The day Mama forced me to pick up the burned pieces of Uncle Charlie was the day Pony and Apple Pie started hanging out near Daddy’s old rusted car. Pony and Apple Pie were imaginary friends even though I was almost too old to have imaginary friends. I didn’t have too many real life friends by the time Mama forced me to keep her terrible secrets. The day I picked up pieces of Uncle Charlie was the day I almost lost my mind.
“Don’t you tell no one about Uncle Charlie,” said Mama, “not your sisters, not your friends, not that no-count boyfriend.”
I could have told her there was no one I could talk to anymore.
Mama had shot Uncle Charlie because he threatened to tell the Sheriff she had killed Daddy. She had shot Uncle Charlie when we sisters hitched a ride to town for ice cream. When I came home, I saw her on the floor, hair tied up, wearing dishwashing gloves, and dipping a sponge into a bucket of bleach. Something was wrong. And eventually, when she needed my help, she told me what it was.
Uncle Charlie was the best man Mama had ever been with, well, that is, except Daddy of course. Uncle Charlie was Daddy’s brother, and there I was one day, picking up pieces of him, mostly bone and teeth, and scattering these pieces in the woods and all over to help hide Mama’s crime. All I saw for days after were black spots. All I smelled and tasted was burned flesh.
Once, before Uncle Charlie disappeared, my younger sister, Mercy, stood up to Mama and told her she would tell the sheriff on her, would tell the sheriff her Mama had killed Daddy. Mama had one of her boyfriends drive the two of them out to a field. The boyfriend pulled a shotgun on Mercy. He would have killed her, except Mercy snuggled close to Mama real quick so he couldn’t shoot without hurting both of them. Mama held her and stroked her hair and said, “Don’t hurt my baby!”
Mercy said that for a minute, she believed Mama wanted to protect her. When she told me this, that’s when I knew I wouldn’t dare tell her about Uncle Charlie. I didn’t think she could handle it. I was worried she would tell Mama off, then Mercy might get shot and burned, just like Uncle Charlie.
Apple Pie and Pony kept me accountable to Uncle Charlie’s ashes. They kept showing up, in my dreams, in the yard.
“Oooo girl, like you at a barbeque!” said Pony, and he and Apple Pie high fived. They danced around the yard, the yard full of rusty car parts, an old mattress.
“I ain’t never been to a bar-bee-que like dat,” said Apple Pie. “Where da sauce?”
Pony fell out, then made it look like he was a clown and kicked his feet out so he sprung up again. “Sheriff gonna lock you up little ash girl!” And as he said this, he came near and put his face close to mine. There was smoke rising up from his smiling mouth.
“I like Applewood smoked bacon,” said Apple Pie, who was the larger of the two, much larger, and maybe the slower, mentally. He looked down at his hands. He was picking at the skin the way my diabetic grandaddy used to do.
“You know how how dogs gets fleas, chile,” said Pony. “You gots to get yo’ sistas and flee on up outta here. One of you chilrun may already be in danger, you don’t know. May even be you!”
I knew Pony was right and I loved Apple Pie because he was just himself, didn’t even matter if he didn’t have much to say. Any man me and my sisters had ever loved, Mama had eventually cheated on or destroyed. She wasn’t always like that, but looking back, I think being poor made her mean. Too many times, we had no water. Too many times, we went hungry. She started dressing sexy to attract men. She was already pretty, but when she dressed sexy, men couldn’t resist. And then they wanted to marry her.
With all this stuff happening, I could feel myself getting black inside, as if I had sucked up the fire from Uncle Charlie and it was burning from the inside out.
One night, when Mama was out, we sisters held hands and escaped. We made our way across fields and ditches, avoiding roads, until a man and his wife found us crossing their property. None of us would say what we were doing. We stayed at their house until the sheriff came out to meet us.
The night I told the sheriff about Mama killing Daddy and Uncle Charlie was the night Pony and Apple Pie left me sleep in peace. There was no interrupting my dreams to talk of ashes. That night I dreamt of Daddy making strawberry ice cream for us with the old timey machine. He looked at me and smiled. I jolted upright in bed. He was alive! But no, it was morning, and I could see I wasn’t in Daddy’s house anymore. Still, I knew he was an angel. I knew he would always be my Daddy.
- Crime very loosely based on a case of a missing teen whose mother is suspected of killing her husband and then killing her teen daughter in order to prevent her from whistle-blowing. Details have been altered.