Chapter 4: Ruthlessness Settles In
“Morning, everyone,” Ellie said. She leapt into the hall, still in her nightgown. “Oh, Alice, we forgot to say hello to everyone in the castle. Quick, let’s go!” She raced back inside her room with Alice.
“Rise and shine,” Lizzy said.
“The early bird gets the worm,” Jeffrey said. He bolted out of his room and toward the stairs, but Lizzy caught up with him at the top of the stairs. Darn it. Why do I have to be the youngest? They all can catch me, trap me, and carry me. I have to follow everything they say.
“Wait one minute Jeffrey, we should at least wait for Ellie and Charlie.”
“And Alice,” Ellie said, galloping out of her room. “We’re ready to go downstairs.”
“That leaves Charlie.”
“Did I hear my name?” Charlie asked, strolling between the three of them. “What a wonderful name anyway. Charlie. Marvelous.”
Lizzy rolled her eyes. “Down we go.” Before Lizzy stepped down one stair, Ellie and Jeffrey sprinted to the living room.
“I’m first, I get hot cocoa first,” Jeffrey said.
“No way! Alice and I were first.”
“Yes, we were!”
“Betty! Ellie’s trying to…”
“No I’m not! Don’t listen to…”
“Hush you two. I’m the oldest here so I get it first.” Charlie said, sitting between them.
“What!” Ellie and Jeffrey said.
Lizzy hastened to their side. “You two need to stop all your bickering. Why can’t you get along and be friends, once and for all?”
Ellie and Jeffrey glared at each other for a second and turned away. The room filled of silence.
“Hey, where’s mom and dad? Didn’t they get home last night?” Charlie asked.
“I’m pretty sure they came home when we were all asleep. They’re probably still sleepy because they got back so late,” Lizzy said.
“Well, I don’t want to wait until they wake to see them.”
“Me neither,” Ellie said.
“Come on Ellie. Let’s go get them.” Jeffrey said. Ellie lifted Alice and took Jeffrey’s hand. They skipped up the stairs.
“Oh I can’t wait to see them. Father and I didn’t get time to play yesterday and I hope to make up for it. Oh and Mom and I will…”
“Sh! Do you always have to talk and talk?” Jeffrey turned the corner and peered inside their parents room.
“Hello?” Jeffrey asked. Ellie and him stepped inside, but there was nobody in the bed.
“Daddy?” Ellie asked.
“Mommy?” Jeffrey called.
“Where are they?” Jeffrey and Ellie turned to each other. Jeffrey’s eyes widened with worry. Ellie squeezed her doll to her heart.
“What do we do, Ellie?”
“I don’t know! I never know what to do,” Ellie said.
“What? You have to know, you’re older.”
“Everyone else always tells me what to do and I don’t want to decide on my own.”
“Let me ask Alice. She usually helps me decide.”
“Not that stupid doll. Let’s go ask Lizzy and Charlie. Run.”
“Hey!” Ellie hit Jeffrey’s arm before taking his hand and running down the stairs. Jeffrey pouted at her.
“No running…” Lizzy said.
“Mommy and Daddy aren’t home! they’re not here yet!” Ellie said
“What do we do?” Jeffrey asked. He and Ellie sprinted to their siblings in panic mode.
“What do you mean?” Charlie stood.
“Why wouldn’t they be here?” Lizzy asked and peered around.
“I don’t know. I never know anything,” Jeffrey said. He placed his hands on his head and jittered in place.
“I’m worried,” Ellie said. She wiped a tear from her eye. “Are they okay, Alice? Have you seen them? No?” Lizzy stood and hugged her.
“There’s got to be some explanation. Don’t worry,” Lizzy said.
“What if there’s not!” Charlie asked.
Betty entered the room. “Children?”
“Betty, Betty, Mom and Dad aren’t home!” Charlie said, hurrying to Betty before she could muster a word.
“Where are they? Where are they?” Jeffrey said, anxiously jumping at Betty’s side.
“Hold on. Don’t worry, it’s all ok. Before we discuss this, you four must change out of your nightwear.”
“Where’s our hot cocoa?” Jeffrey asked.
“Run along, dearies, get changed and then we’ll talk.”
“Not so fast,” Ruth said. “From now on you shall wear these.” She tossed raggedy clothes on the couches. Worn out collared-shirts from who-knows-when splattered in vintage-tan. Putrid red stripes disturbed their eyes. Dirt colored jumpers wrinkled in front of the girls.
“Ew!” Ellie and Lizzy exchanged a disgusted glance.
Baggy overalls lay over the side for Jeffrey and Charlie. “No way will I wear those.”
“Yeah, I’m going to my room to grab a pink dress,” Ellie said. She tried walking past Ruth with Jeffrey, but Ruth blocked their path.
“You will all put these on or else I will spank you until you cry like never before,” Ruth said, pulling Ellie’s back to the group. The children’s eyes lit up in horror.
