Like my horror tales, the stories I’ll be publishing here were written in the 80’s on an honest to God typewriter! So, no cell phones, social media or DVD’s 😊 Again, the only editing I’ll be doing is really egregious mistakes or typo’s I found in the original text. I want this to be a history of my writing and don’t want to do a lot of “cleaning up”.
My Santa Problem
I submitted this story to the Writer’s Digest short story contest and came in #34 in a field of several hundred. That relative success scared me so much that I didn’t write again for six months! No idea where this story came from and I don’t recall whether I wrote it before or after Maggie’s Fox, but here’s Maggie again, with her sons, Brent and Randy, in a sweet story about keeping the Christmas spirit alive.
“What do you mean you aren’t going to be Santa Claus?” I asked, panic stricken. “What am I going to tell the kids?”
“I’m sorry, Maggie, but I’ll be out of town over the holidays. Besides, the kids are getting too old for Santa Claus,” said my brother.
“I believed in Santa Claus till I was ten. Brent is only nine. Although I admit he may be borderline, I know Randy still believes,” I said. He’s only seven and I don’t want to let them down, Stace. I want to have as normal a Christmas as possible.”
A normal Christmas meant my little boys and I playing by a crackling fire. It also meant their father, Steve, dressing up as Old Saint Nick and bounding in through our back door, chuckling deeply and passing out presents. But my husband had left us for a waitress five months before.
“Especially after that Thanksgiving we had,” I continued.
“Yeah, fried chicken isn’t exactly traditional Thanksgiving dinner,” said my helpful brother.
“That’s what I mean,” I said. “I forgot to thaw the turkey and messed up Thanksgiving. I don’t want to ruin Christmas, too.”
Stace said, “You didn’t ruin Thanksgiving. It was just different. I think you’re going to have to settle for a different Christmas, too. Maybe you ought to think of a new tradition. Listen, I’ve got to go. Sorry about Santa.”
Where was I going to find a man who could fill the Santa suit in my attic? I couldn’t quite see my boss in the role—true, he wouldn’t need a pillow, but a personality transplant would be in order. Butch, our gardener, was cheerful but too skinny. And the thought of Jim, my cousin, in the red outfit, made me laugh out loud. I could just see his elbows sticking of out of the sleeves and his knees hanging out of the pants legs.
I finally gave the problem a rest and made dinner. Brent and Randy tumbled into the kitchen and poured themselves some milk. Because there were soldiers at all four corners of the table, we ate with a great feeling of security. The boys also had their ray guns holstered.
“We’ll protect you, Mom,” said Randy bravely.
“Yeah. If aliens come, we’ll offer them the Brussel sprouts,” said Brent, my little diplomat. “A refusal of Brussel sprouts means war.”
Randy said, “I need a tank. Then I could attack Walter’s fort and be king.”
“Maybe Santa will bring you one,” said Brent.
Randy looked at me. His chocolate brown eyes grew wide as he spoke. “I want the one that shoots missiles and moves by itself and makes a lot of noise.”
“I’ll… Santa may be able to handle that. We’ll have to see,” I said.
That Saturday, I cleaned out my closet. I watched Randy and Brent cross the street to Walter’s house, then attacked the jumble on the closet floor. If it was exercise I wanted after a week of typing, exercise was surely what I was getting. Dirty clothes were escorted to the hamper in my bathroom, belts were laid straight in a drawer and old magazines were thrown under the bed.
During one trip to the hamper, I noticed with some satisfaction that I was carrying Steve’s favorite pair of jeans. I had claimed community property on those pants whenever I found them vacant. I stripped off my cords and stepped into a little piece of heaven. Even their musty smell and wrinkles couldn’t diminish my delight at having them on again.
As I zipped the fly, memories came flooding back. I found myself thinking of Christmases past—the lonely holiday Steve and I spent in a new city, far away from our families, Brent’s first Christmas of wonder, Randy’s first encounter with Santa Claus. And, as memories will, they led me back to the present and my Christmas dilemma.
How could that rat have left us, I thought. Damn, sometimes I feel so inadequate. I started to sniffle, rubbing my denim-clad thighs.
A teacher of mine used to say sarcastically, “Comes the dawn over Marblehead.” Well, it was finally dawning in my granite head that I was wearing Steve’s pants. And if I could wear Steve’s pants, I could, with the help of a bed pillow and bobby pins, fit into a certain red suit.
