To-Do

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  • Rent van
  • Pack
  • Go grocery shopping (HEALTHY snacks)
  • Buy new Kidz Bop CDs
  • Write letter to M., deliver
  • Pick up, 2:30
  • Get to Hampton Inn in Chicopee (make reservation?)
  • Enjoy the kids!!

She had made the list giddily in the kitchen that morning. To-dos were something to lean on in case of uncertainty. After sleeping on her decision, and determining it was the right one, she scrawled the list on a rectangle of flowered paper she tore from the magnet-pad on her white fridge, her handwriting slightly shakier than usual. The physical version was gone now, burned next to the curb two blocks from the kids’ school, but mental lists were almost as easy to tally and line through.

The euphoria wore off a surprisingly short time after she herded them into the van, and then the Kidz Bop CD dissolved into an unintelligible backdrop of noise, and she became aware of a cool black sphere of panic behind her left ear. Lily had no idea what to do, then. Her certainty sank and dissolved like sugar in iced tea.

Her mistake was in not giving herself enough items to cross out after picking up the kids. Enjoying them didn’t seem enough to fill up the time, the black void, and anyway she’d forgotten how their presence could grate and grate until her nerves bled.

“Gran Lily!”

“What!” she shouted. “I’m sorry, Bren. Gramma was thinking. What is it?”

“Where are we going?” Brenna shrilled. “We never take the highway home.”

“I told you already,” she said. “I told you at school. Rory, can you remember what I said?”

“Going on a trip,” he answered promptly. “An adventure.”

“Righty-o.” Lily returned her attention to the road.

“But where?”

“Someplace special.”

“Is Mommy coming?”

Last night, in her little house in Palmer, twenty miles and an impassable distance from her daughter’s in Southbridge, Lily discovered an apparent “spirit animal” inside herself. An idea she’d dismissed as hippie hooey. But there it was: the lioness. It had been ten months to the day since Melanie had bellowed Get out or I’ll throw you out; long enough for Lily to finally comprehend that it could be a year, two years, forever, before she saw her grandchildren again. And poof, the lioness made herself known. She stamped and roared around the little house: I should just take them away. I should just take them away and raise them myself. Better than I raised you. Now, at the mention of Mommy, the lioness growled, low and soft.

“She’s not coming yet, Brenna-bun. This is a special adventure, just you and Rory and Gran.”

Whyyyyyy?

“Because I say so.” She turned up the music, which was a prepubescent chorus rendering “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” in bright, horrific pastels.

“I hate this,” said Rory. “Is there any other music?”

“I can’t change it while I’m driving,” Lily snapped, and then smiled at him in the rearview. “Sorry, buddy.”

“What’s the matter with you, Gran Lily?” That was Brenna again. “You’re acting so mean.”

Lily had no memory of her being such an ill-behaved pest. Melanie had been a snippy little thing through a certain phase, but it passed long before she was Brenna’s age. “I’m sorry, honey,” she said a third time. “I’m just trying to get us there safe. Okay? Just trying to watch the road.”

In the absence of something next on the to-do list, in this in-between place, Lily could not seem to organize her thoughts. The black sphere thrummed what have I done, what have I done while the lioness yawned her approval and the rest of her brain shucked and jived about whether she’d fastened Rory into his booster seat properly and whether they had enough juice boxes back there. And about when exactly Melanie had outgrown being rude.

Well, maybe she hadn’t outgrown it at all. Maybe the current version of Melanie, the one who was as permissive as a defrocked priest about what her children consumed, allowing them to read books much too old for them (Brenna had a book with the word “murder” in the title; only eight years old and reading about murders!) and eat food that was all sodium and sugar (frozen macaroni and cheese, Costco cookies; even their apples were apparently presliced at the grocery store) – maybe she was merely the sassmouth four-year-old Melanie stuck with a bicycle pump and inflated to adult proportions. It was from under the nose of that four-year-old, Lily told herself, that she had snatched Rory and Brenna. From that irresponsible child.

Snatched. Baby-snatcher. A new word imprinted in neon against the cool blackness. Hardly babies, though, these two. Brenna eight, Rory already five. They were old enough to make up their own minds, to leap happily into Gran Lily’s arms when she came to pick them up at school. Since their mother was late (again). They hopped in the van willingly.

Not babies. Not snatched.

  • Get to the Hampton Inn in Chicopee

She’d chosen Chicopee because it was crummy, cheap, a place Melanie wouldn’t think to look for her (I can go slumming too, the lioness snarled). The kind of town that [w]itch Connie could have called home. And she’d picked the Hampton Inn because it was a trustworthy name, likely an okay place to take a couple of kids.

