In her soft Cajun accent, the fortuneteller remarked, “You think you future is something that you want to know?”
“I guess not,” Alice said.
“Are you really this brave, child?”
“No,” Alice said, knowing that she had spent most of this odd quest quivering in fear.
“I give you a choice. You go back the way you came and not know what I now know, or I tell you the future that have been revealed to me and you can cross the bridge. What is you choice, child?”
The Book: “Volume 2”
Alice laid on her bed reading a chapter in her science book for tomorrow. Sixth grade was very different from the grammar school she attended last year. It was different in a lot of ways, but most of all, it was so big. Five grammar schools emptied their fifth graders into Gibson Middle School, located just south of San Francisco. At least some of her friends came with her. Her best friend, Beth, didn't. Beth’s parents didn't like the middle school, so they sent her to Saint Catherine’s for the ramp up to high school. Alice missed her friend, and she tried to talk her mother into sending her to the Catholic school, also, but her family didn't have the money.
Alice was young for her grade and it seemed that all of the kids were bigger than she was. Some were already starting to show signs of maturing. When Alice tried to discuss her lack of progress in that area with her mother, her mother would tell her to be patient, everything would come soon enough.
A plate hit the floor in the kitchen with a crash and it made Alice jump. Was it an accident? Her mother seemed distracted tonight, and it seemed like lately, she always fought with her father. It was nearly dinner time and he hadn't come home yet. He was usually home by now.
Alice turned her attention back to her homework. She tried to concentrate, but as the time passed, her mother began slamming things in the kitchen, and Alice was sure that she was becoming angrier.
“Come and eat!” her mom yelled curtly from the kitchen.
Alice stood and looked in the mirror that hung behind her door. It was full length and she glanced at her reflection. She brushed her brown hair behind her ears and walked out, down the short hallway, and to the kitchen.
As she entered, she noticed that her mother was holding a full water glass with a pale-yellow liquid. Alice looked at the kitchen table, set for three, and her mom walked over not speaking and set down a bottle of wine. It was marked Chablis.
“Dad's not home yet?” Alice stated questioningly.
“No. It's too much trouble for him to get here by dinner time.”
“Mom, come and sit down with me and eat.”
Her mom continued, “It's not like he needs to work late. He gets off in time to be here.”
“Dinner looks good, Mom. Come and eat.”
Alice's mom was in her late thirties and had Alice when she was twenty-seven. Alice was the image of her mom. Both had brown, naturally curly hair and large brown eyes with their Italian heritage showing through. Alice did have a bit of her father, though, he was tall, thin, and had a straight nose from his northern European roots which was a mixture of German, Swedish, Irish and Scott. Alice had inherited his straight freckly nose, and though painfully thin, herself, hoped to someday have his height. Now, though, she was a bit short for her age.
“Come and eat, Mom,” Alice said again, almost pleading.
Alice sat and began scooping out mashed potatoes and then corn. She cut a large slice of butter and placed it in the middle of her potatoes, pushing it deep to melt. In the middle of the table was a roasted chicken, and she asked if she could have the leg. She felt like she was walking on egg shells.
Her mom nodded, but kept looking at the clock, and kept sipping the wine. She sat across from Alice, and didn't eat.
“Is your homework finished?” Alice's mom asked abruptly, not looking in Alice's direction. She was nearly at a boil.
“No, not yet, but almost,” Alice said meekly.
Fifteen minutes had passed and a thump came from the front door. By this time, Alice had half finished her meal. It sounded like someone dropped their keys, then picked them up, and was having trouble fitting them into the lock. Her mother's face was red. Alice could see the anger rising, and her mother emptied her glass and set it down hard making Alice jump.
The door opened and Alice's father walked into the kitchen with an awkward grin. “Hello, Princess,” he said to Alice.
She glanced up and half smiled.
“Glad you could make room in your busy schedule to have dinner with us,” Alice's mom said sarcastically.
“Come on, Eleanor, I'm not that late,” he said trying to placate her.
“Where have you been?”
