The stranger looked confused to Melody. Turning around expectantly in the darkening IGA parking lot, he looked in the car at her father: wedged behind the wheel with his nose tube, the folded American flag on the truck dash, the two greasy oxygen tanks wedged between them, the smoky haze. The stranger seemed to waver between turning away without a sound or finally submitting. His eyes rested on her in the passenger seat and she held his gaze. She always did. Looking away gave them power over Melody. Sometimes it was an acknowledging wink for her father, that he still had it. Others there was unconcealed disgust at her age. Sometimes they were obvious in their disappointment with her race.
Her father always settled it before Melody would ever look away, regardless of how ashamed and exposed she felt. “You got something you want to say?” He asked across the truck cab to the man standing outside her window, his voice shredded to a rasp. “Either you can help me or not, but I’m the one who asked—not my daughter.”
The stranger shifted the two plastic grocery bags he was carrying to one hand, pulling his eyes from hers and reaching for his wallet. His faux pas colored his face. “You said six dollars was all you needed?” he asked, trying to sound Christian and friendly but failing in the heat of Melody’s glare.
Her father nodded, smiling, a new relationship emerging. “Yes, please. My inhalers cost thirty six and I only got thirty.” He gestured to the truck, “I’m not even sure I got enough gas to get us home.”
The stranger’s wallet was already back in place. Six was his limit, they could tell. He awkwardly handed the folded-up cash across her to her father, as if she was a nervous dog itching to seize his arm. He offered a good luck and hurried away. “Well, kiddo,” her father said, shifting the truck into gear, “I think that oughta do it for tonight.” Melody smiled and squeezed his arm as he pointed them home.
“This idiot,” her father nodded to the TV as Melody nestled his plate alongside pill bottles and the mammoth glass ashtray. “He wants to be our congressman but tell me where was he when I was carrying kids screaming for their mamas through the jungle?”
“Probably served in the national guard,” she answered automatically, knowing the script, settling into the large couch with her own bowl of noodles and sauce.
Her father nodded furiously but his reply was sucked into a sudden coughing spasm as he stubbed out his cigarette. Melody jumped from the couch to help but he waved her away, gasping for breath and spitting into a coffee cup. “You are one hundred present right, honey,” he wheezed. “Goddamn trust fund babies are trained from birth how to live off the working man…hey that’s good sauce, is that the chef?”
She nodded, smiling, always happy to please him in simple ways, like getting to the food pantry early to select the Chef Boyardee sauce before it was scooped up. Melody sat on the arm of his recliner and ate quietly with him, smoothing the straggly white hairs on his scalp as he ate.
She felt good at work the next day and allowed herself some thoughts not connected to her father and money and voicemails from the police. When she wasn’t learning to be a mother to her father at night, spending hours on WebMD learning about his symptoms, medical breakthroughs and alternative therapies, she searched for her history. The mere mention of her origination, homeland, birth parents—had brought a wince to her adoptive parents’ faces. Melody’s questions had no place in the story that began when they brought her home from the airport. She couldn’t even pry her original name from them.
“You’d better check with your mother,” her father had said. “She has her own ideas on that.” To which her mother replied when she volleyed the question: “Some things are best left in the past, Melody honey. Your life there was hell. It’s right to leave all of that behind and concentrate on your new life here in America. A better life.”
Without answers she could only guess at the memories that visited in her sleep or lay at the far edges of consciousness: the smell and taste of bananas. Their yellow flesh lay on everything; it covered bread and tattooed the breath of drunken men who swayed high above her, swinging cans of banana beer. A big breasted woman clutching her with one beefy black arm while the other arm worked relentlessly at laundry, pots, rubbing Melody’s face. Wood fires, their smoke a veil over the treeless landscape. Flies on skin like moveable moles. Darkest night and the sun’s white glare. Tall grasses. Goats. Thankfully the snapshots didn’t include the reality. Her occasional internet searching, done on only the most general of websites, told her that a civil war had raged in the country of her birth, Sudan, and that thousands—possibly millions—had died and many more were displaced. Men were outright killed and boys, babies almost, were recruited to fight for this or that warlord. Girls were raped and then sold as slaves. Orphans from the fighting that made it out of the country were placed with families in Ethiopia and then later in the United States. Melody was three years old when she was born again as Timothy and Darla Woods’s first child.
