Chapter 25: Present 9

Present #9

            Lynnie spoke French. She knew what she meant. And she knew, at that moment, that they were leaving.

I bolted out of my bed the morning after my walk knowing exactly what I was going to do. I threw on clothes, brushed my hair and rushed downstairs. It was early, 6:30 maybe, and my parents were still asleep. I grabbed my father’s car keys from the drawer, left a note saying I’d be home soon, and ran out the door.

On the car ride there I didn’t know what I expected to find. I didn’t know if I wanted to find anything. I just needed to make my peace with it and move on as best I could. God knows, I had waited long enough.

The lawn had been cut in the last several weeks, but twigs from the oak tree lay scattered across the ground. The old tree bent like an elderly hunchback. The shutters, those that still clung to the house by one rusted nail, were no longer of a distinguishable color. The house faced a similar predicament. The pink looked more like peach.

I moved the car into the driveway since no one was coming. No one had in nearly fifteen years. Unwilling to open the car door, I pulled out my cell phone. I left a message for Luke and told him to meet me at the café a few blocks from my apartment at seven the next night. Finally, I coaxed myself out of the car.

I didn’t bother with the front door. It would be locked. Off to the left of the front yard, hidden by several formerly tame and trimmed trees, was the small gate that led to the backyard. I had to stand on my tiptoes to reach the inside latch, nestled in the leaves of a sagging tree branch. Years of rain and disuse had rendered the gate almost unserviceable.The gate only swung open after a forceful kick. Its swollen boards seemed as if they might disintegrate at the slightest touch. With one kick, the wood yielded like a couch cushion.

The little house we played in as children had collapsed inward into itself, the roof having caved long ago. The doorway arch, the only part I desperately needed, had survived the years of abandonment. Just to the right of the door was a small drawer, formerly part of the playhouse’s kitchen. I reached for the knob and jiggled it open. The spare key, protected by the drawer, was still intact; it would work.

The forgotten key fit the lock to the front door. It creaked and hawed until the door opened to reveal the narrow hallway I had walked so many times before. But on this occasion it held a silent solemnity, an expectation; perhaps it wanted someone to dust the hardwood floor that had not felt feet in a decade and a half. The lighting inside was dim; the dirt and grime covering the windows blocked the fair morning sun. When the light trickled through, I glanced around. Cracks had split the walls and spiderwebs nestled in the high corners of the living room, dining room, every space I cautiously passed. Dust flew as I treaded across the floor. Occasionally, the dust flew into my nostrils, my mouth—the air so stilted I began to cough. The Enson-Mortons clearly had never returned, unnoticed by neighbors.

It was all part of the fairytale I had woven, the labyrinth of memories I had created, nurtured layers, imagined scenarios, fantasy conversations—talking to the moon even though they couldn’t hear me. I just wanted out of the ordinary, normal life I led—out from under the smothering, protective love of my parents. I wanted the fairytale before my time. They hadn’t come back. Dozens of those imagined scenarios dissipated in a moment.

The furniture had been left in its place, the loveseat from the antique shop unmoved in the living room. The same went for the plates and glasses in the kitchen. Most of the silverware had been taken. The pantry was empty and the appliances unplugged. I flicked the light switch, but the lights didn’t turn on.

There were few places in the house  I had rarely entered. They were off-limits to everyone unless we were with Lynnie or Dave. They were the office, the master bedroom, and the attic—one room on each floor.

I decided to start with Dave’s office. It was neater than I remembered, probably because he’d taken most of his papers with him. It felt like a showroom. I didn’t really know what I was looking for—a clue about why they left, who they were. They were paradoxes—bohemian and refined– personalities that did not reconcile.

The bottom drawer of Dave’s desk served as a file cabinet, but no files remained. I opened the drawer above it, expecting to find office supplies. If there had been any, they too had been boxed and taken. In their place were several medicine bottles, some sealed, and a business card.

The medication in the bottles had hardly been used, if at all; the bottles were probably the same ones into which I had seen Lynnie drop pills when Dave refused to take them. I looked at the labels; they were antidepressants, all expired. The business card was for the doctor who prescribed them—a psychiatrist from Montreal. I tucked the contents of the drawer into my purse. My search through the rest of the desk yielded no results, so I headed upstairs.

