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Postcards from Natalie

Of the first six postcards from Natalie, I only have three. Mom was able to intercept the other three while I was at school or, after June, working a shift at the Tractor Supply Store. I wouldn’t even have known about them except that she made sure I knew, saved them until I got home before she ripped them into the smallest pieces her stiff-knuckled fingers could manage and set them on fire in her ashtray. She was angry at Nat but punishing me was the closest she could get now.

I’d manage to get a few pieces out of the garbage just singed after she went to sleep, every time, but Nat’s handwriting was so big and loopy that I’d only get a few letters or a short word, an is or an I or a too. I wish now that I’d kept them and tried to piece them back together like a scientist on one of those cop shows, but at the time it didn’t seem like a good idea to defy Mom straight-up like that. So I stared at them until I had taken everything I could from the letters, and from the pictures on the front, and then tucked them back in the trash and washed my hands.

The three I did get, when Mom was the one working late, I saved of course. I hid them inside of a copy of Little Women that someone had given me as a present and I’d never read. The first one was from not long after Nat left. It was from Ohio, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and it was all things are so good and so in love and talked about how Keith had gotten—stolen, since she didn’t say bought—her a silver ring with onyx chips that made a turtle. She drew a cartoon turtle at the bottom and signed it Love You Always Little Mandy, From Nat.

The second one was from the Big Bend Family Campground in Michigan. They’d been there a while, I guess, because she complained about having to send the same card twice. She said there weren’t that many to choose from. Also I figured out that they’d picked up a puppy somewhere along the way because she was proud of having almost taught “Strider” not to hump on people even though Keith would laugh and egg it on. We’re a real family now! she said, and the bottom of my throat squeezed for a moment, but I couldn’t be sad that she was happy. That was what someone like Mom did. And she signed it Love You Always Little Mandy again and turned the a in Mandy into a heart, and I felt better.

The third one was from Sleeping Bear Dunes in Wisconsin. I could see that something had happened even before I read the words, because Nat’s handwriting was still big and slanted but the letters looked thinner and shakier. I hid in the bathroom with the shower running to read it, in case Mom came home and I was too distracted to hear her.

Keith left, it said without a greeting. He did it the worst way, Mandy. I passed out partying last night and when I woke up I was under an old down tree in the woods and the fire was dead and he was gone. He took the car and Strider and my bag—everything. I woke up colder than I’ve ever been. I don’t know what I’ll do now. I just feel sick and sad.

She’d underlined ‘sick’ and ‘sad’ with wavery lines. She signed this one Love You Miss You Little Mandy.

I left the bathroom and hid the card with the others, and then I went back to the bathroom to throw up. I couldn’t tell why. I just knew that when I thought of Keith leaving her all alone to wake up under a dead tree full of bugs and rot, everything on my body prickled and I felt as though the whole world was full of nothing but humiliation the color of pencil lead. Part of me wanted to find Keith and punch him in the face while I screamed at the top of my lungs, and the other part of me knew that no matter how hard I punched or how loud I screamed it would never make this not have happened, would never again change the balance of the universe into one where people treated my beautiful big sister the way she deserved. Those two parts went in opposite directions and made my lunch come up.

The next thing I did, after I drank a glass of water to take away the taste, was call Tractor Supply and quit with no notice. I might have had some thought that Nat would come home now, and that Mom might not let her in—although of course Mom would let her in, how else would she get her back to punish? The real reason was that I knew that I couldn’t let Mom get her hands on any more of the cards.

I made it through dinner as though everything was normal, and went to bed early. It was only when I was curled up on my side in the dark, trying not to think about Nat waking up all alone and confused, that I thought instead to wonder how she’d gotten a postcard and a stamp if Keith had taken all her stuff with him. She must be ok, I told myself, if she got a postcard and a stamp.

I finally told Mom I’d quit a week or so later. She made a lot of remarks about how I was lazy and spoiled and worthless, but she was pleased to have me around all the time. I’d known she would be. She could offload all the cooking onto me now, and all the laundry and the yard work too. Plus I think when Nat left it gave her the fear that I might leave someday too, but I couldn’t do that without any money coming in.

