Cover by Christopher Harrison
Dad’s favorite place to go running was Lorraine Creek, on a small path through the woods that he had beat out himself, running there through the years. He said that the trees and the water always felt like they were running with him, like they were the only things moving in the twilight of the early morning. I knew just what he meant.
“Creek’s high this season,” he said, his breath jagged. It was the Monday after our win against East.
I jumped over a sinkhole. “Yeah.”
It had snowed a lot that winter, and had only recently begun to warm up. The snow went straight into the waterways, filling them with a ferocity that kept on rising.
“It seems to have a life of its own,” Dad said. “Wish I had that much energy.”
I tried to laugh, but I was so cold that it came out more like a cough. Some mornings, our six-mile, five-thirty run really kicked my ass, and this was one of them. My sweat felt like a wet blanket wound tightly around my whole body, and I wasn’t really awake. Still, it was my favorite part of the day, especially when it was just me and Dad. Jason’s shin splints were flaring up again, and he had been ordered to not run for at least a month by our doctor. Unlike me, he hated running, and was relieved to have an extra hour of sleep. What he hadn’t realized yet was the power that came from pushing your body farther than you thought it could go, the mental fortitude it took to push past shaking legs and wheezing lungs. That was the knowledge that Dad and I shared.
Low-hanging branches whipped around us in the pre-dawn air. Dead leaves crunched under our feet.
“It’s okay,” I told Dad. “We learned in physics that energy comes and goes. Nothing owns it. You just use it, and then pass it on.”
Dad laughed, in between labored breaths. “So you want us to harness the energy of the creek then?”
I laughed and thought I could feel for a split second, each of the steps I had taken running on this path with Dad years before, within the new step I was taking now. It gave me strength and the conviction that I was doing something meaningful, much larger than myself. “Race you to the top of the hill,” I told him, as the vista of the valley became visible. The small strand of birch trees at the top were bent over by wind, and pulling us forward.
“You’re on, Little Kirtridge,” said Dad, taking off in a burst of speed. That was the name he had given me after my first game, when I had gotten on base twice, and thrown two people out. Everyone was saying that I was “Terry Kirtridge, Jr.,” and he simply said, “No, she’s just Little Kirtridge.”
I grinned, and pumped my arms as hard as I could. My breath was like a metronome in my chest, and as my feet clawed into the ground, I could almost hear the rush of water behind me, its propulsion unstoppable.
My little sister Kit leaned over a papier-mâché butterfly and pulled the paintbrush across its chest in a movement that was both calculated and completely spontaneous. I was seated in the living room reading the Sunday comics and had the perfect view of her new art project. This was where I liked to sit when she was in the middle of working because I could be on the edge of the activity at the same time that I could see everything, if I wanted to.
“What’s the other color going to be?” I asked. She had been confining herself to the use of just two colors lately because she said that color was actually a seduction – that it could keep you from developing your other skills as an artist if you let it. Apparently, minimizing your color composition was challenging her to express herself through shape, media, use of perspective, and a host of other elements that my extremely practical 16-year-old mind could not recall.
“You’ll see,” she said, flashing me a mischievous grin.
I just snickered, and pulled the funnies back up over my eyes again. You couldn’t keep up with her, so why even try?
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her walk to the sink, wash the red paint off of the brush, and begin to mix a new topaz green color onto her plate. It was flat, not shiny, so it brought out the red’s quieter undertones. She began to paint topaz swirls all along the butterfly’s torso with such dexterity that I began to get dizzy from watching her. Finally, she stepped back from the butterfly, to inspect her work, and make any adjustments needed. Her long blond hair was flecked with red, as was her blouse. I remembered that Mom had taken her on a special shopping trip to get that blouse for one of her art shows. It was a light silk, and should not have come anywhere near paint of any kind. But then, Kit was never one for common sense.
She had grown into a strange girl, my sister. Everyone said that she would be beautiful, and she was, even at eleven, incredibly beautiful, but I could see it transforming into more of a wild, almost feral kind of beauty. Something you had to look hard to see because she didn’t want you to see it at all.