“Well, it was Joe's birthday and we stopped at Murphy's for a quick one… To celebrate, you know.”
“Huh,” Eleanor said rubbing her temples. “I hope you have the rent money. I didn't have enough to pay, and it was due yesterday.”
“I got payed today. How much do you need?”
“I need five hundred more. I got a thousand, but...”
“Oh, umm, well. I don't quite have five. I got four. I spent some at the bar with Joe and...”
“Damn it, Frank! We're going to get thrown out of this place, too. What are we supposed to do?”
Eleanor began to tear up.
Alice hadn't finished eating, but she slinked from the table, unnoticed. She knew what was coming. Now that she had left the room, her father began raising his voice.
“Don't start on me, Eleanor. It's been a long day.”
As Alice neared her room, she could hear her mother's voice rise. “You know, Frank, you really have become worthless.”
“I don't see you getting off your backside to work and help out,” he responded. “What I see is the wine disappearing.”
“Don't you talk to me like that,” Eleanor said.
Alice slowly closed her door, and the glass that had contained her mother’s wine, hit the floor. Alice covered her ears and the voices muffled some, not allowing her to hear every word, but then they boomed through as the argument increased in volume. She laid down and wrapped her ears with her pillow and tried not to hear the fight that raged. She hadn't finished her homework and she soon fell asleep.
When she woke, the house was quiet. She glanced at the clock and saw that it was 2:58. She got up, undressed and slipped on her nightgown. She knew that she hadn't finished her homework which meant that she was unprepared for school in the morning. She thought that she could finish reading her science at lunch with the science class being the next period, but her math wasn't finished and that was first period. If she could get up a half hour early, she could maybe fake it. Alice was exhausted, though, and she laid back down and fell quickly to sleep...
In the morning, her alarm woke her. She turned to see that she hadn't reset it to get up early to finish her homework. She jumped from bed, went to the bathroom, and as she walked out, peeked into her mom and dad's bedroom. Her father was gone and her mother was sound asleep in a tangle of hair with her mouth wide open.
Alice put down a piece of bread into the toaster. She stepped on some broken glass that was under the counter, cutting her big toe. “Ouch,” she said raising it to see a drop of blood. She sat down on a chair and pulled a small shard from the wound. It wasn't bad, but it stung and as the toast cooked, she went back to her room and got dressed. She put a Band-Aid on the small cut and then slipped on her shoes and socks. She then grabbed her math homework and laid it on the table which hadn't been cleared from last night's meal. She slid her half full dinner plate, crusted with dried food, into the middle and ate her toast while she hammered away at some of the equations.
Finished eating, she hustled to the bathroom, combed her hair and brushed her teeth, then went back to her room and collected her books, put them in her backpack, and went back to get her math homework. She had four dollars in her pocket, so didn't need to pack a lunch and that gave her a bit more time to work on her math. Alice didn't look back in on her mom. She walked out the front door, and closed it quietly behind her.
School was only three blocks away and she started walking, shrugging into her backpack. The morning was cool and bleak with a light fog that blocked the sun and dampened the ground.
Her neighborhood was old with rows of small homes all now rentals. All had paint chipping and were built identically to the next. If you weren't paying attention, you could easily walk up to the wrong house. They all had three wooden steps that led to a small wood porch and all painted gray with white trim. Some of her neighbors put chairs or flowers in pots on the porch to make their homes look a bit different, but it wasn't much help.
Her grammar school was three blocks away and if you traveled some blocks to the right, you came to a neighborhood where the kids came from whose parents had money. If you traveled to the left for some blocks you were in the down town area and the kids who came from there didn't seem to have anything, very little clothes and they wore the same thing day after day.
Middle school was an education in a lot of ways. It seemed that each group of kids had no idea of the others until middle school and the sixth graders mostly flocked together with the kids from their own grammar school.
Then there was the difference in the size of the kids. The eighth graders were huge. Alice was small, even for a sixth grader, but some of the kids in the upper grades were so tall that she needed to look up to see their faces, and walking through the halls, the things that they talked about, shocked her. She missed her grammar school, and she missed Beth.
