by Karen DeGroot Carter
If I was a punctuation mark, I’d be a semicolon; I can never leave well enough alone. Like if a stranger sits next to me and Ellie on a stool in a coffee shop and says so much as hello, I’ll tell them my life story. Which life story I tell depends on my mood, or whether my audience needs a pick-me-up or a sobering up. I’ve got a story for every occasion, my mama once said. I don’t remember what tale I’d been spinning at the moment she declared this, but I’ll never forget the look on her face, like she was irritated by me but, at the same time, a tad tickled that I shared this trait with her.
Ellie likes the high stools at the counters in diners and coffee shops, and if the seat twirls, that’s a bonus. She says the big benches in the booths make her feel shrunk up and swallowed, but the stools let her sit up high and look around to see the world. That’s how she says it: See the World! As if there’s much to see in any of the zillion coffee shops we’ve visited as we’ve crisscrossed Kansas for the past six months and twenty-seven days, looking for the perfect place to settle.
As soon as we plunk onto a couple of stools, I can always tell from the waitress’s reaction what kind of meal we’ll have. If she leans toward Ellie and smiles and babbles at her, we’re here for a bit and will probably end up with a free piece of pie, if it’s not too early, or a cinnamon bun or muffin if it is. During the meal I’ll chitchat with the lady behind the counter, ask about this or that, getting a feel for the town we’ve stumbled upon, calculate the worth of settling in, finding work, sticking around.
But if the lady can scowl at a perky five-year-old like Ellie even before my little firecracker has uttered one word, then I know we’ll be scarfing down our eggs, bacon, and toast lickity-split and heading out the door a.s.a.p. to burp our way down the highway to the next town.
Folks love to see me and Ellie together. One time at a market during a snack run an older couple stopped us and grinned; I knew a hair comment was on the way. “Look at that color,” “those waves,” “shines like a new penny,” “you look just like your mother, young lady,” etc., which Ellie eats right up like she’s licking an ice cream cone, eager to catch every drip. I smile at my proud girl and smooth her hair the way I know the strangers would love to do. Someday Ellie may hate her invisible eyelashes and the bright freckles across her nose, but for now she adores me and the reddish blonde hair we share. She’s growing hers long, too; says she wants to wear it to her waist someday, just like I do.
Trouble is, everything about her is growing too fast. My little girl, who used to snuggle up happy in the back seat of my Datsun when we had nowhere else to sleep at night—cushioned by her pillows with their Dora cases, holding close her lovey blanket, still sucking her thumb—has legs that are suddenly growing longer. So now she needs to stretch, wants to sleep in a real bed with sheets like they had at our last motel, not on a couch at some stranger’s house, which has happened once or twice. Life on the road gets expensive, though, with gas prices through the roof. Nearly twenty dollars to fill the tank! Who can afford that and motel rooms on top of it? So we’re careful with the cash. I only take jobs I can do with Ellie at my side so there’s no need for a babysitter, and sometimes we sleep in the car and try to make the best of it. We’re inseparable, me and my girl.
My last job at a grocery store was one of the best, and we stayed in that town for pretty near two months. I worked in the deli, slicing boneless mounds of processed everything from turkey breast to cooked ham, from liverwurst to head cheese, and within a few days I was practically running the place. I’ve worked enough odd jobs to know how to determine what’s most important and get that done right every time—and then teach everyone else how to do it right, too. Even Ellie knew enough to keep her fingers out of the tuna salad, which she could’ve eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The day my boss offered me the position of deli assistant manager, though, was the day I knew we had to leave. The thought of becoming management gives me the willies. That coupled with a conversation I’d had with a co-worker during a shift change (there was only room for one of us to work behind the counter at a time) convinced me it was time to head out. This lady was always eyeing Ellie, even though Ellie spent most of my shifts playing in the back; sometimes coloring, sometimes watching the little television from the break room (part of the arrangement for getting me to work there in the first place). Ellie hadn’t watched much TV in her short life and could sit there for hours watching cartoons or even grown-up game shows. She’s got an amazing memory for numbers and calculating and loves watching The Price Is Right. I always knew when the game about grocery items was on because Ellie would zip by me to check the prices of things on the shelves before running back to yell the answers at the screen.
