THE MISSING STAR OF CANCER
By Heather Whited
Augusta and Eleanor could see the lights on the Christmas tree through the fabric of the tent they had set up on the front porch; flickering dots whose colors were muted by the gauzy curtains. The girls watched them as much as they watched the small television that sat at their feet. Sometimes, a string would flicker out for a moment and the lights would come and go in waves.
The picture on the television screen, about as tall one of the girls’ hands, rolled and blinked out for a moment. Augusta kicked the television and the picture went away for good.
“We’ve seen that movie anyway,” she said.
Eleanor rolled over to look at her sister.
“Do you think mom and dad are asleep yet?”
Augusta closed her eyes and put her hands behind her head.
“No. Probably not.”
The sisters lay quietly and listened. Soon they heard a curse from inside the house; their father’s voice. Their mother turned up the television in response.
“Nope,” said Augusta. “Not asleep.”
“Do you think we should go see Faith?”
Augusta smiled as she sat up.
Augusta and Eleanor unzipped sleeping bags and pulled on over their pajamas coats they barely needed in the mild night and slippers over thick socks that made their feet sweat. Outside the tent, the cat sat waiting and he lifted an accusing paw to swat at Eleanor’s leg as they crawled out of the tent flap. Eleanor scratched behind one of his twitching ears and he purred; a momentary accomplice.
Now they could see their parents in the window; their father bent over the wood stove, their mother in the recliner under a knit blanket. The twins were not noticed as they sneaked down the cracked porch steps and through the yard. The cat meowed after them and when they looked back, the bad string of lights on the Christmas tree waggled a few seconds of color at them one last time.
Halfway down the street, the girls could see that something was wrong at Faith’s.
The lights of a police car guided them the rest of the way down the street to their friend’s house. There was no one inside the police car when the girls approached and they hid behind it to watch the house. The front door was open with the screen door closed and Faith’s mother sat at the table, her head in her hands.
“What happened?” asked Eleanor. Her sister put her finger to her lips.
Faith’s mother sat at the table with her head on her arms. While they watched, her body was jolted by a sob. Someone approached her, a tall lady in a uniform. She sat across from Faith’s mother at the table and wrote in a notebook that she closed when she had finished and put in the pocket of her shirt. The woman touched Faith’s mother’s arm and pushed a box of tissues on the table in her direction. Faith’s mother took one and lifted her head slightly to wipe at her eyes. She dropped the crumpled tissue on the table.
Faith came into the room and crawled into her mother’s lap. Her mother rested a cheek against her hair.
Faith’s family had a dog that started to bark at whatever was going on in the house. The police officer at the table stood and another came into view, holding Faith’s father by the arm. He stepped in a wobbly way toward the officer and then away from him and then back toward him again. The officer held Faith’s father by the elbow gently and when it looked like he would topple, the officer held him up. Faith’s mother reached for another tissue.
Eleanor and Augusta scattered to the ditch next to the driveway as the two officers and Faith’s father approached the front door. They girls lay down on top of wet leaves and were still. Eleanor reached over for her sister’s hand and Augusta nodded a soft nod of comfort.
The dog continued to bark. The front door shut.
Faith’s father threw up on the ground as he and the police officers walked to the car. There was a conversation into a walkie-talkie, the sound of boots on gravel.
Then the door to the police car shut and soon, it was gone down the street.
When the police car was far enough away, Augusta and Eleanor ran to Faith’s house and they peered in the window. There was nothing to see by then but the dog lying on the couch.
The girls ran back up the street and to their house. On the porch, the cat sat up and walked up to rub against Eleanor’s leg, proud to have kept their secret. The sisters closed themselves in the tent and zipped themselves into sleeping bags.
“Do you think someone is hurt?” asked Eleanor.
“Hell if I know,” said Augusta.
“Are you scared?”
Augusta thought and then, she nodded.
“I think I’ll turn the TV back on,” she said.
Augusta switched on the little set and lay back down as laughter filled the tent.
They watched the television in silence until they fell asleep.
Faith woke up in the morning to her brother crying.
When she had fallen asleep, the floor wasn’t cold but she shivered as the noise woke her. It was seconds before she could see anything through the winter darkness.
It was John’s night in the bed and Faith pulled herself up from the floor to check on her brother when she heard him call out for her, and then a pained groan.
“Hush, John,” she said. “It’s early.”
Then she noticed that he had been sick on himself in the night. His clothes were damp, his cheeks bright.
Her brother groaned again and his eyes rolled back in his head.
“Faith,” he said. He pulled at the hem of her shirt. “I don’t feel good.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get mom.”
Faith moved the trashcan to the side of the bed before leaving. When she opened the bedroom door, the dog ran from the living room and knocked into her legs, nuzzling at Faith’s hands with her nose.
“Down, Magenta. I’ll let you out.”
She heard John crying from the bedroom as she stumbled to switch on the hall light. Faith opened the back door and let the dog into the yard and left it open so that she could get back in. Her parents’ bedroom door was shut and Faith knocked on it.
“Mom,” she called. “Mom, John’s sick. Wake up.”
