Authors: D.J. Palmer
When she got upstairs, Nina found Maggie spread out on her bed, lying on her stomach, feet where her head belonged, listening to music on her phone (she was still in her pop phase). Daisy was on the bed with her, curled in a tight, furry ball, content as could be. A book lay open on the plush comforter:
A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L'Engle, the novel Maggie was reading with Glen when he disappeared.
Nina sat on the edge of the bed, stroking her daughter's silky hair. Maggie wasn't crying, but her eyes were red, suggesting she'd only recently stopped. The whole room buzzed with her daughter's energy, her vibrant life force. The walls were plastered with a kaleidoscope of bright colors and handmade crafts Mags never tired of making: felt flowers, stuffed sock toys, painted rock animals, little creatures made from clam shells she had collected on a family trip to Sanibel Island.
Almost every inch of wall space was taken up with something Maggie had made, along with pictures of horses (her new obsession, though riding lessons were out of the question) and a lacrosse poster that read:
I PLAY LIKE A GIRL. TRY TO KEEP UP!
The furniture included a comfortable chair for reading, and well-stocked bookshelves. Mini blinds
covered the windows. All in all, Mag's room was neat and orderedâunlike their lives.
“Want to talk about it?” Nina asked.
Maggie flipped over onto her back before pulling herself upright. “What's there to talk about? You won't listen anyway.”
“You've been calling for me since I got home.”
“Well, I thought it over and I realized there's no point. I'm stuck hereÂ â¦ with him.” She pointed at her wall, in the direction of downstairs.
“Can't you give him a chance?”
Maggie shook her head in a defiant no. “When Dad comes back, I won't have to.”
“He's not coming back,” Nina said, sensing her composure begin to fracture.
“You didn't see Simon's eyes tonight, Mom. His anger. It was really, really scary.”
Nina gave a roll of her eyes that would have made Connor proud, thinking he was right to call Maggie overly dramatic. This was and had been her unending pattern: make big bold claims about everything falling apart and how it was all her mom's fault. But this was the first time Maggie had talked about being afraid of Simon. Clearly she was trying a different tactic to get a rise out of her mother.
Nina was mulling over how to respond when Simon came marching into the room holding a gun.
I admit I panicked when I saw the barrel of the rifle. My first thought was,
This is itâI'm dead
. I've seen horror movies and true crime shows.
I'm going to be tomorrow's news today; a dead body in a room stained with blood-splattered walls.
But then my eyes went to work, and I realized the gun in Simon's hands was not going to be used to shoot my mom, my dog, or me. It was an antique gun, a musket to be exact, and was part of Mr. Fitch's well-known hobby of reenacting the Revolutionary War.
Every year, Mr. Fitch gives a big presentation on it to the entire school. Seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms gather at different times in the auditorium to see his one-man play. He dresses up first as a Redcoat and then a Patriot to show both sides of the conflictâyou know, give us kids a complete picture of what was happening back then.
Even though I didn't pay much attention to last year's performance, a lot of kids really liked it. And our principal said it helped bring history to life, which is what Mr. Fitch, our “beloved” social studies teacher, got paid to do. Onstage, he paraded that musket around (yeah, school shooting concerns and all) like a good soldier. He spoke in this lame English accent and complained about not having enough food and ammunition to do some big battle or something.
Each year, around this time, Mr. Fitch leads a field trip for his classes to Strawbery Banke, an outdoor history museum that features a bunch of restored buildings from colonial New England. He goes dressed in
costume and carries that musket with him like he is guarding the place from invaders. Only the kids who go on the Strawbery Banke field trip get to handle Mr. Fitch's musket, which cost over two thousand dollars from an antique gun dealer. They're allowed to load it with powder, even try out the bayonet on a treeâall under his careful supervision, of course. So once I figured out what the gun in his hands was, I knew he hadn't brought it into my room to kill me.
He'd brought it as a peace offering.
“I've come to lay down my weapon,” Simon said, amusing only himself. He made a big show of putting his ancient musket on my bed, which annoyed Daisy, who up and left. My mother was looking at him like,
What the heck are you doing?
She didn't know the history of that musket, the cool factor it held for some kidsâbut not me.
“Look, Maggie, I'm sorry about what happened. Your mother and I had a little misunderstanding. Can you forgive me? I was headed downstairs to oil the musket, get it ready for the field trip, and thought maybe you'd like to help. Connor is working on that robot with me; I was hoping this could be our thing.”
Oh joy, oh joy,
I was thinking.
Nothing in the world would make me happier than oiling a gunânot!
I kept my thoughts to myself because I knew it wouldn't do me any good. Simon was all smiles and apologies, and my mom couldn't have looked more pleased.
“No thanks,” I said.
Rather than fight it, Simon extended his hand to me. “Could we be friends again?”
“Sure,” I said, trying to forget the look I'd seen in his eyes, that flash of something scary dark.
