“I promise, he’s fine, he’s just being difficult,” I assured the cashier at Gopher’s Mini Mart. David was hanging out of the shopping cart with his eyes closed and tongue hanging out. Apparently he needed the last bag of Skittles to save him, but since I wouldn’t buy them, he “died”.
The cashier smiled, “Eh I get it. Kids’ll do that.”
He grabbed the bag of bread off the belt and ran it across the scanner, “How old’s your kid anyway?”
I hesitated, gripping the bottom of my rain jacket, “Well, uh, he’s not my kid…but I kinda help take care of him, yah know. But, uh, he’s six.”
He continued scanning groceries and punching produce codes, avoiding eye contact. But I couldn’t blame him, I think I made it much more awkward that it had to be.
David suddenly came back to life, “Are we done yet? I wanna go home.”
“Yeah, we’re almost done buddy. Just have to pay. Okay?”
He settled back into the cart, “Okay.”
“That’ll be 15 dollars and 67 cents. Cash or Credit.”
I rustled in my pockets, pulling out the 20 that Mom gave me for my birthday.
He punched some more numbers into the register and the cash drawer popped open. He handed me my change and receipt.
“Have a nice day!”
“Yeah, thanks…” I quickly stuffed the change into my pocket and pushed the cart towards the door.
“Alright sailor, brace for heavy impact on port side,” I smiled as I pulled the hood of David’s rain jacket over his head.
“Aye eye, Captain,” he spun around in the cart and gripped on to the front of it.
I coasted the cart out into the rain, making a mad dash for the car.
“Faster, faster,” David yelled.
“I thought I was the captain here, matey!”
David giggled, squealing as the cart splashed through a puddle. When we reached the car, in a few swift moves we tossed the groceries into the trunk and climbed in. We were a little wet, but David didn’t seem to mind.
“That was fun! I wanna do that again!”
I laughed, “Maybe another day, sailor, we have a mission to complete.”
I smiled, “I promise, buddy.”
The drive was slow as I made sure to take each turn with extra precaution since I had only just got my driver’s license. We didn’t get back to his house until around dinner time. As I pulled into the drive, David’s mother’s car was nowhere to be seen. I wasn’t entirely shocked.
As soon as we got into his house, David flew over to his bookshelf, “Ellie, will you read me a book?”
“Sure, buddy. Just let me put the groceries away real quick.”
David continued to scan through the books and I walked into the kitchen. As I was putting the groceries in the cupboards, I couldn’t help but notice how bare they were. A couple bags of chips here and there, opened and most likely stale. The fridge was the same, only having a few take out boxes and spoiled milk. I tossed them in the trash and filled it with the fresh fruits and veggies I got.
When I walked back into the living room, I saw David had quickly thrown together a little fort. The couch cushions were tossed about the floor and a sheet rested across the back of the couch, over the springs, onto the floor, creating a long, triangular fort.
“Come in, Ellie! I got a book and a flashlight.”
I crawled into the fort, “My goodness, I didn’t realize we’d be reading a book in such a fancy little place!”
“It’s the only way to read this book, Ellie, I’ll show you.”
He flipped open a raggedy-looking book and pointed at the first line and looked up and me expectantly. I cleared my through, “Once upon a time, in a forest far away, a young rabbit was making his way to the store…” I looked up to see David making bunny ears with his fingers and bouncing it in front of the flashlight, projecting the shadow onto the side of the fort.
I laughed, “Look at that! You’re right, this is the only way to read this book!”
I kept on reading as David created the shadow scene in the fort. When we finally got to the end, David looked over to me with a big grin across his face.
“That was really cool, David. Where’d you lean to do that?”
“Daddy does it like that!”
I hesitated, “Oh…cool…yeah…” before I could get out another word, David chimed in,
“Ellie? When is my Daddy coming back?”
I froze, this was the question that I was trying to avoid. This is a question for his mother to answer, not the babysitter.
“Well, I don’t know, buddy.”