Little remained in the master bedroom. The bedframe had been left, along with a couple empty nightstands and a painting above the bed. It had clearly been made by Lynnie, with a portrait of the two of them and the words “Have the courage to be exactly who you are.” I wanted to come back for it, take it with me. Before proceeding to the attic, I checked the two children’s bedrooms. They had been nearly untouched. Their clothes were gone, along with a few stuffed animals. It was like visiting a museum, maybe a mausoleum.

Sitting perfectly in the center of Romaine’s bed was Porgy, her stuffed pig, as if they’d expected me to retrieve him. I lay down on the bed, clutching him, and stayed there a while, wishing I could cry.

When I collected myself, I proceeded to the attic. It was empty. There was no equipment. The bookshelves, formerly saturated with pots and little figurines, were bare. Only two boxes in the corner remained. They had been taped shut.

Before I really registered what I was doing, I took the house key out and ripped apart the tape closing the first box.

Inside were dozens of photo albums, labeled by year, but otherwise in an arbitrary order: 1976 under 1981 under 1984 under 1977. I opened the top album, 1977, to a page in the middle. The page was thicker than the others due to a postcard. It was addressed to Vera Morton, signed by a James. Dave must have had a sister. I flipped to another page, further in back. It hosted a photo of a girl, unmistakably Lynnie, with long and straight platinum blonde hair held back by a bow. She was about eleven, in the pink ruffled dress I’d worn years before, sitting on a couch next to a boy her age, with dark curly hair and wide eyes. On closer inspection, it looked like Dave.

The next scrapbook came from 1984. On the first page, Lynnie blew out eighteen candles on a birthday cake, Dave to her right, an unfamiliar woman—severe looking, I thought—to her left. Her smile looked like a grimace. The other pages were blank. I moved on to the next album.

Nineteen-eighty-one was photo after photo of Lynnie and Dave. Others made several appearances, but it was largely the two of them. Toward the end of the book, I found the first caption. It was a photo of Lynnie and Dave sitting on a staircase. The caption read: “Vera Morton and James Enson enjoy each other’s company on the school steps.” But it was undeniably Lynnie and Dave. I put the book down exactly where it was and keyed open the next box.

It didn’t make sense yet, but I was determined it would. Lynnie and Dave. Vera and James. It didn’t compute.

The second box boasted piles of unsorted photos atop likely unfilled photo albums. At the top was a photo of Ara, Romaine and me in our Thursday tea best, crumbs coating our mouths. I smiled and slipped it into my purse. I began to sift through the photos, removing and placing them beside the box in order to get to the photo albums. Between the photos and the albums was a solitary newspaper article, jaundiced and worn at the edges, as if it had been handled, folded and creased too many times.

I began to read. It was a missing persons article for two wealthy New York teenagers, both eighteen, who hadn’t returned home from school one day. Their parents suspected that the two had run away because the medication used to treat the boy’s bipolar disorder had been taken. The article listed the number for the police department above a black and white photograph. The caption revealed the teenagers’ names as Veronica Gwendolynn Morton and James Davison Enson. The photo was of Lynnie and Dave.

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Chapter 24: Memory 13

24Memory #13

            A couple months after the mysterious woman came the mysterious phone call and its aftermath. It was July, and I had been invited over for a sleepover before we parted ways presumably only for the majority of August.

We had grand plans for that evening. We were going to go to the diner, which we never did since Lynnie and Dave didn’t eat meat. But since I was the one leaving, we decided to go anyway. There were a couple vegetarian salads on the menu. After dinner, we were going to get ice cream. Then we were going to make a fort and watch a movie.

We were standing in the hallway when the phone rang.

Lynnie answered it. At the time, she couldn’t find her purse, so she ran into each room checking for it. This was not a rare occurrence. She never seemed to remember where she put it down.

“Hello?” She asked, breathless and hunched, her elbows on the counter. “Yes?” She bolted straight up. “Of course. Yes. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

With that, she hung up. She looked to her right to find her purse. She picked it up and rushed past us, opening the door to Dave’s office, outside of which we waited.

“Dave, I’m taking the car to New York. I’ll be back in the morning.” She announced.

“What?”

Sensing from Dave’s tone what was to come, Lynnie closed the door to his office, leaving us to hear only the garbled ravings of their argument. Ara wanted to press her ear to the door and listen, but Romaine and I stopped her.

“There’s a reason she closed the door, Ara.” Romaine said. “Maybe we should wait upstairs.”

