MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
My mother always started the story by saying, “Well, she was born in the backseat of a stranger’s car,” as though that explained why Wavy wasn’t normal. It seemed to me that could happen to anybody. Maybe on the way to the hospital, your parents’ respectable, middle-class car broke down. That was not what happened to Wavy. She was born in the backseat of a stranger’s car, because Uncle Liam and Aunt Val were homeless, driving through Texas when their old beat-up van broke down. Nine months pregnant, Aunt Val hitchhiked to the next town for help. If you ever consider playing Good Samaritan to a pregnant woman, think about cleaning that up.
I learned all this from eavesdropping on Mom’s Tuesday night book club. Sometimes they talked about books, but mostly they gossiped. That was where Mom first started polishing The Tragic and Edifying Story of Wavonna Quinn.
After Wavy was born, Mom didn’t hear from Aunt Val for almost five years. The first news she had was that Uncle Liam had been arrested for dealing drugs, and Aunt Val needed money. Then Aunt Val got arrested for something Mom wouldn’t say, leaving no one to take care of Wavy.
The day after that second phone call, Grandma visited, and argued with Mom behind closed doors about “reaping what you sow,” and “blood is thicker than water.” Grandma, my soft-in-the-middle, cookie-baking grandma shouted, “She’s family! If you won’t take her, I will!”
We took her. Mom promised Leslie and me new toys, but we were so excited about meeting our cousin that we didn’t care. Wavy was our only cousin, because according to Mom, Dad’s brother was gay. Leslie and I, at nine and going on seven, made up stories about Wavy that were pure Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Starved, kept in a cage, living in the wilderness with wolves.
The day Wavy arrived, the weather suited our gloomy theories: dark and rainy, with gusting wind. Of course, it would have been more fitting if Wavy had arrived in a black limo or a horse-drawn carriage instead of the social worker’s beige sedan.
Sue Enaldo was a plump woman in a blue pantsuit, but for me she was Santa Claus, bringing me a marvelous present. Before Sue could get a rain bonnet over her elaborate Dolly Parton hair, Wavy hopped out of the backseat, dangling a plastic grocery bag in one hand. She was delicate, and soaked to the skin by the time she reached the front door.
Leslie’s face fell when she saw our cousin, but I wasn’t disappointed. As soon as my mother opened the door, Wavy stepped in and surveyed her new home with a bottomless look I would grow to love, but that would eventually drive my mother to despair. Her eyes were dark, but not brown. Grey? Green? Blue? You couldn’t really tell. Just dark and full of a long view of the world. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were translucent, to match her hair. Silver-blond, it clung to her head and ran trails of water off her shoulders onto the entryway tile.
“Wavonna, sweetie, I’m your Aunt Brenda.” It was a mother I didn’t recognize, the way she pitched her voice high, falsely bright, and gave Sue an anxious look. “Is she—is she okay?”
“As okay as she ever is. She didn’t say a word to me on the drive over. The foster family she’s been with this week, they said she was quiet as a mouse.”
“Has she been to see a doctor?”
“She went, but she wouldn’t let anyone touch her. She kicked two nurses and punched the doctor.”
My mother’s eyes went wide and Leslie took a step back.
“Okay, then,” Mom cooed. “Do you have some clothes in your bag there, Wavonna? Let’s get you into something dry, okay?”
She must have expected Wavy to fight her, but when she reached for the grocery bag, Wavy let it go. My mother opened it and frowned at the contents.
“Where are the rest of her clothes?”
“That’s it,” Sue said. “She came to us wearing a man’s undershirt. Those are the clothes the foster family got together for her.”
“I’m sure Amy has something she can wear for now.”
Putting her hands on her knees to get to Wavy’s height, Sue said, “Wavonna, I’m going to go now and you’re going to stay here with your aunt. Do you understand?”
The grown-ups talked to Wavy like she was a little kid, but at five she made a very adult gesture: a curt nod to dismiss Sue.
After Sue was gone, the four of us stood in the entryway, staring. Mom, Leslie, and I at Wavy. Wavy seemed to have x-ray vision, staring through the living room wall at the Venus oil lamp that hung on the other side. How did she know it was there to stare at it?
“Well, why don’t we go upstairs and get Wavonna into some dry clothes,” Mom said.
