Chapter 1

 

Mole in a Hole

 

 

Her earliest pinpointable memory was of crawling under her sister’s bed: burrowing into a dark secret place behind the overhanging coverlet.  You could hide down here for a long, long time, living like a mole in a hole in the ground.  Vicki’d played being Morocco Mole earlier that day, with the two girls who lived in the house next to hers.  They’d re‑enacted that morning’s cartoon, where Poojie the elephant disappeared just before his royal weigh-in.  One neighbor girl had played Secret Squirrel and the other, younger one had been Poojie, doubling as the villainous Yellow Pinkie.

 

(The younger one always got stuck with the fatso roles.)

 

Vicki didn’t mind portraying Morocco.  It mostly meant squinting a lot and saying “Yes, O Secret One” in a funny mole-voice.  That Saturday had been nice and mild outside; she’d been allowed to go out wearing her regular winter coat instead of the bulky snowsuit, and they’d had a good time until Secret pushed Poojie into a mud puddle.  Poojie called Secret a very bad word that their mother overheard so they were both ordered inside right-this-minute, and Vicki was left to play All-Alone Mole by herself.

 

Now she could do it in this snug hidey-hole, where nobody would ever think of looking for her.  Maybe she’d stay put here and never come out again.  Maybe she’d find some sort of door in the floor that would open up to reveal a magical-wonderful room of her own—

 

—or maybe land her in the middle of the Wild Wood on an awful stormy night, lost among shadows and whatever they concealed.

 

That wasn’t just a place she’d heard about in The Wind in the Willows, either.  No, it felt like where she was right now, with Something or Other spying on her from the secret darkness.  Watching her start to tremble and whimper, but not cry—only babies cried—a big girl could be frightened but never shed tears or give way to panic, no matter what might be lurking nearby.  Or creeping and crawling toward her unseen, about to grab hold—

 

“Vicki!  Are you going to be down there all day?”

 

Scrape and scratch and scrabble backward, outward, upward into the light and onto unsteady feet.  Breathing hard and sneezing twice.  Emerging less less like Mole than a whiskerless Water Rat in corduroy coveralls: grave little face, small neat ears, thick silky hair, eyes like glittering black stars.

 

Victoria Lorraine Volester.

 

Her sister was sitting at the bureau, whose top also served as a desk and vanity table.  There she belted forth a few bars of Petula Clark while cutting blood-red hearts out of construction paper, sticking the results into the vanity mirror’s frame.  Her reflection jabbed Vicki with the familiar green glare.

 

“Did you get them all, Maid?”

 

“Yes Moddom,” said Vicki, displaying a rag loaded with dust bunnies.

 

“Well, dump them in the wastebasket—carefully.  And quit fidgeting!  You all the time act like you’ve got ants in your pants.”

 

“Sorry Moddom.”

 

“There’s no good Valentine songs,” groused her sister.  Tricia the loved and feared; Tricia the envied and resented; Tricia the emerald-eyed blonde beauty who was seven-and-a-half and knew absolutely everything.  Who stepped back from the mirror to admire her handiwork, as well as herself in what she called an “ensemble”: plaid wool jumper over pink turtleneck, argyle kneesocks and saddle oxfords.  Most of which would be handed-me-down to Vicki after all the newness got purged out of them.

 

Tricia snapped open a vinyl coin purse and extracted a penny.  “A-BRA-HAM LIN-COLN KIND-AND-GOOD,” she chanted, holding the penny up for Vicki to see (but not touch).  “This is his birthday today.  He freed the slaves and then got shot.”

 

“How many days till my birthday?” asked Vicki, trying not to fidget in front of the penny.

 

“Seventeen,” said Tricia, pointing at crossed-off squares on the wall calendar.  “And it’ll be sixteen tomorrow and fifteen on Monday, so don’t ask me again till Tuesday.”  She turned and deposited the penny in a cow-shaped piggybank on Vicki’s side of the dresser.  “There you go, Maid.”

 

Vicki blinked at the bank’s black slot.  “Cantcha ever give me the penny, Moddom?”

 

“No I can’t.  You’d just spend it.”  (Again the green glare.)  “If you were born a couple years before or a couple years later, you’d’ve been a Leap Day baby.  Then you’d only have a birthday every four years.”

 

“I don’t wanna have a birthday only every four years!  I’m gonna be four!”

