Cancer was what we told everyone, but it wasn’t true. My father had died of something that was, at least to us, a lot more shameful. It conjured up images of dirty needles and shady characters and nights when we hoped he would come back home, and not just because he wanted to unplug our television and take it “for a little while, to get a loan to tide us over.” We told people cancer and they believed us and were sympathetic. When he died, there was just me and Patsy. She was a year younger than I was, and I lived for her. Since we were technically minors, we were going to have to go into foster care, but I worked on my Dad’s sister Fern when she came for the cremation and memorial and guilted her into taking us. Aunt Fern lived in the country, way out in Tennessee in a town we had never heard of.
Patsy and I caught the Trailways bus to Medford. Nine and a half hours from Chicago, and when we got there, we were tired and hungry and it was past ten o’clock at night. Aunt Fern hugged us both awkwardly and looked surprised that we had only one suitcase apiece.
“Is that everything?” she asked.
I nodded, answering for Patsy and me the way I often did.
“Well, nothing wrong with traveling light,” Aunt Fern said brightly. But I could see a flash of pity in her eyes. “I’ve got dinner waiting for you. If you’re up to eating.”
Aunt Fern’s house was out in the middle of nowhere, five miles outside of town on an old farm. We pulled up in front of the old clapboard house with wraparound porch and I realized that there were no other lights visible for miles, no neighbors to speak of. Far cry from the city life we were used to. While Patsy seemed thrilled at this, I was not. I liked my solitude, but I was used to having busy places and lots of people to disappear among. This new home of ours would provide neither.
Inside, I took everything in. The simple, Shaker-style unfinished wood furniture, the threadbare rugs on raw, unpolished floors. Everything was utilitarian, nothing decorative. The kitchen was the same, with pots and pans, blackened from over-use hanging above the stove, and a refrigerator shoved into a corner next to a door that led out back. There was a kitchen table, set for four, and in its center was laid out a full meal of fried chicken, cornbread, rice and beans. At the table stood a woman I did not know. She was smiling, welcoming us.
“You must be Jennifer and Patricia,” she said.
“Jen and Patsy,” I said reflexively.
She nodded. “Jen and Patsy, then.”
She moved to hug us and I let her, holding myself stiffly. Patsy leaned into the hug, compensating as always for my lack of warmth by being overly warm herself.
“I’m Noreen,” she said.
Noreen had a Southern accent so thick, it almost seemed put on. It was an unwelcome reminder of where we were, deep in the South and far away from everything with which we were familiar.
“This meal is way too heavy for so late at night,” Noreen said. “But I couldn’t help myself. I was so excited when I heard y’all were coming to stay. Wanted to make sure you got a proper welcome party.”
Aunt Fern was standing aside, taking it all in, probably seeing how we would respond to each other. She needn’t have worried. I already knew that I had to make myself as agreeable as possible at least until I was eighteen and could take legal charge of myself and Patsy. Ten months, that was all the time I would need. Even I could be agreeable for at least that long.
“This looks wonderful,” Patsy said. “Smells wonderful too.”
“Let me show you both to your rooms, and then we’ll come back down and eat,” Aunt Fern said.
Upstairs, there was a long dimly-lit hall at the end of which were two bedrooms with opposite facing doors. I had the one on the right, with the double bed covered by a pink and sea-green quilt. There was also a no-nonsense bureau and mirror and a desk with a chair. The room smelled of Murphy’s Oil Soap and the window had been thrown open, most likely to help banish the strong odor of the cleaning agent. Patsy’s room was the smaller of the two, but the furniture was identical, and she too had a window just over her bed. Aunt Fern left us alone to unburden ourselves of our luggage, pointing out the sole bathroom before she left.
As soon as she deposited her things, Patsy came over to my room, throwing herself across the bed.
“I like it here already,” she said. “Don’t you?”
I shrugged. “It’s fine, I guess.”
“Just think of it as an adventure, Jen,” she said. “Or a long vacation from Chicago.”
“I don’t have to think of it as anything,” I said. “It is what it is.”
“Well, you be that way if you want,” Patsy said. “I’m planning on liking it.”
