“It’s about time.” It was an opening, so she stumbled through, the words tumbling out like ice cubes, melting away as soon as they were spoken. But they echoed painfully, and she knew all she could do was start over.
She wouldn’t say anything to the kids just yet. She couldn’t. They loved this little house with the peeling kitchen linoleum and the old, stained carpets throughout. They had been there almost six months, and it felt like home. There was even a playground, with a pair of squeaky swings and some monkey bars, right across the street.
Seven-year-old Samantha had settled into the second grade. She loved school, probably because she could count on the doors opening at 7:30 AM every morning for breakfast, a hot lunch early afternoon, and lots of time with her teachers and classmates. She had many friends and they played make-believe games at recess, with the winner laying claim to the big slide in the playground. Emily, only one year younger, seemed oblivious to the chaos at home and treated school as a place she had to go every morning, whether she wanted to or not. Mostly, she was quiet and stoic, watching everyone with intense focus while pretending not to pay attention to anyone, sitting at her desk, just waiting for the afternoon bell. Chloe never worried about Samantha, her passionate and gregarious child. But she was always concerned about Emily. The teacher had told her Emily never played with any of the kids at recess; she just waited outside on the playground to see if she could get a glimpse of Samantha.
Chloe didn’t want to tell her two girls they would have to leave their home and their school. It could wait – she had a week. Until then, she would carry on as she usually did, one thing after another. That evening, she read the girls stories from their library books, just like she had every other night.
Tuesday morning, after the kids left for school, Chloe continued her weeks-long search for a new job. She hadn’t worked in over two months. She’d understood that the last job she’d had was only temporary, but it still hurt when it ended. She thought she could find a way to stay on, that they’d love what she did, but it never happened. Now, searching for work, she even checked temp agencies. No one was hiring. The bigger companies had left town, so jobs were scarce. It was time to look elsewhere.
She closed her bank account, withdrawing her last three hundred dollars, to make sure the money would be safe if the landlord tried to get a judgment against her. She already owed him three months’ rent, and there was no way she’d ever get her earnest money back. The money wouldn’t go far, but it was all the cash she could muster. Except —
She still had her mama’s fine silver earrings, each with a small diamond-encrusted halo circling around a pearl, just like Saturn’s rings. Mama had always said to keep them close because they’d be a valuable heirloom one day. She’d pawned her wedding ring last year, and that was okay. It didn’t mean much anyway. And it had brought needed cash — not a lot, probably because her suspicions were correct and the diamond wasn’t real.
Her mama’s earrings were different, and when she pulled them out of her little cigar box of keepsakes, a box that got lighter and leaner every time she opened it, she sighed deeply. This was never the plan, but she needed them now. She hoped Mama would approve if she looked down from heaven.
That afternoon, she put the earring box in her satchel and headed out. She almost turned around when she saw the line at the pawn shop, people just like her, swapping belongings for cash. At least she didn’t feel so alone, although there was no comfort trading on other people’s miseries. When it was her turn, she carefully took the earrings out of their little brown felt-wrapped box and handed them to the proprietor, who examined them carefully through a handheld loupe. “I’ll give you $200 for the pair,” he said.
“I know they’re worth more than that,” Chloe said. “You do too.”
“Yep, but that’s all I’m willing to give you. Take it or leave. You can always come back and redeem them when you have the money.” But he knew she wouldn’t, even as he gave her a receipt that said she had ninety days to do so. And she knew that too.
In the evening, she read the girls more stories, this time about dogs and rabbits and country meadows.
On Wednesday, Chloe tried calling her ex-husband, this time beginning her efforts to reach him quite early. No one answered, even though she let the phone ring many times. After several more tries, she just stopped. She couldn’t even leave a message because the “mailbox was full.” She cradled the phone and curled up in a ball. Tears weren’t coming; that well had dried up long ago. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d spoken to him – last year? Two years ago? For a time after that, the checks still came, even though he never bothered to see the girls. “Don’t have time,” he’d said. His absence affected Samantha the most. Emily didn’t seem to mind too much, although she was upset because Samantha was. After a while, they stopped asking for him. Sometime later, the checks stopped.
Chloe slept for a few hours, waking to comforting sunlight that warmed her face. So she lounged a little longer, pretending everything would be okay.