I couldn’t do much without any money coming in. Just wait for the mail. One day I went to the library and used the computer to look up pictures of Sleeping Bear Dunes, to see if I could stare hard enough and see where Na might be, but I was antsy about Mom coming home early so I didn’t stay long. Before I left, though, I printed out a bunch of pictures—the ones that looked most like the postcard—for a dime a page. I hung them in my room on the back of the door. I stared at them long enough that I could see them in the dark.

I get used to any new normal quickly, that’s a talent that I’ve always had. In a few weeks my life had always been about waiting for postcards, and in a few weeks more those postcards had always never come—even though the first two postcards that Mom burned had come within a few days of each other and of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I cooked dinners for Mom and packed lunches too—she’d skip lunch if left to her own devices and she was skinny enough as it was—and checked the mail three times a day, even though I always knew when it actually came by the neighbors’ huskies. I looked at the classifieds in the Pennysaver every week, but everything that claimed MAKE MONEY FROM HOME seemed too good to be true. Twice Mark called, drunk and sorry that he’d dumped me before he went in the Marines, and once Nat’s best friend Katie called from college to ask if we’d heard from her. Mom said no and hung up before I could get to the extension.

The leaves fell off the maples and I raked them up, but then I decided I didn’t want the colors to go away so instead of bagging them I left them in a pile and let the wind spread them back out across the lawn. I expected Mom to yell about that, but she didn’t. She sat on the porch and looked at the carpet of leaves and when I came out to smoke a cigarette with her, she said, “It’s pretty, isn’t it? Just as pretty as anything on those damn cards.” We’d both been not mentioning postcards to each other at all, except when she had one in her hands to tear up. I froze. In July I’d have silently disagreed, thought what Nat would have said out loud, that the pine woods and the lake shore and any place that wasn’t here was a thousand times prettier by definition. Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But I’d stared at Sleeping Bear Dunes and thought of being cold and lonely long enough that the leaves looked much more comfortable.

“I wish there was a return address on one of those postcards,” Mom went on, after another drag. “We could send that girl a picture back. Remind her that she used to like it here.” I’d wished there were a return address on the postcards too, so now I didn’t know what to think.

After that, Mom had burned out or thawed out or something and she was more like the Mom I thought I remembered from before Nat left, and from before she and Nat would butt heads every day over every little thing, and from before Dad took off before that. But at that point we’d be talking little kid memories, so I wasn’t quite sure. Definitely not sure enough that I showed her the next card from Nat when it finally showed up.

She’d doubled back as far as Ohio; the card had bright red covered bridge on it and the caption “Greetings From Troy.” But if she’d thought about coming all the way home, she didn’t mention it. Instead she just said Hi Mandy! I met the neatest girl. She’s just like Laura from Little House, two long braids and a deerskin jacket that she made herself. Her boyfriend ditched her, too, so we’re going to travel around together for a while. She’s been on the road a lot and she knows how to get along. I guess we’ll head west. Love you miss you little Mandy. Your Nat. P.S. Her name is Beth.

The loop was back in her letters and that made me happy, even if she was heading away again. A girl with a homemade buckskin jacket sounded exactly like the kind of person Nat would find, too, out of a crowd of a thousand people in regular t-shirts and cotton blouses. Maybe they’d get out west somewhere in California and like it there so much they’d invite me to come visit. Maybe they’d get another dog along the way.

Mom managed to pick up a friend too, a guy who worked at Wende with her, not a guard but one of the guys who maintained the HVAC and electrical stuff. I kind of liked him, or at least I was glad he wasn’t a guard because I never liked the guards she dated. When she first brought him home he stuck out his hand and said “You must be Amanda” and he didn’t clutch too tight, like it was a contest, and he didn’t try to pull me in to get a feel. So that was alright. “I’m Greg.” You could tell that his sport jacket wasn’t something that he wore so often, in fact it reminded me of an old picture I had of Dad at one of my aunts’ weddings, looking awkward with his elbows sticking out. When Mom didn’t come home that night, I wasn’t surprised.

Mom never had Greg spend the night at our place, but once a week or so he’d come for dinner. She’d cook those nights so it was nice for me, and maybe that helped me along, but anyway I got to like him more and more. Just like that first handshake, he always treated me like a grown-up person, which hardly anyone ever did. And he made Mom a lot more relaxed, easier to live with. She began, just a tiny bit, to treat me like a grown-up person too.

