“Sierra Arrives,” excerpt from novel “Pushing the River”

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Marie hardly ever called.  She apologized on a regular basis for being a lousy long-distance correspondent, feeling helpless as she watched all of her cherished Chicago connections eluding her grasp, her own ardent desire to keep them close set against a paralysis at doing anything that might stop them all from receding more and more into her corners.  So it was particularly unusual for Madeline to see Marie’s name, and her pixie-of-steel face flashing across the phone screen at 10:00 pm.  No way this can be good, Madeline thought to herself.

            “I don’t know what’s going on exactly.  Sierra sent me a text yesterday saying that Mom was acting weird, and now she’s just texted me saying that she’s not safe.”

            “Oh, shit.”

            “I think Sierra’s locked herself in the bathroom.  I think my mom’s talking to Uncle Steve.”

            “Oh, shit.”

            “I know this is a lot to ask, but is there any way that you can go and pick her up?  Bring her to your house?  I’m so sorry.”

             “Problem is I’m working tonight.  Til midnight.  I’m on phone duty, so I can’t leave.  Let me think.”

            “She doesn’t have any minutes left on her damn phone, so I can’t call her.  Can’t talk to her.  This is all through text.  Madeline, you’re not the first person I called.  I called everyone else I can think of.  I can’t reach anyone.  No one.”   Marie took a breath and said, “I’m so sorry.  I so didn’t want to drag you in to all of this.  I was so hoping my mom could hold it together just a little while longer.  Just til I move back.”

            “It’s OK, Marie.  If Sierra’s not safe, that’s all that matters.

            “I think she needs to get out of there now.  Like, now.  If I can get a ride for her, can she stay with you?  Can she come up there?  Tonight?  Right now?”

            “Of course,” Madeline said.

            “I might have to call a cab.  I might have to see if I can charge a cab, if they’ll take my credit card from here.”

            “What!?  That’s insane.  That’s gonna be a fortune!  I’ll be off work at midnight…”

            “Too long.  As long as I know it’s ok for her to come up there, I gotta go.  I gotta take care of this.”

            “It’s fine.”

            “I’m so sorry.”

            “You’re gonna really piss me off if you keep apologizing.”

            “Bye.  Sorry.”

            At fifteen minutes after midnight, Madeline opened the door, and only then did it occur to her that she had not seen Sierra for  two full years, four years since she had seen her without a heavily and carefully painted face.  Even the wildly striped hair did nothing to dilute the impact of seeing a child, a very small, very young, very sad and scared child standing there.  A child who happened to be seven months pregnant.

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            All Madeline could see in front of her was the giant-eyed little girl sitting in her big sister’s lap the night they met, rocking crazily back and forth on the floor in utter jubilation.

            “Whoa, you’re pregnant!”  Madeline quipped gamely.

            “Ha ha.  You’re hilarious.”

            “Look, you must be exhausted.  We’re not going to talk about anything tonight.  Not a thing.  You’re going to get a good night’s sleep.  Your sister told me you can’t make any phone calls cause you don’t have any ‘minutes,’ so I charged up my phone for you.  I’ve got unlimited minutes, so go wild.  Call anyone you want to.  Are you hungry?  Do you want something to eat?”

            “I’m pretty tired.”

            “Want to just go to bed then?”

            “Yeah. Well. Do you have any milk?  Not the weird organic stuff you used to get, just regular old milk?”

            “I still swear you cannot tell the difference in the milk.”

            “That’s what you always said about the gummy bears, so ha.”

            “I only have organic.”

            “Do you have chocolate I can put in?”

            “I do.  Your sister left about a gallon of it.”

            “Can you make it for me?  Can you warm it up?”

            “Gawd, you’re high maintenance.”

            “Can you bring it upstairs when it’s ready?  I gotta make a call.”

            “Sure.  You go on up.”

            Halfway up the stairs, Sierra stopped for a second, turned part way around, and said very quietly, “Thank you, MadMad.”

            “Yeah, yeah.”

            “A lot of chocolate, OK?  Really a lot.”

            A thousand memories merged when Madeline heard, deep in a hard-won sleep, the sound of faint, small footsteps coming down the hallway towards her room.  For many years, the Boy believed that his mother never slept a wink, but lay there all night doing nothing more than observing some quaint custom; how else to explain that by the time he reached her bedside– each and every time for a whole childhood — by the time he got close, she said in a full, wide-awake voice, “What’s wrong, honey?”  Not a drop of sleep remained when Sierra whispered into the darkness, “MadMad.  I’m really sorry.  Marie said I had to wake you up.  She’s on the phone.”

            “Madeline, my mother called the police.  She reported Sierra as a runaway, and that means you’re harboring a runaway, and that means you’re gonna get arrested.  The policeman is there with my mother right now.  I have him on the phone.  In my other ear.  While I’m talking to you.  You have to take Sierra home right now, or the police are gonna come arrest you.”

            “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding.”

            “No.  Most definitely not.”

            “Does this cop know about Uncle Steve?  Does he know that Billie is talking to Uncle Steve?”

            “Yes.  He knows.”

            “Does he know that Uncle Steve has been dead for fifteen years?”

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