Toast — the end
Nine nights at Miss B’s.
The Sun rose nine days later. I know it was nine because the day after we had to leave, Miss B took us to church with her. That was Sunday. Yesterday was another Sunday, and today I opened my eyes to see my borrowed church dress hanging up in the closet on the low bar that I could reach by myself.
It was pink with checkers and a crochet collar, and I was careful to not spill any juice on it at the fellowship hall after the service. Miss B’s whole family was nice to let us use their clothes and whatnot since we didn’t have much to pack and no suitcases to put nothin’ in.
It sure was nice waking up at Miss B’s house, where the Sun greeted you through the window and there was always breakfast. I didn’t mind helping to collect eggs or scrape the honeycombs or milk the cows because even when I did things wrong, Miss B never yelled. I loved Miss B and Miss B loved me. She loved my sisters too, but they didn’t need as much watchin’ as I did.
Mr. B caught me peeking around the corner and asked if I wanted any hot cocoa this morning. I said yes please and thank you and I made my way around the table to my seat — the one by the window where it was too hard for grownups to get to, but just-right for me.
Daddy was sitting at the table. I kept my eyes locked on him, waiting for an apology. Waiting for him to say what a mistake he made or that it was all a big joke and that we should come back home now.
Miss B made toast in the oven. She didn’t believe in toasters because hungry families couldn’t wait for two pieces at a time, and there were chores to do. She set a stack up tall as the glass milk pitcher in the center of the table. I noticed her eyes were red and puffy like that time the bee stung her. She said it wasn’t the bee’s fault, but that’s why we don’t be mean or swat at them. I wondered if she went to scrape the honeycombs without me.
Daddy grabbed the top piece and went at it with his butter knife.
I didn’t know why daddy didn’t just eat bread, the way he scratched away at all the golden-brown crisp until it yielded like a worry rock. He always read the paper while he scraped — he relied on sound alone to tell him when he’d gone far enough. I heard some people saw the face of Jesus there, in their toast, and maybe he was afraid he’d see it too, if he looked. I never seen nobody’s face in my toast but it would probably scare me pretty bad if I did.
I climbed up in the chair in my borrowed night gown, and it rode up my legs just as I sunk my bottom to the wooden seat. The crumbs from daddy’s toast dug into the baby fat still clinging to the backside of my legs. When I shifted, they burrowed deeper. The burn and itch started spreading as my daddy let out a long sigh.
“I already talked to some of my kinfolk in Texas, and they’re gonna take those big girls. But Gemma’s too little to remember anything, so you can go ahead and take her.”
I realized then that there were two other people at the table. A man and a woman. They looked like a grandma and a grandpa. I hadn’t paid much attention to them at first, but now he was swirling the coffee around in his cup and she sat with her hands folded around her napkin, thumb flicking at an applique flower.
He was talking to them. Not to Mr. and Miss B. He was telling these people that they could take me. My vision started going dark. I couldn’t feel anything.
Except the crumbs. The crumbs were cutting my legs. They must be. I must be bleeding because I feel like all my blood is gone.
I slid down under the table and bolted for the bedroom. I burrowed head-first into the Bugs Bunny sleeping bag I’d spent the last nine nights in, hoping they’d forget about me. Annabelle followed me and curled up next to me. I could hear her soft voice steady through my sobs. She rubbed my back, trying to calm my chattering and convulsing with every jagged breath.
“I can’t go with them. I need you. Please don’t let them take me away.”
It was a burden I had no right to foist upon my sister, who at the age of 13 had been more of a mother to me than any I’d been dealt, or any I’d ever have. But she didn’t have the authority to stop this train from leaving the station.
I couldn’t even wave good-bye. The pickup’s canopy blocked my view of the house. We drove and drove and drove some more. I saw lots of kids in other cars and I wondered if they had to leave their families and go with strangers, too. We stopped at a store and they got me orange juice and then I threw up because orange juice makes me car sick but they didn’t know. I tried to tell them but they thought I was just sad and that a little orange juice would make me feel better.
Throwing up made me feel better.
I fell asleep half way through the drive. I woke up thinking I’d see them again soon — all of them — but I wouldn’t. Because that’s not how it works. I would spend almost the rest of my life being bothered by crumbs on my chair and not knowing why.
Every time I thought I knew, my mother — the one whose worried hands picked and rubbed at that appliqued napkin — would tell me it never happened. And for a long time I believed her. After all, how could it?