Sister of Mine

May 14, 2008
By Becca Young, Rowley, MA

I never thought the day would come where I’d say my grandmother’s house was home. For the past 14 years, my family only went to her house for Christmas and for one week every summer. That was it.

She lives in Randolph County, in Mill Creek. It’s a small town – well, actually it’s considered a city, but everyone knows each other.

Ellen Trace, my grandmother, owns a diner. She bought it right after she graduated from high school. It was cheap because the building needed a lot of work done. She fixed it up on her own, and even started out being the only one who worked there, though she hired her first waitress only a week after she opened. Ellen has almost always managed the place on her own. The only time she worked with someone else was when she married my grandfather. But that didn’t last long because he died when my dad was six.

Ever since she opened Ellen’s (the diner) she gets up at 4 in the morning to start baking her famous bread and pecan pie. At 7 a.m., she opens, ready with a huge pot of coffee all set to pour into the early risers’ mugs. When my family used to visit, we got to Ellen’s at about 10 o’ clock, never any earlier.

But that’s what happened when we visited her– she had her own daily routines at the diner and my family would stay out of the way, like dad would take us to his favorite fishing spot as a kid. Sometimes mom would drive us to Clarksburg. We never really saw much of Ellen, now that I think about it.

But of course, that changed.

About two months ago, mom and dad went sailing one Saturday afternoon and never came back. I was at one of my soccer games (I’m kind of considered an obsessed soccer player, FYI), and Haley was at her art class – that was when she actually was interested in interacting with other people. (Haley, if you haven’t guessed, is my older sister. We haven’t gotten along for five years– ever since the day where Haley decided she was so much cooler than me because she was a teenager, and I wasn’t.)

I remember the last day I saw my parents. That morning, when I had gotten up and had gone downstairs to have breakfast, mom and dad had been sitting in the kitchen and were talking about what they were going to do that afternoon, since us girls wouldn’t be around.

“What do you think, Ava?” Dad had asked me. “What should your dorky parents do today?”

I had been playing with my soccer ball in my lap, tossing it up in the air occasionally.

I rolled my eyes. “I dunno. Whatever.”

Mom sighed and turned to Haley. “What do you think, Hal’?”

“Umm. Well Grady said that his parents rented a sailboat last weekend,” Haley shrugged. Grady is Haley’s best friend.

Mom and Dad loved the idea. So, after Haley and I had left, they drove to the point to rent a sailboat for a couple hours.

I don’t really know what happened after that. Haley and I had been home for hours, complaining to each other about how we had nothing to eat. At around 6 p.m., we got the call.

Even after we were taken to the station, it didn’t quite sink in to my head that they were actually gone.

Your parents drowned today due to rough conditions out on the water.

Apparently, there had been huge, deathly waves out on the water and there had been a storm warning. It was cloudy and rained a couple minutes during my soccer game, but I hadn’t thought it had been a big deal. But it was. Mom and Dad were gone for good.

Haley sunk into immediate depression. She was close to my parents, much closer than I was. She didn’t talk to anyone, after that day. She would glare at me and look at me like I had been the ocean that killed them. After a while, she began to talk again, but never like she had before the accident.

Ellen came to stay with us for the next two months. She was sad too, but tried to stay strong for us. She spent her time trying to sell our house, and getting everything dealt with. She also was getting us ready to move down south with her.

I tried to ignore how unhappy I was. I went on with school, but my grades slipped and my friends didn’t know how to treat me. I couldn’t focus on soccer, but that didn’t really matter because Ellen pulled me out of it right away, since I’d be leaving soon.

So, two months later, here we are – in an Uhaul truck traveling to Ellen’s house.

“Can I turn onto this next exit?” Ellen asks me, because I have the map in my lap. Somehow I have become the directions girl.

I glance at it. “Sure.”

“Are you positive?” She’s been asking this a lot lately, because she thinks I’m not sure of myself anymore.

“Yeah,” I tell her.

She turns on her blinker as we continue to head back to Mill Creek, my new home.

Suddenly, Ellen grabs her neck and starts rubbing it.