We all decided that this was taking their privacy too far.

After what seemed like hours of Dave yelling and Lynnie yelling a little less loudly back, the door was thrown open.

“I have to go. I can’t leave him there alone.” Lynnie said as she emerged.

Dave said something incomprehensible, but angry. Lynnie turned back toward him and snapped in a way I’d never seen her before.

“You will not control my life. That’s what we got away from, remember?”

She left by the front door. Dave didn’t stop her. He walked out of his office moments later.

“So, shall we hit the diner?” He asked, holding his hands up. It was as if nothing had happened, except that he seemed too calm.

We nodded and headed off for dinner. We had a fine time with Dave. He let us get double scoops at the ice cream shop because he knew Lynnie would never approve. We wished she were with us anyway.

That night we watched The Little Mermaid, and Dave read the original Hans Christian Andersen tale before bed, although I learned, much later in life, that he changed the ending to fit the tone of the movie.

I awoke at seven the next morning. I  tiptoed out of bed and around Ara and Romaine, who were still soundly asleep. At seven in the morning, all I wanted was a glass of water, so I went downstairs to fetch one. No one was there; Dave was likely still sleeping. I grabbed a glass from the cabinet and poured one myself. When I had finished, I sat down at the kitchen table and waited.

At eight, the front door opened slowly and softly. I ran into the hallway, knowing it was Lynnie. She stood on the balls of her feet, careful not to put down her heels, and clutched the door, trying to make as little noise as possible. She waved when she saw me.

“Anyone else awake?” She asked.

I shook my head.

“I’ll be back down in a minute.”

She hurried up the stairs. She wasn’t really a minute, because I spent a half hour watching the minute hand make its way around the clock. When she returned, both Dave and Romaine were with her.

“Who wants breakfast?” She asked.

Romaine and I nearly bounced out of our seats. Dave just sat down. Lynnie began chopping fruit. She didn’t attempt to make conversation. Neither adult brought up the previous night. I knew Romaine worried. Everything seemed like the calm before the storm.

When my mother came to pick me up later that afternoon, Lynnie hugged me tight. It was supposed to be the last time I saw them before vacation. Instead, Lynnie called the next morning and begged my mother to let me come over for just a little bit.

“Adieu, chérie,” she said.

I knew that it meant “goodbye” so I said “goodbye” back. It was like a death.

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Chapter 23: Memory 12

23Memory #12

            Things went back to normal for the most part after the woods incident. My mother insisted that everyone stay over at our house for the weekend so no one else would get sick. Lynnie thanked her when she came to take us all to school (and nursery school for Boo) on Monday morning. We would have been more excited if we were less frightened.

Once we resumed our after-school schedule, we grew skittish around Dave. Lynnie no longer asked us to get him at meal times; she did it herself. He returned to his usual demeanor. He even asked if we could have Thursday teatime again, and we missed it too much to turn him down.

One Monday in late May, we were all at the house. Dave was in his office, working frantically. His exclamations were so loud we could hear them in the kitchen, even though his door was closed. Lynnie helped us make rice krispie treats. By “helped,” she did most of the work while we colored at the table. Occasionally, one of us would wander over and ask to stir for a couple seconds. She was making several batches because our third grade class was having a party the next day following a reading of the fairytales we’d written in the last month. I wrote a story based on a combination of Peter Pan and Cinderella. Romaine opted for a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel.

The rice krispie making took up most of the afternoon. Ara counted the marshmallows we needed, mainly so she could demonstrate how easily she could count to forty. I measured seven cups of rice krispies and Romaine stirred the marshmallows until they melted. Stirring the rice krispies in was too hard, so we had Lynnie do it.

Around four o’clock there was a knock at the door. The Enson-Mortons rarely had visitors. We ran down the hall to see who it was.

“I want to open the door!” Ara screamed. She was in front.

When Ara reached the door, she waited for the rest of us to catch up, Lynnie the last to arrive. Ara slowly opened it, pulling it further and further back until she was squished against the wall.

Standing on the front step was a woman of almost sixty who looked so out of place on the Enson-Mortons’ doorstep that I thought she must have the wrong house. She was dressed impeccably in a navy and white tweed suit with buttons so shiny I couldn’t tear my eyes away. A strand of pearls decorated her neck. A matching pair of pearl earrings hung from her ears, barely visible behind her shoulder-length, light-brown hair. Her green eyes, ones that might be bright had she smiled, appeared dull and rigid. Her posture made her seem taller than she was; she struck me as positively regal. She was unlike anyone I’d ever seen before.

