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The Bubblegum Wrapper
“I’ve seen this before,” I say.
She looks at me irritably. “Ah-huh. Sure.” Her eyes roll in annoyance as she catches me staring down at it. “It’s a freakin’ bubblegum wrapper! Relax.”
I hold it tighter because I know any moment now she’ll back a swipe for it, and then any memory it held would be gone. “I know but…it just…reminds me of something…”
She chews her gum noisily and glances at me with a wrinkled nose as if something smells. “You need a life,” she says. That’s her common line. Says it every day of every hour and only to me because it can only apply to me. Apparently, everyone else has a life except me because I take a bubblegum wrapper and can’t grasp a memory lurking deep in my mind.
I glance down the two lanes coming up and realize I’ve never been through the left one where the trees clutter against each other, leaning over to peer at us. The sky is pinkish this evening, and the ground is sandy as I drag myself along it. “Why don’t we go that way this time?” I ask, pointing to the left lane.
She barely even gives me a glance. “Because it’s illegal.”
“It’s not!” I say, but with her, I can never be sure. “There’s not even a trespassing sign.” I motion with my hands, almost losing the wrapper and jumping to stuff it in my pocket before my clumsiness takes over again. “Come on, Blair. Please? It looks like a nicer road.”
“It’s full of crap,” she snaps. “So shut up and don’t talk again because you’re making my head explode.”
I glance back at the long road we’ve been walking on. It’s only one road where cars never drive forth and back, where the fields on either side stretch so far, you’d think it’s our own world. Green, green grass swing at my steps, and the pink sky hovers over us making goose bumps trickle up my arm. We walk down this road only once a month, and only once. Grandma says bad things can happen to us if we come too many times. To and from, a forty-five minute walk each way.
“I don’t feel like seeing Myrtle,” I say.
First, I get a glare. Then a terse nod. “I’d seriously rather die in a ditch than see her.”
“So why don’t you?” I ask with a smile, but of course, her fist comes up and slams against my shoulder. She walks on as I yelp, stopping to let the pain cease. I lean over, biting on my lip. “Thanks for…lightening up on me today…” I say forcefully. My eyes follow her feet as she walks on, her dark, black boots riding up to her ankles. I think they’re ugly but I’ve already gotten a punch for that comment, so saying it again doesn’t bring me pleasure. As if Blair brings people pleasure. I think she actually brings them stress or anxiety.
I get up, straightening my back, the pain in my shoulder lingering for just a moment. I start walking. “I don’t get why Myrtle has to live so far.”
“Messy!” Blair yells, whipping around. “Just shut up! You can’t shut that big mouth of yours for like five seconds?”
“Don’t be so mean,” I say. “You’re lucky I even come with you.”
“You’re my sister and it’s your fault we’re in this anyway,” she says, turning around and marching off, fists hanging from both arms. I sigh and follow.
I try to catch up to her, knowing she’ll slow down because there’s no way she’d like to rush to Myrtle, the old lady we have to visit. Just thinking about that lady makes me shudder. She’s got these large, owl-like eyes, dark as my insides, where terrible things roll. And she says them. Her lips move continuously because she never stops muttering. The things she says keep me up at night as I picture them in my head, on the ceiling above me, in my food. The way she says them as if she was actually there, as if she’d caused them. Always, on that small pink rocking chair of hers, she stares down at her wooden floor, back hunched, rocking back and forth.
“Why’s your hair a different color?” I asked her once. She didn’t look at me. She just kept muttering none sense while I tried to block her out until Blair glared at me. “What?” I’d stopped and listened. Myrtle was saying something then, completely different. I still remember. Because death’s rubbed its blood on me… “You’re not going to die, Myrtle,” I said with compassion. But it always faltered and spat in my face.
“She’s not going to die, Messy!” Blair yelled at me, losing patience. “She’s wishing it on us!”
I still don’t get what Blair meant, and every night, when it’s so quiet I know even the grass is asleep, I run my fingers through my hair, rocking myself back and forth, as if stooping down to Myrtle’s level will help me understand. But it doesn’t. It never does.
