You have to understand. None of us heard Mac and Nicole leave. No slamming car doors. No car engines. Nothing. We would have tried to stop them if we’d heard. They were in no condition to drive. They were way drunker than the rest of us after the party. They always are. We left them at their house, passed out in the living room, and walked home just before sunrise. Who knows where they are now. We’ve been wondering that all day.
Mac and Nicole are fairly new arrivals to the neighborhood. They’ve been here maybe ten years. The rest of us have been here forever. They didn’t have a kid when they first got here, of course, that came later. It surprised us. All our kids are grown and gone and we just assumed our little neighborhood would never have kids again – except for visiting grandkids.
Nicole reveled in being pregnant. Being the center of attention was just her thing, but none of us thought of her as mother material and she didn’t prove us wrong. Mac wasn’t dad material as far as that goes, but at least he’d had the job in his first marriage so we figured he might have some clue. Course he didn’t. We’ve never seen his other kids mostly because they’re in England where he’s from originally. Still, he’s basically a good guy – a big deal trial attorney – in the news every other week. He’s that guy who takes the cases no one else will – defends scumbags sometimes – because it’s the right thing to do, he says. Due process and all that crap. A man of principles. We all like him.
We’re one big happy family here. We look out for each other, you know? Check on each other and make sure everyone is okay. We all get along. We have parties together too. It’s kind of a tradition for us to get together about once every couple of weeks. Keeps us from going out drinking and driving. No cabs or Uber out here so if we went to a bar or restaurant somewhere we’d have no choice other than to drive home after several drinks. Our parties keep that from happening. Yup. One big happy family. Well, mostly happy. Adam’s wife left him a year or so ago and Nicole is a pain in the ass. She’s just bat shit. You know?
She’s always yelling at Mac about something he’s done or hasn’t done. You know, stupid stuff. One time Mac said he thought the new tennis pro at the country club we all belong to was good and we all agreed. Nicole went ballistic – said we were all a bunch of assholes for being so disloyal to the previous pro who had given us so much of his time. Hey – we all liked that guy too – we just thought the new one was pretty good. Nicole wouldn’t give it up and finally went home. Hard to even remember whose house we were in when all that went down. Course, she’d forgotten all about it by the next party and was all sweetness and light. Bat shit. That’s all.
Oh – and she’s flirted with all of us too. Acted like she’d like to sleep with any one of us – men and women – but when Adam thought he might take her up on it, she clawed the shit out of his face. Can you believe it? Lucky for Adam, his wife was already long gone and Mac is completely oblivious to the way his wife behaves.
You can never tell what Nicole is going to do next so that’s why we haven’t been too worried about her or Mac. They could be back any minute.
The yelling coming from the living room got the attention of the little girl who had turned six just the day before. Her parents, for their part, were of the opinion that their daughter could sleep through anything so made no effort to argue quietly. Of course, the fact that they were drunk probably had something to do with it. Both were louder after a few drinks and they were way past a few.
The little girl had awakened earlier – before their yelling had started. When she crept out of bed to see if her parents were up yet, she found them asleep in the living room – her father in the recliner, her mother curled up on the love seat – both still in the clothes they’d worn the evening before. She knew better than to disturb them especially after they’d had the neighbors over.
The child had taken herself back to her room and lay in bed trying to read the book that two of the neighbors, Celia and Bob, had given her for her birthday. She knew the title was The Cat in the Hat and she knew the story since her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. O’Donnell, had read it to her. She knew the individual letters but she hadn’t quite figured out the code of what they meant when they were together. She was worried about not being able to read yet and her parents, especially her mother, were pretty unhappy about it too. But, Mrs. O’Donnell had promised them all that she would help her “crack the code” and since the girl loved her teacher the moment she saw her, she had breathed a sigh of relief and for a time, didn’t worry quite as much. Even though she couldn’t read her new book she found pleasure in the pictures and smiled at the antics of the kids and the cat who had so much fun when the mother was gone.
Her parents, who found any excuse to have a party, had invited their neighborhood friends over for her birthday the night before. The little girl had friends of her own from school and asked to have them over instead but her mother was horrified by the prospect of having a houseful of brats even for a couple of hours.
“I’d rather eat rat poison,” she said to her daughter, then laughed to make it seem like it was a joke.
