Mama gave birth to us three girls in succession back in the day where men sat in waiting rooms with cigars, hoping for boys. Papa never got to hand out a single cigar because they gave up after me. But he didn’t care. “More cigars for me,” he said.
My older sisters, Leslie and Cora, are named after our parent’s mothers. I’m Edie, named after Papa’s grandma Edith, because they ran out of mothers.
We grew up in close quarters, a two-bedroom home in Los Angeles. An older woman, Kay, lived next door—gray haired, hunched over, and shriveled. Mama insisted she wasn’t that old when we first moved into our house ten years before, but that’s how I remembered her.
Around the time Cora and I got bunk beds, every night after the sun went down, eerie organ music streamed from the back of Kay’s house. Cora hated it. She called it funeral music.
I climbed up to the top bunk and slept with Cora when the music got really loud. Even though Cora had a year on me, we helped each other. We were best friends, Cora and I. Besides, Leslie had left us behind for junior high school. She started wearing make-up and dresses and just acting weird, kind of prissy. At some point, Leslie took over half of the bedroom without asking or giving us a chance to protest. But we still convinced her to play ball with us on occasion. She hadn’t gone too soft yet.
The three of us girls were different, but sometimes the family looked at Cora and me as if we were one unit—one human being. I did a lot of talking for her. She didn’t like to speak.
“Quiet Cora,” Mama would say.
Cora’s shyness kept her silent. I made up for that. I dressed in t-shirts and jeans like the boys on our street. I thought it unfair that boys got to stand up and pee. I wanted to be a boy. Cora didn’t have much tomboy in her, and Leslie seemed to be leaving her tougher side behind.
One thing we have never cleared up when we were little was that Kay had been playing that organ. When we saw her outside, she didn’t look like a dark cloud.
Kay acted more like a grandma. She would bring home a stray kitten to foster long before it became cool to do such a thing. She worked for a veterinarian and always helped us with our cat, Stinky. Anybody in the neighborhood could bring her a dog, cat, or a hamster, and she’d administer ear drops and other medications. I only saw her in a bad mood once when her husband got sick before he died.
One day, Cora and I rushed home after school so we could play outside before it got dark, before the organ music. Leslie arrived home at the same time. When the Pearson sisters were together, especially Leslie and me, we were loud. We blasted through the front door, fought over the bathroom—even Cora spoke up when we operated as an elbowing unit of three girls laughing, arguing, and screeching all at once.
Mama wanted us out of her hair. She clapped her hands to get our attention. “Outside for an hour,” she said. “Work off that energy. Homework later.” Then she rubbed her temples and nudged us toward the door with her foot.
“Let’s play pickle,” I said.
“I’m not running.” Cora said. “But I’ll catch and throw.”
We both plowed through the screen door leaving Leslie inside. I stood on the porch, yelling, “Leslie, get the bases, bring the ball!”
Pickle required three people. It’s like a game of catch with a runner. As long as the runner is on the base, she’s safe. Tag her while she’s caught in a pickle between the bases, and she’s out. The object of the game is to run between the bases as many times as possible without getting tagged.
Leslie burst through the screen door with her cap on, wearing her first baseman’s glove, looking like a boy. She tossed the ball at me. “Let’s count off the yards this time.”
“Then we end up on Kay’s grass,” I said. “We can’t do that.”
“Why can’t we?” Cora asked.
“Yeah, why?” Leslie said.
“I don’t wanna ruin it. It’s not our yard.”
We had a permanent groove in our grass that ran diagonally on a slight downslope. Leslie and I created that dent from our slip and slide. Daddy finally paid a guy a few bucks to mow the lawn. He got tired of looking at the damage we’d done. Our yard looked dead. Yellow hay with a dash of green. Kay’s immaculate yard looked perfect.
Leslie put the base in my arms and shoved me toward Kay’s house. “Just put it in her yard. Halfway, dork.” At that moment, I liked Leslie better when she wore dresses and make-up.
