To Help a Stranger
by Jamie Danielle Logan
Linette Wells remembered things her sister Orly never would. She remembered the last breath their grandfather drew before his coronary. She remembered what it was like to have two parents.
She met Orly’s eyes, round as a cat’s and just as beguiling.
“No,” she said.
Smaller by nine years and over a foot, Orly balanced on a stump, pushing herself on tip toes to reach fifteen-year-old Linette’s height. Linette wasn’t in the mood.
“I don’t want to talk about Mama.”
Linette didn’t share much with her mother beyond genetic material and high cheekbones, and she’d like to keep it that way.
“I saw her,” Orly said. “The other day.”
“We see her every Sunday.”
“No, Linnie.” Orly jumped to the ground and did a spin. She waited for applause, but Linette was preoccupied. Linette pictured their mother in her Sunday best, sitting on the front pew, pretending she didn’t see her daughters in the back. “I really saw her. Not from a distance, but up close. She even said hello!”
Linette stopped. “What?”
“She said hello.”
Orly didn’t answer. She squinted at a bug on the ground.
“When did you see her?”
Orly’s tongue protruded between two loose front teeth. She lunged forward and smacked the ground.
A bluetick hound lounged nearby. When Orly pounced, he rose to investigate.
“I got it,” she said. “I got a bug!”
Orly examined the yellow-brown guts that stuck to her palm before offering her hand to Linette for inspection.
“It’s just a mosquito,” Linette said. “Not even full of blood. And you’re not taking this seriously.”
King, the hound, licked Orly’s fingers.
“Of course I am,” Orly said. “Killing bugs is super serious.” She rubbed her palm against Linette’s shirt.
“Not that,” Linette jerked away.
Their eyes met and Linette understood. Orly’s enthusiasm hid a kind of confusion Linette had never felt; she didn’t understand why their mother left.
“Tell me about her?”
“I told you everything I remember,” Linette said. This wasn’t strictly true. Linette told her sister how Mama gave them popsicles for dinner, how their mother kept at least four pairs of sunglasses around the house at all times. Orly knew that Mama’s favorite food was chocolate chip pancakes, but she’d never know how Mama looked when no one was around. When Papa worked late and baby Orly cried, Linette watched Mama struggle. She breathed like the air, too thick and full of the wrong chemicals, like it might kill her in the end.
“She said I could see her.”
Linette pivoted. “She did not.”
“After church yesterday, she said I looked pretty. She wanted to get to know me. You were sneaking an extra donut and Papa was talking to the old preacher. You know, the one that’s moving to Belzoni.”
“Bell-zone-ah.” Linette corrected.
Orly shrugged. “She likes me.”
“She does. And I’m gonna see her.”
Orly sounded certain. So certain it threw her. What would Orly do upon learning the truth? That Mama didn’t want them. That she never had. But what if Orly was right?
“How?” Linette asked.
“We can walk.”
Linette thought about it for a minute. “Fine,” she said. “But King stays here.”
Linette didn’t know why she agreed, but she didn’t give herself time to reconsider. She started toward the woods lining the backyard. The Pearl River ran beyond.
Neither asked for permission. They knew what Papa would say. He didn’t talk about Mama. Her name made him grimace like a mouthful of rusted nails. Good thing he was distracted. He lay in the garage beneath his Sheriff’s Deputy truck, stringing two zip ties together to cinch a loose part.
“We’re going to the river,” Orly said. It was a question.
“Mama lives in town,” Linette explained. “The river goes to the highway and the highway goes to town.”
Edinburg wasn’t really a town. It was an unincorporated community made up of a handful of shops and churches. Papa always said it was a good three miles away. That didn’t seem like much. They passed a herd of horses and a half-dead frog with a crushed leg. Heat settled beneath their skin like it belonged there. They hadn’t made it a hundred yards before sweat beaded their waistbands. Another hundred yards and the high grass met Linette’s thighs. It rubbed rashes on her skin.
Linette didn’t listen.
Each lived in her own world. Orly’s was an amalgamation of confusion and possibility, but Linette saw a different landscape. She saw buzzards circling that old dead frog. She saw bones on those horses. There were rules in this place. It might end up bad, but she was going to break them.
Their stomachs rumbled by the time they reached the highway.
“I can’t walk anymore,” Orly said. Her cheeks glowed pink from sun and dehydration.
“Okay.” Linette sat on the shoulder, patted the concrete beside her. The pavement throbbed beneath her hand. Her skin tingled as it burned.
Linette gathered her sister against her. They didn’t have much besides each other. Most days, Linette didn’t mind. When Orly was just a baby, she loved every coo and cry. She learned to anticipate Orly’s needs before they happened. Somewhere, something changed and now she just felt lonely.
“Ouch, you’re hurting me.” Orly wiggled away.
Linette put a finger to her lips.
The sound belonged to a fast-approaching engine. A truck, Linette realized, as the rusted metal contraption rolled into view. She waved and shouted. The driver looked to be an old man, his passenger a younger woman. They ground to a stop, and Linette grabbed Orly’s hand. She told herself it was to protect her sister, but the warmth of Orly’s skin reminded her that she was real.
The woman got out first.
“Ma’am?” Linette approached with caution.
The man stayed in the truck. He pulled his cap down.
“Y’all can’t be on the highway like this,” the woman said. “It’s dangerous.”
“I’m sorry,” Linette said.
Orly wrenched her hand free. “Tell her, Linnie. She’ll take us to Mama.”
