’d get tired of it before long, but Jimmy showed her privately how to throw a good punch if she needed to.
Brandy had loved Jimmy. He’d smelled like oatmeal and looked like a picture of Jesus that Grandma kept in a frame on her nightstand, like he was a relative or something. Jimmy played guitar and sang songs to the girls with their names in them. Maggie didn’t remember this, but Brandy intended to tell her about it someday. Sometimes, she wrote Brandy Wandelewski on her school papers, just to see what it looked like. It looked good, like the name of a famous person.
Grandma never did warm up to Jimmy. She used to warn Barb that he wasn’t built for the long haul, that meeting a man in a bar told you an awful lot about him from the get- go. Brandy guessed that Grandma had been right, because Jimmy got restless after Grandma died. Barb’s grief, on top of having a new baby, was too much to handle, and he packed up his guitar and his ragged jeans and left them high and dry, just as Grandma had predicted.
In the back seat, Maggie was whining and kicking her fat bare feet. Brandy unhooked her sister’s seatbelt so she could clamber about while Brandy inspected the contents of her old handbag. There were pennies for magic tricks; Maggie thought it was funny when Brandy pretended to find them in her ears. There was a pizza coupon and a butterscotch candy that had escaped its wrapper and gotten fuzzy, and a handful of crayons, Brandy’s favorite ones. She liked their names even more than the colors themselves. Goldenrod. Tumbleweed. Bittersweet. At the end of first grade, she had fished a discarded second-grade workbook out of the trashbin at school, and had fallen madly in love with compound words. Once recognized, she found them everywhere, and gathered them to herself like a collection. Ashtray. Thunderstorm. Bedspread.
Maggie made a grab for Brandy’s handbag. “No!” Brandy shouted. “A woman’s purse is private!” She’d received this same scolding once, when she went digging in Barb’s purse, hoping to find candy, and finding instead a small glass tube, burned at one end. It had smelled something awful, and Brandy had been about to throw it away when Barb discovered her.
She was reluctant to share her crayons with Maggie, who was inclined to suck on them or break them. She was especially protective of a new color, Timberwolf, a soft grey that was perfect for kittens and rabbits. On a scrap of paper, she wrote Wandelewski in Timberwolf, underlined in aquamarine. She missed Jimmy. Since he’d gone, Barb had gotten sadder and started going out more, often staying out past midnight. Brandy picked up some new words. Screwdriver. Hangover. Lonesome. Sometimes, Barb came home with company. One such night, Brandy was awakened by the sound of loud pissing that seemed to go on forever. After, to her alarm, the pisser had stumbled into her and Maggie’s bedroom and had fallen heavily beside her on her mattress on the floor. She made herself stiff as the man pawed at her before falling asleep, his bearded face breathing hot sour air onto the back of her head. “Nothing good ever follows a drunk man through the door,” Grandma had warned, and Brandy tried to stay awake in case anything else happened, but toward morning, she lost the battle. When she awoke, the man was gone.
Maggie’s eyes were getting droopy; Brandy wondered what time it was. It seemed like Barb had been gone a long time. She was looking forward to her mother’s return; she would be lively, happy, full of promises. She would swear on the stars that things would be better. They would plant tomatoes, like Grandma, or snapdragons and sweet William. They would bake bread and get a kitten. They would take a vacation and stay in a nice, clean hotel. Brandy snuggled next to Maggie and pulled her bedspread over them; she tried to remember the words to her song, the one Jimmy had sung just for her: Brandy, you’re a fine girl, what a good wife you will be.
The morning sun was bright on the windows, and Brandy awoke with a start, knowing two things instantly: Barb hadn’t come back, and Maggie had wet her pants. “Shame on you, you little piss ant,” Brandy said. She wondered if her mother had fallen asleep somewhere. Maggie whimpered and chewed on her fingers.