“Why? Mama says that too but I don’t get it…”
I shift myself so that I’m facing David, I try to organize my thoughts and plan the best approach to this. Then it came to me.
“It’s kinda like this,” I hold up the old book, “Imagine that this book is the story about your life. That everything that ever happened to you is written on these pages. Now, it’s not the prettiest looking thing you’ve ever seen, but it’s filled with happy stories of you and your mom and dad.”
I quickly flip to the back of the book and hold up the few blank pages on the end for David to see, “Now, what do you see on these pages?”
David squints his eyes and traces every inch of the paper, “I don’t see anything, Ellie. They’re blank.”
“Exactly,” I smiled, “because you’re life isn’t done yet and so the story of your life isn’t finished. That’s why your Mama doesn’t know if Daddy will come home. Because that page hasn’t been written yet.”
David stares at me for a moment. I realize that trying to explain it this way to a six-year-old isn’t ideal, but I was hoping at least some of it got through.
Then suddenly he shouts, “I get it! We don’t know the end yet so Mama doesn’t know about Daddy yet!”
I breathed a sigh of relief, “That’s right, buddy! You’re such a smart little cookie.”
The sound of keys jingling in the front door deflated the moment as Rose mad her way into the house, “Hey, Honey! Mama’s home!”
“Mama!” David tossed back the roof of the fort and jumped into her arms. She smiled brightly, wrapping her arms around him.
“There’s my big man! How was your afternoon today, honey?”
“It was fun! Ellie took me to Gopher’s and we got food and we went sailing!”
“Yeah, in the cart! Ellie was the captain!”
“Oh, I see,” she glanced over to me with a warm smile, “why don’t you go get a box of mac and cheese from the pantry while I talk to Ellie, Hun.”
“Okay,” David skipped off into the kitchen.
As soon as I turned back to Rose, she had already wrapped her arms around me in a hug. I was a little stunned, but proceeded to wrap my arms around her too. Her stethoscope fell from around her neck onto the floor as I breathed in the scent the sterile hospital left on her scrubs.
“Oh, Ellie,” she sniffled, “I can pay you back for the groceries…”
“No, Rose. It’s on me.”
She pulled back and looked at me in the eyes, “Are you sure?”
“Yes Rose, it was no big deal, really.”
“It’s a big deal to me, Ellie. With Oliver gone, it has been a struggle to raise David alone…” she drifted off, looking to the floor, “you must think I’m a terrible mother…”
I held up my hand, stopping her in her tracks, “Rose, it’s the least I can do. I know it hasn’t been easy with Oliver being deployed overseas and you working odd hours. You were once there for my family back when I was a little, so never feel like you can’t ask for help from us. Plus,” I put my hand on her shoulder, “David is a bright boy and you are the best mother he could ever ask for.”
She looked up with glistening eyes. She opened her mouth but instead of saying something, she embraced me again. I could feel warm tears trickling onto my shirt as she rested her head on my shoulder.
I knew that she needed someone to tell her that, because of all the people in town that give her those judging glances. Like when she runs down the street with David in tow trying to get him to school on time. Or when she falls asleep during the PTO meetings at school. Or when she forgets the laundry on the lines and leaves them to soak in the rain.
No one sees her as the working mother and army wife she really is, they only see what’s on the outside. But I refuse to so easily judge a book by its cover.
David came running back into the room gripping a box of mac and cheese. Rose lifted her head off my shoulder and smiled at David, “Good job, baby. I’ll be there in a minute to make it.”
“Okay! But hurry up because I want to get to the page when Daddy comes home already!”
Rose furrows her brow in confusion as David bolts back to the kitchen, “What’s he talking about?”
“I think it’s best if he explains it…”
She smiles and whispers, “Thank you” before going into the kitchen.
I listened as I walked out the door to David beginning to tell his mother about the pages of his life not yet written. Smiling because although people judge their book by their cover, I get to witness the beautifully unfinished story within its pages. And that is something worth smiling about.
By: Natalie Hegna