I Dooly Downs
I Dooley Downs
Peter Dooley pondered the back yard, certain that its condition was as critical as he and Priscilla’s own. The ground consisted of a cruddy mix of dusty tan soil and grey loose gravel, barely nourishing tufts of scrub. It reminded him of a description his Dad told him of what mange was, like on a dog. His Dad also conferred that other things in life contracted the mange, too, such as people. He sometimes said that, unlike animals, people that got mangy rarely crawled off to die somewhere alone. More often than not, according to Dad, they ended up in well paid government positions and that’s how the mange kept spreading around. Peter quietly questioned the facts behind that assertion, but there seemed little doubt that the back yard looked mangy. It had been that way since Mom died.
Peter turned and looked at the kitchen. It wasn’t much better. The sink boasted a stack of crusted plates, cups, and utensils that would put a professional dish washer to the test. They migrated onto the counter top in a mass exodus, seeking asylum from the sink’s congestion. A couple cabinet doors’ hinges needed tightening and hung slightly askew. Only one burner on the stove worked and a pot of leftover stew sat upon it, protecting it apparently from the fate that the other dishes had come upon. The refrigerator groaned at its place in the lot for ten minutes at the top of every hour. Peter’s Dad set his watch by it and often beamed at having something so dependable in their lives. Newspapers populated the kitchen table where Peter sat. They didn’t subscribe; they couldn’t afford it. His Dad brought them home from the bar he frequented, Red’s Recovery Room, and he never threw them out it seemed. They teetered there on the table majestically, monuments to the world’s past affairs. Peter sighed.
Life was weird at Dooley Downs. That is what Dad called their house and property: Dooley Downs. Peter understood the ‘Dooley’ part perfectly well, as it was their last name. But he remained fuzzy on the ‘Downs’ portion. Dad always gave obscure and conflicting answers regarding its origin, all the while grinning and nodding, like Peter was in on a joke that he should understand, but didn’t. His Dad said things like: “Y’know, Down Home.” Or the obscure: “Y’know, like in England.” Or the completely bizarre: “It’s a Lorry,” all the while stretching out the ‘o’ almost as if it were some sort of calling or announcement. Sometimes, the most practical approach was just to accept Dad’s answer at face value. A person could end up completely baffled if they pressed for clarification. Still, Peter appreciated Dad’s brand of weirdness and held in high regard.
The kind of weirdness crossing Peter’s mind at the moment was a sort of uneasiness. Dooley Downs felt like it was, at best, just muddling along, and at worst, winding down. They all still enjoyed laughter and hugs and conversation, love. But Dad’s presence there diminished day after day; he and his sister were left more and more to take care of themselves. And Dad was letting things go, skipping the bills, frowning on cleanliness, schlepping from meaningless job to meaningless job. And yet he seemed perfectly content, always tip-top and beaming. Peter couldn’t quite fathom what was happening to him: whether he was slowly giving up or if he was scrubbing away Mom’s former presence.
Mom used to take care of things, Peter reflected, and he used to help her. He actually enjoyed keeping things clean, organized, and in order. Now he and his sister’s shared room upstairs bore the only remaining memory of her influence on the family, in regards to cleanliness. Dad always said Peter was the spitting image of his Mom, but since he and Priscilla were identical twins the observation failed to gather muster in Peters mind. Maybe his Dad meant something more, but the thought was losing steam. Best to just pitch it in the closet for awhile. Maybe he would understand it better when he grew older.
Peter tried to make the effort, but his Dad halted progression on cleanliness endeavors just short of completion. As soon as things looked a tad too pristine or orderly his Dad would proclaim “That’s enough now, Son. It’s close enough for government work,” topping it off with a nod and a wink to drive the point home. Peter wondered; if his Dad knew so much about the government, why he didn’t just get a job there instead of passing from menial job to menial job. Maybe it came down to the mange factor.
He maneuvered his attention towards the back yard again. The edifice to time’s passage tilted in the middle of it: a steel piped swing set with a dented aluminum slide. Only one of the two swings remained, the other links of chain just hung there, rattling with the breeze. Peter couldn’t remember the last time he or Priscilla played on it, but it was pretty unplayable now, rusted and bent as it was. He remembered how his Mom used to swing both he and Priscilla on it in tandem, alternating a push for each from behind as they swung ever higher into the spring and summer months, laughing for hours.
Mom laughed right along with us.
