Adria Starr didn't want her mother and little brother to stop breathing the way her father had. She wanted to take care of them.
She was seven. That was old enough to do things. She could draw water from the well and carry wood to the stove. She could even run for the doctor, like she did after her daddy came home sick, but a woman answered the door at the doctor's house to say he couldn't come. He was sick too. That it wouldn't matter anyway. Not with the cholera.
Adria had heard her father whisper that word to her mother. Adria didn't know what it meant, but her mother clutched the back of a chair and made a sound like somebody had hit her in the stomach. Then with her eyes too wide, she looked at Adria, and it was like somebody was squeezing Adria's heart.
"Leave." Adria's father told her mother. "Get away from the bad air here in town."
Even before her father quit breathing, her mother started packing a bag to go somewhere after Adria came back without the doctor. But how could they leave Daddy? Then Eddie got sick. Just like their father. He was only two and he cried until Adria wanted to put her hands over her ears. But when he stopped, everything was too quiet.
They didn't leave. Her mother couldn't stop shaking and she was very sick. Like her insides wanted to come out of her body. She leaned on Adria while she sat on the pot. She told Adria to go away, but if Adria hadn't held her, her mother would have fallen to the floor.
After Mama got through being sick, Adria helped her to the couch and laid Eddie down beside her. Adria kissed his cheek, but it didn't feel right. She didn't look at his chest. She didn't want to know if it had stopped moving up and down. She didn't look at her mother's chest either. Instead she carried the slop jar and basin into the sitting room in case her mother needed them again. Then she got a blanket and curled up on the floor beside the couch.
Her mother didn't need the basin, but Adria did. She must have breathed in that bad air too. After she was through being sick, she lay back down on the floor. The only sounds were the mantel clock ticking and more bad air ruffling the window curtains.
She fell asleep for a while. When she woke up, the clock wasn't ticking anymore. Her father was the one who always wound it. The air had stopped moving too. Maybe the bad air had moved away to another town. But Adria's stomach still hurt. She needed a drink of water, but she didn't think she could get up to go to the kitchen.
Adria reached up toward her mother but stayed her hand without touching her. Everything was so still. Nothing was moving. Usually their house was filled with sound. Eddie jabbering or crying. Her mother singing while she clattered pans in the kitchen. Her father coming in the door from work and grabbing Adria to swing her up in the air and then giving Eddie a turn. She didn't know which of them squealed the loudest.
But now silence wrapped around her. Nothing but her heart beating in her ears. She wanted to ask her mother if the bad air killed everybody, but she clamped her lips together and didn't let the words out. She was scared her mother wouldn't answer.
Adria squeezed her eyes shut. Where she'd been sick smelled bad. Really bad. She pinched her nose to block the odor, but then her breathing sounded too loud, like she'd been running or something. She pulled a pillow over her face.
She hoped it wouldn't hurt if the bad air killed her. Maybe her heart would just stop the way the clock had stopping ticking. She tried to remember whether the preacher ever said anything in his sermons about dying. But most of the stories she could remember were about Jesus feeding people or making them well. Maybe if she prayed, he would make her well, and Eddie and her parents too.
"Please," she whispered into the pillow. She tried to think of more words, but she was tired. So she just said the bedtime prayer her mother taught her. "Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."
She prayed that all the time, but she had never worried about not waking up. Not until now. What would happen if the Lord took her soul? Would it be silent like now, or noisy? Angels singing maybe. No, that was when Jesus was born. But heaven might be noisy. Lots of people there, and didn't they say something about crossing a river? She'd seen a river. The water was noisy. She really needed a drink.
The knock on the door made her jump. Her father had said something once about a person knocking on heaven's door, but this sounded more like their own front door. Maybe it was the doctor coming after all. When she pushed up off the floor, the room started spinning, and she cried out and fell back with a thump.
The door swung open and a deep voice called out, "Somebody in here needin' help?"