“You can’t do that,” Jeffrey said.
“Yeah!” Charlie said.
“I can and will,” Ruth lifted her heel and threatened to hit them. “Now, if you don’t want to feel pain, then put them on.”
“Go ask Oliver,” Ruth said. She fixed her shoe back on her foot and marched past the children, shoving them each to the ground on her way past.
Lizzy lowered her eyebrows and glowered, “what could Oliver know that we don’t?”
Oliver rose from bed in a haze. His eyes scanned his bedroom left-to-right. What on Earth happened last night? What’d we do? Why can’t I remember anything?
He stood up from bed and stretched down the hall until four confused siblings marched in front of him. What’s with those clothes? I didn’t even know we owned them. And why do they seem so unhappy?
Jeffrey popped out. “Why do we wear these rags and not receive our morning hot cocoa?” He glared at Oliver, but Oliver stared through him.
“Where’s Mother and Father?” Lizzy asked.
“Why aren’t any of the maids preparing breakfast?” Charlie asked.
“And how come Alice and I can’t play?”
What am I supposed to tell them again? Oh, no! Not that. Why? Why did that have to happen to us? I can’t even imagine how they’ll respond. What did I do to deserve this? What did they do?
“What’s going on, Oliver?” Lizzy asked.
“I’m sorry to tell you this…”
“Are we receiving bad news? I don’t think Alice wants to hear it,” Ellie said. She covered her doll’s ears.
“Don’t listen to Ellie. Tell us already!” Charlie said.
“Well, if you’ll let me speak,” Oliver said.
“Oliver, tell us. What is it?” Lizzy asked.
Oliver sighed and stepped forward. “Mother and Father remain stuck in the city due to this horrid storm. They won’t return for months. Until then, Ruth will have charge over us,” Oliver said. He peeked from the ground to their faces.
“What do you mean?” Jeffrey asked.
“Is this some kind of awful joke?” Lizzy asked.
Oliver shook his head.
“I can’t wait. Do you hate me or something!” Jeffrey said. “Why would you tell me this!”
“Jeffrey, don’t,” Oliver said.
“How am I going to live? I don’t even know what one month is. This is silly! I demand the storm to end.”
“Jeffrey, that’s not…”
“Erg, Oliver! You hate me! Bring them back! I demand it!” Jeffrey said. Tears filled his face and he could no longer muster any words.
“The world is ending, the world is ending!” Charlie said. He stomped on the carpet while Jeffrey punched the floor. Ruth appeared and each kid scuffled into a bedroom. She marched to Oliver. “So you told them?”
“I did. They need some time to understand,” he said.
She stuck her finger in his face. “Listen to me, you will put this on and snap those children out of their foolish fits. Bring them to work immediately.” She threw the tattered rags at his face. She strode across the hall and tramped down each step with a bang. He tromped to his room.
He threw off his luxurious clothing and changed into rags, replacing button downs and khakis for holes and loose threads. He marched to Ellie’s room. Thunderous cries boomed beyond the door. Oliver snuck in and found Jeffrey and Ellie sprawled on the bed and floor. He moseyed over to Jeffrey, who lay on the ground and rocked one of his trains back and forth. “It’s alright, Jeffrey,” he said. He patted Jeffrey on the back and tried lifting him.
“Go away, Oliver! You ruined my day,” Jeffrey said. He swatted his hands at Oliver and threw a train to the ground. Oliver sighed and peered at Ellie.
He crawled on her bed and lay beside her. She cried and tilted away from him. He offered a towel and put it underneath her eyes. “You mustn’t cry anymore, Ellie. You know Father wouldn’t like that,” he said. “Why are you really upset?”
“I want Mommy and Daddy. I won’t wait another day, I need them now,” she said, sending herself into thunderous tears.
“Why do you need them so much? I’ll do anything to help you in their absence,” Oliver said.
“You can’t! Daddy makes me feel safe and protected and decides everything for me.”
“Come on, Ellie. Cheer up. You can live without them for a little, right?”
“No, because every morning when I wake up and check Mommy and Daddy’s room, they won’t be there. Whenever I run to the driveway around six to see if they’re home yet, I’ll be disappointed and remember. And how will I sleep without nightmares knowing they’re not home!”
“Ellie…please, please, I don’t want you to cry. I don’t want to see you this way. It pains me so much to see you hurt like this. Take comfort with Alice and your friends at the castle, and I know Daddy will come back for you soon. You don’t even know how much he misses you too.”
She shook her head and weeped more. “It doesn’t matter.
Oliver stared at her blankly. Who am I kidding? I need a new strategy. “Why don’t you play with Alice and your snow castle? Have some fun.”
“I can’t play with my snow castle because every time I see it I remember Father built it, but he’s not here!” Ellie said.
There’s no way I can make her stop. He flailed off the blankets and paced along the hallway.
