A Triptych Tale …

Proactive

A Triptych Tale

The First Attempt

There was a clatter and a thump.

“Jesus Christ!” That was Dad.

Mia leapt from her chair, bumping the kitchen table and sloshing milk out of her bowl of Lucky Charms. She found Dad sitting on the stairs, cradling a skateboard. “What happened?” she asked.

“Cooper! Get over here, please. Now.”

Cooper came out of the kitchen, looking down.

Dad pulled himself to his feet, leaning heavily on the banister. “Coop, you mind telling me why your skateboard was on the stairs?”

“I guess I forgot it.”

“‘Forgot it’? What’s it even doing in the house?” Dad came down the last few steps, limping.

“I don’t know.”

“Could have killed myself!” Dad said. “Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to leave something like that on the stairs?”

“Sorry.”

Dad looked at him. His glasses were a little crooked on his face. “Well, see that it doesn’t happen again. Here.” He proffered the skateboard to Cooper. “Take this outside. And I don’t want to see it in the house again.”

Cooper took the skateboard and said nothing.

Mia looked at him.

Dad looked up. “No wonder I couldn’t see anything,” he said. “The light’s burned out.”

#

The Confession

A little after dinner Mia came into Cooper’s room without knocking. She never knocked. She swept some Transformers off the bed, sat down, and crossed her arms.

Cooper had been lying on the floor, drawing pictures on butcher paper that Mom had brought home from work. “What?” he asked.

Mia tilted her head. “Funny thing,” she mused. “The stairs this morning? The skateboard that you never leave anywhere but in the garage?”

“It was an accident.”

“Yeah. I thought it was kind of funny that you didn’t even run out to look when we heard Dad fall. And then the stairway light was out. So dark you wouldn’t even see something like a skateboard on the stairs when you were walking down.”

“Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to leave something like that on the stairs?”

“So?” Cooper returned to his artwork, but although he pressed the colored pencil down on the paper, he wasn’t drawing, wasn’t even making any lines.

Mia leaned in. “So tell me, Coop. Why is this stepstool here,” she kicked at the plastic stepladder folded against the wall, next to Cooper’s little bookcase, “here in your room, instead of in the kitchen?”

“I don’t know.”

“The stepstool that would be just high enough to let you unscrew the light bulb in the stairway?”

Cooper gripped his pencil tight, his eyes closed. Then he spun to face Mia. “Please. Please don’t tell. Don’t tell.”

Mia leaned back. “I thought so.”

Cooper’s eyes were wide, and his head rattled in tiny, rapid shakes. “Just don’t tell Mom and Dad. OK? I’ll do anything. Just don’t tell.”

“Anything, hmm?” Mia placed a finger along her chin and squinted.

“Yeah, yeah! Just don’t tell. OK, Mia? OK?”

Mia shook her head. “Never mind. Just tell me why.”

Cooper looked down. “You’ll probably think it’s stupid.”

“Of course it’ll be stupid, if it’s your idea. Tell me anyway.”

“You’ll laugh, and then —”

Mia seized an ear and started to twist. “Ready to talk?”

“OK, OK!” Cooper rubbed his ear after Mia released it, but remained quiet.

Mia made another move towards his ear.

“OK!” Cooper said, pulling back and away. “It’s all the books!”

“What do you mean, ‘all the books’?”

“You know. Like Harry Potter. His parents are dead. And James and the Giant Peach — his parents were killed by a rhino, remember?”

“So?”

“So I mean — I mean, all those kids, they couldn’t even start, I mean have any adventures, until afterwards.”

“After their parents were gone.”

“Yeah.” Cooper looked down again. “I knew you’d think it was stupid.”

Mia nodded to herself, a small smile dimpling her cheeks. “Katniss Everdeen,” she said.

“Who?”

“From The Hunger Games.”

“I’m not allowed to read that one yet.”

“That’s ’cause you’re nine. But the hero of that book, it starts out with her father dead and her mom like a vegetable.”

