by Ann H. Gabhart
Angel Sister A Novel
By Ann H. Gabhart
Something woke Kate Merritt. Her eyes flew open and her heart began to thump in her ears. She couldn’t see a thing. Not even a hint of moonlight was filtering through the lace curtains at the bedroom window. The dark night wrapped around her like a thick blanket as she stared up toward her bedroom ceiling and fervently hoped it was nothing but a bad dream shaking her awake.
Next to Kate, Evie’s breath was whisper quiet. Her sister obviously hadn’t heard whatever it was that had jerked Kate from sleep. Slowly Kate’s eyes began adjusting to the darkness, but she didn’t need to see to know how Evie’s red hair would be spread around her head like a halo. Or that even in sleep she’d have a death grip on the top sheet so Kate couldn’t pull it off her. Kate always woke up every day with her pillow on the floor and her hair sticking out in all directions. The total opposite of Evie, who got up with barely a rumple in her nightgown.
Just a couple of mornings ago, their mother had laughed as she smoothed down Kate’s tangled dark brown hair. “Don’t you worry about not being as ladylike as Evangeline. Your sister’s going on seventeen. When you get older, you’ll be more like her.”
Kate jerked away from her mother. “Like Evie? I don’t have to be, do I? That would be awful. Really awful,” she said before she thought. Kate was always doing that. Saying things before she thought.
But she didn’t want to be like Evie. Ever. Evie wouldn’t climb trees or catch frogs down at the creek. She even claimed to prefer reading inside by the oil lamp instead of playing hide-and-seek after dark. The truth was she was scared of her shadow.
Evie wasn’t only worried about things in the dark. Day or night she shrieked if anybody so much as mentioned Fern Lindell. True, Fern—who lived down the road—was off her rocker, but Kate wasn’t a bit afraid of her. At least not unless she was carrying around her little axe. Then anybody with any sense knew to stay away from her.
One thing sure, Kate had sense. That was because she was the middle sister, and the middle sister had to learn early on to take care of herself. And not only herself. Half the time she had to take care of Evie too, and all the time Tori who turned ten last month.
In the cot across the room, Tori was breathing soft and peaceful. So Tori hadn’t been what woke Kate, but something had. Kate raised her head up off her pillow and listened. The middle sister had to make sure everything was all right. Kate didn’t mind. She might be only fourteen, but she knew things. She kept her eyes and ears open and did what had to be done. Of course sometimes it might be better to be like Evie, who had a way of simply ignoring anything that didn’t fit into her idea of how things should be, or Tori, who didn’t worry about much except whether she could find enough worms to go fishing. Neither of them was holding her breath waiting to see if the bump in the night might be their father sneaking in after being out drinking.
Victor Merritt learned to drink in France. At least that’s what Kate overheard Aunt Hattie telling Mama a few months back. They didn’t know she heard them. She was supposed to be at school, but she’d run back home to get the history report she left on the table by the front door. Kate tiptoed across the porch and inched the door open to keep it from creaking. She aimed to grab the paper and be in and out without her mother hearing her. That way she’d only be in hot water at school and not at home too.
They didn’t know she was there. Not even Aunt Hattie, who just about always knew everything. After all, she’d delivered nearly every baby who’d been born in Rosey Corner since the turn of the century thirty-six years ago. A lot of folks avoided Aunt Hattie unless a baby was on the way or they needed somebody to do their wash, but not Mama. She said you might not be able to depend on a lot in this world, but you could depend on Aunt Hattie telling you the truth. Like it or not.
That morning last spring when Kate had crept back in the house and heard her mother and Aunt Hattie, it sounded as if Kate’s mother wasn’t liking a lot of things. She was crying. The sound pierced Kate and pinned her to the floor right inside the door. She hardly dared breathe. She should have grabbed the paper and gone right back out the door. That was what she should have done, but instead she stood still as a stone and listened. Of course she knew her father drank. Everybody in Rosey Corner knew that.
Nothing stayed secret long in their little community. Two churches, one school, two general stores—the one run by Grandfather Merritt had a gasoline pump—and her father’s blacksmith shop.
“But why?” Kate’s mother said between sobs.
Aunt Hattie didn’t sound cross the way she sometimes did when people started crying around her. Instead she sounded like she might be about to cry herself. Kate couldn’t remember ever seeing Aunt Hattie cry. Not even when she talked about her son dying in the war over in France.
“Some answers we can’t be seein’, Nadine. We wasn’t over there. But our Victor was. Men right beside him died. He got some whiffs of that poison gas those German devils used. He laid down on the cold hard ground and stared up at the same moon you was starin’ up at but without the first idea of whether or not he’d ever be looking at it with you again. He couldn’t even be sure he’d see the sun come up.”
“No, no, that’s not what I meant.” Kate’s mother swallowed back her tears, and her voice got stronger, more like Kate was used to hearing. “I mean, why now? I grant you he started drinking over there, but when he got home, he didn’t drink all that much. Just a nip now and again, but lately he dives into the bottle like he wants to drown in it.”
“It ain’t got the first thing to do with you, child. He still loves his girls.” Now Aunt Hattie’s voice was soft and kind, the voice she used when she was talking to some woman about to have a baby.
“The girls perhaps. Me, I’m not so sure anymore.” Kate couldn’t see her mother, but she knew the look that would be on her face. Her lips would be mashed together like she had just swallowed something that tasted bad.
