Beck’s new stepsister cooed at Beckette. “Come here, baby.”
Clipped hair and cut nails as if prepared for this moment, the poodle wagged up from the aggregate stone of the recreation room porch, to be lifted, held atop the redwood picnic bench.
A tickling warning raised hair on the back of Beck’s neck.
That’s my dog!
Nostrils flared, fists clenched to trap the burning in her crazy place. Eyes closed, she trembled, and the madness passed.
Beck would have to share Beckette, her father, friends, the house, everything with Sonia-Barton.
Weakness and remorse pulled shoulders to hips, surrender and submission. Who was she to demand anything? She was fourteen, Sonia-Barton fifteen–a canyon Beck could barely see across. Even Sonia-Barton’s hyphenated name declared I’m older. Rebecca Penelope Lyons didn’t have the same ring, a mouthful–just Beck.
A diamond glinted in Sonia-Barton’s pierced ear as she scratched the pink skin beneath Beckette’s curly white coat.
Sonia-Barton kind of looked like a gypsy, Beck thought. Her straight black hair was cut like an awning over a pale forehead and arching, wide eyebrows.
Beck’s ears weren’t pierced because Panda said she wasn’t a gypsy. Beck flipped her strawberry blonde shoulder-length hair still layered cut for the wedding the day before when her father had married Sonia-Barton’s mother.
Mrs. Elloitt had said she’d be pleased if Beck called her Mama. “You’re my daughter now jist like Sonia-Barton.”
Mama was what Beck called her mother when she spoke to her in prayers and dreams. But Beck had lowered her eyes and said, “Yes, ma’am…Mama Elliott.”
Mrs. Elloitt’s trill had made Beck think Mama Elliott thought her funny not willful.
“Jist Mama, now darlin’. You jist call me Mama.”
Sonia-Barton caught her stare, studying Sonia-Barton’s blasé attitude, tilt head, eyes asking is this all?
Beck’s eyes fell to her tank top–a nursery wall pattern of butterflies and strawberries. Her eyelashes fluttered as if surprised to find herself in a dream where you don’t know how you got there or what to do.
The night felt real. Muggy air raised a faint sheen of perspiration on her forehead. Katydids chattered and crickets sawed–mad, flamenco dancers snapping heels on the hard surface of a Virginia night.
“Want one?” Sonia-Barton held out a pack of cigarettes as if that was why Beck had been looking at her.
Beck raised her eyes with an upturn of lips, relieved Sonia-Barton had misinterpreted her attention, an escape.
“Go on take one,” Sonia-Barton held out the red and white pack as if it was nothing to leave childhood behind.
With a casual reach that belied she didn’t smoke, Beck plucked the filtered tip from the tight order, a soft tube between her fingers. The match flame wavered beneath her focus. Sweet cherrywood first-lit tobacco mixed with tolerable heat trapped in puffed cheeks, held on her tongue, too hot and acidic to take into her lungs.
Sonia-Barton contracted glossy lips to send smoke rings spinning up into the heavy air, Bette Davis attitude, forefinger positioned against the thumb, cigarette pointed to the feathery ferns of a drooping mimosa tree.
Beck exhaled a ringless miasmatic cloud.
“Know any boys with cars?” Sonia-Barton drawled–different than Virginia–New Orleans with long sensuous expansion.
“I know a lifeguard at Virginia Beach.” Her voice sounded singsong to her–too high a register, too cute, too eager to please.
“What about around here?”
“Can’t think of anyone right now,” Beck said with a throat rebelling half-cough.
Sonia-Barton wanted boys with muscles, barely imagined sexual prowess. She’d just moved in and was already bored with being a little girl at Lake Barcroft.
“I’ll meet some guys. Then we can go places.”
“That’d be nice.”
The promise of boys to like them, grownup days coming, caused Beck to smile modestly like she was sharing a joke with herself.
She took a tentative inhale just as a large figure in a gray maid’s uniform filled the screen door from the rec room.