I rushed up the attic stairs, then down again for a pillow. Upstairs, I turned on the light and fetched a big box down from the highest shelf in the farthest corner. I kept the box out of the reach of little hands because I had a fear of the boys finding it.
When I was five, my grandmother asked me to go up to her room to get some hand cream. She remembered the secret too late and couldn’t catch me before I burst into the bedroom. A red velvet suit was laid out on the bed, ready for my grandfather to wear for his annual masquerade at the Grange meeting. That night at the party, when my mother asked why I didn’t want to talk to Santa, I had said, “I’ve been talking to him all day. That’s Grampy.”
In the attic, I pulled down the shades and tried on the suit. The material wasn’t as nice as my grandfather’s but the white fur collar and cuffs were soft and tickled. The black leather belt and boots were cracked but that added realism. The coat buttoned comfortably over the pillow and the fur trimmed hat drooped rakishly off to the side. I would have to make sure that my hair was covered completely by the snowy wig.
The only full-length mirror in the house was on the back of the upstairs bathroom door. I felt pregnant again as I made my way hesitantly down the narrow attic staircase. In the bathroom, I inspected the effect in the mirror. I looked quite jolly. I’d have to get some spirit gum, though, to keep my beard straight.
“Ho, ho, ho,” I said.
Here was my major downfall. A soprano Santa wouldn’t make it.
Just then I heard the back door slam and “What’s for lunch” in two-part harmony. I ripped the beard and hat off. Opening the bathroom door slowly I peeked down the stairs.
“I’ll be right down, you guys. Why don’t you get yourselves something to drink,” I called.
I could see Brent starting up the stairs.
“Brent, go help Randy in the kitchen,” I said.
“I want to get my soldiers first. He’ll be okay,” said Brent.
“Fine,” I said, not wanting to argue. “Just hurry up.”
I waited, feeling a little silly being trapped in my own bathroom but grateful that my Santa problem had been solved.
The next week blurred past. Both boys had programs at school—Brent sang in the choir and Randy played a Christmas tree. There was the office party and, of course, I had to finish the three quarters of my Christmas shopping.
When I came home from work on Christmas Eve, I checked for the twelfth time that the turkey was in the refrigerator, not the freezer. Then I called out for pizza, the boy’s choice. After homemade hot fudge sundaes, Brent and Randy got into their pajamas and we played Crazy 8’s, waiting for their Uncle Stace to call.
When the phone rang, we all jumped for it. I got there first.
“Merry Christmas, sis,” said Stace. “How goes the Santa hunt?”
“Just fine,” I said. “I’ll talk to you after the boys.”
I handed the phone to Brent and went up to my room, where I pulled the box out from under my bed. I dressed as quickly as I could, stumbling into the boots and fluffing the pillow. I could hear the boys garbled chatter and clear laughter.
Brent called from the staircase, “Mom, pick up the phone.”
I moved the bedroom extension to my bureau, where I attempted to talk to Stace and apply my beard at the same time.
“So, who did you find to play Santa?” he asked.
“You’ll never guess,” I said.
“C’mon, Maggie. Whose resistance did you break with those beagle eyes of yours?”
“I don’t have beagle eyes and anyway, I didn’t need to use them because, even as we speak, I am standing here in my red suit and beard.”
There was a second of silence before Stace burst into not unkind laughter.
“Mag, you’re a great mother,” he said.
I looked into my fur framed eyes and said, “I hope so. I really try.”
I glued the white worms of eyebrows over my own brown ones.
“The turkey is in the refrigerator,” I said and we both laughed.
Five minutes later, Stace wished me luck and we hung up. I did a quick check in the mirror. Beard, straight. Hair, hidden. Tummy, fat. I was ready.
I flung my bag of gifts jauntily over my shoulder and headed down the stairs. A weeks’ practice had made my Ho ho ho’s appropriately guttural and cheery. The boys ran to meet me at the bottom of the stairs.
“Wow,” Brent said. “We didn’t know if you’d come this year or not.”
“Yeah, we were really worried,” said Randy.
“Well, here I am,” said Santa. “And what do you think I’ve got for you?”
We all moved into the living room. I emptied the bag, putting all of my presents under the tree, next to the ones their grandparents and Stace had sent. Behind me, I heard hectic whispers and when I turned around, Brent was giving Randy a murderous look.
