My brother was the first member of our family to spot the bat as it flew around our kitchen. He was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa with our father when classes started after Christmas break at our new school in Pennsylvania, and due to the climbing expedition Brandon arrived two weeks into the start of the spring term at Portville Area Junior-Senior High School. I, however, had been forced to be there from the very first day. The intense burst of popularity I had achieved from being the new girl from Texas who talked funny had already died down, but it was immediately rekindled upon Brandon's arrival. Brandon, with his new Tanzanian tan and sun-kissed highlights, was treated like a god from the moment he stepped into the school. So my opinion was soon sought out on issues such as what he looks for in a girlfriend, if he really killed a lion with his bare hands in the African wilderness and whether or not he'd join the football team in the fall.
This renewed popularity had ultimately translated into sitting with Nicole Summers and her posse at lunch time. As the varsity football and basketball cheerleading captain, Nicole was the queen bee of the school's social hierarchy, and when she learned that I had been a stunt cheerleader for my old big city school she had insisted we eat lunch together. So I soon found myself sitting across from her at one of six retractable tables that would be pushed up against the blue cafeteria walls at the end of the day. It was rare for sophomores like me to be granted the pleasure of eating with Nicole, and I was apparently supposed to be honored by it. Nicole was a senior, athletically thin, and wore her wavy, champagne-colored hair in braided pigtails every day. On this day, the small ribbons tied around them were green, perfectly matching the emerald-hued eyes she was focusing my way.
"So did your brother really climb that mountain?" she asked me just as I reached to take a sip of my low fat milk. "I heard he was late to school 'cause he was in juvie for shooting some guy back in Texas."
"Yeah he really climbed it," I said, placing the carton back on my tray. "And Brandon was never in juvie; not everyone in Texas owns a gun."
"Well he wouldn't have to own the gun to shoot somebody with it. Anyway, I also heard your mom was the doctor a bunch of the basketball players went to back in November to get their physicals done." My mother had moved to Portville last November, a month before the three of us had followed her up here. She wanted to start setting up the house and establishing her patient base. Apparently it hadn't taken her too long to do the latter.
"Does it weird you out to think that she's seen them all naked?" she asked. Grinning inanely at the girl who sat next to her, Nicole then rotated her head and coughed twice. I felt blood rush to my face and heat started to radiate from my skin. My hand instantly rose to the silver necklace I wore around my neck and I fidgeted with it, trying to think about what to say. Eventually I conceded that I had no choice but to jokingly dismiss her. While I told myself I would not let her stupid comment affect me, two weeks later I would decline Joey Fulbright's invitation to the fifth-quarter party at his farm.
The bat was first spotted while Brandon and I were in the kitchen decompressing after school by watching a syndicated episode of the Thundercats. We were both brooding over our respective days, and indulging in the childish habit of helping Lion-O and his gang fight for truth and justice made us feel a little better about our current position in life.
"I think it's sexist that Cheetara is the only female warrior. I don't think it's fair that she's the only girl that gets to kick some butt," I said as I got up from the kitchen bar stool to get a glass of water. What flowed out of our tap was spring water, and thus acceptable to drink straight. This idea was still so new and foreign to me that I automatically kept going to the broken water dispenser in the refrigerator door in attempts to quench my thirst.
Brandon was still sitting at the kitchen bar counter where I left him, and in response to my commentary on his favorite childhood TV show he just shook his head.
"Only you would bring up the gender roles of an alien species of feline warriors. They let her talk and have opinions don't they, so they're not that misogynistic. Hey, while you're up can you get me a Dr. Pepper?" Brandon smiled at me, widening his eyes so they twinkled with innocence and merriment.
I rolled my eyes at him, but eventually opened the door of the refrigerator to fulfill his request. While concentrating on shifting the pots of three-week-old gumbo and foil-wrapped Tupperware that the three of us were all too afraid to open in search of the last elusive can of soda, I heard a high-pitched, airborne squeaking that reminded me of the noises made by the dog toys we used to buy for Bartemus when he was a puppy. From behind me and right on the heels of the squeaking came a large clattering sound of metal on tile. This was accompanied by a very loud, very shrill human squeal and by the thud only the body of a seventeen-year-old boy could make as it fell to the floor in fear for its survival.