The traffic on the Masspike was to be expected, but after twenty minutes of stops and starts, Rory moaned. “I’m sick, Gran Lily. I’m gonna—ooohh…”

Nowhere to pull over. She glanced around inside the van. A plastic Walmart bag jammed with animal crackers, mini Yahtzee! and magnetic checkers games, and more wretched Kidz Bop sat on the passenger seat. Lily upended it and its contents went everywhere; she passed it back to Rory just in time for him to unload the bright orange cheez-n-crackers he’d had for an afternoon snack into it.

“Eeeww,” said Brenna.

“Is it leaking?” said Lily.

“No. But it stinks. Can I open the window, Gran?”

Lily powered down the front passenger window, and Masspike Stew flooded in – exhaust, hot pavement, cigarette smoke, a hint of the trees in flower to the right of the breakdown lane. “Hang in there, honey,” she said to the rearview. “We’re almost there.”

“Almost where?” insisted Brenna.

To get to the Hampton Inn in Chicopee, she could now add…

  • Stop at a drugstore:
    • Ginger ale
    • Pepto (just in case)

It was a relief to put something else on the list. As long as there was something to do, the gibbering thoughts that floated out of the black sphere didn’t bang around quite so loudly inside her skull. She took the exit ramp gently, trying not to jar Rory around too much.

“Help me look for a drugstore, Brenna?”

“No.”

No? “It’s for your brother, honey. For his tum-tum.”

“His stomach,” said Brenna with infinite disdain. “I won’t do nothing till you say where we’re going.”

“Won’t do anything,” said Lily.

“Won’t do nothing.”

She’d forgotten how they could infuriate you, could wear your mind down to a soggy lollipop stick. “Look for a CVS. Even a gas station…there.” She put on her signal and eased the big van into the parking lot of a Walgreens. “Wait here just a minute, all right?”

There was a hassle at the checkout. A young man at the counter couldn’t decide on a flavor of chewing tobacco, customers stacking up behind him, and when a second clerk finally opened a second register, the soft-bellied stoop-shouldered gray-faced man behind her cut in front. The nerve.

“I have children in the car,” she fumed at the clerk.

“Six eighty-three,” he answered.

Just outside the store, she halted hard. A young fellow stood at the open passenger window of the van, hanging his elbows inside. He wore khakis, gleaming brown belt and shoes, a crisp blue button-down. “What kind of games do you like to play?” he asked into the van as Lily stepped off the curb.

She could hardly breathe, but it still had to be handled just right. What are you doing to my children, she rehearsed. Yes, that was good. With a note of hysteria to unbalance him. “What are you doing to my children?”

He looked at her across the hood. “Oh, hi, there.” He offered a faltering little wave. “I’m waiting for you, I guess. These’re your kids?”

“Get out of here, you creep!” Her lips tingled with righteousness.

He took a half-step closer to the curb, his jaw tightening. “Look, lady. I wasn’t…you left them here with the engine running.” He directed his words away from the passenger window. “Anyone could have come and driven off with ’em. I just kept an eye out till you got back.”

He wasn’t following the script. The kettle boiling inside her gave off a whistling scream. “How dare you. You creep. I only left them for a minute. And you just swoop down like God’s own–”

“It was seven minutes, by my watch,” he cut in. “A little longer and I would’ve called the cops.”

Lily’s knees went weak at this thought, but the lioness was awake now, her tail thrashing. “Get out of here,” she said, stalking halfway around the hood of the van. “I’ll call the cops myself. You’re harassing me. You’re harassing my children.”

The man raised his hands and backed off a few steps. “Take it easy,” he said. “I’m going.” Glancing around the parking lot, he jogged to a black Altima and escaped, his tires squealing over the painted lines of his parking space. He was going too fast to have jotted down her license plate.

Once in the van, “Drink that,” she said, and thrust the can of Canada Dry at Rory.

“I don’t want it.”

“It’ll settle your stomach, honey. Just drink it.”

“I feel fine,” said Rory. “Can I have some animal crackers?”

“That was a nice man,” said Brenna. “He asked us about our five favorite things. Mine were all Star Wars.”

“That’s great, Bren.” Lily crooked her neck to look through the back window, past the children. The engine leapt, but the van went nowhere. She’d shifted into neutral instead of reverse.