I said, “Ho ho, there seems to be two more presents in here. One is for Brent. Is that you?”
“And the other is for Randy. And they both say open Christmas Eve. How about that.”
Brent tore the red shiny wrapping off his Space Helmet and had the box open with lightning speed. From deep inside the tinted dome, his “Thanks, Santa” echoed eerily.
Randy shook his box before attacking the paper. As soon as he’d gotten off enough of the wrapping to see the picture of the tank, a grin covered his face and he said, “Thanks, Mom. This is just the one I wanted.”
Brent smacked his arm and poor Randy looked up at me pitifully. I sat down hard on the floor.
“Gee, Mom, I’m sorry,” said Randy, as close to tears as I was. “I’m not used to you being Santa Claus.”
“Yeah, we’re used to Dad,” said Brent. “It was easier pretending he was Santa because he didn’t wear earrings.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“You always knew it was your dad?” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” said Randy. “We just figured it was like the Santa’s in the stores.”
“Yeah,” continued Brent. “You always told us they were just Santa’s helpers. That Santa couldn’t be everywhere.”
I wondered if there would be a chemical reaction when salty tears mixed with spirit gum. Having a white beard stuck to my face forever was not an appealing thought.
“Come here,” I said. “I want to hug the best boys in the whole world.”
They rushed at me and we all sprawled on the floor, laughing and shrieking.
“Well, your Uncle Stace said this would be a different Christmas. I guess he was right,” I said.
“Uh oh,” said Brent. “Does that mean we’re having fried chicken for Christmas dinner, too?”
“Ho ho ho,” I said malevolently and tickled both boys, hat, beard and all.
Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash
This story was inspired by a fox fur jacket I bought at an antique mall in the 80’s. I wore it everywhere for months. Then I started feeling a little bad about it, even though it was second hand and pretty old. Maggie’s story ends a bit more nobly than mine—the real fur jacket kept tearing to the point where I couldn’t repair it any more. I think I sent it to someone who would reuse the fur for teddy bears. PS-Bob Barker, famous for hosting The Price is Right, is also an animal rights activist.
“I prefer to think they died of natural causes.”
“Sure they did. When they saw the guy with the ax coming, they had heart attacks.”
I sighed down the phone line. My brother, Stace, was reluctant to let me rationalize the purchase of a second-hand fur jacket. A gorgeous red fur jacket that fit me like a proverbial dream and only cost the $80 sent from far flung relatives for a recent birthday.
“I don’t care what you say, Stace. It’s mine and I love it.”
My brother raspberried in my ear.
End of conversation.
The next morning, Randy was playing with our kitten, Peaches, on the kitchen floor. We’d gotten her from my best friend, Natalie, the week before. She had described her as blonde but the kitten was really a mixture of orange and gold. I wanted to name her Apricot but both boys made faces more appropriate to lemons, so we settled on Peaches.
“What kind of fur is that, anyway?” asked Randy as I was putting the jacket on.
I stopped and looked at him. “Well, actually, I don’t know.”
Brent walked into the kitchen then, his math book in the crook of his arm. “It looks like fox to me. It’s long and red.”
“I don’t think I could afford real fox, even second hand, but I guess we can call it fox.”
Randy stroked the fur above my wrist and said, “Okay. Just as long as it’s not cat.”
“No, honey, it’s definitely not cat.”
I spent the next few days merrily attired in my jacket, using the lightest breeze as an excuse to wrap myself in its luxurious warmth. I was the envy of all my coworkers. Even Mrs. Rooney, the head of Personnel, whose license plate frame read “I’d rather be shopping at Nordstroms”, made haughty comment on it. I was walking on marshmallows, let me tell you.
Driving home from the library with the boys that Wednesday night, I was dodging amber lights and wondering if the downstairs closet would be cool enough to accommodate my fur in the summer.
“You’re an ugly old baobab,” I heard Randy’s voice piping from the backseat. “And I’d like to just pluck you up and throw you away.”
“Shut up,” Brent said.
“Don’t say shut up, Brent. And don’t call your brother names, Randy.” I glanced in the rearview mirror. Brent was gazing passively out his window and Randy was breathing on his, drawing some monstrous creation. I asked, “What’s a baobab?”
