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The Kitchen Table

All summer, I hoped that everything would go back to normal. I thought that maybe when I went back to school, Dad would be there to pick me up in the carpool line and he’d take me home and help me write letters and learn my multiplication tables. Maybe if Dad would come home, Mom wouldn’t be so tired all the time. Maybe he would scare away the mutants.

* * *

            I got to go to camp at the zoo for a week over the summer. We carpooled with our neighbors, the Quigleys. All three of the Quigley boys were going to the camp too. Mom drove us there in the morning and Mrs. Quigley drove us home. Her minivan was full of our macaroni crafts and the four of us shouting about which animal’s tricks we saw that day. I really liked the zoo camp even though I came home sweaty and smelling like poop. I got to learn about things like how they built the gorillas’ home and how they picked what food the gorillas would eat each day.

When Mrs. Quigley dropped me off Friday, I was tired and had a sundburn; I waved to her when I opened the front door. When I turned around after shutting the front door, I tripped over Dad’s black duffel bag that he always used when he went on trips for work or we all went to see Grandma and Grandpa at their beach house. Next to it were two blue rolling bags that were big enough for me to fit in. When I looked up, Dad was coming down the hall with his briefcase and another duffel bad.

“Dad, are we going to the beach this weekend?”

“No, sorry, kiddo. Maybe Mom will take you in a couple of weeks. Come into the kitchen, Mom and I want to talk to you a bit.”

Mom was at the kitchen table. Her eyes were red and puffy like mine were a couple of weeks earlier when I was full of mucus and sneezing from the flowers. Mom was drinking a glass of wine while Dad talked. “Mom and I have done a lot of thinking. We’ve decided that we make each other too grumpy. I’m going to try living in my own house. You’ll get to come hang out with me every weekend—won’t that be nice?”

“Does this mean you’re going to be like Cindy Joel’s parents?”

“Yes, honey. We’re getting a divorce. Sometimes this happens with parents and we’re very sorry about it, but it’s not anything that you’ve done.”

“But, Dad, you always help me do my homework.”

“I’m sorry, honey. I’ll still try to help you on the weekends.”

Mom wasn’t saying anything. I just sat there. My hands felt heavy and sweaty. I couldn’t talk because there was a big lump in my throat and my tummy was feeling weird. Mom noticed and she told me to go shower while Dad packed his car. She said after he left, we could have soup and ice cream and watch any movie I wanted.

* * *

            I could tell Mom was trying to make everything happy and fun for me. The whole next week we went to the movies or watched one at home every night. She took me shopping and bought me three new outfits and a new pair of sandals. One night, I woke up because of a dream about aliens coming to get me. It was really dark and quiet except for Mom crying. I didn’t know what to do since I’m not allowed out of bed after my bedtime. So I put away some of my toys that I hadn’t cleaned up yet. When I got up the next morning, Mom said that the next day we were going to go to the beach for a little while.

Last time we were at the beach, Dad dug a huge hole and buried me in it. We all went out at night and caught ghost crabs. Mom and Grandpa were the best at it. Somehow they always saw them even though their white bodies blended into the sand. After we got a full bucket of them, Dad would slowly tip the bucket and Grandma would count the crabs as they crawled out. One time, we got twenty-seven ghost crabs. They were crawling all over each other in the bucket. Some were as small as my pinky but there were some that were as big as my foot. I always made Grandpa pick me up so they wouldn’t bite my toes. Dad had also taught me how to jump waves and he promised to teach me how to boogie board next time we came.

* * *

Mom and I were in the ocean and Grandma and Grandpa were relaxing under the umbrella. Mom was going to teach me to boogie board. She had tried to bury me earlier but she didn’t dig the hole big enough for me to fit in. Mom decided we should go in the water to cool off and get the sand washed off. She was holding the board and getting ready to give me a push if a big wave came along. She had been trying hard to make it as fun as when Dad would come with us but it wasn’t the same. She didn’t push me the last big wave, she was fidgeting and she kept looking at the shore and then back behind us and salty water kept getting up my nose. Dad would have pushed me and made me laugh when I was nervous and he would have kept me above the water. Mom was paying attention to the waves so much that she didn’t notice the mutant jellyfish behind her. It was almost as big as me and it was a little purple. It stretched out one of its long tentacles and poked Mom in the middle of her spine just once. Mom screamed and she ran towards Grandma and Grandpa, still holding the boogie cord tight so I was trailing behind her. The board stopped and sunk into the wet sand and Mom let go of the cord. When I stood up and ran over to Mom, Grandma and Grandpa were looking at her spine. There was a huge red welt on it just where the mutant jellyfish got her. “Mom a purple mutant jellyfish got you! I saw it!” But they must not have heard me. Grandma said she had something for stings back at the beach house and Grandpa said he would stay with me. He told me that we could build a sandcastle before we packed everything up to go back to the house.