As they wended through Chicopee, Brenna fell quiet, whether from sullenness or introspection or something else, and Rory’s carsickness cleared up commendably. Although he started singing “I’m Henry the Eighth I Am” in a murmuring sort of way over the execrable Kidz Bop CD, a purchase Lily regretted more than nearly any other in her life, aside from the lingerie she bought in 1994 that made Gordon laugh at her when she modeled it for him, and Rory just would not let up, singing softly but persistently, “I got married to the widow next door…she’s been married seven—times before…”

The parking lot at the Hampton Inn was sparsely populated. The sun kept hiding behind clouds and bursting out again. “We’re here,” said Lily, her foot on the brake, her hand gulping for a shifter that wasn’t there. Oh, right, up by the steering wheel.

“We’re where?” cried Brenna, zero to distraught in two words. “Where is Mommy?”

“You’ll see her soon. We’re on an adventure, Brenna-bun.”

“Don’t call me that,” spat Brenna. “I hate you.”

Lily shut off the ignition and slammed the door hard enough to make the van rock on its wheels. She hoped someone did drive off with ’em this time.

  • Check in
  • Get the kids settled

Half an hour later, Rory and Brenna lying on their tum-tums and captivated by SpongeBob cavorting on the TV, Lily stared at the polymerized wipe-clean wallpaper and racked her brain for what to put next on the list. She’d done what she set out to do. She’d gotten the kids out of that toxic house. Like evacuating them from a room full of poison gas. That Connie, her radical haircut and her furious eyes. Melanie and her eternal maternal failings. Like being raised by wolves! They’re better off here with me, with me here. I know what they need. Shoot, I left the rest of the animal crackers in the car. Where should I take them for dinner? McDonald’s. Melanie loved McDonald’s. All kids do, don’t they?

“I wanna go swimming,” said Brenna. “There’s a pool here.”

“You don’t have a bathing suit,” said Rory.

“I can swim in my underwear. Remember sometimes Mommy” (this word was directed at Lily with venom) “takes us to the pool by surprise on Fridays? We do that then.”

“That’s our pool,” said Rory. His hands were tightly balled against each other, his feet pushed together. “Anybody might be at this pool.”

“I wanna go swimming,” Brenna said again.

“We can go if you want to,” said Lily. “C’mon, Rory, it’ll be fun.”

Rory looked like a little old man witnessing Beatlemania, his mouth withered in disapproval. “It’s not our pool.”

“Our pool isn’t our pool either. It’s the neighborhood’s pool.” Brenna hopped off the bed and pattered to the bathroom to retrieve a towel, its nap worn thin with bleach. She mimicked Lily’s voice unkindly. “C’mon, Rory, it’ll be fun.”

  • Take the kids swimming at the pool

The elevator kept stopping at in-between floors and opening on nobody. It smelled like a diaper pail, the bright false note of disinfectant atop human stench.

A surprising number of people were enjoying the indoor pool, which was large and heated and roofed at the shallow end with dim, curving panels of glass, like the old smoking sections at Shoney’s. Late-afternoon sun filtered through, dancing on wet skin. Large red letters painted on the wall shouted NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY and SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK!

Rory, wary at first of stripping down to his Batman underoos, was soon shrieking and splashing with the other nomad kids. Brenna was only just young enough to get away with swimming in her polka-dot day-of-the-week panties, but Lily didn’t spot any creeps by the pool (or any nosy parkers like Mr. Seven-Minutes-By-My-Watch). Just a few over-padded moms and colorless, flabby dads. And one Aryan-type couple with 2.3 perfect blond children.

Lily, thinking about the kids getting dehydrated from the chlorine and the wet heat, went to the lobby to see about a few bottles of water. The front desk clerk sent her to the hotel’s little restaurant, where a bar was open. Warm wood, leather stools, flatscreens posted here and there burbling early-evening programming.

After paying through the nose for three water bottles, she decided the kids were fine where they were – all those puffy parents to watch out for them – and sat at the bar. One glass of wine, just to settle her nerves. Rory and Brenna wouldn’t miss her, surely. They were having fun.

The cool black sphere was much smaller, now, following the distraction of coping with actual children for a few hours. It was hard, harder than she remembered, but she clung to her certainty. There was no one else who could do this. Melanie was too preposterous to mother them. What kind of person “comes out” after ten years of marriage and two children? And takes up with a…a…biker chick from Boston (probably Bar Harbor, in reality)? And cuts her only loving mother out of her life? She didn’t disapprove of lesbians, oh no, nothing like that, but Melanie was obviously mistaken, she was such a fool for boys in high school, giggling on the phone to her girlfriends all night long. This was just another phase. Anyway, Lily had been through dark times, too, weeks when she couldn’t stand another moment of Gordon’s nasty comments over breakfast and cruel hands after bedtime, and she stuck it out until their family was finished, like a woman should. But Melanie couldn’t, not even with a man as fine as Ryan around. No. She had to be herself. What kind of person gives in to such foolishness, turns everybody else’s lives upside down because of some fad? No kind of mother. No kind of daughter.

