Summer passed without Bear to keep me company. I ran away often to the creek across the highway. I filled an entire notebook with poems. Sixth grade began, and in the fall we visited my father for the last time. The Wisconsin days had turned cold and windy. When Mother put us on the bus to Racine, I didn’t know something would happen to prevent us from visiting Father again.
My father and Betty’s red brick apartment building was a few blocks from a corner grocery store. We kids were often sent to the store on shopping errands whenever we visited. I think mostly it was to get us out of Betty’s hair. I never warmed to Betty. She was far shorter than Mother. Her hair was curly, and black. While Mother’s emotional distance may have been her way of protecting herself from further pain, Betty’s emotional distance felt like emptiness. As if she felt nothing. The hair on my arms prickled whenever I was near her.
Sharon, Bobby, and I were sitting in the small, dark living room looking at the closed door to father’s art room. The wind blew against their apartment windows. There is never anything to do when we visit Father. I wondered if Captain Hook still sat on the easel. I was just about to ask Sharon, “Do you think we can sneak a look in the art room?” when Betty appeared in the room, practically gliding just like a pale ghost.
She quietly handed me (or Sharon or Bobby—depending on which of us is telling the story) a twenty-dollar bill. “Go to the store on the corner and buy some milk and bread.” We looked at the money and then at each other. I remember thinking, Does Betty even know who we are?
Warmly dressed in wool jackets, we walked several blocks, stopping occasionally to pick up red or yellow leaves that had floated down onto the sidewalk. “Look at this one.” I held a bright red maple leaf.
“No, this one is even prettier.” Bobby produced a bright yellow leaf.
Like a true artist, Sharon added her brown leaf saying, “They are all beautiful.”
We started jumping into the crisp, dry leaves that smelled like subtle decay. But we remembered the errand we had been sent to do and knocked the dead leaves off our coats. We raced each other to the corner. But once we arrived at the store, I realized something was wrong. “Who has the twenty-dollar bill?” I asked.
“Not me,” said Bobby.
I dug my fingers into my coat pockets but found nothing there. “I don’t have it. Do you, Sharon?”
Sharon was shaking her head. “No. I thought you had it, Sandy.”
“We must have lost it. It’s probably in the leaf piles.” I walked back down the cracked cement, looking carefully for a rolled-up twenty-dollar bill. The three of us searched for what seemed like an hour, up and down the sidewalk. We rummaged through the dry leaves and scoured the curb and gutters. Getting down on our hands and knees, we picked through sticks and debris on the damp brown grass.
Slowly my mind grasped that the twenty-dollar bill was lost; we would never find it. “What will we tell Betty?”
“We will have to say we lost the money.” Bobby shivered.
“Betty should have known better. We are just kids.” Sharon tossed her long blond hair, confident, I thought, that we were not at fault. How I envied her courage!
She led the way back to my dad and Betty’s dark apartment. The sun was setting already, but apparently neither Betty nor Father had questioned why we had taken so long to get milk and bread.
My father nodded at us as we approached the front doorway, staring at the three of us. We held no bag of bread, no bottle of milk. “Where’s the food?”
Sharon stepped towards Father. “Dad, somehow we lost the money. We’re so …. ”
He didn’t let Sharon finish her sentence. “Betty!”
Betty floated into the living room still looking like a ghost, holding my baby half-sister.
Father raised his hand; I thought he was about to hit Betty. I stepped forward. “It’s my fault. You trusted me, Betty. I was careless.”
Ignoring me, with his finger pointing in Betty’s face, Father yelled, “You should have known better than to give these kids twenty dollars! What is wrong with you? We don’t have any more cash for groceries until next week.”
Betty was staring vacantly out the window. She said nothing. The baby began to cry.
I thought it obvious there was something wrong with Betty, and I wanted to protect her—even if I didn’t like her. “Dad! We were all playing in the leaves and the twenty-dollar bill fell out of my pocket. I’m sorry. It’s not Betty’s fault.”
“Sandy, you and Sharon and Bobby are NOT to blame. It’s all Betty’s fault.” Father put his coat on and walked to the door. “I’ll be back tomorrow to take the kids to the bus stop.” The front door slammed behind him. I never found out where he had gone that night.
Betty silently disappeared into the bedroom with the crying baby. Sharon, Bobby, and I sat down on the couch. “Well, geez! I don’t ever want to visit here again.” Sharon picked up a magazine and began to turn the pages without even looking at the pictures.
Bobby and I remained quiet, but I was thinking, Is it possible we kids really are blameless?
The next day we returned home on the bus and told Mother about the money and how Father yelled at Betty. “Well, that’s it. I’m never putting you on the bus to Racine again,” she stated in her matter-of-fact voice that so infuriated me.
Still, I was relieved. Until the thought occurred to me, How will I ever see my father?
But I didn’t ask. Instead, the guilt about losing that money stayed with me for a long time. Some years later when I returned home from college, Mother mentioned that not long after our last visit, the baby drowned in the bathtub. “I’m glad I never sent you back to Racine. Who knows what would have happened to you kids? Something about Betty never seemed quite right,” Mother shook her head.
I felt sorry for the pallid and ghostly Betty. Still, I couldn’t help but think Betty shouldn’t have given us that twenty dollars to go to the corner store. But I also blamed Mother for ending my relationship with my father. I barely registered the fact that I had lost my only half-sister. I told myself the death of that baby was all the proof I needed. Losing that money had never been my fault.