I slouched on Mama's bed with my back against her pillow and tried to forget that she was leaving me. It wasn't easy though, with the way she scurried around, tossing things in a suitcase, and lecturing Ginger and me on how to behave while she and Ben were honeymooning.
"How long did ya' say you'll be gone?" I asked.
"Just four days," Mama said. "Promise you'll behave and make things easy for Miss Claudia."
Miss Claudia. Just hearing her name made things feel a bit more hopeful—the only person who could make Mama's absence survivable. She was a special nugget of how things used to be . . . of how things still ought to be.
Ginger leaned against the dresser, arranging Mama's bottles of nail polish in a neat row. "Could I paint my nails with some of this Crimson Sunrise while you're gone?"
I rolled my eyes. Leave it to her to act like she was sixteen, instead of only ten, like me.
Mama smiled over at her. "Crimson Sunrise? And just what would your daddy say about that?"
"He don't have to know. I'll take it off 'fore he gets home."
A big, shiny June bug crawled up the wall behind Mama, and I jumped at the chance to take Ginger down a notch. I pointed it out real casual like. "Better watch out. That beetle's fixin' to fly."
Ginger shrieked and started running in place. "Ee-e-e-wh! I hate those things. Kill it!"
I busted out laughing, which earned me a finger shake from Mama. "That kind of thing right there, Piper Lee, is exactly what I'm asking you not to do while Ben and I are gone. You girls are sisters now, so pleeeese put some effort into treating each other nicely."
Mama's statement was only half-truth. Just because she'd gone ahead and married Ben didn't make Ginger my real sister—only my step sister. But I held my tongue as Mama grabbed a glass from the bathroom sink, placed it over the beetle and slid a plastic lid underneath.
"Kill it!" Ginger repeated. "That way it can't come in again."
I caught my breath. "No, don't! Ain't no reason to."
Mama looked undecided.
I scooted over to the window and forced the wooden frame up a few inches. Mama carried the glass over and released the bug. It flew off with a noisy hum of gratitude.
I gave Ginger a smug look.
She wrinkled her nose at me before turning her attention back to Mama. "So, are you and Daddy gonna bring us back a present from your trip?"
I caught a deep, woodsy whiff of Ben's aftershave right as he stepped into the room. His thick hair was all slicked back from the shower and his undershirt was so white it fairly glowed. "What's this I hear about a present?" he asked.
Ginger sidled up to him and put her arms around his waist. "I was just asking if you and Mama are gonna bring us back somethin' nice?"
He tugged Ginger's ponytail. "Maybe. Unless I hear about any shenanigans. Then it won't be a present you'll be getting."
Shenanigans. It was one of those big, fancy words that was fun to turn over on your tongue. "Where is it you're going again?" I asked him.
"The Beachside Bed and Breakfast," Mama said.
I felt a twinge of disappointment that Ben hadn't answered me himself. I moved over to the door and scrubbed my bare heel up and down against the rough wood. "Sounds kind of boring, four whole days at a place like that."
Ben smirked, and a smile tugged at the corner of Mama's mouth. "No, honey, I don't expect to be bored at all." She lifted her blow dryer, hesitated, and set it back on the counter. "I can probably do without this."
"Yoo-hoo," called a voice from the front room. "I'm here. Anybody home?"
Miss Claudia. I wanted to run out and greet her. But before I could react, Ben said, "Come on, Ginger. Let's go give your babysitter a proper welcome." And the two of them hustled from the room.
Mama and I looked at each other, and her brown eyes seemed to grow softer. "You feeling okay about all this, Piper Lee?"
I shrugged. "Course," I said. But it was another half-truth. Or maybe only a quarter truth. Because I wasn't okay with Mama leaving at all. It made me feel like a lone pickle in a big jar of brine.
