Matt & zoe, p.1
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       Matt & Zoe, p.1

           Charles Sheehan-Miles
 
Matt & Zoe


  by

  Charles Sheehan-Miles

  Books by Charles Sheehan-Miles

  The Thompson Sisters

  A Song for Julia

  Falling Stars: A Thompson Sisters

  A View From Forever

  Just Remember to Breathe

  The Last Hour

  The Thompson Sisters / Rachel's Peril

  Girl of Lies

  Girl of Rage

  Girl of Vengeance

  Fiction

  Nocturne (with Andrea Randall)

  Republic: A Novel of America's Future

  Insurgent: Book 2 of America's Future

  Prayer at Rumayla: A Novel of the Gulf War

  Matt & Zoe

  Nonfiction

  Saving the World On $30 A Day: An Activists Guide to Starting, Organizing and Running a Non-Profit Organization

  For the women who served

  in Iraq and Afghanistan

  Chapter One

  Miss Annoying (Zoe)

  The brakes on Nicole’s patrol car squeal as she brings it to a gentle stop in front of the unmarked building. It’s an old three-story white house with black shutters, with three cars parked in the gravel driveway. From the outside, there’s nothing to indicate this is an emergency shelter for children.

  South Hadley is well outside Nicole’s jurisdiction, but all the same, I’m glad she’s here with me. The sunlight flashes off her badge as her shoes crunch in the gravel. We walk to the front door, and I feel tension in my chest. Nicole knocks, and I cross my arms. The sunlight is glaring down, hot against my shoulder, but I’ve been in much worse heat. My tension isn’t from the heat out here, it’s from what I might find inside.

  The front door opens. A tired looking woman stands there, forty or so, with ill-fitting clothing.

  “Can I help you?”

  “I’m Officer Banks. This is Zoe Welch; she’s here to pick up her sister.”

  The woman’s eyes dart to me, scanning over my uniform—rumpled from forty-eight hours of travel—then to Nicole—then back to me. “Miss Welch… my name is Linda Whitney. Come in, please. You’re … younger than I expected. I was led to believe you’re a Sergeant in the Army?”

  I shrug. “I am. Or was—the Army discharged me yesterday.”

  She leads us into an entry room. It’s bare, with refinished pine flooring, white walls and plain furniture.

  “Please, wait here, and I’ll go get her. Um… do you have any identification?”

  I open my functional purse and pass over my Army Reserve identification. I don’t have a current driver's license. I'll have to take care of that soon.

  Linda frowns, looks at the photo on the identification, then back at me, as if she doubts I'm the person in the photo. I don’t know why—my Army Reserve ID was printed yesterday—the photo is clearly me. Without a word, she passes the ID back and I tuck it away. She walks out of the room, shutting the door behind her with a loud thump.

  “Wicked friendly, isn’t she?” Nicole asks. Her tone is dry.

  “I guess.” Another time I might have laughed, but right now it’s hard to have any kind of sense of humor. I’ve slept little since Captain Wilson awakened me in the Hardy Barracks in Tokyo forty-eight hours ago.

  Sergeant Welch. I regret to inform you your parents were killed in an accident.

  I have to hand it to Captain Wilson and the Army—they moved quickly. My first question when I learned my parents were dead was: where is Jasmine? Mom and Dad didn’t have any siblings, and our nearest relatives are some distant cousins in California.

  The initial answer terrified me: nobody knew where she was. Within a few hours I learned that Jasmine was in an emergency shelter. The Army granted me an immediate hardship discharge and flew me home. I skipped the normal out-processing—Captain Wilkins and my First Sergeant stepped in and took over everything so I could be on a plane as quickly as possible.

  I sway a little on my feet as the door opens and the sourpuss woman walks back in. Jasmine enters the room next. She’s downcast, hair hanging in her eyes, and wearing a clean but threadbare dress. At eight years old, Jasmine is about four and a half feet tall and weighs sixty pounds. Her wispy, dirty-blonde hair looks limp and lifeless.

  “Jasmine,” I whisper, dropping down to one knee.