When we got back, Mom was in bed and I wasn’t allowed to go into her bedroom to see her. Grandma said she needed rest and she heated up some of the pasta for me. We had had it for dinner the night before and it didn’t taste as good. I asked Grandma when Mom would be okay and she said, “Oh honey, the sting isn’t bothering her too much anymore. She’s just a little tired. She’ll be fine.”

But I knew that if Dad was there, she would have gotten better quicker and he would have gotten all the venom out of her system. He always made me feel better when I had a tummy ache and even when I broke my arm. But Mom wouldn’t let him come help her, even when we got home, and I think there’s still some venom in her system because there’s some silver in her hair now and she’s always tired.

* * *

            My first day of school went okay. Our class just did some fun games so our new teacher, Mrs. Dalton, could learn about us. We drew self-portraits to put on the front of our desks. She also gave us a lot of papers to take home and have our parents sign. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to get Mom and Dad to sign them but I was too embarrassed to ask Mrs. Dalton what to do because I didn’t want the whole class to know about my parents yet.

But somehow, Cindy had found out. She sat down next to me at lunch. We both had peas and sloppy joe’s on our lunch trays. Cindy’s mom had braided her blonde hair into pigtails. I wished I had long straight hair like hers. I hadn’t seen her all summer but she was one of those girls who was friendly with everyone. I tried to chew and swallow the bite of my sloppy joe I had just taken so that I could ask her about her summer because Mom always told me that was the polite thing to do. Before I could, she said, “It’s not as bad as you think. I got more presents for my birthday, you know.”

It wasn’t a secret that Cindy’s parents felt so guilty that they were buying her all sorts of nice things. She had an American Girl doll and her birthday had a bouncy world and a petting zoo. Last year, her parents went to the parent teacher conferences together and they both came to the school play at the end of the year. So far, I was pretty sure that my parents hadn’t been in the same room since that day in the kitchen. When we came back from the beach, a lot more stuff was missing. Mom said that Dad came by and took the rest of his stuff.

When I got home from school, I put all my homework and the papers that needed to be signed on the kitchen table. Mom signed everything while I was eating apples and peanut butter. My homework was to write a draft of a letter. Mrs. Dalton said we might get pen pals so we should write a practice letter that would tell them all about us. Mom said she was too tired to help me so I should handwrite it before she helped me on the computer. We were supposed to have it typed up for class and I always did homework with Dad before dinner. I thought she might get sad and hide in her room and forget to help me. I just wanted Dad to be there so that everything could go back to how it used to be. I was starting to get all hot and sweaty again. I didn’t want to cry but third grade was going to be awful like this. The weekend was just a couple of days; not enough time for Dad to help me with my homework or read to me before bed as much.

Mom noticed that I was upset so she made me go out for a short walk with her. We were walking up and down the street when I saw the girl. I knew she had an alien parasite right away. She had hair that was as dark as when my bedroom lights were off. And she had a pink shirt on and she was listening to her iPod. Her face was pimply and glistening in oils. It wasn’t just salty sweat like I had. But her pimples looked different and it wasn’t because of the oil. They had a little bit of green around the white part in the center. Then there was a ring of red around them. I pointed her pimples out to Mom right away. Mom said I needed to calm down and stop letting my imagination run away with me.

I knew she didn’t believe me, but I was seeing mutants and aliens taking over everywhere. I could tell one of our neighbors was a werewolf mutant. He had hair sticking out of his shirt and he always looked sweaty and he had a lot of dogs. I was scared because Mom wasn’t seeing any of this and Dad wouldn’t be able to protect her from the mutants. Plus, the jellyfish venom might make her sick again and she didn’t believe any of my warnings.

* * *

            That weekend Dad took me to go but things to go in my new room in his new apartment. He already got me a bed and a desk with a rolling chair and a bookshelf. He said we could get paint for the walls and a rug and a bedspread and sheets to match. I made sure that everything was pink and purple. We got a pink and purple striped bed spread and a purple rug to go with princess pink paint. We also stopped at the bookstore and Dad let me get a couple of kids books on aliens and mutants. I was especially excited to read Aliens for Breakfast and Aliens on a Rampage with Dad at bedtime.

That night we made my bed and put the rug in my room and moved the furniture around to where I wanted it. He said we could work on my homework the next day and maybe he’d take me to the pool that everyone in the apartments shared. Dad said we could paint the walls Sunday before he dropped me off at Mom’s so that way the paint could dry and the smell would go away before next weekend. Dad made chicken nuggets while I put the juice on the kitchen table and picked out a DVD to watch after we ate. He was whistling and dancing while he put the chicken nuggets on plates and added some corn. I had never heard Dad whistle before. It wasn’t really a song, but I realized I had never seen him this happy.

As we sat down at the kitchen table, I though that maybe Mom could be this happy too if we did fun stuff like this together. Of course, I’d still have to keep an eye out for mutants—maybe they were why she wasn’t as happy as Dad yet—in any case, someone had to protect her.

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