Those were easy times, when Dad and Mom had their lives together. Life was rolling in lush green grass, cloud shapes in crystal blue sky, bedtime stories in the living room instead of bed, waffles and bacon on weekend mornings, marshmallows and camp fires in the summer… feeling secure. It was a lot different now. Peter felt the strain of a constant struggle above and below the surface; that, though they all still smiled and had good times together, something seemed strained, faltered. Dad drank a lot these days and though it seemed to make him happy, Peter found that more and more he and Priscilla were taking care of themselves. They all appeared to flounder in a strange new territory, one that had yet to settle after five very short years. Except to Peter, those years also felt long. How could that be?
The front door opened and Peter’s sister, Priscilla, entered the kitchen without the mail. It was the first Monday of the month, which wasn’t good. It meant the mail would largely be populated with bills; bills that would have to wait their turn in a very long line. Mr. Dooley wasn’t much for paying bills, often advising his children: “Bills can wait, life can’t.” He never said that statement when Mom was alive, but then again, she used to handle their finances back then. Peter and Priscilla weren’t interested in bills right now. They were interested in word from Dad.
“Took you long enough,” Peter said, merely as an observation.
“The mailman hasn’t shown up yet,” Priscilla proclaimed, taking nothing by Peter’s remark. They were close. They knew each others’ tone and usually knew when the other was being facetious or sporting.
“No mail?” Peter asked. “Not even bills?”
“The mailman hasn’t come yet, Peter! I’ve been standing out there for thirty minutes. He’s usually here by ten o’ clock, but sometimes they’re off, y’know.” Priscilla bit her lower lip, troubled.
“You think he would’ve called by now,” Peter mused absently.
“Peter, the phone has been out for two months. Dad didn’t pay the bill, remember? He said we weren’t using it anyways.” Priscilla was exasperated.
“Oh yeah, I forgot. Sorry, Princess.”
“I told you to stop calling me that, Peter. You know that.”
“Sorry,” Peter offered lamely. Peter thought Priscilla looked like an elf, with her soft, slender features and long, straight blonde hair. As such, since they were twins, he concocted this fancy that their family were the last remaining elves left in the world, born of noble blood, making him Prince Peter and his sister Princess Priscilla Dooley. Their friends were lesser mythical creatures, such as gnomes or centaurs. Everyone else filled in as the various rabble of goblins, trolls, bugbears, cyclops, and other unsavory mythical denizens that they were forced to navigate through each day. They had fun with it for awhile, until Peter actually started calling her “Princess Priscilla” openly. She had locked that jibber jabber down right-quick. Peter sometimes slipped.
“Squib!” Priscilla teased, trying to lighten things up. She pinched up her face and thrust it towards him.
“Squib-knocker!” Peter retorted, pitching her face back at her.
“Dogalog!” Priscilla put her hands on her hips, leaned forward, and goggled her eyes crazily towards Peter.
“Ewe,” Peter sniggered.
They both giggled for a moment, overlooking the enormity of the situation. This wasn’t the first time Dad had failed to come home. Ever since Mom’s death, Dad spent most of his evenings down at Red’s Recovery Room in downtown Prudence. Sometimes he drank too much, especially on Saturday nights, and the barkeep, Red, had to scoop Mr. Dooley from his stool and put him to bed on the cot he had in the storage room for such occasions. Most times Red would load up his bicycle into what passed for Mr. Dooleys’ vehicle, possibly the first vehicle known to mankind, a rattling amalgam of car parts that formed some half-baked jalopy, and drive Dad home. Then Red would peddle his bike back into town. But sometimes it was just easier to put Mr. Dooley to bed in the storeroom. Right or wrong, Red knew that Mr. Dooleys’ children were independent and could mostly care for themselves.
But Dad was always home on Sunday if there was school the next day. The school district had started charging for busing a couple of years ago, something Dad had calculated that they couldn’t afford. He was their ride, something he faithfully executed despite all that he had let go to waste in their lives. This time he had left Saturday evening for Red’s and hadn’t come home Sunday. When they awoke for school Monday morning, Dad remained absent.
Now it was ten AM on the first school day of the week without word from Dad and no phone to place or receive calls. Peter began to contemplate strategy. Behind her brave face, Priscilla looked worried. Peter was, too, but he felt obligated to remain the strong one.
“What’re we gonna do, Peter?” Priscilla’s brow buckled with concern bordering on fear.
“Bo bo!” came an unexpected reply from the floor.
