by Linnea Kellar
“Mum, reach your arms just a bit higher,” I whisper, extending my hand below the windowsill. My heart racing, I peer down the driveway to make sure no cars are passing by on the road.
My mother mutters something unintelligible, the thin strap of her stained tank-top sliding down one shoulder. She manages one more hop that brings her just high enough so that I can grab her hand. I pull with all of my might and heave her up and through the window. We both land with a thud onto the plush carpet, bumping into a mahogany end-table.
“Thanks, lovey,” she says, smiling at me blearily. She wipes at the dollar store mascara that runs down her cheeks, smearing it into her hair. She giggles like a little girl, pointing and laughing at the expensive pieces of furniture in the room.
“Look at that, lovey!” she exclaims, clapping her hands. “That must have cost a boatload.”
Lovey. That’s me.
And I am my mother’s keeper.
I pull her up and sit her down on a satin divan, bidding her to stay put. I pat her head as if she were the child, not I. Grabbing the backpack, I begin my routine search through the house. I take my checklist from my pocket and begin running through the items on it.
No mail piling up at the front door? Check. The owners are having the mail held because they are away for at least a month at a time.
Are the yard and gardens unkempt? Check. The owners are not having anyone come by and maintain the grounds of their vacation home.
Are there any signs of household pets? No. Check! The owners are not having a pet-sitter come by to look after animals.
I let my breathing slow, kicking off my dusty flip-flops by the front door. I check to make sure I have not left a trail of dirt on the hardwood floors. I have many rules to follow and my first and foremost is to leave no trace. I look at the enormous bay windows, staring out at the glistening waters of Torch Lake. Seagulls bob up and down on the waves, looking for all the world like miniature tugboats. The Joneses’ house is situated on a large, private lot in rural northern Michigan. As with many vacation homes, I am almost positive the house is visited perhaps a mere six times per year.
Who are the Joneses, you ask?
I haven’t a clue. In one of her more lucid spells, Mum came up with the term to describe all of the fancy people whose houses we break into. Now, I know what you’re thinking. My mother and I do not steal, per se. We may peruse the pantries of these homes from time to time and look for expired food that should be thrown out anyways. I may help myself to some of the expensive soaps and shampoos in the bathrooms to make Mum smell good—because she normally doesn’t. One time, I swiped an outdated bottle of ibuprofen to help with my headaches.
Yet I would not consider myself a thief. I am a provider. I have been caring for Mum for three years now since she stopped taking her medicine. We had no money for the prescriptions she needed that would help her stay in the normal world. Most days, she chooses to live inside the world that lies hidden beneath her greasy, disheveled hair. This secret world is full of gibberish, wandering into the middle of country roads, taking off one’s clothes for no reason in public, and addictions to stale Oreos dipped in instant coffee.
“Lovey!” shouts Mum from the second story of the house. I hear her bare feet padding down the halls as she opens various bedroom doors, looking for me.
“Right here, Mum!” I exclaim, taking the stairs two at a time.
I find her in the master bedroom curled up next to a cluttered vanity. Her arms are wrapped around her thin frame, tears running down her cheeks.
“I couldn’t find you. I couldn’t find you!” she cries, wiping snot from underneath her nose. “You were playing hide-and-seek and you didn’t tell me!”
“I know I didn’t tell you,” I say, trying to coax her out of the bedroom. “I’m sorry. Are you hungry?”
Her eyes become more focused at the mention of food and she nods her head vigorously, letting me take her hand. I lead her downstairs and get her seated at the table. The kitchen is decorated with a hideous pig motif that keeps Mum occupied as I pour her some cereal. This is a food that is ordinarily safe to take from someone’s house. No one measures the amount of low-fat granola that rich retirees like to purchase. You can skim a bit from each house and no one would ever be the wiser.
“One piggy, two, piggy, three piggy!” Mum exclaims a little too loudly, pointing at the porcelain figurines that litter the room.
“Mum, remember to use your inside voice,” I say in my best adult voice. “You don’t need the whole world to know we are here. At any rate, it’s time to eat. You can count the pigs silently while you finish your cereal.”
She nods blissfully, kicking her feet in the air as she polishes off the impromptu dinner. I show her the lake outside, pointing to the motorboats that skim along the water. Her fingers drum nervously against her thigh all the while, keeping up a constant rhythm. She knows this drives me nuts but she does it anyway just to see how I will react.
I sigh tiredly, feeling worn to the bone. “Mum, cut it out.”
She continues drumming, showing no sign that she could hear me.
“Seriously!” I shout, grabbing her hand and stuffing it between the couch cushions. She shrieks as if I had burned her and tries to shove both fists into her mouth. She begins kicking the coffee table over and over, hard enough to leave bruises on her bare feet.