She bounded out of the room and moments later I heard her chattering away to Aunt Fern and Noreen about how much she loved cornbread. I sat on the edge of my bed for a few minutes more and tried to get my mind wrapped around this new life of ours, and leave the old one behind. I still thought about our father and the way he’d gone – a quiet, peaceful death in his bed – and I was grateful it had been that way, but I missed him. Even in all his madness he’d loved us. Now all we had was each other and an aunt who had grudgingly taken us in. I could hear him in my head, telling me I thought too much. He was right; I did.
Downstairs, they had started eating without me. Aunt Fern kept her head down as she ate, obviously eating was to her only a biological necessity but Noreen and Patsy were enjoying the meal and making small talk as they ate.
“We thought maybe you’d fallen asleep,” Noreen said as I entered.
“We made you a plate,” Patsy said, sliding it toward me.
There were two pieces of chicken and generous helpings of the sides. It was more than I could eat, but I decided to give it a try, taking a bite of the chicken. The flavor of it exploded in my mouth and my appetite was revived. Like Aunt Fern, I decided to let Noreen and Patsy cover the dinnertime pleasantries. When we were all done, Noreen put on a kettle and made tea, then tried to coax us into eating a slice of her apple pie. I was too full and said so, but Patsy dove right in.
“Tomorrow I have to take you both over to get enrolled at the school,” Aunt Fern said. “I need to send proof of enrollment back to the guardian ad litem in Chicago. It’ll be pretty early, so you both should probably go get some sleep.”
Grateful to be dismissed, I stood right away and was almost at the stairs before I remembered to turn back and thank Noreen for the meal.
“Oh it’s no problem, sugar,” she said warmly. “You’re family, after all.”
I was half-asleep, snug under the quilt and hugging my pillow when Patsy crept into my room and slid into bed beside me.
We were awakened the next morning by Aunt Fern rapping on our doors, telling us that it was time to get up and get ready to go over to the school. The sun was streaming in my bedroom window and across the quilt and Patsy was no longer with me. She had probably grown weary of my snoring and gone back to her own bed in the middle of the night. I clambered out of bed and grabbed some stuff for a shower, heading down the hall to the bathroom. There was no tub, just a shower stall with a window inside it that allowed you to look out across the rear of the house and feel the morning breeze on your face while you washed up. The expanse of the land was now apparent in the morning light. It was flat, green and lush and looked like you could walk for hours and never meet another living soul.
As I got out of the shower, I bumped into Patsy who was brushing her teeth at the tiny sink. She grinned at me with toothpaste foam spilling out of her mouth, clearly no less enthusiastic about our new home than she had been the night before. Her wavy brown hair was pulled back at her nape and she was wearing her favorite striped pajama bottoms and a white tank. They were the same nightclothes she wore back home in Chicago, but looked strangely out of place here.
In my room, I pulled out my cell phone and turned it on, waiting to see whether I could get a signal. I did, but it was a weak one that would probably fade if I moved around too much. It was all academic anyway, since I had no one I wanted to call. Buried in my suitcase, I also had a laptop, practically brand new. I’d splurged on it with the meager funds Patsy and I had because I knew we would probably need one for school and thought it too much to ask that our aunt foot the bill for it in addition to feeding and housing us. In Chicago, it was possible not to have your own computer and still make it through school because there was a computer lab, the library and people we could mooch off of, but I had no idea what it would be like here. Who knew if there was even internet service in this hick town.
Noreen’s breakfast was as impressive as her dinner the night before had been. There was scrambled eggs and country bacon, orange juice and homemade biscuits waiting for us but Noreen was nowhere in sight. Aunt Fern was waiting outside in her truck, so we ate quickly and pulled the door as we left.
“Should we lock it?” I asked as I slid into the cab next to her.
She laughed. “Nope. No need.”
“Cool,” Patsy said.
The drive to town took a lot less time than it had seemed the night before, and Medford appeared a lot smaller. The entire town seemed to have been built around the city hall, which sat in the center of a traffic circle from which all other streets originated. We entered town on Shaw and drove around the circle until we got to Hillman where Aunt Fern turned right. On Hillman Street there were rows of shops and eventually a large red brick building which turned out to be the Medford School, K through 12 all housed in one sprawling building.
