“My Sweetpea is home for good.”
While Zadie’s mom thought it was just Christmas vacation and shared custody as usual, Zadie and her Dad knew she was never going back. Maybe her mom wouldn’t even notice she was missing. She hadn’t when Zadie had left. Zadie had called and used her saved tenth birthday money to pay for her own cab, while her mother slept. So maybe, if Zadie just never got back on the plane, her mom would keep sleeping through that too.
Just the existence of her Dad, just knowing he was alive in the world-- something about the idea of him, had always brought Zadie to the verge of tears. She wanted to hug him forever. She wanted to tell him everything.
But then she was silent when they joined her stepmother, Alice, in her dad’s beat up silver car. Alice sat stiffly upright, looking uncomfortable or embarrassed—Zadie couldn’t tell.
“You look just like your father,” said Alice. “But everyone probably tells you that.”
“Yeah,” said Zadie.
All the way from the airport to the house, Zadie sat quietly in the back, listening to the rattle of the muffler and waiting for one of them to talk.
“Where are your kids, Alice?” asked Zadie, looking around, when they entered the silent, high ceiling-ed house.
“The boys and Amelia are at their Dad’s today,” said Alice. “We wanted to ease them in slowly to having a new person in the house.”
“And you too,” said her dad. “Ease you in, too, Sweetpea.”
“Certainly. Right at the top of the landing is your room. Your dad can show you.”
While Zadie and her dad headed towards the room, Alice stayed at the foot of the stairs. Zadie looked over her shoulder back at Alice, who waved her hands at them and nodded.
“Alice has trouble with stairs and things because of her illness,” said her dad.
“Mmmm…. Well, see! Look, we got you a trundle bed so you can have friends stay over.”
“Dad, at a new school in the middle of fifth grade? I doubt I’ll be bringing home a bunch of friends.”
“Well, I know you love antiques. Alice picked it out for you at a cool shop from the old neighborhood downtown. I bet you’re glad I don’t live there anymore, right? Alice’s house is a lot nicer than the old apartment.”
A ready-made family-- the brothers and sisters she always wanted—and no more living with her mother. Though it had been a secret pact between Zadie and her dad, she still wasn’t sure if she could believe it. For weeks on the phone, since Zadie had gotten up the courage to tell her father about all the drinking, the drinking and driving, the men who hung around, the cigarette burns, they had been figuring out a plan for her escape.
“Now that I have a real house for you, now that we have Alice, I can get custody--”
“Who will help her, Dad? She’ll never let me leave.”
“Your mom should help herself. It was never your job. And it’s not for her to decide if you leave. I’m your parent too.”
“But…. Well do they have a good band at the school there? I love band. I’m good at band.”
“They have a great band at the Junior High School.”
“But about that. I don’t want to stay a grade ahead. I want to un-skip a grade—I want to go back to fifth, so I won’t be younger than everyone. I just want to be like everyone else.”
Now, they had pulled it off. Her mother was nowhere in sight. Just the desert and her dad and this new house. There was a pool in the backyard, but the house cast a shadow over it, so the water was stagnant and dull. The whole yard was surrounded by a cinderblock wall.
It was just Zadie and her dad for dinner.
“All this has made me feel too tired,” said Alice. “I need to rest. You two are fine on your own, yes? Goodnight.”
Zadie craned her neck and watched Alice disappear into a dark first-floor bedroom. When she turned around, her dad’s eyes were gleaming and he held an organic, dairy-free cheese pizza box in his hands. He made the pizza box do a little dance towards her.
“Hey, don’t make that face at the pizza... This cheese-less cheese is not so bad. Couldn’t be worse than the Christmas we had canned tuna and cinnamon raisin muffins, right?”
“And apple cider from a packet!”
He turned knobs without looking at them much and slid the pizza onto the oven rack.
“Those were the good old days, huh, Sweetpea? Just two weirdos like us, stranded up in the mountains, talkin’ about life.”