“Maggie, we've all got to try harder, okay, sweetheart?” Mom said as she got up from my bed. “This is a big adjustment for everyone, Simon, too.”
I didn't say anything because sometimes silence speaks louder than words. Mom let go a heavy sigh.
“I'll try,” I mumbled.
“You can do better than that,” Mom said.
My mom didn't get angry very often, especially these days, when we'd already suffered so much. But I heard the shake in her voice, a little rumble telling me that if I pushed any harder, her volcano might blow. I backed off, saying I had homework to do, forgetting my earlier lie, so they left.
Simon took his dumb gun with him.
At some point, Connor poked his head into my room. I wasn't in the mood to talk, but he was in the mood to lecture.
“Hey, you've got to help Mom out,” he said. “She's been through a lot too, you know.”
I thought about telling Connor what I'd seen, that look from Simon, but I knew he'd say I was being dramatic, because that's what he always says. I was so done with him, with everyone. He could have Simon all to himself, if that's what he wanted. Go practice football with him, go make that robot, go do whatever. I didn't care anymore, because I had nobody. I didn't think it was possible to miss my dad any more, but I was wrong.
About a half hour later, I heard loud talking from downstairs. I snuck down the steps the way I did on those Christmas Eves years ago, when I thought for sure I'd catch my parents putting presents under the tree. By this point, I could maneuver in my stupid boot like I wasn't wearing it at all. I got close enough to hear my mother and Simon talking, let's just call it animatedly, about her going back to work. I kept my back pressed up against the wall, listening to the conversation coming from the kitchen.
“I can't sit around and let you cover all of our expenses,” Mom said. “It doesn't feel right to me, even if you can afford it.”
afford it,” Simon whined. “We're fine. I'm making way more money than I thought renting out my house.”
How does he have money?
I wondered. Simon always bragged how he
could provide for us, college and all, but I never thought it was possible on what a teacher made. Then again, he did own a two-thousand-dollar costume prop. Maybe he came from a wealthy family. What did I know? I hardly knew him.
“I don't get why you're so against me working,” Mom said. “It's not the fifties, Simon. You do know women work.”
Simon made a noise to convey his awareness of that fact.
“I know what year it is,” he said. “Most of my colleagues are women. My point is I think it's going to be bad for Maggie.”
Leave me out of it
. Before, I was against my mom working because it would have meant more time for me at the house alone with Simon. But now that I knew he was against Mom going back to work, well, I was suddenly all for it.
“I'm her mother; I think I know what's best for Maggie.”
“I get that you're her mother, but it doesn't help me that you won't give me a voice in the house,” Simon said. “I'm always going to be an outsider.”
“Some decisions need to come from me,” my mom said. “Including my decision to go back to work. I want my own money, and honestly, I think it's good for Maggie to see me being independent, getting back on my feet. I want her to understand that no matter what life throws at you, you can always bounce back. Rather than tell her to be resilient, I can show her.”
Connor came down the hall and I put my finger to my lips so that he would stay quiet. He wasn't a dummy. He was just as interested in eavesdropping as I was.
“That's a fair point,” Simon said. “I'm just saying I've been around her a lot is all. I've noticed things about Maggie's behavior, and not just today.”
Connor made a face at me that I wanted to wipe off with my fist.
“What kind of things?” Mom said. I could tell by her tone that she was worried.
“I think she's on edge. If you get involved in a new job, it's going to take a lot of your focus. That's how it goes.”
“Thank you for your concern,” Mom said. “But I think I know myself well enough to know how to balance a job and my family. My social worker credentials are up to date, I've got my r
put together, and I'm starting to send it out tomorrow. I'm not asking for your permission here, Simon. I'm asking for your support.”
But Simon didn't say anything, and for the first time in ages I felt great, really fantastic. I've never had a boyfriend, but I've watched plenty of TV, read lots of juicy YA books, so I knew cracks in a relationship when I saw them.
On Saturday morning, Nina woke with a start. It was her father's birthday on Wednesday, but she hadn't gotten around to sending him a card with the kids' school pictures in it, something she did every year. It was the job search, she realized, that had distracted her, and in some ways the oversight supported Simon's assertion that she wouldn't be able to focus on work and the rest of her life while everything was in upheaval.
From outside, Nina heard the faint hum of a lawn mower, and wondered how late she had slept. A warm late-summer breeze pushed against the fluttering curtains, allowing in sips of light that painted the bedroom in an amber glow.
Nina stretched her arms skyward, then puttered over to the closet, where she retrieved a terry-cloth robe. It caught her off guard, still, even after all this time, to see Simon's clothes in there, leading her to wonder when he would become her new normal instead of her new man. Cinching the robe tightly around her waist, Nina went off in search of her family, as well as some coffee, hopeful that Simon had been his usual thoughtful self and made her a cup.
She could see from down the hall that Connor's bedroom door was closed; no surprise there. That child could sleep until noon. Maggie's was open, meaning she was lurking about somewhere, probably
parked in front of the TV, along with Daisy and a towering bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios.
