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The first time Jeremy heard God sing, we were in the old Ford, rocking back and forth with the wind. Snow pounded at the window to get inside, where it wasn’t much better than out there. I guess he was nine. I was seven, but I’ve always felt like the older sister, even though Jeremy was bigger.
I snuggled closer under his arm while we waited for Rita. She made us call her ‘Rita’ and not ‘Mom’ or ‘Mommy’ or ‘Mother,’ and that was fine with Jeremy and me. Pretty much anything that was fine with Jeremy was fine with me.
We’d been in the backseat long enough for frost to make a curtain on the car windshield and for Rita’s half-drunk paper cup of coffee to ice some in its holder up front.
Jeremy had grown so still that I thought he might be asleep, or half frozen, either one being better than the teeth-chattering bone-chilling I had going on.
Then came the sound.
It filled the car. A single note that made it feel like all of the notes put together in just the right way. I don’t remember wondering where that note came from because my whole head was full of it and the hope that it wouldn’t stop, not ever. And it went on so long I thought maybe I was getting my wish and that this was what people heard when they died, right before seeing that white tunnel light.
The note didn’t so much end as it went into another note and then more of them. And there were words in the notes, but they were swallowed up in the meaning of that music-song so that I couldn’t tell and didn’t care which was which.
Then I saw this song was coming from my brother, and I started bawling like a baby. And bawling wasn’t something you did in our house because Rita couldn’t abide crying and believed whacking you was the way to make it stop.
Jeremy sang what must have been a whole entire song, because when he closed his mouth, it seemed right that the song was over.
When I could get words out, I turned so I could see my brother. “Jeremy,” I whispered, “I never heard you sing before.”
He smiled like someone had warmed him toasty all the way through and given him hot chocolate with marshmallows to top it off. “I never sang before.”
“But that song? Where did you get it?”
“God,” he answered, as simply as if he’d said, “Walmart.”
I’d just heard that song, and even though it seemed to me that God made more sense than Walmart for an answer, I felt like I had to say otherwise. I was the “normal” sister, the one whose needs weren’t officially special.
“Jeremy, God can’t give you a song,” I told him.
Jeremy raised his eyebrows a little and swayed the way he does. “Hope,” he said, like he was older than Rita and I was just a little kid, “God didn’t give it to me. He sang it. I just copied.”
The door to the trailer flew open, and a man named Billy stepped out. Rita was breaking up with Billy, but I don’t think he knew that. We’d stopped by his trailer on our way out of town so Rita could pick up her stuff, and maybe get some money off her ex-boyfriend, who didn’t realize he was an ex. Billy stood there in plaid boxers, his belly hanging over the elastic like a rotten potato somebody’d tried to put a rubber band around. If I hadn’t been so cold, I might have tried to get Jeremy to laugh.
Rita squeezed up beside the potato man. She tried to slip past him and out the door. But he took hold of her bag and grabbed one more kiss. She laughed, like this was a big game. Then she stepped down out of the trailer, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
I would have given everything I had, which I admit wasn’t so very much, just to hear Jeremy and God’s song again.
The tall heels of Rita’s red knee-high patent-leather boots crunched the snow as she stepped to the car, arms out to her sides, like a tightrope walker trying to stay on the wire. She jerked open the driver’s door, slid into place, and slammed the door hard enough to shake the car worse than the wind.
Without saying a word, she turned the key and pumped the pedal until the Ford caught. Then she stoked up the defrost and waited for the wipers to do their thing. I figured by the scowl on Rita’s face that Billy hadn’t forked over the “loan” she’d hoped for.
Jeremy leaned forward, his knobby fingers on the back of the seat. “Rita,” he said, “I didn’t know God could sing.”
She struck like a rattler, but without the warning. The slap echoed off Jeremy’s face, louder than the roar of the engine. “God don’t sing!” she screamed.
That was the last time Jeremy ever spoke out loud.
Sometimes I think if I could have moved quicker, put myself in between my brother’s soft cheek and Rita’s hard hand, the whole world might have spun out different.
“Your Honor, I object!”
The prosecutor stands up so fast his chair screeches on the courtroom floor. He has on a silvery suit with a blue tie. If he weren’t trying to kill my brother, I’d probably think he’s handsome in a dull, paper-doll-cutout kind of way. Brown hair that doesn’t move, even when he bangs the state’s table. Brown eyes that make me think of bullets. I’m guessing that he’s not even ten years older than Jeremy, the one sitting behind the defense table, the one on trial for murdering Coach Johnson with a baseball bat, the one this prosecutor would like to execute before he reaches the age of nineteen.
The prosecutor charges the witness box as if he’s coming to get me. His squinty bullet eyes make me scoot back in the chair. “The witness’s regrets about what she may or may not have done a decade ago are immaterial and irrelevant!” he shouts.
“Sit down, Mr. Keller,” the judge says, like she’s tired of saying it because she’s already said it a thousand times this week.
Maybe she has. This is my first day in her courtroom. Since I’m a witness in my brother’s trial, they wouldn’t let me attend until after I testified. So I can’t say the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what’s gone on in this courtroom without me.
“I’ll allow it,” the judge says. “Go ahead, Miss Long.”