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Hungry everywhere.

"I don't get it." My sister Carson ran her hand along Delilah's mane, then down her neck. The horse shivered, and it made me shiver. Carson was 10, with chopped up hair she cut herself and muscles like a boy. She was a kid like other kids I knew, except she was the only one I'd known longer than a year.

"How can you move a whole stable? Why doesn't Dad just build the stable there, at the new house?"

We'd already moved about 10 times by then, always suddenly, and I knew that Carson didn't believe we'd actually get a house built. Our dad never was really one for doing what he said he'd do, but I believed him about the house--I'd lie awake at night picturing the cathedral ceilings and cherry cabinets. I drew an outline of the stable framework in the dirt with a stick.

"This is all it is," I said. "It just rests right on the ground, on these things like runners. It doesn't even need a floor. They can lift it right up to move it with a forklift. Then they stick it in the back of a truck and take it right to the new house."

I waited for her to nod. She held her face to Delilah's, and wiped out the drawing with her toe.

"Anyway," I said, "he can't start building anything on the new land until we get a loan approved. It's a lot of stuff you wouldn't understand. So this is something he can start building now. He's building it mainly for you, you know. Nobody else in this family could care less if we had a horse."

She narrowed her eyes. "I don't care what kind of house you all build," she snapped. "That's all anybody cares about. This kind of wood and that kind of wood, and how big it is. It's stupid." Her hair would have looked bad on almost any girl but her. She had that smile--you could see her teeth, kind of crooked, but people loved it. "Other families aren't like this one," she rasped. "They talk about normal things."

She didn't understand. That was the problem with Carson. Whenever we started at a new school the other kids came right up to her like they already knew her. She'd talk about all the places we'd lived, making it sound like we were some kind of world travelers. Even animals came up to her, even birds. She carried sunflower seeds in her backpack and would scatter them out on the playground, and then birds would come up, then the kids. She could ride Delilah so easy, too, always moving her legs just right, barely tugging the reins. It was like a string ran through her and other kids and animals. And she didn't ever care if the rest of the family had a hold of the string or not.

"It's not just a house," I said. "It's not just wood. You should hear Mom--"

"Mom's had a suitcase, packed up, in the closet ever since we moved here. She doesn't want what you want, what you and Dad want. She just wants to live somewhere long enough to get to know somebody. That's what you don't get. It's like you don't even hear her. She's losing it, and you don't even know it. You watch. If Dad screws this house up, if he starts lying and talking big, she's leaving him. She said it. You go look in the closet." She shrugged. "Not like it matters to me anyway."

She made it sound so right, but I knew a hundred ways she was wrong. She would never listen, never understand. She didn't really believe in the house, she didn't believe in God, she didn't believe in anything except the stupid girls she sat with on the bus; I thought of those girls, of the place we lived in Colorado where the red sand had turned to stone, of all the places we'd lived. I knew my mom was tired of moving, but she'd never leave my dad.

"Delilah needs water. From the spring," Carson said. "The water from the hose is too hard."

"You know," I followed her away from the house, toward the trail in the woods, "you act like you know all about people, but you don't. There's things you don't know about, like Dad. Maybe if you'd just listen sometimes to what he says."

She cut her eyes at me. "You're the one who everyone thinks is so weird," she said. "Preaching up in trees and hanging around churches. You make people think you're losing it. Like when you talk about being some kind of missionary in Pakistan or whatever. Like you think that's going to make people like you or something."

The mosquitoes were at me, at the back of my knees. It had been a long time, at least a year, since I'd said anything about the missionary idea, but she just wouldn't leave it alone. She never listened to me, unless I said something like that, and then she knew just how to spit the words back at me. When I first told her about being a missionary, I'd seen the hungry eyes and faces on TV one day, and I thought I could see myself right there, telling them the truth, saving them. I heard once about people in China, hundreds of thousands of them, who still lived in caves. I could hear the way they talked when I went to sleep, their strange language like a song, and I understood every word.

Then a voice from the walls said go, and my heart beat at the closeness of it. The next night at dinner I told my dad about it and he said he always knew that I was being led to do great things in the world. "But," he said, "people everywhere are just like that, hungry like that. Being poor and hungry doesn't make it any easier to like them. If it did, everyone would be rushing to feed them. Instead, everyone's rushing to get the hell away from them." His family was so poor when he was growing up that they lived on someone's back porch for over a year, so he knew about things like that.

Carson let the water pail bang against the trees, just to pester me. I stopped to slap at the mosquitoes, leaving traces of blood. I didn't hate Carson; we almost never fought, I just couldn't understand why she acted like me and Mom and Dad were so bad. Even now, she didn't wait, just kept walking.

I caught up with her. "You know," I said, "there really are kids like that, who don't have any food. If you saw the pictures like I did--"

She held her eyebrows close together, mocking me. "Oh, I know," she said, "they got flies in their eyes. And you're going to build some huge church for them, like Jesus is going to keep the flies off. Right."