“How am I going to do this?” he muttered to himself. “How can I take care of them when I’m lying at the same time? They’ll never accept that Mom and Dad are gone, not even for a day, and there’s no way I can fill the void of them. I’ll be done with. Oh goodness gracious, whatever can I do?” He walked to the end of the hall and banged his head against one of the paintings. If only they knew I’d do anything in my power to make them feel better. I want to take care of them so badly, but will I be able to? Can I do all the things Mom and Dad did? No way, I can’t pretend Charlie’s ‘magic’ tricks amuse me, or teach Lizzy to play the piano, dance with Ellie, or build Jeffrey train tracks. I can’t do anything, but I at least need them to believe I could. That has to start with Lizzy. He turned and headed to Lizzy’s room.
“Liz, you okay?” Oliver asked, giving a gentle knock on the door.
“Don’t come in.” she said, trying to muffle the sound of her tears in a pillow.
“I have to, Lizzy. I have to make sure you’re okay.”
“Don’t lie to me. I can see you’re not fine,” he sat down on her bed and tapped her on the back.”
“I am fine. I don’t need you, Oliver.”
“Tell me, Lizzy. Tell me why this hurts.”
“Lizzy I have to know, so that I can help you.”
“I don’t need your help,” she cried. “Please, get off my bed.” she nudged him away.
“Why can’t I help you. Why can’t you tell me how you feel?”
“Because…” she clutched her pillow.
“Because what?” he asked and stood.
“You can’t see me like this. No one can.”
“We’re all upset Lizzy, it’s okay.”
“No, no it’s not. I don’t ever want anyone to see me this way, so defeated and losing.”
“That’s ridiculous. You always have others share how they feel and you make them feel better. You have to do the same.”
She shook her head. “Nobody can see me sad. I want to be the helping, not getting help. That makes me look weak and I don’t wish for anyone to see me in utter defeat.”
“Come on, there’s got to be something I can do.”
“Can you…can you bring Mom and Dad back?” she sniffled and glanced at him. He shook his head. “Then I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do.”
“That can’t be true. What will cheer you up?”
“If you’d let me be alone, Oliver. I’ll figure this out on my own.”
“Okay, Liz. I’m going to check in on Jeffrey and Ellie, but you take all the time you need. I’m warning you though, one day I’ll make you tell me exactly everything on your mind.” Oliver sighed and headed to the doorway. He turned back and looked at Lizzy. Poor thing. She’ll never get them back and I keep standing here and lying to them like I don’t know the truth either. He shut her door and stepped in the hallway. He placed his hand over his heart and felt it thump and thump, ready to climb out of his chest as the overwhelming guilt ate at him bit by bit. Is there any way I can fix this?
Oliver spent twenty minutes standing in the entrance of Ellie’s room, contemplating how to help them. What else can I offer them? They’re not in the mood to play, and I don’t know what else they do, or like. Only Mom and Dad would know how to fix this. Why? Why did the world have to do this to me? Oliver scrunched his eyes shut and stomped his foot.
A shadow appeared in front of the creaking doorway. “Is everything alright in here?” Lizzy whispered to Oliver.
“No, they’re full of sorrow. You aren’t upset anymore?” he asked.
“Well I was, but after a bit I figured they’re going to return. Charlie hasn’t taken it well though,” she said. She glanced at Oliver. He turned away as guilt burned the insides of his eyes. She thinks it’s a few months, but that’s a lie. I wish I didn’t have to lie. Could I tell her the truth? No way. She already took it hard enough without knowing the damage is permanent.
“Liz, could you cheer your little brother and sister up? They need you and I know how to handle Charlie,” he said. Great, all I do is ask favors from her. I’ve been so jealous, such an evil liar. How can I have her do all this stuff for me? I should help them, not make her do it when she’s only had a few minutes to recover. What kind of jerk am I?
She smiled and hugged him around the waist. “Go take care of Charlie,” she said.
“I will. Good luck.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t need it.”
He stepped to Charlie’s room. “Charlie, why do you feel so upset? It’s not such a big matter,” Oliver said.
“It’s big, everyday will be different,” Charlie said.
“Come on, just tell a joke and forget about it.”
“I’m more than jokes and tripping. They, they mean more than my jokes. A joke could never take that place and that could never come close to making me feel better.”
Oliver didn’t pay much attention to his brother’s words. “You never know when the storm will end. It could be a week. You could feel silly for moping all this time.”
“Week, month, it’s all the same now. The torture of waiting won’t change anything. I’ll wake up and run to their room, but they won’t be there. Mother can’t help me with my cooking and father can’t teach me more jokes or magic tricks. And none of you guys care about any of that stuff.”
“We all have to sacrifice some things.”
“But I don’t wanna,” Charlie whined.
Oliver approached again. “Fine Charlie, how ’bout you cry in this room and mope like a sissy. Do you think Mom and Pop wanted you to cry so hard over this? I don’t think so, but it’s your choice,” he said. He paraded out the door. Charlie glanced over his shoulder to see Oliver leave.