“Nice choice,” I said, referring to her selection of the topaz. “Not what I would have thought of at all.”
She cocked her head to the side, frowning. “You think so? I’m not sure.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I like it.”
Kit walked around the butterfly, painting tiny topaz marks here and there. I knew there was some kind of pattern she was following – some kind of internal logic – but I could not see what it was. “What do you like about it?”
I laughed. She was playing with me or something. I raised the page of comics back up, ready to resume reading. “Never mind.”
There was a long silence as she continued painting, and I immersed myself in Garfield. Our dog Paddington came over and laid down by my feet. I patted his head, absently.
“You know, I do value your opinion, Alex.”
I laughed again. “Okay, whatever.” Something was obviously on her mind, but I had no idea what it was, and I wasn’t going to spend any of my own time trying to pry it out of her.
I heard her stomp her foot, and I put the comics down again.
“I’m serious,” Kit said. She was facing me directly, her big gray eyes full and intense. “I want to be a better sister.” She lowered her gaze for a moment. “I know it’s not easy for you.”
I stared at her. What was she driving at? “What’s not easy for me – reading the funnies?” I gave her a half-smile.
She looked impatient. “No,” she said, finally. “You know what I mean.”
I laughed. “No. As usual, Kit, I don’t.” Then why is your heart beating faster? And then, strangely, the image of Dad and the envelope came back into my mind.
Kit’s face kind of twisted a little bit, like she was looking at me from far, far away – maybe from space or something.
Dad entered then, to get a glass of water, effectively stopping our conversation. He groaned when he saw the butterfly on the table. “Kit, you need to clear all of this off. Now. You know you can’t work in here.”
Kit whipped around to face him. “Well, where am I supposed to work?”
“Clear it off,” Dad said, in his and that’s final voice. “Mom just got home. She’s about to start on dinner.” He walked into the living room. “I don’t want her to see any of this when she comes in.”
Kit didn’t say anything, but just curled her upper lip at me across the room.
They had never been the best of friends, but things had been even more tense than usual lately. I wasn’t sure why.
I picked up the funnies for the third time, and continued reading. There was no way I was getting between the two of them, and there was also no way I needed Kit to finish her bizarre assessment of me.
“Katherine, please pass the salt,” Mom said at dinner. Half the time I didn’t know whom she was talking about when she used that name, and I knew I wasn’t the only one. Mom had maintained a perverse dislike of Kit’s name since she was a child, and still held out the hope – however slim – that she might some day revert back to the name given to her at birth.
Kit reached for the saltshaker lazily, and took her time to hand it to Mom. I knew she hated her formal name as much as Mom loved it.
“I like these cheddar potatoes,” Dad said, spooning a second helping onto his plate. “Is this a new recipe?”
Mom nodded, and then took the saltshaker from Kit. “Got it from Cooking Light. It’s part of their new summer issue on quick and easy sides.” She sprinkled a dash of salt on her green beans. “I saw about a million more recipes for things that would be perfect. Roasted beets, sweet potato fries, fresh cabbage salad. That magazine is a miracle.”
Dad shoveled a full forkful of potatoes into his mouth and grunted his agreement.
I felt a laugh bubbling up from the bottom of my stomach, and looked across the table to Jason, to share in the absurdity of the moment. Were we in the middle of a Cooking Light commercial? But he was too busy cutting up his pork chop to notice my meaningful glance. Beside him, however, I felt Kit’s eyes probing my own. They were huge and filled with mirth. I looked away before I began to laugh.
“What do you think, Alex?” Mom asked me out of nowhere.
I chewed on a piece of pork chop. Suddenly, all eyes were on me. “What do I think about what?”
Mom stabbed a bean with her fork and began to cut it with her knife. “What do you think of the potatoes?”
“Oh…yeah, they’re delicious.”
Mom smiled, satisfied with my answer. She always needed to have her cooking abilities praised. It was annoying, but necessary. Kit made a screwed up face at me and I looked away again.