“Everything’s been sent over, so you should be good to go,” Aunt Fern said. “We just need to check in with the office and get your assigned classes straightened out.”
“We’re going to school today?” Patsy asked.
“Why? Were you hoping for some time off?” Aunt Fern asked.
“No, I guess I just thought it would take a little longer to get stuff settled,” I said.
“Nope. ‘S all been taken care of,” Aunt Fern said.
She was wearing overalls, like a housepainter and her dark curly hair was pulled back with a bandana. I realized that I didn’t know anything about her other than that she was our father’s older sister. I didn’t even know what she did for a living.
Inside Medford School was surprisingly modern, and I guessed it was a new construction, no more than five years old. That made me optimistic that there would a reliable internet connection at least, and maybe a decent library where you could get current DVDs. The administrative offices were a surprise as well and better equipped than that in our old high school back in Chicago. Patsy’s eyes met mine and there was triumph in her expression, silently telling me that her optimism had been vindicated.
“I’ve got Jennifer and Patricia Daeger here to register,” Aunt Fern said to the receptionist without greeting.
“Of course. We’ve been expecting them,” the woman at the receptionist desk said. “Hello, girls. I’m Deborah. Principal MacFarlane will see you shortly.”
We sat together in the waiting room for about ten minutes before a stout woman emerged from an office and looked over the top of her glasses at us. She smiled and held out a hand to each of us, then turned once again to Aunt Fern.
“Come on in, Fern. Let’s have a few words before I bring in the girls.”
Aunt Fern followed her into the office and Patsy and I were left alone with Deborah who seemed to have been just waiting for her chance.
“So Chicago, huh?” she said sotto voce. “What was that like?”
“Dangerous,” Patsy said in a voice I recognized as teasing. “Very dangerous.”
“Was it?” Deborah asked. She drawled her a’s so that ‘was’ came out as ‘whuzz’. I stifled a smile and looked away.
“It was,” Patsy said. “It’s a wonder we made it out alive.”
Deborah laughed. “Oh, you’re just messin’ with me,” she said. “You’re a handful, aren’t you?”
“Actually that’d be my sister,” Patsy said.
Just as Deborah was about to respond, someone came walking in and blocked our view of the reception desk. He was tall and broad-shouldered, and wore faded jeans, work boots and a plaid shirt with the tails hanging out. All the men in Medford seemed to dress this way as far as I’d seen. I wouldn’t have paid much attention but for the way Deborah’s posture changed when he showed up. She squared her shoulders and practically batted her eyelashes at him, flashing a winning smile.
“What can I do for you, Seth?”
“Messed up and overslept again,” he said. “I need this signed, or Mr. Marshall says I’m out for the day.”
“Third time in two weeks, Seth,” Deborah sang, already reaching for a pen. “What’re we going to do with you?”
She seemed to like saying his name for some reason. Patsy and I were both transfixed, waiting for him to turn around, imagining that he must be something special to make a grown woman behave in this manner.
“What are you going to do with me?” Seth asked.
Patsy and I looked at each other and snickered. But then he turned around and we were both silenced. The words ‘genetically gifted’ sprang to mind. Though not perfect by any means, Seth was one of those people whose features in isolation might seem ordinary but the combination of which made for a very pleasing package. Olive complexion, hazel eyes and hair the color of wheat. His eyes were heavy-lidded and when he blinked, it was almost languorously, as though he was bored with everything and everyone.
“Hey,” he said, when he spotted me and Patsy.
“Hey,” Patsy said back at him.
I just stared, thinking of every corny teen movie I had ever seen where the perfectly ordinary girl meets the extraordinary guy and manages against all odds to make him interested in her. But my life didn’t work like that. Just then Principal MacFarlane opened her office door and seeing Seth standing there rolled her eyes.
“Mr. Medford,” she said, her tone exasperated. “Will you please, please get to class?”
Patsy and I simultaneously whipped our heads around to look at each other. Had she said Medford?