Finalist in the Nivalis 2016 Short Fiction Competition
Included in the Nivalis 2016 Anthology now available at Amazon.com
When Cassie sat down, it was for sure a serious sit. It didn’t matter if she sat on the front steps, the back yard swing, a dining room chair pulled to a window or the corner of her classroom. She just sat.
Dad blamed Mom. Mom hovered and coaxed. First, second and third grade teachers warned and suggested that Cassie see a doctor, maybe several kinds of doctors. Dad dismissed their concerns and continued to avoid Cassie. In his opinion, Mom should just do a better job. She could pull Cassie out of this if she only tried. Most of the time, Cassie just pretended that she didn’t hear them argue. Other times, she would sit motionless for hours. No one knew why she seemed to go away when she entered her fugue state. Mom had secretly taken Cassie to the family doctor who found nothing out of the ordinary. He thought, however, that it would be useful to refer her to a neurologist, but Mom declined. Her husband would find out and be angry.
When Cassie wasn’t sitting, she was a regular girl with blonde, curly hair who read storybooks and played with her dolls. She chatted with Mon about the stories she read and did her little chores. She giggled and played games. Her normalcy made Mom sad as if this was the unnatural child.
Only one person treated Cassie the same whether or not Cassie was sitting. Her best friend, Felicia, lived across the street and two doors down so it was easy to see Cassie when she chose the front steps for her sit. Felicia would grab a coloring book and crayons or maybe a doll or sometimes their homework assignment and run down to Cassie’s.
Felicia sat next to Cassie on the porch steps. “You’re right, Cassie. We have to do our homework now. I try not to do the arithmetic. I don’t like it. I’m glad you do or I’d just make marks on the paper and turn it in. Of course Miss Murray would send home a bad note to Mama then and I’d be in trouble at home and school. So you save me from a spanking.”
Cassie gazed off into the secret world only she inhabited. Her breathing was even and slow. Her face was expressionless.
“Here’s our first problem. Fifteen take away seven. I don’t have that in my head. Here’s how I do it.” Felicia opened her notebook to a clean page and made fifteen, well spaced dots. “Now look at this. Watch me, Cassie.” Felicia carefully put a strike mark through seven of the dots as she counted them out loud. “Now we just have to count the remainder. That’s what Miss Murray calls it. The remainder. One, two, three. See. There are eight dots left. That’s the answer, Cassie. We did it.” Cassie still drifted.
The girls did arithmetic problems until Mom came out to the big porch. “Felicia, it’s our supper time. Cassie, you come in now.”
“Ma’am, Cassie’s not back yet.” Felicia looked embarrassed. She took her friend’s hand.
Mom closed her eyes briefly as she drew a deep breath. “Okay then. Felicia, would you like to stay to supper? I’ll call your Mama if you want to.”
“Yes, ma’am. Please.”
Mom would have Felicia move into their home if she could. Coming to the dining room table with pink and purple sunset lights probing the bay window, Dad looked suspiciously at Felicia. As much as Cassie made him uncomfortable, Felicia caused discomfort times two. He wondered what must be wrong with her that she saw nothing wrong with Cassie. Maybe she was a witch. He gave a polite nod to Felicia, but didn’t speak to either child. He said a perfunctory blessing for the meal.
Plates were passed and served and handed about. Felicia sat to Cassie’s right. Mom tried to make lighthearted chatter. She had been pretty and perky at one time, but the last few years weighed hard and she looked tired and strained. Dad never looked at her in the same way any more. He looked like a man searching for the exit door.
“S’cuse me,” said Felicia. “Cassie likes more potatoes than that, please.”
Mom took back the plate extended to her and added more of the mashed sweet potatoes.
Felicia smiled. She put a fork in Cassie’s hand and helped it scoop a bite of potatoes dripping with sweet butter. She slightly lifted Cassie’s arm and watched her friend take the bite.
