Lexa Strong is a sophomore at SCAD majoring in illustration and minoring in creative writing. She draws inspiration from fairytales and folklore and has a passion for cats.
The night my brother Mikey came home drunk and laid a finger on my baby sister was the night I told her to pack her things and the two of us drove for hours until the sun came up and I got too sleepy to keep driving. We ended up in a little city just across the Alabama border in a shady motel with nothing but a few hastily packed things and barely enough money to take care of ourselves.
All I can really think about—besides how I need to get a job if Alice and me aren’t going back and how I’ll afford the motel for more than a week and how Alice is missing precious hours of school and how I walked out on my job—is how Mama didn’t do a thing. She saw Mikey getting rough with our ten-year-old sister and she just sat there, smoking her cigarette, eyes glinting like ice and steel.
The thought nested itself deep in my head and made itself comfortable there, gnawing at me since we left on Sunday night. The week has waned, and it is Thursday.
When I knock on the door to our motel room, there is a brief hesitation while Alice looks through the peephole, and relief washes over me because she’s following my instructions.
She opens the door and looks up at me, unsmiling, but her bluish-gray eyes are bright.
“Did you get my scotch tape?”
“Mmhm.” I produce the tape from one of the plastic grocery bags I have at my side, and she takes it from me and scampers back into the room. I follow, shutting the door behind me.
“I got mac ‘n cheese for dinner,” I announce. Alice doesn’t seem to notice, she’s standing on the flimsy chair she slid out from beneath the flimsy desk and taping a picture she drew with a ballpoint pen to the wall with all the others she’s doodled since Monday. I hope she won’t break the chair, this motel is already leeching more money out of me than I can afford to pay if I stay jobless. I almost reprimand her, but she hops off on her own after a second, so I continue with my train of thought. “Is mac ‘n cheese alright for dinner?”
“Hm,” She steps back and admires her picture. “Yeah, that’s okay.” I crane my neck to get a look at her drawing. It’s some kind of floppy-eared dog. I can see where she accidentally smudged the ink on its tail with her hand. Alice isn’t a bad artist for her age, really.
“That’s real cute, Alice,” I say, and she blesses me with one of her rare smiles.
The mac ‘n cheese was the kind where you just add water and put it in the microwave to boil. The only microwave in the motel is the one in the dining room where they serve free breakfast. After setting aside the groceries, I give Alice the usual instructions (lock the door, don’t open it for anyone but me, look through the peephole to make sure it’s me) and make my way to stand some five or six minutes in front of the microwave, listening to the classic rock blasting on the radio while my eyes flit back and forth between the boiling water in the mac ‘n cheese container and a big, ugly reddish-brownish stain on the tile beneath me. I wonder what happened. Maybe someone was stabbed to death there, and it’s a bloodstain. With some of the other folks I’ve seen here, the story feels plausible. Or maybe someone spilled their instant ravioli.
The mac ‘n cheese isn’t worth the six minutes in front of the microwave, but Alice seems to enjoy it, so it’s okay. She’s chattering today because she’s been bored as hell all week, and for about the two millionth time since we left home, I feel a pang of guilt about having her miss school.
“Do you think we could get a dog, Chris?” She asks me. “When we’ve got a house? A cocker spaniel dog. There were cocker spaniel dogs on Animal Planet today, and they were so cute.”
“We’ll see,” I tell her. “Some places don’t allow dogs.”
“I would be okay with a cat if we couldn’t have a dog.”
“We’ll see.” Alice is allergic to cats, but I don’t remind her. Instead, I change the subject. “I got you something from the grocery store.”
“Just something to keep you busy. I know you’re bored and all.” Abandoning my mostly empty container of mac ‘n cheese, I move to rummage through the grocery bags. Alice hasn’t snooped through them, because Alice is a good girl. After shuffling through the boxes of cheap, nonperishable food, I return to the desk we’re using as a table with a coloring book I picked up for cheap. It came with a tiny pack of markers. I set it at Alice’s seat, and she flips through the book.
“You like it?” I ask her.
“Yeah.” Her eyes brighten, and I see the faint shadow of a smile on her face—a twitch at her mouth, a brief flash of a dimple on her cheek—and she remembers her manners. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Alice is always welcome.
She’s already coloring in it by the time I go to bed. I’ve been trying to go to bed early all week, since I always leave early in the morning to go look around town and hopefully find a job or maybe meet up with Rita, the real estate agent who is going to help me find us a cheap house to rent. So far, there hasn’t been a thing to show for either the job hunt or the house hunt.
I need an Internet connection. I’ve never been all that big on technology, but I feel a little lost, and the Internet’s a pretty good guide. Rita the real estate agent has been hounding me to research the area more.
“You wanna go to the library tomorrow, Alice?”