“Mum!” I yell, inching the table away from her. “We need to keep this place looking nice. Remember? The Joneses can’t know we’ve been here. We have to keep it a secret.”
“We’re playing hide-and-seek with the Joneses?” she asks, her eyes wide. “Did we win?”
“We only win if they don’t find us,” I explain. “Remember, we have to stay ahead of them. We keep things neat and leave when they come back. That means you have to make it look like we were never here. You have to follow Lovey’s Rules.”
“Lovey’s Rules!” crows Mum, parroting my voice. “No Making Messes. No Eating Too Much Food. No Using Electricity. No Stepping in the Joneses’ Flower Beds. No Talking toStrangers About the Joneses. Listen to Lovey.”
“Yes,” I reply, nodding my head approvingly. “Listen to Lovey. And I am telling you to stop destroying furniture.”
“Ugly furniture,” she observes, her lips forming into a pout as she pokes the hideous, velvet couch.
“Maybe,” I say, folding my arms in front of my chest. “But it’s not your furniture. Be nice to it.”
“Okay,” she agrees, wriggling downwards and sliding off of the couch in a dramatic fashion.
I bury my head in my hands, rubbing at the headache that was starting to form at the base of my skull. Some days it is too much for me to handle. We have been hopping from house to house for months now ever since I had escaped foster care. I have done my best to watch for patterns. The owners of the last home were present from May to September. The chalet before that was checked on by the owners once a month. I’ve been dutifully recording these happenings in my notebook, trying to map out a yearly plan of where we could stay.
Oh, I admit, it has been close sometimes. Three houses ago, we had to leave in a hurry because the family had come home unexpectedly. I barely had time to clean up all of our gear from the sunroom before we had to flee out the back door. I can only hope they found no trace of our being there because I did not have time to complete a thorough sweep. I will know in a few months’ time when we revisit that particular home. If it has extra security, that means they found out they had been broken into.
“Lovey! Tub?” says Mum, hauling herself off of the floor. Still, her fingers drum against her legs like wiggly, little spiders.
“Sounds like a good idea!” I say, trying to fake a cheerful smile. I love her so much but I do think she purposefully tries to get on my last nerve. I watch her race up the stairs, her hair flying behind her. I follow her to the bathroom and help her shed the sweaty clothing she has been wearing for three days. Mum only takes baths because she once saw a movie about the Holocaust. She now thinks that all showers will kill her.
“No spray, no spray!” she reiterates, pointing at the shower-head.
“I know, Mum.”
“Any bubbles?” she begs, paddling the water with her hand. “I like the scented kind.”
“I couldn’t find any,” I say, helping her into the water. I try to let her do as much as she can on her own. She likes me to scrub her back and so I finish that first and let her mess about with her hair. It worries me how thin she is getting but it is very difficult to keep our bellies full. I do my best to take as little as possible from peoples’ households and trash-picking can only get you so far. We have to be careful because both of us have gotten horribly sick on different occasions eating old food from dumpsters.
“Your turn!” she says, smiling sweetly and splashing water at me.
“Thanks Mum,” I gripe, wiping my face with a towel. I throw it at her and help her get dried off, wrestling her into semi-clean clothing.
I try to bathe as quickly as I can and she watches me all the while. She shifts nervously from one foot to the other, chewing her hair. Finally, she sits down and reaches for my head to help me wash my hair.
“I can do this,” I say, inching away from her. “I’m not a little girl anymore.”
“Yes, you are,” she exclaims, her eyes clearer than I have seen them in days. This is normally a sign that she has traveled out of her own little world and back into mine. “I think you forget that sometimes, Lovey.”
My eyes sting and I look up at the ceiling, trying not to cry. I have become so used to being the mother that I often forget to allow her the same responsibility. I let her stroke my hair as she gently rinses out the extra water. She grabs the comb that we share and begins to gingerly pull at the tangles, taking care not to tug too hard.
“Do you know how much I love you?” she asks, twisting my hair into a thick braid. “How much?” I inquire, already knowing the answer.
“More than you’ll ever know,” she replies, throwing a thick towel around my shoulders. I laugh and shake my head at her, my hair flinging water into her face.
“Payback!” I shout, splashing more bathwater at her. We dissolve into a fit of giggles, acting like two teenagers at a sleepover. For once, I don’t care about the mess that we make. I forget about how long it will take me to clean the room up afterwards. I abandon caution and let her be as loud as she wants to be. I forget about the Joneses and that this is their bathroom. I forget that Mum and I have never even had a bathroom of our own before.
Right now, I will be the daughter and she will be the mother.