She is nine, nine going on something else. Already she has learned to be brave and observant, as well as the correct way to unearth and bury.
She’d never liked playthings, but still she bounces a Barbie on the sofa armrest, humming, acting as if she’s studying the doll’s palms when really she’s looking through the space in between Barbie’s perfect fingers where her mother is splayed.
The girl knows a little about narcotics and too much wine consumption, but these are not issues for her mother. This is something far more slippery and bleak.
The girl wishes she were older and wise. Adults have answers. For instance, her aunt knows things, but she’s a shrug of the shoulders, a secret keeper or just plain greedy.
“Why don’t you sing a little softer,” her mother says, even though the girl is just humming without using words to her made-up song. “And could you close the blinds?”
She does as told, looks the sun in the eye first. Men have walked on the moon. The sun’s surface is too hot for those kinds of shenanigans, and still it is her favorite thing that lives in the sky.
“Momma, can I tell you a story?”
“Only if you speak in your quiet voice and don’t get all jumpy at the exciting parts.”
Her mother winces, reaching to the carpet, so the girl gets it for her, picking up the damp dishrag and laying it across the woman’s forehead.
The girl whispers, “In a grand castle somewhere near Ireland, there once lived a damsel…”
Everything is reversed. The girl knows how it’s really supposed to work. Moms get their kids up, make them breakfast, hustle them off to the school bus. Moms are strict but like lots of sunlight. They’re the ones that tell bedtime stories.
The girl doesn’t mind. She has an imagination that needs flexing, freedom to roam. As she narrates to her mother, the girl pictures herself as a cement truck spewing golden tar, making a clean new road that the two of them will walk on soon, arm in arm, escaping to a fun land, like the yellow brick road leading to Oz.
Her mother drifts to sleep.
The girl’s dad is upstairs in his home office. He is not a mean man, not at all. He is quiet like snow and just as white. It is hard for him to smile and sometimes she hears him sniffling when she eavesdrops. She used to be angry that he wasn’t stronger. Men are supposed to be able to lift heavy weights and fix broken things.
She’s not even halfway through her story, or to the good part, when Aunt Sandy comes over. The girl knows it’s her because she taps on the door like a sock puppet might, soft little nudging sounds, before just going ahead and letting herself in. She breaks into a smile when she sees the girl, then the smile goes jagged finding the girl’s mother on the sofa. Aunt Sandy puts her praying hands to the side of her face, closes her eyes and makes a sleeping motion. The girl checks her mother, and nods to her aunt.
They go into the kitchen, Aunt Sandy tiptoeing so her heels don’t click.
Aunt Sandy hugs the girl, whispers her nickname, “Izzy, Izzy, Izzy.” She’d prefer her aunt use Elizabeth. Izzy is reserved for the girl’s mother and a fleet of make-believe friends that she trusts.
Aunt and Izzy sit at the round table with the silver siding and bruised-blue Formica top. They have dark pink fruit punch in clear glasses and Izzy imagines a cartoon fish zipping inside, burping at her and chuckling.
Aunt Sandy has a long goat face with chin whiskers. She looks sad today. The girl asks what’s wrong, but before she does, Izzy decides that if Aunt Sandy tells the truth, then it will mean she really can trust the woman.
Aunt Sandy shakes her head, the eyes flicking for an answer, and the girl looks at her lap knowing it doesn’t matter now what answer’s given because it’ll just be a lie, no different than the ones her father and the doctors tell.
Izzy’s heard the word a thousand times. With each utterance, though, one of the adults will introduce the term as if it’s thin crystal or a hot cake out of the oven.
“Depression isn’t forever, Izzy. Besides, there are new medicines,” Aunt Sandy says. “Your mom’s going to get better.”
Then Auntie asks would Izzy like to come live with her for a while, hmm? She reaches across for the girl’s palms. Izzy lets her have them and thinks, “Cold hands, warm heart,” but if that’s so, then the reverse must be true, and she snatches her hands back.
“Hey!” Aunt Sandy says.
Izzy stands. She flings the pitcher, watches the faded fuchsia fluid loop and curl before splashing her aunt.
She runs to the sofa. “Momma, momma,” Izzy says, shaking her mother, but whispering even so, “wake up. We have to go.”
Aunt Sandy calls, “Peter! Peter!”
Peter, Izzy’s father, bounds out of his room, his footfalls loud on the ceiling. And then he’s stomping down the stairs and Aunt Sandy is pointing at Izzy even though she’s right there, just a few feet away, and Auntie is screaming through her anger at being soaked. “…blouse cost two hundred dollars!”
Her father can’t quiet Aunt Sandy and soon they’re both yelling and so is Izzy’s mother, awake now and propped up on her elbows, and then Izzy’s mother shakes Izzy’s grip off and shouts for everyone to stop, to shut up, the noise is too loud, it will kill her if the noise doesn’t stop, it will, it will.
And so they all go quiet. Izzy checks to be sure her mother is serious, but the dishrag is pulled over her mother’s eyes.
Izzy stands, biting her lip on the inside so they can’t see. She floats over to her aunt and says she’s sorry; she has allowance and will pay for the ruined blouse. She doesn’t look at her father. She sticks out her hand and tells her aunt, Sure, sure she would very much like to spend some time living at her house. When can they go?