G a i l
3 years, 4 months (January)
A while ago, Mama brought home two bundles, and inside those bundles were babies. She told Jojo and me that these were our brother Timmy and sister Connie and that we were supposed to love them.
Jojo is excited about the twins. He’s always going to look at them through the railing of their cribs. But I don’t look at them. I have other things on my mind: Daddy and Mama look sad all the time. Sometimes Mama goes and stands by the cribs with Jojo. She looks down at the twins but doesn’t smile. When the babies cry, Mama sighs and looks tired. Usually Daddy comes and changes them or feeds them.
3 years, 11 months (August)
The house is crowded. The twins are almost a year old, and they’re wild. They crawl everywhere, and they cry a lot. Wherever I am, I see or hear a twin. There’s no escape! Jojo helps Mama when Daddy is away. He’s learned to feed them, change their diapers, and help them go to sleep. He sings to them, little songs he’s learned from Daddy. He even picks them up and holds them in his small, strong arms.
I try to help Mama, too, because she looks sad and tired. I miss her eyes smiling at me, her soft hand on my hair, her voice like moonbeams when I’m scared at night. I miss her laughing with Daddy. Even though I keep my eye on her every moment, she disappears a lot. She’s like one of the fairies in the stories that Daddy tells me – surrounded by magic. One moment she’s here, the next she’s gone. I follow her around, but I try not to hold her hand because I know she doesn’t like that. I’ve seen her push Daddy away when he’s put his hand on her shoulder. I stay as quiet as I can – and I remind Jojo to be quiet, too – because she gets mad when it’s loud. I try to be everything she likes.
Maybe it’s when I blink my eyes, that she grows wings and flies away. I try not to blink.
It’s morning, and I get out of bed. I like to keep things neat, so I take my bed covers, straighten them, and smooth them out carefully. Blue, the stuffed elephant I got when I was born, and Sissy, my soft toy dog, sit on my pillow, watching me. I open the curtains and see that the sun is just starting to come up behind the trees. Birds are chirping, and it’s already warm. I put on my dress and think about how much I love summer. Then I brush out my knotted hair.
When I open my bedroom door, the house is strangely quiet. The twins are in Mama and Daddy’s room, still asleep. I walk down the hallway toward the living room. At the dining table, I see Daddy. But something’s not right. He has his head in his hands. In front of him is a crumpled piece of paper, and Jojo is standing beside him. I walk up to them. “Daddy?” I say. He looks up, and I see his face. It looks different. His eyes are red and wet, and his mouth is wobbly. Jojo puts his hand on Daddy’s leg.
“Gail, honey,” Daddy says, “come here.” His voice is shaky. I go to him quickly. He lifts me up onto his lap. His eyes are searching my face, like they often do. They look green-gray when I see them up close, but the edges are red. I look into them for a long time.
“Daddy, what’s wrong?” I ask.
First there is no answer. Daddy’s green-gray eyes look down. Then they look at me again. All he says is, “Gail.” He turns to Jojo and puts his arm around him and says, “John.”
“Mama’s gone away for a while.”
Daddy fiddles with something in his hand. It’s a thin, shiny chain. He holds it up in front of me, and I see a tiny bright-green leaf hanging from it. “This is for you, Gail, from Mama.” He moves my hair to the side and puts it around my neck. I feel his hands, cold and shaking.
“Where did Mama go?” John asks. He moves a few steps away from Daddy and crosses his arms across his chest. “When is she coming back?”
Daddy tries to reach out to John, but John takes another step back. “She went to Aunt Nora’s,” he says, but doesn’t answer the second question.
I don’t know why, but I feel scared. I feel the mad-dog growling inside. It’s pacing back and forth, sometimes snapping and barking. It hurts my insides. I look at Daddy and his red-gray-green eyes. I look at Jojo with his crossed arms and angry eyebrows. I feel the chain around my neck. I don’t know why, but I worry that Mama’s not coming back.
The day is strange and long. I hold Sissy and Blue and watch Jojo. He’s outside, kicking rocks and throwing sticks. Connie and Timmy are crying, and I go and try to talk to them. Daddy is on the phone a lot. He sounds upset. We eat dinner, with each other, and with Mama’s empty chair.
Night comes, and Jojo is in his room with the door closed. The twins are asleep. I sit with Daddy on the couch. I check to see if his eyes are still red, but he tries to hide them from me. After a while, he smiles at me and kisses my forehead. “Time for bed, little ladybug!” he says and gives me a tickle. I can’t help but laugh.
He helps me get ready for bed, and then he tucks me in and kisses me again. I hug his neck and don’t want to let go. But he does go, and I’m alone in the dark. I touch Mama’s necklace, still around my neck and cuddle with Blue and Sissy. But now that the mad-dog has settled down, a coldness has taken over inside. I don’t know which one is worse, the coldness or the dog. I close my eyes, but they keep popping open. Finally, I take Blue and Sissy and go out to Daddy, who’s sitting outside on the porch, smoking.
“Daddy, can I sleep on the couch tonight?” I call out to him.
I see him turn around. He gets up and comes in through the screen door. He smells like smoke and the outdoors. “Come here, Ladybug,” and he lifts me up. “Let’s make you a comfy bed on the couch right here.” He throws the couch pillows on the chair and puts the best cushion under my head. He gets a blanket to put over me.
I say, “Daddy, don’t worry. Mama’ll be back soon,” and then I put my small hand on his big shoulder. He looks at me, and I see his chin wobble.
I hear all the sounds of night, as I look at the shape of Daddy on the porch. He sits and watches the sun go down. Then he lights another cigarette. The smoke circles up into the night – drifting, drifting, vanishing. As I watch the runaway smoke, my eyelids get heavy. The green of Daddy’s eyes, of the little leaf around my neck, fill my mind for a while. But then gray moves in, and I dream of smoke and other things that disappear into thin air.