Peter and Priscilla looked down at their cat, Bo Bo. Bo Bo returned the acknowledgement, first to Priscilla, then to Peter. Peter suspiciously surmised that his sister held preferred status in Bo Bo’s mind. Despite Peter’s affections, Bo Bo, when he determined that being awake was considerably more satisfactory than being asleep, seemed significantly more interested in Priscilla’s lifestyle than Peter’s. Bo Bo cooed and purred and nuzzled with Priscilla. He apparently just tolerated Peter. Peter didn’t get it and wasn’t quite sure what he was doing wrong. After all this was over he would have to seriously sit down and deliberate his tactics in the matter.
“Bo bo!” The cat arched his back against Priscilla’s leg, purring lovingly. Bo Bo wasn’t really saying “bo bo.” He had what you might call a severe under bite. That, coupled with an oversized lower lip, for a cat, gave Bo Bo a speech impediment. He was trying to say “meow” but it came out all mucked up. There had obviously been no alternative but to call him anything else. Bo Bo seemed entirely unaffected by the reasoning of it all.
“He’s hungry,” Peter observed.
“I’ll get some turkey from the fridge.”
Priscilla reached for the door handle just as the fridge shut off its hourly moaning. She jumped noticeably and shot a glance at Peter. Peter quickly looked away. She knew. He knew. They both knew. Even Bo Bo sensed something was amiss, his purring ceasing with the startle of the moment. Priscilla recovered her composure deftly and resumed with opening the refrigerator in earnest.
“Look,” Peter said after a few minutes. “We are going to need to go to Red’s.”
Priscilla looked up from feeding Bo Bo strips of turkey meat. Bo Bo’s attention remained unwaveringly on the turkey.
“Peter, we are truant. We’ll get caught.”
“Well, what’re we supposed to do? Dad’s never done this.”
“Maybe it’s just a bad spell. Maybe Red will bring him home tonight. Dad can give us a note for school that we were sick. Everything will be OK.”
“Oh blarg, P, you know that’s just jaw jack. I mean brear! It’s after eleven. Red would’ve had him here by now. You know something is wrong.”
“Bo bo,” Bo Bo commented. He looked over at Peter. Clearly Bo Bo was beginning to see the reason of the situation. Peter might have to garner solidarity with the cat to convince Priscilla that things had gone awry and a new course of action was warranted.
“I wish Mom was here.” Priscilla’s face bunched up and her breathing hitched.
Peter contemplated the skyscraper skyline of newspapers before him on the kitchen table. Someday they would fall, and fall hard. All it would take was one last paper and the whole construct would come clamoring down, possibly burying any witness to the momentous event. It might even be considered a noble way to die… crushed by the weight of the world’s past problems. Oh, breck, Peter thought. It didn’t take a skyscraper of newspapers to experience that. Circumstances proved that the insubstantial worked just as well.
“Well, as I see it,” Peter began. “Prudence knows us, P.”
Priscilla could handle her name shortened to ‘P’ as long as Peter refrained from “Princess” or “Pris.” She often called him the same. Regardless, she knew what he meant. The town of Prudence knew them because of the accident that killed Mom. Most of the community pitied what remained of their family. They tolerated Dad’s drunkenness. Some who were close to Dad before the accident occasionally sent money anonymously, even if they never came around to visit anymore. It often kept them afloat between Dad’s employment opportunities, a gap which increasingly felt larger. It didn’t help that Dad spent a large portion of their funds at Red’s Recovery Room, more so if you consider the large bar tab that Red let him keep. Dad was affable and amiable, even if pathetic. He used to be a respected member and contributor to the community. Now he existed as an embarrassing fixture. Yes, Prudence knew them.
“Yes,” Priscilla murmured wistfully. Peter caught it but remained focused on his reasoning.
“Dad himself would not willingly skip out from taking us to school. It is the one thing he is consistent at; that and making sure you and I have food. Brear! He sets his watch to the refrigerator to make sure we are on time for school days. If something bad had happened to him that somebody knew about, they would’ve come out here to tell us. The fact is that nobody has tried to contact us and Dad’s been gone since Saturday night. That is unusual in and of itself, since it is a rare day indeed when Dad is gone more than one night.
“But let’s say that he was having a particularly hard time… missing Mom and such, soaking it up, y’know. If he was around people, someone would have seen to it that he was taken home by Sunday… not for him, for us! That tells me that people think he is with us. And the school is probably waiting for us to show up tomorrow with a note in our hands that he had us stay home for some reason. Maybe he is lost somewhere. Maybe he is hurt. We don’t have a phone to call for help, but we do have our feet.”
“And we have his back-up plan,” Priscilla reminded.