Staring at Kay’s bright green yard, I didn’t want to walk on it. There seemed to be a rise at the edge where the driveway began, like the grass had strong roots. It puffed higher than the cement. “We’re gonna trip over this.” I kicked that edge with my foot.
“Just do it!” Leslie said.
I stood on the driveway, looking at Cora for help. “Cora, how about here?” I dropped the bag on the cement. But knock-kneed Cora, wearing her baggie gym shorts, just shrugged.
Leslie stomped over, scooped up the base, counted ten steps across Kay’s yard, and dropped it there. “Cora, you catch from here.”
Cora shook her head. Leslie turned toward me.
“Don’t look at me. I’m running.” I didn’t really want to be the runner, but it didn’t seem right standing on that perfect lawn.
Leslie shoved her hand in the baseball glove. “Fine, I’ll do it then.”
Cora and Leslie tossed the ball back and forth, warming up. I stood on Kay’s driveway staring at her dark house, hoping she wasn’t home. Unlike our family, Kay used her garage so we didn’t know if she had come home from work yet.
“Move out of the way, Edie,” Leslie said.
I walked over and stood on Cora’s base. “I don’t like this.”
Cora smiled and shook her head.
“I know you think it’s okay, but something feels wrong,” I said.
“Quit your gabbing, let’s get going!” Leslie threw a flamer at Cora.
Smack. It landed right in the pocket. Cora fake tagged me and sent a zinger back at Leslie. For being so skinny, that girl could throw. I knew I had to catch them off guard so I wouldn’t be tagged out. After several throws back and forth, waiting for them to become complacent, acting like I wasn’t going to run—the moment Leslie let go of a slow lobber, I took off. My cleats would have been helpful, but I dashed across our hay yard in Van’s tennis shoes.
Leslie started yelling at Cora, “Hurry, hurry, hurry! Throw it.” Poor Cora hadn’t even caught the ball yet.
I knew I could make it. I had perfect timing. With one foot on the cement driveway, I gained momentum. My legs felt bionic—I had my sight on that bag. I would beat them to it. But I’d forgotten about that puffed up lip of grass. My toe clipped the turf’s edge and I tripped, going down hard.
Leslie moved in for the kill. “We got her!”
“Pop,” went the sound of the ball in Leslie’s glove.
We collided. My eye hit her knee, and I saw stars. We landed in a pile on Kay’s yard about three feet from the base. When the ball rolled out of Leslie’s glove, I dove for the bag and landed on it. “I’m safe!”
“No you’re not,” Leslie screamed.
“I am too.”
We were going at it, trying to out yell each other when we heard the popping noise of Kay’s front door as if a submarine had been unsealed. I sat up. Even Leslie didn’t say a word.
Kay stepped onto her porch and looked at me. “You’re hurt. Let me get a band-aid.”
Cora moved closer, standing on the edge of our yard. She pointed at my bloody knee. Leslie started scooting away, toward our house. “Don’t leave me here,” I said.
She stopped creeping away when she saw Kay reemerge with a first aid kit.
“You’ve got an egg on your head, dear. Right above your eye. You’ll need to ice that,” Kay said.
I couldn’t look away from Kay. She didn’t look like somebody who would play funeral music late at night, but what would that person look like? She seemed taller up close and more wrinkly.
“Leslie, come over here,” Kay said as she sat down on the grass next to me. “Let’s make sure you’re okay, too. I brought some candies.”
That was all Cora needed to hear. Within a second both of my sisters hovered over Kay. Not one of us said a thing. It seemed awfully quiet after that shouting match.
Kay reached into her pocket and handed Cora and Leslie a Tootsie Roll. Then she opened the first aid kit and focused on me. “What grade are you in now, Edie?”
“Fifth.” I didn’t know what else to say. I wondered if that’s why Cora never talked.
She sprayed my knee. “I’m glad you enjoy each other so much. I miss my sister.” She put a band aid over the scrap, turned and looked at Leslie. “Don’t see any injuries on your tough skin, young lady.”
