Sydney stayed behind with Momma and Aunt Georgia most days. Not that Aunt Georgia really had anything to do with her. Other than yelling at her to shut up, Aunt Georgia never said much to my sister. Momma said it was because Aunt Georgia didn't know what to do with a disabled child. I knew it was really because Aunt Georgia was mean. The second floor of the old house became Sydney's safe place, thanks to the old woman's bad knees.
I wasn't prepared for what was waiting for me when I got inside. First, Momma wasn't anywhere I could see her. Second, the TV was so loud, it hurt my ears. Third, Sydney was sitting at the table with a red and blotchy face. Her eyes were red and puffy like they get when she cries. There was a huge piece of duct tape over her mouth, going from ear to ear. Snot ran down from her nose onto the tape. Around her on the table were scribbled sheets of paper and a few broken crayons.
"Syd!" I cried. I ran over and started trying to get the tape off her face. Sydney started crying again.
"Don't!" Hayley said. She pulled my hands away. I fought against her until she grabbed both wrists in her strong hands. "If you yank it off dry, it'll just hurt more. Let's go get it wet."
"Who did this to you? Aunt Georgia?" I asked Syd. She cried harder. "It's okay, it's okay, we'll get this off of you right away."
Hayley and I helped Sydney get up and steered her toward the bathroom. I held her still while Hayley wet a wash cloth and started wiping around the edges of the tape. "Can you lick at the tape a little, honey?" she asked, but Syd was too far gone to cooperate.
It took a long time to get the tape off, and some parts of it still pulled painfully and left red marks on her skin. Underneath the tape, Sydney's lip was fat, and there was a bruise on her cheek. I screamed in horror and held my sister close to my chest.
"What did she do to you? What did that witch do to you?!" I kept asking over and over. Hayley stood back against the wall, watching us, crying. As soon as I could breathe, I told Hayley to take Syd upstairs and ran out to the living room to confront Aunt Georgia.
I grabbed the remote off the side table and shut off the TV. Then I turned to face the hag in the chair. "What. Did. You. Do. To. My. Sister!" I said, gasping for breath between words. The room spun, and I could hear my heartbeat in my ears.
"If you don't turn that TV back on, I'll do the same to you," Aunt Georgia answered in the same sour but calm tone she has always used.
I screamed, "Yeah? Well if you ever touch my sister again, I'll kill you!"
"Turn the TV back on," Aunt Georgia hollered back.
"I hate you!" I shouted.
"The feeling is mutual, honey." Aunt Georgia dragged out the word honey. "Now turn the TV back on, or you'll be sorry."
"What are you going to do? Beat up on someone else who can't defend themselves? You are the most horrible person EVER!"
"How about if I throw you and your little retard and your drug addict mother out on the street? How would you like that? Huh? I didn't sign up to be a babysitter!" Aunt Georgia was gripping the arms of the chair like she might get up. I stepped forward to lean over her and raised the fist with the remote up in the air, realizing with surprise that I was about to punch Aunt Georgia in the face. At the last second, I threw the remote across the house as hard as I could. By some miracle, it flew through the narrow doorway and into the kitchen. I heard something smash, but I didn't care what it was. Without waiting to see what would happen next, I turned and ran up the stairs, slamming Hayley's door behind me.
Hayley was sitting on her bed with Sydney curled up against her chest. I dragged the small dresser in front of the door. Then I grabbed my backpack and started throwing things into it. Both girls watched me without speaking for a while. Finally, Hayley interrupted my long stream of muttering to ask in a small voice, "Where are you gonna go?"
"Anywhere but here." I stuffed everything down harder into my bag so I could zip it up.
"But it's really cold outside."
I raised my voice, even though I wasn't angry with my cousin. "Well, what am I supposed to do? Stick around here and let that, that old--"
Hayley offered a cuss word. I agreed that it was the right one. I continued, "I'm not gonna stick around here and wait for her to beat up my sister again! We're outta here."
"But she can't get to us up here. You're safe up here."