The child had wanted chocolate cake and ice cream but her mother made a carrot cake and didn’t buy any ice cream at all. Still, there were six orange candles, the girl’s favorite color, one for each year, and all the neighbors sang happy birthday to her which had made her smile. Adam, who lived two houses away and always smelled like cigarettes, held her up to blow out the flames while across the room her father poured more wine for two of the guests and laughed at something one of them said.
There had been presents – mostly clothes – that the mother had judged “exquisite” and “tres chic” every time the child opened another one. Her mother imagined that she sounded intelligent and refined when she said such things. The little girl just thought she was funny. Two neighbors, Kayla and Sharon, had given the girl a thick book that they said was called The Secret Garden and told her it was about an orphan who goes to live with an uncle and discovers a beautiful garden behind a wall. She was assured she would love it.
“Maybe Mommy or Daddy will read it to you?” Kayla said.
The girl nodded but knew that her parents never would. Maybe Mrs. O’Donnell would if she asked her sweetly. The child had turned the pages of the thick tome only once and found a few pictures of a girl in a garden. The letters in this book were formed into words that were much longer than in her other book and it worried her that maybe the longer the book, the harder the code would be to crack and she might never figure out the meaning.
After her presents were opened and the little girl had been allowed a small piece of cake, her mother had hugged her close and hissed in her ear that she should “scram and go up to bed.” The child had reluctantly climbed the stairs with her two new books cradled in her arms. Her mother had watched her go and was irritated that her daughter shuffled her feet and looked at the ground as if she had been beaten when a hand had never been lifted to her. She didn’t like the idea of people thinking she was not a good mother so she had called after her.
“I’ll be up to tuck you in later, darling,” she said, as if she did that every night.
The girl peered over the bannister and smiled hopefully, but her mother was already talking to someone else.
Now, as the fight escalated downstairs, the little girl leafed through The Cat in the Hat again and again. She was well practiced in ignoring her parents but this time she could not seem to tune them out and stared at the drawings on the page so intently they blurred into meaningless blue, white and red shapes. Curiosity finally got the best of her and she tiptoed out of her room. She had often observed her parents when they were unaware, fighting, drinking, wrestling naked, as if they were animals at the zoo, strange and unknowable. She sat down at the top of the staircase still holding her book, one finger marking her place.
She could see the back of her mother whose short black dress now looked wrinkled and slightly askew on her hips, holding her sling-back stilettos (shoes she’d told her daughter were important to learn how to wear if she ever wanted to attract a man) with two fingers in one hand. Her other hand held a bottle with amber liquid inside. She yelled at the girl’s father, slurring her words, making it hard to interpret what she was saying. The girl caught phrases like How dare you? and biggest asshole, and words like sonofabitch and motherfucker, words that the little girl had heard before but understood only by the ferocity of their delivery.
Her mother wasn’t even aware of what she was saying. White hot anger, deep in her stomach was all she felt. This marriage had promised perfection – a highly esteemed spouse, travel to exotic places, a grand house to come home to and eventually a daughter to make the ideal family complete. But she discovered that perfection was only in the idea of life with him, excitement only in getting him to fall in love with her and then propose. For a year or so that old excitement – the challenge – had returned as she had talked to him sweetly and gotten him to agree to a child. But, married life and motherhood had become ordinary and boring – chores without end and not even close to perfect. All she wanted to do now was delete this man from her life and memory – forget she had ever known him.
The child could not see her father since her mother hid him, but she could see his feet propped up on the recliner footrest, a hole in one of his socks. She couldn’t make out any of her father’s low droning words, but she saw his hand come up beside her mother holding the remote, his thumb on one button, his only thought to watch City, his team. The sound of soccer fans and the familiar cadence of the English announcers, not unlike her father, filled the room. Her mother smacked the remote with the bottle sending the device clattering across the wooden floor. The bottle slipped from her hand too and thumped without breaking, the liquid pouring out, puddling around it.
The mother screamed then, enraged at being ignored, and launched herself on top of her husband. The recliner tipped over backwards. The little girl lost sight of them but could hear grunts and scrambling over the roaring approval of the soccer fans.
