Beverly eased out of bed, mindful of the worn springs, and crept to the corner of her room. The flickering lights leapt higher as she pulled back the yellowing lace covering the thick wooden frame of her second-story window. She held her position in silence as the flames shimmered and danced in the distance. Watching the debris drift and disappear into the shadows through her “portal to the world,” as her father liked to call it, Beverly wondered if she was still dreaming. Who would be clearing brush at this hour of the morning?
Beverly slid over the arm of worn olive fabric into her favorite chair and studied the scene before her, fearing if she took her eyes away the flames would edge closer. As the sun rose, she realized the source was not a bonfire or a farmer clearing brush. The small tenant house across the valley was engulfed, and the bright blue front door she had helped her father paint the summer before would soon be reduced to ashes. Her small fingers dug into the fur of the stuffed bunny in her lap, but she remained quiet. There was no reason to sound the alarm now. The flames already arched high above the faded tin roof.
Beverly sat in the shadows, watching until she heard the distinctive clatter of her father’s old truck stop below her. The dull thud of his boots on the wooden stairs and the loud slamming of the front door jarred her from her stillness. Why had he left the house burning?
Beverly slithered over the arm and back to her feet, determined to make her way down the staircase to meet him.
“Dad, what is going on,” she asked as she neared the landing where he was hanging his coat.
“I got rid of your mother’s stash of devil water and I put an end to her hiding place.”
“What about the sheriff? Don’t you think he’ll have something to say about you burning down a house?”
“Claude won’t say a thing. I’ll tell him it was faulty wiring and I decided to go ahead and demolish it. The house has been empty for years. He’s lazy, Chickpea. If there isn’t a reason to investigate, we won’t hear from him.”
“Where is Mother?”
“I don’t know. I went to the tenant house to look for her, but she wasn’t there. The only clue she left was some empty wine bottles in the cellar.”
“Shouldn’t we head into town and look for her?”
“You shouldn’t be up at this hour. I’ll go find her and bring her home.”
“It was hard sleeping after I heard her sneak out last night.”
Beverly’s father came forward and bent down to be at eye level as he moved a hand through her hair just beyond her left ear.
“I’m sorry, Chickpea. Things will get back to normal soon. I promise.”
“I know, Daddy.”
He leaned in to kiss the top of her head and gathered her slight frame to him in a quick embrace.
“Can you pack me a change of clothes for Momma,” he asked as his eyes broke contact. “She may need to freshen up before I bring her home.”
“I packed one last night after she left. I’ll run up and get it.”
“I’ll be in the kitchen. I need another cup of coffee before I start searching,” he admitted as she turned for the stairs – and her duties.
Left to the task at hand, Beverly had plenty of time to think about this morning’s turn of events. Entering her room, she grabbed the small overnight bag hidden behind her door. It contained things she had quickly gathered together after her mother slunk out. Instead of heading back down the stairs, she was drawn to the window. The blaze climbed over one wall and into the small triangle-shaped structures enclosing the second story windows while she had been away.
Why would Father do this? Did he think it would stop Mother? He has to know she’ll find another way. Isabella Turner never gives up that easily. He would have to burn every building in the county to stop her. It is not in her nature to be dissuaded.
Before lunch today, probably long before the embers reduced to smoke, Isabella would be on her way back to the house with a half-empty bottle in her arms and a song on her lips. Every weekend was the same. When her mother’s shift at the factory ended, Isabella spent most of the paycheck in her pocket on cheap bottles of wine or vodka before returning home hours later. Beverly could tell her father blamed himself for giving her mother the opportunity to abscond into the darkness when he went out to check on a pregnant heifer. He must have been hopeful on his trip home, planning to remove his work boots and settle into bed only to discover her missing.
Beverly slapped the suitcase down with a thud at the top of the stairs. When would he see the pattern playing out in front of him? Mother once hid her bottles in the house. When Father found out, she moved them to the barn and concealed them in hay bales. After that, it was the attic and a hidden compartment in the decommissioned Ford truck languishing in the shed.
Once her father found one hiding place, Beverly’s mother would create another one. Isabella probably thought she had a foolproof plan when she started using the cellar at the old tenant house a few months ago. It was empty and she convinced her husband she should go by on a regular basis to clean and check for intruders. Beverly’s father praised her efforts in cleaning and redecorating the small home across the valley. But that was before he found proof of her mother’s latest deception.