She stepped over and rested her arms on my shoulders, and I breathed in her vanilla musk. She spritzed some on every morning, whether she was going any place or not, and I never got tired of it. "I know everything feels funny right now, it's only been two weeks. Just keep reminding yourself that you and I haven't lost a thing, Piper Lee, all we've done is gained two new family members. It's just gonna take a while to feel like a family."
I had a suspicion that Mama's idea of a while was a month or two, but I knew it would take way longer than that 'fore we felt like a family . . . if it ever happened at all. Because right now, the four of us were kinda like a brand new hardback book—stiff and hard to crack open. And now, right smack in the middle of all the newness, Mama was taking off. I knew if I didn't change the subject right quick I'd end up crying. "How much longer do you think I ought to keep Mowgli on his leash?"
"I don't think you have to fret about him running off anymore. He's probably figured out this is his new home."
But I was fretting. Mowgli was the only thing left that was still all mine. I couldn't bear the thought of something happening to him. "I wish Ben would let us keep his litter box inside like we did at home."
"I know. But I bet you won't miss having to clean it out. You always hated that job."
"I was just gonna have Ginger do it."
Mama grinned. "Oh, were you now? That would've gone down like a spoon of castor oil."
Ben poked his head around the door. "Bout ready there, Heather?"
"Almost, guy," Mama said. "Gimme five more minutes."
I left Mama to her packing and went in search of Mowgli. He was curled up on the rug behind Ben's old leather recliner. I nudged him with my toe. "Hey, fat cat, wanna go outside and explore your new yard some more?"
He turned his flat face toward me, looking just as displeased as he had since we'd moved in. I couldn't blame him. Everything had changed for him too—a new house, a missing litter box, and a new vinyl collar with a tiny bell he kept trying to scratch off. I snapped on his leash, scooped him up and carried him outside.
Ginger was giving Miss Claudia a tour of the scraggly backyard, pointing out the raised bed made of railroad ties where Mama's garden was.
"Uh huh, uh huh," Miss Claudia said, a big smile planted on her wide face. "One of the nicest raised beds I ever did see."
"Daddy built it," Ginger said, "but me and Piper Lee helped."
"I helped more than you," I said.
Miss Claudia turned and held out her arms. "Well, there you are, child. Come over here and give me a hug. You know, I sure do miss having you and your mama next door."
Not half as much as I miss being next door, I wanted to say. But instead, I waited 'till she quit squeezing and said, "I'll come visit as often as you like."
Ginger pointed at Mowgli and giggled. "Funniest lookin' dog I ever did see, Piper Lee. Why's he still on a leash anyway?"
"You know why. He might run off."
"Don't look like he's got running on his mind to me," she said.
Mowgli stood in a half crouch, his eyes darting around like he feared something might sneak up on him. The tip of his tail jerked.
Miss Claudia smoothed a hand over her flowered tent dress. "You jus' give him a bit more time. He'll be dandy 'fore you know it."
I trailed them around the yard for a few minutes until Mama and Ben came out to find us. Mama wore a red and white sundress, white flip-flops and a big smile. Ben draped a lazy arm around her shoulders.
"I think we're finally ready," Mama said. "Y'all have any last minute questions?" "Can't think of a single thing," Miss Claudia said. "You kids just go on now and have the time of your lives."
Mama gave us each a hug and kiss, and then Ginger threw her arms around her daddy. She squealed as Ben scooped her right up to eye-level and gave her a kiss on the forehead before dropping her back on her feet. My throat burned the way it did every time they roughhoused. Mama wasn't strong enough to do that sort of thing, and Ben only did it to Ginger.
We all traipsed over to the car, and the three of us stood watching and waving as Mama and Ben pulled out of the driveway and disappeared around the curve on Hillman Bluff. But my arm felt heavy and limp, like it was only waving 'cause it was being forced to.
Miss Claudia reached up and adjusted the little felt cap she always wore. "Well now," she said, "guess that's that. And I think it's high time for me to get outta this sun. What do you girls say we go inside and make us a pitcher of sweet tea?"
And right then is when two things happened.