Great. Now Oliver thinks I’m a sissy. He’ll probably make fun of me to everyone too. Why does he have to criticize how I feel? Why can’t he be kind and caring like he is with Lizzy or everyone else? I better get up to impress him, or keep him from thinking even lower of me.
Back to the glowing room of pink, a little boy and girl giggled. The oldest of the three grinned as she told funny tales to make the wee ones laugh. She clung to them on Ellie’s bed sheets. Oliver propped the door open and approached the grand bed.
“Ellie and Jeffrey, you are excused to play,” Oliver said. He cushioned himself next to Lizzy on the mattress. “How did you manage to cheer them up?”
Beaming, she scooted off the bed and squatted beside Ellie and Jeffrey. “That’s my little secret.” She smirked and grabbed the miniature queen from Ellie’s snow castle.
Charlie emerged. Oliver stepped toward him. “So, you listened to what I told you?” Oliver asked.
I can’t let him know he was right, that he won. He’ll use this against me. “I may have considered,” Charlie said. He stepped beyond Oliver and smiled at the younger three. He stole the king and forced the others to obey his orders. “Hey, I’m in charge here.”
“C’mon guys, Ruth waits for us downstairs. I’m sure no one wants to get on her bad side,” he said. “Go now and I’ll put back your toys.”
Oliver wound down the grand staircase and met with the others at the bottom. “What is it with you children and no chores? Charlie, go organize upstairs.”
“Organize? How am I supposed to do that?” Charlie asked.
Ruth placed her hand on her forehead and shook her head. “Don’t backtalk, just do it!” she kicked him on the back of his legs.
He reached behind and placed his hands on his rear. He mouthed a large “Ow!”
“Move it.” she extended her foot again, but he ran off as told.
“Ellie, mop the floors.” Ruth shoved strands of wet hair in front Ellie, to which she called a “mop.”
“What do I do with this?” Ellie asked.
“What do you do? Are you an idiot? Figure it out?” She dug her bony fingers into Ellie’s back and thrusted her to the living room as Oliver stepped down the staircase.
“A real meanie, huh, Alice?” Ellie murmured. “Yep. Let’s get out of here before she catches us.”
Ruth glanced up at Oliver. “Oliver, it’s about time you decided to show. Your parents left you a letter. Go read it and leave my sight,” she said. She handed him a torn envelope. He glanced at it, but the penmanship was difficult to read.
He flipped it over to the back. He ripped through the envelope seal, unsure if he wanted to see the message.
Inside the ripped seal, a piece of scratch paper lay inside. His parents wrote the message in vigorous cursive. The words seemed like gobbledygook, but as he read closer, he began to identify the words. He scanned his eyes to the top-right of the letter, where the date of May 4, 1931 sat in the corner. I know that date, the day Mom and Pop told us they planned on returning to the city the following day. Mom’s three years away from the city ended. He shook off the thought and his eyes crossed over to the left side where the words “Dear Oliver” lay. Wondering what it said? His Mother wrote the following:
We hope you never have to read this, but if you do, it’s because we have passed. After having Jeffrey, we realized if anything ever happened to us before you children became adults, we must plan to have someone care for you and your siblings.
Your father and I know that you matured quite a bit since last December. We’ve decided we want to put you in charge of your siblings and this house. We’re so proud of who you’ve become. Please care for your siblings and keep them safe. Make sure they stay thoughtful and succeed in life. Even if they don’t succeed, never abandon them. Give them the best life possible without us and make sure your siblings know how much your father, you, and I love them. Though never forget, we love you and wish we could be there to see every amazing thing you’ll accomplish. Wow, just the thought of this brings a tear to my eye. I can’t barely bare the thought right now, but I need to finish the letter.
Just know every day we knew you didn’t receive this letter became a blessing. Since you’re reading this, you must know the biggest mistake was not spending enough time with you and your four siblings. Please say goodbye, and let go. Move on and stay happy, Oliver. We miss you every day, every minute, and every moment we could be laughing, smiling, and playing with you, but we beg you to continue those things. Please, find a way to feel the pleasure we saw when we were around you. Don’t cry, don’t be sad, because tears from your eyes mean more than from anyone else’s.
Mother and Father
I can’t believe they wrote this. They…they had a plan. How could they think of all these possibilities and not mention a word to me, or anyone. Neither of them ever made it sound like something bad could happen. How could they hide this? And how could they hide they actually cared about me all this time? They never showed me half the support, why would they wait? Why would they make me suffer to know when it’s too late?
He covered his eyes and laid down. His heart thumped harder and harder. The letter haunted him from inches away. He glanced at it. He looked away. He pinched his fingers on the paper. He released it and shoved the letter off the table. Should I read it again? Yes. No. No. Yes. Okay, once more. He grabbed the letter and flipped right to where it said, “please say goodbye and let go.”
