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“I don’t wanna eat my vegetables,” Jasmine says for the four-hundredth time. Just in case I didn’t hear her before.
I wave a fork in her direction. “I’m not arguing with you, Jasmine. But if you want ice cream after dinner, you’ll eat.”
Nicole, still in her uniform after a day on patrol, leans close to me. “You’re starting to sound like a mother.”
That sets Jasmine off. She slams her little first into the table, sending her plastic cup full of milk flying across the table. Milk splatters everywhere, including on me.
“You’re not my mother!” She bursts into tears and runs out of the room. She doesn’t go upstairs—moments after she runs out of the room, I hear the back door slam.
I stare after her. I know I should run after her. I know I should hold her in my arms and comfort her and do all that motherly stuff. But she’s right. I’m not our mother, our mother is dead and we’re all alone.
Nicole squeezes my shoulder. “It’ll get better,” she says.
“I hope so.” I throw my napkin on the wet table and stand. My chair make a loud scraping sound as it slides away from the table. “I’ll be right back.”
I don’t hurry. Jasmine probably needs a minute to collect herself anyway. Instead, I slowly walk to the back door and switch on the outside light, illuminating the space between the house and Dad’s garage.
I still haven’t been in there. It sits in the twilight, closed, a dark and hidden thing. For just a second, I have an urge to call a contractor and have the thing bulldozed and taken away.
Instead, I open the door and step down the cinderblock steps to the gravel pathway behind the house. It’s still warm, and the scent of turned soil, hay and manure drifts my way. South Hadley—the whole valley really—is a weird mix of college town and rural paradise, with working family farms across the street from eclectic bookstores and coffee shops. Mom and Dad only rarely locked the doors.
The light is on in the stable, the building backlit by a sky washed with orange and red.
A thought nags in the back of my mind as I approach. I never expected to be taking care of my little sister. Much less my little sister and a nine acre horse farm and half a dozen horses. This morning I met with veterans services and the admissions department at UMASS Amherst. Veterans’ services is trying to get an exception to the normal admission procedure so I can start college this semester. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but either way I’ll either be working full time or going to school soon. I can’t afford to take care of this place, to take care of my sister and the horses and everything else. A cold pit of anxiety runs through me as I approach the stable.
Jasmine sits on the top rail of Mono’s stall. His head is in her lap, his tail swishing about. It’s frightening really. He’s a draft horse, and huge. Next to a tiny girl like her, it makes his size seem even more.
“Hey,” I say.
Jasmine leans closer to the horse. She has a look of intense concentration on her face, and it takes me a second to realize she’s braiding his hair.
“He really loves you,” I say.
She doesn’t respond. I don’t know what to do. I’m not equipped for this. I stand helplessly, overcome with a surge of grief. Why didn’t Mom and Dad make any provisions for this? I’m not cut out to be somebody’s mother.
“I miss them too, you know.” The words come out of me, even though I know it’s the wrong thing to say. “I loved them.”
She looks up at me for the first time. Her face is streaked with tears. “All you did was yell at Mommy.”
I wince. The hell of it is, she’s only saying the truth. My last leave, a two week visit, was punctuated by half-a-dozen screaming matches between me and Mom. It was always the same thing. When was I going to stop playing solder? When was I going to come home and go to college? Didn’t I know the Army was dangerous?
That was a laugh. Didn’t I know it was dangerous? Who had she thought she was talking to? I was there.
I blink, once, twice, then several times, because my vision is blurring. The last thing I’d said face to face to my mother had been … cold. Not hateful, but angry. I’d just finished loading my duffle bag in the back of Dad’s Austin Healy so we could ride to the airport. I don’t normally take it out in the snow, he’d said. But this time I’ll make an exception.
Mom had hugged me, but I hadn’t responded well. Then she looked at me in the eye and said, “You know I just want you to have a good life, Zoe.”
“I do have a good life,” I said. Then I got in the car.
I didn’t tell my mother I loved her. And now I never could.
Now, I don’t know what to say to Jasmine. How could she understand? I don’t even understand. I say, “That’s true. Mom and I fought a lot. But I still loved her.”
She turns away, back to her task.
