Barefoot

By: Elin Hilderbrand

For Heather Osteen Thorpe: in honor of the dollhouse, the roller-skating shows, the Peanut Butter and Jelly Theater, the Wawa parties, and now, six kids between us. You are the best sister-friend a woman could ask for.





PART ONE

JUNE





Three women step off of a plane. It sounded like the start of a joke.

Joshua Flynn, age twenty-two, native of Nantucket Island, senior at Middlebury College, summer employee of the Nantucket Memorial Airport, where his father was an air traffic controller, noticed the women immediately. They arrived on a US Airways flight from LaGuardia. Three women, two small children, nothing unusual about that, so what caught Josh’s eye? Josh Flynn was a creative-writing student at Middlebury, and his mentor, the writer-in-residence, Chas Gorda, liked to say that a writer smells a good story in the air like it’s an approaching storm. The hair on your arms will stand up, Chas Gorda promised. Josh checked his forearms—nothing—and tugged at his fluorescent orange vest. He approached the plane to help Carlo unload the luggage. Josh’s father, Tom Flynn, would be at a computer terminal five stories above Josh’s head, occasionally spying out the window to make sure Josh was doing what he called “a decent job.” Being under surveillance like this provided as unsettling a work situation as Josh could imagine, and so in the two weeks he’d been at it, he’d learned to sniff for stories without giving himself away.

Two of the women stood on the tarmac. Josh could tell they were sisters. Sister One was very thin with long light-brown hair that blew all over the place in the breeze; she had a pointy nose, blue eyes, and she was visibly unhappy. Her forehead was as scrunched and wrinkled as one of those funny Chinese dogs. Sister Two had the same blue eyes, the same sharp nose, but instead of scowling, Sister Two’s face conveyed baffled sadness. She blinked a lot, like she was about to cry. She was heavier than her sister, and her hair, cut bluntly to her shoulders, was a Scandinavian blond. She carried a floral-print bag bursting with diapers and a colorful set of plastic keys; she was taking deep, exaggerated breaths, as though the flight had just scared her to death.

The third woman teetered at the top of the steps with a baby in her arms and a little boy of about four peeking around her legs. She had a pretty, round face and corkscrew curls that peeked out from underneath a straw hat. She was wearing jeans with muddy knees and a pair of rubber clogs.

The sisters waited at the bottom of the stairs for this third woman to descend. Heavy-breathing Sister reached out for the baby, shaking the keys. “Come to Mama,” she said. “Here, Melanie, I’ll take him.” In addition to the baby, Straw Hat held a package of Cheez-Its, a green plastic cup, and an air-sickness bag. She was two steps from the ground when the little boy behind her shouted, “Auntie Brenda, here I come!”

And jumped.

He was aiming for Scowling Sister, but in his excitement, he hurtled his forty-some pound body into the back of Straw Hat, who went sprawling onto the tarmac with the baby. Josh bolted forward—though he knew he wouldn’t be quick enough to save anyone. Straw Hat covered the baby’s head with her hands and took the brunt of the fall on her knees and her left arm. Ouch.

“Melanie!” Heavy-breathing Sister cried. She dropped the diaper bag and raced toward Straw Hat. The baby wasn’t making any noise. Neck broken. Dead. Josh felt his spirit trickle onto the tarmac as though he’d wet his pants. But then—a cry! The baby had merely been sucking in air, released now in heroic tones. The baby was alive! Heavy-breathing Sister took the baby and studied him for obvious injury, then shushed him against her shoulder. Scowling Sister approached with the perpetrator of the crime, older brother, clinging to her legs.

“Is the baby okay?” Scowling Sister asked. Her expression shifted from impatient to impatient and concerned.

“He’s fine,” Heavy-breathing Sister said. “Just scared.” She reached out to Straw Hat. “Are you okay, Melanie? Are you okay? Do you feel okay?”

Melanie dusted the tarmac grit off her face; there was a scrape on her elbow, some blood. The Cheez-Its blew off down the runway; the plastic cup rolled to Josh’s feet. He picked it up, and the air-sickness bag as well.

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