“OK!” Cooper said, pulling back and away. “It’s all the books!”

“Dorothy of Oz was an orphan,” Cooper said. “Even Cinderella.”

“Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, in those movies. Their parents are all dead. And Tom Sawyer. He had to go live with his aunt.”

“And those Unfortunate Events books, I think,” Cooper added. “Batman. Superman, Spider-Man. All the mans. You see? It’s always the way it happens. The way it has to happen, before the kids get a chance to go on adventures and, like, save the world from whatever.”

Suddenly Cooper had a crafty look in his eye. “Hey,” he said to his sister, “seems like you were pretty quick.”

“Pretty quick to what?”

“I mean to think of more examples.” His eyes got bigger. “Hey, you’ve been thinking about this already!”

“Of course I have,” Mia said. “I’m not stupid. I’ve read those books, too. In fact, I’m way ahead of you.”

“’Cause you’re allowed to read those other books.”

Mia hit him — lightly, but hard enough so he would feel it — on the arm. “I don’t mean that. I mean in the, you know. The plan.”

“You’re not ahead of me! I already did the skateboard thing. And what have you done? Nothing.”

“You little fool,” Mia said. “Suppose the skateboard on the stairs worked. OK, cross Dad off. We still have Mom. Even if she hadn’t already left for work this morning when Dad stepped on the skateboard, it wouldn’t have killed her off, too.”

Cooper looked down. “I know,” he said. “I was thinking about something like the oven.”

“Wouldn’t that look just a little suspicious? Dad going, and then Mom has an accident in the kitchen, right out of the blue?”

Cooper rose to his defense, his jaw set. “Well, that’s more than you did!”

“Keep your voice down,” Mia said. “Jeez.”

“That’s more than you did!” Cooper said again, but quietly.

“My plan’s not so dramatic,” Mia said, “but that’s because I know we need to take out both of them, at the same time. The police aren’t going to buy two convenient accidents, one after the other. But just one really big one — yeah. That happens all the time.”

“Like what?”

“At first I was thinking about the car,” Mia said. “Cut the brake lines just before they go shopping or something.”

“Yeah!”

“The problem is, I don’t know what a brake line looks like, or even if it’s a real thing. Or how to cut it.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess maybe I don’t know, either.”

“So I thought of something else.”

“What?”

“Something sneakier.” Mia twirled a finger in her hair and tried to look mysterious while Cooper fidgeted. “Something that would get both of them, and would look like an accident.”

“So I thought of something else.”

“What? Tell me!”

“Keep your voice down!”

“OK, OK. So — what?”

“Mom and Dad both drink coffee in the morning.”

“Yeah?”

“So they put in this powdery cream stuff. Both of them use a lot. I mean, really a lot.”

“You poisoned it?”

Mia wasn’t happy that Cooper had revealed her plan before she had made the stunning pronouncement. “Well, yeah,” she said. “I took the packets in the new box, and I slit open the tops and put in the rat poison from the basement. Same color. And then I glued the tops shut again, and glued the box shut again. As soon as they open that box and start using the packets …” She drew a line across her neck.

“Kaput!” Cooper said.

“Kaput,” Mia confirmed.

“That’s a pretty good plan,” Cooper admitted.

“That’s what big sisters are for,” Mia said. She lay down on the bed, crossing her arms under her head. “I wonder what our first adventure will be?” she said.

Cooper considered. “Will it hurt?”

“What, the adventure? Probably. At first.”

“No, I mean Mom. And Dad. The poison.”

“Oh.” Mia thought a bit. “Probably not,” she decided. “They’ll probably just, like, go to sleep or something.”

“That’s good.”

Mia stood up and picked up a plastic Iguanodon from the top of the bookcase. “In the movies they always try to make poisons look so dramatic,” she said. “With coughing and fake blood coming out of their mouth. They want to make it all showy.”