Dragging a box cutter along a large box of toilet tissue, she returned to the story, but from the beginning, always from the beginning because it was more enjoyable that way. And each time she went a little farther back in the narrative. When she first found herself recreating her birth, it started on that day, when she was born. But when she had a moment, freedom to think, which was more common since Mr. Dallard wanted her working in the back and away from customer’s whispers, she liked adding more to the story—her story.
Melody was reviewing the details she had already constructed, her village, extended family, her parents’ meeting—the building blocks of an imaginary life, when they entered the back room. One was clad in bright purple, his hair sheared close to the skull, hat angled forward—a common patrolman, but more disciplined than the donut-eating ticket givers. The other was obviously a detective of some sort—dress shirt and tie, dress slacks, longer hair. Both wore apologetic but determined faces.
“Melody,” said the detective-looking one, “I’m Inspector David Mitchell from the state police, and this is Trooper Praton. I’ve been assigned your brother’s case and wanted to make contact with you.”
The purple trooper nodded, whispered “ma’am,” and stepped off to the side while defaulting into a rigid stance with both hands behind his back. Melody accepted the inspector’s card and prepared to recite the usual speech, but was preempted by a wave of his hand.
“Let’s save ourselves the time, ok?” Mitchell said, leaning against a wall of boxes. “I know you haven’t heard or seen your brother in the past month since he broke into the pharmacy and stole the pills. And nobody has seen or heard from your mother since the robbery—I’ve already read the statements.”
“So this is the welcome wagon, then?” Melody asked. “Introductions and face-to-face greetings?”
Mitchell shrugged, nodding. “Yes, that, but also to reiterate a warning. I know your situation…your father isn’t doing too well. You’re the only one caring for him. From the sounds of it, no other family members have stepped up to help. And to think of what would happen to him if you were arrested for aiding and abetting a fugitive—”
“So a threat then!” Melody barked, leaping from her seated position, unknowingly raising her hand, the same one holding the box cutter. Officer Purple came out of his statue and deftly unclipped his holster while circling around her and Mitchell.
“Easy Melody,” Mitchell said, waving off the officer, who stepped back from them but kept his hand resting on his revolver. “Like I said, this is just a warning to let you understand the consequences if you happen to hear from your brother and fail to notify the police. Because maybe you don’t know our laws and—”
“I’ve lived in this country for over 20 years,” Melody said. “I know how the laws work. I told you that I haven’t seen or heard from Olin and if I did, you guys would be the first to know.”
“And your mother?”
“I don’t know where she went. Mothers leave all the time in this town.”
“But the consensus seems to be that she went to help your brother while he’s on the run.”
“Consensus?” She asked with a short laugh. “You mean the local gossip hens around town? Is that what the police are using now? The old ladies at the Curl and Blow?”
Mitchell nodded again, sliding his hands in the pockets of his dress pants. “Melody, I’m just trying to find your brother before he gets himself hurt, or even worse. And the picture I’ve come up with after talking with folks around here is that your mother cared for your brother very much. And that she would possibly do anything for him, even if doing so put her in danger.”
Care. Melody considered the word, turning it over in her head, knowing her response would be analyzed and used against her by these men in their search for her brother. Did her mother care for Olin, like any animal would its young, ensuring their offspring received food, water, and shelter? Or was it something more? Even at this moment, almost two decades since his birth, she remembered the confusion that registered when she first held Olin and her mother’s palpable uneasiness.
“Don’t hold him too tight, Melody, he’ll suffocate,” her mother directed from her hospital bed, leaning forward, arms still outstretched from the hand-off. “Support his head, too.”
“I’ve got him, mama,” Melody had reassured. “I remember everything you showed me.”
Shaking her head and fingers groping, “No, Melody, you’re doing it wrong,” her mother said. “Give him back before you hurt him.”
Hurt, scalded with a wound that never healed, Melody had to learn a new position in her home with the arrival of The Miracle—her parents’ nickname for her brother. Despite her Daddy’s gentle reminders on favoritism, her mother was blatant and unapologetic about where in her heart the two children lay: “God gifted Olin to us, Timothy—all of us. Just as He gifted Melody a new life here. Before us she was an orphan and then she was an only child. Now by the grace of God she has a baby brother.”
With the arrival of motor skills came acknowledgement of his status. Olin quickly recognized that hitting his sister, terrorizing the family dog, wrecking, defacing, demanding, only brought cooing reminders from his mother but no lasting consequences. Melody, on the other hand, received withering rebukes from their mother when she didn’t fully complete a chore or reacted against her brother’s violence. Dragged to her room, crying, calling for her father.