Down the right lane, way to the end is Myrtle’s ugly gray house. We’re heading towards it when I stop and spot something on the left. “Do you see that?” I ask Blair, narrowing my eyes at the object in the distance. “Do you, Blair?”
“Keep going, Messy.”
“No, hold on.” I take a left instead and find Blair’s fingers dig into my skin.
“NO,” she says angrily. “You hold on. I wanna finish this crap with Myrtle and get on with it! Now you better come or I swear to God, Messy, I’ll leave you here!”
“Fine,” I say. “Go ahead.” Because I know she can’t. She won’t. Blair might be the all-tough I’d-rather-burn-in-hell-type, but she can’t go to the devil herself without me. I spin and walk fast towards the left lane. There’s no movement behind me but there’s heavy breathing. She’s getting angry and I know it.
But the object up ahead catches my attention again. “Is that…?” My eyes widen and I don’t know why, but a smile traces itself along my white-cut face. “It is!” I race towards it, curiosity running high. I hear my name being called from behind and fall faster down the lane, stopping at the side of the road. I look at it, just sitting there pleasantly on the side. “A couch!” I say defiantly and then I start to laugh.
Blair, hatred flaming from her eyes, stops where I’m rolling on the floor laughing and kicks me. “Get up,” she growls. When I don’t, and instead stare at the couch, she kicks me again. “I said get the hell up!”
“Where did it come from, Blair?” I ask, ignoring her question. I get to my feet and look at her. “I don’t think I’ve noticed a couch here before.”
She swallows and her voice fades. “Come on, Messy.”
I walk towards the couch. It’s gray and tattered, ripped open midway through the right cushion. It looks dirty and I’m afraid to run my fingers over it but the fact that a random couch sits facing the field almost makes me…peaceful. “Isn’t this funny?” I say.
I look at Blair but her face has gone hollow. “Blair?”
“Whose?” I ask, my face growing hot. She doesn’t answer. I walk up to her. “What’s wrong, Blair?”
“She must’ve been out…” Blair says faintly, eyes still on the couch. “And she knows we don’t come this way…”
Something creeps up on my back and I’m suddenly really scared. “Blair…?”
She doesn’t hear me because then she hits the ground and goes running down the road. I wait, looking around me wildly because I swear I hear something. “Hello?” I yell, shivering. Pulling down my grey sleeves, I look back at Blair’s distant figure. I’m afraid to run. I’m frozen in place. “Blair! Wait!” The cold makes my eyes go teary and then I catch something with my ear. A groan. I jump and stumble away, falling twice and pushing myself up again. I’m crying as Blair runs back for me and drags me along and I don’t know what’s happening, but when I glance back, I see a boy in ragged clothing, staggering out of a ditch. I bet Blair doesn’t want to die in a ditch now.
“Blair!” I stutter, my heart making everything in my body pulsate.
“Shut up!” she screams and now I do because something is really, truly wrong.
The gray house sits at the end of the two lanes and we start to slow down when we see her, standing there at the top of the stairs of her gray porch. She’s hunched over, a bag in her hand, hands fumbling at the rail as she tries to ease herself down.
“Myrtle!” I yell. Blair takes my jaw and squeezes it shut but it’s too late because Myrtle’s already looked up and when I see the way her eyes widen, I realize that she’s afraid…and that for once her lips aren’t moving…
“I used to chew them all the time, all the time…” Myrtle once said. Blair had been out of the room, arranging the food we’d gotten her in the refrigerator. I was sitting, kneeled down beside her rocking chair, watching her closely. Ironically, Myrtle wasn’t supposed to be left without being guarded. It’s what Blair said to me, and when I tried to reason that Myrtle had been left by herself all the other days we weren’t there, Blair just looked up at me and said, “No. She isn’t.”
