Addie squinted into the punched tin ceiling that hovered over her head. Astigmatism, she said aloud, the corners of her mouth drawing into a satisfied grin. She removed the round, gold spectacles from their case and settled them onto the narrow bridge of her slender, aquiline nose.
The ceiling moved ever so slightly closer, sharpening into focus.
Addie laughed out loud, scrunching to a sitting position and dangling her bare feet over the side of the thin mattress. Outside her window, she could hear the branches of Grandpa Branham's black walnut slapping at the panes. The wind had already grown stronger.
Blinking through the new lenses, Adelaide stared into the blackness beyond the window. Five years ago tonight, she thought, as she searched the bureau for a candle. Five years past and no one had noticed. Not Mom, not Aunt Peach, not even Grandma B. No one.
She knew the reason for the moon and the wind, and heaven knows, she knew the reason for the sounds.
"Did you hear me?" called an aging voice from beyond the splintering door. "Little Miss! I said, are you in bed yet?"
Fast on the heels of a heavy cough of thunder, lightning flashed across the room, and Addie could almost see herself mirrored in the dusty square over the bureau. Too thin, thanks to a bad bout with German measles. Too thin and too much hair. That's what Mama kept telling her. She'd never get a boy. But who cared at such a time as this? Addie had more pressing problems than worrying about being asked to the Little Paris Fall Fling.
"Yes, Mama, I'm in bed!" came the obedient answer.
Smiling, Addie twirled a coppery pigtail with one hand while striking a match with the other and brought the stubby white candle she'd found to life.
The lights often went out in Little Paris. Only one line came into the remote town, snaking its way along steep hills, up from the Ohio River power plant that supplied the valley. One line that seemed destined to break at the slightest wind.
Wind or no wind, it hadn't surprised Addie at all. Five-year anniversary, she thought, gazing into the candle's yellow flame. Simple as that.
Mama knocked on the door, which stood half open. The hundred-year-old farmstead had two bedrooms on the second floor. The other bedroom stood silent and empty, a mysterious place of memories and mildew. Its walnut floor, strewn with water-stained newspapers and wallpaper peels, rarely creaked now. Addie could still smell mothballs when the breeze from her window was right. Mothballs and something else. Something achingly sweet and sad.
"It's past eleven, Little Miss. You shouldn't really need that candle if you're going to sleep as you should," Mama whispered, her tired face smooth and white in the dim light.
"Just a few more minutes," the young girl begged, glancing at the candle with a smile. "No school tomorrow, remember? Teachers are getting together for some meeting in New Madison. I won't stay up long. Please?"
The middle-aged mother smiled, her gray eyes worn out from decades of dullness and missed opportunities. "Half hour. No more. Aunt Peach plans a big breakfast in the morning, and you're needed for milking - school or no school."
Addie nodded, sighing as her mother offered a
kiss and an ineffective hug. No warmth there, she thought with a slight
shiver. Why didn't she remember? Didn't she care any more?
Addie could remember every moment of that Tuesday morning. October had just arrived, and with it had come a torrent of rain. Autumn's splendid artwork had gone awry, and a host of burnished bronze leaves, prematurely aged and browning on the trees had been stripped with the storms. Everywhere, in every yard, piles of decaying leaves lay in dead heaps, sterile barrows vainly marking the emptiness of a community about to die.
Addie had been ten then, tall for her age. Skipping second grade had helped her to fit in better with the shorter kids, but the gangly legs inherited from her Branham ancestors had always dwarfed most of her classmates. Addie had never really cared. Standing tall and proud, she relished her solitude, preferring her own company to that of giggling kids, including her younger sister. Most especially her younger sister! She was the worst, a plump and pampered girl of seven with golden curls and perfect teeth. Addie hated her.
Seven-thirty-five in the morning and the sun barely alive.
After watching Sissy board Harvey Anderson's bus promptly at 7:12, Addie had suddenly decided to walk to school that morning, not terribly anxious to present her book report on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. If she arrived late, then the teacher might postpone the torture one more day. Besides, a walk meant one last chance to savor one of autumn's last days.