There was no answer from the other side and Faith tried the doorknob and found that the door was unlocked. She opened it and in her parents’ bedroom, there was no one. Mom had left the bed unmade but she was not there.
“Crap,” Faith said again.
Faith went to the living room and the dog was back inside, standing by the couch and wagging her tail. Faith grunted in exasperation at the morning.
“Come on and I’ll feed you,” she said to the dog.
There was no note in the kitchen to explain her mother’s absence. Faith filled the dog’s bowl and ran a glass of water for her brother.
Back in their bedroom, she sat John up and wiped his mouth with a clean bit of his pajamas. Then, she made him drink water.
“You need to change. I’ll leave and you get some new clothes on. Then go to the couch so I can take care of the bed, okay? It stinks in here.”
John nodded and she helped pull him up. Faith waited outside the door until her brother came out in new pajamas.
“Couch. Mom will be back soon.”
John did as he was told and shuffled toward the couch.
Faith stripped the bed of the sheets her brother had been sick on and brought them to the laundry room. When she finished, her brother was asleep on the couch. She made herself a bowl of cereal and sat next to him. Faith didn’t turn on the television so that John would stay asleep and she sat watching the minutes tick over on the clock.
She’d go get the twins if her parents didn’t come back soon, she decided. The other twins, that is. Augusta always knew what to do.
Faith took her bowl to the kitchen and rinsed it in the sink. She watched some of the leaves in the yard get blown around in circles and then dropped back onto the ground when the wind moved on. The officers had left a few muddy footprints by the door. Faith decided to wipe them away and took a paper towel to the footprints until they were gone.
John wasn’t sick any more that morning but he didn’t wake up for hours either. When he opened his eyes, Faith was ready.
“I have to go,” she said. “I’m going to go get Augusta and Eleanor. I’ll be right back.”
He didn’t want to be left alone but she had to. Faith closed the front door against the sound of him crying again and tried not to think about it. Then, she ran. She ran up the street to the other twins’ house and when she got there, she pounded on the door. Their mom answered, a cigarette in her hand.
“Oh, hi sweetie,” she said.
Faith started to cry then. She tried to hide it, but she knew it was too late so she stared at the ground so that she didn’t have to see their mother looking at her.
“Oh, Faith. Mack! Mack, get in here. There’s something the matter.”
She snubbed her cigarette against the door frame and pulled Faith to her in a hug
Faith heard footsteps. When she pulled back, Mack, Augusta and Eleanor’s father, stood behind his wife looking down at her. His daughters watched from the kitchen.
“What’s going on, Christy?” asked Mack.
He was a tall man, the other twin’s father. Hairy ankles showing under too short blue jeans. A long scar crossed with the band of the watch on his wrist.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Christy. “This poor thing here just showed up bawling, looks like she’s been through the wringer.”
Faith covered her eyes with her hands.
“Her dad went away last night.”
That was Augusta. The twins, the other twins, they sounded just alike but Faith knew it was Augusta who had spoken. She used their voice differently than her sister.
“In a police car,” said Augusta.
“Shit,” said Mack.
Everyone looked at Faith again. In the kitchen, Eleanor dropped her fork and it fell to the floor with a small clatter. Faith waited until the noise was gone and had worked its way through her before she spoke again.
“And mom,” she said finally. “I don’t know where she is. And John is sick. I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll get my coat,” said Mack.
“Me too,” said Augusta.
No one questioned her.
They walked together down the street, the three of them. The light of the afternoon was already giving out and it was much colder than it was yesterday. Mack ran ahead and Faith and Augusta tried to keep up at first but lagged behind until they gave up, panting as their steps slowed.
Augusta wrapped her arm around Faith and they walked the rest of the way.
Mack checked on John first, and made him smile by ruffling his hair.
“He’s fine, Faith. Just a stomach bug,” Mack told her and the tightness in her chest began to evaporate. Faith sat down on the couch next to her brother and the dog rested her head on Faith’s knee.
Mack had a look through the house. The tightness in Faith’s chest came back when he opened the door to the bathroom. She heard the squeak of the door, a pause, and a soft curse. Faith balled up her fists and waited. She knew he had seen the mirror, the little drops of dried blood in the sink and scattered on the floor with the glass. She wished she had cleaned the mess up today but there was nothing to do about it now. Mack called her name and asked her to come there for a second. Faith stood from the couch.
“Did your dad do this?” asked Mack. He motioned with his head toward the broken mirror. Faith nodded. She watched a large breath fill Mack’s chest. She felt he might be counting to himself to stay calm.
“I see. Okay. Well, you go back into the living room. Put on a movie or something. I’ll sort out some food in a bit, okay? Gus?”
Faith turned and Augusta was already there.
“Lend a hand, will you, kiddo?”
There was a hand on Faith’s arm and Augusta led her away as Mack put broken glass into the bathroom trashcan.
It was easy to listen to them and all she wanted to do. Faith went to the couch and rested her head on the arm, its scratchy fabric rough against her skin. Augusta opened the door for the dog and Faith and John shivered. No one put a movie on after all and the room was quiet. Faith was nearly asleep by the time Mack brought some sandwiches in. Faith ate a few bites before drifting off with her arm around her brother.