“What did you used to chew, Myrtle?” I’d asked her, and staring at the distance, she reached towards her table effortlessly. “I’ll get it,” I told her because she wouldn’t stop fidgeting until she got whatever she wanted. I opened the little door of the side table and found a box. “This?” I asked her and she nodded, eyes focusing on a necklace around my neck. It’s a silver necklace with a round blue eye dangling on my chest. Grandma had given it to me because she said it warded away all the bad things. When I asked why Blair didn’t get one, Grandma said it was because Blair had done something terrible, and deserved the consequences.
Myrtle drew the box into her lap with shaking hands. “Used to be…used to be…” she muttered. “Used to be…like you…” I reached to open the box but her dark eyes snapped to mine and I pulled back. She fumbled with the lock and then got it open. I didn’t peer inside until her eyes settled on me, and then I was up on my knees, looking in. Inside, there were pieces of torn paper with scribbled things written on it and sticks of wood and pencils that were chewed on and locks of hair and a little pink pocket of a small bracelet and…and…a bubblegum wrapper.
“Why do you have a bubblegum wrapper?” I asked first, and then started realizing that all of these things were odd. “What is all this stuff, Myrtle?”
“Memories, memories, me…” she whispered. “Memories.”
I looked at her. “Of what?”
Her sad eyes drifted to me slowly as she mumbled, “Me…me…me…of…my son…”
“Your son?” I said. I searched into the box. And warily reached in and took a piece of paper. Myrtle’s head bent into the box, and a tear fell like a raindrop deep into the wood. Another memory, I thought. I unfolded the paper. Remember we used to laugh ‘till we cried? it said. I looked up at Myrtle. “Who wrote this?”
Her husband. He’s in most of the picture hung up on her wall, a serious, plain old man. I plucked another note out of the box. You’d hold me tight until our fingers were locked like our doors…I chose another one; Life made so much sense with you…and another…Mommy, please come home…Home. I stared at Myrtle, her shoulders were now even more hunched as tears seemed to rip out of her eyes.
“Myrtle,” I whispered. “You have a son?”
Carefully, muttering something I couldn’t catch that sounded like she was hissing, she nodded.
“Is he the one that stops by?” I ask.
This time, she shakes her head.
“Who does, Myrtle?”
I waited, leaning in to listen but she never got the chance. There was a noise and then Blair appeared in the room, a tray in her hands. “What the hell are you doing?” she yelled.
“She has a life…” I said, trying to get my head together. “Blair, Myrtle has a life. Her life. It’s hers!”
Blair set the tray down and yanked the box out of Myrtle’s hands who started struggling for it. I tried to grab the box but Blair stood straight and shoved me backwards until I was sinking deep into a wooden table, knocking over the tray of food.
Blair threw the box in the side table wildly, cursing, and shut the door, pushing Myrtle forcefully in her chair. “She had a life,” Blair said, looking down at me. “It’s gone! It’s…” her voice faded. “Gone.”
I looked at my hands, bleeding. And then Blair turned on Myrtle and started yelling. “You see? You see what you do?”
“Blair,” I said. But her voice rose higher and Myrtle shrunk in her seat, sobbing in mutters and dirt in her hair. “Blair!” I screamed, but she was already hauling me up, making me wince in pain, and looking me straight in the eye.
“Don’t you ever talk to Myrtle again,” Blair warned, words dragging of hatred.
I shook my head. “No-”
She grabbed my face and leaned closer. “She’s a devil, Messy. She’s a devil.”
I tried pulling away, the pressure of her face near mine making me dizzy. I could barely keep myself up, the impact of the fall blowing me away every time I thought about it. “But Blair…” I whispered, quivering, blood oozing down my arms, tears in mixture of shock and confusion. “What is she doing here?”
Blair let go of me, stepped back, and knelt down to pick up the mess. “She’s enduring the consequence…”
I stand now, watching Myrtle as she hurries down the steps, almost falling over. I look at Blair, seeing her face in horror as if the devil had escaped hell. She didn’t glance at me as she stepped forward.
