who we became on the way down

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Half of my family was staying on the east coast the summer it all went down. The other half was supposed to meet us there.

Not all of them made it.

I was eleven.

“Stop faking,” Mum demanded, when I came to her about the staggering pain.

By that time, I was well aware that I suffered from a condition Mum termed vivid imagination, but I was relatively certain I wasn’t faking this. I’d just spent the past several hours balled up on the floor beneath my grandmother’s vanity table.

“Come sit with us,” my grandmother, Maysi, suggested.

“No. She’s just using it as an excuse to stay up,” Mum interjected tersely. And then, “Delilah, go to bed.”

Maysi and Mum locked eyes. Somehow, before that summer I had never spent time alone in a house with the two of them.

Turns out, I didn’t enjoy it.

Earlier in the week, Maysi had angered Mum by saying I could stay in my pajamas all day if I wanted, whereupon Mum had disappeared for two days with my baby brother.

I was surprised to learn that Mum ran away from other houses, too.

“Dad usually chases after her,” I informed Maysi, expecting her to follow suit.

Maysi adjusted her sleeves. “Well, perhaps that’s why she hasn’t grown out of it yet,” she said, simply. And did nothing.

I was accustomed to Mum’s periods of absence, but in the six months since my brother’s birth, I had never gone more than a few hours without holding him. During that first separation, I was desolate over his missing weight in my arms.

Additionally, I fretted over what would happen if Dad phoned the house and found out Mum was not here.

I threw my pajamas in the trash, and opted to sleep in my underclothes, instead.

Mum returned casually in the middle of a clam bake, and everyone acted as though nothing happened.

I assume Dad never found out.

Still, my objective became keeping Mum in the house under any conditions.

So when she accused me of faking and sent me to bed, I headed obediently back up the stairs. Albeit anxious over leaving her in that staredown with Maysi.

No one can blame me that I wheeled Trip’s cradle out of the nursery, down the hall, and into my room that night.

I woke from a dream that my body had been exploded. My middle was all hot and damp, and when I sat up and pulled off the covers I saw the blood between my legs, as illuminated by the warm glow of a child’s nightlight.

It took some genuine effort for me to reach a place of understanding.

Once I did, I was first relieved to discover that I actually hadn’t been faking.

And next I was laid low, knowing that my sister was going to hate me for this.

Celia was almost 16 and had been waiting for her period for years.

The doctors said it hadn’t come because of her eating disorder, which was one of the things for which she was being treated in Maryland.

Celia and I had not seen each other for weeks, and I comforted myself thinking that possibly she was cured already, had been bleeding for so long by now that she’d continue to think nothing of me.

I only barely remember hearing the phone ring.

And yet, I remember very clearly Maysi’s voice in the hall, waking my mum.

“It’s the police, Ann Catherine. They’re asking to speak to you.”

No one ever told me that my dad was dead.

No one ever had to.

I could tell by the way Mum started screaming.

And didn’t stop.

I could tell by the way the nurse was called.

And showed up with the needle.

I could tell by the look on Maysi’s pale face when she peeked in on me and Trip.

It took days before anyone realized that Celia would need to be told. She was surely wondering by now why Dad hadn’t shown up during visiting hours. My uncle drove down to get her.

The nurse lived with us, then, for the rest of the summer.

She was the one who eventually taught me that maxi pads go adhesive side down, not up.

Celia, who maybe never had it together in the first place, would never recover.

Mum, who was truly loved by our father, and perhaps never again by anyone else, would disappear from us in fits and starts.

And I, a woman now, would recklessly raise my brother, Trip, who would never know his dad.

Would never know we had all once been a different family, entirely.

*          *          *

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