I locked up my cinderblock cottage and drove straight east from New Mexico, outrunning a December snowstorm coming off the Sangre de Cristo Range. Two days later, when I coasted bleary over the Virginia border and saw the familiar line of haze and mountains, I felt something like yearning. I was twenty-three, and hadn’t seen Mom—or anyone else—in two years.
Mom’s house was quiet when I pulled up. I stood in the driveway, looking at the three stories of ugly salmon brick, at the salt-stained concrete path, at the front door with its clash of red paint. I wondered who I’d find—Mom had a fondness for drifters.
I walked the puzzle of rooms, calling out. The huge house was closeted and dim, and felt older than it really was. My old bedroom on the third floor had been relegated to tenants long ago, and over the years every inch of the house had been torn down and reconfigured: doors moved, windows blocked, walls added. She’d covered the solid walnut floors with carpet remnants and throw rugs. “All that dark wood is depressing,” she always said.
I hadn’t told anyone I was coming. I discovered my little sister, [End Page 17] Jasmine, reading in her airless bedroom, the heavy drapes over the bay window pulled back to show Mom’s never-finished reglazing project. A ladder leaned against the glass outside, in the same position as two years before.
“You’re back!” Jasmine shrieked. She jumped up to hug me. “You’re back!”
I hugged her and inhaled her smell—not soap, or perfume, just good kid sweat. “For a few days. I wanted to surprise you guys … Where is everyone?” I stood back and looked at her—she was almost twelve, taller than last time, but still too thin.
“Edward and Mom went to town.”
Edward, my ex-boyfriend from high school, was still living with Mom. Last time I visited, Mom told me she’d put the house in his name, just to make sure us kids didn’t fight over it when she died. I didn’t care much about Edward and Mom, but I was anxious to see my little brother.
“Joey went too?” I asked.
“Joey doesn’t live here,” Jasmine said. She looked at me with big eyes, mouth turned up at the edges in a permanent little joker smile.
“What do you mean?”
“He lives in a big house downtown with some other kids. I got to visit him there and they have a game room, and a bunch of bicycles. He can just pick one and ride it anywhere.”
It wasn’t the first time Mom had sent Joey away, but it was still a surprise. I went to the hall and peeked inside Joey’s room. It didn’t look like a thirteen-year-old’s bedroom—it was a mess of overstuffed fruit crates from the health-food store where Mom worked, and stacks of unopened mail. I picked up a handful of papers and snooped through them. There were bills from Joey’s psychiatrist. He’d been going since he was six, ever since he got violent. Joey was the canary in our family—only instead of keeling over, he put up a fight to show us something was wrong.
I laid the bills down just as I’d found them. I waited around for a [End Page 18] while for Mom, and when she didn’t come, Jasmine and I drove a half-mile to the country store for hot cocoa.
When we got back home with our cocoa, Mom was sitting at the sticky kitchen table with a Mason jar of coffee. She sat formally, dressed as usual in neatly patched jeans and an old man’s button down—“chore clothes,” she called them. Her curly hair was still dark brown. I could tell she’d cut it herself again, wings of uncooperative hair sticking out from behind each ear.
Mom looked up at me and smiled.
I didn’t waste time saying hello. “Where’s Joey?”
“He’s where he needs to...