Alice walked into her math class and sat at a table in the middle of the room. She pulled out her homework and finished her last two problems as the other kids sat and talked. From the corner of her eye she saw a finger appear and touch her homework. She glanced up to see Mrs. Potter looking down at her through her glasses.
“Homework is supposed to be done at home,” she said glowering.
Alice felt embarrassed. She didn't want to say anything about last night. “I know,” she responded looking down.
“All right class, pass your homework to the front and open your book to page ninety. Make sure your name is on the top.”
Math ended, then American History, next it was Social Studies. After that she had lunch, then Science which she liked.
Alice finished her lunch, sitting alone with her nose stuck in her science book. She skimmed the pages and knew that she hadn't read them well, but hoped to get by. Her next class was English, her favorite subject. Alice was an avid reader. She loved to read. She didn't care what the story was about, she would dive into a book and not come out until she was finished. It was magic.
Her last class of the day was P.E. You had to dress for P.E. Alice change quickly and hustled out to stand on her number. There were forty numbers painted in blue on the asphalt outside of the locker room, and each child needed to stand directly on his or hers.
The teacher glanced around and made a note of any missing student, then they started class.
Alice liked P.E. She was athletic and very coordinated. She could run, catch and throw, though, she had never been exposed to much of that by her parents. For the last couple of years, they were too busy fighting. She was on a soccer team for a short time a couple of years ago, and that was fun.
After P.E. Alice hustled to change back into her street clothes and started to her locker. School was uncomfortable, but when the final bell rung, her mind drifted back home. That was worse. She wished that school wasn't out. When she reached her locker, she had to wait for two kids to move. The lockers were slim, and you couldn't get close to yours if people were at the two next to you. She packed her backpack with the books that she needed for homework, and then lifted the heavy pack, slinging it onto her back, bent forward and started home.
Alice went straight home. When she arrived, her mom was sitting on the couch, holding a glass of ice water to her temple. The wind caught the door and it slammed.
“Alice, don't slam the door!” her mom shouted.
“Sorry,” Alice said.
“How was school?” Alice’s mom asked not looking in her direction.
“Fine,” Alice said walking by.
She headed straight for her bedroom to get her homework finished before her father arrived home for another round of arguments. She had a new book that she got from the school library, and once her homework was finished, she would dive back into it. She was on chapter two, and was already into the story. It was a fantasy novel with dragons, witches and handsome warriors striving to save a kingdom from an evil sorcerer who wanted it for himself.
Alice worked on her math, first. She knew that she wasn't going to get a good grade on the paper that she turned in today, then she would read her science. Tonight, she needed to write a two-page story for English and that would be fun, and even if her mom and dad knocked down the walls fighting, she thought that she could finish that project. She was going to make up a story similar to the book she was reading, inserting her best friend Beth and herself as the heroes. They would, together, save the kingdom.
By dinner her father hadn't come home, but her mom wasn't slamming anything in anger. Alice ate quietly, not looking at her mom who had been working on a new bottle of wine. Alice finished dinner and rinsed her plate. Her mom was silent. Alice slipped into her room not understanding why her mom was acting so strangely. Usually, she was exploding, but tonight she was subdued. She wondered why her father hadn’t come home yet.
Alice showered, dressed for bed and brushed her teeth. She felt good because all her homework was done and she had done a good job. It felt good to know that she was prepared for school in the morning, and she figured that she would sleep well. She got out her new book and read two chapters, then fell asleep.
Morning arrived and Alice peeked in on her mom. She was sound asleep. Alice didn't remember her father coming home last night. He usually peeked in on her, and would give her a kiss, even if it was late, but she couldn't remember him coming in at all.
She ate breakfast, dressed for school, and made a lunch because she had no money. Her mom still hadn't gotten up. Alice peeked in again and said, “Mom, I'm going to school, now.”
“Okay. See you when you get home,” Eleanor said sleepily.
School was good, no problems today, and she walked home happy. As she approached her front door, she noticed that there were boxes on the porch and two suitcases. Her father backed out of the screen allowing it to slam. He stood with his hands on his hips and shook his head. Alice ran up.
