CCW Finalist, Fiction
Daddy died in a car crash when I was nine. I’d been with him that day, and by some miracle, managed to walk away without a scratch. It was in the year following, that Anastasia came to live with us.
Summers where I grew up were almost always glaring and hot, and this August day of Anastasia’s arrival was no exception. My little brother Georgy and I, listless from heat and summer doldrums, were hanging around in the yard trying to salvage the nearly spent afternoon. I was sitting on the front lawn, patchy with grass and weeds and little white daisies, which I’d been picking to make a daisy-chain necklace.
Back then, there was still a dirt road shortcut that ran from the highway a few miles out to our neighborhood of scattered shacks and fruit orchards. From my vantage I could see dust billowing behind a truck coming our way. I glanced up occasionally from making holes in the daisy stems to watch its progress. Georgy came over wielding a stick and started poking at a freshly mounded gopher hole. Buster, our little mutt, got excited about the hole and set about moaning and digging, spraying dirt and grass all over me. I hollered at him to stop. My daisies were flying every which way, and Georgy gleefully began chanting, “Go getum Buster! Getum, getum!” as Buster worked himself into a furious frenzy of barking and digging.
Bolting up, I was intent upon throttling my brother, but then noticed that the truck had settled in a cloud of dust alongside our picket fence; a truck that might’ve once been painted red, but was now many shades of rust and wear. We stared as it backed into the driveway, and a man stuck his head out the window. He had the look of a Midway carnie at the Perryton fair, with deeply creased, sun burnt skin and long black sideburns. Sitting close-up against him was a light haired little girl, wrapped in a cartoon-print bed sheet, and next to her was a tiny wrinkled woman wearing big gold hooped earrings. I glanced over to Georgy, only he’d busied himself with keeping Buster quiet, so I took a few cautious steps forward.
It surprised me when the man asked where the Kobyla house was, but I answered, “Well…I’m Alice Kobyla.”
He gestured with one hand. “This your ma’s house?” Before I could respond, Mama was calling and waving from the porch.
Mama walked over to the open window, said some things in a low voice I couldn’t hear, and then directed the truck into our back yard. Georgy and I trailed behind. As he stepped out, I observed that the man’s cowboy boots and jeans were crusted with dried mud; mud that could only have been from the quarry out near Perryton. Daddy would come home in the evenings with the same clay slurry on his boots and coveralls.
He lifted the girl out and I lost my breath as the sheet fell away from her body. She looked more like a praying mantis insect than a child, just skin and bones caked with quarry mud, wearing a poor, faded pink dress. I didn’t want to gawk, but absolutely couldn’t help myself. My eyes searched hers, and I found myself staring into azure doll eyes, radiating fear and grief. A filthy sandal fell off, mercifully breaking my stare. Mama reached down to get it and gently slipped it back on. She touched the child‘s shoulder, murmuring, “There you go, little Anastasia.” Then she went over to the right side of the truck to help the old woman down. Georgy and I were rooted where we stood, unable to follow Mama and the others into the house, and Mama didn’t look back, either.
We stayed outside long after the twosome departed without the girl. We saw the swelling wake from their truck end abruptly at the highway, and continued to watch until dust faded to sky. With a renewed interest in the daisies, I scoured the yard, plucking until not a single white and yellow blossom remained. Georgy engaged Buster in a game of stick chasing. When Buster got tired and crawled under the porch for a nap, Georgy came over to me. My mind was busy contemplating the afternoon’s events, and I didn‘t want to be bothered by boy talk. His voice was uncharacteristically gentle. “That dirt was from the quarry.”
I responded, “Yeah, it sure was.” That’s when I knew his brain was going about in crazy circles just like mine. I felt sorry, and asked him to help me construct the daisy chain.
Only after every streak of light had faded from the sky and hunger was eating at our stomachs did we go into the house. Georgy went to the kitchen and made himself a peanut butter sandwich. I walked down the hall, pausing at the closed bathroom door. I could hear sounds of bathtub water splashing and Mama’s voice. She was making soft clucking and cooing noises to the child’s whimpers of protest at being bathed. I leaned my cheek against the door to listen, and then closed my eyes, abandoning myself to the soothing mother sounds.
Suddenly, a vivid picture-memory materialized, of Daddy, with his head protruding through the windshield. His eyes were open wide. To my horror, they switched from being Daddy’s eyes, to the frightened stare of Anastasia. I yanked myself from the door, unable to stifle a cry, because now I was hearing Daddy’s voice, calling out my name, straining above the sound of wind and rain, telling me I was his sweet little doll baby, telling with his last dying breath.
After the accident happened, I’d been able to recall nothing of it. Now a rush of memory came to me as fresh and immediate as if it had just occurred. I saw an evening in late autumn, with threatening blackish clouds overhead. Leaves and debris skidded and flew across the highway like living things. We were driving back from delivering apples in Perryton when a squall uncannily materialized, plummeting from the sky and ravaging the landscape with massive sheets of rain. The truck skidded and then launched head-first into a ravine, its engine sputtering a few moments before dying. I was clinging to my lifeless father when the police found us and they had to work to pry me off him. A somber young sergeant delivered me into Mama’s arms; I was saturated with Daddy’s sticky dark blood all mixed up with mud and muck and wrapped in a coarse wool blanket.
Through the ensuing torrent of tears I rushed to my tiny bedroom, unable to quell the images, or the pain in my grievous heart. A long while later, I was drifting into an exhausted sleep when Mama tiptoed in. She pulled the covers back from my bed, laid the sleeping child beside me, then tucked the blankets snugly around us and went wordlessly out. A scent of rosewater wafted from Anastasia’s body, perfuming the darkness. In my half-dreaming state, I found her little hand and gripped it tightly in my own. Then we were off, running and laughing together in the sunshine, with Buster excitedly yipping at our heels.