But this one lady thought it was shameful—she didn’t say this exactly, I could see it in her eyes—that Ellie wasn’t in school. This lady dropped hints all the time about her grandson starting kindergarten—hints I had no trouble ignoring—but then she mentioned her sister-in-law worked for the school district. That got me nervous. So when my boss offered me a promotion to assistant manager, I knew it was time. We’d had a good run. Although we were settled into a little furnished room that, after a while, felt like our own apartment, it was time to go. Ellie wasn’t happy about it, but I explained I couldn’t have someone sniffing into our business; no telling how long before the whole town would start coming ’round.
Now we’re here, only an hour and a half from the last place, but as far as Ellie knows we could be on the other side of the country. I’m not willing to go that far, though. Kansas is nice and flat and has four seasons, even though they’re all mild with hardly any snow, just a few tornadoes here or there, but we know how to hunker down when we hear that warning on the radio. I’ve always thought it’d be fun to be one of those storm chasers. When the sky turns green and the wind starts howling and the radio starts buzzing those warnings that make Ellie’s eyes wide and her face even paler than normal, I tell you, I’m tempted to take off and join the people who are crazy enough to tail a tornado. Of course, I don’t—because I have Ellie.
Our new town’s got a nice diner with curtains at the front window and specials written neatly in chalk on a blackboard by the door. The woman behind the counter greets us with a cheerful hello and introduces herself as Leslie while pouring my coffee. The place is busy, but Leslie takes her time chatting with us and writing down our orders. We are starved and Ellie hasn’t slept much due to our tearful early morning departure from what she insisted was her favorite town ever. But the novelty of the new diner works its magic; she’s in a pretty good mood for the moment, especially since she’s discovered that her stool not only spins but whips around at full speed. The man next to Ellie moves over two spots, but Leslie just grins and chides him for being a scaredy-cat. “She won’t take off on that thing, just needs to get the wiggles out, am I right?”
Back in our room I imitate Leslie by adding “am I right?” to practically everything I say. I say it with a twinkle in my eye as I tickle Ellie to make her stop complaining about our new room, which I call a suite even though it’s dingy and small. “A sweet suite,” I say, pointing to the beat-up mini fridge. “Am I right?” But Ellie’s giggling has already faded, and she suddenly looks very tired and sad. I consider packing the car and driving on to another town that might cheer her up, a town with a big playground or something; Leslie has already told me the only playground in this town is behind the school, and we can’t go there on weekdays. But I decide Ellie just needs some rest and we’ll stay put for the time being.
One thing our room does have is a small television, so for the rest of our first morning Ellie watches daytime shows while I read the help wanted ads in a newspaper Leslie let me take from the diner. Ellie seems happy enough, all propped up against her Dora pillows, thumb in, blankie hooked over her arm, and she’s more than happy to spend her mornings like this for the next couple of days, long enough for me to find a job for an old doctor whose one and only secretary of forty years or so, Darlene, has just died. I don’t even need the classifieds to find that job; Leslie suggests it one morning when I run in without Ellie to get some muffins-to-go for little miss fussy pants who refuses to step out in a light drizzle.
Doctor Miller is sitting at the counter all forlorn when Leslie waves me over. She introduces us, and as Doc tells me about Darlene, I quickly learn why he’s so morose—and it’s not just because Darlene has died suddenly. Turns out Doc hasn’t a clue how his secretary of forty years filed anything and he’s lost as a blind puppy in his own office. He’s closed shop for a week, unable to face his patients.
Of course, I take pity on the poor man; what job-seeking woman wouldn’t? I tell him right then and there I’ve worked in lots of offices and will figure out Darlene’s filing system in no time. Not to mention take phone calls and schedule appointments while I’m at it. Of course, I make clear that Ellie and a TV are part of the deal. He agrees and, when I say I’ll start the next day, hands me a fifty-dollar bill. I stuff it in my pocket, grab my bag of muffins, and run through the rain to tell Ellie the good news.
But Ellie has vanished. The room is just like how I left it and yet it’s not, the door open to let the rain soak the stale carpet (and the bag of muffins I’ve dropped); the television buzzing with some damn game show where everyone’s smiling and jumping like morons; the mirror etched with my reflection, my face drawn tight and terrified like a bow on the head of a furious toddler. The bed where Ellie sat just a few minutes earlier—I swear I was gone only a few minutes—is still rumpled, beat down and rumpled like my heart.
I barrel past the other motel rooms, all their doors shut tight against the rain, all their windows covered with those layers of god-awful draperies that so solidly shut out all light, all chance of someone peeking in to discover what one’s visit to this hellhole is really all about, and I realize I’d left the draperies open.