“Dad, you have to wait for that to heat up!”
“Really? Do I?” he over-exaggerated his movements and laughed.
“Ugh, Dad. You never could cook.”
He shrugged and then just put the pizza in the microwave. They stood together in the kitchen, eating the pizza with no plates or even napkins, leaning against the counter and watching an old movie on TV until it was time for bed.
When Zadie went upstairs, she tried to personalize her room. Alice said this is your room, this is your desk and your bed, Zadie did her best to make it feel true. She put away her clothes in the dresser. She set out her movie memorabilia on the desk. Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, Rear Window. But even once she had organized everything in new, designated spots, the room was still basically empty and Zadie just stared around at it.
Her antique bed was comfortable, but she couldn’t sleep. She was tempted to explore, but the rest of the house felt off-limits, so she was scared of opening her bedroom door.
She started opening and closing the drawers of the desk, working from the bottom up. There were lots of drawers and Zadie liked the smooth swishing sound they made when she pulled them out from their homes. Empty, empty, empty. All empty-- except in the second drawer from the top--a small green velveteen pouch. She pulled open the drawstrings of the bag to find a hodge-podge coin collection. She looked through them half-heartedly-- most were just old nickels-- until she finally fell asleep.
When she woke on Sunday morning, she could hear noise from the TV downstairs and the laughter of her new twin stepbrothers and younger stepsister. She could smell bacon, mixed with some other chalky food smell she couldn’t recognize. When she walked out onto the landing that overlooked the living room, she could see her dad and Alice reading newspapers at the kitchen table.
Zadie felt the hard part of her ease up inside for moment-- seeing two parents at one table, awake… not drunk. She bounded down the stairs in her Christmas pattern pajamas and waved good morning to the whole group. The kids ignored her and continued to watch TV. Zadie sat at a chair around the table next to her dad, who put her arm around her in his sloppy hug way that she loved.
“Morning, Sweetpea!” said her Dad.
“Good morning!” she answered.
“It is a good morning, Zadie. But you’re sitting in Eli’s chair.”
Zadie looked at Alice and then around the room, wondering what that meant.
“Hey, yeah, that’s mine! You can’t sit there,” said one of the twins.
“It’s not like he’s sitting there right now,” laughed her Dad.
“It will make things easier if everyone has a place,” said Alice.
“So which seat is hers, then?” asked her Dad.
“Sorry about that,” said Zadie. “Where should I sit?”
“You may come sit next to me,” said Alice, smiling.
So Zadie moved around the table to sit by Alice at the head of it. From the new spot, Zadie could see a wall full of black and white framed photos of ballerinas. Every one of them with the longest limbs, the most elegant stances. Zadie couldn’t imagine being that graceful.
“Is that you, Alice?” Zadie asked, still looking up at the wall as she dished herself a pancake and some turkey bacon.
“It is. I used to be a ballerina….”
“Cool. I was never coordinated enough to be in ballet. I was good at tap though. Did you ever--”
“Zadie, do you always take the biggest pieces of food on a plate?”
“You’ve taken the biggest pancake and the biggest piece of bacon. Don’t you think that’s a little selfish?”
Zadie looked at the table with the stack of dirty dishes, the empty plates in front of her dad and Alice. She looked at her dad, who shrugged. Zadie’s face felt hot as the sun beamed on down her, suddenly twice the strength, as if Alice were in charge of that too.
“I don’t think she was even paying attention, Alice,” said her dad.
The twins and Amelia snuck looks while pretending to watch TV.
“That’s exactly my point. She needs to learn to be aware of others now that she’s part of a family. She’s been an only child and she’s prone to be selfish. That’s not going to work here.”
Amelia giggled a little from the floor by the coffee table.
“My girl? No way. You’d never be selfish, would you, Zadie?” said her dad smiling.
She shook her head no and put back the piece of turkey bacon.