“Where are you going?” she asked with a look of dread on her face.
He turned, not expecting her to be there. “I'm sorry, Princess. I just can't live here anymore,” he said and his voice cracked on “more.”
“But you can't go,” she said and she began to sob. “You just can’t.”
“I got to. Your mom and I can't make this work. I wish we could, but...”
“Don't go,” Alice sobbed, hugging him tightly.
“I'll come and pick you up on Saturday. We'll hang out.”
Alice backed away. She nodded and watched as he put some things into his car’s trunk. He smiled and got in the driver’s side and drove away.
When Alice walked in her front room, her mother sat on the couch with her head in her hands.
Her mom looked up.
“It's complicated, Alice. You and I have to be out of here by the end of the month. I'm going to get boxes and we'll need to pack. My sister has a friend who has a place where we can stay. It's cheaper and down town. You'll have to walk a bit further to school, but she said that I can work with her in her thrift shop. I'm going to need to work, and I'll be close to home there. I'm sorry, Alice. I really am.”
Alice didn't speak. She looked down and walked into her room, closing her door. For a minute, she looked at the things that she had hanging on the walls. Drawings that she had made, pieces of ribbon, and a couple of posters of singers who she liked. She melted, collapsed onto her bed and sobbed into her pillow. She didn't want her mom to hear. She didn't want to talk to her, she just wanted to be alone.
At school the next day, she didn't have her homework finished. She barely followed in class and her mind wandered to her father. She wondered if him leaving had anything to do with her. She wasn't a bad child, but she had gotten in some trouble. When she remembered all the arguments that led up to him leaving, though, none were about her. She thought, maybe they will both be happier now.
The month passed quickly and Alice had packed all her stuff. She called Beth, her best friend, to tell her that they were moving. Beth had great stories about her new school and all the friends that she was making. Alice enjoyed the stories at first, but then felt a touch of jealousy, and she said good-bye feeling that the world had somehow changed when she wasn't looking.
Moving day: A small, white van pulled up in front of Alice’s house. Her and Eleanor had finished packing all their belongings into the boxes. None of the furniture was theirs, so it all would stay. Two young guys in their twenties came up the stairs and knocked on the door. Alice's mom answered.
“Hi, Ma'am. Are you ready to go?” one of the movers asked.
“Yes,” Eleanor said. “You can start with these boxes and then those,” she finished pointing.
Alice watched wide eyed as their belongings left for the van. She had all her books in one box and one of the movers pretended that it was too heavy to lift, attempting several times. He knew that it was hers because she stood over the boxes from her room like a mother hen.
“Hey, young lady. What do you got in here, rocks?” he said with a half-smile.
“No, books,” she said slow to pick up on the joke.
“Oh,” he said and lifted the box easily and walked out the door, then she got it.
Alice and her mom watched as their things emptied out of their home and into the van. When everything was gone, Eleanor made one last look around and put her arm around Alice.
“Time to go,” she said.
Alice looked up and nodded.
They walked out, closing the door behind them and the van pulled out heading towards this new place where they would live. Eleanor didn't have a car and she and Alice walked four blocks towards down town. As they walked, neither had much to say. Eleanor made a few comments, but Alice only responded with one-word answers.
“It's going to take you longer to get to school,” Eleanor said as they approached the moving van. It was parked in front of an old three-story structure.
Alice looked up at the building. It was narrow, and painted brown with white trim. All the paint was peeling and as she got close, she could see that the brown of the wood was showing through the brown of the paint. The building was probably a single-family home at one time. It looked old, like it might have some historic value, but it sat alone with the lots on each side devoid of structures, just dirt and gravel smattered with litter.
“Yep,” Alice said about her walk.
“We live on the third floor. There are different people on the first two. I haven't seen them yet. I think above us, there's an attic,” Alice's mom added.
“Oh,” Alice said.
“We use the stairs on the side of the building,” Eleanor said pointing.
“Okay,” Alice said shortly.