  Her face whips up and her blue eyes widen, then in a blur she runs toward me, crying out the word, “Zoe!” in a choked, grief-stricken wail. She hits me hard and I almost fall backward. She begins to sob.

  “It’s okay,” I whisper. “It’s okay.”

  It isn’t okay.

  The accident was bizarre enough it made the news all over. I’d read the details. A truck full of premium commercial ovens hit a pothole, swerved across the road and rolled, throwing a one-ton stainless-steel gas range at my father’s 1961 Austin Healey Sprite, a car that was probably smaller than the oven that hit it. Mom and Dad were killed instantly.

  I don’t know if things will ever be okay again. I lie to Jasmine and hug her tight, squeezing my eyes closed because, if I don’t, I’m going to start crying.

  “We’ll need you to sign some paperwork…” says Miss Annoying.

  “I’ll take care of that,” Nicole says.

  “I’m afraid you can’t, she has to sign the papers.”

  “Is this necessary?” Nicole’s tone is exasperated.

  I look up. “I’ll sign. Whatever you need.” I stand, lifting Jasmine with me. Moments later, the woman shoves papers in front of me, including one indicating I’ll have to have a guardianship hearing in four weeks.

  “Why is a hearing necessary?” I ask. “She’s my sister.”

  The woman says, “Of course. It’s a formality, but the state has to formally make you her guardian. Don’t worry about it.”

  Nicole mutters something unpleasant under her breath. I finish signing the papers, then wait until Linda goes off to make copies. Minutes later, we’re back in the sunlight and getting into Nicole’s cruiser.

  Indecently normal (Zoe)

  Nicole’s dad grew up in Boston, but ended up living and working in Western Massachusetts because that’s where he was able to find a job. Every once in a while the harsh nasal tones of Jamaica Plain come out in her speech. He’s a cop. She always wanted to be a cop. Thinking about him makes me feel warm—we spent much of our childhood at each other’s houses.

  “The Lieutenant gave me a couple days off so I could help out, I’m switching some hours so I can cover the Big E clinic in a couple weeks anyway.” She drops the r in hours.

  I shake my head. “The what?”

  “Ah, well you know, basketball.”

  “Right,” I say. I forget—even though Nicole was a giant nonconformist in high school, she inherited two things from her dad. She always wanted to be a cop, and she loves UMASS basketball. When she got out of the Army, she got to combine the two—she’s the newest member of the UMASS Amherst Police Department. Most campus police departments are tiny, but with a student population of more than 30,000, UMASS needs a larger one than most of the nearby towns.

  As Nicole drives out of South Hadley Falls toward my parents’ house, my eyes keep drifting off the road and blurring. I haven’t been home yet—my flight got in at 9 am. Nicole picked me up at the airport, then we drove to get Jasmine. and I went straight to meet Nicole and pick up Jasmine. I don’t know what to expect when we get home.

  Despite the balmy weather, I feel like February. Cold. Lifeless. I ignore the traffic on College Street until we approach Mount Holyoke College. The house is on the left.

  It's a two-story Colonial with a wraparound porch and sagging foundations. Nine acres of horse pasture sprawl behind the neighboring properties. I have no idea where the horses are, or if anyone has taken care of them, o
r if they’re just on the property, hungry (or dead?). I don’t know if the house is locked, or if Jasmine has a key (I don’t have one) or anything much at all. I can see the house up ahead on the left, nestled in the shade of a stand of trees. The gravel driveway doesn’t look any worse than it did when I was on leave last January. I missed Christmas by a few weeks last year, but Mom and Dad made up for it, including cutting down a fresh tree and decorating it. When I walked in the house, exhausted from two solid days of travel, I saw the tree and almost burst into tears.

  When my mother saw me, she did burst into tears.

  I’m having trouble keeping it together today. It’s been months since I’ve been here, months since I’ve seen my parents, and I never expected to be coming home an orphan.

  I don’t like the way the way word feels.

  Nicole seems to sense my shift. She’s quiet as we approach the house. The left turn signal clicks as loud as helicopter blades when she slows down in front of the house. Traffic, oblivious traffic, flows by in the opposite direction. None of them know my parents are dead.

  None of them know that I am going to have to figure out how to be a parent to an eight-year-old girl.

