The Ritton boys killed Mom twenty-eight days ago. Jake and Mike Ritton. Jake graduated with my sister, Hannah. Mike is in tenth grade, a year below me. They plowed into our mother's car. It spun off Route 3 and bisected a tree. Mom smashed through the windshield. The funeral was closed casket.
Police found food wrappers, pennies, and a flashlight in the boy's truck, but no alcohol. Both boys passed a breathalyzer. They swore they hadn't seen her car when they merged. Blind spot, they said. She must've been in our blind spot. When he heard this, my brother Kyle yelled, "You stick your head out and check!" He dreamed of his learner's permit. He'd been dog-earing a driving manual for months.
The police cited the boys for speeding. The Daily Review called it a tragedy, for my dead mother and the Ritton boys, who would be affected forever. I wrote a letter to the editor, but he didn't publish it. Maybe he disapproved of my language. I called Jake and Mike fucking irresponsible dicks. I edited out the bit about hoping that they got theirs. No point in tipping my hand.
Anger runs beneath my skin like an electric current. I can't find the on or off switch. In the middle of watching TV, I'll suddenly want to shatter the screen with the black leather shoes I had to buy for Mom's funeral. I didn't have black leather shoes: just sneakers, sandals, and dyed-to-match fuchsia pumps I wore to last spring's prom. Between my diary pages is the corsage my date, Jeffrey Moynihan, gave me. I thought it made a nice keepsake. It seems silly now, keeping that flower.
Mom loved flowers, loved to garden. I helped her, carrying my elephant-shaped watering can. Back then, she called me Happy. "Hey, Happy, will you fetch your old Mom the hose?" Even though she wasn't old, but young, with long dark hair and legs that the postman stared at. She called me Happy because I didn't fuss or cry or yell.
She'd be surprised to see her happy baby so angry. I put my hand through my bedroom wall, below the shelf with the crystal figurines I collected in sixth grade. The edges of the torn plaster are dotted with dried blood.
Hannah made Dad look at the hole. He shuffled into my room as if afraid of disturbing me doing something girly like changing my tampon. He wore a sweater Mom had given him for Christmas. It hung loose. He said nothing for a long time. Then, "Did your Mom give you that swan?"
The swan had a delicate black beak, the rest of its body a shimmering prism of cut glass.
"Yeah. She got it in Orlando when she went to visit Aunt Patty."
Mom took a trip five years ago to visit her sister who'd given birth to twins. It was the only time she was ever away from home without us. Until the Ritton boys killed her.
Kyle said we should kill them back. I said we'd never get away with it. They did, he pointed out. It's different, I explained. They'd call it vengeance if we did it. Kyle said it wasn't fair. I said when did fair become part of this?
Kyle is three years younger than me, so I've taken charge of our revenge plot. Mom wouldn't approve. She'd want us to mourn her like Dad does, quiet and private. I've tried. It works for five minutes and then I end up with a bleeding fist and a hole in my bedroom wall.
Kyle and I do our planning in the basement family room, where we won't be overheard or interrupted. We stretched out on the grape juice-stained carpet, stomachs flat to the floor, examining our hand drawn blueprint. While Kyle reviewed the Ritton home layout I thought of all the times I'd tortured him. I put a toad in his crib the day they brought him home from the hospital. When we'd played pirates, I'd rope-tied his hands and feet and locked him in the bathroom. Dad had to pick the lock with a salad fork while Kyle yelled through his gag.
Thoughts of gags brought the Ritton boys to mind. What pain could equal the loss of our mother? Would breaking their fingers with a hammer suffice? Perhaps burning the soles of their bare feet? Castration seemed the only one that might equal our pain, in its permanent loss. But I couldn't suggest that to Kyle, since he was a boy.
I noticed that Kyle's hair needed cutting. He wasn't used to making his own appointments. Mom had done that. I touched his hair.
"What?" he said, jerking upright.
"I'm…" His eyes were just like Mom's, gray with long straight lashes. "Nothing, I just…thank you." I leaned forward and hugged him. I didn't want him to see me cry. I was the chief officer. Chief officers don't cry. He hesitated a second and then he leaned in and squeezed back. It half hurt. When had he developed muscles?
We sat, arms about each other, sniffling, until a sound upstairs made us break apart. The door at the top of the stairs opened. Against the light I saw Hannah's curvy outline. "What are you two doing?"
