Now, as the coffee machine starts to gurgle and spit steam, white lights fill the room from the window. A car door slams in the driveway. Philips heart begins to beat hard and fast, just like it used to those nights in New York. He places his hand against his chest, then absently traces his fingers up to that wound beneath the turtleneck as he follows his mother to the foyer. To each side of the thick paneled door is a narrow slit of glass. She presses her face to the one on the right and broadcasts in a how-dare-she tone of voice, "Shes pregnant. I cant believe it. The girl is pregnant."
Before Philip can remind her that Melissa has every right to be pregnant, she begins rambling again, keeping her face to the glass.
"Do you think thats what shes come to tell us? It better not be. Thats all I have to say. The last thing I need to hear right now is how happy she is married to someone else when my son is rotting six feet beneath the ground."
"M," he says, "why dont we try something unconventional? Lets wait for her to tell us what she wants before you throw a fit."
She turns around and looks squarely at Philip, a pink smudge in the middle of her forehead from where she had pressed it to the glass. "I wasnt throwing a fit."
"Well, I can tell youre getting ready to. Besides, its obvious youve never liked Melissa. But its not her fault that Ronnie is gone."
"Maybe not," she says. "But you dont know everything."
"What dont I know?"
"I just told you. Everything."
"Whatever," Philip says, giving up on the discussion.
He puts his face to one of the narrow slits too, standing so close to his mother that he can smell the sweat beneath her Right Guard. As he gazes out at their snow-covered lawn, Philip inhales and holds it to keep from breathing in her odor. In the silvery winter moonlight, Melissas body is a perfect silhouette, her stomach bulging before her as she navigates the icy, unshoveled walkway. When she gets closer, he sees that she is wearing nothing but a baggy Indian-print shirt that hangs down past her waist, and a loose pair of army green cargo pants. Before she reaches the front porch, his mother pulls open the door. Her lips part to say hello, but her mouth just hangs there.
"Hi," Melissa says from the shadows.
His mother is blocking the view, but Philip calls out, "Hi. Arent you freezing?"
"Its not that cold."
Even as she says it, a gust of wind kicks up in the yard and blows into the house. Behind her, the branches of a tall oak tree make an angry scuttling sound in the darkness. Philips mother is still locked in her strange, stunned silence, so he asks Melissa to come inside. Once the door is closed and she is standing in the bright light of the foyer, he realizes why his mother is so taken aback. Melissa is no longer the pretty blond girl his younger brother had taken to the prom five years before. Her once shiny, shoulder-length hair is now impossibly long and straggly, the color darkened to the same drab brown as Philips. Her small ears, formerly bare and delicate, are now pierced with so many silver studs and hoops that it looks painful. The biggest change, though, is Melissas face, which used to be so gentle and feminine, the kind of pure, all-American girl you might see in an ad for spring dresses in the department store circulars that come with the Sunday newspaper. Now that face, that smile, those eyes, are ruined by the scars from her last night with Ronnie. Philip would have assumed that shed gone to a plastic surgeon, like the ones his father played golf with in Florida, but no. Imprinted on her left cheek is a crisscross of lines. Above her right eye is a mangled patch of skin that has somehow interfered with the hair meant to grow there, leaving her with half an eyebrow and a permanently lopsided appearance. She keeps her lips sealed in such a tight, unyielding way that it makes him think of a coin purse snapped shut. Only when she speaks does he get the briefest glimpse of the dark vacancy where her two front teeth used to be.
From Strange but True by John Searles. Copyright John Searles 2004. All rights reserved. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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