“Don’t leave the car for any reason.” That’s what Barb had said. But she also said, “Take care of your sister.” Brandy thought that pissy pants were a good reason to leave the car, especially when they made the whole car stink. Outside, it was cool and crisp and somewhere, a mourning dove was cooing, a sound Brandy associated with school mornings. School! It was Monday. She was missing the Pledge of Allegiance! Whose turn was it to hold the flag? When it was her turn, she held it higher than anyone. Whose turn was it to be the line leader? She hustled Maggie out of the car. Down the alley, where Barb had gone, there was nothing but decaying buildings; in the other direction, more of the same, except over the rooftops, Brandy seized on a familiar sight: the sunny yellow M of McDonald’s. Hamburger. Cheeseburger. Milkshake. She draped the ducky blanket around Maggie’s shoulders. “Let’s go, Maggie,” she coaxed.
Maggie planted her feet and wailed, “No no no no!” She shook her head, tossing her wispy hair around.
Brandy wrapped her bedspread around herself. “Lookit,” she said. “We’ll be queens.” She began walking toward the restaurant. “Come on, little queen.” It was slow-going; neither girl wore shoes while they crossed a block’s length of alley. Maggie fussed the whole way.
They entered McDonald’s; Brandy was aware of all the eyes on them as she dragged her unwilling sister into the bathroom. She tried to get Maggie to sit on the toilet, but it was too tall, and Maggie was having none of it. “No no no no!” she yelled over and over.
A restaurant employee peeked in. “Everything okay in here?”
Brandy nodded, but Maggie yelled no.
The employee said, “There’s a policeman out here who wants to talk to you. Finish up and come on out, okay?”
Policeman. Brandy had never met one in person, but at school she learned that you should find one if you were lost or in trouble. She wasn’t sure if she was either one, but she opened the door. The officer had Timberwolf hair and a round stomach, and he hunkered down so he was looking up at her. “Hey, kiddo.” His voice was soft, and Brandy saw that his eyes were the same blue as Maggie’s. Cornflower. “Are you okay? Is your mom here somewhere?” He glanced around the dining room.
“We can’t find her,” Brandy said.
“Can’t find her? What do you mean? Did she bring you here?”
The officer noticed her bare feet. “Walked, huh?” Another officer, younger and taller, stepped up behind him with two steaming paper cups. “Did you walk a long way? Where’s your house, kiddo?”
Brandy was about to answer when Maggie piped up. “No no no no!”
“Who you got in there with you?” The older man asked.
“My little sister.”
“Yeah? How old is she?”
“Huh. And how old are you, then?”
“Almost nine. My birthday is May 18th.”
“How ‘bout that. And where’d you say you lived?”
“On Fair Avenue. 441 Fair Avenue.”
The younger cop said, “Fair Avenue? That’s across town.”
The older man nodded. “You mean to say you walked here, all the way from your house on Fair Avenue?”
“No,” Brandy said. “We walked here from the car.”
“I see. She still in the car, then? Can we go talk to her, you think?”
Brandy shook her head. “She never came back.” Saying it out loud, she began to feel scared.
The two officers exchanged looks. “Okay,” said the older one. “How ‘bout this. We’ll go to the station—you and your sister, you’ll come with us—and we’ll see if we can’t track her down for you. That sound okay with you?” Brandy said that it did. But before the ride to the station, she showed them where the Dodge was parked. They looked inside and found Grandma’s old purse. “Is this your mom’s?”
“No, mine. It used to be my grandma’s.”
“I see. Where’s your grandma?”
“Aww. Sorry, kiddo.” He held up the bag. “You mind if I take a look inside?”
“A woman’s purse is private.”
Both officers began to laugh; Brandy’s face felt hot. “Well,” said the older policeman, “that’s true enough. I know my wife would agree with you there. I’m not gonna take anything or disturb anything, okay? I just need to take a quick peek.” Brandy gave her consent, and after he’d looked, the officer gave her the bag to take with her to the station. She felt better with something to hold onto.