Like for instance, one night after we’d all had lasagna, her favorite fancy thing to make, and brownies with cream cheese swirls on top, she opened up the bottle of wine Greg brought and she poured one for him and for herself and then she poured one for me too. I’d started clearing the plates but she gestured the wine bottle at me and said “Sit down. There’s no rush.”

So I did, and I sipped the wine. It wasn’t like I’d never had a drink before—I’d teethed with Old Crow on my gums, and Nat had been giving me sips of her Genny Cream Ale since I was in middle school—but sitting there drinking out of the good glasses made everything shift sideways a little. I felt giddy right away, even though the wine was kind of sour.

The wind kicked up, and the bird feeder rattled against the window. “Winter soon,” Greg said, and he looked over at Mom in a way that meant there had been some prior conversation.

She nodded. “Well, she’s a grown-ass woman, or that’s what she yelled anyway.”

“I’m sure she found someplace safe to lay up.”

“I’m sure she did.” Mom nodded deeper than she needed to, and took a bigger sip of wine.

“Really, Joanne, you have to let go the worry. I’m sure she’s a smart kid. Amanda’s got a good head on her shoulders already, and she’s two years younger.” Greg made eye contact with me and for a moment I was worried that Mom was going to flare up, but she knew she had no reason to be jealous, not with Greg.

“Amanda’s always been the steady one.” Mom nudged me with an elbow. “I know I’m not supposed to compare you kids, but you know it’s true, Mandy. You were born responsible. Nat had a wild streak.”

I didn’t like that she said ‘had’ but I didn’t say anything.

“But you’re right, Greg. She’s smart. They’re both of them smart girls, they take after me that way, thank God. Both of them straight A’s in school, and both of them know how to take care of themselves. I made sure of that.”

“She taught me how to split firewood when Dad first left,” I threw in, because I felt like I had to talk eventually. “Got me a little tiny hatchet and put me on kindling. She and Nat talked me up like I’d saved us all from freezing to death. It was years before I realized that it must have taken way longer to watch me do it than it would have to do it herself.”

Mom chuckled, and poured more wine all around. “We made a go of it, didn’t we? I think he expected us to all fall apart without him, but we managed.”

“That must have been hard,” Greg said.

“Oh in those days, everyone thought it was the hardest thing. All on the news, the divorce rates and the single mothers. Old women looking at me in Ames with so much pity. As though men haven’t been running off since forever.” Mom set the bottle down a little hard. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Greg said as though it were a line on TV. “Natalie’s going to be fine, Joanne.”

“I’m sure she will be,” Mom said. And then, as though it had just come to her, “We’ll see her in the spring, I bet. She’ll be sick of it by then.”

I thought of Nat sick and sad with underlines and was quiet again. I wasn’t going to say anything to Mom, but I knew we wouldn’t see her in the spring.

Snow fell before the next postcard came, but near Buffalo that’s not saying much, is it? This girl named Tammy is travelling with us now, this one said. She says she’s spent a lot of time in WNY, she’s even been to Mumford! She was trying to get home to Florida but she changed her mind and decided to go west with us. Then we found a lost kid in the road, a little black boy maybe two years old with no clothes on but a pair of underpants. I wanted to help him but he wouldn’t talk to me and he ran away, way faster than I would have thought a toddler could. Beth says more parents lose their kids out here than you’d think, and there’s nothing I can do. She looked upset about it though. The words at the end were cramped, like she’d been trying to squeeze in as much as she could, and the Love you always Little Mandy ran into the address part of the card. I flipped it over and looked at the picture, a steamboat on the Mississippi River. No word if it was snowing where she was, but snow never fell on steamboats, did it?

Just in case, I bought her a pair of purple knit gloves with bright green turtles on them for Christmas, and a giant Toblerone. I put three maple leaves I’d saved from the front yard in the package too; one red, one orange, and a yellow one that still had some green on it when it fell. I wrapped it up and I put it under my bed, just in case.

Of course it turned out to be just Mom and I on Christmas morning. Greg was with his sister and brother-in-law and their kids, though he’d promised to come by for dinner later. He’d helped us set up a tree that was taller than either of us, but that just meant that presents for two looked even lonelier underneath.

