Authors: Nancy Springer
Nobody tells you when you're going to meet the crossroads person. Nobody tells you when life is going to pick you up by the ankles. As far as Tess knew, it was just another April weekday and she was just weird Tess Mathis.
She was hiking home across country the way she usually did, because she didn't enjoy sitting alone on the school bus and she loved the creek country in the springtime. The brown butterflies with blue fringes were out, violets were pushing up, and Tess was playing music inside her head. So what if Daddy hadn't been able to pay the bill, and a man in gray coveralls had come and shut off the electricity, and Tess missed radio more than she missed having lights at night. Fourteen years old and she didn't have diddleyâno money, no boobs, no boyfriend, no smiley faces on her report cards, no Walkman no stereo no MTVâbut yes she still had music inside her, riffs and rhythms that belonged to no one else. Nothing and nobody could take that away.
So Tess stomped along in her old Red Wing work boots, humming, slapping and tapping out time with her chunky fingers on her thighs, not paying attention to anythingâand she rounded a bend in the path at the bottom of Miller's cow pasture, under a big sycamore tree, and there was a tough-looking boy standing beside a boulder like he was waiting for her.
She stopped short. He stood there ten feet from her, and he wasn't a boy really, he was maybe eighteen years old, and he only had one eye. He wore a black eye patch over the place where his left one should have been, not a spy-movie eye patch but a homemade black-leather flap fastened to a red headband that didn't do a thing to keep his wild black hair in place. Tess saw scars on his face. A wide, stark mouth that did not smile. A single dark, narrow eye staring straight at her.
He stood there with his hands in the pockets of his black jeans like he just happened to be hanging around the creek bottom, but the way he held himself gave him away. His back and shoulders were airy straight, alert and waiting and ready to get him moving in any direction in an instant. Tess knew he was there for a reason.
She didn't smile any more than he did, or say a wordâshe was frightened. She had heard all the scary stories about what happened to girls who let themselves get caught alone in isolated places. Okay, she was big and strongâthat was part of what made her weird, that she was the biggest, strongest girl in school. People might talk behind her back but they'd better not say anything to her face. If this guy tried anything she would fight him, and he was no taller than she was so she figured she had a chance, butâhe looked so fierceâwhat if he had a knife? Tess felt her heart thumping and sweat wetting her palms. She started to back away.
His face didn't change, but he pulled his hands out of his pockets, spreading them empty in the air. “I wouldn't hurt anybody,” he said, low-spoken.
Tess didn't necessarily believe what he said, but she liked his voice, gritty and soft. Sounds, their textures and cadences, meant a lot to her. Also, she had enough wrongheaded pride to make her stop backing away and stand still.
He said, “Tessali Rojahin?”
It was her real name, and it scared her worse than anything so far. She blurted out, “No!”
He just stood there with his hands gradually sinking downward, looking at her.
“No. Mathis,” she said. “Tess Mathis.”
“Okay.” He started walking slowly toward her, but she stood still, because he did not seem threatening in the same way any longer. Still dangerous, but in a different way. “Tess. Your stepfather's name is Mathisâ”
“He's not my stepfather!” He was her capital-
Daddy. They had never had the money to make it legal, so yes her name was Rojahin on her birth certificate and a few other stupid papers, but as far as Tess was concerned, Benson Mathis was her father.
The stranger boy stood still with his head skewed slightly so that his one eye could watch her. He made her think of a hunting cat, or a sleek black wolf, some sort of wild animal. The way he moved, the way he handled himself, was compact and sure yet shy, the way strong wild animals are shy. “Okay, your adoptive father,” he said carefully, sniffing his way, trying to read her. “His name is Mathis.”
She stood there without answering.
He said, “But a man named Rojahinâ”
“No!” That name panicked her, and this time the fear sent her toward the scar-faced, one-eyed stranger rather than away from himâshe just wanted to get past him and get home. She charged him, and he flung up one hand to try to stop her, or maybe to beg her.
“Please,” he said, his voice even lower, grainy with what must have been emotion. “Please. I'm trying to find my father.”
“Let me alone!” She shoved past him and ran up the pasture hill between rocks and little cedars, which are one of the few things cows won't eat. When she got to the top she had to stop to puffâAppalachian hills will do that to a person. Panting, she looked all around but didn't see anything except a few dirty white cows browsing along the edge of the woods between her and home. She could see in all directions, but the stranger was not in sight. Tess blew her breath out in a sigh, pretty sure that he was not following her.
Pretty sure that he was not trying to hurt her.
Please. I'm trying to find my father
The hush in his voice, as much as the words themselves, echoed in her mind like a song. There was no Tess Mathis music beating like wings inside her now. Just those words.
Butâshe couldn't help him, even if she wanted to, because ... because there was something wrong. With her.
, Tess told herself, looking out on the shaggy old hills. She tried to remember what Daddy always told her, that she was normal in all the important waysâlooks weren't all that important, no matter what certain mall-haired girls thought. So she was oversized and freaky-looking, pink faced, almost pale enough to be an albino, so what. Looks didn't matter and neither did being poor. Tess tried to remember that she was normal in the ways that counted, like having a heart, and knowing good from bad, and worshiping the Phillies during baseball season and the Pittsburgh Steelers the rest of the time. Normal.