“Mama.” The woman repeated.
The man laughed, and the sound was startling. “They want to see their Mama, Maeve,” he said. “Who are we to deny them?”
Linette had thought Maeve was younger, but she could see in the way Maeve turned that this wasn’t true. She shifted slowly, like it hurt. Liver spots lined her arms.
“You look familiar,” Linette said.
“We go to Mount Carmel Church, baby,” Maeve said. “You’d know that if your daddy ever stuck around to talk. I’m Maeve Foley. This is my husband Wilder.”
Orly said hi. Linette didn’t.
“You serious about seeing your mama?”
Orly squeezed Linette’s hand. Linette nodded.
“Truck only seats two,” Maeve said. “So you’ll have to hop in the back. Just hunker down and you’ll be fine. I used to do it all the time.”
“Thank you,” Linette said.
The rusted metal was hot against their legs, but no more so than the black of the pavement. Wind caught their hair and tangled it. Orly giggled, but Linette couldn’t join. Strands of hair tasted like straw against her lips as the truck sped into town.
At first, Wilder drove slowly. Once laughter bubbled from the truck bed, he hit the accelerator. Linette clung to her sister’s hand.
“Look,” Orly said.
Linette pulled her hair back from her eyes. She caught sight of a cardinal, the biggest she’d ever seen.
Orly inched toward the driver’s side. Linette worried she might stand or reach for the bird. Instead, she stuck her head over the side like King.
“Stop that.” Linette swatted.
The bird flew off and Orly’s face dropped. Linette’s stomach turned. For the rest of the ride, she scanned the highway, hoping to see the cardinal again. She was so focused that she didn’t notice when they finally reached town.
“We’re here!” Orly called.
The truck stopped at the town’s red light. Orly climbed to her feet. “We’re here! We’re here!”
Her enthusiasm was contagious. Linette giggled.
Orly moved, and so did the truck. She stumbled, hit the side, and lurched over. Wilder slammed the breaks. Maeve let out a cry. Linette threw herself against the wall of the vehicle. She reached and reached for her little sister, but all she could feel was the sting of sunbaked metal and the nothingness of air.
The next few moments moved too quickly to process. Later, Linette would remember Orly prone on the pavement, head on the curb. She’d remember Maeve and Wilder trying to help, failing to help, calling for help themselves. She’d remember sirens. Unfamiliar hands held her as Orly was loaded onto a stretcher. Linette didn’t know what happened next or why she couldn’t follow.
“Let me go,” she said to the hands that held her. “Let. Me. Go.”
The hands relaxed when the ambulance drove away. Linette didn’t move. She didn’t know where to go. All she knew was that she was alone in this crowd, a crowd that had taken the person she loved.
“It’s okay,” a voice said. “Just breathe, Linnie bug. It’s okay.”
The world shimmered. Linette wondered if she had left her body. The worry she felt for her sister still roiled but so far away she could barely reach it. She watched herself from a distance. The other Linette, the one still on the ground, turned. She faced the speaker.
Mama smiled, but her eyes were filled with tears. “Linnie bug.”
Linette snapped back into herself. She felt so many things she couldn’t name fighting and writhing all at once. The sensation brought her to her knees.
Mama took Linette’s face in her hands, and this time, Linette recognized her mother’s fingers. Thick at the knuckles and slim on either side, the nails glinted her favorite blue with chipped paint chipped at the ends. She smelled familiar, like childhood, but not like home.
Linette took one step back. Then another.
“Why are you here?” she asked. “How did you know?”
As Linette studied her mother, she noticed for the hundredth time the lack of resemblance. Mama was porcelain pale with hair that fell in dark waves. Linette was sunburn and angles. Her flat blonde hair resembled her father’s, and her mannerisms did too.
“My shop,” Mama said. She motioned to the bookstore on the far side of the street. “I heard the yelling. I came to help.”
Linette tried to feel like she had with Orly. Mama cared. She was here to prove it. But a knot formed in Linette’s chest. Her mother had shown up to help a stranger. She’d had no idea the injured child was her own.
Something ached in her chest, and Linette’s eyes stung. She realized for the first time that people were watching. She’d have recognized some had she been paying attention. Just then, a sudden siren split the air. A white truck with the Sheriff’s Department logo emblazoned across the side sped into view. Sheriff Lois McCann already stood next to Wilder’s truck, but one other person drove a department vehicle.
He parked in the middle of the intersection and jerked the door open, truck still running. Linette ran to him, and he caught her like a child. “Is she okay?” she asked. “Orly? Is she okay?”
Papa just looked at her. “Blythe,” he said, finally, a nurse and old family friend. “Blythe called. They’re trying to save her.”
Linette made for the truck, but she stopped when Papa froze. She followed his gaze to her mother. Mama smiled, the same shattered smile she directed at Linette moments ago. Papa turned away.
“Get in,” he said.
Linette did, never taking her eyes off of her mother. Mama’s face was crumpled, red, and snotty. Still, she smiled. And Linette broke open. Just for a second, through hot and blurry eyes, Linette let herself smile back.
Jamie Danielle Logan holds a BA from Tulane University (English & Classical Studies) and an MFA from the University of Memphis (Creative Writing). She served as Managing Editor at The Pinch and now holds the same position with BreakBread and Product magazines. She is pursuing a PhD in English at the University of Southern Mississippi where she writes on themes of myth and generational trauma. Her work can be found in the New Ohio Review, El Portal, and QuestLog and is forthcoming from Palette Poetry.