“Lynnie, now, is it?” She asked, looking past the four children at her feet. There was something wrong about the way she said it.

We turned to Lynnie, whose jaw had gone slack.

“Now, I don’t expect you to invite me in yourself, so I’ll save you the trouble.” The woman continued. She stepped into the house, her tiny heels clacking against the floor. She walked forward like a ballerina—a long, stretching stride, impossibly fluid and graceful.

“How did you,” Lynnie began.

The woman held up one of the business cards Lynnie had given away at the art fair several weeks before.

“A friend of mine bought one of your works. Very nice, I may add.” The woman looked around, her eyes resting on our small, motley crew. Ara pulled at her hair, weeding out the melted marshmallows that had become stuck. Multi-colored markers dotted my face and Boo’s hands. Romaine alone looked presentable, her arms resting at her sides, as if imitating the woman in front of us.

“Thank you.”

Lynnie hadn’t moved a millimeter since the door had opened. The woman stared at us, inspecting our faces, our fingers, the way we stood completely still, too struck to scamper off.

“Goodness, are these all yours? What’s your name?” She asked Boo, leaning down. Even bending down, her back remained straight; she was like a Nutcracker ballet doll. He didn’t respond.

“Dave? Dave!” Lynnie called. Her voice shook. Her hands fluttered. “And all of you, upstairs now.”

“But Mama,” Romaine protested.

The door to Dave’s office slammed. He appeared in doorway, disheveled and annoyed. He stomped down the hallway, studying a page in his hand.

“Did I not say I was working?” He looked up. At the sight of the strange woman, he stopped. He looked like Boo about to throw a tantrum when Lynnie refused something he felt entitled to.

“Now.” Lynnie told us sternly, pushing Romaine and me toward the stairs, her eyes darting between Dave and the woman. I grabbed Ara’s hand and Romaine grabbed Boo’s. We walked as slowly as possible to the stairs.

“Then I appreciate your taking the time for me. The living room, shall we?” The woman moved through the house as if it were hers. Lynnie didn’t say anything. Dave grunted.

We didn’t make it all the way up the stairs. We thought about it, but were too curious.Instead, we sat on the landing, out of sight.

“Who do you think she is?” Romaine whispered in my ear. She pecked her head about, struggling to catch a glimpse of the adults through the thick, wooden, banister bars.

I shrugged my shoulders; I wished Lynnie had introduced us.

They were speaking too softly for us to hear. A few words slipped through here and there, but nothing of substance.

“Four children?” The woman asked.

Ara held up her fingers, counting each of us on the stairwell. She held her hand out, four fingers up, just to prove her math skills.

“Three,” Lynnie responded. She said something else too, but it was lost.

Ara pointed to me and shook her head. For today’s purposes, my status as family member had been downgraded. Romaine laughed softly and kindly. Boo clung to her sleeve, using her as Lynnie’s surrogate.

Dave didn’t talk much downstairs. When he did, it sounded a lot like growling. The landing of the staircase was hardly better than upstairs.

We listened to what seemed to be mostly white noise for several minutes until we heard Dave smack the floor with his foot. We jerked backward. Romaine and Ara slid down a step to try to get a better look.

“Get the hell out of my house,” he said clearly. I knew from my mother that that wasn’t a very nice word. Romaine and Ara, still seated, scooted further and further down, so far that I was afraid Lynnie, Dave, or the odd woman would see them. Boo and I remained back. Boo tapped his fingers on his leg, having lost interest in what was going on downstairs several minutes before.

No other words were exchanged. Feet shuffled in the direction of the entrance. The door squeaked open and slammed closed shortly after. The footsteps inched toward us. Lynnie appeared at the bottom of the stairwell. At the sight of us on the landing, Ara and Romaine now almost at the bottom of the stairwell, she sighed.

“Mama, who was that?” Romaine asked, still sitting up straight like the woman had.

“No one we want to talk to!” Dave shouted as he passed by on the way back to his office, where he locked himself up for the rest of the evening.

Lynnie held out her hand.

“Come on, let’s finish up the rice krispie treats,” she said.

In the kitchen, Lynnie scooped the rice krispie treats into a pan and let them sit out on the counter. We returned to the table and tried to resume our drawings.

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