In my room, Wavy stood between the two beds, dripping onto the rug. Mom looked anxious, but I was thrilled to have my real live cousin in my room.
“Here, Amy, why don’t you help her unpack while I get a towel?” Mom retreated, leaving us alone.
I opened an empty drawer and “unpacked” Wavy’s bag: another hand-me-down sundress as threadbare as the one she had on, two pairs of panties, an undershirt, a flannel nightgown, and a new baby doll, smelling of fresh plastic.
“This will be your dresser.” I didn’t want to sound like my mother, like an adult. I wanted Wavy to like me. After I put the clothes in the drawer, I held the doll out to her. “Is this your baby?”
She looked at me, really looked at me, and that’s how I knew her eyes weren’t brown. Her head moved left, right, back to center. No.
“Well, we can put it in here, to keep it safe,” I said.
Mom returned with a towel, which she tried to put over Wavy’s dripping hair. Before Mom could touch her, Wavy snatched the towel away and dried her own hair.
After a moment of stunned silence, Mom said, “Let’s find something for you to wear.”
She laid out panties and an undershirt on the bed. Without any embarrassment, Wavy peeled off the sundress and dropped it on the floor, before stepping out of her tennis shoes. She was almost as bony as the kids in the UNICEF ads, her ribs sticking out through the dry cotton undershirt she put on.
I offered her my favorite corduroy pants and plaid shirt, but she shook her head. With her thumb and first finger she plucked at an invisible skirt. Mom looked helpless.
“She wants her dress,” I said.
“She needs something warmer.”
So I went into my closet and found a Christmas party dress I hated the one time I wore it. Navy velvet with a lace collar, it was too big for Wavy, but it suited her. With her hair already drying to blond wisps, she looked like she had stepped out of an old photograph.
At lunch, Wavy sat at the table, but didn’t eat anything. Same thing at dinner and breakfast the next morning.
“Please, sweetie, just try a bite.” Mom looked exhausted and she’d only been a stay-at-home aunt one day.
I love my mother. She was a good mother. She did arts and crafts projects with us, baked with us, and took us to the park. Until we were practically teenagers, Mom tucked us into bed every night. Whatever Wavy needed, it wasn’t that.
The first night, Mom tucked Wavy and me into bed, me with my Winnie the Pooh, and Wavy with the baby doll she said wasn’t hers. As soon as Mom left the room, Wavy threw off her covers and I heard the thud of the doll hitting the floor. If something else had happened to make the room go dark—if Leslie had played a prank or the bulb had burned out—I would have screamed for Mom, but when Wavy turned off my nightlight, I shivered under my covers, afraid but excited. After she lay down again, she spoke. Her voice was small and quiet, just what you would expect from a tiny, blond elf-child.
“Cassiopeia. Cepheus. Ursa Minor. Cygnus. Perseus. Orion.”
Since she had finally spoken, I grew brave enough to ask, “What does it mean?”
“Names of stars.”
Until then I hadn’t known the stars had names. Arm extended, finger pointing, Wavy traced out shapes above her head, as though she were guiding the movements of the stars. A conductor directing a symphony.
The next night, Wavy smiled at me as Mom crawled around looking for the unwanted doll. A minute after we were tucked in, the baby was again among the dust bunnies under the bed. Eventually that became the doll’s name: Dust Bunny. If Mom failed to look for the doll at bedtime, I said, “Oh, no. I think Dust Bunny is missing again,” to make Wavy smile.
While I had a growing friendship with Wavy, my mother had only anxiety.
In the first month, Mom took Wavy to the doctor three times, because she wasn’t eating. The first time, a nurse tried to put a thermometer in Wavy’s mouth. It didn’t end well. The other two times, Wavy mounted the scale and the doctor pronounced, “She’s underweight, but not dangerously so. She must be eating something.”
Dad said the same thing and he had evidence to back it up. One night, he came home from work after we were all in bed, and woke us up shouting, “Oh, goddamnit! What are you doing? What are you doing?”
Wavy wasn’t in her bed, so I ran downstairs alone. I found Dad in the kitchen with the trash can lid in one hand and his briefcase in the other. I’d never been in the kitchen that late. In the day it was a warm, sunny place, but behind Dad, the basement door stood open and dark, like the mouth of a monster.