My shoulders sag. I don’t know what to say to her. I need to talk to someone. A professional, or a mother, or somebody. Because I don’t know how to help her through this. I don’t even know how to help me through this.
I blink back tears again and say, “I want you in by full dark, Jasmine. Okay?”
“I mean it.”
Jasmine lets out a sigh and says, “Okay. I’ll come in when it’s dark.”
I stumble back toward the house.
Inside, Nicole has already cleaned up the table, except for Jasmine’s plate with its cold vegetables, and she’s hand washing the dishes.. “Thanks,” I whisper.
“Is she okay?”
I shake my head. “No. But I don’t know what to do.”
Nicole looks out the window toward the stable.
“She’s braiding Mono’s hair,” I say.
Nicole shrugs. “Maybe that’s what she needs right now. But… Zoe? Can I suggest something without you getting mad?”
I raise my eyebrows.
“I think you should consider a therapist. Not just for Jasmine. But for you.”
“What… I don’t need—”
The house phone rings, interrupting me. I stand there, mouth open, for just a moment. The phone rings again, a harsh ringing tone. My parents have had the same phone since the 1980s, an old slimline phone mounted on the wall with a rotary dial in the handset, heavy enough you could use it as a weapon. I walk across the kitchen and snatch the phone off the wall.
Without pause I say, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Welch passed away last week. This is her daughter Zoe.” I’ve already had to say those words to the cable company and a credit card company who called wondering why their payments hadn’t arrived on time. This week I had to sort out Mom and Dad’s personal effects and bank accounts and everything else. And I didn’t have a clue where to start.
Not. One. Clue.
The caller coughed, then said, “I’m sorry… I know. Miss… Zoe… this is Matt Paladino.”
Matt Paladino? Who?
One second later it hits. “Oh! Mister Paladino! What can I do for you?”
“Well, I wanted to check in with you about Jasmine.”
“Okay. How is she doing in school?”
He stumbles over his words a little. “She’s—well—she—” He takes a deep breath, almost comical. “She’s not doing well. Really just… listless. She’s not playing much with the other girls, and not as animated in class.”
I breathe out. Then I speak at a near-whisper. “Same as at home. She’s not interested in anything except her horse. I can’t get her to talk or play any games or eat.”
“What is she normally interested in?”
The question makes me want to lash out in frustration. I don’t know! How am I supposed to say that to a complete stranger? How am I supposed to tell a complete stranger, her teacher for Christ’s sake, that I don’t know much of anything about my little sister?
“Miss Welch? Are you there?”
“Please,” I say, grasping for time. “Don’t call me that. Zoe is fine.”
“Zoe… can you think of anything I can do here that might engage her?”
Nicole’s face tilts in extreme concern. Because of tears. On my face. “I don’t know,” I whisper. “You don’t understand… I’ve been away in the Army for five years. Since I graduated high school. I don’t know what she likes, or what she does, or what she’s interested in. I don’t know her favorite color or ice cream or anything except that damn monster horse.”
On the other end of the line, I hear his intake of breath, his intake of judgement. But he doesn’t say what I might have expected. “Maybe that’s the best place to start then. With the horses. You know she draws them all the time. Especially a big black one. Or at least she did last year. We haven’t had many opportunities for art the first couple of days of school.”
I nod, slowly exhaling. “Yes. You’re right, of course.”
“Do you ride?”
“Yeah. I’m not as much into it as she is, but our Mom trained horses and gave lessons. You can’t grow up in our house and not know horses.”
He chuckled. “I grew up around animals too. I hear you.”
He doesn’t answer the question. “I’ll talk to the Principal and the counselor tomorrow. Maybe we can change up our curriculum plans for the next few weeks. I’d really like to see her more engaged. And Miss Welch… Zoe I mean…”
“Don’t beat yourself up. It’s not your fault. You were off wherever you were—that’s what happens. Just take care of her now. She’s a great kid. I hate seeing her so… despondent. Can I suggest… if you aren’t busy, why don’t you stop in at 11:30 tomorrow and have lunch with her? The kids love it when parents—I mean family—” He sighs. “You know what I mean. I think it would help.”
I blink back tears. Again. Damn it. “Okay. I’ll be there.”