Aside from the fact that there was one really strange thing about her: she did not remember anything before she was ten years old.
It was like she didn't have a childhood, because she just didn't remember. Not a thing. Nothing. Blank as a banker's hankie.
By the time Tess got home, she had organized her face enough so that she hoped Daddy wouldn't notice anything.
Home was just a cinder-block shack on a slab, like a cow pie with square corners plopped down on the far side of the woods the way people plop little houses sometimes in the country. The clear plastic stretched over the windows for insulation was ripped and made messy noises in the wind. There was more messy ripped plastic stapled over the old wooden screen door on the back, which stuck. When Tess muscled it open and got inside, Daddy was at the stove in his wheelchair, reaching up to stir something in a soup pot.
“Smells good.” Tess took the spoon from him, because it's a lot easier for a standing-up person to stir. Daddy seldom complained, but Tess could tell that being in a wheelchair and trying to cook was a painâDaddy's footrests banged against the stove, and he couldn't see what he was doing. “Yo! Pot pie!” Canned chicken broth with Daddy's hand-rolled homemade noodles swimming around in it, and why it was called pot pie was a mystery, the pie part if not the pot part, but it was yummy. Tess stirred some more, peering hopefully. “No meat?”
“Well, I tell ya, honey, I couldn't quite get Ernestine up to speed to knock off anything.” Ernestine was his wheelchair. “Maybe next time I can let 'er rip down Sipe's hill and run over a chipmunk or something.”
He was joking. No roadkill was eaten in the Mathis household. At least not yet.
Daddy sighed and said, “I could try Make Money Selling by Phone in Your Spare Time again.”
“How would you get the phone put back in?” Tess laid a folded dish towel on the plastic tablecloth and set the pot on it. “Anyway, you made, what, about a penny an hour?” She glanced at him fondly. Daddy had not been a happy telemarketer; he was too nice to talk people into buying junk they didn't want or need. And other than that, there wasn't really much Daddy could do, living way out in the country. Most days he just made his rounds on the roads in his wheelchair. The egg farm put aside cracked eggs for him, and the sexton at the little white shingle-sided crossroads church saved him candle stubs, and old Mrs. Miller next door gave him sugar cookies whenever she baked.
Tess brought a couple of plates from the clutter of dishes sitting on the counterâDaddy couldn't reach things in cupboardsâand Daddy wheeled himself up to his place at the table, and the two of them sat and ate. The pot pie was pretty good for something that's really just boiled-up flour held together by an egg and a little Crisco.
“Not bad for an old guy's cooking,” Tess teased.
But she knew she'd feel hungry again in half an hour. It wasn't enough to eat. And the food stamps had run out way before the end of the month, as usual. God only knew what there would be to eat tomorrow, especially if Mrs. Miller's lumbago didn't let her get to the kitchen or the chickens forgot to crack some eggs or Ernestine didn't kill a chipmunk.
“Daddy,” Tess said, looking down at her empty plate, “school stinks. Really. I'm not learning a thing.”
“If you would bring a book home once in a whileâ”
“It wouldn't make any difference.” To Tess, school was just the place where she went to be dumb. “I want to quit. You could say you're home schooling me. I could get a job.”
So we can eat,
she was thinking, and Daddy knew it.
“It's not that simple. They got all kinds of requirements for home schooling.”
“So we tell them something. Stall them. When I'm sixteen, I can quit.”
“You do that, you'll end up regretting it. You drop out, you'll get noplace, end up living in a dump like me.”
Tess had heard this before, and it didn't mean a thing to her. Dump? But she liked coming home to this house. Everything was kind of yellowish, paneling and flowered curtains and secondhand furniture, but what did that matter? Her mother's collectible plates hung on the kitchen wall, Elvis and sad-eyed puppies and cute Amish kids. Tess couldn't remember her mother but she could look at the plates. Her daddy's old stuff, bowling trophies and framed military papers, sat on a shelf in the other room. Her radio was in her bedroom. This was home.
She said, “It's not a dump.”
“The heck it's not. Look at me. At my ageâ”
“It's not your fault you hurt your back.”
“I was still going noplace. Busting my ass for the boss man's smart lip and a few dollars. That's why I'm in the fix I'm in, because I got no education. You just stay in school, Tessie. Get your diploma.”
The words were worn as smooth as creek stones from being said over and over. They had been said almost every suppertime since the electricity was shut off.
This time, though, suddenly Tess wanted to say new words.
Daddy, there was this stranger down at the bottom of Miller's pasture, asking
She felt the watery-awful panic for even thinking it. Always the panic when she thought of asking questions. A few times when she was younger she had asked Daddy about her father or her mother, and his face had gone gray as old chicken bones, and he had given her short answers. Marcus Rojahin was her mother's first husband. Daddy was her mother's second husband. Her mother was dead. He missed her. And that was it. That was all she knew.
That was all she was going to know, because she'd stopped asking questions. It hurt him too much.