The child leaned forward and in doing so dropped her book and watched it tumble down the stairs, one corner then the other, landing face up in the middle of the entryway. She put her thumb in her mouth and gripped the newel post closest to her. She wished to be in bed again, in the quiet except for the morning birds chirping outside her window but was held rapt by the clumsy dance that came back into view before her.
The recliner was set upright by her father then he stood facing her mother who amazingly still held her shoes in one hand. The fire in the mother’s stomach burned and she flung her shoes one at a time across the room, oblivious to where they landed. She then leapt towards her husband again, as if she was a cat, claws drawn, intent on doing damage. He was tired and wanted to hit her but even drunk, he knew he wouldn’t. He held her at arms length for a moment while she pummeled his arms. Finally, he shoved her away, disgusted. She slammed to the ground, biting the inside of her mouth, tasting blood, jarring the whole house. The sound of her fall reverberated in the bones of their daughter.
The mother’s hair hung limp and straggly over her face and moved with every breath she took. The father found his loafers and struggled to put them on. He finally gave up and walked on the backs of them, staggering to the front door and heaving it open. He turned around intent on telling his wife that he was leaving and not coming back, but then was distracted by the sight of his daughter’s new book on the floor. He stooped over and grabbed it up, wondering how it got there, almost toppling over in the process. Sensing his daughter’s presence, he looked straight up the stairs at her. He had a cut on one cheek that gleamed red. His daughter frowned at the sight of him.
“Get back in bed,” he said. “You shouldn’t be here.”
The girl rose as if commanded by a hypnotist, padded back to her room and climbed into bed, pulling the comforter up to her chin. She lay there with the sunshine streaming down on her, staring at the ceiling, wondering what her father had meant exactly.
Meanwhile her father was stumbling around outside, unaware that he had said anything even remotely important.
The child heard the cars start up – first the one in the driveway, and then a little while later, the one in the garage. She knew that they had left her even before she checked every room and confirmed that she was indeed in the house all by herself. She took the opportunity to go to the dining room, an extension of the living room where her parents had been fighting, and helped herself to a giant piece of cake. One end of the cake had been smushed by one of her mother’s shoes but she didn’t go near that part and thought the other end looked perfectly fine. She ate her cake with her fingers sitting at the table, swinging her bare feet back and forth. She wished for a glass of milk to go with it but was quite sure that her mother hadn’t bought any lately.
When she was done with her piece she dragged a finger through the cream cheese icing on the cake, carefully avoiding the shoe again, and gathered a huge glob of gooey sweetness and popped it into her mouth. She did that three times then licked her fingers one after the other, even her thumbs. In the kitchen, she yanked open the refrigerator door and found a juice box. When she inserted the straw the red juice pulsed out onto the floor. She stared at the redness on the white tile but didn’t clean it up.
She opened the front door and went outside into a day that was starting to warm up. She had never walked outside with bare feet before. The pointy stones in the driveway were painful, and almost made her turn back, but when she planted her feet on the green patch in the middle of the drive her pain disappeared. She flexed her toes, enjoying the damp softness of the grass. Orange and gold leaves fluttered overhead, a towering canopy. She stared up at them, sucking juice from the box still in her hand. The trees made her feel small but she thought she would climb one of them someday when she was older and see what the world looked like from up there.
While she was standing there, smiling around her straw, Celia ran by.
Celia was coming back from her run when she found the little girl outside in her PJs and bare feet, something her parents never allowed. Celia called us when she realized that both Nicole and Mac were gone. We assumed they’d just had a fight – maybe Nicole stormed off and Mac went after her without thinking and that they’d be back soon enough. We tried calling them on their cellphones but Mac’s was under the couch and Nicole’s was dead or off because it went right to voice mail.
We didn’t find anything really out of the ordinary in the house – well, other than one of Nicole’s shoes in the cake and a bottle of bourbon spilled on the floor. But that was it. It didn’t seem any worse than usual.
We’ve stayed here with the kid most of the day. Fixed her food and Celia got her dressed. But the longer Mac and Nicole stayed gone the more we thought we should call the cops and let them look into it. Maybe something bad has happened to them – you know? Like they were in an accident or kidnapped or something. You can never tell. No one is safe these days.