The gloves Mom got me were black leather, with purple trim and cashmere on the inside. When I put them on they were a little small, but they felt like they would stretch. She got me boots, too, which I could tell from the box were from the consignment shop but they were pretty much like new. And a purse with a bird worked on it in leather.

“I love these,” I said, sliding my hands back into the gloves to feel the cashmere again. “Thank you.”

“Thank you,” Mom said to me, too fiercely, and then hugged me. “I know I went a bit crazy there when Nat left.”

“I’m sure Nat didn’t mean all the things she said either.”

Mom shook her head. “I wasn’t fair to you either. You’ve been a rock, Mandy. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” She squeezed me tighter, just for a second, and then let go. “Even if you do leave someday, I know at least you’d keep writing.”

I thought about telling her about the postcards I’d hidden, but I wasn’t sure it was safe, and then the moment was gone. I don’t think it would have made any difference in the end, anyway.

The next postcard proved that I shouldn’t have worried about snow. Nat was smart, like Mom had said. She was in Texas now, down on the Gulf coast. The card had a sea turtle on it and I smiled when I thought how happy she must have been when she found that. Her letters were loopy again too, although smaller now since she seemed to have realized she could write more that way.

Finally met a cute guy out here on the road, she wrote, and of course, my luck, he’s a major faggot. Sweet kid though. Named Alejandro. He said there were like 30 other kids travelling with him but they all upped and disappeared on him a while back. So he’ll probably stick with us for a while. I could picture Nat giggling and sighing, what a waste, probably trying to pet his hair—not being mean about it but just typical thoughtless Nat. I hoped she didn’t pester this kid to death, but at the same time, thinking of her giggling was the best, so too bad for Alejandro. Beth says people disappear on the road a lot, the main thing is that we all have to stick together and not talk to cops, or even let them see us if we can help it. But sometimes you can’t, of course. Mostly never tell them your name. Never Tell a Cop Your Name, Little Mandy! was her sign-off.

“Like I would,” I said out loud, and put the card with the others.

Spring came early that year, and Greg had his motorcycle on the road by the middle of March. Lots of people had their motorcycles out early and lots of other people weren’t looking out for them. The only thing that made Greg’s accident different was that it was a hit-and-run. There was a long hunt for a dented car, a guilty conscience, or something, but they never found anyone. The only comfort was that Mom and Greg both died pretty much instantly.

I just put my head down, the way I did when Dad and Nat left, and at first I thought that maybe it wasn’t so different being alone with the postcards all the time than it had been to be alone with them most of the time. But it was. Now that I had nothing I had to do and no one to do it for, I read over all the postcards two, three times a day and they were starting to get bent and soft at the corners, and that wasn’t ok. Besides, the part of my brain that wasn’t numb knew that Mom’s insurance money wouldn’t last that long even if I never felt like eating again.

My old manager at Tractor Supply had always liked me, and felt bad for me now. She argued up the chain that I’d always been reliable until the one day I hadn’t, and I think she put that on Mom, although I didn’t ask. Mom had been known pretty well around town for her temper. Anyway, whatever she said worked, and I had a job again, although back down on the first rung being managed by kids two and three years younger than me. It wasn’t so bad. I swept up spilled birdseed, I put the Carhart jackets back in order, I worked the register. And every day I had a single moment of turning into the driveway and opening up the mailbox, instead of listening for the huskies all afternoon.

The next postcard arrived about a week after I started working again, although it felt like the years and years that it should have taken the whole world to change. She’d made it to California, the land of dreams where we always talked about going, the place that we’d seen on TV. The postcard showed a Navy ship in blue water and said San Diego.

Weirdest thing, it said on the back. Not long after we got here I saw a woman who looked just like Mom along the road. Just like her, Mandy. I stared at her and she stared at me but she turned away without saying anything. That wouldn’t be like Mom, would it? Not if she had something to say. And she was with some guy I didn’t recognize. So it probably wasn’t Mom. But I hope everything is ok at home . . . I don’t miss it, but I do miss you.

Nat hadn’t written a date, she never did. But the postmark was from the day after Mom’s funeral. And it had just gotten here now. I was starting to think that maybe time worked a whole different way on the road Nat was on.