“Yes.” She answers quicker than a blink. Alice loves to read. The only book she managed to grab on our way out was Charlotte’s Web and she finished it on Tuesday.
I watch her coloring and think what a shame it is that she was born to our godforsaken family and is now all holed up in this godforsaken motel. Alice is good, too good for all this.
I’m the one who introduced Alice to reading.
She was four at the time, and I was thirteen. It’s one of those very clear memories that I’ll probably never forget. Mama was sitting on the couch with Alice in her lap, reading Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go. She had mispronounced the word “dexterous,” so I corrected her. Normally I wouldn’t, trying to be respectful and all, but seeing Alice there on her lap… Mama might not have finished high school, everyone else in the family might be stupid, but I wasn’t going to have Alice mispronouncing “dexterous” when she was forty years old. And the look Mama gave me—it wasn’t annoyed or venomous like I had expected. It was worse. It was tired.
“Christopher.” She took a brief, irritated drag from her cigarette before she spoke, and the smoke was swirling around the syllables of my name. Alice didn’t even cough. I worried about that sometimes, about my baby sister getting lung cancer from all that second-hand smoke, and her just a little girl. “Since you’re so smart and you like reading so much, how about you do this every night, huh?” She snapped the book shut and handed it to me. Then she got up, made me sit down, and plopped Alice on my lap.
She was being sarcastic, but I still took it as a compliment. At least she had sense enough not to give the job to either of my two shithead brothers. Mama was acknowledging outwardly that I was different from them. Normally I might have complained, I already had a lot on my chest from school, but Mama’s not the kind to give compliments readily, so I indulged and let myself accept it. Just a half hour every evening reading to Alice. I could handle it, it proved that I was responsible and not a delinquent out smoking pot like Adam and Mikey. Alice, I decided, would never smoke pot. Alice was going to be a good girl.
After we got through a few more Dr. Seuss books, I went for an anthology of Grimm fairytales that I borrowed from the public library. Not the watered-down Disney stuff, I wanted to give Alice the real stories. The book was thick and tattered, and it was the last thing I ever checked out: it got lost and I ended up just not returning it. Later, Alice admitted that she had hidden it because she didn’t want me to give it back. She was easy to forgive, only four years old and with good intentions. I read her one story every night, and she seemed to really enjoy the absurdity of them. We wore that book out over years.
Our favorite was Hansel and Gretel. Alice liked it mostly for the candy house, and I liked Hansel and Gretel’s cleverness.
We read it so much that I found myself thinking about it a lot for a while. About how cruel it was that Hansel and Gretel’s father agreed to abandoning them in the woods, and about how helpless they must have felt after the birds ate up their trail, and about how awful it must have been for Hansel to watch his sister slaving away while he was trapped in a cage, waiting for his own death.
Fairytales are too dark. Alice and I eventually moved on to other books.
When I wake up the next morning, the first thing I notice is that Alice finished a page out of her coloring book, and there’s now a marker picture of a vase of lilies on the wall with all the ballpoint pen doodles. I tell her how pretty it is, then we get ready and go to the lobby to ask the receptionist at the desk for directions to the library.
The library in this town is a squat brick building, maybe a little smaller than the one back home. As soon as we walk in, we’re greeted with the familiar, comforting scent of books.
Alice goes off to browse the kids’ novels, and I’m lucky to find the computers situated where I can keep an eye on her. I almost remind her to be quiet, but she’s pretty quiet anyway, so I don’t think there’s any need. Alice won’t cause a ruckus, Alice is a good girl. She brought her coloring book too, in case she gets bored of reading.
I spend a few hours digging through local real estate advertisements and looking up every major franchise in town with an online job application. I search through some classifieds, and check my email for the first time since Monday to find nothing but spam.
At about 1:30, Alice tells me she’s hungry, and we head out for an hour or so to get some lunch. Then it’s back to the library. I’m proud when Alice doesn’t complain.
The application filling recommences. I’ve made some contact with Rita the real estate agent and she’s flooding my inbox. She links me about a hundred useful websites that I’m stuck wading through. I never knew it was so hard to find a place to live; it’s no wonder Mama never moved us out of our little trailer, even when it got too small for us.
Alice is bored. A few times, she wanders up and chatters to me a little, and I try to humor her, but I’m really busy.
“Look, Alice,” I say, trying to keep from getting irritated. I know she didn’t do anything wrong. “I’m trying to get us all set here, alright? So we can get a house. Let me work, okay?” She nods, and wordlessly returns to the kids’ section. I feel a little bad.
I wonder for a minute if, when Hansel and Gretel were lost in the woods, one ever got annoyed and told the other to shut up. I wonder if they were so frantic that they started to get a little snappish with each other.
After a little bit, I’m pleased to see that Alice has settled down with a novel. She’s reading a book with a dog on the cover called Shiloh, and I think I might remember that one from my own childhood, but I’m not sure.