 

“So be glad things are the way they are,” Tricia was lecturing, when they heard a clatter at the front of the house.

 

“Daddy’s home!”

 

“Go wash up for dinner, then.”

 

“I wanna see Daddy first!” Vicki dared to object; but Tricia propelled her into the bathroom.

 

“When you’ve scrubbed off all that dust.  Or do I have to do it for you?”

 

“I can do it myself!” Vicki retorted, mounting the stepstool to reach the sink.  Silently vowing that when the family’s New Baby came, nobody’d better treat Vicki like one ever again.  ‘Cause then she’d be a big sister, with a littler one she could be the boss of.

 

Tricia had announced the New Baby’s name ought to be “Julie,” in honor of Tricia’s favorite actress from The Sound of Music.  And since (according to their father) Tricia was a Princess and Vicki was a Kitten, maybe Julie could be a “Raindrop”—that being the first word of a Julie-song on Tricia’s favorite record album.  One thing was certain, Vicki decided as she dried her hands: when Julie the Raindrop was old enough to be a big sister’s maid, Julie the Raindrop would be given her penny payments to keep.

 

Vicki found her father leaning against the kitchen doorjamb, wearing an unusual-for-Saturday suit and tie.  “Hi Daddy!  I’m all washed up!”

 

Ozzie Volester laughed and stooped and kissed the top of her head.  “That makes one of us,” he told her.  “Hopsy thinks I’ve got a good chance,” he told Mommy in the kitchen.

 

“That Hopsy is an L-U-S-H,” said Vicki’s mother.

 

“Now, Fel—”

 

“Come get this, would you please?”

 

Ozzie hastened to be of service, fetching a casserole and placing it on the dining room table.  He was a jaunty broad-faced man whose eyes and mouth were crinkled by constant affability—“My butter-and-egg smile,” he called it.  “You know, Hopsy did me a favor scheduling that interview today.  Even if Little Bavaria doesn’t make me an offer, old Crucolo won’t know I ever talked to them.”

 

Vicki’s father liked his job, traveling around town selling Milkpail Dairy Products to groceries and restaurants.  Milkpail’s mascot, Mildred the Cow, adorned promo items throughout the Volester house, including Vicki’s piggybank and the mat beneath the casserole.  But Daddy didn’t like Mr. Crucolo the sales manager, who thought he was too easygoing and needed his quotas raised.   (Which sounded like it would hurt.)  So now he was “looking for a different racket”—quietly, though, lest Mr. Crucolo hear about it and get cheesed off.

 

Which Vicki’s mother already was, as she made clear by lugging in a basket of rolls and setting it thunk on the table.  Vicki had dim memories of a time when Mommy was slim and swift and happy to play with her; but now with each passing day she looked fatter and slower and more crease-browed.

 

“Little Bavaria.  A brewery,” Felicia sighed.

 

“Hey, like Hopsy says: ‘Suds always sell.’”

 

“Your friend Hopsy lives in an apartment.  By himself.”

 

“Now, Fel—”

 

Tricia brought in two perfectly-poured glasses of Milkpail Homogenized (“Mildred calls it moo-riffic!”) and the girls took their seats, Vicki atop a booster-cushion.  Mommy ladled a plateful of pot roast, its meat already cut up bite-sizably, and slid it in front of her.

 

“I thought you liked my father,” she remarked.

 

“Hunh?” went Vicki.

 

“I do like him,” said Daddy.  “But if I had to—”

 

“It wouldn’t be working for him, it’d be with him, like partners.  You love cars anyway, people would come to you to buy them, and then when my father retires—”

 

“When!  Make that ‘if’—and later, okay?  The kids—”

 

“Exactly,” said Felicia.  With a glance down where her waistline used to be.

 

“This is great pot roast,” Ozzie commented.  “Doesn’t your mother make fine pot roast, girls?”

 

“Delicious,” said Tricia, showing off her vocabulary.

 

“I don’t like carrots,” Vicki managed to not say aloud, since Mommy knew that anyway.

 

The rest of the meal was eaten in silence, other than an occasional chomp or slurp.  Vicki again felt an awareness of Something or Other watching her—not all four Volesters, just her as she sat there trifling with orange blobs.  Imagine being a tiny carrot trapped on a plate, pushed around by a fork, then sensing the merciless scrutiny of two black stars glittering overhead—

 

“—Victoria Lorraine—”

 

She thrust a heap of blobs into her mouth and chewed vigorously.  “Wha’, Mmby?”

