A. J. Kiesling
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Gideon, North Carolina
The events of the summer that changed our lives might never have come together as they did if I had not stopped for fast food before reaching my aunt's house near Raleigh. In a sense, that one simple decision affected all our lives --- the way a fallen log in a river diverts water into a tributary, slowly over time. You don't notice the difference at first. Then you wake up one day and realize that where you are is not where you meant to be going, that the person you've become is not who you thought you'd be. And that deductive reasoning --- working backward in time, over all the details and events --- leads you squarely to that one moment that turned out to be the genesis of change. By the time I crossed the Virginia–North Carolina border the rain had spent itself to little more than a drizzle. The wind lashed at my windshield, and in spite of the muggy air outside I felt a chill run down my spine.
I clung to the wheel, nearly hypnotized by the rhythmic slapping of the wipers, and cursed my foolish fear of flying. At the turnoff for Gideon, I hesitated only a second when the hamburger sign emerged from behind a clump of kudzu. I swerved my car onto the exit ramp and made my way down Route 21 to the restaurant, gazing at the familiar landscape that was little changed even after my long absence. As I ate my cheeseburger an idea took shape in my mind, and I realized with sudden clarity that I had to follow it. Pure instinct urged me to detour seven miles out of my way to the ragged landscape of the old Radcliffe place, where we used to play as children.
Something about the old house pulled at me. Not just the way its blackened window spaces stared back like empty eye sockets. Not even the memories tied so inextricably to this place. If my sister Becca had left any clue as to her whereabouts --- anything that could explain her sudden disappearance a week ago --- it would be here.
I knew it. I felt it in my bones. That same sort of gut knowing had led me to make the twelve-hour drive from Florida to visit Aunt Jess, and North Carolina, to begin with. For here is where Becca's and my roots lay deep and gnarled as those of the giant sycamore tree that stood outside our bedroom window when we were girls.
The long-abandoned house was nestled in a cradle of Southern pines at the point where the woods met the open meadow --- now a thinning field cut in two by the access road that led to our old neighborhood's entrance.
Across the street stood the family plot, a small graveyard caged by a rusted wrought-iron fence. A dozen faded tombstones slanted out from the weeds that choked the ground, reminding trespassers that other people once laid claim to this land. Picking my way through the sodden undergrowth, I walked around to the back of the house. How long had it been since Becca and I played here, the waving goldenrod transforming into bulrushes along the Nile, where we always found a hapless baby doll --- conveniently planted there by one or the other of us before the game began?
Reaching the back door, I placed my toes against the stone slab that served as a step and started counting, taking one step backward with each count until I reached thirteen. I noticed a patch of earth that looked recently turned. Grabbing a brick fragment from the ground, I dug at the wet soil until my fi ngers hurt. About six inches down, the brick struck metal. I clawed a little moat around the perimeter of a small metal box and lifted it out. Besides a coating of rust, the faded pink box looked just as I remembered it. What was it Becca had told me that steamy Sunday afternoon in 1977, two months after we discovered the cottage in the woods? I scrounged in my memory for the strange rhyming words, but they wouldn't come. Something about dreams and schemes, breath and death --- creepy words for two young girls, it occurred to me now. Her amber brown eyes had fixed me with that odd penetrating look they got whenever she was on to one of her otherworldly tangents. On this particular day, Baby Moses --- who bore a striking resemblance to my old Betty Burp Me doll and now sported a boyish bowl cut --- had been tossed aside after a half hour of play, and Becca produced a small pink metal box with a keyhole shaped like a daisy. I recognized it as her Christmas gift from Aunt Jess that year.
Not too special at the time --- just one of many presents she and I had opened Christmas morning. But now, as she produced a gold key from her pocket and poised it ceremoniously above the box, Aunt Jess's gift seemed imbued with mysterious significance. Again, those amber eyes stared at me solemnly.
"What, Becca? You're creeping me out," I said, scratching absently at a new mosquito bite.
"If I tell you, you've got to swear to keep it a secret till your dying day," my melodramatic sister intoned. She paused and looked past my shoulder at something. The fading sunlight cast a pinkish glow around her face. "Claire, have you ever thought how this very moment in time will never come again? Like, if you could catch a little piece of it and cup it in your hand like a firefly, you could take it with you and peek inside at the light every once in a while?"
"Yeah, I guess so," I lied. Did I ever think like that? For my sister's sake, I wanted to believe so.