“Get back in there, Myrtle!” Blair yells, but the old lady doesn’t look at her, plummeting to the ground. “Myrtle!” Blair screams
Myrtle’s bag crashes to the floor, everything falling out. And then I see it. The bubblegum wrapper flying out with the rest of the odder things. Blair’s face is red now, and she’s crying and yelling all at the same time, racing towards Myrtle and grabbing her by the arm.
“No!” I cry as Blair tries to drag her up. “Please, Blair! Please!”
“No…no…no…” mumbles Myrtle, her body going limp and her eyes helpless. Then there I am, holding Myrtle’s cold, shaking hand, shoving Blair with all my force backward until she’s slammed against the floor. “Please…please…please…” And I realize that day when she showed me the box, Myrtle wasn’t hissing. She was begging.
“Okay, Myrtle, okay. Okay, okay,” I say over and over again but she won’t listen and her eerie whispers are with so much hatred, and suddenly she looks up and her wrinkled, dirty fingers reach for my eye necklace.
“No!” Blair’s scream rips out of her throat and she lunges for Myrtle but it’s too late. Myrtle rips the necklace off my neck and I gasp as she locks eyes with me, saying something under her breath. It’s so overwhelming and there’s ripple in the clouds, and the next thing I know, Myrtle is crying as words slip out of her mouth.
Blair and I both freeze. And we listen.
“Please…please…please…” says Myrtle, barely able to take her breath. Head down, she weeps. “Please…please…please…”
I look at Blair and see that’s she stunned, eyebrows fixed. I turn to Myrtle and see her eyes squirm with tears as she lifts her hand and tries to wrap the necklace back around me. Her hands slide back down and the necklace falls again but instead of reaching for it, I reach for Myrtle and whisper, “Go.”
Myrtle stops for a moment, and slowly raises her head in blank confusion.
“Go,” I tell her, now firmly. “Go, Myrtle. Go.”
Something in her eyes are different now, something the opposite of hatred or misery or even jealousy. She glances at Blair, who for once doesn’t move a muscle. And then Myrtle reaches down, picks up the bubblegum wrapper and walks on.
“Where is she going?” Blair asks calmly.
Without looking at her, I say, “To the one that gives her life.”
Blair walks silently beside me and I listen to her talk. Because if it’s one thing a person has to learn to do, it’s listening. “She used to be Grandma’s neighbor,” she says. “And Grandma was afraid of her because every time she saw Myrtle, something bad would happen to her. Myrtle would always mumble something, usually out of jealousy, and then something bad would happen in Grandma’s life.”
“Like what?” I ask, before Blair explains.
“Like the time you were born,” she replies. “You were the most beautiful girl, and everyone adored you. And Myrtle was jealous. Most of the time, Grandma would hide you when we came to her house. Said that if Myrtle saw you, she’d say a few words and something bad would happen to us. But Mom and Dad never believed that.”
I stare at the floor. “Until what?”
“Until Myrtle saw them putting you in the car one day, and she said a few words. Next day, they died in a car accident.”
“How old was I?”
I nod. “What happened after that?”
“Grandma didn’t get upset because she was afraid.” She pauses. It seems hard for her to explain, as if she’s picking and choosing her words, as if she isn’t telling me everything. “But I did get upset. I’d heard so much about Myrtle, I thought it was really her fault and then there was this one day…” she’s crying, and I let her. The trees embrace us again as we walk down the road. “It was this one, stupid, freakin’, hell of a day, Messy,” she says angrily, wiping away bitter tears. I’ve only seen her this upset that day Myrtle shared the box with me. When we’d gone back home, I had heard her cry and looked into her room to find her curled in one corner. I never told her that.
She takes a deep, stuttering breath and huffs, as if she’s tired. “You got sick,” she says. “It was a few weeks after Mom and Dad’s accident and I…” she looks at me and for once I’m not talking. “And I just couldn’t have you die and leave me, Messy. I couldn’t, dammit! And I knew for sure this was all Myrtle’s fault, so I…I did something…” her voice fades in shame.