When she woke, it was to cold air on her feet. The back door was open and her parents walked through it as she opened her eyes. Her father’s face was covered in stubble and his clothes were wrinkled and smelled of smoke even from this far away. Her mother had a black streak of mascara down her jawline from crying, a few other left over patches on her cheeks that had also not been wiped away well. John sat up at the same time Faith did. Augusta was at the end of the couch, her arms crossed in the same way as her father’s, who sat across the room in the old recliner. Faith watched her parents stop in the doorway and look in turn at all of the people in the room and then at each other. Her mother reached behind her to close the door.
Mack stood, a long unfolding of his body, and walked toward her parents.
“We need to talk,” he said.
Faith’s father opened his mouth but then all he did was wipe at his chapped lips.
Mack walked them back outside. They moved to a dark place away from the light of the living room and the children could not see them. There was a small flash of light and a trail of smoke when someone lit a cigarette.
Faith and Augusta and John held hands while they listened to the fight.
She hardly knew what to do when her sister wasn’t around. Mom had run a bath for herself while Augusta and Dad were gone and Eleanor was on her own. She was rarely on her own like this. She sat in their room and she waited for her sister to come back from Faith’s with dad. The cat had come inside for a while and followed Eleanor upstairs and jumped on the bed next to her, tail swishing against her lap.
They, the twins, had a favorite book, one they had written together during the summer. Augusta did the pictures and Eleanor had written it. It was in a spiral notebook bought from the dollar store, one with a green cover that Eleanor had written the title of their book and their names on because her handwriting was neater. She gripped the book so tightly that when she let go after finally hearing the front door open that the tips of her fingers were green and there were patches on the cover of the book lighter than the rest. She dropped their book to the floor and scrambled to pick it up as Augusta stomped up the stairs and the cat sprinted under the bed.
“I don’t know,” said Augusta.
“You don’t know?”
Augusta flopped down on her bed and lay staring at the ceiling.
“Is Faith okay?”
“Yeah. She is. John too. Don’t worry about that.” Augusta rolled over and looked at her sister.
“What’s up with your hands?”
Eleanor held up the book for her sister to see and Augusta rolled her eyes.
“Sorry,” said Eleanor.
“Not your fault. It’s a dumb book. We’ll get a better one.”
Augusta closed her eyes again. Eleanor was quiet until her sister fell asleep. She put the book back in the box where they kept it with their other special things and then, Eleanor lay down too, on her own bed. She smelled the smoke of her mother’s cigarette’s coming from downstairs and heard her father put more wood into the stove and the loud bang of the metal door when he finished.
Faith had the bed because her brother was on the couch for the night. It would have been her night anyway. But, she couldn’t sleep.
She watched the glow-in-the-dark stars adhered to the ceiling. She and John had not been able to agree on what patterns to make with them. She had used a book from the library to make the constellation Cancer in one of the corners of the room, because it was their astrological sign. John had, right above where her head was now, done a J for his name. Faith stared at the pattern she had made and noticed a gap, a place in the constellation where one of the stars had fallen out. She got up and searched for it under the bed and behind the bookcase. They had gone dim now anyway, she thought. She could hardly see the crab she had worked so hard on any more.
The dog scratched at the door but Faith didn’t let her in. She went to the door and whispered under it for Magenta to go lay down with John. Soon the noise stopped.
In her parents’ bedroom, her dad tried to tune the guitar he’d bought at a garage sale last year. Her mom went back from the kitchen to the bedroom three times. Faith counted the times the door opened and closed.
Faith eventually slept. The last she heard was the phone ringing.
Everything was wrong.
That was all John thought when he woke up. He was on the couch and it took him a moment to remember that. John was sick and he was on the couch, alone. He was never alone and never had been. His feet were warm because the dog lay on them.
He saw the orange glow from the kitchen, preceded by the smoke.
The whole house woke to the sound of the sirens.
By the time Augusta and Eleanor got outside to see what was going on, their mother was already there, wearing a coat over her pajamas and staring down the street as she smoked. No one wore shoes or coats and soon their feet tingled. Up and down the street, lights came on.
“Where’s Dad?” asked Eleanor.
“You know,” said Augusta.
She did. Their father was helping. He down there where the fire was.
Other people on the street woke and did the same; they came to stand in yards and watch.
Augusta walked to the street and she stood in the middle of it and she waited to see the huddle of her friend’s family appear on the lawn, or her father.
Their dog ran up the street, barking at the crowds of people assembled outside of the houses. When the dog saw Augusta, she ran to her and stood next to her and then lay with her head at Augusta’s feet. Eleanor began to cry. Augusta’s mother called for her to come inside.
About the Author:
Heather Whited graduated from Western Kentucky University in 2006 with a BA in creative writing. She lived in Japan and Ireland before returning to her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee to get her graduate degree. She lives in Portland Oregon. She has been published in the literary magazines Straylight, Lingerpost, The Timberline Review, A Door is Ajar, Allegro, and Foliate Oak. In 2015 she was an honorable mention in Gemini Magazine’s annual short story contest. She is a contributor to The Drunken Odyssey podcast.