"Jesus Christ! It's a fucking bat!" Brandon voiced with a squeak I hadn't heard since he was fourteen.
When I first heard him fall, I had turned away from my task to make sure he was okay, but once my brain assimilated what he had said I immediately crouched down on my haunches and attempted to use the refrigerator door as a shield to protect myself from this newest joy of country living.
Four months before I had a bat staying in my house I was still living in Texas. It was mid-December and I should have been filled with the joy of the Christmas season, but instead I was filled with angst over our move to the middle of nowhere. My Dad had realized that I was having a hard time coming to grips with it and decided that we needed to have a father-daughter day to enjoy all of the traditions we shared. For the past five years it had been our routine to jog on the red, cushiony track that ran through the park near our house.
On this day, once we were done with our requisite five miles, we crashed on a small grassy hill and stretched our arms above our heads. It was one of those days in Texas that made you forget it was winter time, where the temperature hovered around seventy five and the sun poked through the overcast sky. We kept the silence for the most part, enjoying the soft breezes that skimmed over us and listening to the agitated rhythm of our breathing as we recovered from our jog. I felt like I was sinking into the grass, delighting in the afterglow of a good workout.
"I'm going to miss this." I said. "I don't run well in the cold." He let out a long sigh and continued to stare into the sky as he responded.
"You'll get used to it, hun." He said. "We'll find a place for you to jog as soon as we get there so you can get used to it." I slowly turned my head in his direction.
"There's no way they will have a track like this one. It's perfectly supportive. Come on, I mean they don't even have a Wal-Mart. Seriously Dad, why are we moving there?" Thinking about missing my favorite exercise location brought to mind all the other things I was going to miss. In a town with two stop lights and no cell phone reception, I wasn't quite sure how I was going to survive.
"This is what your mother's been dreaming about ever since she got out of residency. She worked so hard when she went back to school. We owe her this."
I groaned knowing he was right and then pushed myself up to lean back on the palms of my hands. She had spent the past seven years going through medical school and then residency. Dad was a photographer and could work anywhere, so when she said she wanted to leave, he couldn't tell her no.
"Where's the nearest mall to this town again?"
"An hour. But there's always internet shopping." He gave me a forced grin that let me know he was not looking forward to any of this either. Knowing he was not all that thrilled actually made me feel better. We could get through this together, like we always had.
In the evening we would go to a restaurant called Skeeters, where they let you color on the butcher paper covered tables and then staple your creations to the wall. As usual, I drew a butterfly fluttering under a rainbow. Dad usually drew a hairy blue monster, but on this night he just made nonsensical doodles. We followed up our gourmet dining with cherry icies and popcorn at the latest action flick. Dad customarily flinched during the scene where the leading man seduced the sexy, but neglected house wife, and I grinned, amused by his embarrassment at watching a sex scene with his daughter.
Following the movie, we splurged for ice cream and then meandered down a street with eclectic shops. It was past nine by then so the stores were all closed, but I forced him to stop at each one to window shop.
When we came to the last shop on the strip, I paused at the window like I had done for the others, but this time I remained fixated by the display. The shop was called Serendipity, and laid out on a velvet pillow was an elegant silver necklace. Sleek swans faced each other; their necks hinting at the outline of a heart, and their wings flaring out to the sides. I sighed in appreciation.
I could tell Dad was getting anxious behind me by the sound of him jingling his car keys in his pockets. But I wanted to look at the beautiful necklace for one more moment before we left. Eventually he tugged on my arm and led me in the direction back to our car.
During the second week of February I single-handedly managed to cause a thirteen-year-old girl to break her arm and the wrestling team to lose a tournament championship. Since I had missed the tryouts in the fall, the basketball cheerleading coach adamantly refused to even consider my argument that as a member of a state championship winning stunting squad back in Texas I was more than qualified to advise our players to get R-O-W-D-I-E. She said it would be unfair to the current members and sent me to Mrs. Maiuro, the local florist and wrestling cheerleading coach. I had never cheered for a wrestling match before and for some reason the idea of shouting encouragement as two guys tumbled about on the floor bothered me. But I was planning on applying for a cheerleading scholarship when I was a senior, and I couldn't afford to miss a semester of experience, even if the most advanced move we did was toe-touches.