She referred to something Dad put together soon after Mom’s passing. Dad sat them down one evening with a tan envelope in his hand. The envelope was notable because it had texture, like cloth or linen. If held to the light, the folded letter within was revealed. A blob of wax sealed the flap, imprinted with the letter ‘D’ for their family name. It was one of the few moments Dad had been so serious. The number of times Dad’s face refused to beam, smile, or wink, sober or not, was recorded on a stone tablet somewhere beneath the Persian desert. But they both knew that night was a historic moment, rarely witnessed by mortal man, in more ways than one.
That night, a month to the day had transpired since the accident. The house had been cleaner then and Peter had been allowed to wash all the dishes while Priscilla dried them and put them away. Dad had cooked their favorite winter meal, “Gruel.” Gruel consisted of two cans of minestrone soup, one can of chili, and a package of shell shaped noodles all cooked up in a big pot. Dad served it in bowls mounded with parmesan cheese. He said the Crusaders of the eleventh century used to eat it on their long journeys through the Middle-East and it had been re-discovered in recent times by the cowboys of the Old West. Peter and Priscilla figured the cowboys knew of its culinary glory, but doubted canning technology existed in medieval times. Then again, they wore metal armor, so maybe it was within the realm of possibility.
The house radiated warmth and comfort that evening, despite the frigid rain pummeling outside and the equally cold recent unfortunate happenstance with Mom. As soon as Peter and Priscilla finished wiping their hands and hung the towels to dry, Dad called them in to “The Bureau.” The Bureau was the rocking chair/footstool combo adjacent to the living room couch that Dad had jury rigged spare magazine racks on either side and an adjustable arm to the front that bore the ‘L’ shaped wooden top of an old school desk. The contraption was quite a feat of modern architecture and the racks on either side were stuffed to the gills with overdue bills and late notices. For all the wonder that it was, “The Bureau” simply remained a storage space for neglected responsibilities, an awkward time piece.
Dad sat on the footstool of The Bureau with his only children kneeling before him and magically plucked the unusually mysterious sealed envelope from one of the bill glutted side racks without ever taking his eyes off Peter and Priscilla. Eyes still unflinching, Dad caressed the texture of the envelope gently, running his fingers along its edges and seams, his thumb pausing on the indentation of the red wax seal. Removing his thumb, he slowly drew his eyes away from his children and focused them on the letter ‘D’ stamped into the seal’s center. The storm outside abated suddenly, as if it too decided what Dad was about to say lay within its best interests to hear.
“Snogs,” Dad spoke somberly. Snog meant “kiss.” Peter and Priscilla used the word amongst their friends as a tease, as in “Billy is snogging Susie.” But they knew the word from their Dad as a term of endearment. When he used it, they knew it meant that he loved them and they liked hearing that. Dad taught them a lot of words that they never heard elsewhere and which nobody used. Peter thought it bolstered his “noble elf” theory, but Priscilla remained unconvinced.
“I’m going to explain something only once tonight and then I’ll never talk about it again. While we sit here, you may ask me as many questions about what I have to tell you so that you understand it sufficiently in your nogs, my Snogs. But after tonight, you are not to talk about it ever again with anyone, except between yourselves when the time comes.”
Peter and Priscilla just stared at him with dilated marble eyes. Dad’s soft tone and seriousness entranced them and the wax sealed letter sized envelope gripped their curiosity. Dad continued when he saw their heads nod.
“Things exist in this world that look a certain way, but mean many different things to many different people. Some people find the same meaning in these things and they group together and try to get everyone else to believe in what they see, regardless of whether or not other people see something else. Both individuals and groups often believe that their version of what they see in these things is the truth… the truth for all. But it isn’t. It is the truth only to them. And for those who have never examined what these things mean to themselves, blindly believing what others tell them, these particular things that I am talking about are void of meaning or power. Even many who have determined what these things mean for themselves, and think that it is truth, fail to unlock the potential of these things.”
“What are these things?” Priscilla’s eyes were full moons and she could barely contain herself. Peter felt silently smug in his reserve, even though he had almost asked the same question.
“They are called symbols,” explained Dad. “Now, what people don’t understand is that there really is magic in the world…”
“Like elves?” Peter blurted. He immediately regretted his failure at reserve. He made a mental note to shore it up later.
Dad smiled. “Sort of, young Snogglebog.” That meant a confused loved one.
“Elves are a type of symbol gone awry. They were once something else, but over time the world came to believe in the same thing. Once that happens, the original thing ceases to exist and becomes just a story, a shadow… a powerless symbol. Well, not entirely powerless. They can be sources of amusement and inspiration, but they no longer contain the magic they once had. Many lost symbols end up this way, if they are remembered at all.”
“So you mean like a cross?” Priscilla offered.