The aromatic smell of coffee drew Nina downstairs as though she were a cartoon character following a scent trail. She poured coffee from the pot into her favorite mug, wondering why Daisy hadn't come to greet her. Usually it was Nina who fed the dog in the mornings, and the dog's hearing was especially keen on an empty stomach. The TV wasn't on and Maggie and Daisy weren't in the living room when Nina checked, so with mug in hand, she stepped outside and found Simon on the front lawn, standing on a ladder perched against the oak tree she loved, tying yellow ribbons around several of the limbs. These were the same ribbons her well-meaning friends had once tied around another tree in honor of her missing husband. This time they no doubt carried a different meaning.
At the edge of the property, somebody, presumably Simon, had spray-painted a jagged orange line from the curb well past the oak tree. Upon second viewing, it became apparent to Nina that some of the limbs from the neighbor's tree had unwittingly grown across the orange boundary line.
“What is going on?” Nina asked Simon from the base of the ladder. On a nearby table, Simon had rolled out an architectural drawing of their property. Nina guessed the spray-painted orange line corresponded to the property's defined boundary.
“Is that permanent?” she asked, pointing at the line.
Simon beamed at Nina from his perch up high before directing his gaze to where she indicated. “Oh, hey, honey, good morning. No, not to worry. It's marking chalk, comes off easily.”
“Good. What are you doing?”
At that moment, Maggie and Daisy appeared from the back of the house.
Climbing down from the ladder, Simon wiped his hands on his faded jeans after reaching the ground. He planted a gentle kiss on Nina's forehead. “Did you get enough beauty rest?”
“Plenty,” Nina said. “What's going on here?”
“Oh, this tree.” He patted the thick trunk lovingly. “Some of these limbs, they're crossing into our property. Gotta come down.”
“Yeah?” Nina folded her arms across her chest. “And the neighbors think so, too?”
“It's not their property,” Simon said. “People have to respect ownership. There are laws for that.”
Maggie, with Daisy following off-leash, came to the tree. She looked up and then over at Simon. “What's going on?” she asked.
Nina didn't answer her daughter, instead speaking directly to Simon.
“You can't cut those down without asking permission,” she said sternly.
“But I have asked.”
From the table with those drawings on it, Simon produced copies of letters he had sent the neighbors. Nina had not seen the Greens since they'd brought over cookies after she and Simon moved in. The letters Simon had sent announced his intention to trim the tree to his property line on this given date unless the Greens took it upon themselves to do the job. Simon then produced a copy of the law that made it legal for him to trim branches that extended onto his property line as long as he did not destroy the tree. He even got into a bit of the history of property law, not that anyone was interested.
“I've got these documents with me in case the Greens raise objections. It's clear the law is on my side.”
“I don't care,” said Nina, taking more of a tone. “I'm not going to have the Greens over here screaming about their mutilated tree.”
“Well, what do you want me to do about it? Just leave it be? This is our property.”
Maggie tilted at the waist.
Is this normal?
her eyes were asking.
Would Dad have freaked out about some dumb branches?
“Unless you think those branches are going to fall on somebody's head, keep them on that tree where they belong,” Nina said sharply. “I happen to like how it looks.”
Simon's posture straightened at the rebuke. His shoulders went back as his neck seemed to lengthen. His stance grew rigid and Nina could see the muscles of his jaw tightening, while the corners of his eyes twitched several times as if dust had gotten in them. And then she saw something catch in Simon's eyes, a spark igniting in a brief flash before it dimmed, a look she'd never seen before. Was that what Maggie had seenâa fleeting darkness that bordered on anger, or something worse? Whatever it was, Nina found it unsettling.
But what came on quickly soon was gone. Simon's expression cleared and he returned to his normal self. A smile brightened his countenance and warmed his whole appearance.
“Of course,” he said. “We've got to live next door to them. And if you like the tree as is, then I like it too.”
He leaned in to again kiss Nina on the forehead, while Maggie looked on with a hopeful expression. The moment, though brief, had been illuminating for Nina on many levels. There were aspects to Simon's personality that would only be revealed with time. This, she understood, should be expected and embraced. She did not know he had a hang-up about property lines, but it fit with his personality (fastidious, far more rigid than Glen, a lot neater, too), so it made sense to her that he'd be somewhat obsessed with rules and order.
The incident with Maggie and the television remote suddenly took on new vividness for her. It better explained why rule-following Simon had been so insistent on shutting the TV off at six, ignoring common sense, while claiming a mandate she may or may not have issued. As for Maggie, a young girl without much life experience who missed her dad tremendously, who desperately wanted to get her life back to the way it had been, it was certainly conceivable she had misinterpreted Simon's angry expression as something more sinister. In some ways, it was a relief for Nina to see Simon's frustration, because now she saw what her daughter had seen, and it no longer concerned her.