“Are you ok?’ I ask her.

“My neck and shoulders have been hurting a lot recently,” she tells me. “I just think it’s because I’m getting old.” She turns her head to smile lightly.

“Oh,” I say, and lean back in my seat.

I really wish I were playing soccer right now. If I had been still on the team, I would have played a team from Maine today.

Ellen assures us we’ll love it in Mill Creek. We’ll meet new friends, go to a new school, and get jobs easily. I haven’t said anything to her about it, neither has Haley. It’s not like we have a choice to where we go to anyway.

Ellen stops at the red light and looks at the green signs with the arrows.

“This can’t be right,” she mutters to herself. “North? We don’t want north. Ava… we weren’t supposed to take that exit.” She groans.

Haley snickers. “Nice going, retard.”

Ellen turns to look at Haley. “Don’t call your sister that. It was just a mistake. You’re sixteen. So you should know better.”

Haley grunts. “I don’t really care.”

I glare at her. She really is a wreck, my sister. She wears big stained shirts and pants that are ripped. Her black hair is knotted and her eyeliner is so thick in looks like her green eyes are sunken into her head. She never draws anymore, she just stares at people.

Ellen just shakes her head. “Once we get home, there are going to be a lot of changes made to this family.”

“I don’t see a family anywhere,” I mumble. “I just see a lot of messed up people.”

Finally, after all the missed turns and exits, and after endless hours of listening to country radio, we reach the smallest city in the history of the world, Mill Creek, West Virginia, and we pull into Ellen’s driveway.

“This is it, girls,” she says. “Come on in.”

We mutter as we lug all of our heavy stuff up the stairs.

Before the accident, Haley and I had shared a room in Ellen’s house, and mom and dad had used dad’s old room. But I know that isn’t the case anymore.

When I look at Ellen I know she is thinking the same thing. “I, uhh…” she looks down and her voice grows sad. “I suppose one of you can take Colin’s room.”

I cast my eyes in Haley’s direction, but as usual, she has her hands on her hips and has that angry look on her face.

“I want dad and mom’s room,” I say quietly.

“Fine. Take it.” She doesn’t even look at me as she moves her stuff into our room.

I take a deep breath as I walk into dad’s room. It has a lot of his childhood things, sure, but also his wedding pictures, and pictures of mom and him holding us as little kids.

I start to take out one of my Mia Hamm posters to put on the wall, but I stop.

Ellen’s pictures make me remember everything… everything I have tried to ignore these past two months. One tear begins to roll down my cheek, and the rest follow in hundreds.

We have dinner later than night, after Ellen has checked her 43 messages and has called every single person back. She has made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“So, since it is July, and you’re out of school, I have a plan for you both this summer.” Ellen says, looking from Haley and me and back to Haley again. Haley doesn’t touch her sandwich, but plays with the ring on her finger.

“After seeing what you girls do these past two months, I think you can make yourselves more useful. Considering all you do is snap at each other and slack off, I have decided to have you both waitress at the diner.”

I stare at her. “Seriously? I’ve never had a job in my life. I’m fifteen.”

“It’s about time you started working for what you want, not just accepting it as it comes. Colin and Alice didn’t do that with you both and you are both ungrateful.”

“Being a waitress sucks,” Haley offers.

“You’re big girls. You can do it.”

“And if we can’t?” I ask.

“Tomorrow morning, I’m taking you at 6:30. You better be ready.”

That is all she says, and she takes another bite of her sandwich.

“Oh my god!” I shriek. Everyone turns to look at me and the room is quiet.

I have just dropped the entire contents of my tray on the ground. This includes three coffees, two Cokes, four dinners, and one cup of soup.

Before we moved here, I was called Klutz Girl at school. I wasn’t an outcast or anything, it was just who I was known by. I always dropped everything – my textbooks, my pencils, and my lunch money. Soccer wasn’t as bad, but maybe that’s because the sport is so much better than school.

Amber, one of Ellen’s waitresses, passes by me as I clean up the mess.

“How’s the first day going so far?” she asks.