Turning the corner onto Mulberry, Addie stepped carefully past Mrs. Breeding's place. Gazing at the empty front porch, Addie stopped a moment and whispered a quick prayer for the dead. Angela Breeding had been Addie's first grade teacher, a prim and proper holdover from a gentler time. Widowed at nineteen by the Big War, Mrs. Breeding had worn black and only black for the next forty years, finally dying on the eve of her sixtieth birthday. Some kids threw eggs at the empty carcass of a house now. Some still talked about the man who had stayed there the week before Mrs. Breeding's death, about the way they'd found her. She'd been dead for hours when the milkman had discovered her door ajar and the cat in the yard. Harry Tillman his name and he'd retired soon after. Nerves, he'd said. Addie guessed that finding a sweet old lady roasting in an oven would do that to most anybody.
Maybe she was a witch, that's what her Aunt Peach had said. Addie didn't think so. Witches don't offer apple cider to kids. They eat them. Simple as that.
Addie had walked on that morning, dawdling a bit as the sun warmed her shoulders. The hand-me-down sweater Aunt Peach had given her had worn thin with washing, and a chill had started shivering its way through Addie's insides. Dead folks, she had thought. There were always so many of them.
Rounding the corner of Maple and Green, Adelaide had stopped short of the school that morning, almost knowing she shouldn't go in. Something unseen tugged at her heels, and she stared into the air, expecting to see a figure, but all she saw was the Little Paris School Complex. Three buildings, hodge-podged from different bricks and mortared from a dozen different budgets, loomed in front of her like three hideous giants. Open doors gaped like hungry mouths, and Addie knew in a flash what Mrs. Breeding must have seen in that oven.
A rush of wind and a shove so hard she felt split in two assaulted Addie's 87 pounds, slamming her to the ground. Flames leapt thirty feet into the air and smoke, black as night, poured from the shattered windows of the former school complex. Prostrate, struggling to breathe, Addie blinked through the smoke, tears blinding her vision. Three hundred kids, she thought. She could hear the thunder of dozens of running feet, sirens, panicked cries and shouts, and all around her chaos ruled the day. Her little sister had been in there.
"Sissy," she had called, reaching out impotently toward the inferno. "Sissy, it should have been me."
Watching the lightning flash, Addie recovered from her reverie about the past. Little Paris hadn't been the same since, she recalled with sadness. Since that day, people had grown colder, more insular. Addie rarely saw a smile these days, and very few dared speak of the tragedy.
Five years since then, and no one seemed to care any more.
"Little Miss!" Mama called again. Outside, the Black Walnut rustled one last time against the panes. The storm was passing.
"You put out that candle and get to sleep!"
Addie blew out the candle, wishing things had been different. With a last glance at the darkened mirror, she turned to leave the room.
"Feelin' sad again, Adelaide?" asked a pale woman from the open doorway.
Addie nodded, removing the spectacles from her face and returning them to their case beside the bed. "Just wishing someone had remembered," she replied with a sigh. "Time to go already?"
The woman nodded, enveloping Addie's thin body with her sequined black shawl. "Folks don't think about us much, darling," she said soothingly. "Say goodnight now, and come along."
Addie left the older woman's embrace and turned one last time to the bed where her sister slept. "G'night, Sissy," she cooed, stroking the warm, flushed cheek. "I'll try again next year."
Adelaide kissed her once, then left the room, once again melting into Mrs. Breeding's kind arms. "I'm glad it worked out this way, really I am. But being the only one who died that day sure is lonely. Why did that boiler have to blow up?"
Angela Breeding smiled, her blue eyes younger now that the weight of mortality had left them. "It's not for us to know that, Addie. It's hard being different. Hard being forgotten. But you're not alone - never alone. And I doubt you'd really want it changed, would you? Now come on. We have only till midnight, and that's nearly here."
Already spiraling into a misty haze of smoky blue, Addie waved to her sister, whom she had had saved that day after managing to crawl through a broken door. The smoke had been too much for the girl's weak lungs, and Addie had perished. The only child lost. It had been a miracle, Pastor Edmunds had said. God had smiled on Little Paris just as He had on the Hebrews in the days of old.
Two years later, hardly anyone remembered the miracle. But as the haze dissipated with midnight's stroke, Sissy Branham turned in her bed and reached for her new glasses. "Addie," she called through a choke of tears into the now empty hallway. "Thanks."