Let go? How can I let go when I begged them to stay. I didn’t want to say goodbye. They left me with no choice. I should’ve been more forceful, I should’ve stepped in front of their car. Why? Why? Why? His vision was no longer clear and he found himself dizzy as he tossed and turned on the sofa. This is all one huge headache. What can I do?
He placed the letter inside the envelope and scanned the room.
Nobody stood in the room, but he heard cabinets shutting and items falling from the other rooms. He tucked the envelope inside the couch.
“Jeffrey! What’s the meaning of this?” Ruth stomped to Jeffrey. “I see dust everywhere. I wanted every speck gone!” Smack! Ruth pelted Jeffrey’s bottom. He reached his hands back and shrieked. “Shut your trap!” Ellie and Lizzy surfaced into the room.
“Jeffrey!” Ellie cried.
“Are you okay? Let me help…” Lizzy begun, running to his side.
“Go back and clean girls, unless you wish for me to hit him again!” Lizzy and Ellie backed around the corner, but watched from the other room. “Jeffrey, you will dust every dirty thing you see in this house.” She whacked him and skittered off.
“Despicable, despicable,” Lizzy said, arriving behind the game room where the maids’ rooms lay.
“Not one more peep from you Elizabeth,” Ruth said. She glowered into her book as Lizzy entered to clean. Ruth’s pale skin lightened the whole room besides a candle. On the other side of her bed sat a cup of tea in Evelyn’s favorite rose cup, only to get splashed and pressed against Ruth’s chapped lips. Lizzy cringed and wiped a tear from her eye. She’ll probably ruin Mother’s cup, and Mother will never get it back. The thought!
In her rustic sleigh bed, she brushed napkins and crumbs to the floor, and Lizzy had to clean them up. She rested her two bony legs apart and left her knee dangling off her mattress, to kick Lizzy as she walked by. She grabbed an extra muffin from yesterday and shoved it straight through her witch lips. She allowed many morsels to fall out her mouth.
“Oh, Liz-zy,” she said. “Come clean off these crumbs. They must’ve spilled all over me.” Lizzy slogged and picked all the muffin scraps up.
“What are you doing?” Ruth said.
“Not a peep from you, I said. Why these bits of muffin are still on my bed. I can eat them. Now pluck them in my mouth so I can finish them,” Ruth said. She widened her jaw. One-by-one, Lizzy picked each crumb and threw it into Ruth’s mouth. Lizzy clenched her teeth.
Ruth simpered. She bit at Lizzy’s finger every time she sprinkled a crumb of muffin in, but Lizzy didn’t allow her to succeed. Lizzy sighed and headed to the door upon completion. Ruth noticed this from the corner of her eye. Who does she think she is trying to get away? Ruth lifted the cup and spilled the tea over Lizzy.
Lizzy propped her mouth open. Almost every last inch of her dripped of tea water. Her hair dangled out of form to become sticky and cling with frizz. Her shirt soaked and rubbed on her skin. The ragged dress pressed on her stomach and weighed her down. Her feet drowned in the soles of her flats. Ruth chuckled into her hand like a little girl.
As Lizzy turned toward Ruth in all innocence, wondering what she should ever do, Ruth cleared her throat. “Elizabeth, what ever have you done? You think you can come to my room, spill my tea, soak my carpet, and just stand there? Go change this instant and dry the stains,” Ruth said.
Lizzy shuffled out, but slammed the door with all her might. “How could you! I’ve never done anything to you! How can you do this to someone?”
“Shut your mouth, you brat! If only you knew all the hours I wasted scrubbing your messes. This is only a little payback for all you’ve made me do over the years,” Ruth said.
Lizzy headed into the drawer from which Ruth had first drawn the rags. A few shirts, overalls, and jumper dresses wrinkled in the space. She peered around the choices, and frowned.
She picked out a button-down with rips on each sleeve. The whole shirt had crinkles in every thread. She pulled out a black jumper that sagged over her knees in an ugly fashion. She glanced in the mirror and flashed a disgusted face. Now I’ll never impress anyone. I look disgraceful by all my standards.
“Lizzy, why’d you change your clothes?” Oliver asked, entering the room.
“Ruth spilled tea on me, purposefully. Now I have to clean the stains before she gets mad again,” she said.
“That’s not fair,” Oliver said.
“What can I do? She’ll get me in trouble if I don’t go back to her.” she walked towards Ruth’s room, but Oliver cut in front of her.
“I can’t see this happen to you. You are the last person on this entire planet to deserve this.You have to stand up for yourself, Lizzy.”
“I’d rather surrender than get killed, Oliver.” she slid between Oliver and the wall and continued away.
“Lizzy, that’s not what you do.”
“I’ll talk to you later, Oliver.” She scurried to Ruth’s room and entered inside where Ruth fixed her brown hair that was filled with gray streaks of frizz.
“What do you do here? You little mouse, trying to sneak in!” she said. Elbowing Lizzy in the face, Ruth mustered past and turned at the doorway.