“It could be worse,” I call after her.

Amber seems nice. She’s in her 20’s and works like a machine. She can carry three trays at once while getting different table’s orders.

It’s only my first day and I have memorized everyone’s name. It’s what mom used to do. She once told me that if you know everyone that you’re working with, you’re golden.

There’s Justin, a cook. Of course Ellen cooks, but he’s there to help if there’s a lot of people at the diner at once. He’s in his late forty’s and has a wife, and two boys in elementary school.

Then there’s Lucy, who’s in her 20’s like Amber. She has a baby girl named Joanna that she loves more than anything in the world. She’s a single mom.

Ellen calls everyone at the diner family. When Lucy was showing me around the diner she said, “You must be so happy to be helping out your grandmother. She’ll treat you real nice, too. She looks after Joanna all the time for me, and I don’t even have to ask.”

“That’s nice,” I had told her, but I didn’t look at her directly in the eyes.

I take my tray of broken dishes to the kitchen window.

Justin looks up from the stove. “So that’s what that crash was.”

“Yeah,” I say quietly.

Ellen comes over from her chopping and looks at me.

“Well, since it’s your first day you only have to pay for half of what you broke.”

I just look at her. “I slipped! People slip all the time!”

“Sure they do.”

“You’re seriously going to make me pay for all of this?”

“It’s coming out of your paycheck,” she replies, and turns to finish her chopping.

I cross my arms. “I hate this. I’m quitting.”

Ellen moves the food she chopped to a pan on the stove.

“You can’t quit.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re with me now, kid.”

I stomp off, and as I do I see Haley taking a couple’s order.

“What do you want?” she asks them bluntly.

“The ham dinner sounds wonderful… but so does the biscuits and gravy. What do you recommend?” The lady asks her.

“Pick. A. Damn. Dinner.” Haley says, annoyed.

The couple gasps.

“Where’s Ellen?” The husband demands. “She won’t tolerate this.”

As I turn to take the orders from my table, I can’t help but smile at what Haley tells them next.

It’s been a couple weeks since Haley and I have starting working at the diner. We’ve gotten better at what we do – Haley uses better language with the customers since Ellen basically has her on a leash now. I am less clumsy. I guess I am just much more used to the system. Plus, I’m friends with Amber and Lucy now so at least I can talk to people who actually want me around, unlike Haley. No matter how hard Ellen tries, she can’t get Haley and I to reconcile.

It’s been awkward some nights. Most of the time Ellen will be fine, and focus on her work. Other nights I walk into the living room to ask her a question and she is holding onto a picture my mom and dad and she had endless tears rolling down from her cheeks.

I used to back away at first. I thought that since Haley and I were new to her she’d want space. But one day she saw me trying to go into another room.

“Do you ever miss them, Ava?” she asked me in a whisper. “You bottle up so much of your feelings. I can never tell.”

I just looked at her face. “Yeah. I miss them. But I don’t like thinking about them,” I told her.

“Why not?”

“I want to move on,” I said. “It makes me miss my life in Connecticut too much.”

She smiled a sad smile. “Why don’t you just remember the good things?”

I was quiet for a long time. “I don’t know.” I had told her.

Lucy and Amber sit outside with me on our break. It’s Friday, so we’ve just gotten over the Spaghetti Special rush.

“Wow, so you must be really good at soccer,” Lucy says after I tell them about what my life was like up North. “Won’t Ellen let you play?”

“She mentioned something about letting me join in the spring,” I say excitedly. “But I have no idea what to expect.”

They nod in understanding.

Amber turns and looks at me. “Why do you and your sister never talk to each other?”

I have no idea she was going to ask this. “What do you mean?”

“Ok, play dumb. I have a sister, Ava. We call each other a lot and tell jokes to each other and laugh together. You and Haley don’t do that. It’s like you can’t stand the sight of each other.”

I look down at my shoes. “We blame each other for a lot, I guess.”

Lucy leans over to talk to me. “Why don’t you ever work it out?”

“It’s been a long time,” I glance up at them, staring at me.

Suddenly, Justin comes running out of the back door of the diner.

