Kelly got stuck sometime Saturday morning, in that big tree she was always getting stuck in. She loved to climb high, up into the thin branches at the top, the ones that bent and almost snapped. Then she’d holler for me to rescue her.
But Kendra and I had gone out back behind the barn to smoke and kiss a little and talk about boys. I’d chased Kelly away, told her to fuck off already. There wasn’t anything to do in Elyria, Ohio then, just like there isn’t anything to do now, and it was always “Watch your sister” and “Take your sister with you” and “You two go play,” like I had nothing else to do.
So I heard Kelly calling me, but I figured she could wait up there a minute and I stole another kiss, unbuttoned the top of Kendra’s shirt and slid my hand inside. Then the calling turned to screaming.
By the time we ran across the field, it already had her.
Kendra said it was an eagle, or maybe some huge hawk, but it didn’t look like any eagle or hawk I’d ever seen, and since when was there a bird big enough to carry off a six-year-old, even a pipsqueak like Kelly? I raced back up to the house, but nobody ever listens to me, even when I’m not lying. Mama laid me down on the sofa and Aunt Steph rubbed a wet washcloth on my forehead while I begged them, please, please listen. But no, they thought I had sunstroke. Mama said my flapping arms and sweaty face was my blood boiling, just like my daddy’s.
“It’s their temperament,” Aunt Steph agreed. “It’s just how they are.”
Then Kendra stumbled in, pale and ghostly, and she told them, “It got Kelly,” and fainted dead away.
So mama started screaming. Screaming that I hadn’t been watching my sister and I’d let some man come and grab her. And Aunt Steph called the police and took the washcloth off my face and put it on Kendra’s, and Mama kept screaming and Kendra woke up pretty quick then and I said, please, please listen. But no.
Officer Stopler came fast. He brought the new lady cop he’d been training, too, and mama got quiet after that. She just sat there, her face crumpled up. Kendra did all the talking then, even though it wasn’t her sister the bird took. She told them she wasn’t sure what she saw, and those cops nodded and never even asked me what I saw. So I didn’t tell them about that big black shadow flying slowly, lazily away, barely flapping its wings, with a tiny set of legs hanging down. First kicking, then not.
There were search parties all over the neighborhood and surrounding cornfields, down past the woods toward the train station. Officer Stopler said the state troopers were checking the turnpike cameras and passing out flyers at rest stops and gas stations, but there was no sign of her.
I snuck out on my own, because I knew all of Kelly’s hiding spots. I went down by the barn, by the big tree, my stomach up in my throat and mouth as I called her, like maybe she really was hiding, maybe she could hear me. Nobody in any of those search parties, nobody in my own family, noticed when I was missing, too, when I stayed out so late that it got dark and shadowy and I could see wings in every cloud. Nobody noticed when I raced back to the house, slammed the door and ran to the room Kelly and I shared. When I curled up in my sister’s trundle bed, held her stuffed dog to my chest and prayed words I sort of remembered from Sunday School back when we used to go.
That bird should have taken me, instead. We all knew it, even though nobody said it.
It was a drone, that’s what they did say. From the government, probably. Or maybe a coyote, not something flying at all. That week some cats went missing, and then a few big dogs. Then Mrs. Jameson put baby Trevor down on a blanket at the park for a minute to grab a fresh diaper.
It got two more kids before the national news picked up the story. Our neighbor’s four-year-old cousin and another baby, from a Baptist family I didn’t know up in Sheffield. Nobody ever saw it until after the fact, if at all. A glimpse, out of the corner of their eye, and then gone.
But it stopped coming around after that last baby. It disappeared, like magic, and everyone started breathing again, started talking about normal stuff like before. After a couple of weeks, everyone’s mamas stopped leaving big blue fingerprint bruises on their arms, holding them tight as they walked. Nobody even looked up at the sky anymore. Except for me. I kept looking at the sky. Mama slept all day and didn’t look at anything or anyone, not even when Ms. Hobbes called to tell her I’d made National Honor Society and wasn’t she so proud? She just said, “Yes, proud as can be,” and hung up and went back to bed.
Kendra started going to church after school and on the weekends, like she’d seen the light, like Kelly’d been her own sister, and she even brought me a bible in fifth period math class one day and told me she’d been praying for my eternal soul, that I had the devil in me, but she forgave me because I wasn’t properly educated in the ways of Jesus.
“It’s time to wash your hands, sinner,” she said.
I’d properly educated her in other ways, though, which I knew she remembered because I put my sinner hand on hers, right on top of that bible. I said, “Thank you, Kendra,” and touched the inside of her wrist with my thumb. Her pulse thumped, and I could hear her breath stop and start, but I could also see the shadow of that bird in her big blue eyes.
So I wasn’t surprised when she turned away and brushed off what must have felt like a thumbprint bruise, too.
It stayed gone for almost two years. Even mama seemed to move on, eventually. Except when she’d had too much sherry, and then Aunt Steph would come over and tell me to watch a movie in my room. Everyone moved on, except for the reverend at Church sometimes, and the boys telling ghost stories at the quarry bonfires on Friday nights. Except for me, when I’d look over at Kelly’s bed in the dark, at her quilt and stuffed dog, like any minute she might come back, and then I could almost imagine her whispering You awake? And me telling her Shut up, I’m trying to sleep.
But next thing you know we were graduating, and Kendra brought her brand-new baby to the school potluck to show him off. I was kind of sad about her but also a little jealous, and mama cooed and cooed over that little baby, his chub and his cheeks all pink and those dimples when he smiled.
I cooed, too, then went back behind the baseball dugout with Robbie. He wanted a hand job, said I owed him since I was leaving for Ohio State and he had to stay here and work. I was thinking about it, touching him outside his jeans a little to let him know I was thinking about it, when we heard the screams.
I knew, even before I shoved Robbie away, before I ran out into that wild mess of yelling mamas and crying kids. Before I saw Kendra, sitting there by the tipped picnic table, her arms empty, her face empty.
I knew before I looked up and saw the shadow on the horizon. Tiny legs dangling. First kicking, then not.