The hardest thing to get used to was not the weird wrestling cheers or the fact that I was the only sophomore on a squad of mostly seventh and eighth graders; it was the fact that on match day I was required to wear my uniform. This was always a source of unending hilarity for Nicole Summers, and she would comment on how the blue of the wrestling uniform brought out my eyes and its high-necked style brought out the fact that I sucked. She would parade in front of me on basketball game days in her own low-cut varsity uniform, and she made sure to mention that her younger sister, who was two grades below me, was flying in the basket tosses that night.
I had spent the first few matches benched since I was apparently still learning the routines, and watching the younger girls "cheer" grated on my nerves. I hate when people say that cheerleading isn't a sport but in this case it really wasn't. Thinking to help educate the girls on what cheerleading really was, I convinced Mrs. Maiuro to let me teach them a basic stunt and do it at the tri-county tournament in mid-February. To start with, we were just going to do basic raises with me and the three strongest eighth graders as bases.
As it turned out, the girl we were lifting was the youngest sister of our top wrestling performer, and when she sneezed while elevated and fell to the gymnasium floor, her brother naturally got distracted and lost the rest of his matches. I had no idea that wrestling was such a big deal at the school, but I quickly learned how wrong I was. Apparently, Portville hadn't lost that particular tournament in over fifteen years, and now, not only did we lose, but we lost to Smethport, our biggest rival. Needless to say, I was blacklisted from every social event until my brother eventually remedied my ostracism by throwing a party at the house while our mother was at a migraine conference.
The afternoon before the bat got in the house was the first time my brother and I acknowledged to each other that our mother had started smoking again. We had both known it for a while but we were unwilling to voice it out loud. Actually speaking about it made it true, and neither of us wanted to admit she was a hypocrite.
"You would think Mom would know better than to keep cigarettes in her purse. I go in there for money all the time." Brandon was pouring himself a glass of water from our kitchen tap. He held it up to the light to inspect it and once satisfied with its purity, drank the whole glass.
"You really shouldn't take money from her like that, Brandon. You'll make her crazier than she already is." I was sitting at our kitchen bar, disconnectedly flipping through her monthly subscription to Coastal Living. "At least she takes the garbage down when she goes to smoke down by the trash dumpster. It's kinda nice to have the trash out of the garage before it builds up and attracts bears."
"Tell me about it. Our garage hasn't been this clean since Dad left," he responded.
We both involuntarily flinched at the mentioning of our father. There was an unspoken rule that he wasn't to be discussed, and I quickly returned to reading a recipe for crab cakes rather than acknowledge the slip up. Brandon realized his mistake and turned away, heading to the refrigerator to make a sandwich.
After a few minutes he came to sit next to me at the bar, and I looked up from the magazine, pausing for a moment before I spoke.
"Do you think he's happy now?"
"I don't know," he said, but instead of looking at me, his eyes remained locked on his sandwich, so I knew he was lying.
In contrast to what we later let our mother believe, the bat had actually been living in the house for three days before she saw it. Neither my brother nor I knew how to deal with it and hoped that perhaps if we ignored it, it would go away. I had only seen the bat twice since its first spotting in the kitchen: once clutching onto one of the wooden support beams that spanned the arched ceiling of the living room and then again flapping chaotically around the office as Bartemus sat barking at it from outside the window.
I had done some online research into how to catch a bat after we had finished that episode of Thundercats, and I was actually willing to channel my inner Cheetara and get rid of the thing myself until I read the part about throwing a wet towel over the beast and carrying the live, and somewhat upset, animal outside. At that point I quit reading and decided that turning every light on in the house was the more sensible approach to getting rid of it.
Brandon had taken the opposite approach to coping with the bat, having chosen to spend almost every waking hour with the members of the basketball team getting drunk. During the rare hours that he was home, before entering any room he would perform a "bat check," which entailed him shining a flashlight in all the dark corners and crevices.
My mother first noticed something odd was happening when she witnessed Brandon perform such a bat check on the family living room. I had been peacefully reading my new CosmoGirl when Brandon had shown up with his trusty flashlight in hand. He was bent over, scanning the lower corners of the entertainment center armoire when I finally heard the telltale creak of the front door that let us know she was home. It was seven thirty five and she had just gotten off from work. Her blouse was wrinkled, her French twist was in disarray, and she had two runs in her stockings that ran from the back of her knees down to her ankles. She entered the room and took in the scene before her—her daughter was quietly reading in a chair while her son crouched on the floor, shining a flashlight under her antique armoire. Her head then cocked to the side like Bartemus's did when we gave him ice to chew on.