“We have to go to the hospital!” He yells at us. “I already called 911 and they’re on their way!”

“What are you talking about?” Amber yells back at him.

“It’s Ellen! I think she had a heart attack!”

Justin drives all of us to the hospital. The ambulance is way ahead of us, which is a good thing. I think I’ve gone numb – flashbacks of three months ago run in my mind. My mind is stuck, I can’t think, can’t breath, I can only listen.

“What happened to her?” Lucy demands.

Justin pushes his hair back with his hand. “One minute she was standing right next to me, telling me to mix the sauce on the stove… and the next minute she was down on the ground.”

She’s going to die… just like mom and dad…

Lucy gasps. “Do you think she’ll be ok?”

Where are we going to go after this? There’s no one left…

“The paramedic said he had seen a lot worse.”

She’ll live. She has to live.

I turn my attention over at Haley who is leaning against the window out the window.

“You ok?” I ask her.

She looks at me, and we just stare at each other for a couple minutes.

She opens her mouth to speak.

“Are you?”

We sit in the waiting room. Justin paces, and Amber and Lucy are on the phone with their families.

Haley sits with her hands still in her lap, her eyes closed.

I get up and sit next to her.

“Hey,” I say softly. I feel like I haven’t done this in a while.

“Hey,” she says back.

We don’t say anything.

“I’m sorry for making mom and dad die,” she tells me.

I stare at her, appalled. “What are you talking about?”

“I know that every time you look at me you think that I killed them. Because I was the one that suggested that they went sailing in the first place. And you’re right. I did. And I can’t live with myself for knowing that I did.”

“Haley, look at me,” I beg. She does. “I’ve never thought that. Honestly. I swear.”

She frowns. “ Then why do we have to deal with this crap from each other?”

I smile faintly. “We were starting to grow up and we didn’t know how to act, I guess.”

Haley bites her lip. “I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you and I’m sorry I’m such a jerk.”

“I’m sorry for not understanding,” I answer.

We both listen to the sounds of the hospital for a couple seconds.

“We can’t loose her, Haley,” I say out loud. “We can’t.”

“I know,” she says sadly. “I know.”

Not even an hour later a doctor comes to talk to us.

He looks tired, but content. “Your grandmother is going to be fine,” he tells us. “The electrocardiogram confirmed that she actually did have a heart attack, but it wasn’t as severe as the usual ones are. Apparently, she hadn’t had a check up in a while so the blockage in her heart’s arteries wasn’t noticed right away.”

He goes on to describe what Ellen can and cannot eat after she gets out of the hospital. Haley doesn’t really listen, though I’m not surprised.

“Can we just see her?” she asks rudely, interrupting him.

He senses her impatience. “Yes. She’s in room 202, right down the hall.”

Haley starts walking in that direction.

“I’m sorry for my sister,” I say. “That’s just the way she is.”

He smiles. “It must take some time to get used to.”

“Oh yeah,” I reply, returning the smile. “It does.”

It’s been about six months since Ellen’s heart attack. She’s fine now, but she complains that she can’t eat her pies and cakes anymore. Sometimes she’ll try to sneak in a bite of something sweet, but we’ll catch her. She doesn’t really mind because she loves the fact that she’s being looked after.

Haley and I still haven’t sorted everything out, but we’ve gotten closer. We’ll go out to dinner with Lucy and Amber and hang around, or just walk home from school and talk. We still have out differences, but we’ve somehow learned to look beyond that. We admire each other for who we are and that’s all that really matters in the end.

Mill Creek isn’t that bad at all. I’m on my school soccer team, and I still have time to work at the diner so it all works out. Haley is taking an art class here in town so things are getting back to normal. It’s beautiful in Mill Creek in the summer and spring, and it’s just a nice place to be. People I know come into the diner and tell Haley and I stories about West Virginia that amaze us. It reminds me of mom and dad, who both grew up in the state. And it’s nice to be reminded sometimes.

Oh, and there’s one more thing:

Ellen renamed the diner.

It’s called Haley and Ava’s now.

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