Eleanor’s hands trembled slightly as she flicked the end of her cigarette on the edge of the porcelain ashtray. Her other hand nervously clutched the locket around her neck. Ashes from her cigarette fell from the overflowing ashtray onto the expensive table. Her eyes followed mine as I watched the ashes fall. She laughed nervously and waved dismissively at them. “No one knows I smoke. It’s the same brand my mother once smoked. There’s a lot people don’t know. I think you know that now, don’t you?”
We were both dancing around the central question of her life: how did she survive and flourish in the midst of such chaos. My editor wanted me to lob softball questions for the 6000-word piece I had been assigned. To my surprise, I had immediately felt a kinship with Eleanor. Her features reminded me of princesses from the Disney stories of my childhood. I wanted nothing more than to simply sit and talk to her for a lifetime of minutes. Her celebrity status seemed to fit awkwardly on her.
I’d followed her career for the last fifteen years and watched all of her movies. When my editor initially asked me to work on a special story about Eleanor, I had to conceal my enthusiasm. Seeing her first movie evoked something inquisitive in me. I noticed that Eleanor had a small diagonal scar on her neck, below her left ear. Later, I heard her tell an interviewer that the scar was a reminder of her childhood. When she said the words, I watched almost imperceptible clouds pass over her face. I recognized those clouds of trauma. Like me, she had survived a violent childhood, one seemingly hidden from her public life.
On a whim, I turned off the digital recorder on the table in front of me.
Pushing aside my misgivings, I laid a photo on the table. I heard an audible gasp as Eleanor took in the photo. I looked to her face and noted that her expression retreated into itself. I knew the look well from my countless interviews. The photo had pushed her to retreat far past her public veneer. Eleanor was once again the wistful girl in the photo. I wasn’t sure if she’d seen the photo in the 50 years since it was taken.
Eleanor looked up at me, locking my gaze. Tears formed in her eyes as she attempted to blink them into submission.
“So, you know? That day and my story?” Her voice trailed off in a sigh. “Where did you get the photo?”
I sat quietly, out of respect. I nodded. “Yes,” I said, needlessly. “One of the children of your neighbor had a box of keepsakes. I found it there. Finding things and people is what I do. It’s unquestionably you in the photo.”
Both of Eleanor’s hands reached for her locket as the tears poured from her eyes. I could see that her white blouse caught the droplets as they rolled down her wrinkled face. Strangely, she said, “It’s almost me, that’s true.”
“Can I see the picture, Eleanor?” I whispered. “The one inside the locket? I’ve noticed you wear the locket anytime you’re not working.”
She shook her head, a little violently.
After a minute, Eleanor reached behind her head and fumbled with the clasp of her locket. She managed to unclasp it and pulled the gold necklace away.
She gracefully piled the necklace on the table near the ashtray, waiting. I noticed that her hand returned briefly and touched the small scar there.
I reached over and touched the locket. I lifted it and brought it closer to my gaze and opened it. Inside, I discovered the face of a beautiful, smiling little girl, one who shared the features of young Eleanor.
“Her name was Avara, a name my mother saw on a tin of cooking oil. She was my twin. As you may have guessed, she left me on the day that picture was taken.” She pointed to the picture of young Eleanor that I had placed face up on the table. “The other picture is of my maternal grandmother.”
“Tell me more, Eleanor, in any way you can express it.” I had forgotten all professional pretense at this point.
Eleanor adopted the faraway look once more as she began to speak:
“It was the early 1980s. My mother had found herself in a life she’d never have imagined, one defined by the birth of two twin girls she hadn’t planned. She shared the lives of these two girls with the most unlikely of husbands, one unlike any she had imagined. She was born in a very small town on the fringes of the state. He had courted her with the most gentlemanly manners. Once she was pregnant, my mother had to accompany my father to the place we called home, away from everything and everyone she’d known. He ruled their lives with a range of abuse. He had studied human psychology through the prism of violence and artfully applied its domesticating techniques with curled fists and cloistered shouts. Day after day of fierce application resulted in my mother surrendering all of her abilities to the whims of this man dedicated to anger.
Each time my mother attempted to put life in its proper place, her husband would remind her of her diminished value. The taste and stain of blood served as a reminder that escape was an illusion. As her twin girls aged, she noted that her husband realized that no greater bargaining chip or amulet of fear existed.
It was on one of my father’s good days that he gave me the scar. My mother was outside talking to one of the neighbors who needed someone to watch his two kids on Saturday. My father overheard voices and exited our trailer. Without taking a moment to listen, he grabbed my mother by the neck and hauled her inside the trailer. He told the neighbor, “Mind your own g-damned business, Robert!” Once inside, he had us all sit on the couch in the tiny living room. Once his rant started, his jealous words became louder and more incoherent. He grabbed one of the four framed pictures on the paneled wall to break it. My mom raised her hand to ask him to please stop. He threw the frame with as much force as he could manage. It flew sideways and shattered on the side of my face. A piece of the glass stuck in my throat. Blood went everywhere. Even as I thought I might die, I welcomed it. My mother was forbidden to take me anywhere to be treated. She used a decorative towel to stop the blood until my father fell asleep in his recliner. Another neighbor, Sheila, put three stitches in my neck using a sewing needle.
For the day in question, my mother awoke on Easter with the idea that if Jesus could sacrifice himself to save mankind, she could at least do something to save her girls. I’m not sure what convinced her that particular day was the day, so to speak. Nevertheless, she rose early enough to use the eggs from the fridge to make colored Easter eggs for her precious girls. She ignored the possibility that her husband might exact his vengeance upon her for wasting the eggs. She carefully placed each dyed eggs back in the egg carton. Before anyone awoke, she crept around the perimeter of the trailer to hide the eggs where her two daughters could find them. No one else was outside that morning. Most of her neighbors had burned the midnight oil. Saturday night was the one night they could all forget their mundane, repetitive lives for the week.