  Nicole turns left. The tires hit the deep ruts of the driveway and a splash of mud flies away from the car. She comes to a stop behind my mother’s minivan and switches off the ignition. I can’t help but wonder if the accident would have been—not as bad—if they’d been driving the van. Or anything other than my father’s tiny hobby car.

  We're blanketed in an uncomfortable and unpleasant silence. A bird chirps in the distance, and somewhere closer, a horse snorts.

  I smell the pungent tang of a skunk. Not close, but close enough. You can often smell them in the area in the summer time.

  I open the passenger door and slide out, my combat boots slipping half an inch into the mud. That’s okay. After today I won’t be wearing them much, unless it’s for working around the house and grounds.

  As always, the house looks like it needs work. Mom and Dad loved the idea of fixing up an old house, but in practice it had always been more of a dream than practical reality. I love this old house. I also associate it with unfinished drywall, cracked and dry flooring, and drafty windows. Mom gardened sometimes, and often spent hours riding the horses, but Dad’s idea of enjoying the outdoors was sitting on the old rocker on the side porch or tinkering with his car. Staring at the house now, I’m left with an empty feeling. I can’t imagine the place without them.

  I take a deep breath and listen again. I can hear the horses, for sure. As soon as we get into the house, I’ll walk over to the stable and check on them. In the meantime, I look down at Jasmine, who meets my eyes with an uncertain smile.

  “You ready?”

  She nods. But from the expression in her eyes, I don’t think she is. She’s an orphan too, and she’s never been in this house without our parents being alive. I pick her up and put my arms around her, and she squeezes her arms around my shoulders. Then I walk up the side stairs and onto the porch.

  The gray paint on the porch deck is peeling underneath the rocking chairs. A glass, still half-full of sweet iced tea, sits on the table between the two rockers. It has to be sweet tea, because that’s all he ever drank. The tea has mold growing on the top. Dad must have left it when they went out.

  I approach the side door and reach out to open it.

  No luck. It’s locked. Of course. The keys are probably at the morgue, and I’m not going there, not with Jasmine. Maybe another day. In the meantime, I need to check the front and back doors and maybe the windows. Worse case, I can push one of the window-unit air conditioners in through the window and climb over it.

  “Let me put you down. I gotta check the front door.”

  I slide Jasmine to her feet, then walk to the front door. She hurries along beside me.

  It’s locked. Damn it. I check under the mat and along the top of the door frame, but no luck.

  “I’ll check the back,” Nicole says. She knows the way as well as I do—when we were in school, Nicole spent as much time in our home as she did in her own. In the meantime, I start checking for unlocked windows. Even if the windows aren't locked, they'll still be difficult to open. Many layers of paint combined with the heat of summer tend to seal windows shut.

  “Do you know where Mom and Dad have been keeping the key?” I ask Jasmine.

  She shakes her head. I look over toward the garage. I haven’t been in there in a long time, and I don’t want to go in now. Some of my happiest memories of my childhood are in that garage. I want to go in there, but not right now. Instead I want to wait. I want to go slow, take my time, peel it back like a band-aid. It seems that if there’s any place Dad might have left a house key, it would be on a hook in there.

  “Stay here,” I say.

  I walk toward the two-car garage. It’s detached from the rest of the house, a white building with a shallow angled roof and no windows. Dad always keeps the Austin Healey parked in here, and the van stays in the driveway.

  Rather, he kept it in there.

  I shuffle toward the garage. My feet weigh a hundred pounds.

  Nicole comes back around the corner. “I found the key,” she says. “It was under the loose brick in the back stairs.”

  I close my eyes. There’s no way I can express the relief that floods through me. I follow Nicole back up the stair onto the porch. Jasmine is leaning against the front door, turning the knob. Nicole says, “Hey, honey, let me unlock it.”

  We enter the house.

  The living room looks the same as always. The wide plank flooring has needed refinishing since before I’ve been alive. A mix of antique and thrift-store furniture surrounds a broad coffee table. The curtains are drawn back and light streams into the house. It all looks so normal it's indecent.