“It’s a yucky,” said Randy.
“It’s a bad tree that the Little Prince doesn’t want on his planet,” explained Brent.
“Ah,” I said. I’d brought the boys to the library for Story Hour, expanded from once a week to twice, so that The Little Prince could be read in one week. Knowing Brent would keep an eye on Randy, I’d left the boys at the Children’s Room and went in search of a book on fur care. Sometimes Brent takes his responsibility for his brother too seriously. If that was the case here, I knew I’d get an earful later.
“He thinks he’s king over me or something,” whispered Randy, as I tucked his Star Wars sheets around him. “He wouldn’t let me sit with the guys. They had to jump over seats and sit with us.”
“Oh, honey, he’s just trying to do what I ask him to do. Keep you safe and out of trouble.”
“You don’t tell him to be a jerk while he’s doing it, do you?”
I stifled a grin. “He’s being the best big brother he can be.”
Randy gave me a skeptical look.
I gave him a kiss and turned to tuck in Brent, who was reading a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic.
“How ya doing?” I said, straightening his blanket.
“Okay,” he said, dropping the comic beside the bed. “You haven’t forgotten about the clothes drive my class is having Saturday, have you?”
I know the expression on my face said yes, but my mouth said no. “I was going to get a bag full of old things together tomorrow.”
Brent smiled up at me. “Sure you were, mom.”
I smiled too. “Shut up.”
“Don’t say shut up,” said Brent as I bent to kiss him.
I turned off the lights and walked to the door. Moonlight transforms the rubble of a child’s room into a wonderland, so innocent and clean.
“Baobab,” I heard Randy whisper.
When we drove to the library again Thursday night, the boys were playing quietly with their superheroes on the backseat. All seemed well but I wasn’t looking forward to another sibling squackfest afterward. I pondered all the way to the Children’s Room, where I got what I considered an inspired idea.
“Okay you guys,” I said, guiding them to a quiet area beside the door. “Tonight, Randy gets to watch over Brent.”
Randy’s face lit up.
Brent’s darkened. He said, “You’re kidding.”
“C’mon,” said Randy. He started toward the door.
Brent looked at me with a mixture of hurt and confusion, then followed Randy into the room.
Later, following a very quiet drive home from the library, I had the boys get ready for bed. Randy scooped up Peaches and purred to her all the way up the stairs.
I was cleaning the kitchen when Brent padded in in his Batman pajamas. He took a glass from the dish drainer and got the milk from the fridge.
“How’d it go?” I asked.
He glanced up at me as he was pouring. “When we went in, he told me I could sit with Tommy Mason. I thought he was just trying to get rid of me, ya know. But every few minutes, he’d turn around and make sure I was still there.” He put the milk back. “Then, at the cookie break, Tommy and I started laughing real loud. So Randy came over and said we better knock it off before we got in trouble with the reading lady.”
“It sounds like he did okay.”
“Yeah, I guess.” He half-shrugged his shoulders and walked into the den with his milk.
When I put Randy to bed later, he was oddly quiet, not lauding temporary power over Brent. I kissed his forehead to check for fever but he seemed normal, so I didn’t press him.
It wasn’t until the next evening that I discovered Randy’s trouble. I was on my way into the kitchen to get my jacket, which was thrown over the back of a chair, when I heard Brent ask Randy what his problem was.
“The Little Prince wasn’t a very good friend to his fox because he tamed him, then went away,” I heard Randy saying. I moved just enough to see him through the doorway. He was petting the red fur of the collar. “But whoever made this coat was an even worse friend to his fox.”
Brent looked down at Randy. “Yeah, I know. But don’t tell Mom how you feel. She loves that coat.”
“Yeah, I know.”
I felt like I was on a plummeting elevator, my stomach somewhere near my nose. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything.
As I lay awake that night, I felt a tiny thump near my feet. Seconds later, soft little paws were working their way up my legs to my stomach. Peaches continued padding toward my face until her pink nose was almost touching mine. I let my hand glide from her head to the middle of her back again and again. She was so soft. And small and fragile. I could feel Peaches’ thin bones beneath the silky coat of her fur and experienced a keen sense of loss for the “fox” I’d never met.
That got me thinking about the mixed message I was sending the boys. Be kind to animals but don’t worry about wearing them.
