'I know you're good at keeping secrets. Promise?'
Cuffer Prize 2011 honourable mention
It was late spring when Adele March came to stay at her uncle's house in Tea Cove. Ramona had never seen hair like Adele's. It was as red as hot coals in the grate.
Mom said she left her husband in Oklahoma and came back to Newfoundland and that's what happens when you marry a Yank, as if that meant Adele was to be pitied. Mom had her over for fresh pan-fried halibut the very day she moved in.
And of course, cards, too - Adele had to come over for cards. Mom said she shouldn't be by herself so much. So, the next Saturday evening, Adele, Uncle Fred and Aunt Josie were over to play 120s.
Ramona sat in her usual spot on the settee beside the stove with her nose buried in a book. Sometimes she would let the book drop as if she'd fallen asleep while she listened to the gossip that floated around her ears. She was the Amazing Disappearing Ramona, not noticed but hearing all.
After losing three games in a row, the men gave up on cards and took their drinks out on the verandah. That was when Adele started in about "Buzz who stung worse than a bee" as the women huddled around the table like witches.
Adele fished a cigarette from her pack of Pall Malls. Her nails were sharp pink hooks. "Buzz wouldn't allow me to have my own friends, and I couldn't go anywhere without him. I couldn't wear lipstick or even coloured panties."
Her eyes bugged out of her face as she leaned forward. They were smeared with makeup the colour of wet seaweed. "He beat me once just because he could see my brassiere through my blouse."
Mom blushed. Aunt Josie sniffed.
"Those Yanks are all the same," Adele hissed through clenched teeth. "My dear, I could tell you stories that would curl your hair."
Aunt Josie fluffed her perm. Mom glanced over at Ramona and cleared her throat. "I think I'll put the kettle on now, and I made some nice molasses buns."
As Aunt Josie swooped up the cards to clear the table, Ramona followed Adele as she stepped outside on the verandah and sat next to Dad on the bottom step. Uncle Fred studied the sky from the rocking chair and spat into the spittoon between his legs. The night was warm for May. A moon like a yellow balloon painted the cloud edges white.
"I hear you make the best homebrew on the shore." Adele's voice tinkled as she leaned toward Dad and took the glass of homebrew from his hand. She sipped, then drank some more. She didn't seem to notice Ramona leaning over the railing. Mom always said she was a ghost slinking around with her books while everybody else came bounding down the stairs like bulls.
Ramona wasn't sure how she felt about Adele. That took some thinking. It was like when she started a new book. Sometimes the cover, the title and the exciting bits printed on the back didn't even come close to the truth, and the story would take her breath away. She would read slowly, tasting every page.
But there was junk, too, no matter how pretty the book was - not that she ever failed to finish a book once she started. But the dream wasn't real and she wasn't sad to leave that world. People were like that, especially adults. Kids usually didn't have covers, just pages.
Adele spoke quietly. Ramona couldn't hear over the clattering of plates and the whistling of the kettle from the kitchen. Dad laughed and Ramona edged closer, intent on hearing any stories that she might miss, especially one that could make her father happy.
"Tea's ready!" Mom called out. Dad jumped and Adele moved away from him. Homebrew spilled over the step. Ramona flinched, expecting cross words from her father. "There's more where that came from," he said as he patted Adele's shoulder through her silky green blouse. Adele smiled up at him and Ramona decided she really didn't like her at all.
It was an evening like that one, just after school finished for the summer and three days before Ramona's 11th birthday, that Mom called to her from the verandah as she threw a ball for Skippy. The sun had just dipped into the ocean, the only sound a late fisherman putt-putting into his wharf. She expected the usual: come in and get ready for bed. Instead Mom said, "Why don't we go for a walk up the shore? It's a nice evening for it."
A walk up the shore and it was almost dark! "Come on, Skippy!" Ramona started across the field.
"Put Skippy in the porch. You know how he barks at his own shadow."
She wanted to ask, who is gonna mind? But Mom sounded like she was already miles away. Ramona held her tongue and called Skippy inside.
"We'll walk as far as Scevior's and stretch our legs," Mom said.
"Maybe we'll meet Dad along the way," Ramona said. He had left the house, whistling, after supper. "I saw him walk up along the beach."
Mom nodded and took her hand, still sticky from Skippy's drool. The world turned navy blue as they walked up the hill, the only light coming from the stars and the lamp-lit windows that stained the grass in stretched rectangles. It was like walking up to heaven with all the stars twinkling and welcoming her. Down the shore, the ocean breathed in and out.
Before they rounded the turn to Scevior's, Mom stopped at the green gate to March's house. "I wonder if your father's there. Adele said her stove was smoking bad. He was going to see to the chimney."
Mom kept clearing her throat like there was a bone stuck in it. She pulled her sweater tight around her shoulders. "Since we're here, we may as well just peek in the window and see if he dropped by."
Ramona followed her through the gate and up the path and stood on tiptoe to see over the window ledge. And there he was: sitting at the table beside Adele, drinking wine and laughing like she had never ever seen her stern father laugh before. Adele wore a shiny dress that was almost the colour of her hair.
"He's there! Let's go in!"
"Shhh, Ramona! No. We'll just go on home. We won't disturb him when he's working."
"But he's not working. He must be finished. He could walk home with us."
"No. It's time for bed anyway." Mom's voice was a shivery whisper, like when she'd told Ramona her Nan had gone to heaven. Her eyes were bright as she leaned close. "And our little walk is just between us. I know you're good at keeping secrets. Promise?"
She promised. Suddenly, she wanted to hug her mother hard, to bury her face in that old scratchy sweater so she could lose the sick feeling in her stomach. Instead, she took her hand.
They walked home, the silence broken by june bugs pock-pocking their brown bodies against fences. The stars were dimmer now, like they were swimming underwater.
Deborah Whelan hails from the province's west coast. She's a member of the Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador and is an avid short-story writer whose work has garnered three Cuffer Prize honourable mentions. She lives in Mount Pearl.