“What’s the matter, Daddy?”
“It’s nothing. Go back to bed.” He put the lid on the trash and laid his briefcase on the table.
“What’s going on, Bill?” Mom came up behind me and put her hand on my shoulder.
“She was eating out of the trash.”
“What? Amy, what are you—”
“Not Amy. Your niece.”
Mom didn’t take Wavy to the doctor again to complain about her not eating.
After failing to solve that crisis, Mom became obsessed with sewing for Wavy. The dresses you could buy hung on her like sacks and were too frilly, which Wavy hated. The first day she wore my Christmas party dress, she tore the lace collar off.
So Mom sewed dozens of dresses that Wavy unraveled, plucking at the seams until a thread came loose. From there she could unravel a dress in less than a week. Mom rehemmed her dresses each time they came through the wash. It slowed the unraveling down, which was a practical solution, but Mom didn’t want a solution, she wanted a reason.
One of the book club ladies said, “Does she have toileting problems?”
Mom frowned, shook her head. “No, there’s no trouble like that. She’ll be six in July.”
Wavy and I eavesdropped from the other side of the kitchen door. Her games all involved sneaking around and finding people’s secrets, like the cigarettes my father hid in a coffee can in the garage.
“I wonder if she’s acting out over some inappropriate contact,” the book club lady said.
“You think she might have been molested?” another lady said, sounding shocked but excited.
That conversation led to Wavy’s first visit to a therapist. She stopped unraveling her dresses and Mom went around looking triumphant. To Dad, she said: “I think we’ve had a breakthrough.”
Then she discovered the curtains in the guest bedroom, which were what Wavy took to unraveling when she stopped doing it to her clothes.
Mom and Dad yelled at each other while Wavy stared through them.
“Why does there have to be something wrong with her?” Dad said. “Maybe she’s just weird. God knows your sister’s weird enough. I don’t have time for you to get hysterical over everything she does. We have to wrap up the books on the fiscal year-end.”
“I’m worried about her. Is that so horrible of me? She never talks. What’s going to happen to her?”
“She does too talk,” Leslie said. “I hear her talking at night to Amy.”
Mom slowly turned to all of us, narrowed in on me. “Is that true? Does she talk to you?”
She stared into my eyes, pleading with me. I nodded.
“Well, what does she talk about?”
“It’s a secret.”
“There can’t be secrets, Amy. If she tells you something important, you have to tell me. You want to help Vonnie, don’t you?” Mom got down on her knees in front of me and I saw how it was. She would make me tell my secret. I started to cry, knowing I would tell and it wouldn’t help Mom or Wavy. It would just rob me of something precious.
Wavy saved me. With her hand over her mouth, she said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
My mother’s eyes bulged. “I—I—I.” She couldn’t get a word out and even Dad looked stunned. The silent ghost girl could speak in complete sentences.
“I want you to go back to the therapist,” Mom said.
Things might have gotten better after that, if it hadn’t been for the other secret between Wavy and me. She liked to sneak out of the house at night, and I went with her. Breezing down the stairs on bare feet, we eased open the kitchen door and walked around the neighborhood.
Sometimes we just looked. Other times, we took things. The night of Wavy’s sixth birthday, when she had left her cake uneaten, she jimmied open Mrs. NiBlack’s screen door. We crept across the kitchen to the refrigerator, where Wavy pressed her finger to the lever to keep the light inside off. On the bottom shelf sat a half-eaten lemon pie, which we carried away. Crouched under the weeping willow in the Goerings’ backyard, Wavy tore out a chunk of pie with her bare hand and gave me the plate. She went around the corner of the garden shed and when she came back, her piece of lemon pie was gone. No, she wasn’t starving.
Some nights we gathered things. A wine bottle scavenged from the gutter. A woman’s high-heeled shoe from the median of the highway, where we weren’t supposed to go. An old hand mixer abandoned outside the Methodist Church’s back door. We collected our treasures into a metal box stolen from the neighbor’s garage, and secreted it along our back fence, behind the lilac bushes.