“I returned like you asked, to finish cleaning,” Lizzy said.
“Lizzy, you need to vacuum the carpets in all the downstairs rooms this instant!” Slamming the door shut, Ruth bustled away from Lizzy’s sight. Lizzy went out the door and stood before the closet adjacent to Ruth’s room. Once before she saw Betty grab cleaning supplies to use from that closet. Searching around for the petite black vacuum, she stumbled upon dust and weird-looking objects. One had a mustard-yellow color and sat in a bucket. She recalled seeing Wilma once soak it in the water and get it all foamy, calling it a “sponge.”
Clatter! Bang! Several tools, supplies, and other mysterious objects clanged and shuffled as Lizzy scoured. What on Earth does all this stuff do?
She peered around the vacuum for instruction. She tilted the machine forward and flicked on the switch. Rrrr. She jumped back. What was that? Does it always make that noise? What is with this evil machine? She approached the cleaning monster. She flicked the switch to the side, allowing the machine to growl again. She hesitated, but grabbed the machine and began cleaning again.
On the other side of the halls, Ruth trotted in and bumped into Oliver’s rage. She tried passing through, but he blocked her route.
“What do you want?” she spat at him.
“Follow me upstairs to my parents’ room, so the little ones don’t hear,” he said. He stomped up each stair without turning back. She sighed and marched after him.
Oliver turned the corner to his parents’ room. He slipped through the doorway and waited for Ruth to follow. She stepped in and squeaked the grand doors shut. “Whatever you must say, hurry it up. You must start scrubbing and cleaning,” she said.
“Ruth, I’m not going to clean and scrub until I break. Today is the first and last day I’ll put up with this. I’m in charge and I‘ll make the decisions.” He threw the sponge down and stomped his foot.
“Ha!” she said. “You in charge? I see you think because of that letter you’re in charge, but that’s not how it works.”
“You read the letter?” he widened his eyes in horror. I can’t believe she read the most personal things my parents ever wrote to me. She probably spit all over it too. How dare she? That was my last token of them!
“Yes, you’re bad at hiding things,” she said.
“Ruth, you’re not the boss. My mother and father left the family and house in my name. They appointed the duty to me,” he said. I win this round. Father always said you can’t change the official word. She swayed her leg back-and-forth and glanced all around until an answer came to mind.
“You may have this house and responsibility of your siblings, but would you want leadership if I told them the truth about your parents?” She stepped toward him, clicking her heels on every step. “I would hate for them to know. They would scream, cry, and know you lied to them. Now, how would you like them to know that?”
“I, I, I wouldn’t.”
“And who would clean if all the maids left? How would you feed your siblings? You can’t do anything Oliver, not in charge that is,” she said.
He turned away. What would my purpose serve if I couldn’t feed them? Or if I couldn’t keep the house in good condition? How could I take these risks? How’d she corner me again.
He pivoted to the wall. The peach-yellow paint made it cheerful like Evelyn, but the hardwood flooring kept it firm like James. He turned to Ruth, a reminder the era with his parents was gone. Ruth leered and twiddled her fingers.
With his head down, his hair sticking out, and the pride wiped off his face, Oliver turned to face Ruth. “You may have charge, so long as you don’t tell,” he said.
“I knew you would make the right choice this time.” She grinned and scrambled out the doorway. Oliver followed her and peered at the hall; nobody appeared. He slammed the door and locked it. He sprawled over the bed and sunk his eyes into his palms. How could I let that woman win? I’m a failure.
Ruth marched through the hallway and checked inside all the bedrooms. She found Charlie organizing Jeffrey’s toys and tidying up. “Charles, you need to start cooking my lunch. In fact, you’re already late, so make it snappy,” she said. He passed her and echoed down the stairs. He leapt off the bottom three stairs and raced to the kitchen.
“Oh goodness Charlie, dear me!” Betty said. She scurried to the cooking table where Charlie chucked pans, tools, and ingredients to the counter. Clang! Smash! Crash! “Now, do you even know what we’re cooking?” Betty asked. Charlie shook his head. “Well, we can’t cook until we know what we’re making. Put all the tools and pans back on the table while I go ask Ruth what we’ll make,” she said, waddling out.
“Okay.” Charlie said.
“I’ve spoken with Ruth and you are to make everyone oatmeal. I’ll make the chicken wing and ravioli for her,” Betty said. She grabbed the necessary ingredients and left them on the countertops. She hauled a big bag of oats on the silver counter. A few cups of oatmeal remained.
“Reminds me of old times,” Betty said, “when you’d stand on the little stool and learn to cook with me. It’s been some time since we’ve cooked together.”
“Yeah,” Charlie said, “ooh, can we bake some cookies or cook up a steak?” Charlie’s face lit up.
Betty sighed. “Only if Ruth allows us to,” she said.
“Oh,” Charlie said. He sunk back to sadness, losing all hope in the idea. He picked up the spatula and stirred the oatmeal some more.