Besides, we all have jobs to go to tomorrow morning, lives to live. We’ve already raised our kids. Been there done that. And even if we wanted to we couldn’t really take care of the kid since she’s not related to any of us in any way. We’re great friends with her parents but we don’t have any legal standing to take care of her. There’s a limit to what friends can do, right?
Mac felt his heart quicken at the sight of Nicole on the train platform. He had left home to get away from her rage and now, there she was. Stopping for coffee along the way and sipping it in the parking lot, Mac had made a plan. It involved getting on the train and never looking back. It wasn’t much of a plan but, all he knew, in his still half-inebriated state, was that he had to go. He was worn down by the confrontation he faced in every aspect of his life – especially with his wife.
But then on his drive to the train station his anger had faded. He was feeling more sober, more awake and aware. He was actually on the verge of sobbing over the mess his life was in – the loss he was about to experience – a repeat of the events of his first marriage. God, his adult children wouldn’t speak to him and now his little girl was already six and he barely knew her.
He hadn’t wanted another child. He knew he was no good at being a father. He was inept and uncomfortable with kids at every stage from crying babyhood to the insolent teenage years. The adoration that other fathers seemed to have for their offspring never blossomed in him. But Nicole had insisted they have this child to bond them more strongly together. But the child had changed their lives in irrevocable ways, so that he and Nicole spent less and less time together.
They’d hired nannies in the beginning. Nicole would love each of them at first then hate them by the end of a week, or a month if they were lucky. She’d be dissatisfied with how they dressed the child or bathed her or even played with her. Nicole fired so many of them that the agency finally refused to send anyone else. Mac’d tried to step up and help but Nicole ended up railing at him as she had the nannies and he’d finally given up trying.
Motherhood brought out all the things that had been in Nicole before but multiplied them by a hundred. She raged and whined and cried at the drop of a hat. She wheedled and manipulated and twisted the things that people said – innocent things – into reasons to take offense. Mac saw all this clearly but still remembered what life had been like before – how she had taken care of him, supporting him through difficult trials, nursing him back to health when he had pneumonia, making wild, passionate love to him – and those memories were a warm feeling deep in his chest that kept him hoping that things would work out.
But, the drunken fight they’d just had was different. He was quite sure Nicole would have killed him if she’d had a weapon. Her rage had been that strong. It was so powerful that all he could think to do was run away.
Then he’d seen her standing there on the platform. He had not expected that and the surprise of her took his breath away. He still found her stunning – crazy, but exciting. He could not understand his own stupidity about her when he was so intelligent in the rest of his life. He kept forgiving and hoping – over and over and over.
“I’m leaving you,” she said when he approached her. “You can’t make me go back.”
He gaped at the idea that she thought he’d come to fetch her.
“You can’t make me go back either,” he said, knowing he sounded childish, but not caring.
“I didn’t even know you were here. I’m leaving. Taking the next train out.”
“I had the idea first,” she said.
“Not so. I’ve been thinking about leaving you for months.” The lie was easy to toss out – an idea made up on the spot to try to hurt her.
“I’ve been thinking about leaving you for years,” she countered. “I thought marrying an old fart would insure a short marriage, but no such luck. You’re too damn healthy. And you knocked me up besides.”
Her words felt like jabs to his stomach and he clenched his ab muscles instinctively like the boxer he’d been as a teenager to lessen the impact. Long moments passed before he could respond. His fears that she wanted him dead were confirmed and it was almost more than he could bear. But the attorney in him couldn’t help but argue.
“Having a child was your choice. Not mine. You wanted it so much and I thought it would work because I loved you and you loved me,” he said. “I know you did. Even you can’t act that well.”
“You don’t know anything,” Nicole said.
“Have we not had a good life together?” he pressed on. “We have a great house. We travel. Go to shows in New York. Parties in DC.”
“We haven’t done those things for years. The kid changed everything. We never go anywhere now. Except for those ridiculous neighborhood parties. I’m sick of all those idiots.”
“I thought you liked those people.”
“I did when we first moved here. But then I got to know them. Such stupid people.”
“What about our daughter? Do you not care anything about her? You can’t just leave her.”
“Why not? You are.”
“One of us has to stay.”