I sighed. I knew Hayley was right, but I didn't want to go through the winter like I had the summer, trapped in a small room with my sister because of whoever was on the other side of the door. I plopped down on the end of the bed and put my head in my hands. Hayley and Sydney joined me, and we held each other and cried.
Momma finally came home in the middle of the afternoon. We all had fallen asleep on Hayley's bed for a while, but didn't move after we woke up. Sydney was making Hayley's teddy bear dance lazily on the bed when Momma knocked. The teddy bear fell limp. Momma tried to open the door, but she only hit the dresser with the door. She cursed quietly. "Cara, please. Don't do this again."
Since I had been dozing, it took me a few seconds to realize where I was and why Momma was thumping the door against the dresser. "Where were you today?" I asked. I didn't really say it like a question, though. It was more like I was accusing her. Wherever she had been, it wasn't where she needed to be--at home, protecting her kids.
"I had some errands to run. I was only gone for a little while. What did you do to your Aunt Georgia?"
"Maybe you should ask her what she did to Sydney instead."
"You broke her remote and threatened her."
"She beat up my sister! She deserves worse than she got."
"Aunt Georgia said she threw a tantrum."
I shot off the bed like it was on fire and pulled the dresser aside so hard, I knocked some stuff off the top. "Yeah? Well why don't you look at what she did?"
Momma stepped into the room sideways through the opening I'd left. Hayley was sitting up against the headboard. Sydney hopped off the bed and bounded over to Momma. She threw her arms around her waist. Momma hugged her, then held her out at arm's length. The lip was still swollen, and the bruise showed up brighter against her pale cheek.
"Oh my God," Momma said. Her voice was shaking. "I am so sorry, baby."
"You weren't here, and she beat up your kid! I thought you said things would be better here!" I said roughly. I wanted Momma to feel sorry. That burning feeling I had about Momma last summer was back. I wanted Momma to suffer because she let Sydney get hurt.
Momma looked like I'd just punched her in the stomach. Good. She said, "She said she only slapped her once. She said she just kept saying the same word over and over."
"Bufflye," Sydney said, nodding.
"Oh, honey, you've got to stop with the butterflies."
"Why?" I said. "Why doesn't your aunt have to stop being so horrible? She's the one who needs to stop!"
Momma's eyes got wide. She glanced over at Hayley before answering me. "We can't do this, Cara. Don't you realize we have no place else to go?"
She had never told me that, but I had already guessed that was why we were there. "The street is better than this."
"No, it's not," she said. Tears ran down her face and smeared her mascara. I hoped it stained her face black permanently.
"It's not," Hayley echoed quietly. I was going to say something snotty to her, but then I saw her face and didn't want to anymore.
I continued, "Why can't we at least go to school? You could drive us. Then we wouldn't be stuck here with her all the time."
"Baby, school just... well, it isn't an option right now." Momma dried her face off with her hands. Her makeup was smeared all over.
"Why not?" I demanded.
"It just isn't. That's all you need to know right now."
I thought for a second, then said, "This is about Bo, isn't it? Bo is the reason we can't go to school, isn't he? He'd find out where we are. And he'd do something to us."
Momma sniffled. "No, of course not. Everything's fine. Well, Aunt Georgia needs help getting dinner ready," she said. "See you in a little while."
"We're not coming down for dinner," I announced. She left quickly and closed the door behind her.
Chapter Nine - Of Course
Sometime after Halloween, Sydney started to get sick. She had always been a little frail, catching colds all the time and having to go to the doctor a lot. This sickness was different, though. She would be okay one day and then have a fever for two. She had to rest a lot, and she mostly stopped playing around or skipping or making noise. She spent a lot of time wrapped in her quilt at the end of the couch, watching whatever Aunt Georgia had on TV. I was worried, but there wasn't much I could do. Momma said it was probably a virus that was taking a long time to go away. "Nothing to do but rest and drink a lot of water," Momma said.