“Oh dear,” Betty said. She set down the pan and allowed the pan of chicken to sizzle almost uncontrollably to give Charlie a hug. He coughed up a few tears before returning to the oatmeal. “How much do you miss them?”
“A lot,” he said, rubbing his eyes.
“I know it hurt, it stings, but we’ve been through thousands of these days together. All this means is we’ll have to add nights for a few months.”
“I suppose so.”
“Don’t let your heart ache, dear. It’s been just the two of us to play together many times before and as soon as the harsh rules are gone we’ll continue our fun.”
“I’m just glad you’re here,” Charlie said.
“Me too. I promise I’ll never leave you.”
“Oatmeal is done,” Charlie said. He removed the pan from the heat and poured the oatmeal into several bowls. He transferred the meals to the dining table.
“Good job, Charlie,” Betty pecked him on the cheek and hugged him one more. “Children, Wilma, and everyone else, it’s lunchtime,” Betty said.
Within the minute, the table filled of grumbling tummies from the maids and children, in desperate need for a break from Ruth’s chores.
“Can we eat yet?” Jeffrey whined.
“Go ahead,” Betty said.
Jeffrey dug his spoon in the bowl. He scooped all the oatmeal he could fit on his spoon and stuck it in his mouth. Whatever missed his mouth fell on the tablecloth.“Hey! There’s no cinnamon or sugar,” Jeffrey said, dropping his spoon. He crossed his arms across his chest, for without cinnamon or sugar, the oatmeal tasted like mush.
A maid next to him, Barbara, tapped his shoulder. “Nobody’s going to eat any more of that while Ruth controls everything. I don’t like it either, your parents treated us much kinder.”
“Why can’t Ruth be kinder?”
“Ha!” Barbara said, almost spitting up her oatmeal, “good luck with that, kid. In the fifteen years I’ve worked here, Ruth has yet to say one thing to me without barking.”
“What makes her so mean?”
“I have no idea. I figure with all the nice people in this world, someone’s got to be evil.”
“Well, that still doesn’t give me any cinnamon or sugar,” Jeffrey pouted. He crossed his arms over his chest and pushed his bowl further away.
“You better eat it, Jeffrey. Otherwise ol’ Ruth may shove it down your throat. And anyway, chances seem like she won’t give us any more food.” Jeffrey dropped his mouth open and glared at her. She smirked. He dipped his spoon and shoved it in as fast as he could. “Don’t choke or spill,” Barbara said. She pointed out clumps of oatmeal on the table. “Ruth will make you clean those up and punish you,” she said.
Each child and maid cleared their food into their stomach and returned their plate to the sink. “Since you all finished,” Ruth said, “it’s time to clean again. Wilma, Barbara, and the rest of you maids can continue upstairs, except for you, Betty. You must monitor the children,” Ruth said. She let the maids out first. “And Charlie, you cooked, so you may do the dishes. Lizzy, keep mopping. And Oliver, why don’t you polish the staircase?” Charlie and Lizzy slipped out without so much as a murmur, but Oliver “accidentally” crashed against Ruth. She kicked his backside.
“The two of you may finish dusting. Remember, I don’t want to see a speck of dust,” Ruth said. Ellie dragged Jeffrey toward the living room. Jeffrey slapped Ellie’s hand and stomped at Ruth. “I won’t do it, it’s much too hard!” he said. This wasn’t much too swell of an idea for he plopped over Ruth’s knee for a spank. Yow! Tears welled in his eyes as Ruth clenched his shoulders.
“Eloise, get to work,” she muttered.
“Can’t I play with my doll?”
“Your doll? Where do you get such ideas? I’ll have your doll now,” Ruth said, yanking the doll from Ellie’s hands.
Ellie’s mouth plopped open. “But that’s…”
“Out! Go!” Ruth pointed.
“Please!” Ellie said.
“Get out of my sight.”
“I will! If I could just have Alice back. That’s all I want.”
“You want too much.”
“Please, please!” Ellie’s eyes began to water. She folded her hands into a fist as tears poured from her eyes.
“If I hear another word from your mouth, I will snap your doll in half right here in front of your face.” Ruth began twisting Alice’s neck. Ellie’s eyes widened in horror and cries erupted uncontrollably.
“AH! DON’T! LET HER GO! PLEASE! PLEASE!” Ellie reached for Alice, but Ruth threatened her once more. “DON’T HURT HER!”
“Then get out of here!” Ellie scuttled out in tears, covering her eyes with her hands. “I love you, Alice,” she whispered. Lizzy ran after Ellie.
“Ellie, don’t cry anymore. Nothing will happen to Alice,” Lizzy said.
“I…I, h-hope not,” Ellie said. “I, I c-can’t even think…”
“Don’t. Don’t let the thoughts cross your mind. Sit down next to me.” Ellie lowered down beside Lizzy. “Now, I know you love Alice so much, but what makes her so important to you?”