“Excuse me.” A nice-looking gentleman around her age, smiling. “May I sit down? I won’t bite.”

“Of course.” Lily shifted the water bottles one by one to her left. She fought the urge to pat at her hair. “I’d love some company.”

“That suits me. I never do get used to sitting at a bar alone.”

They chatted. His name was Randolph – not Randy – and his wife had passed away prematurely eighteen months earlier. An embolism. They had gone everywhere together, even when he was on business, as he frequently was (he was a consultant). Now he traveled alone and rarely found anyone pleasant to talk to.

Her face warmed. She lied and told him she was a widow, too. Plenty of time to correct this wee fib if things progressed the right way. Single, handsome, travel-happy men didn’t sit by her just every day. She sipped her wine and tittered at his jokes.

Randolph’s attention flickered to one of the TVs over the bar. He tsked and shook his head. “I hate these,” he said. “So many children missing their mothers.”

The local news was on. The white words on their restless red background dashed against her like a bucket of ice water.

AMBER ALERT

2011 GRAY DODGE GRAND CARAVAN, MA 9CD-R30

FEMALE, AGE EIGHT / MALE, AGE FIVE

TRAVELING WITH CAUCASIAN WOMAN, EARLY 60s, 5’6”, 160 LBS

STATEWIDE

I am not 160 pounds, she thought. I’m 140 if I weigh an ounce. She began to formulate something to say in response to Randolph, something about mothers and children, but one of the flabby dads from the pool rushed in. His face was almost as pale as his Hanes t-shirt, and he was barefoot.

“Yours is the little boy in the Batman shorts?”

Her heart knocked in her throat. “What is it?”

“He’s unconscious, swallowed some water–”

She flew down the burgundy-carpeted hallway, burst through the glass doors. The pool was turbulent but empty, the echoing tile walls near-silent, everyone standing in a little huddle of varying heights near the NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY sign. The adults murmured to each other over the wet heads of their children.

Inside the huddle, the Aryan mom, willowy and tanned (in May? Vain woman), was bent over Rory’s small white body. His hair was mashed to his forehead. Brenna sat on the edge of the deep end, staring at her underwater feet.

More murmuring as Lily approached. She picked out “Where was she?” and “Wasn’t even here this whole time,” and “Looks like a grandmother.” She had a vision of swinging her handbag like a scythe, cutting them all down like wheat. They didn’t know anything. They had no idea.

“Let me through. Rory? Baby?” That sounded right, didn’t it? “What happened to him?”

“Just got out too deep,” someone said. “Got out over his head.”

“His sister started screaming,” someone else added.

The Aryan mom pressed, pressed, pressed on Rory’s sternum, counting to herself. His lips were tinged with blue.

Lily knelt by the boy, getting the knees of her pantyhose wet. “Will he be all right?”

The male copy of the woman performing CPR looked down at Lily. He did not hide his opinion of her absenteeism. “Maybe.”

The lioness was silent, slunk away into a cave or dead asleep in the heat of the sun. The huddle seethed and simmered like a cauldron of heretics.

Twin urges, at this moment: interrupt the woman’s CPR and gather Rory into her arms, as if her embrace could cure all his ills; or get up calmly and run, run, run out of this hotel and out of Chicopee and out of Massachusetts. Run until her feet wore off. To Mexico, perhaps. Rory and Brenna would get sorted out; anyone who watched the evening news would see to that.

The blond woman breathed into Rory’s mouth. Twice.

“We’ve gotta call 911,” someone said.

“No,” said Lily. They’d know about the Amber alert for sure. “No, wait a little longer. He might be okay.”

The Aryan husband uttered a vocal exclamation point. “Are you nuts? He’s got to get to a hospital. My wife can’t do CPR forever.”

“I already called,” someone else said. “They’re on their way.”

Lily’s blood froze. Rory coughed. Spluttered.

Breathing now. Opening his eyes. “Mommy?”

And then Brenna, at the other end of the pool room, in a howl that clanged from every reflective wall like the sword of the archangel: “Where is my MOMMY?

When the ambulance screamed into the parking lot, Lily had her signal on, turning out, toward the Masspike. She was already making another to-do.

  • Return van to Hertz
  • Get home
  • Hang pantyhose up to dry
  • Make tea?
  • Wait for the police

 

 

Katharine Coldiron’s work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, The Escapist, Role/Reboot, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at The Fictator fictator.blogspot.com.

 

Katharine Coldiron

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