Mom disappeared on a Monday. Rad and I blame it on the coffee. Strange things started happening that day, the day before my brother and I turned thirteen.
First of all, Rad and I heard Mom talking on the phone. We couldn’t hear what she was saying but we knew she was mad. Mom rarely gets mad. The last thing we heard was her slamming the phone down. Then came the panic! Mom had this strange high-pitched squeal she made when something was seriously wrong. Rad calls it the siren. At 6:00 o’clock in the morning the siren can be really annoying, especially if you just got to sleep.
We both ran into the kitchen and discovered Mom crying into her coffee. The strangest thing was she pretended nothing was wrong, said she splattered coffee in her eye. When we asked her who she was talking to, she said it was a wrong number.
Rad sat beside her at the kitchen table and gave her the stare. Mom and I both know what the stare means. Rad is tuned in to both of us like he can read our minds. There is no getting away from the telepathic stare. His eyes go all weird like they are programmed not to blink or move until a confession is forthcoming.
"You will both be thirteen tomorrow. You must start drinking coffee. Here." Mom poured us both a cup and then put in red spice beans that looked like coffee beans but with a bright red sugar coating, like a coffee M & M.
"It is better to grind the red beans with the coffee beans but you can just plop them in like this. They will dissolve and give it a good taste." Mom explained without looking at us as she stirred each cup with precision, like she was on one of those gourmet cooking shows on Food Network.
"No way is that going through my lips! I hate the smell of it!" I locked my lips like a kid being forced to take Pepto Bismol.
Rad did not take his eyes off Mom for several minutes. Finally, he picked up a spoon, gave his coffee another quick stir and began sipping. When his eyes turned on me, I picked up my cup and looked in it. Red juice floated on top like bath oil beads on a tub full of water, but I began drinking anyway knowing the whole matter was now out of my control. To my surprise, I liked it.
No one spoke until every cup was drained.
"Good! Now that’s done! One less worry. I want you both to promise me you will start every day with a cup of coffee mixed with two red spice beans. In a couple of weeks, I want you drinking it twice a day just like I do." This was the first we knew of just how important coffee was to Mom.
But it is not just any coffee; Folgers, Maxwell House, not even Starbucks would do. It had to be the dark roasted, shiny black House of Borgo beans, grown in the mountains of some obscure country in Central America on a coffee plantation so remote that only llamas and donkeys carrying gigantic baskets draped across their backs can get to it. House of Borgo is supposed to be eco-friendly, something very important to Mom.
All our lives we have watched Mom carefully measure the black beans and put them in the grinder with two red beans she said gives it special qualities and tastes. There is no pre-ground coffee in Mom’s kitchen and grinding takes place when she is ready to make the coffee. Once the beans are in the grinder, she locks the black and red beans in the kitchen cupboard as though Juan Valdez, the Mexican guy from the old Folgers commercial, is going to try to steal them or something.
The black coffee costs a bundle but the red beans make it a luxury most people, especially our family, can’t afford. Mom shops at thrift stores, the Salvation Army and garage sales for the family’s wardrobe and household items, and at Sack and Hack Salvage, as Rad and I call it, for our groceries, all just so she can indulge in a cup of dark, stinky coffee two times a day, at 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. And now Rad and I are held hostage to the coffee ritual. I have no idea why this ritual is so important but I don’t dare question it. Rad makes sure of that. When I asked him why we are bound to the routine, he just gave me the cure-all-to-any-further-questioning reply that always works. "Mom says."
Now I know Mom didn’t stress the importance of the coffee drinking in so many words that morning, but she talks to Rad in the way only this mother and son duo can talk such deep nonsense... telepathically. And no matter that we are poor and that the coffee is a luxury we can’t afford, it is a done deal. My twin brother and I will become coffee addicts but only to House of Borgo, and only if each cup contains two of the mysterious red beans. Perhaps these are magic beans like the ones Jack traded a cow for in that fairy tale, our favorite storybook that Mom used to read us when we were little.