First, Ginger stepped back and tripped over Mowgli's leash, which yanked it from my fingers. And second, Miss Claudia sneezed. Not just any old sneeze, but a big, honking, wake-the-dead sneeze. Mowgli took off like he'd been shot from a rubber band, his leash bouncing behind.
"Mowgli!" I screamed.
"Lordy," Miss Claudia said, "look at the little bugger run."
I raced after him, trying to follow his crazy zigzag pattern. He started for the neighbor across the road, then did an about face and made a beeline for the nearest pecan tree. The freshly painted, cherry red hood of Ben's Mustang leaned against the tree trunk. Mowgli sailed right over the car hood, clawed his way up the tree, tight roped across a skinny branch, and made a jump for the roof of the house.
I clutched my face in horror as his leash snagged on a branch and yanked him up short a few inches too soon. He did a crazy ballerina twist in mid air and then a terrible screeching filled the air as his claws dug into the metal rain gutter. He crouched on the very edge of the roof, a desperate look on his face, and his leash stretched tight as a fiddle string.
Ginger busted out laughing. "That was the coolest jump I've ever seen. Did you see that, Piper Lee?"
The back of my hand made a loud smack as it landed on her arm, and she jumped back with a shriek. "OW! What was that for?"
"For laughing," I said. "It ain't funny at all. He's gonna fall."
Miss Claudia came huffing and puffing up behind us. She stared up at Mowgli. "Got himself in a pickle up there, sure enough."
Ginger rubbed her arm. "Daddy's got a ladder in the garage."
I ran for the garage, and Ginger raced after me.
"Now hold on you two," Miss Claudia called. "Be careful, now."
It was an eight foot wooden ladder, heavy as a pregnant hippo. I grabbed one end, and Ginger grabbed the other, and we half carried, half dragged it across the yard. Miss Claudia watched, making little fretting noises in her throat. But when we got close, she helped us prop the ladder up against the side of the house. I shimmied up the rungs toward Mowgli until I was close enough to release the clasp on his leash. But as soon as the tension was off his neck, he jerked back out of reach. "Mowgli," I hissed, "Get over here 'fore I fry you like a catfish."
I climbed to the second rung from the top, braced a knee on the scratchy shingle roof and felt the ladder shift. I froze. Mowgli eyed me as if I were a hungry hawk.
I glanced down at Miss Claudia and Ginger. They'd both stepped away from the ladder so they could see me better. "You best come down from there," Miss Claudia said. "He'll find his own way down."
"It's okay," I said. "I almost got him." I lunged forward and grabbed Mowgli by the scruff of the neck. Then I gingerly straightened my leg and felt for the ladder rung. Mowgli allowed me to clutch him against my chest just long enough for me to start down the ladder. Then he came alive—twisting and wiggling—and planted his claws firmly in the tender inside of my elbow.
I screamed, leaned toward the ground and let him drop. The ladder followed the direction of my tilting body.
"Hang on!" Miss Claudia shouted, making a grab for the ladder. But it was too late. I rode it down and didn't let go until I was only a few feet from the ground, landing with a bone shaking whomp at the base of the pecan tree. The fall didn't hurt so much, but the long scratches from Mowgli's claws burned like peroxide on a skinned knee.
Miss Claudia settled herself by my side, rocking me in her arms and nearly suffocating me against her wide bosom. "Oh, Lordy! Oh my Lord, are you all right, child? Your mama and daddy haven't been gone fifteen minutes and you probably broke a bone."
"I'm okay," I said. "I'm fine, Miss Claudia."
Ginger stared, her eyes as big as flapjacks. But it wasn't me she was staring at. I followed her gaze to the newly painted hood of Ben's Mustang. The ladder had swept clean across it, leaving long, curving scratches, even longer than the ones on my arms. My belly shriveled up to the size of a prune.
If this wasn't one of those shenanigans Ben had warned us about, I didn't know what was.
© Dianna Dorisi Winget