But, dammit, I’d wanted a fur coat ever since my mother bought a tiny one for my Barbie doll. And, much as I hated to admit it, the approval of Mrs. Rooney gave me an ego boost of the highest magnitude. This was major dream material.
I put an end to the immediate dilemma by concluding that being an adult was not all it was cracked up to be and resolved to talk to Randy the next day. I fell asleep listening to the gentle breathing of Peaches, wondering just how in the world I intended to justify that jacket to my sons.
In the morning, I successfully avoided Randy by finally raiding every closet in the house for Brent’s clothes drive. Then I had to round up the boys, get them and the clothes in the car and drive over to the school.
My friend Natalie is a joiner – Girl Scout Leader, Greenpeace demonstrator, literacy volunteer – so I wasn’t surprised to see her manning the clothing drive table. What Natalie is not is a proselytizer. She looked at my jacket with a jaundiced eye but didn’t say a word. We’ve been best friends since second grade and have long since stopped trying to improve each other.
After a few minutes of adult talk, the boys asked to go to the playground. I said yes and uttered my usual, “Brent, look out for your brother.” I watched as they ran across the asphalt and onto the grass playing field, where they were met by several friends.
As Natalie and I talked, I kept a casual eye on the boys. Each played with his own group of friends, which prompted me to tell her the library stories. When I eventually waved them back to me, they walked together amiably.
“Well, this is a switch,” I said to them, including Natalie in my comments. “You guys seem pretty happy with each other.”
“This time, Brent didn’t act like Mr. Bigshot,” said Randy.
Brent shrugged. “Yeah, well, I decided to treat him like he treated me. It worked out okay.”
Natalie grinned and said, “Do unto others, Brent. That’s a valuable lesson.”
“I guess,” he answered earnestly.
I hugged myself as Nat and Brent talked, stroking the furry softness of the sleeves and the solid mass of bone beneath. Watching Randy follow the flight of a sparrow, I felt a particularly abysmal friend to my fox. With now or never resolve, I slid the jacket off my shoulders, folded it with care and placed it on top of a pile of sweaters.
“Mom!” said Brent, his eyebrows arched in surprise.
“Gee, I thought you loved that coat,” said Randy.
Natalie was smiling and she said with gentle humor, “Bob Barker would be proud.”
“Who’s Bob Barker?” asked Brent.
“I don’t care who he is,” said Randy. “I’m real proud of you, Mom.”
He opened his arms and I knelt on one knee for his hug. With my left arm around Randy, Brent stepped to my right side and hugged me, saying, “Yeah, I’m proud of you, too.”
From the warm, encircling arms of my sons, I looked up at Natalie and said, “Who needs Bob Barker?”
Fur Coat photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Waiting for Heidi
I think this was probably written at the height of the Missing Children on Milk Carton’s era but I have no recollection of my initial inspiration for it. I do know that I put The Mom through this several times through miscommunication when I was a kid, so maybe that adds a little “write what you know” to this one!
I wish I were an only child again, thought twenty-year-old Hillary. The farthest thing from her eight-year-old mind had been the sudden presentation of a baby sister.
“Look, I have plans for the afternoon and they’re not in that direction,” Hillary said. “I’m not your personal taxi service.”
“C’mon, Hillary,” moaned Heidi, twirling a blond pigtail. “How am I supposed to get to the game? I’m the pitcher.”
“How do you get around when I’m away at school?”
“Gloria Miller’s mother picks me up but her family’s away on vacation this week.”
“Can’t you call Alison for a ride?”
“I already told Alison you’d give me a ride and I’m not calling her now to say you won’t. Some sister you are.” Heidi snatched her battered baseball glove from the kitchen counter and slammed out the backdoor.
How does Mom put up with that kid, Hillary thought, walking out to the dining room. She glanced briefly in the mirror to make sure her light brown hair was holding its curl. Irritation at Heidi darkened her hazel eyes.
Throwing a tan sweater over her arm, she picked up her pocketbook and went back into the kitchen. She took her keys off the hook of the scratched replica of a Swiss chalet bearing the inscription “Gordon Chateau”. The little “key house”, as her father had called it, had been nailed to the cabinet near the backdoor for as long as she could remember. Letting her keys dangle between her fingers, she stepped out into the July sunshine. Closing the door, she jiggled the knob to make sure it locked behind her.
