We haven’t been home in a year, exactly one year today. I know because I’ve been counting each day since we left, all three hundred and sixty-five of them. Each represented by a tally mark in the back of my diary. Mom calls this place home now. She must not remember that we have another one that we need to get back to soon or it might forget us, too.
Day three hundred and sixty-five is a Sunday.
I am sitting just outside our tent, weaving together blades of grass. I’m not allowed to wear jewelry, but maybe no one will notice. I’m sizing up the bracelet to my wrist when I feel a shift in grass beside me and Julie lowers herself down, crossing her long legs out in front of us. My sister lays a hand on my wrist and lifts the bracelet away, crumpling it in her fingers like she’s squishing a bug.
I start to protest but she shakes her head. “I’m sorry, Annie.”
I understand but say nothing.
“How many days?”
She hasn’t asked me that for a long time. I tell her and watch her head bob up and down as the wind blows her overgrown hair away from her sun-freckled face.
At mid-morning prayers, Julie and Mom stand on either side of me. The whole congregation is here today; every pew is full. Mom is reciting the prayers loudly and I can hear her voice over all the others. Julie says them quietly, almost to herself.
I know all the words but I pretend I don’t because I don’t like to say them. Mom always says I’ll learn them when I’m old enough to understand what they mean.
I reach up and intertwine my fingers with Julie’s like the little vines that climbed up the side of our house, wrapping themselves around anything that would keep them from falling. She squeezes my hand and I squeeze back; our silent ritual.
The sermon goes on for much longer than usual. Pastor Andrew remarks on the importance of today and I wonder if he has also been counting the days. I just keep squeezing Julie’s hand but she has stopped squeezing back and seems to be listening to Pastor Andrew instead.
I turn to Mom, her head nods with his words. When she notices my gaze, she starts to rub my back with the tips of her fingers the way she used to when I was sick and home from school. I want to ask her if we can go home, but she told me to stop asking her that on day two hundred and four. I marked that day with an “x” in my diary.
After evening prayers, Mom braids my hair like she used to. She carefully crosses the strands all the way down my back while humming a familiar song. Soft rain patters in the top of our tent. I wonder where Julie is.
Mom lays out one of my dresses on my cot, running her fingers delicately along the lace. She lays out a dress for Julie, too; the one with the yellow sash that she wore to her fifth grade graduation.
When Julie gets back, she puts on the dress without argument, then helps me into my own, buttoning it slowly from the small of my back to my neck. I ask her why we’re dressing up and where we’re going and where she’s been but she doesn’t answer.
Pastor Andrew is standing at the altar under the cover of the congregation tent. He greets us as we approach and he hands Mom a white capsule and a cup of water. He offers Julie and I the same. The pill looks large in the center of my palm. I ask aloud what it is, but Julie just squeezes my shoulder and Mom bows her head and recites one of the prayers.
We walk toward the back of the pews, passing faces that should be familiar but feel strange to me tonight. We find a row to stand in as Pastor Andrew welcomes the congregation.
“Tonight is special,” he says. He lifts his cup and the congregation mimics the motion like a mirror. He puts the capsule in his mouth and drowns it with a deep swallow of water. The crowd continues the motion, each placing their fingers in their mouth and tipping the cup to their lips. Parents turn to children to help them do the same.
Julie takes my hand before it can reach my mouth. I look up; she nods and takes a sip of her water. I do the same. Our pills stay clasped between our fingers.
The first one to fall is near the front. The bodies fall quietly, slumping into the grass with a light thump. I gasp and Julie covers my eyes with her hand and pulls me close.
I feel a rush of air beside me and something hits my foot. Julie stands perfectly still. I want to scream but I know I shouldn’t.
A baby begins to cry and then stops.
And soon all I can hear are my own breaths, shallow and short.
Julie tells me to close my eyes and she lifts me up, wrapping her arms around me. The cold rain slips against my skin mixing with the warm tears that are cascading down my cheeks as she carries me through the camp.
When she finally sets me down, I open my eyes to see the dirt access road winding into the horizon before us; the same road that brought us here three hundred and sixty-five days ago.
I don’t look behind me.
Julie kneels and holds out her fist. Her fingers unfurl and she reveals a delicately braided rope of grass in her palm. She slips the bracelet onto my wrist.
“Let’s go home.”