"Expressing our love through hugs. Wanna join in?" I called. Kyle snorted and a bit of mucus shot out his nostril, hitting the blueprint.
"Very funny. Get up here. Dinner is ready."
Hannah had left Columbia University. She remained on leave while we sorted things out. After the funeral casseroles and platters were eaten, she went to the grocery, returning with vegetables she forced us to eat. Unlike Mom, she always pointed out her labor and sacrifice in caring for us. "Restaurants have take-out," I'd said once. That led to a twenty-minute rant on nutrition and Kyle being a growing boy and was I going to pick up dinner every night after volleyball practice? Never mind that I wasn't playing this season.
We stomped upstairs from the cellar because it annoyed Hannah. Kyle was sent to collect Dad from his study. Dad had returned to the university, but I wondered if he taught every day. His briefcase looked lighter and papers didn't escape from the pouches. Dad followed Kyle to the table and we sat: Dad at the head, Hannah to his right, Kyle and I beside each other to the left. Mom's spot was empty.
Hannah had cooked ham, scalloped potatoes, and green beans for dinner. Mom had tried to interest me in cooking years ago but I kept making people out of food scraps, walking cut carrots across the counter and flipping them off the edge of the sink as if they were Olympic divers.
Dinner lacked dessert, something I fussed about until Hannah snapped, "There are cookies in the cabinet. Eat them! After you've washed the dishes." Dad told me to do as my sister asked. As if she had asked. Once I finished rinsing and stacking dishes in the dishwasher Kyle asked what we should do next. I told him to get a good night's sleep. Our plot required us to wake early tomorrow. I could have slept on the tiled kitchen floor, by the spot where Mr. Tibbs's food bowl used to be. Mr. Tibbs died when I was eight. Hit by a car up the road. Cars haven't been much luck for our family.
While I brushed my teeth I checked my profile in the bathroom mirror. Hannah got her 36Cs when she was two years younger than I am now. Either nature was slow to catch me, or I'd inherited my father's breasts.
The moon made a windowpane pattern on my bedspread. Mom used to read Goodnight Moon to me right here years ago. She stroked my hair behind my ear as she read. I still like that, having my hair stroked, but no one does it. I almost asked Hannah if she would once when we were looking through old photo books. But she got distracted by an old necklace Mom wore that she hadn't seen in years and after that it felt awkward to ask.
Did you know you can fall asleep while crying? I thought you'd have to stop crying and try to sleep, but you don't. Or I don't.
The Ritton house sat on the edge of town, near the road where Mom died. Kyle said seventy-seven percent of car accidents occur within fifteen miles of home. He obviously hadn't stopped reading the driving manual. I wondered who'd teach him to drive. Mom taught Hannah and me. Dad was always too busy. Mom claimed he was a scaredy-cat. "It takes nerves of steel to drive beside a teenager," she'd told us.
The Rittons had a two-story like ours, painted white with black shutters. Mr. Ritton's truck was in the drive. He'd leave soon with his tool belt and lunch sack. He was a carpenter who looked like his murdering sons: red hair, blue eyes.
He left between 7:00 and 7:10 each morning. Mrs. Ritton stayed inside, cleaning breakfast dishes. The boys, Jake and Mike, had spent last night camping with their cousins. They wouldn't return until late afternoon. We'd be done by then.
"You don't have to pee, do you?"
"No," he said, horrified I'd ask.
"Good. Stop moving then. Someone will notice." A nosy neighbor could spot us and call the cops, or worse, the Rittons. It hadn't happened during our previous stakeouts but that didn't mean it couldn't.
Mr. Ritton exited his house, whistling. We slid down in our seats and watched as he reversed his truck and headed in the opposite direction.
"Are you ready?" My hands tingled with the pins and needle feeling they get after they've fallen asleep. I grabbed my backpack and the keys. My watch read 7:09 a.m. Kyle's read the same. We'd synchronized before leaving home. My armpits felt damp. I tried to remember if I'd put on deodorant.
He closed the door so quietly that I had to check it. Mom would be amazed. Kyle forever slammed doors. Hurt stopped up my throat. Mom would never be amazed. She was dead. Nothing could change that. But it made me feel better, to hurry toward the white house, my backpack swinging from side to side. At last I was doing something, for her, for us. I felt as if I might float into the blue, still sky.