Aunt Georgia didn't yell at Syd or hit her anymore. She didn't pay her much attention, but at least she wasn't mean to her. I decided to accept it as it was, but I still didn't want to leave my sister with her, just in case. So I stuck around the house while Sydney was awake. Even though I wanted out of that house so badly I could taste it, I waited until Syd was napping to go outside--except for when Hayley and I fed the horses in the morning, of course. Syd's naps got longer and longer, sometimes three hours. So my afternoons were free to do whatever I wanted. Hayley didn't want to go back to the stable, probably because she had been doing it for so long, it felt like work and not an escape. That was all right, though. I kind of liked going in the middle of the day by myself. It was the only time I was ever alone and not watching out for somebody else. I felt guilty for liking that, but not guilty enough to stop going. Since my nose had gotten used to the stink of manure that hung in the air, I could stay there as long as I wanted without gagging. All I could really do was talk to the horses and sit around. Hayley didn't want me getting the horses out by myself. I thought I was getting pretty good at leading the horses around and not getting bitten or kicked, but Hayley thought it was too dangerous to let me handle them without her.
Worse than being stuck inside all the time, the weaker Syd got, the less she wished for things. She didn't seem to care much about making her teddy bear dance or getting popsicles or having barn cats visit the upstairs bedroom. It seemed like wishing wore her out. Hayley caught on and stopped asking her to do tricks, as well. Syd still smiled at our silliness and demanded that we read her books and draw butterflies. But she only seemed like she was halfway herself.
One day, I woke up to find the room deserted and the house quiet except for the sound of the cold wind rattling the windows. I must have been so tired from staying up late watching videos with Hayley, I had slept later than I thought. I got dressed quickly and wandered downstairs. Momma was already home from work but was still wearing her BP uniform. She was washing dishes at the sink. Syd looked up at me with her usual smile and went back to drawing on the backs of old papers Aunt Georgia had let her have.
"Where's Aunt Georgia?" I asked.
"Oh, she went to Herscher, " Momma said absently. "Meeting with a buyer." She turned around and dropped a kiss on my forehead. "You finally awake?"
"Yup." I grabbed a cereal bowl and poured myself some Rice Krispies.
"Look! Bufflyes!" Sydney said proudly, shoving a sheet of paper at me. Sure enough, there was a shape on the paper that looked like a butterfly and not her usual scribbles.
"Whoa, Syd, did you do this? It's pretty great!"
"Uh-huh! Hayley helped me." She grinned proudly, her tongue sliding from side to side once.
Just then, the bathroom door opened, and Hayley came out.
"Not bad," I said to her, pointing to the picture Syd had drawn. She smirked.
Momma dried her hands and turned to me. "Cara, I'm gonna go shower now. I have a couple of errands to run before lunch. Wash your bowl when you're done, okay?"
"Can we go with?" I asked.
"Not today, sweetie. Sorry."
She gave me a quick sideways hug and headed for the bathroom. Hayley joined me at the table. Sydney shoved a blue crayon into her hand and said, "Make bufflyes!"
Hayley looked at me and rolled her eyes a little. I mouthed, "I know" and accepted the purple crayon that was thrust into my own hand. We sat there drawing for a while. Hayley wasn't too bad at drawing.
"Where's Herbert Hoover?" Syd asked.
"Uh, the stable...where he always is," I said.
"I wanna see Herbert Hoover."
"Syd, you can't. You had a fever yesterday." I felt her forehead. "You still feel like you have a fever."
"Want to see Herbert Hoover," she insisted.
"Syd, you know what Momma and Aunt Georgia said. You can't. You have to wait til you're all better."
Sydney went back to drawing, but she muttered again, "Wanna see Herbert Hoover."
I still didn't know what she saw in that dumb old horse. Thing was as mean as I'd ever seen anyone be. But the horse had never even so much as stomped at her, and I couldn't deny that they had some weird sort of bond going on.
The shower turned on in the bathroom. I finished my cereal, then scraped out the bowl and went over to the sink to wash it out. I let the water run over the back of the bowl for a while and watched the little waterfall it made sparkle in the morning sunlight. I don't know how long I zoned out staring at the water, but Syd started squawk-laughing about something. Hayley said in a strange tone, "Uh, Cara? You might want to look at this."