Kay handed me a few Tootsie Rolls. “There’s no bond like that of sisters. My sister and I loved each other, but we fought like cats and dogs. She lived next door to me for years. You know, she died right there in your bedroom. But she’s with us in spirit.”
I gasped. Cora’s head sprang up. Her eyes widened like two moons, and Leslie took a step back.
“Oh, no dears. She’s good.” Kay patted my leg. “She protects you. My sister would never hurt a flea.”
Cora got teary, fearful tears. She wiped her nose on her shirt. “Great, so we have fleas and ghosts?” she whispered.
“Nothing bad.” Kay gestured toward me as she closed the first aid kit. “My sister, God rest her soul, saved your life.”
Kay nodded and signaled the cross as some of our other Catholic neighbors did. She stood up and brushed grass off her clothes.
“How do you know she saved me?” I felt heat around my swollen eye. I touched the bump above my eyebrow where a dull throbbing had begun.
“Black eye,“ Kay said. “Tell your mom to ice that.”
I wouldn’t have put a band-aid on my knee. I didn’t care about my eye. I needed information. Did Kay’s dead sister know how to play the organ? Were we living in a haunted house? How did she save me?
Kay started walking toward her porch. The three of us followed her as if she were the pied piper. She went off to the side of her house to fix her hose, we were right behind her. But I could tell by Cora’s pale skin and the frown on her face, she was not happy about this news.
“When your family moved in, your mother told me about an incident you had in your crib, Edie. I think you should ask your mom.”
My tongue got all tied up again. I felt like I understood Cora’s speaking dilemma. “Okay.” That’s the only thing that came out of my mouth.
Leslie punched me in the arm and gave me a stern look. “Well thank you, Kay, for helping us.”
“Any time, girls. Just be careful. And take care of each other.”
After that, we couldn’t reach our house fast enough. We had a real live ghost. Why hadn’t Mama told us about it? We stormed through our front door with Leslie and me up front, shoving each other, trying to be the first one to reach Mama. She shut us down with a high-pitched whistle.
“Sit. Right now.” She insisted we sit at the dining room table and take a time out. “Who have you been talking to?” she asked.
“Kay, next door.” Leslie gestured in that direction.
“Tell us what happened,” Cora whined.
Mama looked out the window at the grease spot in the street where Daddy usually parked his truck. She pinched her necklace between her fingers like she always does when she gets nervous. “I’ll tell you, but I mean it when Daddy gets home you can’t repeat this.”
“Yeah, yeah,” we said in unison. “Tell us.”
She stared at me. “You were about six months old, sleeping in your crib. After midnight or maybe later, somebody shook me. I thought Daddy got up, but then I realized he was still snoring. A woman wearing a flowing white robe tugged my arm.”
“No way,” Leslie said. “You’re making this up.”
“I’m not.” Mama glared at Leslie. “And you cannot mention this to your father.”
“I don’t want to hear any more.” Cora put her hands on her ears. “This is stupid.”
“I followed the woman,” Mama said. “It’s not like I was fully awake. The next thing I knew, I was standing at Edie’s crib. It was right there in your bedroom.” She squeezed my hand. “You were choking. You had mucous in your airway. I wouldn’t have known to check on you without that . . . tugging.”
“Badass, that old woman’s ghost-sister saved your life.” Leslie punched me.
“Watch your mouth, Leslie,” Mama said.
Cora shook her head as if she couldn’t even consider the story.
Mama narrowed her vision on me. “It’s the truth, Kiddo. She woke me up. I cleared your throat, patted your back, and you started breathing.”
I sat fully upright without Mama’s usual prompt, “mind your posture.”
“Remember, Daddy cannot hear you speak about this.”
“Because it’s not true,” Cora mumbled.
Mama had that determined look in her eyes, a steady strength aimed at me as if she were recalling the moment it happened and thanking God at the same time.
“It’s the truth. So have no fear about that room or anything in this house.” Mama walked toward the kitchen. Her voice rippled when she said, “Leslie, it’s your turn to set the table. Cora, you help her. Your sister deserves a break today.”