“You can be sure. I knows our Victor. I’s the first person to ever lay eyes on him when he come into the world. And a pitiful sight he was. Barely bigger than my hand. His mama, Miss Juanita, had trouble carryin’ her babies. We lost the two before Victor. You remember Miss Juanita. How she was prone to the vapors. She was sure we would lose Victor even after he made the journey out to daylight and pulled in that first breath, but no how was I gonna let that happen. Raised him right alongside my own boy. Bo was four when our Victor was born.”
Kate heard a chair creak as if maybe her mother had shifted to get more comfortable. Everybody knew it wasn’t any use trying to stop Aunt Hattie when she started talking about her boy. “My Bo was a sturdy little feller. Stronger and smarter than most. Soon’s Victor started walking, Bo took it upon hisself to watch out for him. Miss Juanita paid him some for it once he got older.” Aunt Hattie paused as if realizing she’d gone a little far afield. “Anyhows that’s how I knows Victor hasn’t stopped carin’ about you, girl, ‘cause I know our Victor. He’s just strugglin’ some now what with the way things is goin’ at his shop. Folks is wantin’ to drive those motorcars and puttin’ their horses out to pasture. It ain’t right, but a pile of things that happen ain’t right.”
Kate expected Aunt Hattie to start talking about Bo dying in France, but she didn’t. Instead she stopped talking altogether, and it was so quiet that Kate was sure they’d hear her breathing. She wanted to step backward, out the door, but she had to wait until somebody said something. The only noise was the slow tick of the clock on the mantel and the soft hiss of water heating on the cooking stove. Nothing that would cover up the sound of her sneaking out of the house.
Kate was up to fifty-five ticks when her mother finally spoke again. “I don’t believe in drinking alcohol to hide from your problems.”
“No way you could with how your own daddy has been preaching against that very thing since the beginnin’ of time. Preacher Reece, he don’t cut nobody no slack.”
“There are better ways of handling troubles than making more troubles by drinking too much.” Mama’s voice didn’t have the first hint of doubt in it.
“I ain’t arguing with you, Nadine. I’s agreein’ all the way.”
“Then what am I supposed to do, Aunt Hattie?”
“I ain’t got no answers. Alls I can do is listen and maybe talk to one who does have the answers.”
“I’ve been praying.”
“Course you have, but maybe we can join our prayers together. It says in the Good Book that where two or more agree on something, the Lord pays attention. Me. You. We’s two.”
“Pray with me right now, Aunt Hattie. For Victor. And the girls.” Her mother hesitated before she went on. “Especially Kate. She’s picked up some of the load I can’t seem to make myself shoulder.”
In the front room, Kate pulled in her breath.
“Don’t you be worryin’ none about that child. She’s got some broad shoulders. Here, grab hold of my hands.” Aunt Hattie’s voice changed, got a little louder as if she wanted to make sure the Lord could hear her plain. “Our holy Father who watches over us up in heaven. May we always honor ever’ living day you give us. We praise you for lettin’ us have this very day right now. And for sending us trials and tribulations so that we can learn to lean on you.” She fell silent a moment as if considering those tribulations. Then she started praying again. “Help our Victor. You knows what he needs better than me or even your sweet child, Nadine here. Turn him away from the devil’s temptations and bring him home to his family. Not just his feet but his heart too. And strengthen that family and watch over them, each and every one. Increase their joy and decrease their sorrow. Especially our Katherine Reece. Put your hand over top her and keep her from wrong.”
Kate didn’t wait to hear any more. She felt like Aunt Hattie’s eyes were seeing right through the walls and poking into her. Seeing her doing wrong right that moment as she stood there eavesdropping on them. Kate snatched her history paper off the table and tiptoed out of the house. Once off the porch she didn’t stop running until she was going up the steps into the school.
The prayer hadn’t worked yet. At least not the part about her father resisting the devil’s temptation to go out drinking. Kate worried that the Lord hadn’t answered Aunt Hattie’s prayer because Kate had been listening when she shouldn’t have been. As if somehow that had made the prayer go sideways instead of up toward heaven the way Aunt Hattie had intended.
Now Kate stayed perfectly still to keep the bedsprings from squeaking as she listened intently for whatever had awakened her. The front screen door rattled against the doorframe. That could have been the wind if any wind had been blowing, but then there was a bump as somebody ran into the table beside the door. Kate let out her breath as she sat up on the side of the bed and felt for a match. After she lit the small kerosene lamp, she didn’t bother fishing under the bed for her shoes. The night was hot, and her father had made it through the front door.
“Please don’t get sick.” She mouthed the words silently as she adjusted the wick to keep the flame low. She hated cleaning up after him when he got sick. From the sour smell of alcohol creeping back into the bedroom toward her, she guessed he might have already been sick before he came inside. She looked back at Evie as she stood up. Evie looked just as Kate had imagined her moments earlier, but she didn’t fool Kate. She was awake. Her eyes were shut too tight, and Kate couldn’t be positive in the dim light, but she thought she saw a tear on her cheek. “No sense crying now, Evie. Daddy’s home,” Kate whispered softly.
Evie kept pretending to be asleep, but tears were definitely sliding out of the corners of her eyes. Kate sighed as she turned away from the bed. “Go on back to sleep, Evie. I’ll take care of him.”
Kate carried her lamp toward the front room where her father was tripping over the rocking chair. She wondered if her mother was lying in her bed pretending to sleep and if she had tears on her cheeks. She wouldn’t get up. Not even if Daddy fell flat on his face in the middle of the floor. She couldn’t. Not and keep cooking him breakfast when daylight came. Kate knew that. She didn’t know how she knew it, but she did.