Sammy Larkin reached his thirteenth birthday two months before his world changed forever. For Sammy, every day pretty much mirrored the day before. He managed to get through each one never hoping for much and never expecting it either. Everything just was. Except this day would be like none ever before.
“Oh, no.” He dropped the sheet hanging over the window, grabbed his overalls from where he had dropped them on the floor before falling into bed last night, and pulled them on. Shirtless, he hurried out of his room, his bare feet slapping hard on the wood floor. He glanced at Birdie’s tiny room, which had at one time been a closet; his younger sister’s cot empty. “Pa is gonna be mad, I promised I’d be up early to work.” Dawn had come and gone long ago. He spun toward his parents’ room, two steps away. The door stood closed. He frowned, couldn't remember their bedroom door ever being shut this late in the morning
By this time, everyone would be up and out the door for chores, Sundays included. The smell of his ma’s coffee would have filled the house. He sniffed the stale air. The familiar smell of coffee was absent, not even the sound of chatter came from the kitchen. In fact, the house was unnaturally quiet. He brushed his dark hair out of his eyes. He hesitated briefly, and then knocked. “Ma? Pa?” No answer came from behind the closed door. He grabbed the door knob and threw open the door. The old iron bed was made, a faded quilt spread across the sagging mattress. A small collection of clothes hung neatly on the pegs against the wall. Sammy didn’t understand why he felt a sense of wrongness settling over him. His ma and pa wouldn’t be in their room this time of mornin’ anyway. Nothin’ to be worryin’ about. Nothin’ but a tongue lashing for not being up when he promised.
He spun around and rushed down the stairs, careful to avoid the one near the top that creaked, jumped over the last step and took a quick look around as he raced through the dark parlor. His ma would be havin’ a word or two with him for runnin’ in the house. Sammy never seemed to slow down; always runnin’ from one thing to another. He covered the short distance through the room in seconds. The sheet still hung on the lone window where his ma had put it last night, two rocking chairs flanking the potbelly stove stood as shadows against gray walls that hadn’t seen a coat of paint in as long as he could remember. The couch, covered with a threadbare quilt, sat beneath a wall covered with old family photographs. No other adornments decorated the sad room. Sammy took in the quiet, empty room with all its familiarity as he raced through the house.
His bare feet skidded to a stop in the doorway of the kitchen where he found Birdie sitting at the table. She chewed on a slice of old bread. They called her Birdie because her mouth was always going, asking for more to eat, like a little bird. But she never seemed to grow. At seven, she looked more like a four-year-old. She was shorter than her friends and thin as a reed, with tiny hands and feet. Her curly auburn hair framed a pale oval face dominated by large, gray eyes, and a sprinkling of freckles across her cheeks and nose.
Her head bounced up when she heard Sammy in the doorway. Her lips turned down into a frown. “I can’t find Momma and Daddy and I’m hungry. I been waitin’ forever and ever. How come Momma’s not here fixin' breakfess?”
“Don’t know, Birdie,” Sammy said. He wondered how long Birdie had really been waiting. He decided not to ask. “I was supposed to be up helpin’ Pa. Did ya look outside?”
Birdie nodded. “I looked from the porch.”
“Well, maybe they’re out in the fields. Did you go out in the yard lookin'?”
Birdie started to cry. “I was scared to go off by myself. Momma should be here, not outside.” She nibbled on the bread.
“Stop yer eatin’ and let’s go look for ‘em.” Sammy walked past his sister and pushed open the back door. He stood on the porch, searching the yard and the distant fields. “I can’t see nothin’ from here. Come on, Birdie.” He took off down the steps, the screen door slamming behind him. Birdie ran after her brother.
“Wait fer me, Sammy,” Birdie called as she jumped down the porch steps and raced to catch up with her brother. She trotted behind him attempting to keep up with his larger strides.