“Yes, like a cross. It is a symbol prominent in the Western World and Europe, but not so much in the East, like Persia or the Orient. The cross is an example of a symbol that is losing its magic. Instead of individuals figuring out what it means for themselves, more and more the world is defining what that symbol means for all. One day, the cross will go by the way of the elves, still quite inspirational, still a good story, but devoid of any real power.”
“But where does the power come from, Dad?” Peter decided to chuck his reserve altogether.
“Try not to think of it as power in the traditional sense, Peter, even though I did use that term. Think of it as magic. The magic comes from you, in your interpretation of the symbol. The more ways you can learn to interpret the symbol with meaning for yourself, the more power the symbol has and the more ways it can be used. You must understand that the symbol has no magic; you have the magic. It resides in your imagination. Your imagination unlocks the power of the symbol, for better or for worse. But really, the symbol has no power either. It just seems like it does. All of it really resides in you.”
Peter and Priscilla turned to each other, wide-eyed and blank. Turning back to Dad, Peter said: “I think we are confused.”
“I know,” Dad sighed. He dropped his head and both kids thought he looked defeated, as if this talk was his legacy to his children and it had just bounced off their nogs.
“What I am talking about… ok. You kids know what love is, right?”
Peter and Priscilla sniggered.
“Everyone knows what love is, Dad!” Priscilla pronounced.
“Yes, everyone… er, mostly everyone knows what love is, or maybe not, when you really consider things. What I mean is that everyone knows the symbol of love… the idea of it. And many learn what it means to themselves because it is tied to emotion. But love has no power by itself. The magic within us gives the symbol of love power and then love can be used as a device to guide us. How we interpret it guides us to good ends or bad ends. Love is a symbol that, so far, has journeyed through time with humans unchanged. But all symbols are ultimately fragile and can go by the way of the elves, if neglected.”
They now knew what he was getting at and it hit with full force as they began to connect it with recent events… with Mom… and with how that ripple, that wave, continued to amplify itself through all of them. But the full grasp of it was not there yet. It was like teetering on a vast precipice, spread armed about to fly. Seeing the spark of understanding in their faces, Dad continued. He held up the envelope.
“Mom and I had our symbols.” He paused for effect. “We shared them together before you two were born. Our interpretations of those symbols allowed us to do many things together that improved our lives. Eventually, they gave us the power to create you two, to love you and raise you.
“But these symbols are not just ours. They are just symbols. But because we used them to influence our lives with love and happiness, you might eventually be able to make use of them, as well. That is what this talk is about.”
Peter and Priscilla were eager to hear more and fidgeted with Dad’s pause.
“Within this envelope are the symbols me and your Mother shared together and a brief letter on how to use them. Consider them artifacts. They are actually called Sooth Jewels. If ever I leave you and you do not know where I am and cannot find me, break the seal on this envelope, remove the symbols, and follow the instructions on the letter within.”
The twins sat there with their mouths agape.
“You mean if you die?” Peter look horrified.
“Especially then,” Dad confirmed grimly. Priscilla began to tear up and her breathing hitched.
“Snogs, be strong. Mom and I discussed this together long ago. I need to be sure that you have understood what I have said tonight… understood what it means and my instructions.”
Peter and Priscilla looked at each other again, silently seeking and confirming their own resolutions together as they always did. They turned in unison to their Dad.
“I think we get it,” spoke Peter.
“You think?” Dad asked softly.
“We do get it, Dad,” Priscilla confirmed. A tear trace marked her cheek but her eyes were dry and her composure returned.
“Do you have any questions?”
“What is a Sooth Jewel?” Priscilla asked.
“A Sooth Jewel is something sweet and true. It speaks to your heart and your heart speaks to it. There’s not a whole lot else I can say about the matter. Anyway, it’s close enough for government work.” Dad gave them a knowing wink. “Anything else?”
Peter and Priscilla were both thinking the same thing. It was a mystery. It was supposed to be a mystery. Dad had given them a key and when the time arose, the mystery would unfold. Further questions appeared futile. They would diminish the mystery… diminish what Dad was trying to tell them. When conditions revealed themselves, the discovery process would begin… with a big fat snog from Dad.
“Nope,” they said in unison. Dad leaned in towards them with one eye open and the other pinched shut, examining their answer with his mental version of a microscope. Then he leaned back, his face relaxing. Suddenly, everyone seemed to realize the built up tension together and they all loosened up at the same time.