“Why?” Her voice softened. “We could both just walk away and start over. Together. Go back to the way our life used to be. Couldn’t we?” She put her hand gently on his chest and looked deeply into his eyes – a gesture from the beginning of their relationship. Her red nails were bright against the white of his shirt. “We could walk away.”
Mac took Nicole’s shoulders in his hands. She stared steadily back at him and he could see that she was serious. The mantra of her words was mesmerizing. He shifted his weight and closed his eyes, unable to stop the film from playing in his mind that showed the possibilities of the life she was suggesting. The two of them holding hands on the beach, sipping mojitos in a bar in Miami or Havana as they had when they first met, when they began their affair. Tubes tied. Vasectomy. A rented furnished apartment. No worries.
His daughter’s image erupted behind his lids and he opened his eyes with a start. Nicole read the look on his face and her hand flew out to slap him. Mac was more sober, though, and quicker and caught her wrist. She pulled free and he let her go.
She took a step back and laughed. “You are such a limp dick.”
Her words stung him and he wanted to sting her back.
“You’re incapable of love aren’t you?” he said. But as the words left his mouth he knew by the smile on her face that it wasn’t true. Of course she loved someone.
As the doors of the train hissed shut Nicole put her hand, palm flat on the window as if to touch Mac one last time. It was something she’d seen in a movie once and thought it was romantic and heartbreaking and her throat knotted with pain as Mac stared at her with what could only be longing. She had read the signs – that he was considering divorce – and that, she realized, was the source of much of her anger. She had not allowed a man to leave her since her father had died when she was eight and left her alone to look after her volatile mother. Now she was satisfied that she had left Mac at the right moment – with him still wanting her, needing her in his life. She had kept the upper hand.
The train sped up and she breathed deeply, untying the cords in her constricted throat. She sank into one of the orange vinyl seats on the aisle. With every movement forward she felt freer and happier, as if all was right with the world again. She would buy new clothes, rent an apartment, or maybe live at the Carlyle. She would be an unknown woman alone in the city, not a mother, not a wife, but someone who dressed elegantly and strolled down Park Avenue making people wonder who she was. She would make new friends, take a new lover. Find someone who could help her extricate herself from her life with Mac and the girl. Just as Mac had done years ago for her when she was involved with someone else. The world was full of possibilities. She wasn’t that old yet and she could be anyone she wanted to be. The perfect life she wanted was still within reach.
By the time the train reached Stamford she had put everything except her future out of her mind.
The girl heard the voices of the neighbors who had gathered around her all day. They whispered and laughed and argued. It wasn’t much different than the party the night before. She had not paid particular attention to what they were talking about – although she knew it was about her and where her parents were.
In the afternoon, as the sun was starting to go down behind the hills across the road, she ignored Celia who was talking on the phone, focusing instead on the cartoons on the screen. She tried to imagine that Celia’s words had nothing to do with her. She had to pay attention, though, when Bob turned off the TV and she considered whether or not he would turn it back on if she started to cry.
Celia pulled her onto her lap in a chair by the cold gaping hole of the fireplace that her parents never used.
“Honey,” Celia started. “We’ve called the police to see if they can find your parents.”
“Okay,” the girl said.
“You’re sure you don’t know where they are?”
The child shook her head. She didn’t know anything.
“If we can’t find them you might have to go with the police for a little while. They will take care of you until they find someone for you to stay with.”
“Can’t I stay here with you?”
“It might be possible for a few days. It will depend on what the police say. Don’t you have any relatives we could call? Grandparents?”
The girl shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.” She stared into the cold fireplace for a moment. “Who will I stay with if I don’t have relatives?”
Sharon knelt down next to her then. “Someone like me will look at a big list of nice houses where you might stay.”
“What do you mean like you?” the girl said. Then she dropped her voice to a whisper like her mother often did when talking about Sharon and Kayla. “You mean a dyke?”
The little girl watched as Sharon’s lips formed a tight smile and she knew that she had once again repeated something she shouldn’t.
“No honey. I’m a social worker – someone who knows what to do for children when their parents aren’t able to take care of them.”
“Oh,” the child said and smiled at Sharon, as if she understood, even though she didn’t really.
“Wherever the police take you, there will probably be other children too, maybe kids your age, and some nice grown-ups to look after you.”
“Okay,” the girl said softly. She looked around the room at all the grown-ups standing there. “Can I watch TV now?”