She tossed the Iguanodon from one hand to another. Because he was her brother, Cooper made a grab for it as it was in the air; Mia snatched it and hit the bookcase with her elbow.

“Ow!” she said. The bookcase leaned into the room an inch or so, then knocked back against the wall. No books fell out, although a Triceratops teetered, but it made a loud bang.

“What’s going on up there?” Mom called.

“Nothing!” both kids answered in unison, then looked at one another and giggled.

“Anyway,” Mia said, turning away from Cooper, “that was actually a pretty good idea, with the light bulb. I wouldn’t have thought of that.”

“Thanks! I just —”

Mia put the dinosaur down and opened the door. “Later, dorkster.”

#

Success, Eventually

It was almost two weeks later that Mia and Cooper got off the bus, and there was no one to meet them. They shared a glance, but Mia didn’t let Cooper say anything. She didn’t want to scare off the hope she felt blossoming in her heart.

They walked home. It was only three blocks.

“No ambulance or hearse in the driveway,” Cooper said.

“Shhh,” Mia said. “Besides, maybe it already came and went. You don’t know.”

“You don’t know either.”

Cooper sprinted to the door, but Mia caught up with him on the porch. They hesitated. “Go on,” Mia said. “Go inside and see.”

“But what if …” Cooper looked up at his sister. “I mean, what if they’re all bloated and dead and stuff?”

“Baby.” But Mia herself hesitated before opening the door.

No one was in the living room.

“Are they —” Cooper said.

“Shhh.” Mia took a step inside. “Mom?”

“Oh — oh, in here, sweetie.”

Why did it feel so good to hear Mom’s voice? They both ran to their parents’ bedroom. Mom was sitting on the bed, in her robe. Dad was sleeping next to her — yes, sleeping, they could see his sides move when he breathed. He was not under the covers.

No one was in the living room.

“What’s going on, Mom?” Mia asked in a convincingly blasé voice.

“Yeah, what?” Cooper asked, and looked to his sister to see if his act had passed muster. Mia refused to look at him.

“Oh, dears, I’m so sorry. The bus — I should have been there to meet you. The thing is, both me and your dad, we came down with some kind of food poisoning this morning. Dad came home before lunch, and he was feeling it too. Then we thought it was getting better, but we were tired, so we just took a nap, and I thought I would be up long before your bus came. Sorry, honies.”

“That’s OK, Mom,” Mia said.

“Yeah. That’s OK,” said Cooper.

“We’re not sure what it was that we ate. You kids were OK, I guess? I was going to call the school, but your dad said they would call us if you had a problem, and then I guess I just fell asleep.”

“We’re fine, Mom.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Mom tousled Mia’s hair.

The next morning both parents looked a little pale, but Dad insisted he would go back to work, and Mom made a pretense about being fine, just fine.

Their morning cups of coffee were sitting on the kitchen table, and when Mom went to help Dad with his necktie, Mia dumped eight or nine packets of the rat poison in each. Mom and Dad came back to the kitchen and saw her stirring them vigorously.

“Thanks, True Blue,” Dad said. It was a thing he said, even though her eyes were now more of a gray. He downed his cup in two gulps. He made a face but said, “Well, here’s hoping today is not a repeat of yesterday. See you guys.” And he was out the door.

“You kids better get off to school,” Mom said. “And after sleeping all day yesterday, I have all kinds of things I need to take care of, myself. Get going, now!” She downed her coffee in three mouthfuls and was hugging them goodbye.

Later that day Mia and Cooper were called out of their classes. They waited in the principal’s office until their neighbor, Mrs. Corey, came to get them. Her eyes were red.

#

Set Sail for Adventure!

The police didn’t have a lot of questions. They didn’t even take the kids to that little room with the bright light and play good cop/bad cop, but Mia assured Cooper that all that would happen later. Then Mrs. Corey took charge of them.