Shaking her head with a sigh, Beverly gingerly picked up the bag of clothes and eyed it with disdain. It was unlikely her mother’s passion for drink would rub off on her, but Beverly took no chances. She had heard adults call it a “sickness” when they thought she wasn’t listening. It must be a crafty illness because her mother seemed fine through the week, but on Friday nights she was swept away by her sickness until she was found and brought home to bathe and rest.
Beverly thought longingly of her best friend Ivy’s stories of family picnics and trips to see grandparents over the weekend. She, herself, seemed to be forever packing, but going nowhere. Letting the edge of the blue case hit the wood floor with the off-cadence thump of an imbalanced washing machine, she made her way through the house and into the kitchen.
“I put a change of clothes, soap, washcloths, and her favorite perfume in the bag,” she uttered in a monotone.
“Thank you, Chickpea. I guess I better get moving. If you need anything, call Mrs. Patterson.”
“I’ll be fine, Daddy.”
“Try to go back to bed for a few hours. A girl your age shouldn’t have dark spots under her eyes.”
“I love you, Chickpea. I’ll be back soon,” he promised as he hugged her.
She watched him struggle into his coat and grab the small bag before plodding to the front door. There was a familiar squeak and thud as it closed behind him. His boots took the stairs two at a time down to the crunchy gravel drive. A door slammed, and the old Ford truck sputtered to life. Knowing it would be hours before she would hear his boots on the front steps again, she turned and trudged to the living room to wait. The receding sound of his truck was soon replaced by a blanket of apprehensive quiet.
Waking with a start, Beverly realized there were voices. A soft, female giggle erupted from the front yard, followed by her father’s stern tone. What time was it? Was it afternoon yet? Beverly wondered as she pushed herself up from an armchair. Father must have found what he was looking for in town. He would need to eat and rest, but it was unlikely to happen after her mother’s return. He would dog her every step to try to keep her from searching for bottles or hiding new ones. If his vigil was unsuccessful in the slightest, she would be gone.
On the worst days, Beverly wished he would just let her mother slip away. At twelve, she was already old enough to handle most of the household chores and cooking. Her mother quit doing those months ago. Her father would have time to rest and join her for supper on the weekends if he wasn’t constantly chasing after her mother. They could make it without her, but Beverly knew her father would never give up his belief that he could fix things.
Beverly could hear them arguing as they came through the front door. Father would need her help. Stopping to check her appearance in the small mirror by the door, Beverly patted a few dark curls back into place before heading to the front hall to greet them.
“Really, Ed! Is this necessary?” Her mother’s voice escalated as she drew closer.
“Izzy, you need to rest. Go on upstairs and draw some water for a bath. I will help you after I check on Beverly.”
“I’m fine. I just went to Janet’s to check on her last night. She had a terrible cold.”
“She seemed fine today. I guess the three empty bottles of Wild Turkey by the bed fixed her right up.”
“Do you really think that I could drink three bottles of Wild Turkey in the few hours I was gone? Janet is a terrible housekeeper. Those bottles are from months ago.”
“All the more reason for you to get a bath as soon as possible,” Her father insisted as he took his wife’s elbow to guide her up the stairs. “You don’t want to catch germs from her lax housekeeping do you?”
“Fine, Ed, just let me go out to collect the eggs at the hen house before I do,” She smiled up at him as she turned back to the door.
“Beverly has probably already seen to them and if she hasn’t I can send her out to do it while you’re taking a bath.”
“You’re not my father you know! There is no reason to cage me up in this house all weekend.”
“When you sneak out in the middle of the night there is.”
“You were out checking on the heifer.”
“Yes, which I told you before I walked out the door. I didn’t sneak out my window like a grounded teenager.”
“I didn’t sneak out the window.”
“You didn’t tell anyone where you were going either.”
“You were out with the heifer and Beverly was asleep. Should I scare our daughter by waking her in the middle of the night?”
“You woke me when you left.” Beverly assured her as she stepped around the corner from her hiding place by the stairwell.
They both looked up as she drew closer, and her father’s voice softened.
“Did you manage to take a nap, Chickpea?”
“I fell asleep in the living room.”
“You see Izzy, Beverly’s losing sleep over your antics. She’s up packing bags instead.”
“I never meant to wake you dear. I was worried about Janet because she is sick.” Her mother came over to wrap her in a hug. “I guess, your daddy is right, I should have told you where I was going.”
“I’m sure Janet needed your help.”
“Yes, Janet doesn’t have any family to help when she gets sick.”
“I guess it’s time to go up and scrub all those germs off, right Izzy?” Her father asked when he caught the look of longing returning to her mother’s features.