Smoke grabbed her lungs. Burning fingers reached beneath ribs. “Put it out,” she coughed, and threw the cigarette toward the cover of twisting English ivy.
Sonia-Barton whipped the evidence behind her back, and said dismissively, “What’s she going to do?”
Janey moved as if to stomp out a flame. “What ya girls doing?”
Sonia-Barton considered her, sizing up an adversary. “Nothin’, just a couple of gals talkin’.”
“Sonia-Barton, yo mama a told me not to let ya smoke.”
Sonabaaten–Janey’s vowels were Tidewater, colonial southeast Virginia, a dropping and slurring.
“I wasn’t,” Sonia-Barton said as if the smoke and smell were the fault of unseen, departed guests.
Janey had come with Mama from a community of maids and workmen who’d served the first families of the Tidewater since the colonies.
After the drowning, Janey’s soft body had been a refuge when Beck’s skin turned cold with fear. Her strong, meaty hand led Beck, lost between awaking and dreaming. When a neighbor returning from late duty at the Pentagon had found seven-year-old Beck alone in her pajamas, walking in the middle of Lakeview Drive, Janey had moved into her room and slept by the door to intercept Beck’s nocturnal walks.
As far as Beck knew, she’d not sleepwalked since her body went through the change and the rages started. Maybe she could only have one condition at a time.
When she was eleven, she’d awoken with blood in her bed. I’m dying,” she’d shaken and sobbed on the phone to Panda.
Her grandmother had laughed and told her what was happening was probably perfectly normal. She’d picked Beck up and had taken her to Dr. DeVoe near Fairfax Circle.
DeVoe, with a long face and forced smile, had explained menstruation and told Beck she could now get pregnant. The shocking but grand news had been that Beck was a woman.
“And Becka, don’t ya start with that stuff. It’a get in yo hair an a smell up yo clothes.”
“I won’t.” The sweet, obedient child was back.
Janey locked a you or me stare on unflinching Sonia-Barton.
“Honey, ya gonna be a living here, ya got to have to understand something. I’m like Santa Claus. I know when ya been bad, so be good for goodness sake, cause if ya don’t I’m a gonna a wail on yo butt. Now give me them damn cigarettes for I call yo mama!”
Sonia-Barton lifted her pointed chin with a haughty dismissal, her drawl a cavalcade of privilege. “Who the hell you think you talking to girl?” Sonia-Barton challenged the law in the house.
Beck leaned back. Beckette’s nails clattered on the wood as she skedaddled off the picnic table.
“About done talking.” Janey said and pulled the cigarette from Sonia-Barton’s hand and the box from beneath her skinny thigh.
Beck’s throat tightened. She knew what was coming next if Sonia-Barton dared more sass. Janey had a wooden spoon she called Suzie. Memory of Beck’s brother Colin’s cries of protest, hips pushed forward to lessen the blow on his bottom had been enough for her to respect even the threat of Suzie.
Sonia-Barton pulled back at the audacity and power of Janey. “Wait until my daddy hears about this,” she muttered.
“Smoking’s bad for ya.” Janey dropped the cigarette on the aggregate stone and disintegrated it with a twist of a black and white oxford saddle shoe.
“Humph,” Sonia-Barton pouted.
Janey silenced her with a sharp look, then her shoulders slumped, and a pleading tone entered her voice. “Please girl, don’t cause me a no trouble. I know what it like to be young and wile. My job to see ya don’t git hurt. Ya can have all the fun ya want, jist don’t git pregnant, beat up, nor sent to naw hospital. That’s all I ax, and don’t smoke no mo.”
Beck pursed her lips, amazed as if Janey had been stripped naked. Sonia-Barton worried her in a way that went beyond spankings for sass.
Janey should act like a servant in Sonia-Barton’s eyes.
Janey picked up the destroyed cigarette and walked the tobacco into the house with an imposing sway of her wide hips. “Yeah, OK, young and wile and me a having to track ya like a damn houn’ dog. Dear Jesus, don’t the troubles ear neva en?”