Mrs. Corey didn’t know how to cook for kids. She was nervous that Mia and Cooper wouldn’t eat anything she made, so she took them to McDonald’s. That was sort of an adventure, because Mom (and Dad, when Mom was around) almost never let them eat at McDonald’s. Mia gave Cooper a furtive thumbs up when Mrs. Corey left them at the table to get the food. But somehow it didn’t taste as good as it used to.

She downed her coffee in three mouthfuls and was hugging them goodbye.

Afterwards she brought them to her spare room. Horses made of dusty china covered the shelves of a little bookcase and the windowsill. Mrs. Corey got on her knees in front of Mia, even though that meant Mia had to look down at her.

Mrs. Corey looked into Mia’s eyes. “You’ve had a rough time,” she said, “but you should know that things are going to get better. They will.”

Mia nodded. “Yes, Mrs. Corey.”

Mrs. Corey wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “Tomorrow your uncle will get here, and give you a home. Not the same home you had before, but it’s going to be all right. OK?”

“Yes, Mrs. Corey.”

Mrs. Corey faced Cooper. “Cooper, now, Mia’s going to take care of you, and you’ll make lots of new friends in Portland. You’ll see.”

Taking his cue from Mia, Cooper said, “Yes, Mrs. Corey.”

Mrs. Corey gave each of them a clumsy, rough kiss on their foreheads. She got to her feet with a grunt and pulled the blankets on the bed down a little.

“There’s just the one bed, but I think it’s big enough. If you have any problems in the night, you need someone to talk to or you need anything, my bedroom is just next door, all right?”

The kids nodded.

Finally Mrs. Corey was gone.

They couldn’t see their house from the bedroom window. It was on the other side.

Cooper turned his back to Mia.

“Hey, Coop.”

He didn’t turn around.

“Hey, Coop.” This time it was softer.

“What?” His voice was faint.

Mia waited, and finally Cooper turned around. His eyes were puffy. “Hey, Coop. It will be all right. You know that, right?”

He nodded. Mia could feel the bed jiggling.

“We’re going to live with Uncle Jerry. It’ll be fun. Our adventure will start.”

“Does he live in a castle?”

“No, not a castle.”

“But like a big house, with lots of rooms, and no one can find the key to some rooms that no one has been in for a hundred years?”

“I’m not sure. On the phone he said he lives in a condo.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m not sure.”

#

And Then

Uncle Jerry’s condo turned out to be just an apartment, and it wasn’t even in a big mysterious building. There were only two floors, and a balcony and a tiny flower garden out front.

Mia and Cooper gradually realized their uncle had no strange hobbies or secretive habits. He didn’t seem to have any peculiar friends or a mysterious past. He had a good job in some kind of office downtown and sometimes on the weekends his boyfriend would sleep over. And the boyfriend seemed really normal, too.

Mia and Cooper were halfway through an interminable game of Monopoly — just plain Monopoly, not Muppets Monopoly or Wizard of Oz Monopoly or Nintendo Monopoly. Uncle Jerry was in the kitchen with the dishes.

Not much of an adventure. Mia picked up the dice and began shaking them.

Cooper said quietly, “Mia.”

“Yeah?”

“Mom used to read to me. Even when I could do it myself.”

“I know.”

“Uncle Jerry hasn’t read to me even once.”

“He’s not used to having kids around,” Mia said.

“I know. But …”

“What?”

“I mean, Uncle Jerry didn’t even let us be on TV, even though we’re famous now. There’s no adventure at all.” He bit his lip. “I think maybe Uncle Jerry has to go, too.”

Mia continued to shake the dice. “Yeah,” she said. “I guess so.” She threw the dice. “We still have Uncle Martin in Eugene, and Aunt Marjorie, I think she’s in California or somewhere.” She sighed. “Who ever thought this would be so hard?”

Tim McDaniel teaches English as a Second Language at Green River College, not far from Seattle. His short stories, mostly comedic, have appeared in a number of SF/F magazines, including F&SF and Asimov's. He lives with his wife, dog, and cat, and his collection of plastic dinosaurs is the envy of all who encounter it.