“Don’t you dare ever raise your hand against your brother!” Her mother had seethed inches from her face as 10 year-old Melody squeezed into her bedroom’s corner.
“But mama, he came at me with scissors—”
“You are a liar!” She screamed. “He has special problems and he needs our love!”
Darla Woods tearfully reminded teachers and social workers, later security guards and then police of this, that Olin was a special and gifted child. If only he received great care could his greatness be fully realized. Whatever greatness was to come was sidelined by a taste for liquor and his father’s pain pills. After his father emptied the house of alcohol and purchased a small safe for his medicine, Olin easily graduated from daytime petty theft at Shield’s Drug & More to smashing the pharmacy’s back window at night and vanishing with 500 Oxycodone pills. Video surveillance, his mother was informed, clearly identified Olin and his shoulder-length hair and wispy goatee. She disappeared that night. A note that Melody discovered the next morning, eventually burning over the gas stove, written in her mother’s careful yet beautiful handwriting: I have to go. He needs me. I know you understand.
“Yes,” Melody agreed with the inspector, “my mother cared for Olin, but I can’t honestly say if she would run off to help him escape from the police.”
She finally opened the message that night. It had been there for a week, but she waited. Each time she opened the Facebook icon on her phone the “1” remained unmovable, the small numeral as tall and soaring as the letters that once announced movies on the Linden Theater’s marquee. Melody wasn’t ignorant about the message or its sender; the handful of “friends” she had collected from high school had no reason to privately message her. It wasn’t until after dinner and the news, after her father cried out, nodding dumbly his consent to be shepherded to the urgent care for the worsening tightness in his chest, that she chose to open it. The sender’s name was Joe Smith.
Melody Honey, me and your brother are fine, but we need help. We are almost out of the money I took out before we left. I need you to wire us anything you can. Take it out of the bank, return bottles, do anything you can but PLEASE help us. Your family needs you honey. Please let me know when you will wire and I can give you the information. All my love, Mother
As Melody struggled to listen to the nurse, jotting down instructions for two new medications, a fresh chapter to her origins unfolded as the pills shook in their orange containers. They did love her. Her birth parents were following the script of generations of Sudanese before them. Fall in love. Marry. Have a child. Provide for that child and live a happy, fruitful life. They didn’t believe that war would bloom again, its destructive forces Sudan’s most thriving fruit. How could they know their baby girl’s cries would be drowned by those of agony and menace? Her parents tried to protect her and lost their lives in the process, she was sure of this. They did everything they could for her survival.
The nurse waited. Melody looked up and nodded. “Yes,” she answered. “I understand. I will make sure he is taken care of.”
She cried the next night, the tears making her face shine under the lights of the small interrogation room at the state police post. Melody wasn’t crying for her brazen theft from Dallard’s that day, for the absolute stupidity of it and what people would ask: didn’t the Woods’ children know that there were cameras everywhere these days? Of course Mr. Dallard would rewind that day’s footage when he discovered the bank deposit missing just after closing. Her tears were for her father, who sputtered helplessly in his recliner as they led her from their home in handcuffs while that night’s dinner, Noodle Roni and kielbasa, went cold on the stove.
“It’s pretty simple,” Inspector Mitchell explained, hastily dressed in jeans and a golf shirt in the late hour. “You trade the location of your mother and brother for your freedom. Mr. Dallard understands that you were just acting out of desperation.”
“Will I be in trouble if I know where they are?” Melody asked, her head bowed and hands clasped tightly between her knees.
“That would be aiding and abetting, like I advised you before,” Mitchell said quietly, “but we’ll do our best to minimize the consequences once they’re safe. Hopefully keep it to probation.”
Melody immediately got to work when she returned home, shrugging off her jacket at the door and hurrying to her father in his recliner. He was in and out of consciousness from his medication, either from confusion or a deliberate overdose, she couldn’t be sure. Melody could easily see the evidence of two days without her: overflowing ashtray, empty pudding cups and cheese single wrappers, a blossoming wetness on the sheet covering his recliner. His eyelids fluttered at her voice.
“C’mon daddy,” Melody yelled, sliding her arms underneath his. “On three…one…two…three!”
She considered calling an ambulance but decided he would survive after she had made him vomit. Melody let him sleep during his bath. He came around just enough to say her name before slipping back under.
“Melody, honey,” he whispered. “So happy, you’re home, honey. So happy.”