Hillary didn’t need to use her key when she came home later that afternoon. Her mother, Vanessa, sandaled feet scuffing the linoleum floor, was peeling potatoes for salad. She was a large, comfortable woman with thick, short hair. Widowed three years before, she had fought confusion, battled depression and finally become the victor by winning back a good percentage of her self-confidence.
Vanessa looked past Hillary to the door.
“Where’s Heidi?” Vanessa asked, wiping her hands on a dish towel.
Hillary was depositing several bags and her pocketbook on the butcher block table in the center of the kitchen. She brushed a hand through her windblown hair. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen her since noontime.”
“Didn’t you take her to the game?” asked Vanessa.
“No. She asked just as I was leaving for the mall. If I hadn’t been meeting the girls, I probably would have taken her but I didn’t want to be late.”
“And I suppose going by the field to see if she needed a ride home would have been too much effort.” Vanessa clicked her tongue and compressed her mouth. She banged open the door to the dining room with the palm of her hand and Hillary could hear the swish of leather as Vanessa grabbed her pocketbook. A second later she heard the front door slam and a minute after that, her mother’s station wagon roared into life.
No point in leaving the bags on the table. By the time Mom gets back, thought Hillary, she won’t be in any mood to look at what I bought. Trust Heidi to get me in trouble.
Walking upstairs to her room, Hillary thought, why does Mom always get mad at me when I don’t want to take responsibility for Heidi. She’s not my kid.
Twenty minutes later, sitting on her bed reading a romance novel, Hillary heard Vanessa’s car pull into the driveway. One door slammed. She expected a twin sound to explode from the other door. The anticipation peaked and still there was only the sound of the wind. Hillary strode to the window just in time to see her mother disappear around the corner.
Heavy clumping footsteps preceded Vanessa into the room. “The game broke up two hours ago. I drove the two routes she might have taken home and she’s not on either of them.”
A combination of anger and guilt was working within her but Hillary made a concerted effort to appear casual.
“She probably went to somebody’s house. She’ll be home by six for dinner,” she said. “When have you ever known Chubbs to miss dinner?”
The weak joke had missed its mark. “She knows she’s supposed to leave a note if she’s doing something different from what she’s told me in the morning. I’ve checked everywhere but I can’t find one. Now, I want you to take my address book and call all of her friends.”
Hillary had the good sense not to complain or screw up her face. She’d never seen her mother this angry. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll be right down.”
By 6:15 the only mother of Heidi’s friends Hillary hadn’t spoken to was Mrs. Pierce, Alison’s mother. There was no answer at the Pierce house and none of the other mothers or girls knew of any special plans Heidi might have made. Hillary lingered by the phone, twisting the cord distractedly. She was loathe to tell her mother she couldn’t find Heidi, but there was something else she didn’t want to admit. She was getting worried.
As a last effort and a delaying tactic, she tried the Pierce’s number again. As she dialed, she came very close to praying. When the ringing continued unanswered, Hillary felt tears rise to the back of her eyes. She finally had to admit that something was wrong.
Heidi’s such a dependable kid, thought Hillary. She always does her homework, practices her piano and leads her stupid team to victory. Oh, that’s not fair. She’s a good little twerp and she works hard. If anybody were to worry Mom like this, it would be me. Where is she?
Wanting to spare her mother any undue fear, Hillary squared her shoulders before walking into the kitchen and used as cheerful a voice as she could muster. “Nobody knows anything about any plans she made, but the Pierces aren’t home, so she’s probably out with them.”
Vanessa turned from the window above the sink. Her skin was pale and she looked more anxious than angry. “Did anyone see her leave?”
“Uh huh. Several people said they saw her walking with a couple of girls, including Alison.”
Hillary watched with concern as Vanessa walked across the kitchen and sat down at the table. Her mother shook her head and said, “I don’t know what to think. If she was alright, she would have left a note or called.”
Vanessa’s misery reflected in Hillary’s eyes as she sat down in the chair across the table. “I’m sorry I didn’t take her today.”
Vanessa looked up at Hillary and asked quietly, “Why do you find it so hard to be nice to her? I don’t expect you to bend over backward. All I’d like is to get some help once in a while.”
The gentle tone of Vanessa’s voice added to Hillary’s guilt. “I don’t know, Mom. Sometimes she’s such a brat. If she’d just asked me earlier today, instead of waiting till the last minute, I’d have taken her.”