The library closes at seven, and seven creeps up fast. Alice asks if she can check out the book she’s been reading, but we don’t have a library card, so I tell her no. I tell her maybe we’ll come back tomorrow. Alice doesn’t seem too upset about leaving her book behind. Alice is a good girl.
I hope I’ve actually done us some good. I hope I’ll be able to get a job, and we’ll be able to settle into a house, and Alice will be able to go to school. I wonder again if this is right. Alice is only ten years old, I hate the idea of taking her so far from Mama (Mama whose eyes glinted like ice or steel when she watched Mikey getting rough with our ten-year-old sister, doing nothing, smoking her cigarette).
Sometimes I wonder about Hansel and Gretel’s father. I know he loved them, I just know it. He’s the goal, he’s who they spend the whole story trying to get back to. But I still wonder why he listened to his new wife and left them out in the woods to die, even when they’d been with him longer than she had. I wonder if she pressured him. I wondered if maybe she did it all on her own, and he just sat back with glinting eyes and a smoking cigarette between his fingers while she was the one who threw them out. I wonder if maybe he was just old and tired.
I stop wondering by the time Alice and me start the drive back to the motel.
I’m the one who waited with Alice on her first day of school.
If the elementary school was convenient to our route, our oldest brother Adam would have driven her along with Mikey and me to our own respective schools, but unfortunately, it wasn’t quite on the way, so it was the school bus for Alice. Which meant she would have to stand with all of the other neighborhood kids every morning. She was scared, so Mama made me take her. I would have protested, but instead, I just asked why she wasn’t standing with Alice herself.
“You have a way with her, Chris,” Mama admitted. I glowed under her praise and held Alice’s hand while we waited for the bus in the warm, muggy, August-morning mist. There was a small throng of other neighborhood kids around us wearing backpacks and talking amongst themselves. A few of them had parents with them. I could tell Alice was trying not to cry.
“You’re a brave girl, Alice,” I told her.
“What if no one likes me?” she asked in a sort of whimper. I didn’t want to spoon-feed her some crap about how she shouldn’t worry and everyone would definitely like her, because I knew from experience that friends don’t grow on trees. Replying took me a minute. I was at something of a loss. How could I make reality gentler for a five-year-old?
Then the bus came, all sputtering and roaring and disgusting just like how I remembered it from before Adam got his driver’s license. Alice shifted her pink backpack on her shoulders and her grip on my hand tightened.
“Just know we all like you at home, okay?” I finally said. “If you can’t make any friends, I’ll be your friend.” I smiled at her, trying to be reassuring and all, but she just stared at me, bluish-gray eyes all wide and terrified.
To this day, I’m still not sure what was scarier- climbing onto that bus for the first time myself and watching home disappear, or helping Alice onto that bus and watching my baby sister disappear.
The car-ride back to the motel feels like it takes a year. I have a migraine. Alice seems like she’s just been freed from prison, and she can’t stop chattering away about this book she found.
“So there’s this boy,” she’s telling me. “And he finds this puppy, and he names the puppy Shiloh, and then he finds out that Shiloh belongs to a mean old man. So he tries to save Shiloh, but his family don’t want him to.”
“Oh,” I say, using one hand on the steering wheel and the other to massage my throbbing temple. “Sounds interesting.”
“Yeah, and so he builds Shiloh a little house out in the woods where no one knows where he is, and he comes and feeds him and plays with him. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. Oh, and Shiloh’s a beagle dog.”
“A beagle dog?”
“Yeah, a beagle dog. I think a beagle dog is my next favorite kind of dog, after a cocker spaniel dog.”
“Yeah. I would like a beagle dog.”
“We’ll see,” I tell her.
Dinner is microwave mac ‘n cheese again, so when we get back to the motel, I make my little trip back to the main building for the microwave, and I ponder over the big reddish-brown stain again. Maybe some kid threw up there. Maybe there was a leak in the ceiling and it was a stain from the rainwater.
When I get back to our motel room, Alice is sitting on her bed, reading a book with a dog on the cover called Shiloh.
“Did you get that from the library?” I ask. Alice looks up at me.
“I told you we couldn’t check anything out.”
“You just took it?” I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Alice shifts where she’s sitting, and gets a small scowl on her face. I’m trying to remember if the library had a detector for this kind of thing, but I don’t remember. It’s a small library in a small town.
“Well, they won’t miss it.”
No. No, she couldn’t have just said that. Alice is a good girl. Alice wouldn’t.
“Oh yes they will,” I say, and I can hear an edge in my own voice. My head hurts. This all feels too surreal.
Alice’s scowl deepens. “We kept a library book once, I remember it. Besides, they have lots of books. They had two or three other Shilohs on the shelf.”
“Alice, you can’t take it because it isn’t yours,” I say, trying to stay calm, but my voice has risen a little and it sounds shaky.