I know she needs me to encourage her now, to be me and just…keep on talking and pressing. “Say it, Blair. Tell me.”
The urge in my voice gets her walking slowly, her boots making it seem as if every step is a bit heavier than the last. “I didn’t mean to,” Blair says, and I almost don’t recognize that childish, mousy voice. For a moment, we lock eyes and I can almost reach out and grasp her thoughts in my shaking hands. She looks away, turning her head completely so she doesn’t see my reaction. “I was really mad…and it wasn’t supposed to happen that way and…and I had matches…”
I bite down on my lip, hard. I’m glad she’s not looking because I’m almost ashamed to have her as my sister, knowing now what she was capable of doing. But she isn’t capable of doing that now. Blair knows her limits. Learned that the hard way, maybe. But let me confess that I’ve known my sister for my whole life so far, and I know that she can hit me and sometimes scar me with words so haunting they make me cry, but she would never, ever try to kill someone.
“-I lit one and I thought I saw someone behind me, and then Myrtle came out on the porch and saw me and then her son grabbed me from the back and I-” a cry cuts through her throat, as if someone’s sliced through it. I don’t touch her. I don’t comfort her. “I didn’t mean to, Messy…I’m so, so sorry…”
I freeze. It’s like we switch places because now I’m the one to grab her arm and look deep into her eyes. “What happened, Blair?” I ask her firmly and with her head down, drenched in tears, she answers.
“He caught on fire…his chest-”
“Stop!” I say quickly, letting go of her. I realize I can’t be like Blair, I can’t listen to these things, I can’t even handle Myrtle’s words. “Stop,” I say breathlessly, picturing of flames in my mind.
“Messy,” she says. “It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. I was young and stupid and-”
“What happened after that?”
She looks at me sadly and says, “Her son died but…when people asked what happened, she said that it was her own fault. And Grandma seemed so upset that Myrtle would take the blame because next thing you know, people are taking her grandson away from her and kicking her out of town. Next thing you know, Messy, Grandma is sending me to her every month for punishment. And I…I was afraid to go alone. So for protection, Grandma gave you the eye-necklace that’s supposed to…that’s supposed to ward off evil, and sent you with me. And it’s been like that ever…ever…”
“Ever since,” I finish for her, staring at the road ahead. I let silence linger because my thoughts are all numb, and soon we’ll be crossing the place where the couch is. “Why were you always terrible to her, then? Why were you always terrible to Myrtle?”
“Because…” Blair sniffs. “Because I still believe that she has power to do bad things to us. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”
It’s the first time Blair’s ever said anything affectionate to me like that before, so I almost draw her in for a hug until I realize my sister isn’t the hugging type. “You shouldn’t have treated her that way.”
We come to the end where the two lanes meet and I know it’s killing Blair to look, so I do first. We’ve waited at the house for a while before taking our road back home and I think that when I look over the couch, it’ll be gone. But it isn’t. Instead, two people sit on it. Myrtle and the boy. I stop and stare and stare, and realize her grandson must’ve brought that couch here. And then I remember what one of the slips said in the box, Remember the crazy things we used to do? The couch in the field, Mommy? There’s something peaceful about it all. Something crazy about how a few words can make you cry or see what secrets it holds. Memories.
I look over, and Blair’s staring too. We watch as Myrtle holds up the bubblegum wrapper in the air and the boy takes it from her, and there’s a noise. It’s a laugh. A laugh somewhere between a choke and a sneeze. But it’s Myrtle’s laugh, and I don’t care what evilness she possesses. She’s still human. “They might run away, you know,” I say after a while.
Blair doesn’t look at me but reaches for my pocket, takes out the bubblegum wrapper identical to the one Myrtle was holding, and sets it under a small rock. “I know,” she says.
When I glance back, I see Myrtle looking towards us. And then I see her purple lips and they’re not moving. They’re not muttering. They’re not wishing evil. They’re curled into a smile.
I join Blair as we turn and head home.