But that was a crazy way to think, and I did worry a little bit, now that I had regular everyday people to compare myself to, that I might be going crazy. People did, after grief, in empty houses. One might pile beer bottles to the ceiling and another one might fill the barn and shed and house with cats that reeked of piss and someone else might get Jesus in a hard and peculiar way, but it was all the same crazy underneath. I didn’t want to go there. I’d only read the postcards every other day, I told myself. Or once a week. They’d last a lot longer if I only read them once a week, and I would too. I took every hour they would give me at Tractor Supply.

That’s why I was working the closing shift the night Keith came through at five minutes to eight. He was lugging a fifty-pound bag of dog food and I think by the time he realized whose register he was at it was too late to walk away without dropping it.

I didn’t let on that I recognized him at first. It was almost sort of believable that I wouldn’t—he’d let his dyed black hair grow back out to a dirty blond, and he looked a lot older now that he had when he and Nat left. Not quite a year ago. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of an actual date. Time worked weird here too.

Only after I’d rung up the Alpo and taken his money, while I was handing him his receipt, did I say, “That wasn’t cool what you did to Nat.” I said it as quiet and calm as I could. I didn’t want the girls at the other registers to think I was making a scene like Mom would have done.

He dropped the receipt and ran out without the dog food. I spent the rest of the night worrying that Strider was hungry. Nat wouldn’t have wanted that.

He came back for the dog food in the morning when I wasn’t there, and I didn’t expect to see him again. But he did turn up, the next week when I had the same closing shift again. He grabbed one of the caramel nut logs we sold near the register, obviously just as an excuse. I never knew anyone to actually eat those things.

“I didn’t do it,” he said as he handed me a five-dollar bill. “It was the guy who sold us the pills, I didn’t know.”

I knew words were coming out of his mouth and he was shaking his head, but I didn’t really listen. “But you left her. You shouldn’t have left her out there.”

He shook his head harder, and his greasy hair swung against his cheeks. “There was nothing I could do, Mandy. What could I do? I’m as sorry about it as anybody, what could I do? I couldn’t do any good.” He kept saying variations on that same sentence until I pushed the nut log into his hand. Then he looked down at it like he’d never seen one before and walked out.

When I went out to the parking lot at nine I found the red nut log wrapper torn into a rough heart shape and stuck underneath my windshield wiper. I pulled it out and dropped it in a garbage can. I got the idea that I was supposed to take it home and keep it forever, maybe tuck it into a book as well, and now I knew how Mom felt to not do that.

The crazy part of me wondered if Nat would know, somehow, in her next postcard but it was nothing like that. It was San Francisco, two men in cowboy hats and sunglasses and no shirts, a rude slogan that if Mom had been around I would have pretended not to get. I got Alejandro a hat just like that, cause he’s from Texas. Got, so stole, not bought. Good old Nat. He told Beth she should let him wear her suede jacket too, but of course she won’t. I love San Francisco, Mandy. I wish we could stay. The only bad thing that’s happened here is that Tammy disappeared on us, a couple of days ago. Maybe she told a cop her name? Anyway, that upset Beth of course and she says we have to keep moving, head north. I’m not sure why. But going to Seattle would be neat I guess.

I’m not sure why that jogged my memory, it wasn’t like I read the news or watched it. But it had been on the front page, so maybe I’d just seen it out of the corner of my eye, or heard on the radio of a car with an open window, or some ladies had gossiped about it in line at McDonald’s while I was getting coffee. Nice old ladies like the saddest, grossest, and most violent crime stories to talk over when they’re out shopping. I tried to tell myself that this was it, for sure I was crazy, but I went to the library anyway and got the Buffalo News from two weeks ago Monday.

Tammy Jordan had been dug up from a field a bit outside Honeoye Falls before I was born, and been Honey Doe all my life, a vague presence who only mattered when a bored tv reporter would try to stir up new leads. Until two weeks ago, when she’d been identified, finally, by an old woman who got around to watching an old taped episode of Unsolved Mysteries and saw that Honey Doe’s computer-reconstructed image had the uneven teeth and favorite t-shirt of her runaway niece.