That afternoon, she drove to the almost-empty main street, so many businesses having already shuttered their doors. She walked into every single open shop, hoping this would be her lucky day. Most people were polite, but none had jobs to offer. No one even knew of any place that did. Two more businesses were in the process of shutting down by the end of the week and wouldn’t be reopening. It was clear, there was nothing for her in this town.
When she got back home, she called the number on the business card tucked deep in her wallet. She hadn’t pulled it out for a couple of years, hadn’t wanted to even though she always knew it was there. This call was successful. A familiar voice on the other end said, “It’s about time. How soon can you come?
“Next week. I’m still working out some things.” She hesitated and added “But I’ll be there.” She finished squaring up the details, and when she ended the call she stared at the phone. Then she put the business card away and waited for the girls.
Dinner that evening was mac and cheese, a staple in their house — tonight without the hot dogs she sometimes served with it. Before bedtime, she told them stories about fairy princesses in faraway lands who had beautiful pink dresses and white shiny shoes. Samantha asked lots of questions, like do they live in a castle and get lots of presents? Emily asked if they had a dog.
Late Thursday morning, Chloe went to the dock in the back of the grocery store and asked for empty boxes in which to pack their belongings. Not wanting to alarm the kids, she kept the empty boxes in her closet, loading boxes into the car trunk once they were filled. She’d already sold most of their furniture; they’d been sleeping on the floor for a while. There wasn’t that much to pack, so that was one good thing. What wouldn’t fit in the trunk, they’d have to leave.
She stopped by the school to let them know the kids wouldn’t be coming back — not providing a forwarding address because things weren’t settled — and asked the office staff not to say anything to the girls. “I haven’t told them yet; things have been happening so fast.” She told them she was planning on breaking the news that evening. She took homework assignments from the teachers, thinking that would have to do until they were enrolled in another school.
Thursday afternoon, she called her sister, Amanda, and begged her to take them in. “I know it’s been a long time, but it’ll just be for a little while. I promise.” She told Amanda all she was willing to share, and after few questions, her sister said yes. “I’ll explain more when I get there,” Chloe promised. “We can be there tomorrow night if that’s okay.”
Chloe had expected Amanda would agree. She loved her nieces almost as much as Chloe did and was usually willing to help. There was a fine line, however, between being gracious about it and taking advantage of the situation. Amanda had done just that the last time they’d visited, a few years ago, suggesting that Chloe leave the girls with her for a while and take time to figure things out. Chloe took it as a personal attack on her parenting style. That sparked a horrible argument, and they hadn’t spoken to each other since then. Until today.
Chloe was nervous about telling the kids they were leaving for good. She knew how unhappy they’d be, so she decided they would treat it like a holiday, a vacation. She didn’t want them to see her sad, so she made the best of it, treating them to McDonald’s Happy Meals with toy surprises. She even splurged with soft-serve ice cream sundaes, warm chocolate syrup dripping underneath whipped cream and extra cherries.
After dinner, she told the girls they were going to visit Aunt Amanda. Emily was excited and couldn’t wait to leave. She adored her aunt and her scruffy long-haired dog. Samantha was excited too, but she was sad she couldn’t tell her friends goodbye. She whined about missing school the next day because it was her turn to read a story to her class and she’d been practicing all week. Instead, Chloe asked Samantha to read that story to her and Emily. It was about a family and their spotted dog.
Early Friday morning, Chloe finished packing, filling the last box that would fit in the trunk. Samantha and Emily left many of their toys, only picking out a few of the smaller ones to take with them. Despite the tightly packed car, they thought they were coming home in a week. Chloe didn’t correct them.
Before they were ready to leave, Chloe wandered through the rooms, checking one more time for anything else that needed to go. She wistfully touched the curtains in her daughters’ shared bedroom and sighed when she saw the leftover toys — picking up Samantha’s doll and Emily’s teddy bear, not willing to leave them behind even though the car was full.
In the car, the girls were already fighting over who was going to sit in the front seat. In the end, neither did.
That afternoon, they ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at a rest stop along the highway. It was almost the halfway point to Amanda’s and Chloe was tired of driving, so it was nice to stretch her legs and breathe the fresh air. The girls dropped quarters in the pop machine and later played a quick game of tag on the grass. It was a good way to get the wiggles out and after thirty minutes of running and exploring the woodsy trails where people took their dogs to pee, they were finally ready to settle back in the car. Emily soon fell asleep; Samantha read old storybooks until she too dozed off.