“By all means, Zadie, go ahead and eat it. Don’t put it back. You’ve already touched it now. I’m just trying to teach you what it means to be in a family now.”
After breakfast, Zadie worked up the courage to walk in her bathrobe from her bedroom to the downstairs bathroom, where she’d been assigned. She prayed she wouldn’t run into Eli or the other twin, Jesse.
Amelia was brushing her long straight brown hair in the mirror when Zadie entered the hallway.
“Hey,” she said. “I cleared a drawer for you.”
“Oh, thanks. That’s cool. Thanks.”
“Do you shave yet?”
“Uh, no. Why? Do you?”
“I’m nine? I wish. Mom won’t let me shave until I’m thirteen. Well, anyhow, I asked because…it’s so stupid that we’re down here—girls—in the little bathroom while the boys get the big bathroom upstairs. It’s gonna stink having to stand up in that shower to shave. Guess we have a couple of years to try to get moved upstairs.”
“Amelia!” called Alice from the kitchen. And Amelia ran down the hall, leaving Zadie alone in the tiny guest bathroom.
She was about to step into the shower stall when she was startled by the sound of a blender coming from the kitchen. It sounded like bones being crushed and, at that moment, Zadie felt certain she’d made a terrible mistake. She wondered how long she could live in the bathroom without food. Maybe Amelia would smuggle in snacks so she’d never have to come out.
But after Zadie slowly washed her hair, slowly dried off and slowly brushed her teeth, Alice called for her to come into the master bedroom. Zadie threw on her robe and left the bathroom. She went the opposite way down the hallway to the kitchen. She was relieved when she didn’t see the blender anywhere on the counter. No crushed bones. Zadie felt a little silly as she went back down the hallway and opened Alice’s door.
All the blinds had been pulled shut and soft space-age music was playing. Alice was lying on her bed in a tank top, underwear and socks. The whole room was cold. As Zadie got closer, she could see that it was because Alice was lying on bed of crushed ice. There were dishtowels filled with ice, too, packed around her legs and neck.
“What are you doing?” asked Zadie.
“I’m icing. It helps me with all the pain in my legs and back.”
“Do they hurt very badly?”
“Yes, Zadie. That’s why I can’t go up the stairs. And why I’m not a ballerina anymore. It hurts me very much.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Could you move that pack right there, please? To my right leg?”
Zadie picked up the pack. A little bit of ice fell out the side and onto the navy blue bedspread. There was a big purplish-red square on Alice’s skin where the pack had been. And Zadie could see the little squiggly veins on the side of Alice’s thigh. Her mom had varicose veins, but these weren’t like her moms.
“Please pack it down around my leg.”
Zadie packed the ice around Alice’s thigh.
“Ok, done!” said Zadie. “Is that why you wanted to see me?”
“No, Zadie. I wanted to say…I hope you will love it here and feel at home. I know you’ve been through a lot with your mother. But part of how we’ll all become a family is by respecting each other.”
“Do you have anything to say to that, Zadie?”
“You don’t have anything you may want to tell me? About other people’s belongings?”
Zadie felt like she had crossed some invisible line into a country whose customs she did not know. Could she be this stupid to have no clue what was going on all the time?
“Well, if you can’t be honest with me… It’s not acceptable to go through other people’s things, Zadie. Eli told me you had rummaged through his coin collection. He says there might be some missing.”
“I—it was in my desk.”
“That Eli gave to you. Eli gave up his room for you.”
“I—I didn’t know that. I couldn’t sleep. I was just looking.”
“And I have to protect my children, Zadie. I agreed with your father that it was important to get you out of your mother’s influence, but I voiced my concern about what kind of abusive tendencies you’d have growing up in that kind of environment. What about my children? I certainly can’t have them pay for your mother’s mistakes. Understood? I need another twenty minutes on the ice.”
copyright 2011- Ryann Ferguson