We Know Her Name, the headline said. What was left of her body now would be exhumed and sent back to be buried in the proper place, the waiting slot where she belonged, under the proper label. I was angry that they weren’t even going to ask her if she wanted to go back, until I realized how stupid that sounded.

I sat in the library, not wanting to be alone, until it closed. Then I went home and stared at the dull, now curled-up pictures of Sleeping Bear Dunes still pinned to the back of my door. He’d left Nat somewhere all alone in those dark pines. And she’d found a way to walk out, to keep writing to me anyway. She loved me and missed me.

I didn’t even have to put my head down to go on this time. It was already down. I didn’t quit Tractor Supply or cry in the shower or forget to eat, since I’d done all those things already. The only real change in my habits was that I stopped turning the lights on when I was at home. I knew where everything was and there was no one else who needed to see. Besides, the days were getting longer now.

I was a little bit afraid that figuring it out would mean she wouldn’t write to me any more. That seemed like what would happen in a fairy tale. But thinking like that was crazy. And another postcard came the very next week, from Klamath Falls. A lake with a mountain poking up above it, covered in snow.

Something’s going on, Mandy. We came up on this whole group of women . . . mostly women and young girls, some kids, some guys. Some of them knew Beth, and acted like they’d been expecting her. She was introducing me and Alejandro to everyone. Everyone’s excited. It’s like we’re on our way to a festival or something. There’s a woman who seems to be in charge, an Indian woman named Anna, and she has everyone organized like you wouldn’t believe and heading north so fast I barely had time to mail this. I’m gonna find out what’s going on as soon as I can and write you again, I bet this is gonna be good! I miss you so much, Little Mandy.

I kept going to work, but people asked if I’d been sleeping. They could tell. The phone rang and I didn’t answer it. I felt as though I didn’t need even coffee, although somehow I found myself drinking more of it than ever, because I needed to walk out of Tractor Supply and into the air as often as I could get away with. I started bumming cigarettes and going on smoke breaks too, but people on smoke break wanted to talk and that was hard when I was filled with something no one could talk to me about except Nat. Only one thing mattered and that was launching through the days until I got to the next postcard.

It reached me just in time. It was from Seattle, weirdly old-timey, black and white with horses in the street and men with hats, some kind of official-looking building. All the light parts, the sky between the buildings and the paler grey of the sidewalks, were filled with upside-down letters, printing much tighter than anything I’d ever seen from Nat before, spillover from a back crammed margin to margin with tiny letters—well, tiny for Nat, maybe not that tiny—except for the outlined box with my address and the tiny square for the stamp. They’d put a sticker with a barcode over part of it but I was able to peel it off, carefully, without pulling up any of the ink beneath.

We’re going up the mountain. There are so many of us that soon they won’t be able to ignore us any more, Nat. Just the Indian girls—just from Vancouver and British Columbia alone—would be an army, and then so many from California, so many from Ohio, so many from Michigan, we’re from everywhere, every single state. Each of us alone they ignore, it was one bad pill or one bad man, we got in one wrong car, whatever. But together, if you don’t pull us apart and look at us one by one but all together, you see it’s not that. It’s much bigger. I didn’t realize myself until just now, Little Mandy. I thought it was my fault. I’m glad I can tell you so you don’t have to go around thinking that. So like I said, here I had to turn the card over, we’re

going

up the mountain.                                 When we

Come down, it will be             in a way

They can’t ignore.

And until then we’ll be safe.

I wish there were a way you could get here, it said across the broadest part of the sky, without you having to come by this road. I Love You and Miss You, Little Mandy.

I had just put it into my copy of Little Women with the others when the doorbell rang. If they’d waited even half an hour more I’d have been crying and they might have won. But when the police were standing outside, all I could think was Never Tell a Cop Your Name, Little Mandy! and I didn’t. I nodded, and I even turned on the lights so they wouldn’t think I was weird, but that’s not the same. And when they held out the ring with the onyx chips like a turtle and asked about Nat, I said, no, my sister is fine. I just got a postcard from her.

About the Author

Carrie Laben’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in such venues as Indiana Review, Clarkesworld, Apex Digest, and Birding; it has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award and appeared in Fantasy: The Best of the Year. She also received her MFA from the University of Montana.