Dad roughly shoved away his plate and stomped out the back door. Mom looked from her husband’s departing back to her daughter’s glazed eyes and then to Felicia’s beatific smile. The women remained at the table and Felicia prompted Cassie’s intake. As they reached the end of the meal, Cassie brightened, reached for her glass and swigged down the remaining milk.
The three cleared the table and Cassie took dishes and platters to the kitchen. Mom walked Felicia to the door.
“Thank you for staying.”
“Sure thing.” Felicia started down the porch steps before Mom stopped her. “How is she in school? How do the other children treat her?”
“Most everybody likes Cassie good enough. She’s fun and she’s the prettiest, you know. Some of the bad kids make fun of her, though, when she goes away. They think she’s spooky.”
“Away? She’s just unconscious. In some sort of trance. Why do you say away and why do they say spooky? She’s just a sick little girl.”
“No, ma’am. She goes someplace else. She likes it there, too. You want her to like it here better, but I don’t know if she can. I wonder what she sees when she goes there, but she doesn’t tell. Gotta go.” Felicia hopped over the last step and ran across the yard, yelling behind her a thank-you for supper.
When Mom returned to the dining room, Cassie had finished stacking dishes in the kitchen and was speeding through her arithmetic homework.
“You’re good at arithmetic, aren’t you, baby?”
“A little. It all seems like I’ve had the assignment before. Isn’t that silly?
“I think he went for a walk. You and Felicia are very close friends, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am. Oh.” Cassie put down her pencil and dug through her notebook. “You gotta sign my permission slip. Next week we’re going to St Louis cemetery. You know that’s where all the people are buried on top of the ground in little houses and that’s where the witch Marie Laveau is buried. Won’t that be fun? You could be a chaperone.”
Mom shivered. “I’ll take the permission slip and look it over. I don’t know if this is a healthy field trip for young children.” Mom sat down next to her beautiful child. “I talked to Felicia about you being sick.”
“No, it’s not funny. Don’t you know that you sometimes . . . lose time?”
“I have to finish the problems, Mom.”
“Right. Go ahead. I have some ice cream when you’re done and then we’ll need to get you ready for bed.”
“Can I have a story? Will Daddy tuck me in?”
“I’ll read your story when you get in bed. Finish up here and we’ll get your dessert and bath.”
Dad came in the back door while Cassie worked on the problems.
“She wants you to read the bedtime story,” said Mom.
“I can’t. She ain’t natural.”
“Is that your actual thought or is it the booze you consumed at the bar? I can smell it.”
“Don’t smart off at me.”
“She’s your child. You need to act like a father.”
“Actually, I been thinkin’ on that. I don’t think I could’ve made what’s sittin’ in there.”
Mom had to choose between sorrow at his behavior and a mother’s fury. For the first time in their many years, she slapped him so hard that his head snapped back. Moments elapsed in mutual, hate-filled glares. This was a time in their marriage that could never be taken back. Almost in unison, they both growled, “Go to hell.”
“First thing tomorrow, you have to leave this house and Cassie and me. I never want to see you again.” Mom turned sharply and left the room.
Later when she was snuggled in bed, Cassie smelled like fresh lilacs and honeysuckle. Her hair wasn’t quite dry and it clumped in dainty swirls about her head. Her cheeks flushed. Her eyes sparkled. How could this possibly be wrong?
“What story do you want, baby?”
“Snow White. She eats the bad apple and goes to sleep. Goes somewhere else. Then the prince kisses her (giggles) and she comes back. I like that story.”
“Do you know why you like that story?” Mom braced herself.
“It’s just a good story, that’s all.”
“My baby, do you know that you sort of go to sleep? That we all seem to lose you for periods of time?”
Cassie turned pages in the storybook.
”Please listen to me. I don’t know what happens or what to do about it, but, if you do go some place else like Felicia says, I want you to know that I need you to be here. With me. Please. I love you so much.”
Cassie smiled in the most all-knowing way. A way that chilled Mom even before the child spoke.
“Funny. That’s just what my Mom in the other place says.”