“She’s my best friend,” Ellie mumbled. She stared down at her feet.
“Why? What does she do for you that no one else can?”
“She…she…everything. She plays with me, comforts me, listens to me, and makes all my decisions for me. I couldn’t do anything without her.”
Lizzy nodded. “I understand she’s a great companion, but why don’t you make your own decisions?”
“Because what if I make the wrong one? Daddy told me he had a friend who made one wrong business move and lost everything. I don’t want to lose a single thing.”
“Has Alice ever made a wrong decision?”
Ellie shrugged. “I wouldn’t know because I can’t decided between what’s right and wrong.”
“Ellie, did you ever make a wrong decision that gave you this fear?”
“I don’t like to talk about it.”
“You have to. It’s important to share your mistakes so you can move on.”
“Well, a couple of years ago, I played with Oliver outside and I found a bunny. I played with her and Alice, but before we went inside, I heard some howls and thought I saw some coyotes in the distance. I wondered if I should tell Oliver to bring the bunny inside, but I decided not to, because I didn’t want him to tell him I was silly to be concerned.”
“So, what happened?”
“The day after, Daddy took me out to play, and…and we f-found the, the bunny, all broken. Blood was everywhere, and, and I’ll never forget seeing the coyote look at me before running off. I had nightmares for months and am the reason she died.” Ellie’s eyes watered and she began tearing up again.
“Oh no, Ellie, you can’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault the one time we had coyotes around here, you had that choice. You can’t blame yourself forever. Everyone has to make mistakes.”
“Have you ever made mistakes?”
“We don’t talk about those,” Lizzy said.
“What? You just said we have to talk about that stuff.”
“You should, but I can’t admit my mistakes. That would change what everyone thinks of me, and I don’t want anyone thinking I’ve done a single thing wrong.”
“Don’t question me. I have to be perfect. I refuse anything left.” Lizzy turned away to the other room.
Ellie scratched her head and whispered to Alice, “that was strange, huh? Why does she have to be perfect anyway?”
“Now Jeffrey, you mustn’t misbehave anymore. Frankly, I’m sick of having to deal with your outbursts. Not another peep from you or you will regret it,” she said, letting loose of him. Tears still swelled his vision.
“Make her go away! Somebody! She hurt me, she hurt me!” He proceeded to Ellie and picked up the duster. As he waved it around with no clue whatsoever, she rushed to his side.
“I don’t like her either, Jeffrey,” Ellie said, with a sniffle, “please don’t cry though. She may come after us again.”
“She’ll come after us no matter what!” he bawled.
“Hey,” Oliver said, running down the stairs. “What happened to Jeffrey?”
“Ruth gave him quite the spanking. And, and, she took my doll. Help us, please, Oliver. Why can’t you be in charge?”
Oliver stared at her and placed his hands over his eyes. “I wish I could, I hate this so much.”
“Then fix it!” Jeffrey screamed.
“I can’t.” Oliver said.
“Why not?” Ellie cried. “What risk isn’t worth taking?”
“By all means, Oliver and Ellie get back to work,” Ruth said. She darted her eyes at them, forcing them to flea. She leaned down to Jeffrey. “And you keep distracting everyone. I suppose I must punish you for your antics.” She yanked his collar and dragged him to her room.
She left him in the center of the room and returned with a basket, the one Jeffrey viewed with clothes in it. The off-white color appeared smudged and dirty around the netted pattern. “Jeffrey, c’mere,” Ruth said. He shook his head. She stomped at him. He gaped as her legs raced toward him. He slipped past her arms and hopped on top of the bed.
She hurried to him. He widened his eyes and leapt by her and sprinted to the door. He shook the doorknob, but it was lock. Open, open! Why won’t it open? He pounded on the door, but too little too late. “Help! Someone help me! She’s going to hurt me! Help! Why aren’t you guys coming to save me?”
“Shush, and get back here you little weasel,” Ruth said.
I’m doomed. They forgot me. Ruth snatched his wrist and slammed her palms over his mouth. He kicked and elbowed her, but she kept a strict grip over him.
She flipped him over her knee as she seated herself on the bed. She steered her hand toward his bottom. He winced and mouthed a ginormous “ow,” but this time he knew better than to cry. He walloped a few tears back to his eyes. She crouched Jeffrey on the floor and positioned the laundry basket over him. She set a heavy book on top so that he couldn’t lift the basket. He clawed at the basket, but it wouldn’t move. “Help!” he cried. He shook the hamper until Ruth stuck her finger in and shushed him.
“I always knew you were a troublesome child, but even I thought you learned your lesson,” Ruth said. She crouched to his level, meeting his pouty lips and red eyes. “Jeffrey, you’ll sit here until you can go back and clean. If you dare escape or cry for help, I ensure you’ll receive the nastiest punishment ever.” She narrowed her eyes and clenched her teeth. She backed away from him and slammed the door shut. He whimpered and squirmed until he found a position to sleep.