"7:30," I said to Kyle as we parted at the property's edge. I ran to the cellar's unlocked storm doors. The doors rose, squeak-free courtesy of the oil we'd put on the hinges last week. Their cellar looked like ours before it was refinished; only it smelled worse, like mildew and bleach. I hurried past black, lumpy garbage bags. Now I had to wait.
The doorbell ding-donged. I walked up the interior stairs on trembling legs and paused. I bit my lower lip, opened the door, and peered out. A breeze swept past. She'd opened the front door. She was retrieving the package Kyle had left on the walkway.
The kitchen was thick with the smell of scrambled eggs. Too much pepper, I thought, before I sprinted upstairs. Along the walls were photographs of Jake and Mike. I considered knocking them down. No time for that. The master bedroom at the far end of the hall was filled with heavy wood furniture: bureau, bed, vanity, and television console. The television faced the bed.
From below I heard the doorbell again. My watch read 7:18. Kyle had left his second package. Too soon. Why? I couldn't check. I had to do my part. Leave what I'd brought, and let it detonate later. I shrugged my backpack off and set it on the floor. From inside I withdrew the photos I'd enlarged. Then I taped them, one by one, to the TV. Good thing the Rittons believed in big screens.
On the left were Mom and Hannah, Hannah in pigtails and a sundress so bright it hurt. My first day of school outfit was demure, a blue dress with white lace trim at the neck and wrists. Kyle wore jeans and a Western style shirt. His smile was the least bright, as if he sensed that this school ploy might not be as great as advertised. Mom's hair got progressively shorter in each picture.
I taped the note beneath the photos. It hung crooked. I reached forward to fix it but a creak on the stairs stopped me. Another creak. My heart jackhammered. The doorbell rang again.
"Now what?" She stepped down, her feet moving down, away from me. I exhaled deeply. But then she muttered something and her feet started upward again. Shit. I grabbed my backpack and looked around. Boxes under the bed ruled out that hiding spot, and the closet was too cramped to fit in. If I crossed the hall to reach another room she'd see me.
I took a breath and ran, hurtling past her on the top two steps. The ends of my hair touched her as I hurried past. "Hey!" she yelled, pressing herself to the wall, against the picture of Mike. Her face was the pink color of cooked salmon.
"Hey!" she yelled, fainter. I'd reached the kitchen and didn't look back as I ran for the front door.
Outside I gulped mouthfuls of air, my legs cartoon-pedaling to the car. Kyle sat at the driver's wheel.
"Did you do it?"
"Yes. She saw me."
"What?" His voice could still crack.
"Don't worry." I panted. "Who said you could drive?"
He shrugged. If I pushed, he'd forfeit the seat. I passed him the keys. "Go ahead. But be careful. We've got to switch seats a couple of blocks from home."
His grin was wide and full of straight teeth. Those braces had paid off. "Really?"
"Yes." I leaned my neck against the headrest.
He adjusted the mirrors and checked his blind spot before pulling into the street. "What do you think she'll do?" he asked, turning to me.
"Watch the road." He looked straight again, body stiff, his hands at ten and two o'clock on the wheel.
I thought about her, watching me run past. She'd looked surprised and scared. As if I meant her harm, as if I might physically hurt her.
"I don't know. She could call the cops. I don't think she will, though." I stared out the window at the normal houses with lawn ornaments and kids' bicycles.
"Guess we'd have a day off school if we got thrown in jail, huh?"
I imagined her walking upstairs, cautiously entering the bedroom, her eyes scanning the room for missing things. Then she'd see the photographs. She'd falter, hands to her face. Moving forward, she'd recognize the woman from the obituary photo but not the children who'd changed so much. She'd bend to touch a picture and see the taped note.
She was with us on our most important days. She'll never be with us again. We want you to know, we won't forget. You shouldn't either.
Maybe she'd get angry at our breaking in, maybe she'd read it and know why we couldn't forgive. Our devastation wouldn't last a week or a month. It was forever. We had to make someone understand. She seemed the right one, the only one. If we couldn't have vengeance we'd settle for haunting.
Kyle signaled before taking a right turn. "How am I doing?" The speedometer showed he was driving 23 miles per hour in a 35-mile-an-hour lane. When he was younger, he dressed in his cowboy outfit and jumped from the highest branch of our backyard tree, while screaming "Geronimo!" The fringe on his suede vest fluttered as he fell. It was a miracle he didn't break his head.
Back then, death was unreal and could not touch him.
"You're doing great. Really great."