The movers had begun to unload the boxes, and stacked them by the staircase that led up the side of the building past the second floor to the third floor.
“Come on, Alice, I have the key.”
Alice nodded and followed her mother up the steel stairs. There was a steel landing at the top. Eleanor wiggled the key into the lock and opened the door.
Alice looked down through the wiry landing and could see the ground below. She didn't like heights and it made her quiver. She reached for the hand rail and gripped it tight.
As her mom pushed open the door and stepped in, Alice peeked into the room. For some reason, she felt apprehensive and didn't want to enter.
“Come on, little lady,” a voice said from behind her. The movers were waiting, holding boxes and straining. “This stuff’s heavy.”
“Oh, sorry,” Alice said.
“Where should we stack these?” the other mover said as he entered.
“By the door will be fine,” Eleanor said, but her attention was on Alice who had the appearance of the proverbial deer in the headlights.
Alice looked around wide eyed. The floors were polished wood with an occasional rug here and there. There was a brown couch and a navy-blue chair, set at an angle with a round table between and a rectangular coffee table in front. The furniture sat on a rectangular blue rug with flowered designs of red and beige. Alice was no expert, but nothing seemed to match. To the right must be the bedrooms, and to the left in the front of the room was an open kitchen, and small dining area that appeared to be an afterthought. The dining space had a round light brown wood table with two dark brown chairs. In the kitchen was a sink, refrigerator, and a stove, all pure white with off white cabinets.
“Well, what do you think?” her mother asked.
“I don't know what to say,” Alice said.
The movers continued to hustle up and down the stairs and their footsteps sounded like leather slapping steel.
“We can make it homey,” Eleanor said with a sigh and hands on hips.
Alice stood next to her with her arms dangling at her sides, and her small, narrow shoulders sagging. She was taking it all in.
The living room had wallpaper with a muted beige and blue floral design and it rolled down at the corners in spots.
“Let's go check the bedrooms.”
“Okay,” Alice said.
They walked to the right, past the couch and into a short hallway. The first room was the bathroom. There was a tub and the other usual things. It was clean, but the fixtures were all old and had stains in the porcelain. The floor was tiled in off white with a navy-blue accent that made it look like a public restroom.
Behind the bathroom was the largest bedroom and to the left were two smaller bedrooms.
“Which room do you want?” Eleanor asked.
Alice looked in both small rooms. Each had a bed, closet, dresser and nightstand. Both were painted off white and had no rugs. The only difference was that there appeared to be some kind of opening in the back room through the ceiling. It was two-foot-wide and four-foot-long with a handle, and it gave Alice the creeps. She imagined that someone could slip down it when she was asleep.
“I'll take the other room,” Alice stated.
The movers finished carting up the last of the boxes. They then carried in a small, flat screen TV. Eleanor had them place it on the ground next to a cable outlet.
“That's it, Ma'am,” one mover said.
“Thanks,” Eleanor replied.
The two men walked out and Eleanor closed the door. She walked over to the couch and collapsed putting both feet up on the coffee table. Alice just stood and stared. She didn't know what to do first.
Her mother looked at her and said, “There's a McDonald’s down the street, let's go and have an early dinner and then try to unpack the things we will need for tomorrow. I'll finish unpacking while you're at school.”
Alice nodded, felt overwhelmed, then said, “Tomorrow is Saturday.”
“Oh... I knew that,” her mom said trying to make a joke of it.
After dinner, they began combing through the boxes to find their bedding first, then things for the bathroom like towels, toilet paper and soap. Eleanor marked things well, but there were thirty boxes, all stacked together. It was a mountain of things and Eleanor had some trouble finding small items that she was looking for.
Alice got sheets and her pillow and made her bed. She worried about the creepy room with the trap door that led to the attic and hoped that no one could slip in from outside, and then sneak in to cut her throat in the dead of the night. She thought that it was a perfect place for a serial killer to hide.
Next, she found her box with her favorite books. Rummaging through it, she found three of her personal favorites. They were like old friends and she planned to read one of them when she went to bed to help her go to sleep.