“Sure you can,” Bob said. He clicked it back on with the remote.
As Mac left the train platform to go home, he didn’t feel any particular urgency or worry about his daughter. He considered calling the house phone but didn’t think she would answer as Nicole had always told her not to and then he’d discovered that he didn’t have his phone anyway. Even though his daughter was only six, she had been adept at amusing herself for quite some time. He assumed she was still in her room where he’d told her to go or downstairs watching TV. He knew she would be fine just as he had been as a boy, during the long years his father was in the Navy. How many times had his mum nipped out in the evening for a quick pint and not turned up until morning? There’d never been a problem. Nothing bad ever happened. Where was the harm in being left alone?
He drove back towards home, stopping at Starbucks again for more coffee. As he left the drive through window an overwhelming exhaustion hit him and he pulled into a parking space to rest for a moment. He leaned his head onto the steering wheel and closed his eyes. He would rest for only a moment, he told himself.
Waking with a start several hours later, he was shocked to see the time on the dashboard. The hills glowed pink, the sun already down, the light fading. His daughter would be upset now and he dreaded the possibility of tears.
He drove home as quickly as he dared and pulled into his driveway. He was horrified to see a police car already parked there. Had something happened to his daughter? He hurried into the house and turned the corner into the living room. All his neighbors and two police officers, a man and a woman, looked towards him.
“What’s happened?” he asked.
When the girl’s father came home she was disappointed. She heard him whisper to the neighbors, Celia mostly, that the girl’s mother had left on the train and wasn’t coming back. The girl was not surprised. Her mother had often threatened to “run away.”
The male police officer, Terrance, took her father to the study to talk to him in private. The girl gripped the hand of Officer Mary, more tightly. Mary was a big woman, tall with dark brown skin and deep-set eyes. She was everything the girl’s mother was not and the girl liked that about her.
“Can we go now?” the girl asked. She pulled on Mary’s hand, feeling a need – a strong desire – to get the woman to do what she wanted. “I want to go. Like Celia and Sharon said. Please?”
Celia started to say something but before she could, Mary put up her hand like a traffic cop stopping cars.
“Maybe we should have a little chat outside while my partner interviews her dad,” she said.
“Whatever you want,” Celia said. “Don’t let me get in the way.”
The girl let Mary lead her to the door. She looked back once at Celia and saw that she was standing there with her arms folded across her stomach.
Once outside, Mary tried to lead the girl down the driveway but she balked.
“Could you carry me,” she said. “That makes my feet hurt.”
Mary laughed. “Of course.” She scooped her up and carried her on her hip then set her down on the patch of grass. “Okay?”
The girl nodded and curled her toes into the cool grass like she had that morning. It was barely light outside now but she could still see the trees silhouetted against the sky when she looked up and the porch light illuminated her front door when she looked back. The few bugs left alive after summer swarmed around its warm radiance.
“I need to know why you don’t want to stay here with your dad?” the officer asked.
The girl shrugged. She couldn’t put into the words all of the millions of reasons why. “I just want to go with you.”
“Is your dad mean to you?”
The girl considered this. “Sometimes he yells.”
“Does he do that a lot?”
“No. But I really want to go.”
“Does he ever do anything to you that you don’t like? Touch you in ways that aren’t nice? Does he ever hit you?”
Those questions were easier. “No. He never touches me. He doesn’t hit me.”
“What is it then?” Mary asked. “What does your dad do?”
The girl looked up and up to Mary’s face, a face that she loved already, and then up further into the trees she hoped to climb one day.
“My dad never does anything to me. He never does anything at all.”
Mac called to his daughter from the door.
Both the girl and Officer Mary turned to look. Behind Mac, Officer Terrance nodded at Mary assuring her that he’d talked with Mac sufficiently and was satisfied with the outcome.
Mary took the girl’s hand and led her back to the concrete slab of the porch. The stones made the girl wince but she did not ask to be carried this time. She gripped Mary’s hand more tightly the closer she got to the house, but Mary pried her fingers away at the door and pushed her toward her father.
“Come,” Mac said. “I’ll get us some supper.”
He held out his hand to his daughter and she stared at it, hesitating, before placing her small hand into his, and letting him lead her back inside.