When everyone woke up, my mother dodged the verbal barbs of her husband as she coaxed him to drink his coffee and eat biscuits and sausage. He didn’t seem to notice the absence of eggs on his cracked plate.
While he begrudgingly ate his breakfast, my mother helped us get dressed in our dresses and brushed our hair. We assumed we were dressing to wait for the church bus that made its way around the trailer park each Sunday morning.
“Let’s go outside, girls, and find the Easter eggs!”
My mother camouflaged the fright in her voice. No one except her knew that either she or her husband would not survive the day. She hoped in her secret heart that Jesus and his message of forgiveness would absolve of her of the harsh necessity of that day’s choices. Only she knew that her husband’s pistol, the one he’d held against her head several times, would finally help her.
Avara and I stepped carefully down the old iron and wood-plank steps onto the sparse grass surrounding the trailer. I held the empty egg carton and Avara clutched the single basket we owned. Both of us were dressed in our finest summer church dresses.
As I began to gather the eggs, my mother took a picture of me as I searched the ground with my eyes. She was proud of the camera, even though it was used. My mother took pictures as if they were made of gold.
Immediately after she snapped the picture, the back door of the trailer flew open. There were no steps there. Anyone wanting to exit had to double back to the front or simply jump the three feet to the ground.
My father chose the second option. His anger propelled him. He jumped the distance without hesitating. He balanced the pistol in his right hand as he landed. Somehow, he found it under my mother’s clothes in the dresser where she’d hid it last night. How he had come to the conclusion that his wife was planning something nefarious is still a mystery. Avara came up behind me as I looked up. My father lifted the pistol to fire it at my mother. Instead, the bullet hit my precious Avara and killed her instantly. My mother screamed in agony and anger and hurled herself at my father. They struggled for a few moments. I think my father was shocked to find himself needing to defend himself against his wife. That hadn’t happened since the second time he had beaten her. My mom seemed to have found new strength as she fought him. Moments later, another shot reverberated between the row of trailers. Since it was a Sunday morning, the deafening roar once again filled the air. My mother froze in shock as my father’s face shattered and a bullet passed from under his chin through the top of his head. He fell to the ground. My mother laughed, a high-pitched and untethered scream of laughter.
My mother grabbed me and pulled me close. She slumped against the underskirt of the trailer, next to Avara. I don’t know how long we sat there. We both watched as my father gurgled blood, trying to speak. Finally, he felt still and silent. At some point, my mother had taken off her locket and put it in my hand. After a long minute, a curious neighbor poked his head around the trailer’s edge to find us. We heard a shout, followed later by more shouts. Much later, a police car slowly pulled up over the curb with its lights flashing. I remember that it didn’t arrive in a hurry. I think the officer knew that being in a hurry in our neighborhood was a waste. The police had come by several times in the last year. They’d note the broken furniture, the beer cans, the bloody faces, said a few words, and depart. It was a story all too common in the South. Even on the night my mother had the courage to tell one of the officers, “Please don’t leave me with him,” the officer took my father aside and asked him to take it easy.
I don’t remember looking at my dear sister. I recall a neighbor picking me up like a doll and talking to me in a low voice. I saw Avara’s Easter basket on the ground, holding four or five dyed eggs. My mother was taken away in a patrol car. Though she was defending herself when she killed my father, the police decided that because she admitted she was planning to kill him, it wasn’t self-defense. I lived the rest of my childhood with my neighbors. That’s how it came to pass that my mother spent the rest of her short life in prison for murder. She convinced herself that prison was appropriate for staying too long within the reach of her violent husband. She missed Avara’s funeral. I never saw her again after the police shoved her in the back of the patrol car.”
Eleanor finished talking and simply sat in her chair. Her regal features seemed to be resigned to the sadness that the story held for her. “I’ve never spoken the names of my parents since that day, either. My mother’s name was Kimber and my father was named Gerald. I took the last name of the kind neighbors who raised me as their own. My real last name was Holloway.”
She leaned in and whispered to me. “Gabriel, do you know the real secret, the one that no one alive knows?” She hesitated.
I couldn’t believe that she held more secrets. It felt like she was in a confessional and I was her confessor. I nodded.
“That day? It wasn’t Avara who was killed. It was Eleanor. When my neighbor pulled me away, I told him that my name was Eleanor, my dear sister’s name. I don’t know why I blurted out my sister’s name. I’ve lived my entire life and career using her name. I’m Avara. I think the only reason I survived was by adopting her name and promising that I’d rise above the thing that killed her.” Once again, tears rolled down her face.
I stood up and walked around the table. Eleanor didn’t resist as I pulled her close and we both cried until time slowed. I knew that Eleanor, or Avara, was transported back to the trailer park all those years ago. In some ways, despite people not knowing it, Eleanor had spent a great deal of her life buried in the past.
Three weeks later, my editor demanded the 6000-word piece for the magazine. Instead, I handed him a full draft of the book that Eleanor had authorized: “Avara Rising.” She had decided to finally come out to the world and reveal the story of the crucible which had formed her. Her sister’s name had found fame in the world. It was time for the other little girl to find her real voice and speak to the world. Like her mother, she’d find the courage to plant her feet and insist that the reckoning commence.
It all started with a picture, an oath given freely by a mother, and a young life consumed by violence. Gabriel could only hope that the little girl picking up her Easter eggs was still frolicking in a nondescript yard somewhere, with her sister laughing joyfully behind her.
Amen, Avara. Godspeed, Eleanor.