But the magical coffee drinking was not the most important thing that happened our last day as twelve-year-olds. Mom disappeared, leaving us at the mercy of an aunt whom we hardly know, our dad’s sister, Lorona, who is cursed with too much money and who might try to change our lifestyle, our simple foods and our unique way of dressing, and make us look like those kids we watch on Nick at Night. We watch it just so we know what we aren’t missing.
Gone are the days of peanut butter and alfalfa sprout sandwiches washed down with tomato juice, about all we eat since neither of us has much taste for food. Mom makes our tomato juice and cans it. We have a pantry full of nothing but jars of tomato juice. We are so poor, frugal as Mom calls it, that we never even knew that peanut butter comes in something other than one gallon dented cans.
And we don’t know what style is, not that we really care. Rad only wears camouflage, and other than the few items Mom finds at thrift shops and garage sales, Rad’s clothes are all too big because they come from Army surplus stores. Keeping up with fashion trends means my brother has moved from the peacetime green hunting camo of our southern Bubba neighbors, with whom we have no relationship, to the latest light tan and brown of the deserts. Of course, he wears combat boots. No Nikes or Under Armor for my brother.
As for me, my style consists of worn-out, preferably with a hole here and there, jeans and T-shirts, any T-shirt, any logo, except for those too personal even for me like the "In memory of... " or "Fly high... " that are so popular in the South. Style just doesn’t matter to either of us. It’s not like we ever go anywhere for anyone to see us.
Rad and I are extremely sensitive to the sun, not life-threatening but very uncomfortable. Ever since we broke out in a terrible rash when we were three years old, Mom has kept us indoors. Our world is dimly lit. Our home is the basement, or cellar as we call it in Mississippi, of the big, old, ghostly looking antebellum home my mom inherited after my grandparents died. Rad has one end of the basement for his room and I have the other. The exercise equipment and our own little sitting/playing/TV area are in between.
But our basement is not like any ordinary musty-smelling oversized room with its piles of discarded cardboard boxes, used appliances no longer used, or garbage waiting for weekly pickup. Our cellar is like a brightly painted amusement park for nerd rats, with the exception of the lack of technology, computers in particular. We do have a TV, an old-timey twenty-inch fat one that is hooked to a satellite dish with an abundance of channels, even a couple of movie channels. Mom is okay with the TV since it keeps us up on what is happening outside our basement world, but she doesn’t believe in computers except for the laptop she uses to store her research data. She says before she will allow us to become Google-eyed, she wants us to learn to trust books, "real information," as she calls it. She thinks there is too much garbage and misinformation on the Internet and won’t allow a computer in our house. Nor do we have cell phones. Mom doesn’t even carry one when she goes in the field. But then, she doesn’t need a cell phone as long as Rad is alive. They mind text when she’s away, except for this time, and that has us worried.
Anyway, our basement walls are covered in shelves of books on any and every subject imaginable, most not imaginable by normal thirteen-year-olds. Rad has read them all. He taught himself to speed read and never forgets anything that enters his eyeballs. He’s my own live Google but without the keyboard and numerous unintentional disconnects and sexy pop-up ads. Too bad! Rad is a genius, obviously getting the brainpower meant for both of us.
I’m just his little sister, Luca, born five minutes after my big brother and getting average, leftover intelligence, just enough to keep me upper grade level, according to the home school our mom uses to get our textbooks and lessons. Rad, on the other hand, is already in high school - or higher - in his science and math studies. He does just enough homework to satisfy our mail-order teachers, does all his lessons in one afternoon and sends them in dribbles to the school to keep them off his back, so he has more free time for his creations and important reading.
I only read fiction, but I have read most of the classics like Little Women and I’ve read most of Shakespeare’s works with a lot of explanation by Rad. My favorite books are teen romances, fantasy and sci-fi, something that really bothers my big brother. He makes sure he tells me everything he reads, his attempt to educate me and keep me from being too shallow. Rad has created wonderful board games based on the knowledge he has on hundreds of subjects and we play them constantly. I like the games but I know why he makes them. It’s a learning experience for me, the old make-it-fun-so-they-don’t-know-it’s-educational trick, kind of like "carrot cake" or "zucchini bread" to make kids eat their veggies.