The thought lands like a direct kick to my stomach. I left the draperies wide open so anyone could peer inside, see Ellie alone, and reach in to pluck her out through that window for all the good I’d done to keep her safe. Of course that hadn’t happened exactly—the window was still intact—yet the sight of all those tight-as-a-drum rooms sitting so solid and unaccosted while my own room, my own life, has been ripped open and my Ellie taken away threatens to convince me that anything, any horror, could come to pass, and possibly already has.
I barge into the lobby to find Ellie, unharmed and happy, sitting on her grandmother’s lap, a cop and the motel manager standing by. My relief fractures into despair and from there to anger and anguish all in a matter of seconds. Ellie is eating peanut M&Ms from a machine, or maybe my mama came prepared to bribe her—backed up by the motel manager with his damn keys and the cop, who probably had his hand on his holster just in case. Did they knock? Was Ellie scared? Did she hide? She probably just looked out the window, saw some vaguely familiar lady with a crazy grin waving a yellow pack of M&Ms, and flung the door open. Mama likely scooped Ellie into her arms, though the girl’s gotten so big it was probably a struggle to carry her two feet, much less all the way to the lobby. Maybe the policeman carried her, Ellie admiring his badge the whole while or reaching out to her grinning grandmother and everything she seemed so eager to offer.
How did they find me? I’ve got my suspicions. Mama has always pretended to be a little daft and cheap, but when things really matter, like when her favorite daughter’s child has been away too long, Mama has always made things work out the way she wants. I could tell you all sorts of stories about how she went above and beyond when my sister was sick, but it makes me sick just to think of it. I never mattered so much as my sister. With me, Mama was a cheapskate, never offering to buy me something like a pretty bracelet just because or a yellow dress for a special occasion. For Emmalee, though, the sky was the limit. I bet Mama’s damn mattress is stuffed with more dollar bills than a bank vault, and always has been. It takes creating a crisis to get her to admit to as much, though. Not that it did her any good as far as her precious Emmalee was concerned.
“You found me,” I say.
“It wasn’t hard,” Mama answers, stroking Ellie’s hair. The urge to yank that child off my mama’s possessive, grandmotherly lap and away from her cloying hands is almost too much to bear, but I keep my wits. I might not have spotted the cop car in the parking lot—or maybe it was parked around the corner—but there is still a cop standing close by, so I don’t move. Just the thought of dancing that tango again keeps me in my place—as I’m sure Mama knew it would when she arranged for her surprise reentry into my, and Ellie’s, life.
“It was almost like you wanted to be found,” she says, still stroking Ellie like a pet. “Seems a concerned school employee in some town reported an unenrolled girl with strawberry blond hair had suddenly disappeared. Or didn’t you think I let the police in bordering states know what you were up to the very day you left? You’ve never been hard to predict, Mariposa.”
Mama taps Ellie’s little freckled nose, and Ellie giggles but then eyes me, like she’s known more all along than she’s allowed. Another family trait.
“I was going to home school her,” I say. “Now that I’ve got a job. I just wanted―”
Mama and Ellie both stare at me. “You wanted what, Mariposa?” Mama demands, hissing low now. “To pretend to be your sister for a few months? Is that why you ran off with your poor, frightened niece right after her mother passed?” The tears have welled now, adding to her performance.
“Ellie was never frightened,” I say, glancing first at the motel manager―who I never really liked anyway and who, I’m sure, has somehow telepathically communicated to the entire town, including Leslie and Doc Miller, what a piece of work I turned out to be―and then at the cop, who straightens and moves his hand to his holster the second I look his way. I wonder where his partner is. There’s always a partner.
“We had fun,” I say. “She loved spending time with me. Isn’t that right, Ellie?”
I aim a weak smile at Ellie, which she kind of returns. Suddenly she’s shy with me; unsure even. Then she rests her head on her grandmother’s shoulder and turns away from me, shattering my heart for good, and I know no story I ever make up―no place I go, nothing I do―will matter in the face of this. Nothing will save me now.
Karen DeGroot Carter, a native of Syracuse, New York, and a graduate of Syracuse University, lives in Denver. Her first novel, One Sister’s Song, was published by Pearl Street Publishing of Denver; her short stories have been recognized by Writer’s Digest and Glimmer Train Stories; her poetry has been published in journals such as California Quarterly and is forthcoming in Nixes Mate Review; and her nonfiction has appeared in Publishers Weekly and other publications.