Surrounded by ocean was where I was supposed to spend the sixth grade. On the last day of fifth, my mother confided her plan to move us to Kauai to live with her father. "For gym you’ll kayak," she said, "and after school, we’ll surf!"
She didn’t plan on being murdered or leaving Birdie and me to live with a grandmother we didn’t know, in a Midwestern state we’d never visited.
When Ruth met us at the airport wearing one of her designer tennis dresses, she insisted that we call her by her first name. Something about the single men at the club not wanting to hit balls over her net anymore if they found out she had grandchildren. “Call me Grandma in public and I’ll check you into an orphanage.”
“The only orphanage I’ve ever seen was at the Boulder Dinner Theater in ‘Annie,’” I said. “Birdie played the littlest orphan.”
“Well, then, I’ll ship you to live with your beam-bum-pothead grandfather.”
Beach and grandfather sounded good, but bum and pothead didn’t figure into our mother’s plan.
“And if anyone asks what happened to your mother, you say ‘car accident.’”
“But it wasn’t a car accident.” I seethed.
“Lie,” she said. “Your mother’s manner of death is nobody’s business.”
Birdie chirped from the backseat. “But Mama says not to lie.”
Ruth sweetened her voice. “Trust me, Miss Beatrice. Sometimes it’s okay to lie.” She patted her highlights and said into the rearview mirror, “You don’t want to make Ruth a pariah, do you?”
When I tucked Birdie into bed that night, she asked how telling the truth would turn Ruth into a fish. “Pariah, Bird. Not piranha.” I didn’t know the meaning of pariah but felt certain from Ruth’s tone that it must be bad.
"She’s funny,” Birdie said.
Nothing was funny since Dad killed Mom and her dream to live on an island, thousands of miles of ocean insulating her from love gone wrong. She told him they had grown apart, that they fought too much, that she was going to take us to visit her dad for a while. “Just till things cool.”
In the morning he woke us up, all three in her bed. He shouted in a loud whisper, but only I awoke. I watched him spit obscenities into Mom’s face in a low volume rage. “Like fuck you’re leaving.”
“Vince. The girls.” Mom was whispering.
“Girls. Go get some breakfast.”
In a groggy mumble Birdie said, “I’m sleepy, Daddy.”
“Go,” he said. We went.
Her screams cut into our microwave oatmeal. We ran upstairs and watched those last hideous sounds crawl from her mouth, across the sheets, and into the hallway where we stood, invisible to his rage. He knelt over her and plunged the knife into her lovely chest. “Fifty-five times,” the newsman would say.
Birdie and I hid on the floor of our bedroom closet under a fortress of stuffed animals. An hour—maybe three—we hid. Dad slammed the back door. I parted my green gingham curtains. A trampled path through the weeds behind our house revealed his escape route. I used the furry pink phone my mom gave me for my tenth birthday to make the call.
A blue-eyed detective brought me a bottle of water and tried to coax details out of me, but the details were stuck in my chest. I could not speak. I looked out the window and pointed the finger of accusation that sent my father to prison and us to an island in a sea of cornfields.