— 2 —
Tracey sipped the last of the milk from her bowl as Jacquline fell into the kitchen. She watched as Jacquline pressed the butt of her palm to her forehead to push away the remnants of her hangover. Rings and chains plugged the holes in her ears, face and stomach and she had changed into tight, slick black pants and a black top that bounced just above her stomach. Her hair was still knotted in a “messed-up” ponytail. As she would say —
“Come on, Squint,” Jacquline said as she stumbled her way to the refrigerator. “I don’t want you to be late.” She pulled it open and searched the barren shelves. “Damn it, where’s the OJ?” Upon slamming the door shut, Jacquline took notice of the juice carton in the sink and picked it up.
“Bastard.” She tossed the carton back into the sink and headed out of the kitchen. “Hurry up. I need to make a Starbucks run. I’ll grab your books.”
Tracey set her bowl down and stared at the wall, stiff. Jacquline returned a minute later and dropped Tracey’s backpack next to her chair. “I think it’s all there. Let’s go.”
When Tracey didn’t move even an inch, Jacquline knelt down and looked into Tracey’s small, hazy eyes. She always loved the color of her sister’s eyes — almost periwinkle in color. “Hey, kiddo. What’s wrong?”
Tracey still didn’t move.
“Is there something you want to talk about? Did something happen at school? Are you sick?” Each question was returned with the same blank stare. “Talk to me, Squint.”
Talk to me; it was a statement full of hope and disappointment. Even though Tracey was completely capable of developing and functioning as a normal child, she never had been able to fully grasp the concept of speech patterns or words. Her mother had been helping her develop those skills, but all of the charisma and excitement that Tracey had exhibited in her progress all but evaporated when Stacey disappeared, most likely because of the pain she must have felt. It hurt Jacquline just as much; she always thought Tracey had the most beautiful voice, and to hear it just once more would be the best gift she could ever receive.
Jacquline lowered her head. “It’s dad, isn’t it?” She peered back up to Tracey. “You miss him.”
Tracey blinked — the first acknowledgment of comprehension.
“So do I, Squint. But it’s almost over.” Jacquline wasn’t sure what else to say. She took Tracey’s hand and squeezed it. “Give it just a couple more days. I promise.”
Jacquline displayed a tender smile. “Look, if you get up now, I’ll take you out for a big waffle cone full of ice cream after school. What do you say?”
Tracey’s grim stare finally gave way to the smallest of smiles, but her eyes were awash with anticipation. She grabbed her bag and tossed it over her shoulder as she left the kitchen.
Jacquline stood, pleased to see Tracey happy, even if it was only for a second. It was an extremely rare occurrence, so whenever it did happen, Jacquline did her best to savor it.
Always loving, always kind…
Jacquline placed the bowl into the sink and went to the front door. She threw on her leather jacket and joined Tracey in her beat-up red Volkswagen bug, first built a century ago. It wasn’t the ideal, but it was what Jacquline could afford — and there was no way she was going to go without a car. Exhaust poured from the tailpipe as it coughed to life and rolled away from the house. Just doing my best to save the planet, she liked to joke.
There were a million things Jacquline wanted to say as she drove Tracey to school, but she remained as deathly silent as her little sister. She loved Tracey and had always done more than she would ever be required to do as a big sister. But with Ken having all but given up in the nurture department, she was the only one left to give Tracey a hug, or sit and talk with her about her day, even if that meant a one-sided conversation. It was a good feeling just to know Tracey could count on someone. For her, nothing cut deeper than isolation and she felt sorry for Tracey for having to go through that. At the same time, that isolation and loss helped them bond on a much deeper level, one that would allow Jacquline to help Tracey develop into the bright, young woman Jacquline always pictured her to be. In other words, Jacquline would be the mother she never had.
When they pulled up to the large brick building currently going through a multitude of renovations, Tracey stared into her lap, scared to death of leaving Jacquline to join the plethora of school kids rough-housing and running around a mere foot away from her. A school bus arrived just behind them and dumped off a slew of kids — some eager to get the day started; some already anxious for graduation; some pretending to be ill (a couple not pretending at all); and others who couldn’t wait to see their teachers again — that Tracey couldn’t understand. Spending the next five years in a closet was always a better idea to her than attempting to be social. What was the point? But the game always came much easier to Jacquline, who never let an opportunity to push Tracey go by without a fight. It always made Tracey a little queasy.
“Wow, they’re finally bringing this shithole into the twentieth century, huh?” Jacquline said. “It’s about time. This place was a relic when I went here. Here’s hoping they take less than a thousand years to finally upgrade to the twenty-first, right Squint?”
Jacquline hoped for a smile, but all she saw was anxiety. “Come on, Trace. You have to go to school.”
Tracey looked at her with her normal “I want to die” gaze.
“Don’t look at me like that. You wants that ice-cream later, yous gonna have to get youself a serious edumacation so you cans be smart when the adulthoods takes you over.”
Again, not even a hint of a laugh. Jacquline waited, hoping to see some spark of light, but when it didn’t happen, she changed tactics. “Do you want me to come with you?” she asked in her best motherly voice.
Tracey slowly shook her head. She looked at the children still herding into the school by the handfuls.
“The other kids don’t like you much, huh? Do they pick on you a lot?”
Tracey shook her head.
Jacquline didn’t believe it for a second. She pulled Tracey’s head to her. “Look at me, Squint. This is what you’re going to do. The next time one of those little shits starts to make fun of you, don’t run away. Don’t hide. That’ll just fuel the fire and it’ll never end. You have to confront the little brats with their own game. You’re strong; I know you can put an end to it. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, okay?”
Tracey’s eyes glistened.
“Do anything you need to do to earn their respect? If you have to, just think of what I would do if it were me. Got it?”
Tracey nodded, but it wasn’t clear if she fully comprehended. Jacquline smiled nonetheless and offered her hand to Tracey. She didn’t want to shake it or kiss it; she simply wanted to hold it, to give Tracey a moment to feel safe. After a long pause, Tracey took her hand and Jacquline could feel the icy sweat. Her smile became affection and she hugged Tracey tightly.
“You be strong.”
Tracey tediously stepped from the car. She glanced back at Jacquline every few seconds as she walked to the school, eventually being consumed by its doors.
“Be strong,” Jacquline whispered. A kid, probably no more than six, stared at her. “What are looking at?” she sniped and then pulled away from the school, a big black cloud left in her wake.