Big Sister Hunter

An excerpt from “Raising Wrenns,” by Mal Wrenn Corbin ’96

We’re in the living room. This is one of those apartments we haven’t yet hustled any furniture for. There’s a reddish-brown shag rug. The twins are playing on the dirty clothes pile near the kitchen, climbing up and then jumping off the top of it like it’s a hill. They screech, the twins. They’re five years old.

I’m six. I sit on the floor near the window. My mother closed and locked it before she left. Something is wrong. There’s something wrong. There’s something wicked wacky about the way the twins play—the way that they screech makes me feel like the windows will break. It’s something like the way we all get after we’ve eaten too much candy, only I am pretty sure we haven’t had anything to eat in a long time.

It’s hot and the air is crammy. The whole place is stinky. It really stinks. It stinks bad, like a pee-pee, like the way it gets when Davey wets the bed. It stinks like dirty, like old BO in clothes. It stinks because of the laundry pile. But also because I don’t know how to get our shirts over our heads, so we are still wearing the same ones from the other day.

“When’s Mom coming back?” Davey whines. “Shut up,” Lisa says.

“Don’t backtalk,” I say. “When’d she go?”

I don’t know how long our mom has been gone. A lot of times Dad is gone, but not usually Mom.

I sometimes hear the sounds changing out the window. When there are more cars and people it is day. When it is quieter, it is night.

At first, we went back to the bed we shared in our room to sleep. But then we decided it would be better if we just stayed in the living room. So, we brought Davey’s Superman pillowcase, Lisa’s purple one, my red one, and all of the blankets into the living room and slept in piles like puppies, napping whenever we felt like it. It was less scary then, because it was like we were having a party.

On the floor next to all the blankets and pillows are the pots and pans and wooden spoons I brought out so we could bang on them.

Next to that is Lisa’s stuffed animal, a fish made out of purple yarn that my mom brought home from the Salvation Army.

“My head hurts.”

“I’m hungry.”

The twin’s mousy noises nip at me.

I don’t feel so good, but I don’t know how. It is like there are two me’s now. There is the Mal who stands in one spot, and the fuzzy Mal that stands right next to her, stomping and rubbing.

There is something weird about the next to me Mal. Her skin is all prickeldy.

And she’s almost gonna throw up. “When’s Mom coming back?” Davey asks. “Where did she go anyhow?” Lisa says.

“Why isn’t she back yet?” I don’t know the answer to his question. “I think it’s been two days,” Davey continues.


“Two. No, maybe four.”

I’m the big sister. It’s my job to do something.

I stand up by the crooked pull shades and peek out. It’s bright daylight outside. Everything looks regular. A man is buffing his long blue car. It doesn’t have any rust on it. Sun is shining on a little piece of grass in some dirt where the ants live. A woman with short sleeves is standing on the stoop across from us and picking up a rolled-up newspaper. There are comics in it.

I know what we have to do. We have to wait until the woman goes back inside, until the man drives away in his car.

“Davey and Lisa, get your jackets okay, just in case. We’re going on an adventure.”

The twins are like little baby chicks taking turns pecking at me with their questions.

“Where, Mal?”

“Where, Malaren?” Davey parrots Lisa.

“To Crystal Park. To look for the birds in the lake. We can play there.”

“We’re not allawed!” Davey clasps his hands over his mouth with equal parts excitement and fear.

“Yeah, Mom said to wait inside until she come back.”

“It’s okay. She didn’t know she’d hafta be gone so long when she said that. It’s okay. I’m the older sister. You hafta listen to me. I’m in charge.”

I am a hunter. I’m a hunter big sister. As a hunter big sister, it is very important to be secret. To be sly about what you are hunting. I am sly.

Davey and Lisa walk in front of me, holding hands in their twin way. They are both skinny and lopey the way they walk, kind of like our dad. They’re bent a little bit into each other like flower stalk heads, making it look like they are one body—some strange lake creature with four hands and two real long skinny arms.|“It’s pretty here. This is fun,” I say. “It’s pretty,” Lisa repeats.

I am sly. I keep a secret. My lips are sealed even to Davey and Lisa. The secret I don’t tell them is the thing I’m hunting. I am hunting food.

“You guys. Stay close,” I say.

They slow down a little. I’m surprised they’re actually listening to me. There’s a lot of grass in the park. Bright green grass. There are a lot of trees. Trees as tall as a giant with pretty leaves. I like the bright orange ones best.

The hunter looks closely—on the ground, behind the bushes and trees.

Nobody left a picnic here lately. There are no garbage cans. “Stay to the right,” I yell at the twins.

“Crystal Lake is this way, Mal.”

“The lake’s this way.”

“Let’s go to the playground first. The kid’s playground. Do you know where it is?”