"Brandon, what exactly are you doing?" She asked, though it was obvious that she didn't really care to know the answer to that question.
Brandon quickly righted himself and tried to hide the flashlight behind his back. But still, without hesitation, he answered her.
"Oh, Jess dropped one of those earrings you gave her for her birthday and I was trying to find it for her."
And just like that he had managed not only to deflect further inquiry about his own behavior but our mother was now wholly focused on mine.
"And you are just sitting there reading while he does this for you?" she asked, her eyebrows rising along with the pitch of her voice.
"Well, he offered to do it and I made him a sandwich earlier..."
My lame excuse fell on deaf ears, and she leveled a stare at me that made me feel like I had tortured Brandon horrifically. Silently I made my way over to my grinning, smart-ass of an older brother and knelt down to help him "look" for my missing earring.
Mother headed to her bedroom, which was located down a small hallway off the family room, so that she could change out of her work clothes. From her current state of disarray I figured she would be in need of her nightly indulgence of Kendall-Jackson chardonnay. So I went to the kitchen through the doorless archway that separated the two rooms to pour a large glass for her. It was as I was recorking the now empty bottle that I knew our mother had discovered our house guest.
Her hoarse yelling was muted by distance but I could tell that it was filled with panic and exhaustion, like she was too tired to stand and fight. Through the walls I could hear her muffled voice call out for me and Brandon. Having a parent sound so helpless is one of those occurrences that makes you want to do anything to make it stop. I got the same feeling whenever I saw her cry, and as I hurried with chardonnay in hand behind my brother to get to her I prayed she wasn't crying. It made my skin crawl and part of me hated her a little every time she did.
While my mother had dreamed of being a small town doctor so that she could actually use the skills she had developed in her big city residency program, the realities of it proved to be something much different from the idealistic, Americana versions shown in movies like Doc Hollywood: no one brought her pigs or jam as payment for one thing. She wanted to be a positive presence in her patients' lives, but she found that instead they were infiltrating hers.
The town's grocery store was called the Jubilee and had a grand total of eight aisles. My mother and I were there on Wednesday evening attempting to buy food for a St. Patrick's Day party that she insisted on throwing for the hospital physicians. I had been sent off on the errand of finding Land o' Lakes sour cream, which we would stir into the mash potatoes later. It took me less than a minute to get to the dairy section of the grocery store, but much to my chagrin they did not sell that particular brand of sour cream. I didn't relish the task of having to tell her that they didn't carry it, and I stood there for five minutes, staring at the generic containers hoping that magically one of them would morph into the image of the kneeling young Indian girl whose face always reminded me of my mother's. I think that's probably why she insisted we used it.
After deciding on a sour cream that would hopefully appease her, I headed back to isle three, where I found my mother in front of the cake mixes talking to a woman in her mid-forties.
"I'm glad to hear you enjoyed our church service last Sunday. We were very pleased that you could finally join us." The woman said. The somewhat frumpy woman, who wore faded black jeans and an oversized white shirt then suddenly changed the subject, indicating that this was the real reason she had stopped to talk. "I was wondering if you've gotten Joey's test result's back yet? I do hope it's not mono, he's doing so well with the team this year."
My mother furrowed her brow at the question as if trying to remember to what the woman was referring. After a brief second her face lit up with remembrance.
"I don't think they've come back yet, Mrs. Fulbright. I will have my secretary call you as soon as they do."
My mother then hastily ushered me down the aisle, and we completed the rest of our shopping. As we were loading the groceries into the back of the jeep, she let out a frustrated sigh.
"Can't they ever just leave me alone?" she asked. "At least three people came up to me today asking me about their test results, to look at a skin rash and whether their six-month-old's cough was normal! To top it all off, Brandon received a phone call on your phone line last night from Mrs. Summers. She had found it in the school directory and wanted to speak with me about her daughter's Pap smear results! There's a reason I keep my main number unlisted!"