"Well," she continued, "I definitely do. Now, look in here." She opened the lid of the pink box, and I was allowed to gaze on its treasures for the first time. Among an
assortment of trinkets, I saw something that actually looked expensive --- a gold pendant in the shape of a crescent moon, encrusted with a tiny ruby as the man in the moon's eye. It was an odd piece of jewelry and odder still because it was in my sister's possession. It looked very old.
"Hey, where'd you get this?" I plucked the moon off its bed of trinkets and turned away to examine it in the pink light. "Does Mama know you have it?"
Becca shook her head silently, but she wouldn't look at me. "It's just something I found in the woods the other day." My sister was not the best liar in the world, but she was about the most determined person I ever knew. If she didn't want to tell you something, there was no getting it out of her.
"Becca, this looks expensive. What if the owner's looking for it? I think we ought to show Mama."
"No!" she shouted, snatching the pendant out of my hand before my reflexes could curl it into a fist. "Do you want to hear the rest of what I've got to say or don't you?"
I told her I did. My sister always had the upper hand.
"There are things only a sister should know --- sister secrets," she continued, her wide eyes framed by wisps of blonde hair. "We can share our sister secrets here in this little box. The gold moon will make it special." I wondered where she was going with this; I didn't
have to wait long. Holding the box close to her chest, Becca marked off a spot in the ground, stooped down, and dug a hole there. As we covered the pink box with
dirt, she made me swear a solemn oath never to tell another living soul about it. She was so dead serious about the whole thing she made me swear on our cat Thunder's grave, and I have to admit that's a promise we both kept. In fact, neither one of us bothered much with the box after a few more years. The move to Florida put it out of our minds altogether, and not long after that we discovered boys, our first pimples, and the dozens of other diversions that draw a girl across the chasm into young womanhood.
A passing car honked, sending a flock of blackbirds fl uttering out of the pine boughs overhead. Spooked, I dropped the rusty metal box. I muttered a mild expletive as I picked the box back up and pried the lid open, the brass hinges creaking in protest. Unbelievably, my highway hunch paid off. There inside the box, amid a
jumble of baubles and other mementos, lay a beige envelope inscribed with a familiar sloping hand. Written on it was the single word Skizzer, Becca's baby word for sister --- the name she had called me when we were toddlers, our mother said. The gold crescent moon, of course, was gone.
Shoving the box under my arm, I started back toward the car to read the envelope's contents out of the drizzle, which had settled into the kind of misty, hovering condensation that always wreaked havoc on my hair. I tore the envelope open; the letter inside was cryptic, true to form for Becca:
I knew you'd think to look here eventually,
even though it's been a long time. Something both
terrible and wonderful has happened. I can't
explain now. Please don't look for me, and tell
Rainey not to worry . . . I'm safe. I'll call when
I'm ready. Just need some time to myself right
Love always, Becca
Tell Rainey not to worry? My brother-in-law was half out of his mind with panic. His frenzied phone call late on the night she had disappeared still rang clear in my head:
"Claire, she's gone," his voice brusque.
"Who's gone, Rainey?" I asked, though a sudden knot in my stomach forewarned me.
"Becca. She packed her things and left. The last thing she told me was that she was going to get her hair done. That was late this afternoon while I was still at work. I thought it was unusual she was calling to tell me that. When I got home from work there was a note on the kitchen table. ‘Sweetheart, I need a little time away . . . I'll explain why later. Please don't worry about me.'"
Rainey took a deep ragged breath, and I could hear the ice tinkling in a glass as he swirled it around and around in agitation. I'd seen him do that many times when he was under pressure. My sister's cool, enigmatic words angered me. She had no right to go flying off with barely a word to anybody. But on the heels of this thought quickly came another. Though she had always been eccentric, Becca had a long history now of steady, dependable living. It wasn't like her to do something flighty and irresponsible. And she had a knee-jerk instinct for carpe diem. Seizing the day.
Seizing the moment. If something "terrible and wonderful" had happened, I could only hope it turned out to be important enough to warrant the pain she was inflicting on Rainey.
I speed-dialed Rainey's number from my cell and waited for his tired voice to pick up on the other end of the line. My news was just the sort of dangling carrot of hope he needed right now.
Excerpted from SKIZZER © Copyright 2017 by A. J. Kiesling. Reprinted with permission by Revell. All rights reserved.
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