 

“Don’t gobble, dear.”

 

“And eat with your mouth closed,” added her sister.

 

“That’ll do, Tricia.”

 

“Yes Mommy.”

 

“Help me clear the table, please.”

 

Ha!  There were some advantages to being the littlest one—you didn’t have to go dry the dishes as Mommy washed them; you got to accompany Daddy to the living room and watch the evening news.  Ozzie switched on the old Philco (that made Tricia moan every time the NBC peacock declared, “The following program is brought to you in living color”) and Vicki climbed onto his lap.

 

She was cheered up further by a prediction of flurries, though that would mean having to wear her bulky snowsuit again; and Daddy was cheered up somewhat by Cazzie Russell and the Wolverines having defeated Wisconsin.  Mommy, on the other hand, sounded frazzled when she called Vicki to come have her bath and don’t dilly-dally.

 

In the bathroom Tricia had to help Mommy kneel on the rug, and that had never been necessary before.  So Vicki tried her best to be good and not splash, making no exclamation about the heat of the water or the roughness of the washcloth.  But those wrigglesome ants persisted in her pants, even when she wasn’t wearing any.

 

“Fidgety Phil can never keep still,” said her mother through clenched teeth.

 

Vicki longed to respond with the Fidgety Fel can never keep well line she’d laboriously composed back when Mommy’d devoted part of each morning to losing her breakfast.  But no: she kept her mouth shut, submitted to having her hair lathered with Johnson & Johnson, then rinsed clear.

 

“Okay, Brownie, you’re done,” said her thankful mother, hauling Vicki out and wrapping her in a towel.  “In you go, Blondie.”

 

Tricia drained the tub, daintily swabbing it with a sponge, and would’ve refilled it to the brim with bubbles had Mommy not halted the flow at belly-button level.

 

“Honestly, you girls...  Now watch how Tricia washes,” she told Vicki.

 

“Yes, watch me,” said the Princess, always eager to perform for an audience.

 

“Why do we keep the shampoo on the edge of the tub?” Felicia inquired.

 

“Because—”

 

“Let Vicki answer.”

 

“Um... so we don’t hafta stand up and reach for it and slip and get hurt?”

 

“That’s right,” said her mother, giving her towel-swathed body a squeeze.  Then holding it snugly—no, tightly—against her own swelling bulginess.

 

“...Mommy?”

 

“What am I going to do?” Fel murmured.

 

“To me?”

 

“All of us.”

 

“Don’t you worry,” said Tricia from amidst her bubbles.  “I’ll get Daddy to move us to the city.”

 

“What city?” Vicki demanded.

 

“The City.  And out of this poky little house.  I hate it here too, Mommy.”

 

“I never said I hated—” their mother was beginning, when Vicki burst in.

 

“It’s not ‘poky,’ it’s cozy!  It’s a nice house, it’s our house, an’ I like it!”

 

She was speared by Tricia’s green glare just as Mommy gave her a smart dig in the ribs.

 

“Ow!  What was that for?”

 

Felicia laughed: a rare occurrence lately.  “No, darling, that was the New Baby saying hello.”

 

“It felt like a kick!  Did the New Baby kick me?”

 

“Don’t take it personally.  All babies do it.”

 

“Did I kick?”

 

“You did a lot of squirming, same as now.  (Stand quietly and I won’t snag the brush in your hair.)”

 

“I bet Tricia never kicked.”

 

“She was more of a shover; couldn’t wait to make her debut.  Speaking of which, Trish, it’s almost 7:30.”

 

“I need to soak for a few minutes.”

 

“—Patricia Elaine—”

 

“Yes Mommy.”

 

Tricia took her time rinsing off, though, as if she were onstage and had to give a crowd its money’s worth.  Vicki knew it was naughty for people to peek at you when you had no clothes on, unless they were your parent or sister.  But Tricia (the big hotdog) would probably welcome such attention—even from a Something or Other.

 

Vicki shuddered as she donned flannel jammies and fuzzy slippers and left the warm bathroom to go kiss her father good night.  Ozzie felt a bit cold and tasted a bit smoky, having indulged in a Lucky Strike out in the Corvair.  (Felicia could no longer abide the smell of cigarettes.)  Tricia joined them, wearing a pink quilted robe, and blocked all view of Flipper’s farewell on the TV.