Just then, I heard a knock at the back door. Well, not exactly a knock. More like a thud and a bang. I turned around to see Herbert Hoover himself at the back door, stomping his foot on the porch and nodding his huge head up and down. His nostrils flared, and his lips were drawn back, revealing his yellowed horsey teeth. I jumped about a mile.
"Sydney Clements, you can't wish a horse into the house! It won't fit! We'll all get in trouble!"
Sydney ignored me and went to the back door. She threw it open, and Herbert Hoover stepped over the threshold and into the kitchen. My sister reached up her arms toward him, and he lowered his head to nuzzle her. She laid both hands on his head and stroked him lovingly.
"Missed you," she said.
Herbert Hoover whinnied in response.
"Oh my gosh! What do we do?" Hayley asked in a whisper. "If that horse poops on the floor, Grandma is going to kill us!"
"We've got to get it out of here," I said, taking hold of Herbert Hoover's bridle. "Come on, buddy, let's get you back to the stable where you belong."
Herbert Hoover didn't budge, and Sydney cried out, "Nooo!" She tried to push my hands away from the horse's bridle. She was stronger this morning than she had been in a while. I actually had to brace myself so I didn't fall over.
"Girls?" Momma called from the bathroom. "What's going on?"
"Nothing," Hayley and I exclaimed in unison.
"Syd," I whispered fiercely. "Momma's gonna catch you. She's right there in the next room. What do you think will happen if she finds out about the wishing?"
"The bufflyes'll go away," she answered gravely. Her hands let go of mine.
"That's right. The butterflies will go away. We have to get him out of here right now before anyone sees him."
"'Kay," she said.
I tried to push Herbert Hoover backwards, but he resisted and stomped impatiently on the floor. His hoof left a little dent in the old, green and yellow linoleum.
"Shoot!" Hayley said.
"Girls?" Momma asked. The shower shut off. We had to get that horse out of the kitchen immediately.
"What?" I asked.
"What was that noise?"
"Oh, I, uh, dropped a jar. Of jelly."
"Be careful of the glass, okay?"
"I got it. No problem," I called. Then to Hayley, "What do we do?"
"Can't she wish him back?" she asked.
"She doesn't really want him to go, so probably not," I said. Truth was, Sydney looked like a mess, and I didn't want her making any more wishes and wearing herself out.
"Carrots," Hayley said. "Get some out of the fridge. And some apples. We'll have to lure him out."
I obeyed, and with a lot of pushing, begging, and praying, we got Herbert Hoover to back up just enough to get his body out of the kitchen and back onto the back porch. He had obviously not been trained to walk backwards, so it was hard work. Just as I was shutting the door on the horse, Momma stepped out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel. Her eyes got wide, and her mouth dropped open.
"What is that?!" she exclaimed in a voice that was on the edge of becoming a shriek.
"Nothing, Momma. Herbert Hoover got out of his stall," I said quickly.
Hayley forced her way through the door, shoving me back a foot or two. "Sorry, Aunt Melissa," Hayley said. "I must have forgotten to lock up all the stalls when I finished feeding the horses this morning."
"How did he get all the way up here?"
"Beats me," Hayley answered. "We gotta get him back to the stable before Grandma sees this. She'll be mad, for sure."
Momma nodded, her eyes and mouth never losing their perfect O shapes.
"Please don't tell, Aunt Melissa! We'll take care of it. No harm done, right?" Hayley begged her.
Momma said, "Course not. Okay. Better get it out of here quick, then."
Sydney put on her best innocent face and sat back down at the table with her crayons and paper. She rocked herself back and forth a little and hummed tunelessly. I hoped Momma was convinced, because I wasn't. A tiny trickle of blood started to run from one of her nostrils. I grabbed a napkin and held it up to my sister's nose. That shook Momma out of her daze. She took some more napkins out of the holder and came over.
"Go, go. You've got a horse to hide," she said, shooing my hands away from Sydney's face. She put the fresh napkins to her nose.
"Thanks. See you later!" I said, grabbing my flannel shirt from the back of my chair and bolting out the door. I let it slam by accident, but Aunt Georgia was not home; it didn't matter if I made noise at this point.
I had to talk to Syd about not wishing for any more horses in the house. That girl was going to be the death of me.