Vanessa raised an eyebrow. “Okay, I might have whined a little… a lot… but I would’ve taken her.”
The silence of the next fifteen minutes was broken only by the constant thumping of Hillary’s sandal on the tiles and the whirring of the electric clock. Shadows grew longer in the kitchen, though the world was still bright.
Vanessa lifted her dark head. “What would dad have done?”
They both wrinkled their brows, then Vanessa got up and walked out of the room. Hillary could hear the clicking of the old rotary dial phone. A minute later, her mother walked back into the kitchen.
“Still no answer at the Pierce’s,” said Vanessa, considering the clock on the wall. “It’s almost 7. Do you think I should call the police?”
Hillary was both surprised and flattered that her mother wanted her opinion. Before she could formulate an answer, the reason behind the question suddenly lashed out and her throat constricted painfully. Police, she thought. Where is she? She pushed black thoughts from her mind.
“It couldn’t hurt to have them on the lookout for her.” Hillary’s effort to make her voice even had either succeeded or her mother just hadn’t noticed the tremors.
Vanessa nodded distractedly and left the kitchen again. Hillary got up and followed her into the hallway. The phone clicked sharply three time and was answered immediately.
“My twelve-year-old daughter is late coming home. I feel silly calling when she’s only an hour late, but she’s a very punctual girl,” Vanessa said.
Her voice had lost the hard edge it had had that afternoon. It was soft and almost childlike. She thanked the dispatcher and hung up.
Two policemen arrived within ten minutes. One was a sandy haired man named Watkins and the other was slightly older and heavier, named Wills. The scene felt unreal to Hillary, as if she was living out an episode of Adam 12. The things she would remember most clearly later were the shine on Wills black shoes and the creak of leather on leather made by their gun belts.
Watkins took out a heavy notepad and pen and they started to ask the expected questions—description, where was she last seen, who were her friends.
“I’ve called all of her friends, sir,” said Hillary. She listed the girls who were seen leaving the park with Heidi.
Watkins said, “She’s never done anything like this before?”
“No,” said Vanessa. “She always lets me know if her plans change.”
“Well, Mrs. Gordon,” said Wills kindly, “I wouldn’t worry too much. Sometimes even the most conscientious kids will go off like this. They get excited and forgetful at that age.”
The men got up from the sofa. Watkins crystal blue eyes met Hillary’s but she barely noticed. “We’ll call this in right now and all the units will be keeping an eye out for her.”
“And let us know,” continued Wills, “when she comes home. We’re all pretty relieved when a case like this is resolved.”
“We’ll check in with you in a few hours if you haven’t called us first,” said Watkins reassuringly.
They thanked the officers and shut the front door with a click. Mother and daughter stood with their hands in their pockets.
“Now what?” said Hillary.
“We wait, I guess,” said Vanessa. She turned and walked toward the kitchen. Hillary, not having the heart to do anything else, followed.
Vanessa busied herself by covering the potato salad and setting the table. Hillary went to the refrigerator and took out a carton of milk. She put the carton on the counter and reached for a glass from the cabinet.
Suddenly, she moaned. “Oh, no.” The words caught and mixed with the tears spilling down her cheeks. Vanessa rushed to her to see what was wrong. Hillary was holding onto the counter with one hand. She gestured with the other to the milk carton. Black and white photos decorated the box.
Photos of missing children.
“Oh, baby,” said Vanessa, gathering Hillary into her arms. Guilt and anguish soaked the shoulder of Vanessa’s shirt. “We can’t think like that, Hildy. There’s no point to it. We have to think positive. That’s what Daddy would have said.”
Hillary clung to her mother’s sturdy body. She felt the strength of Vanessa’s arms and the power of her beliefs. She pulled away after a while and, with her mothers’ arm around her waist, dried her face with a dish towel.
“Yuck. There’s onion on the dishcloth,” said Hillary, grinning a little.
Vanessa returned the slight grin. “Have your milk and try to put the dark thoughts out of your mind. If Heidi left with a group of girls, she’s probably fine. I’m going to call Alison again.”
A few minutes later, Hillary was sitting at the kitchen table, listening to the wind in the willow tree behind their house.
“It’s windy out for July, isn’t it, Mom?” she said as Vanessa reentered the room.