When autumn came, the lilacs lost their leaves, and Dad found the box of treasure, including Mrs. NiBlack’s heavy glass pie plate, her name written on the bottom of it on a square of masking tape. Mom returned it to Mrs. NiBlack, who must have told her how the pie plate went missing: stolen out of her fridge on a hot July night, a trail of small dirty footprints left on the linoleum.
Or maybe something else made Mom suspicious.
As the weather got colder, I wanted to stay at home in bed, but when Wavy got up and dressed, I did, too. If I didn’t go, she would go alone. Half of my fear was that something would happen to her. The other half was a fear that she would have adventures without me.
So I went with her, shivering against the cold, while my heart pounded with excitement. At the library, Wavy went up on tiptoe to reach her spindly arm into the book return. In the day, my mother would have driven us to the library to check out books, but stealing books was sweeter.
Wavy smiled and withdrew her arm to reveal treasure. The book was thin enough to pass through the return the wrong way, but it wasn’t a kiddy book. Salome, the spine said. We leaned our heads together to consider the strangeness of an adult book with pictures. Odd pictures. The cover was worn and layered with clear tape to protect it, and the pages were heavy. It felt special.
As I reached to turn the page, a pair of headlights fell on us where we crouched beside the book deposit. Wavy darted away, but I froze when my father yelled, “Amy!” Like in a fairy tale, where knowing someone’s name gives you power, my father was able to capture me.
My mother got out of the car and ran across the library parking lot. She looked so ferocious, loping toward me in her nightgown and coat, that I expected a blow. Punishment. Instead, she jerked me into her arms and pressed me to her chest.
After that, I had to tell everything. About the late night wandering. Not the stars. That was still my secret. Mom screamed and Dad yelled.
“I know you mean well, Brenda. You want to help her. I get that. But when her behavior starts endangering our children, it’s time to choose. We can’t keep her. She’s out of control.”
The police came to make a report, to get a picture, to put out a bulletin. The neighbors turned out to look for Wavy, but at dawn she returned on her own.
I woke to more yelling and screaming. That afternoon, Grandma came to get Wavy.
“It’s a horrible idea. A stupid idea,” Mom said. I marveled that she could talk to Grandma like that. It didn’t seem possible to get away with saying something like that to your mother. “You can’t keep an eye on her all the time. You can’t stay up all night.”
“What would be the point? I suppose she will do a little wandering. From what I remember, you and Val did some wandering when you were kids.”
“That was different. We were teenagers and it was a safer time.”
“Pfft,” Grandma said.
“Think of your health, Helen,” Dad said.
“You haven’t been as strong since the chemo, Mom.”
Grandma blew out a big puff of air, the same way she used to exhale cigarette smoke, and shook her head. “Tell me your solution. Foster care? Send her to live with strangers?”
“We’ll keep her,” Mom said.
“No, we won’t.” Dad stood up and blocked my view, so I’ll never know what look passed between him and Mom, but when he went to the counter to pour himself more coffee, Mom nodded.
“She might as well come home with me today,” Grandma said.
I sat on Wavy’s bed while Grandma packed her suitcase. There wasn’t much to pack. A dozen dresses that had survived the Great Unraveling. Some socks and underwear. The hairbrush that she sometimes let me run through her silky, fine hair. The last thing into the suitcase was Dust Bunny, the baby doll.
Grandma put it in the suitcase. Wavy took it out. Mom put it in. Wavy took it out. It was the only toy Wavy had. “Nothing belongs to you,” she told me once when Leslie and I fought over a favorite Barbie that later disappeared.
Wavy took Dust Bunny out of the suitcase and handed it to me. A gift? Then it was time for her to go. Grandma hugged us all, while Wavy stood near the door. Mom tried to hug her, too, but she skittered away, slipping past my mother to hug me. Not close enough for our bodies to touch, she rested her hands on my shoulders, and sniffed my hair. When she released me, she ran out the front door.
“You see how it is,” Mom said.
“She’s her own girl. You were, too.” Grandma smiled and picked up Wavy’s bag.
After Thanksgiving, I found the real gift Wavy had left me in the closet under the stairs. When Mom pulled out the boxes of Christmas decorations, I crawled in to sweep up loose tinsel and a broken ornament. Tucked in the very back was the stolen book: Salome.
Copyright © 2016 by Bryn Greenwood