“I ain’t waitin’. We gotta find them.” Sammy tried to think of a reasonable answer to where his parents might be. I wasn’t all that unusual for his ma to be out in the yard with his pa. Only today the quiet of the house felt different. He ran to the fence on the side of the house closest to the fields. There was no sign of them. Windswept dirt lay in mounds against the fence and outbuildings making the acres of fields look like a winter snowdrift. Along the fence line, where they had kept the livestock, when they still had livestock, only the tops of the fence posts poked through. Sammy climbed over the fence and scrambled up a bank behind the tool shed and scanned the barren acres.
No sign of anyone or anything. Nothing moved but dust, swirling and dancing across the sickly land, at the mercy of the incessant hot wind. In the distance, a couple of buzzard vultures circled.
He slid down the hill and rushed back to the yard. From beneath the half-dead prickly ashe tree, Sammy turned in circles, looking out over the landscape for a sign, any sign, of his ma and pa. He must have missed something. How could his parents disappear without a trace? Maybe they went to town, he thought. No, that couldn’t be right. He knew they had no money to buy anything. He’d heard his ma say the day before they didn’t have no gas money for the truck to leave and find work somewhere else. Where was the truck then? It, too, was missing. Where were they?
“Nooo,” he yelled so loud a flock of crows took flight. “You can’t go off an’ leave us and not say where yer goin’.” He stood there, beneath the tree, angry, unsure why not finding his ma and pa should affect him so. “Where are you?” he whispered, almost afraid of the answer.
Lost in his anguish, he almost jumped clean out of his overalls when Birdie came up behind him and laid her small hand on his shoulder. He spun around and glared at her. “What?” he snarled. “Don’t you be sneakin' up on me, ya hear.”
“Do ya see ‘em, Sammy?” A note of fear carried Birdie’s words.
“No, I don’t see ‘em, but the trucks gone. I reckon if we can be findin’ the truck, we’ll find Ma and Pa.”
Birdie began to cry softly as Sammy sprinted for the barn. Why hadn’t he thought of it sooner? Pa always put the truck up at night. It helped keep the blowin’ dirt off the engine. He threw the door open and to his amazement, there, in the middle of the barn, sat the truck; beat up and rusted, places in the bed so bad you could see straight through to the ground beneath. Sammy slumped to the ground littered with old straw and let out the breath he had been holding. His parents hadn’t left after all. How could they, the truck was right here.
So, where were they? Maybe they walked on over to the town. He could think of lots more places they could have gone to. Didn't mean they weren't comin' back home. Why wouldn’t they have woken him to say they were leaving? They would want him to watch over Birdie while they were gone. He took a moment to push down the uneasy feeling beginning to rise in his stomach. Back and forth, he bounced between worry and confusion. The truck wasn’t in the yard ─ they were gone ─ the truck was here ─ they were still gone. All this thinkin’ hurt his head. He thought back to last night when he had crept down the stairs, silent as a field mouse, to listen to his parents talking. Though the house was small, tucked on a stair he strained to hear some of the tear-laden words. He had no idea what they had been talking about, but now and then he could hear the grief in his mother’s voice. What was so wrong to make his ma cry?
He stood, dusted himself off. Maybe it had been a whole lot of worrying for nothing. There had to be a simple explanation. He felt stupid, carrying on like some sissy child. He turned around when a gust of wind blew through the open door. From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed a shadow dance across the floor. Sammy turned and slowly raised his head. Two pairs of feet dangled above the front of the truck. As his eyes traveled up further, he saw legs attached to those feet. Then the bodies came into his view. His mother and father hung from the barn rafters. In a sense, they hadn’t left after all.
He gulped and stood paralyzed.
Where was Birdie? In his rush to find the truck, he had forgotten all about her.
From behind him he could hear Birdie crying. “Sammy, what’s wrong with Momma and Daddy?”
He turned to see his sister standing in the doorway behind him. She looked as though she had seen a ghost.
“Git outta here, Birdie. Now.” he yelled.
“I want my momma. I want my momma,” she screamed.
“I said git.” Sammy grabbed Birdie by the arm and dragged her out of the barn.
The wind rustled through the barn once again. Bits of straw swirled in the air. Caught in the breeze, a piece of faded yellow paper floated off the hood of the truck. It rose and dipped riding the air current, finally settling beside a stack of rotted boards.