Dad turned to the rocking chair part of the Bureau and reached for the tip of the left armrest, removing it with a jerk. He turned his head towards his children and jogged his eyebrows up and down. The removed armrest tip revealed a cavity that contained a red button. Dad jogged his eyebrows at them once again and pressed the button. A click sounded from the seat of the chair. Still jogging his eyebrows, but now adding nods and winks and other facial spasms, Dad lifted the seat of the rocking chair, disclosing a hollow beneath. He placed the sealed envelope within, closed the lid with a snap, and replaced the armchair rest’s tip.
“Brear,” Peter murmured.
“Brear!” Priscilla exclaimed, popping her head up like an ostrich.
“BREAR!!!” Dad roared with a huge smile, opening his arms. The twins tumbled in and soon they were all rolling on the floor together, giggling and laughing and tickling each other. That short levity remained the only moment they would recall when the memory of what happened to their Mom virtually disappeared, because right then it felt like she was there with them.
“Brear,” Peter whispered, remembering that long ago night. “You really think we should open that envelope?”
“Like you said, people must think he is here, and he obviously is not.”
“Bo.” Bo Bo looked around the kitchen, as if to verify the claim.
Peter got up out of the kitchen table chair and crossed the living room over to The Bureau. He stood before the souped-up rocking chair for a few seconds chewing his lower lip. He wondered if this was the moment. Maybe he just believed that the moment was never going to arrive… was never supposed to arrive. He had always thought that there would be some big build up to this occasion, maybe a chase or something that would lead them panic-driven to The Bureau, frantically trying to get the chair seat open to get the envelope that would save them from the deranged looming terror about to descend upon them. Then Bo Bo would spring out of the shadows, launching himself on to the face of their pursuer, giving him and his sister the needed seconds to break the envelope’s seal and rip it open. They would toss Dad’s instructions aside, damn the consequences, for there were only moments before the menace took care of their attack cat and turned its full attention onto them. Inspiration would crown their nogs and the Sooth Jewel’s purpose would instantly be revealed to them. It would glow with power as the tension mounted. Violin music would swell. The audience would hold their breath just when the…
Peter snapped his head around. Priscilla goggled her eyes at him from the kitchen.
“I heard the mail truck. I’m going to go out and get it. Then we can sit down together with that envelope and make a decision, okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Sorry, I was just thinking.”
Priscilla shook her head as if without her, Peter would be reduced to flopping around on the floor like an octopus. She picked up Bo Bo and cooed into his ear.
“C’mon, Bo Bo. Let’s go get the mail.”
Peter turned back to face The Bureau. He remembered Dad’s actions clearly. Grabbing the edge of the left arm rest, he popped it up and it released into his grasp with an audible click. He pressed the revealed button. Another click issued forth from the chair’s seat. Peter gently lifted it open. A faint whiff of cedar pleasantly tickled Peter’s nostrils. The cavity beneath was empty save for Dad’s sealed envelope. At first, Peter felt reluctance to touch it, struck by the awe of its singularity. Then he quickly retrieved it, slamming the seat down and popping the arm rest tip back into place. Holding the envelope to his chest, he scurried back into the kitchen and planted himself in the chair at the kitchen table.
Peter placed the envelope on what little space remained of the kitchen table. Running his fingers along its face he felt the slight thickness of the letter contained within and the angularness of two objects, one long and thin like a needle, the other similar but shaped like a capital ‘L’ or ‘V’. Peter’s curiosity besieged his noggin. Excitement percolated his heartbeat, tinged with apprehension. What could the objects be? What instructions had Dad scrawled for them over five years ago? Where was Dad? Why had he disappeared? The front door opened and Priscilla entered the kitchen, this time with the mail. Bo Bo sat upon her shoulder.
“So, just bills?” Peter asked.
“Um, yeah, looks like it… wait! Brear!” Priscilla held up a white envelope, examining its face closely as the rest of the mail, bills apparently, fell to the floor in a clutter. Bo Bo reached out a paw to play with the edge of the envelope. Peter scrunched up his nose. Rarely was “brear” used to signify anything good. At best it signified astonishment. But more often than not it was employed as a substitute for profanity.
“Peter, this letter is addressed to us! In type face!”
“What?” Peter could count on his big toe the number of times he or his sister ever received a letter addressed to them. Oh sure, they received birthday cards from their Aunt Gretchen, Mom’s sister, and Uncle Dooley, Dad’s brother, but letters were more elaborate affairs. They rarely came to kids such as themselves. The thought of Aunt Gretchen repulsed Peter. She had been trying to take them away from Dad ever since Mom died. She even took Dad to court once, claiming he was at fault for Mom’s death and was incompetent to raise his kids. She lost, of course, and they hadn’t heard from her in more than six months. Uncle Dooley lived in another state on the East Coast. Peter and Priscilla had only seen him once in their life when they were very young and barely remembered it.