“Alice,” her mom called.
“Yes,” Alice replied.
“Come help me set up the kitchen, please.”
Alice walked into the small kitchen to find her mom unpacking what food they had brought and stacking it in their new pantry.
“Empty that box and hand me the stuff inside,” Eleanor instructed.
They worked diligently, unpacking.
Finishing, Alice was tired and wanted to go to bed. She showered, then while brushing her teeth, felt like she was being watched. Imagination, she thought, but for some reason this place was unnervingly uncomfortable. Most of the sounds seemed to come from above in the attic and she gazed at the stained ceiling.
Alice crawled into bed and tried to read, but the house continued to crack and creek. She couldn’t stay focused on her book because of the strange noises. It had been a long day, though, and her eyes finally grew heavy and she drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
She survived the first night but woke constantly. Morning arrived with the sun peeking through her window. She rose onto her elbows and looked around groggily and disoriented, forgetting where she was. She remembered with a sigh and shuffled into the kitchen for breakfast. Her mother wasn’t up yet, and while Alice ate, she wondered when her father would come over to get her. They didn’t have a phone, yet. How would he contact her? What a mess.
An hour later, her mother got up and made coffee, then they both got back to work unpacking. Saturday passed.
By Sunday afternoon, Alice’s father still hadn’t come to get her. He promised to pick her up, but had failed to show. The grief from her parent’s breakup, and the sadness from her father forgetting to pick her up weight heavily on Alice as the day passed. She finished unpacking silently.
Just before dinner, all the boxes were emptied, and they walked them down the stairs and called for a garbage pickup for Monday morning.
Sunday evening arrived. Eleanor fixed their dinner and Alice sat at the table with her mom. Since the split-up between her mom and dad, every conversation was strained.
“I'm going to start work at the thrift store, tomorrow. I probably won't be home when you get here. You know where the store is. It's the fourth building from the corner,” her mother said pointing down the street. “I don't think I get off until after 5:00. Come and see me before you go home. I want to know that you made it okay. I'm looking into a couple of cheap cell phones for us and hope to have them in a couple of days.”
“Okay,” Alice said shortly.
“Alice,” her mom said. “I know that this is difficult for you. We'll be okay.”
“What about Dad? Will he be okay, too?”
“I think so, Alice. Sometimes people like each other better when they don't live together. I think your father is a great guy, and I still love him, but we just can't seem to work out those things that were trouble.”
“He thought that he could come and see me this weekend. He never came,” Alice said. Tears gathered in her eyes, but didn't spill.
“Oh,” Eleanor said. She looked down at the ground. “Ah, I asked him not to come. I forgot to tell you. I needed help unpacking and, I… Ah, forgot. I'm sorry.”
“Oh,” Alice said. “I'm finished and need to read for school,” she lied.
Alice stood, holding back her tears, and her mom nodded. She rinsed her plate, walked to her room, and felt an overwhelming sadness that seemed to darken the light. As she laid on her bed, tears silently trickled down her cheeks and she wiped at them with the sleeve of her shirt. She read one of her favorite books in an attempt to lighten her mood. It only helped a little and after an hour, she got up, grabbed her P.J.s and took a bath. She laid in the bubbles, and wondered how her life got so messed up. She knew that her mother and father weren't getting along, but she hadn't expected the break-up. It was a complete surprise, and now she was living in a different home, without her father and it's creepy. She lifted her foot and wriggled her toes through the bubbles.
The house made strange noises and they always seemed to come from the mysterious attic. She pulled the plug in the tub with her toe, and watched it half drain, then dried and slipped into her nightgown.
After brushing her teeth, she crawled into bed, pulling her covers up to her chin. Her mother peeked in to say good night and she gave Alice a hug and asked her to be patient for a bit to let things settle. Alice said she would try and she kissed her mom good night. As she laid in bed, she thought about the trap door to the attic, and the thought made her shudder. She laid, looking at the ceiling for an hour. Because she hadn't slept well for the last two nights, she was tired, and her eyes grew heavy and she slept.