  The floor creaks a little as I walk down the hall toward the kitchen. The hallway smells, and the odor gets stronger as I approach the kitchen. It’s been three days since anyone has been in the house—it smells like something went rank in the trash can.

  The kitchen is dazzling, the sun glaring through the window. The blue flowery wallpaper is peeling in the corners, and fruit flies buzz around the trash can. I brush the lid open and see a banana peel crawling with fruit flies. I shudder, then begin to gather up the garbage to take outside. I need to fix this right now.

  Nicole is in the living room with Jasmine. I can hear Nicole’s voice but can’t make out the words. She’s speaking in almost musical tones, and I realize as I pull the bag out of the can that I’m crying.

  Dad takes the garbage out at night. Took. He took the garbage out at night.

  I can’t think of them in the past tense. But he won’t be taking any garbage out ever again. As I pull the bag out, the stainless steel can falls over with a crash. I stagger toward the kitchen door and open it up, then walk to the trash can out back. Flies buzz around the can.

  I swipe my hands at my face and eyes. I need to hold it together. I have an eight-year-old sister in there who’s been through hell. And she needs my help. I turn and walk back into the house.

  When I enter the living room, Nicole looks up. Her eyes narrow a little bit. “You okay?”

  She could always see right through me. I shrug and say, “You know.”

  “Yeah,” she says. “Let me get your duffel bag. Why don’t you and Jasmine check out upstairs? She was asking about her stuffed bunny, but didn’t want to go up alone.”

  I smile at my little sister. Jasmine’s usually not afraid of anything. “Come on, Jasmine. Let’s both get changed and we’ll go check on the horses.”

  I stand up and take her hand.

  Chapter Two

  Mono (Zoe)

  “C—Ca—can I come with you to the stable?”

  Jasmine looks frustrated and unsure of herself when she asks the question—as if she’s afraid I’ll say no—or maybe she’s just unsure of me. Either way, I tell her to come. She tags along beside me, a solemn
expression in her face.

  The stutter is new. I think. At least, she wasn’t doing it last time I visited home, and my parents certainly never mentioned it.

  My sister doesn’t know me, and I know nothing about her. At least nothing that matters now. She doesn’t care that I used to mash up bananas and spoon feed her when she was a baby, or that I cried when I learned she’d been born, or that I used to blow on her feet to make her squeal with laughter. That’s ancient history, and well before anything she can likely remember.

  As we walk down the back steps toward the stable, I rack my brain trying to remember her favorite color. What kind of ice cream she likes. Whether she likes ponies or unicorns or what.

  I don’t have a clue. I know some things. Mom and Dad sent me pictures, and I always saw their updates on Facebook. I’ve seen a hundred pictures of Jasmine riding horses, including Mom’s giant Shire horse Mono. At 18 hands high, Mono looks fearsome, but he’s a gentle giant. The name was Mom’s little joke. He’s called Mono because he was sick for most of first year after Mom bought him. Mom said it was because he wasn’t getting decent nutrition, she got him from a divorcing couple in Hadley. When I was home on leave the summer after she bought him, her eyes were glassy with tears when she talked about the condition he’d been in. The first two months she’d had him, he had thrush in two of his hooves—from standing around in a soggy and filthy stall.

  Mom’s Facebook page displays hundreds of photos of Jasmine with the horses, and especially riding Mono. She’d ridden him during the Memorial Day parade this year, a tiny girl on top of a giant horse.

  As we approach the stable, I hear the horses nickering through the open stable door. A deep voice croons something to the horses. Who is it?

  “Stay back.” Jasmine ignores my order—instead, she runs for the door and into the stable. I’m right behind her, but I come to an instant stop as I walk in the door.

  It’s Paul Armstrong, owner of the adjacent horse farm that runs behind the line of homes on College Street for a solid half mile from here. I haven’t seen him since my senior year in high school. He’s somewhere in his late thirties, I think, or maybe a very young forty. As always, he has red skin and ruddy cheeks from working outdoors. Paul and my Mom have always been rivals, but friendly rivals. Right now he’s chatting with Mono as he brushes him. Mono looks restless, and when he sees Jasmine he lets out a loud whinny.

 

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