Maggie had stopped saying no and had gone quiet, staring at the officers. Brandy clutched her hand, but she might as well have been invisible. At the station, a female officer with blonde hair scooped Maggie up and called her an angel. “I’m just going to get this one cleaned up,” she told the men. “She’s a bit ripe.” Brandy braced herself for Maggie’s violent howls of protest, but there were none as she headed down the hall with the stranger.
Brandy was seated in a wooden chair at the end of a desk. While the younger officer conferred with a group of other cops, the older one offered her a donut from a large bakery box. She looked them over hungrily. “Can I take two?”
“You sure can,” he said, and pointed toward his round stomach. “You’re a lady after my own heart.” Brandy noticed his nametag for the first time. Moreland. She decided he was her favorite. She selected a glazed donut for herself, and one with sprinkles for Maggie, for when she returned. “Now, then,” said Officer Moreland. “Let’s see what we can figure out. Can you tell me your full name? First, middle, last?”
“Brandy Ellen Abrams.”
“And your sister’s full name?”
“Margaret Leah Wandeleski.”
“Oh, boy. Don’t suppose you could spell that one for me.” Brandy did so, proudly. “Wow! You’re something else, kiddo. What else can you tell me? What about Mom’s full name?”
“Barbara Ann Abrams. She’s Abrams, same as me.”
“And how about your dad?”
Brandy shrugged, fidgeting in her chair. “Maggie has a dad. His name is Jimmy. He plays guitar.”
“How ‘bout that! Jimmy Wandelewski?”
“And where’s he now, at work?”
Brandy shrugged again. “He’s gone.”
“I see.” Officer Moreland jotted some notes. “Okay. Back to your mom, then. Can you tell me what she looks like? Tall, short? Skinny, big?”
“Tall and skinny.”
“What color’s her hair?”
“Chestnut brown, same as me.”
Officer Moreland laughed, but Brandy knew he wasn’t making fun. “Chestnut, huh? She sounds pretty. Is she pretty as you?” Brandy beamed. She didn’t even know how to answer that one. “Okay. Other things. Jewelry, like a special necklace or ring? Tattoo? Glasses, maybe, same as you?” He studied the girl.
“No. I wear them for my lazy eye.”
“Huh.” Officer Moreland leaned forward for a closer look. Brandy braced herself. “Well, it might be lazy, but that’s as pretty an eye as I’ve seen.” He grinned, and Brandy thought she might bust. He’d called her pretty, twice. “Okay, well, kiddo, why don’t you sit there and eat your donuts. I’m gonna talk to some people, see what we can find out.” He stood up. “You okay there for now?”
“Who’s got Maggie?”
“We’ve got her, honey. Don’t worry. You did a real good job looking after her. You eat those, now,” he said, pointing to her donuts. “I hate to see good donuts go to waste.” He headed into an office and closed the door.
Brandy had just finished the glazed one when the blonde female officer came back in carrying Maggie, who was pink-cheeked and clean and drowning in a blue t-shirt. When the officer shifted her to her other hip, Brandy saw that she was wearing a diaper, and felt embarrassed for her. Maggie had a little bandage on the bottom of her foot, and she clutched a frosted donut in one hand, but she wasn’t eating it. She stared, solemn and saucer-eyed, all around her. Brandy waved, but Maggie seemed not to see her.
Nearby, a cluster of officers were talking under their breath. Brandy strained to listen in. “Female D.O.A. Late 20’s to early 30’s, tall, brown hair. They think it’s a match. The M.E. noted fresh needlemarks. Overdose. Speedball, most likely.”
“Next of kin?”
“You’re looking at them-- that kid with the eye patch, and her baby sister. The little one’s got a father somewhere. A name like that, he shouldn’t be hard to find.”
Brandy squeezed her handbag against her chest and tried one more time to get Maggie’s attention, but the little girl was in another world. She was glad that someone had gotten her a donut; she decided to eat the one in front of her. Needlemarks. Overdose. Speedball. She wondered if anyone missed her at school. When Maggie finally looked at her, the child’s eyes were bluer than cornflower.