They used to see Aunt Gretchen often before Mom died, but that was back when they were quite smaller. Mom used to invite Aunt Gretchen to babysit them when she and Dad needed “romantic time,” which generally translated to dinner and a movie or an evening stroll in Swenson Park, following a couple drinks at Red’s Recovery Room. Sometimes they went to Mirror Falls Overlook. Dad’s warmth level to Aunt Gretchen’s presence was lukewarm, at best. He often offered alternatives to Mom regarding the babysitting situation, such as hiring a live-in maid, posting an ad in the Prudence Courier, or getting a dog. At such suggestions, Mom just smiled and shook her head, mildly scolding Dad that her sister rarely visited and it was another opportunity for her to bond with the twins. Sometimes Dad countered with the logical observation that there were a lot of good, steadfast dogs that needed stable homes, but mostly he just conceded to avoid testing Mom’s patience.
Peter and Priscilla didn’t actually have any bad memories of their Aunt, other than she was rather strict about what they ate, what they watched on TV, and what time they went to bed, which for a kid around six can be quite annoying. But they sensed Dad’s apprehension over her presence, even the mention of her name, and they caught on to the reasoning offered up by Dad, such as “she is creepy” and “she creeps me out” and “the way she stares at me is creepy.” In private and with their friends, the twins talked more and more about their “creepy Aunt Gretchen,” which only served to reinforce their perceptions. Once Mom died and Aunt Gretchen harassed Dad and finally took him to court over their custody, all nails in the coffin regarding the subject of their Aunt’s likability had been securely hammered in. And of course Dad never failed to lambast her as an incarnate minion of evil and all that is wrong with the government and the world. Often, after such rants, he would wink at his children and add the caveat: “But don’t let my opinion of her alter yours.”
Priscilla sat beside Peter and laid the mysterious envelope before them. Peter pushed Dad’s envelope to one side, the steam taken out of its interest by this new development of intrigue. The black type face on the envelope displayed their full names with their home address. There was no return address. The postmark was today, which meant that it was processed early this morning… in Prudence. The two siblings looked at each other with blank expressions. This was damn peculiar, even in light of the current circumstances. Peter nudged his sister.
“You open it!”
“Because you touched it first.”
“Oh, blarg!” she blurted. But Peter had a point. That was an extension of a rule of theirs, derived from their relationship with Bo Bo. Bo Bo cleaned himself quite profusely and as a result, occasionally produced hair balls. In order to keep the peace, Dad made them all take an oath: the first person to see a hairball must clean it up. It was rude to ignore it and leave it for someone else. The guilt factor weighed heavily in this equation, for nobody possessed much of anything to restrict punishment for ignoring the rule. The rule transferred to other things, like spills and accidents and such. It catered to the notion of responsibility, though sometimes deflating the ego of the one responsible. Priscilla sure felt deflated at the task now set before her. She chewed on a fingernail nervously, a habit she hated but could not help at times.
It seemed that they stared at it forever. Peter kept glancing at his sister and then back to the envelope, then to his sister, then the envelope. Priscilla only stared at the envelope intensely. She became aware of the battery powered wall clock above the sink. The tick tock sounded like somebody chopping wood. With one deft action she ripped the end of the envelope open and whipped open the single folded sheet it contained with a snap of her wrist. Peter almost fell over in his chair with the suddenness of the gesture. He was equally impressed with the precision of its execution.
“Peter, LOOK! It’s from Dad!”
Peter had been so astonished with his sister’s dramatic tension buster that he almost forgot what the tension entailed. He looked at the letter. It was neatly prepared and formatted in type face. There were no indentations in the paper, so it had likely been printed from a computer. They didn’t own a computer. The library? But there lay the evidence. There at the bottom of the page glared Dad’s signature, decorated with the usual mysterious symbols he adorned it with to “trip people out,” as he liked to say. However, the rest of the letter was entirely uncharacteristic of their father.
Dear Peter and Priscilla,
First let me say that I love you both dearly. You both were the greatest achievement ever for your late mother and me. The day your mother died my world was shattered, as it was for you both. I have tried very hard to raise you two beautiful children, but I am a failure. I blame myself for the death of your mother. I drink too much and neglect you. I have let the house go. You deserve a better parent than me.