But back to Mom and the poison coffee. Mom is a researcher trying to find cures for deadly diseases, mostly looking for strange plants in really weird places. She goes on several research trips a year, usually to mountains and jungles in South and Central America, looking for special plants.
Mom is brilliant like Rad but she doesn’t make much money. Her salary is paid by some old rich dude who lives up north somewhere. He lets Mom be her own boss. Mom likes it that way because she doesn’t have to abide by rules and regulations like the big pharmaceutical companies have, the companies that are always trying to hire her. Mom goes and comes as she pleases, keeping the hours and days she wants. When Mom is away, Sally, our next-door neighbor, next-door meaning a mile down the gravel road, takes care of us. Sally is fat and old but will play Rad’s board games, or watch movies with us until the wee hours of the morning and never argue with us about our choices in food or clothing.
When we got the call that Mom had disappeared in the rainforest of Central America, Rad and I were devastated, but mostly we were scared, me more than Rad. My big brother never shows fear. He must have been born with a black mask and sword swearing to protect Mom and me, and he does, even though he is only maybe an inch or two taller than me.
The prospect of having to leave our home of thirteen years is unnerving. Well, that’s an understatement. We have never left our house, at least not in the daytime. And as far as Mom knows, we have never left it anytime. Rad and I are children of the night. We wait for Mom or Sally to go to sleep and then sneak out the basement window. We know all of the night secrets of the community and our little town of Bartonville, such as who is siphoning gas from their neighbor’s cars, what teenage girls sneak out their bedroom windows with what losers, and what other losers tip cows and blow up mailboxes.
Rad and I shouldn’t be able to get to town since it is five miles away, but there is one more secret we keep from Mom. WE CAN FLY!
I didn’t believe it myself at first, thought I was dreaming when I found myself lying on my back on the ceiling of the basement with my legs crossed, just lying there, the lady of leisure, as if I were in my bed. Rad brought me back to reality, yelling at me to come down and causing me to fall ten feet back to my bed. It started out as a dream, or several dreams really, the same one night after night. I was always in the gym at the local school. I knew what the gym looked like because Mom buys a DVD of the school Christmas pageant every year and it’s always held in the gym. Mom is very religious, holds Bible study with Rad and me when she’s home. This is because her parents were missionaries. One of Mom’s dreams is for Rad and me to play Mary and Joseph in the school pageant as soon as she discovers the plant that will make us normal, so we can go to the pageant. She even asked the principal one year if the pageant could be held at night by candlelight so Rad and I could go but he said it was against the fire code.
Anyway, I kept dreaming that I needed to escape from the gym from a horde of creatures dressed in black with hoods covering non-existent faces. I started making big circles with my arms, ending with my hands coming up by my sides and pushing up against the air. I kept repeating the movement, looking up and concentrating on the gym ceiling and the next thing I knew I was levitating. My body rose until I was hovering over the creatures. When I put my hands straight out in front of me, I began to soar through the rafters like Superman, or Superwoman, in slow motion, sometimes stroking the air like Michael Phelps at the Olympics, pushing off on the rafters just like he did the side of the pool when he made his turns.
After Rad brought me out of my dream, I showed him the maneuvers and, low and behold, as Mom always says, we both ended up on the ceiling while fully awake. It was so incredibly cool! Rad wanted to go outside to see how high we could go, but I was too scared. We practiced all week in the basement before I got up enough nerve and then Rad and I took off, literally.
Weird, huh? We flew over the trees but had to be really careful of electrical and telephone lines. What we liked best was landing on a small fire escape we found on the second floor of the Bartonville Cinema. After a little jiggling, Rad got the door open and we sneaked inside to a balcony, left over from the mid twentieth century. Even though the balcony was used for storage now, Rad and I squeezed through the boxes and watched a movie on the big screen, our first. We were mesmerized by it and checked it out once a week for about a month until we found things we liked better, like spying on the local teens. They were nothing like the kids on Nick at Night, more Boys in the Hood than Zach and Cody.