 

“You and I need to have a chat, Daddy.”

 

“Oho!” smiled Ozzie.  “What’s this?  Has some young feller proposed?”

 

“Now Daddy, this is serious—” Tricia was saying, and “Listen to her, Oz,” Mommy was adding, when Vicki realized She’s going to make him move us to a city—THE City—

 

“Daddy I really like it here, here in this house!”

 

“Well that’s good, Kitten.  Guess we won’t make you sleep in a box on the porch, then.”

 

“I’ll just put Vicki to bed first,” said Tricia.  “Then we’ll chat.”

 

Felicia tried to rise from her chair before sinking back.  “Thanks a million, Trish.  Sleep deep, darling.”

 

Vicki kissed her mother and glanced wistfully at the TV, where the pretty lady genie was dancing out of her bottle.  Someday Vicki intended to stay up past eight and watch more than the opening credits.  But this evening she got marched firmly through the lemon-yellow bungalow she called home, gawking at everything as if for the very last time.  As if it weren’t a crowded little cottage on the unfashionable side of town, but Toad Hall surrounded by wicked weasels intent on breaking in, taking over, and kicking them out into the cold winter night.  Vicki didn’t want to go live anywhere else; she didn’t want to spit her toothpaste into some other sink or flush her TP down some unknown potty.  Above all, she was afraid of losing her bed and bedroom (the two being inseparable in her mind) and every essential for a good deep sleep—her pillow in its Mildred the Cow case, her coverlet with its puppet-show pattern, her collection of stuffed animals.  There was Sylvester and King Leonardo and Linus the Lionhearted, and the cat from the Alice book whose grin kept glowing when all the lights were turned off.  Usually Tricia made her keep that one hidden under the blanket; but tonight it was arranged with the other felines around Vicki as her sister tucked them in.

 

“Now,” said Tricia, taking a seat on a corner of the bed, “I’m going to tell you a bedtime story.”

 

This was an infrequent treat, often asked for since Tricia was exceptionally dramatic, and Vicki would have wriggled with anticipation had she not caught herself in time.

 

“Molly Whuppie?” she timidly suggested.  “Or Snow-White and Rose-Red?”

 

“No, this is a new one I just made up.  It’s called ‘The Mad Man Who Got Away With Murder.’”

 

And Tricia proceeded to relate, in brief but vivid detail, the parable of a young girl who ignored the advice of her Gardening Angel.  “Leave that shabby crackerbox where you’re living and come with me to The City,” the Angel told her, “’cause there we’ll have such fun together.”  But the young girl wouldn’t follow her, even though everyone else in the neighborhood did and soon the girl was all alone.  Or so she thought—before a Mad Man appeared in the distance, a Mad Man who started racing toward her down the empty street, chasing the young girl faster and faster like a big mean dog after a helpless kittycat till he trapped her inside the shabby crackerbox!  The young girl tried to hide from him, and when that didn’t work she yelled for her Gardening Angel to come save her—but it was no use.  The City was far away, and by the time the Angel showed up it was too late.  The young girl had been hideously murdered; the Mad Man got away unpunished; nothing remained except a few bloody bones.  If only the girl had listened to her Angel and moved to The City, the Mad Man wouldn’t have been able to find her—she’d still be alive and safe and happy ever after, thanks to her good Gardening Angel who always knew best.  The End.

 

“Make sure you’re asleep before my bedtime,” Tricia concluded.  Absently patting her as she switched off the lamp, swung the door shut, and left Vicki embedded in a dark pit with a Cheshire grin hovering luminously beside her.

 

We’re all mad here.

 

Big girls could tremble.  Big girls could whimper.  Only babies cried.

 

And Vicki’s Gardening Angel would too show up in time.  Armed with a hoe and rake and pinking shears made of fire, to scare any old Mad Man right out of his wits.

 

Or so she told herself.

 

But the Something or Other had a name now, and a furious violent hate-filled face, and a presence (for the next thirty-nine years) in Vicki Volester’s dreams.  Which would often consist of her trying to hide, and trying to yell, and endlessly running away. 

 

 

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
 

 

Return to Titles                          Proceed to Chapter 2

 

 

A Split Infinitive Production
Copyright © 2008-2011 by P. S. Ehrlich


 

 
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