Losing Jeanette by Charlotte Force

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Inspired by events from The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.

When Mom and Dad came out of the Bar None Bar, they brought us each a long piece of beef jerky and a candy bar. I decided to save my 3 Musketeers to trade half with Jeannette later. She had a Mounds bar, and that was my favorite. I couldn’t believe Mom and Dad didn’t even remember that.

By the time I had finished my beef jerky we had already passed through the small town beyond the Bar None Bar. I had started the candy negotiations, working my subtlety to trade half of my Musketeers for half of Jeanette’s Mounds bar – but it wasn’t working. ‘Guess she didn’t remember it was my favorite either. Somehow, that hurt even more than mom and dad forgetting.

Mom, dad, and Lori - squished in the middle - were sitting in the front seats. Mom and Lori deviated strategically to avoid Rex’s cigarette smoke, which seemed to best their efforts with an effortless waft - straight into their noses. Lori flinched as a few drops of dad’s beer fell on her knee; we had just taken a sharp turn over some railroad tracks.

Temporarily disregarding my disgust for my fathers “bad habits” I looked over to Jeannette to continue the negotiations. As I whipped my head around, Jeannette faded behind the mound of red and orange desert rock.

Her figure, which had cut into the rust-red of the pick-up with its blue-clad, bony frame, was shrinking.

The truck had let her loose without even a thump to announce its treachery.

And so a flood of everything rushed to my eyes and my heart, and a memory washed over my brain of my father throwing our useless cat Quixote of the window once during a skedaddle. Quixote, as I seemed to recall, hadn’t made a sound…

As I tried to make a sound myself, horror overcame me as my panic froze my throat. It let up just quickly enough for me to let escape a choking sob. As the terror built up, I felt like I was literally drowning in fear. My already water-logged eye lashes weighed down my eyes as they became sore from the salt in my tears. I tried to tell dad the first time. I couldn’t even hear my own words, but from what I could see through my tears, no one had understood what I was saying.

To Lori, at first, this was an excuse for her to turn her face away from dad’s cigarette smoke.

To Mom, at first, I was an excuse to snap at dad – to yell at dad to stop the goddam engine, they couldn’t understand what I was crying about.

Suffocating, my panic impressed upon me the notion that this was my last chance: if dad stopped the car and I didn’t say anything, he would never stop again and Jeannette would be lost.

I felt the engine stop groaning under my convulsing shoulders. Everyone stared at me – they stared, and I choked on their blindness.

Mom looked at me in the rear view mirror, still trying not to face dad and get smoke in her face. Dad was grumbling about how we were wasting gas stopping like this, and that I should hurry the hell up and “…spit it out!” Maybe he was yelling. I couldn’t have told with the blood that was rushing a million miles an hour through my ears.

He wasn’t looking at me - he was searching for his lighter in the glove box, where mom had put it in her paint case to keep him from chain smoking. Scowl keeping his cigarette in place, he alternated between grumbling about gas prices and cigarette prices. For such a “world class save-the-world-from-tyrants hippie”, Rex Walls sure was obsessed with cash.

I opened my mouth, and tried to keep in my choking sobs just long enough to let it out in one breath:

“Jeannette…”

Mom regained her sight. Her head whipped around faster than I had ever seen one of our cars escape. But her eyes didn’t look to me, despite my blotchy red face and swelling pink eyes. Her eyes focused immediately on the negative space where my sister was meant to be.

Dad’s cigarette had fallen, the only full white fag among the yellow molding filters that littered the floor of the car. He didn’t even bother to look at it as he yelled at Lori to stop “foolin’ around and get her ass back into the goddam car!”

Lori had barely passed over mom’s knees, to get to her place in the squish, when dad slammed his foot on the gas and did a full 180 back to Jeannette. Lori banged her head against the roof of the car - a whisper compared to the decibels of my own heart beating. I tried to pull my face together but it still felt molten with the tears that streamed fluidly now – despite all of his shortcomings, my father remained a dad. Rex Walls was going to get his daughter back. His eyes were lit brighter that a desert sky – the heat of his determination could have scorched a second Sahara into existence. For the first time in a long while, I bore witness to a mask of determination on my father’s disappointment-lined face.

As we approached the red mound of desert rock, my sobs started to cease, and my senses came back. I heard mom’s fingers tapping on the window, and saw that she was biting her lip so hard it was starting to bleed a little. Lori had finally understood, and her face was even paler than Mars in the winter sky.

Dad was completely still, besides occasionally shifting his arm tensely to veer slightly on the imperfect dirt road. It was the kind of still you get when your worst fear becomes an immediate possibility - when your imagination scrambles to assemble some semblance of the impossible recovery the near future would necessitate. It was the kind of fear that had been electrocuting every nerve in my body since the moment I saw Jeannette disappear behind the rock.

There was red road and orange dust, and then there was a blue-clad figure cutting into the ground with a bony, curled up frame. My sobs let out into quiet tears, silent and cool; it felt like they were steaming on the red of my cheeks and I felt I would suffocate from all the smoky relief seeing Jeannette caused me. My chest unclenched. The last tear deftly rolled off of my jaw bone as I slid out of the car carefully, as to not fall onto the paper limbs that supported me. Dad was picking rubble out of Jeannette’s knee – she had pieces of road all over and in her skin.

Jeannette looked intensely at our father as he took care of her, and I wondered if she’d thought of Quixote the cat as the road had consumed her. I wondered if she’d seen, as I had vividly relived, dad’s getaway spirit run rampant, and I wondered if she’d felt, suddenly part of the path-already-trodden, like she’d be left behind. I wondered at this, and watched Jeannette’s eyes. If eyes could be silent in their relief, my sister’s eyes were mute. The dull lull in her irises turned my wonder to outrage that she’d ever had to even consider the possibility of abandonment - outrage that we had a truck that could let loose my sister without even a sound to account for the loss. It was outrage at how long it had taken mom and dad to see.

The heat of my cheeks cooled and one last tear, one last emotion betrayed my calm: from now on, I’d protect Jeannette.

As we climbed back into the back of the truck, I straitened my back, and breathed. I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out my 3 Musketeers. Not even glancing at it once, I looked at Jeannette and handed it to her.

“Here,” I said quietly, my voice still painful to use - it was like speaking for the first time.

Her hand curled around the bar uncertainly.

“Thanks,” she said, taking it and breaking it in half.

She handed the second half to me.