I didn't answer. If I did, she would know just what to say back, that's how she was, like the other kids.

The spring at the bottom of the hill was almost too perfect. I wished for a minute we could drag sticks in the water or drop leaf boats down the stream, but she just filled the pail and turned to leave.

"You know," I said, "I didn't say anything about building a church."

Then, instead of leaving, she stopped and sat down next to me. "You didn't have to," she said. She made a leaf boat and dropped it in the water. After a while, she said, "You know, you need some friends. You should invite someone over someday. How come you never do that? Everyone else does. It's weird not to."

When she looked at me, I knew, she was sorry. "I mean, if we're actually going to stay here--I mean if--and we have this new house and all, you should start hanging out with somebody. Somebody--" She looked into the trees, "cute. Like Jacob Vander Bier. If we stay here long enough, you're going to have to make a friend."

Then a wonderful thing happened. Even though the water pails were full and even though I had to keep slapping mosquitoes away, Carson and I played. Maybe for an hour, but I think it was longer, maybe the rest of the afternoon. We loaded a dozen leaf boats with sand, all they could carry, and they never sank. I even took off my shoes and splashed my feet in the icy water. I didn't think about anything, it was like the day my dad let me sit on his lap and steer his truck, I was just there, just right.

When we walked back up the hill, she told me about a time I'd forgotten about, when she was in kindergarten and a boy on the playground was picking on her and I came up and poked my finger in his chest.

"You said if he didn't leave me alone you would be all over him like white on rice. You said that, white on rice. I think you'd heard Dad say it." She reached over and poked me in the side, playing, and I put my hand on her shoulder. For a while after that I'd say the words to myself, white on rice, trying to remember how I would have actually said them and how I might have pulled my shoulders back, but I couldn't. It didn't matter, though. I believed her.

She was right--one afternoon when I was home by myself I looked in my mom's closet. I even opened the suitcase, and there it all was--a brand new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste, some clothes, all the stuff she'd need to go away. I even found $150 and some blank checks in a pocket of the suitcase.

I'd read a story once in school about a boy who carried a picture of his mother around. She'd left when he was 3. At night he put the picture beside his pillow, sometimes dreaming that he felt her hand on his forehead just before he awoke. He even brought it with him to college, taped it in a book where he looked at it only once in a while, until he stopped feeling her hand. The boy was older, with his own children in college, when he found the book again and the picture of his mother and remembered how many nights he'd felt her hand, the touch so quiet and kind that he remembered every detail, where her fingertips lay on his eyebrows and how she moved his hair. He cried like he did when he carried the picture every day, only worse because there was no hand and no mother, and what he had waited for in his sleep all those years was nothing but a blur, eyes that were no more than dark dots, a dress shaped the only way he ever figured a mother could be shaped, just light and shadows on a piece of paper that he could tear apart as easily as he could turn a page.

I wondered about how lonesome Jesus must have felt in hell, that it would be hard to be in a place like that knowing it was full of people who hated him--so much that they'd tried to kill him. It was so sad that people cried for him for hundreds of years, long after anyone could remember the color of his hair or the shape of his face.

I closed my mom's suitcase but I didn't leave the closet. My dad's Carhartt coat hung on a nail and I started to reach into the pocket but I was too scared. I saw a pack of cigarettes up on a shelf and thought about sneaking one, but didn't do that either. Next to the cigarettes, behind a balled-up sweater, I saw an old shoebox, one I'd seen a long time ago somewhere, with a bunch of rubber bands around it.

Mostly it was boring, stuff from courts after my dad had beat people up, but I already knew about that, and it hadn't happened for a few years. I did see my own birth certificate, which I'd never seen, and that made me think about how my dad used to swing me up on his shoulders.

I wrapped the box back as carefully as I could, then went out to the dining room, where we had a photo album. I didn't even think about it: I just took out a picture of me and Carson from the summer before, when we lived in Maine. We were only there six months, and that time when we moved we got all new moving boxes. The picture showed us sitting on a box. I went back to the closet and put the picture in the pocket of my mom's suitcase.

I knew she wouldn't really leave. My dad had already drawn plans for the house. He'd even gotten forms from a bank--he showed them to me and said I could help him fill them out. And she'd already moved so many times. I was sorry she worried the way she did, but if she'd seen the plans like I had, she'd know--he would never let anyone do anything to hurt his family, to ruin the house. Just like when he'd let me steer his truck, I knew he wouldn't let me drive into a tree. She'd believe him. Besides, we'd already moved so many times--almost everywhere in the whole country. Where would she go that we hadn't already been?