This is my fault. This is all my fault. Alice has always been a good girl, she must be doing wrong because I’m doing wrong. She needs to be with Mama. She needs to be back home, in school. Not trapped in a motel room or a library, bored as hell. Not away from her own mother
“So? I’ll just give it back when we go back tomorrow. I just wanted to finish it anyway,” Alice says coolly, and for a minute, I think of that icy-steely glint in Mama’s eyes on the night we left home.
My eyes travel to Alice’s forearm, where there’s a week-old bruise from Mikey’s hand, all yellowish-greenish from healing. I know there’s another one on her shoulder, and one on her collar. I think about how mad I was when I saw him, and I try to remember what I was thinking when Alice and me started the long drive to end up here. I can’t remember.
“You’ll give it back tomorrow,” I say slowly, but my mind isn’t really here.
“Yeah.” Alice turns her attention back to the book that’s not hers. I feel the impulse to raise my voice, but I don’t. Somehow I think it would be useless.
I’ve done wrong. I thought I was saving her. I thought I was helping her. But from what? Mikey’s never roughed her up before that night. And I was just taking her away from her school and my job and the roof over our heads and our mother. She’s a good mother, our mother. I know she loves us. Alice was a good girl when we lived with Mama.
What have I done?
I stay quiet and watch Alice reading, and I stay quiet when it’s lights-out time and Alice goes to bed, and I stay quiet and listen to the sound of the air conditioner while Alice sleeps, and I hardly sleep all night.
Hansel and Gretel were at that witch’s candy house for a long time. I wonder if they ever slept. I wonder if they were ever up all night, missing their parents and blaming themselves for everything that happened.
“We’re going back home,” I tell Alice the next morning over breakfast.
“Oh,” says Alice. I wonder if she was always this indifferent. I wonder if it even mattered when we drove away from home. I remember how she was crying, and I wonder if I’m doing the right thing, going back. Nothing feels clear anymore.
“We’ll stop by the library first so you can give that book back.”
“Okay. I finished it.” Alice shrugs. I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have let her finish it, if maybe then she’d know she did something bad. I don’t know.
We clear out the motel room. I load the grocery bags full of cheap, nonperishable food into the trunk of my car, along with our hastily-packed belongings from home. Alice takes down all her ballpoint pen doodles and her picture of the vase of lilies and I check us out.
I use the last of our money on gas for the drive home. We stop by the library, and Alice slips Shiloh into the return slot. I tell her to give them Charlotte’s Web too, and think that maybe that will be enough. Alice doesn’t seem to mind.
Then we drive and drive. Alice colors in her book for a little while, and sleeps for most of the drive. We stop a few times for bathroom breaks. When we stop at the rest stop at the Alabama border, Alice asks for a candy bar from one of the vending machines, and I tell her no. We drive until the sun goes down, and when the crickets are out and the sky is dim, we pull into our neighborhood.
No one’s home at our trailer. The lights are all out and there’s no cars the driveway. I wonder if Mikey took Mama to get her cigarettes and lottery tickets or maybe a manicure. I wake Alice up, and we climb out of the car. I still have the house key in my pocket.
I can tell as soon as we walk in that no one’s been home for a long time. Everything is gone. No furniture. My brain is racing, and my heart feels caught in my throat. Where did they go? Why didn’t they wait for us? Everything is wrong. The house is cold and empty like a mausoleum.
I walk outside without saying anything, and Alice follows me. Then I sit down on the porch steps and try to shut my brain up and calm my heart down. To be honest, I feel a little like crying. I feel like the day I put Alice on the school bus for the first time.
Alice sits down next to me and squeezes my hand.
“You’re real brave, Chris,” She tells me, and suddenly it’s her trying to smile at me all reassuring while I stare back all terrified. “You know, you don’t have to get me a dog. I don’t need one. I was just dreaming.”
“We’ll see,” I say, trying to keep my voice from shaking. All I can think about is the way Mama’s eyes glinted. She was a good mother, our mother, just old and tired is all. Just old and tired.
We sit in silence for a minute, listening to cricket song and watching the sky grow darker.
I wonder just how long Hansel and Gretel were lost in the woods before they found the candy house.
“You want to stay here, Alice?” I finally ask.
“I don’t care,” Alice says. “We can go if you wanna go.” “I wanna go.”
Alice stands up, then pauses. “What if they come back?” She asks.
“They’re not going to.” My voice is flat.
“They might,” she says. Then she goes back to the car, and comes back with a black marker, her picture of the vase of lilies, and her scotch tape. I watch her while she tapes the picture to our front door, then writes “Alice and Christopher were here” on the yellow background of the picture with the black marker. “Just in case they come back, so they’ll know we were looking for them,” she tells me.
Then we get in the car and we go.