by Sara Solberg
Ms. McCarthy was always falling. It started last November by my recall, when she walked into church Thanksgiving morning with her wrist all wrapped in gauze, flesh bulging out on either side of the cotton like a chicken trussed too tight. Our family was sat in the pew behind her, so I could hear easy enough when Reverend made his rounds after service—hear her gush hasty apologies for her absentee brother. Money was tight you know, and the Company paid time and a half on holidays. Oh, this? Just took a tumble into the pantry, Reverend. The ladder gets slick when you’ve got fingers coated in turkey grease.
Then there was that night in February, when she struck a patch of ice on her walk home from the grocer’s. As grapevine news went, she’d pinwheeled backwards and smacked her head against the sidewalk with such impetus that her cranium near cracked like china thrown at a wall. Mr. McCarthy was the one to find her lying there. He threw her into the back of his dusty Plymouth and had the accelerator kissing the floor all forty miles to the hospital, where she stayed for a week before being sent home with a shaved patch of scalp and six stitches. She was wearing a headscarf when Mama and me brought over a casserole, the bright floral pattern too loud for their muffled house.
Come August, when the knock at our door revealed a blotchy-cheeked Ms. McCarthy—cradling a ground meat forearm to her chest, wheezing a tale about her too-hot kitchen and canned pawpaw butter and the pallet of empty jars shattering against the linoleum as she fainted clear away—her clumsiness felt as certain as a Tuesday. Mama shepherded her inside with a voice soft enough to soothe a hurricane, glancing my direction as she instructed me to fetch the tweezers from the bathroom and set the kettle on low. If it hurt to have the glass slivers picked out, or the blood blotted clean with a steaming rag, Ms. McCarthy didn’t say.
My bedroom window reflected hers, separated by only a two foot gap. I fell asleep that night with the pane pulled down, a pillow pressed hard over my ear.
“Why does she stay?” I asked one Saturday at breakfast. Daddy had already left for work. Mama was hunched over the sink, scrubbing a griddle that had been spotless five minutes past.
She stilled at the question, then drew in a lungful of warm cornbread air. A soapy hand reached out to flick the radio dial, jazz draining to a hum. She didn’t bother with the charade of needing clarification.
“I reckon her reasoning’s much the same as anyone else’s,” Mama said to the brown dishwater. “She loves him.”
I jabbed at my eggs with the prongs of my fork. “But why?”
Mama sniffed, then went back to the griddle. “He wasn’t always this way, Kate.” She straightened. Beneath the yellow fabric of her dress, I watched her shoulder blades bunch close together. “War changes folks.”
That afternoon, our world trembled, the ground vibrating like a plucked fiddle string. Silverware rattled, the living room lamp toppled and shattered, picture frames were loosed from their nails. Mama went white as chalk. Time stagnated.
Daddy flung open the front door seven prayers later, his chest heaving and expression grim. A whimper of relief peeled itself from my throat before I could stop it, but no one else seemed to hear.
“There’s been an explosion,” he said, words tumbling over one another like a landslide in their rush to escape. “At the mine. Thirty eight men are missing.”
It took a week to dig all the bodies out.
Our home was somber when Ms. McCarthy returned from identifying her brother. Mama was all hushed pity as she ushered the younger woman over to the Cheshire sofa, pressing a cup of coffee into her pliant hands.
“You’ll stay with us for the time being,” Mama said in a tone as light and comforting as puff pastry. “Kate can sleep in our room.”
Ms. McCarthy said nothing. Just stared ahead at a strip of peeling ivy wallpaper. Her face was an elegy, but I could see the glint of baptism in her eyes.
Sara Solberg is an emerging writer from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She’s an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University, where she also reads for Passages North. She can usually be found trekking through the woods surrounding her home, procrastinating on the work she should be doing. Sara’s writing has appeared in Hippocampus, The Manhattanville Review, Tiny Seed and The Other Journal.