The next day my mom kept me home from school for no reason. We went to the land my dad wanted to buy for the house. This lost-looking snow covered the rocks, the trees we'd cut down, the bent-over grass. Piles of smaller trees and brush lay in the middle, with limbs the dozer had ripped and root balls sticking up. A pickup truck was parked next to the dozer. I could smell the dirt, and something in the nakedness of it made me shiver. My mom kept shaking her head. "It's amazing when you think about it," she said quietly, "that there's really going to be a house here someday. Do you think--" She caught her breath, "Do you really believe it?"

"I guess I do."

"I worry about the money." She said it so softly, I almost missed it. She didn't even move her lips. "I don't understand, why are they cutting down trees before we've even bought it?

"Dad said they're clearing out dead stuff."

We were both cold, just enough that we were moving in trances.

A man in overalls appeared from behind a pile. He carried a red gas can, sloshing gas over a pile of broken trees. My mom grabbed my arm. "Oh, my God," she gasped. He walked away, set the can down, came back to the pile, and lit a match. The flames crept so slowly--then in an instant the piles went up, fire reaching as high as the clouds. The air cracked and filled with smoke, warming all the way to where we stood.

"He's just burning the brush," I said. "That's what they do. That's how they get rid of the stuff they don't want."

"It's so exciting," she said, looking along the clouds of smoke. We watched a long time--I don't know how long--jolting now and then when the fire popped, lost in the white glow inside the piles, tasting the cold ashes. Snow fell. I wished the man would go away. I wished there was a way we could lie on the bare ground near the fire and let the snowflakes cover us.

I heard once, from my Aunt Frankie, I think, that my mom's mom had lost her mind. I knew what that meant. One day they came home from school and found her singing, "I saw miles and miles of Texas," at the top of her lungs. She sang it until her voice was so weak that for two months after she couldn't speak. They put her in a hospital; that's where she learned how to paint. We had some of her paintings, windmills and farmhouses, but they didn't look like anything a crazy person would paint. All the colors were just like they were supposed to be, all the shapes were just right, even her name at the bottom of the paintings was in neat block letters. All that happened before I was born. The only thing strange about her now was that when she sat next to me, she patted my hand almost constantly.

I stayed home from school with my mom for a few more days even though I wasn't sick. We'd get things in the mail from the bank every day, and she wouldn't say anything about them, she'd just set them next to my dad's plate at the table. He shoved the envelopes in his pocket and just didn't eat. I knew what it was all about. What I figured was that we had to hurry, that if we built the house fast enough, it would be done before the bank could stop us. Before we'd have to move again. Or before my mom moved again, anyway.

My dad worked out there every night, till midnight, with a generator whining away the whole time. I went with him whenever he'd let me, holding the ends of the boards, shoveling out the footers, driving stakes. We didn't talk much, but I knew he needed me. The worst part was that my boots hurt, they'd gotten tight, but I didn't say anything. At night before bed I'd stuff socks in them to stretch them out. After it was built, I told myself, just wait.

It went slow though. I couldn't believe how long everything took. And every day when we'd go out there, it was still mainly holes and ditches in the ground. I tried to imagine if I had to build a whole church by myself some day, like Carson said, and what if I spent all my time building it but nobody would go inside? I wondered if I'd be in the place all by myself then, with a black anger like my dad's, just sinking and sinking. Or if I'd lose my mind. For the first time I could really see it, a mind just leaving, just walking all alone out a door.

I got so tired from all of it I fell asleep in school. Someone would poke me then, and I'd hear kids laugh. One day one of the kids who poked me came right up to me like he knew me. I didn't even know his name.

"Maybe you got narcolepsy," he said.

"What's that?" I wasn't sure if he was going to make a joke.

"A disease where you just go to sleep."

"How do you get it?" I checked around to make sure other kids weren't listening.

"Beats me," he said. "Some lady in my dad's office has it, though. He says she just checks out. Boom." He shut his eyes suddenly, then opened them.

"A girl in language arts likes you," he said.

It seemed like the whole school got quiet. I had no idea what to do or say, but before I could think, I laughed. And before I knew it, me and this kid were laughing and talking. I don't remember the words we said, but I know I just kept thinking that I wished Carson was there to hear me, to hear how he said somebody liked me.

That night when I got home Carson was with Delilah. She didn't turn when I came up.

"This girl likes me," I said. "In language arts. A kid told me." She still didn't look. It hit me that we were standing in the same place as when I drew the stable on the ground. We still didn't have lumber for it.

"Who is it?" She picked up an empty water pail.

I could see the kid in my mind, the way he laughed, how the words had just kept rolling out of our mouths, they must have been exactly the right words, but I didn't know what they were. He'd said somebody liked me, I was positive, but I couldn't remember who it was. Maybe he didn't say.

Carson handed me the pail. "Who cares," she said. "As long as it's somebody."

Paul Shepherd teaches creative writing at Florida State University.
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Title Annotation:short fiction
Author:Shepherd, Paul
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Short Story
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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