“I do, falwalah me,” Davey says.

Our dad always says Davey has a good sense of direction. Even if he’s only been in a place once, he always knows how to get back there. It always surprises me how he finds things. Once Mom sent us off to get Dad at Moynihan’s Pub and I thought we were lost, but Davey surprised me and showed me exactly where to cross.

The park is quiet. There are no people here but us. We’re walking like phantom ghosts. It’s good that nobody is here to see us. We’re not allowed to be here alone. We ourselves are a secret, too.

I follow the twins through something like a tunnel, a tunnel of trees with a narrow, dirty path we walk on. Dust is in our face, cool on our cheeks. We are walking and walking and walking down a dirt path, a dirt path I really don’t know. Davey knows the way. Davey knows where we are headed.

He starts running, dragging Lisa behind him. I follow. He stops and then runs to the middle of a field.

“I knewd it. You see. Look on that hill, see where the big rocks are.

That’s where we eat the McDonald’s with Dad.”

“You found it, Davey. Great!” I say.

I remember the hill. I remember sitting there and our dad joking with us and telling stories while we curled up and ate our Happy Meals. I remember so good, I can almost taste the way that it was: the soft bun with the top that cracked when you bit it, the hot and chewy burger with cheese. I remember the crispy French fries, and the sweet orange drink we had as our soda.

I remember why we are here.

“Let’s stop here,” Lisa says.

“Nuh-uh. Okay, we have a job to do. We have to get to the playground.”

“Why the playground, I’m tired. It’s nice right here,” Lisa says.

I think about the playground. It had trash cans in it, the place where parents sometimes throw out the ends of the food.|“No, playground’s better. Tell Lisa, Davey. We are on a adventure—first the playground and then the lake. Playground. “Playground,” I shout.

“Playgwand,” Davey repeats.

When we come out on the other side of the hill, we run down it quickquick so we don’t fall. Davey picks up a big stick and is holding it in his hand, swinging around and around with it, whooping and yelling. Lisa laughs but stands carefully on the edge of the hill, like she’s afraid to get dirty. I stand between them, watching, charting our course.

The park feels different without our parents here. For one thing it’s much, much bigger, and there is a lot of air. The air tastes good. After being inside for so long with the stink-rot smell, like a pee-pee and maybe a mouse who is dead trapped inside the wall, the air tastes so good. I eat it and eat it like it is a Happy Meal cheeseburger from McDonald’s.

Also, it is more crooked here somehow. Like maybe it is a different kind of planet where only kids can exist. Slowly, I skip down the hill and join Davey. As he hoots and hollers running around with his stick, I hold my hands out, spread my fingers, and twirl around and around like a plane. I don’t know how long we’re on the hill in this secret place. I don’t know how long I’m swinging around like an airplane while Davey is moving his stick.

I finally stop, dizzy. Then the world spins even though I am not moving. The other Me stands there with the butterflies all around her, holding her head.

“Mal, Mal, Marilyn,” Lisa screeches.

When I look up there is a man standing there. A man that is so tall he leaves a shadow on the hill. I can see his face, too—he has weird yellow skin like an alien, and his front tooth is cracked. He is holding his face strange as he talks, like he has just sucked a lemon ball.

“What are you kids doing here by yasel? Dwana sparklyer?”

I can’t understand what he is saying, the words knocking against his teeth.

He puts his hand on my shoulder. His nails are thick and crusty and bent. It’s more like a paw.

“Get offa me,” I say, shaking my shoulder.

“You leave my sistah alone!” Davey says and starts heading toward him with the stick, swinging it wildly.

Suddenly, I know the tasty air is magic. It bubbles like soda fizz around my head. I know that this is a kid’s place and that we are magic here, and we don’t have to worry about this man because we can run.

“No, Lisa, Davey, run! Let’s go!” I scream.

Without knowing how we do it, we all run as one body, flying down the hill, our hearts pumping in our chests like bird wings. We run with our knees in the air like they showed me in gym glass, a giant dinosaur bird creature with three heads, forty-seven suckers, and a thousand skinny legs. We fly down the hill, past the tunnel we emerged from, to the place where the air changes and starts to taste like lake. We run slower then, with our knees bouncing, our sneakers pounding the hollow dirt. And then, like we share one giant brain, we decide at once together to stop.

I put my hand on my heart. My brother bends over slightly. Lisa makes loud wheezing sounds.

“Oh, my gawd, that was close!” Davey says.

“He coudata murdered us,” I say. “He’s gahne,” Lisa says.

As the big sister hunter, I scan the distance behind us, look back to where we came from. The woods are big and hot behind us, so hot something jelly pulses in the air.

And I know Lisa is right. The alien man has not followed us. There is nobody around.


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