Five hours later, the lights from Amanda’s house came into view. Gathering the courage to face her sister, Chloe pulled into the driveway, wearily stepped out of the car and walked toward the front porch, where Amanda and her dog were waiting. Samantha and Emily, fully awake and energized after their naps, beat her there. With them bouncing around, it was hard to get a word in, so Chloe walked back to the car and pulled out a few of their possessions, leaving the rest in the trunk.
There was a casserole waiting in Amanda’s oven, with the table already set. Samantha and Emily ate quickly, while Chloe pushed food around her plate, no appetite to speak of. Amanda had only a two-bedroom house, so the girls settled for sleeping bags and fluffy pillows in the living room, right in front of the fireplace – camping in, just like the last few nights in their house.
Chloe and Amanda exchanged pleasantries but not a whole lot more. That would come later. They were all exhausted, so there would be no stories this night.
Late Saturday morning, Chloe stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom, splashing water on her pale face. As always when she was in someone else’s house, she hadn’t slept well. But it wasn’t just that. She thought about all her failures, how in a much happier part of her life she’d lost the job she really liked. Now she’d give anything to have any job at all.
She thought about that stupid advice – do what you love. How many times had she heard that line? Doing what you love doesn’t always pay the bills. We can’t eat on that line, Chloe thought, slumping down on the kitchen chair, exhausted from just about everything. She looked over at the kids, still sleeping soundly in front of somebody else’s fireplace. It wasn’t their fault she didn’t have a job.
“Coffee?” Amanda said as she put the steaming mug on the table and settled into the chair next to her. Chloe wasn’t sure why Amanda even bothered, but the coffee was good. She sipped slowly, waiting for the interrogation to begin. Instead, Amanda asked just one question.
“What are you going to tell the kids when you leave?” She looked over at Chloe, waiting patiently for her to respond. Her eyes betrayed nothing, but Chloe knew by the way she pursed her lips and gripped the mug that she was worried. It didn’t matter that Chloe had told her she had a job lined up in another state and couldn’t take the kids until she was settled. They’d played this game before, and Chloe always came back. This time, though, it was different, and Amanda sensed it too. Doing what you love sometimes meant sacrifices, even for the unwilling.
“The girls think we’re on vacation, that we’ll be going home soon. I’ll tell them I have to go away for a while until I can get things squared away.”
They heard the kids stirring, so Amanda stood up to prepare their breakfast. “I don’t know what you were thinking,” she said as she turned her back to Chloe.
Later, Chloe, Samantha, and Emily trekked to the neighborhood park. Emily brought Amanda’s dog, although Chloe ended up holding the leash. Samantha ran to the biggest slide and sailed down it faster than she’d ever managed on the slide at her school. When Emily followed, she landed hard at the bottom and cried, even though it wasn’t much of a fall. Chloe picked her up and hugged her tightly. She still didn’t have the heart to tell the kids she was leaving.
Dinner came and went, with more of Amanda’s casserole and more stilted conversation. Soon Chloe was tucking the girls into their sleeping bags, and feigning a headache, she went to her borrowed bed in her borrowed room. There were no stories that night either.
Before dawn on Sunday, Chloe tiptoed down the hall with her jacket and bag in hand. She’d brought the rest of the girls’ things into the house very late the previous night, depositing them in the guest room where she slept. She’d already written her daughters goodbye notes, with vague promises to return soon. The letter she wrote to Amanda was longer, filled with emotions Chloe could never have expressed in person. She knew Amanda would never really understand why she was leaving (how could she?), but Chloe was sure that Amanda would take care of her precious daughters. That would have to be enough.
After leaving all three notes on the kitchen table, she went to her car and started the engine, relieved she was able to slip out without a confrontation and heartbroken she was abandoning her two girls without trying to explain why to them in person. She was a coward.
She looked at the house where her daughters lay sleeping and for just a brief moment, she questioned her decision. Then she placed both hands on the steering wheel and drove away slowly, tears finally falling as she turned the corner. She never looked back.
Amanda watched from the darkened window as Chloe backed out of the driveway, leaving the headlights off so no one would wake up. She’d known her sister was leaving to make a new start, but didn’t think it would be this soon. When she realized it was happening now, she got out of bed to confront her, but stopped at her doorway. There were no more words to be said. She would have to pick up the pieces just like she always had, cleaning up after Chloe, fixing her mess. Only this time, there were Samantha and Emily to consider. Walking into the kitchen, she turned on the light over the stove and put the kettle on the burner. She ignored Chloe’s notes on the table. They could wait.