Kit ceremoniously clanged her fork onto her plate, and folded her fingers together, almost as if in prayer. “What do you all make of Alex being the only black person in our family? I mean, I’ve been thinking about it, and I know I’m not the only one. Sometimes I see people staring at us in the grocery store like they can’t figure us out, and if I feel weird, and then I know it must be like ten times weirder for Alex. But it’s like this secret, you know? Like no one is supposed to actually admit that she’s black, or maybe more that she’s not white. But it’s impossible because she’s just right there, with us and it’s like, ‘How can’t you see this?’” She said it in a completely credulous tone, without a trace of malice.
Mom coughed on her potatoes, and Dad set his wine glass on the table with a thud. I stopped chewing my piece of pork, and wondered what was happening.
For a minute, the air was thick with electricity, and then Dad spoke. “Excuse me?”
Kit looked him straight in the face, clear-eyed, and repeated the question. She had never asked anything like that before, but then again, she seemed to grow bolder – and to care less what anyone thought of her – every day. This must have been what she was trying to address with me earlier. I tried to decide if I was angry or just surprised, and what I realized I was feeling most at that moment was fear. It wasn’t what I expected.
Dad’s jaw was set, and he picked up the wine glass again. “Alex is only half-black,” he said.
That again? Really? I couldn’t even look at him.
He cleared his throat, and stared Kit down. “And there are lots of white families who adopt black children anyway. You know that as well, so I’m not sure what you’re getting at.” He squinted at Kit. “Is there something going on with you? You’re acting even stranger than usual lately.”
Jason looked completely perplexed. He tried to catch my eye, but I was trained on Kit, waiting for her response.
Kit shrugged, nonchalantly meeting Dad’s glare. “Lulu says that even though Alex is mixed, people think she’s black when they look at her.” Lulu was the black girl who lived across the street, and also Kit’s best friend. “And she was also asking me why our family adopted Alex when you already had Jason and me.”
Mom’s face was flaming red, and she was breathing hard. “You hadn’t even been born yet when we got Alex, and I had no idea I was going to get pregnant with Jason.” The words were spilling out of her, like she didn’t know where they were coming from. “And anyway, what business is it of Lulu’s? Why would you even be talking about personal family stuff with Lulu anyway? That’s not her business! That’s nobody’s business but ours.” She shook her head and blinked at Kit, like she didn’t know her.
Kit sighed. “She asked.”
I felt my face turn red. So people were talking about me in the neighborhood? What else are they saying about your not-so-black ass?
“Lots of people will ask you lots of things,” Dad said, holding Kit’s eyes with his own. “Things which absolutely do not concern them. And when that happens, it’s your job – no, your responsibility – not to answer them. Some things are just private.”
“And this is not exactly dinnertime conversation,” Mom said, her voice wobbly.
I wanted to say something. I wanted to tell them to quit talking about me like I wasn’t there, but I didn’t know what words to use. And yet, at the same time, there was a part of me that was grateful to Kit for saying something, and was grateful to Lulu for being able to verbalize what I could not.
Kit laughed. “Alex being black is private?”
I looked, alarmed, between Dad and Kit. Not two feet away from her, he looked like he wanted to slap her. But she either didn’t see this or didn’t care. “I mean, I get how some parts of her adoption are private. Or at least that you guys want it to be private.”
Mom grabbed Kit’s arm, and hissed, “Be quiet, young lady!” I swear I could see tears in her eyes.
But it was like Kit was a ghost, outside her body, because she wasn’t even phased, didn’t seem to even register that Mom was clutching her. “I mean, what if Alex’s other parents can teach her about black people, so maybe she wouldn’t feel so…”
“Shut up!” Mom and Dad both yelled at the same time. It was like two cymbals, striking each other with extreme force, with Kit between them.
Kit looked stunned, like she had just woken up, except that the waking world was much worse than her dream.
I clenched my fists tightly under the table. Then I pushed my chair out, and ran from the table.
“Alex!” Mom called after me. And in the background I heard, “See what you did?”
When I got to my room, I played my Sting as loud as it would go, and flopped down on the bed, headfirst. There were times like this when I wanted to just disappear, when my body seemed to be more trouble than it was worth. And the worst part was that I knew that later everyone would act like nothing had happened. That was always just the way it went.