That is why it is with heavy heart that I am leaving. But I am not leaving without providing for you. I have made arrangements with your Aunt Gretchen. You will live with her now and she will take care of you both. She loves you two as much as I do. I know she and I have had our differences in the past, but that is over now.
Now all we want is what is best for you both. Mom would have wanted it this way. So as I take leave, once again I want to tell you I love you both. Maybe far in the future I will return to see what a great life you both have made for yourselves and what a better future Aunt Gretchen provided for you. She will arrive at noon on Monday to pick you up. Don’t mind missing school… there’s always tomorrow!
There it was in black and white: Dad’s mystical signature. Dad had left them, like many Saturday nights, to tie one on at Red’s, gotten the questionable idea to patch things up with the nefarious Aunt Gretchen, gave her his only two children and the keys to Dooley Downs, found a computer to document the deal and say goodbye, and just blew out of town with the breeze. Just like that. Peter was unconvinced. This was like drinking a glass of milk about to turn. It tasted like milk until you stopped drinking. Then it tasted like milk about to turn. It started to noticeably have its affect on Priscilla, too, edging her closer to the verge of tears.
“It isn’t real, P.” Peter rubbed her back with an unsteady hand. He struggled with the notion of it all. “It can’t be real. Dad has said and done some pretty amazing things in his time, but he has never been mean. He wouldn’t notch this up as good thinking. He wouldn’t give us up to anyone, let alone Aunt Gretchen, the hag! Especially not her! He wouldn’t have gone to court to save us from her just to hand us over several months later. Remember what he said to us when the judge threw out the case?”
“No more Gretchen; no more retchin’,” Priscilla murmured. Tear tracks streamed down her cheeks, but she kept the dam from fully bursting for the moment. Then she weakly mocked putting her finger down her throat in a gesture to symbolize barfing. It was one of their favorite jokes to repeat when Aunt Gretchen’s name came up, which it rarely did since the court case ended. Now the joke lacked the punch it once mustered. According to the letter, there would be plenty of Gretchen in the near future… and likely plenty of “retchin’.”
“That’s right. NO MORE. As in: he wouldn’t do this!”
“What time is it?” Priscilla wondered out loud, aware now that the mail arrived late. They both looked up at the clock above the sink. Both hands pointed straight up in unison. And now a car’s engine approached… the unmistakable deep growl of Aunt Gretchen’s Grand Marquis. Peter had always fancied that she fed it children instead of gas and that her attempt to take them away from Dad had been an effort to keep her boat of a car running. Now all fanciful jokes about Aunt Gretchen were becoming horrifying possibilities. The engine shut off just outside the front door. Hinges squeaked as the heavy car door opened, then came a resounding slam as it closed.
“Oh, Peter! What do we do?” Priscilla shrieked quietly, holding back her terror. Peter wracked his brain with empty possibilities. A soft rapping sounded on the front door.
“Children? Oh, children? This is your Aunt Gretchen.” Her muffled, sing-songy voice dripped with saccharin fakeness.
“Don’t answer it,” Peter whispered desperately to his sister.
“Oh, children? I know you’re in there. Please open the door for your Aunt.” She knocked a little harder this time.
Priscilla consulted Peter with wide eyes. Peter narrowed his and shook his head resolutely.
“Come on now children,” Aunt Gretchen said sternly, yet still trying to keep her voice soft. “I know you received a letter from your father. He has given me permission to collect you. You are going to live with me now.”
Peter and Priscilla maintained their silence. Priscilla looked over at her brother questioningly. Peter mouthed the words “no keys.” She nodded, catching on.
“Now listen, you two.” Aunt Gretchen’s voice began showing signs of a greater annoyance. “I know you are in there. You didn’t have a ride to school. I’ve already checked with Principal Harding that you weren’t there. Now, you are going to have to come out of there. Don’t leave your Aunt out here waiting. I know your father was a bit lax about things, but that has all changed now. Now you have some order in your lives and you won’t be alone anymore.”
Without looking, Peter slowly pulled his canvas book bag from its place on his chair’s back rest and carefully collected the two envelops and the letter from Dad, placing them inside. He gently looped the bag over his shoulder and reached for his sister’s arm.
“YOU LITTLE BRATS GET OVER HERE RIGHT NOW AND OPEN THIS GODDAMN DOOR!” Aunt Gretchen screamed, pounding her fists on the door so that it shook in its frame. Clearly, whatever patience she had managed to muster for her façade of sweetness had escaped her. It was the same old miserable Aunt Gretchen they loathed and despised. Living with her would be the nightmare the young Dooleys’ imagined.
“Run,” Peter rasped harshly, grabbing his sister’s arm.
And they ran.