“I guess a bath would be nice,” she agreed with a final look at the door before she headed for the stairs. “Beverly, dear, would you make me a sandwich? Janet didn’t have much for breakfast this morning.”
“Chicken or ham?”
“Ham, dear, and see if we have any tomatoes for it.”
“Okay, Momma,” Beverly agreed with a sigh before heading down the hall to the kitchen.
As she removed the ham she baked a few nights earlier from the refrigerator, Beverly fantasized about summer break in a few short months. Finishing the school year would free her time to give her father the help he would need during the busy season on the farm. Between the two of them they could keep things afloat.
A bird on the windowsill edged up to look at her and the bread in her hands, as if questioning her intent. Its hunger seemed to outweigh its fear. Breaking off a piece, Beverly reached out the offering to her tiny friend. The bird was still and watched as she backed away. Grabbing the bread quickly, it spread its wings. Like her mother, the little wren took what it needed and disappeared.
When she went up to her parents’ room, Beverly found the clothes she packed lying out on the faded patchwork quilt and could hear the water running behind the closed bathroom door. Leaving the chipped, brown-rimmed, stoneware plate on the side table, she knocked on the bathroom door to let her mother know her sandwich had arrived. The door gave under the weight of her blows. Water streaked down the drain unhindered and her mother was nowhere to be found.
“She’s gone again!” Tore from her throat as she slapped off the tap.
Her father’s heavy footfalls raced up to meet her. Watching him scan the empty bathroom in disbelief, Beverly knew he was headed out again.
“She couldn’t have gotten far,” he muttered.
Plopping a hasty kiss on the top of her head as he passed, he clattered back down the stairs and rushed out to the driveway. Drawn back to her window, Beverly watched him struggle to keep his burdens hidden as he hoisted himself up into the driver’s seat. For her, he forced a smile and waved as he passed under her watchful gaze.
An hour later when the sounds of an engine distracted her from her thoughts, Beverly ran down the stairs to the front door and threw it open expecting to see her father climbing the steps outside. Surprise erupted into anger as she focused on Sheriff Claude standing in her father’s place mashing the brim of his hat with thick, grimy fingers.
“She finally did it didn’t she? She finally drank herself to death.” Beverly could not help erupting.
“Beverly, please calm down.”
“I’ve wished for months she would just disappear and never return. Dad and I are better off without her!”
“She isn’t dead, Beverly. Will you please calm down and let me tell you what happened?”
“Great! She’s done something worse. Dad is going to have to waste what little time and money we have left to make her well enough to drink herself into oblivion again.”
“No, I left your mother with one of her friends. She’s not sober, but under the circumstances, I wouldn’t blame her.”
“What…circumstances,” she demanded as she looked up at him.
“Beverly, there’s been an accident. Your father must have been in a hurry when he turned onto the highway. He didn’t notice the dump truck speeding toward him.”
“He’s in the hospital. He’ll need clothes and shoes for the trip home.” She planned as she turned toward the staircase.
Sheriff Claude’s moist hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“Beverly, slow down. What I’m trying to tell you is: he isn’t in the hospital.”
“What?” Her voice faltered.
“Beverly, I know you have a lot to process right now, but honey, your father isn’t coming home tonight. He’s gone. I’m sorry.”
“No! No! No! He can’t be…”
“I know, honey. Is there anyone I can call for you? Anywhere I can drop you off?”
When Beverly could gather enough air into her restricted lungs to reply, she managed to whisper, “Ivy, I need to see Ivy.”
Beverly remained stationary and pale as the sheriff gave her a parting glance and headed down the hallway to make calls from the bulky olive contraption suspended from the wall.
In the kitchen, the sheriff conversed in low tones and gazed at a collection of wrens who were eyeing an abandoned sandwich from their vantage point on the windowsill. Smells of charred timbers mingled with fresh grass and impending rain tickled his nose as it leaked in through the open window. He could tell the dance between ravenous flames and their prey was winding to an end. Hazy trails of smoke and specks of light were all that remained of the tenant house in the distance.
“Mrs. Patterson is on her way,” he told Beverly as he rejoined her.
“I told him she left,” she whispered as vacant brown eyes shifted to his. “I sent him out again.”
“Beverly…” was all the bewildered man could say before her petite frame crumpled.
As he gathered Beverly into his arms and carried her outside, the first sprinkle of rain peppered the roof. Even as he jostled her, she didn’t stir. Only the tattered bunny clutched between her fingers took a final look over his shoulder as the door closed behind them.