He was out on a date and there was nothing I could do about it. She was a friend of his from the office and he talked about her often. He said it was just dinner, but he put on a tie, and I smelled the aftershave he only wore on fancy occasions. After he left, whistling his way down the front steps of the house, I lay on the couch with a blanket over me like a shroud. I’d begged him not to go, I even cried, but that hadn’t stopped him. I was only eight years old.
Karl, my younger brother, sat on the floor in front of the television with a plastic Frisbee precariously balanced on the edge of the coffee table. It was his latest obsession and when he had it, nothing else mattered, not even his sister playing dead on the couch. Oblivious to its instability, he spun it anyway and happily flapped his hands like a bird as it went around and around, faster as it started to fall. As soon as it clattered to the bare wood floor and was still, Karl picked it up and spun it again. The repetitive action soothed him, and he could spend hours doing nothing else. Later that week, he would go in for testing and be diagnosed with autism, but that night it was something I hardly noticed, much less worried about. Cindy, our babysitter, worried about it, but she’d learned not to take the Frisbee away from Karl if she had any hope for a quiet evening.
“Ah, I see the princess is laid to rest. How tragic was her passing!” Cindy mourned, as she came into the living room. Although I couldn’t see it from under my death veil, I knew she carried a large bowl of popcorn. Cindy always made popcorn when she watched us. “If only she was still alive, she could make a proclamation about what show to watch.”
I lay still and squeezed my eyes shut. All I wanted to do was cry, but I was starting to learn that tears were useless. My father had still gone out on his date, kissing me lightly on the head before he went out the door.
Earlier that morning I’d fallen off my scooter and scraped my knees; crying hadn’t stopped the stinging pain then, either. All it’d done was give me an added headache. Crying hadn’t helped my goldfish swim again, and crying hadn’t brought back my mother.
The wonderful, comforting, smell of the popcorn wafted out to tickle my nose and coax me into a better mood. I peeled back enough blanket to peek my head out, and said, “How about the one where the mom is a secret agent and saves the world.”
“Sure, sweetie, I’ll see if it’s on.”
More of the blanket fell away as I sat up. Cindy grabbed the remote and sat down next to me. She scooped me up with one arm and hugged me tight. I squeezed my eyes shut and let myself snuggle in closer to her. I knew she was only there because my father paid her to watch us, but I lived for those hugs.
As Cindy flipped through the television channels, I pretended she was my mother like the ones in the television sitcoms, perfect and always caring. Before I could believe it was true, my mind fired up the growling sound of a motorcycle, and my eyes flew open.
When I was six, my mother left us. She sent Karl and me to bed one night, then jumped on the back of her new boyfriend’s motorcycle and took off for New York. Just like that. As if she hadn’t even given it a second thought. It was like a knife to my heart. The shattering memory roared through every happy daydream I’d had since.
“I don’t think your show’s on tonight. Wanna watch a movie instead?” Cindy asked.
She looked concerned when she noticed my hand tight on her arm. I pried my fingers loose and slid off the couch. I found what I was looking for hidden on the bottom of a small stack of our movies. I was sure Cindy hoped we could watch something else, anything else, but she was also the only person I knew who would sit through the entire movie for the eight-hundredth time.
“Alice in Wonderland,” I said, as I held it up triumphantly.
I popped the tape into our VHS player, and the movie started where we’d left it the last time Cindy babysat. My father had gone out to a party that night, and I’d made myself throw up so he had to come home early.
“Don’t you think this is a little scary?” Cindy asked.
My ponytail swished as I shook my head. I loved this part. Alice had to drink the potion on the table in order to shrink herself down and fit through the tiny door to Wonderland.
As I turned to launch myself back on the couch, Olympic swimmer style, the front door thundered with an urgent knocking. I froze. The knock was louder the second time, so loud I thought it might shake the foundation lose on the entire house. Karl slapped his spinning Frisbee flat on the ground and listened without moving. Cindy jumped to her feet, a finger on her lips telling me to stay quiet.
“Cindy?” A muffled male voice came through the thin wood of the front door. “Cindy, it’s Deputy Benson. I’m here with Sharon Wilberger from Child Protective Services. You’ve got Chelsea and Karl with you. We need to talk to you.”
“How’d you know I was here?” Cindy asked, leaning an ear closer to the door.
“Your mother’s the hostess at the restaurant where Mr. Randall…er…their father was tonight. She’s the one who told me you were babysitting.”
I could hear the man’s words as I hovered in Cindy’s shadow, but my child’s mind couldn’t comprehend what was happening. All I knew was that a peculiar sick feeling began to creep into the pit of my stomach.
On tiptoes, Cindy stretched toward the peephole, keeping her body as far from the door as possible. “Show me your badge, Deputy.”
“Yes, of course. Here it is. And this is Sharon Wilberger from Child Services.”
“You already said that,” Cindy said, opening the door to reveal a huge man and a smaller woman. Neither one of them was smiling. “What’s going on?”
I wanted to run and hide. Something bad had happened. I glanced back at the television and saw Alice drink the potion. She grew smaller and smaller. Karl picked up his toy and spun it again, fixated on the motion, though I could see a deep frown on his face.
“Chelsea?” The lady asked as she stepped around Deputy Benson. Her voice was gentle and soft as she held out her hand and motioned for me to come close. “Come here, dear.”
“There was a car accident. Your father died,” the deputy blurted out. He stood just inside our living room door with a wide stance and one hand on his hip, his words coming out with a hint of a wheezing sound as if the massive stomach that protruded over his uniform belt caused him difficulty breathing.
“Jesus, Bob, that’s not how you do it!” Sharon gasped.
I looked back at the television and saw Alice eat the cracker that made her grow. She was too large for the little door that led to Wonderland. Now she was crying giant tears, and I was confused about what was happening in my living room. Why did this strange lady want me to go with her? Why had the deputy said something so mean?
Cindy dropped to her knees next to me, her own sobs crashing against me as she wrapped me in another hug. On the television, Alice swam in an ocean of her own tears, but I was the one drowning as the shock of the Deputy’s words turned to reality.