“Yes, but it’s cooled us off, which is a relief,” said Vanessa, walking toward the back door. “No answer at the Pierces.” She parted the curtains on the door, to gaze out the window into the darkening backyard. Very little light remained in the sky and the willow made hysterical, ghostly shadows on the lawn.
Vanessa turned back to Hillary. When she moved to flip the light switch, something to her left caught her eye.
“Look what I found.” She lifted a set of three jingling keys off a chalet hook. “Heidi must have left without her keys.”
“Yeah, she really slammed out of here this afternoon. She must have forgotten to take them,” said Hillary. She looked directly at her mother. “Do you think that’s a good sign or a bad sign?”
Vanessa thought as she walked to the table and took a seat. “I suppose it explains why she didn’t leave a note. She couldn’t get in. But it doesn’t explain why she hasn’t called.”
“If the Pierces invited her somewhere she couldn’t have called from, she wouldn’t have gone, would she?” asked Hillary.
“No, I don’t think so. Damn, she’s never done anything like this before,” said Vanessa, drumming her fingers on the table.
Hillary ran her fingers around the edge of her glass. “I wish I’d taken her today,” she said quietly to her knees.
Vanessa looked up, awakened from her reverie. “Oh, this isn’t your fault. She’s old enough to take care of herself. And I can’t expect you to be her surrogate mother. Lord knows, you wanted a baby around about as much as we did.”
Hillary looked up, the shock on her face comical enough to make her mother smile.
“Yes, Heidi was a surprise, but not a mistake. I’d never call her a mistake. The first few weeks I was pregnant, I was very resentful. But then one day I thought, ‘Well, it’s happened, I’m not going to have an abortion, so I might as well make the best of it.’ And after that, my whole attitude changed. I felt like I did when I was pregnant with you—full of energy and very happy. I couldn’t wait to see this new little life I was bringing into the world.”
Hillary looked at her red toenails. “She’s not a bad kid. Some of my friends tell absolute horror stories about their little brothers and sisters. I mean, they’re repulsive.” She looked up at the kitchen window. “She never messes with my make-up or razzes my boyfriends. If anything annoys me, it’s that she’s so good. She’s good at everything I’m lousy at, which is just about everything. I guess I get irritated at her because she makes me feel like a stupid klutz.”
Vanessa moved to take her hand, when Hillary’s eyes widened. “I think,” she began, but they both heard the door knob scrape at the same instant. Together, they leaped from their chairs, Vanessa nearly knocking hers over, and ran for the door. Hillary caught the edge as it was opening and yanked it back out of Heidi’s hand.
“Wow, what’s the matter?” asked Heidi, in a high-pitched voice, frightened by the twin scowls she found herself confronted with.
“Where have you been?” demanded Vanessa loudly.
“Yeah,” yelled Hillary, her eyes darkening. “What’s the idea of not telling us where you were going?”
“I left a note on the back door,” answered Heidi anxiously. “I forgot my key when I left, so Alison and I wrote a note on a big piece of her notebook paper and made a hole in the top and then we slipped it over the back door knob. It felt okay, it didn’t seem like it would fall off.”
“It got windy, didn’t it, Heidi, you little dope. But you didn’t think about that, did you?” asked Hillary.
“Why didn’t you call? Where have you been?” asked Vanessa.
“Alison’s mom took us to see a double feature at the mall. It wasn’t windy when we went in,” she finished weakly, tears glistening in her eyes.
“Oh, Heidi,” said her mother, taking her in her strong arms. “We were so worried.”
“Yeah, you little nerd,” said Hillary, rubbing her sister’s back. “We even called the cops.”
Heidi lifted her head from her mother’s shoulder. “You guys called the cops? Am I in trouble? I left a note, I really did.” This yielded a fresh batch of tears, which coursed down three faces.
“No, you’re not in trouble, sweetheart. We’re just glad you’re home,” Vanessa said, opening her arms to include both her daughters.
After a period of hugging and laughter, Vanessa left her girls to themselves to let the police know that Heidi was home safe. They started to prepare dinner, pots and pans clanking.
“So,” said Hillary, “when’s your next game?”
“Thursday,” said Heidi.
“Need a ride?” asked Hillary.
Heidi looked at her sister in astonishment.
Baseball Glove Photo by Kenny Nguyễn on Unsplash