No matter where we lived, we were always the weird ones. The outsiders. Conversation would fall silent if we came near. In some towns, people would cross the street if they saw us walking towards them.
But even if they avoided us on the street, people often came to our house for help. Unholy help, or so the uncertain whispers went. A knock at the door would be answered by Mama or Grams, no matter the hour. Bottles or papers would be passed across the table in return for folded money or piles of coins. Promises made, vows extracted. I would creep out from my room to listen to the whispered conversations, never really understanding what was going on.
One time I dared to ask what they were doing, and Mama just smiled. “We’re helping people who cannot help themselves.”
Grams snorted. “We’re doing what needs to be done.”
It was a warm spring night when everything changed.
“June, come here, please. We need your help.” Mama’s voice reached out to me. Cries of pain came from the kitchen, not Mama, not Grams. Someone else.
They’d never needed me during their late-night meetings before.
In the kitchen, Grams was bent over a young woman, not much older than me, curled up on our table, blood-soaked towels piled on the floor. The girl’s sobbing drowned out whatever Grams was telling her, easing her off the table and wrapping her in a quilt I didn’t recognize.
“Junie, take this while I clean up this mess.” Mama handed me a blanketed bundle. A baby! Its face was mottled red, covered in a white, flakey film. It looked like a little old person, all wrinkles and wisdom, as its eyes blinked up at me. There was something peaceful about it, so different from the gore and frantic energy of the room.
The stranger started wailing, causing the baby to flinch and start crying in my arms. Grams exchanged a look with Mama. Grams led the girl out the front door into the night. Stray petals from the lilac bush blew in, their purple color staining to black in the blood.
Mama watched them leave, her face hard and resolute. Swiftly, she bundled the bloodied rags and towels from the kitchen floor and carried them out to the back garden. Curious, I followed only to be knocked back by the stench of kerosene and the heat from the sudden bonfire.
She shooed me back inside and, ignoring the gore still covering the table and floor, took the baby from me. It squirmed as she unwrapped its blanket, inches of umbilical cord hanging from its belly, dark and gel-like.
Mama’s voice was low, revenant. “Look, June. A sister for you. We’ll call her May, for when she came to us.” She stroked the baby’s cheek; it turned towards the touch, mouth searching for food. Mama was too enraptured with the baby to notice me flinch away from them. Already they seemed like a pair. I was the outsider.
“Indeed. We agreed to give her child a family and she…. Well, no matter.” She paused, beaming at the baby. “In the morning, we’ll start packing. I’d like to leave by Friday.”
I was no stranger to packing. We moved around a lot, whenever the muttering of the townspeople got to be too much or sometimes for no reason at all. I had hoped we would stay this time. People here were almost friendly. “Why do we have to leave?”
“She doesn’t want her family finding out about May. This is the easiest way. Don’t worry, JuneBug. We can make a home someplace else, just the four of us. Like we always have.”
A couple of sleepless, worried days later, I came home from an errand, clutching a newspaper in my shaking hand.
Grams was emptying the kitchen cabinets into a large box; I didn’t see Mama or May. The room still smelled of bleach, all traces of blood banished. “You’re back from the store already?”
“Look!” I threw the newspaper onto the counter; it landed with only part of the headline visible. “— Found Dead.”
Grams glanced at the newspaper, then turned away. “Thank you. Newspaper’ll come in handy. It was smart of you to grab this.”
Her eyes met mine. “There’s nothing in that paper that affects us.”
“But…I thought you took her home. Didn’t you take her home?”
“Some questions are better not asked nor answered.”
“You said you were taking her home!” My voice rose to the ceiling, threatening to split my body open with the pain of knowing what I should not know.
“What’s with all this noise?” Mama came down the stairs, a mewling May in her arms.
Grams pointed to the newspaper. Mama looked at it, tossed it into the trash, and shrugged. “They found her sooner than I expected.”
“Indeed. We need to hurry.” Grams might have been speaking about the weather for as calm as she was.
I pushed between them, jostling Mama and causing May to wail. “What is going on?”
Mama’s eyes were hard as she clutched the baby to her chest. “Nothing is going on. We’ve welcomed an unwanted child into our family. That’s all.”
“What happened to the mother?”
“I am the mother.” Mama’s voice smoothed into a coo as she beamed down at May.
“You know what I mean. What happened to the girl? The one Grams left with the other night?” I gulped. “The one in the newspaper.”
A loaded look passed between Mama and Grams. “Nothing happened to her that she did not deserve.”
“But…” I couldn’t bring myself to speak the truth that was simmering in the air.
Mama went silent for a long time, rocking the baby. “Sometimes what people deserve is an end to the pain they’ve caused. Stop fretting, JuneBug. It’ll all work out. It always has. After all, how do you think we got you?”