It all started at the playground, on the swing-set, in the middle of May. Kate was only eight years old when she realized that her mother had a problem. In fact, her father was questionable too.
Kate sat idly on a teeter-totter, gazing at the other children running around in dusty jeans and buffed sneakers. They squealed and shoved each other off swings. She squinted against the mid-day sunlight reflecting off the jungle gym to her left, and then the chain link fence to her right. A small boy plopped down on the other side of the teeter-totter, but gave up after Kate remained still. She huffed and rolled her eyes as he sulked away toward a frowning mother at a picnic table.
No one forced Kate to do anything.
She slowly swept her gaze to the other tables with other mothers. She found her mom - her father standing beside her. As usual, Mother’s eyes seemed transfixed. This time at Kate’s little sister pumping chubby legs on the kiddy swing-set maybe ten yards away. Father just stared at his wife, arms crossed, mouth twitching.
Kate considered standing up to push Marley on the swing. She barely managed a few feet with her feeble little legs. Kate smiled, thinking she’d sneak in a few tickles under her little sister’s armpits.
That’s when the two teenagers ambled by. Kate scowled instinctively. They lingered a little too close to Marley next to the wobbly swing set. Kate shot a glance to her parents, who remained stationed. Same blank expressions on their faces. Then she swung her attention back to her little sister, her wild spirals of auburn hair flying like a cloud around her unsuspecting face. The taller boy mumbled something in Marley’s direction. She turned her head. That’s when Kate shot off the teeter-totter.
“You’re not getting very high there.” The shorter one said as he simultaneously grabbed both chains of Marley’s swing in his fist. She yelped, gripping the chains with pink little hands. Kate sprinted the ten yards, sliding in the dirt directly in front of the teens. “Whoa,” the one holding the chains gasped, abruptly releasing his grasp. This sent Marley flying toward the ground and on top of Kate. Her knee landed in Kate’s gut, rushing the wind right out of her.
“It’s okay,” Kate breathed in her little sister’s ear. She glanced up when she heard their laughter. She lightly set Marley aside, her fist tightening around the dirt under her.
“Only losers pick on little six year olds,” she said between clenched teeth. She felt Marley grip her arm.
The taller one snorted, glancing around him as if suddenly aware that they were at a public playground. Kate suddenly remembered too – swiveling her gaze toward the picnic tables. There they were, stationed, unblinking, not even a slight snarl on their lips.
When the teenagers stumbled away toward the basketball courts, Kate stood and pulled her little sister up. She walked her toward their parents and without breaking their stride, told them that she and Marley were going home.
That was the day Kate’s parents made it explicit. Kate and Marley really only had each other.