A journal of narrative writing.
American Bottoms
by Abby Souza

He holds the pack to his mouth and draws a cigarette out with his lips. “Caroline’s a pain in my ass.” He cracks his window and blows smoke out into the blue twilight. “She’d probably love it if I caught pneumonia and died. She’d get to dress up and hear how sorry everyone was for her.”

We ride in silence for several minutes. It’s nearly dark and tiny flakes of snow are falling, lit up by the glow of the headlights.

After we’ve driven awhile Jamie turns left onto a narrow road leading up the bluff. Our headlights glint off the eyes of a fox at the road’s edge. Bare tree limbs lean over the road. It’s eerie here. I half expect something unhuman to come stumbling out of the woods into the path of the truck.

Jamie breaks the silence. “Is that how it was for you?”


“Lots of attention? When your little brother died?”

I wasn’t sure he even knew about Adam. “I don’t remember. I was only three when he died.”

“You don’t remember anything?”

He’s watching me, not the road. I start talking so he’ll get back to driving. I tell him how it was that day, from what I remember. How I was in my bed when they fell, and it was naptime, but I wasn’t napping. I was flipping through a toy catalog under the covers. The house was very quiet. And then I heard a crash. And then moaning. I thought I’d be in trouble if I came out of my room before Mom said I could. But then I heard her scream, and I went running out to find her.

She was there at the bottom of the stairs. Her leg was twisted back in a way that I knew wasn’t natural, even at three years old. She was hugging baby Adam to her chest and staring up at the ceiling. “No! Please, God! No!” she cried. I remember thinking that Adam was very brave for a tiny baby because he wasn’t crying at all. She saw me then and screamed at me to bring her the telephone. She lay on her side, her leg still bent back behind her, and dialed 911, clutching Adam to her chest the whole time.

“How old was he?” Jamie asks.

“Three months,” I tell him. He was three months old and I wasn’t sorry when he didn’t come home with my mom when she was released from the hospital. He cried a lot, and it seemed like all Mom did was nurse him. But I don’t tell this to Jamie.

“Do you think about him much?” Jamie taps his cigarette on the edge of the ashtray and looks at me. “Do you wonder what he’d be like now? What it’d be like to have a little brother?”

“Sometimes.” I look out the window. We’ve driven up out of the bottoms now. We pass fields, clusters of trees, farmhouses, water-filled sinkholes. “I guess I worry more about the baby these days.”

“The baby?”

I look over at him, confused by his question. “Meredith.”

He stubs out his cigarette. “She’s not a baby. She can walk and talk. She should be in preschool or something by now. Adam was a baby, Avery. Meredith isn’t.”

I roll my eyes but try not to let him see. “Whatever.”

“So have they figured out what’s wrong with her yet?”

“No. No one knows.”

He nods. “Interesting.”

“Why is that interesting?”

Jamie pulls a can of Stag from between the seats, cracks it open, takes a big gulp. I’m regretting riding along with him now. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and says, “Well, are they trying?”

“Is who trying what, Jamie?”

“Are they—the doctors, your parents—trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with your sister?”

“That’s a stupid question. Of course they are. She’s in the hospital every other week.” I reach over and take the beer from his hand and take a swig myself. I don’t let him see me gag after I swallow.

“I’m just saying, don’t you think it’s a little weird that she gets better every time she’s in the hospital even though they’re not treating her for anything specific, and then she gets worse every time she’s back home?”

I take another drink. “Why is that weird? She’s just a sick little girl.”

“It’s weird because they’ve run all these tests and they just keep raising their hands and saying, ‘We don’t know.’ It’s weird that, between the doctors at these big fancy hospitals in the city and your mother the nurse, no one can figure out what the hell is going on. It’s weird that your mother will not leave her side. Ever.”

“That’s not weird. It’s my mom being protective. That’s completely normal.”

He shakes another cigarette from the pack. “Maybe. Maybe.” He turns back onto Bluff Road, back toward his home. “And so is asking questions.”

Back home, I bunk with Caroline. We share her double bed and as she clicks off the lamp she says, “Did you go out with Jamie?”

“He took me for a drive.”

“What’d you talk about?”

I roll onto my side, away from her. “Nothing much.”

“Whatever it was,” she says, “I wouldn’t listen to him. He’s a dummy.”

“What makes you think that?”

She snorts. “You saw him standing in the creek. You saw that. He does stupid stuff like that all the time. He steals Dad’s beer and cigarettes, skips school.” She tugs on the blanket, leaving my left side uncovered. “Just stay away from him. He’ll get you in trouble. That’s my advice.”

I was irritated with Jamie before, unsettled by our conversation in the truck, but now listening to Caroline go on about how bad he is, I somehow want to side with him. There’s something about Caroline, the way she dresses and talks, that bothers me, and I can’t put my finger on it. I think about what Jamie said, about how she’d just be glad for the attention if he died, and I wonder if he might be right. Maybe she’s just playing a character, an idea of herself. And maybe Jamie is, too.

I wake in the morning with my stomach gurgling and the scent of roasting turkey hanging heavy in the air. I look over to Caroline’s side of the bed. It’s empty. The shade is up and the sun falls right over my pillow. I sit up, stretch, walk over to the window. I see Jamie in the driveway leaning over the open hood of his dad’s truck. Another endless line of blackbirds flies by overhead.

Meredith is on the couch in the living room watching the Macy’s parade, an afghan pulled up to her chin. I poke my head into the kitchen. The women are there—Mom, Aunt Alice, Grandma Peg, Aunt Sandy—all of them in aprons. They open and close the oven, run the mixer, polish china. I turn away and slip out the front door.