The woman put her sad moon-face in at the window of the car. “You be good,” she said. “You hear me? You little ones, mind what Dicey tells you. You hear?”
“Yes, Momma,” they said.
“That’s all right then.” She slung her purse over her shoulder and walked away, her stride made uneven by broken sandal thongs, thin elbows showing through holes in the oversized sweater, her jeans faded and baggy. When she had disappeared into the crowd of Saturday morning shoppers entering the side doors of the mall, the three younger children leaned forward onto the front seat. Dicey sat in front. She was thirteen and she read the maps.
“Why’d we stop?” asked James. “We’re not there yet. We’ve got food. There’s no reason to stop.” James was ten and wanted everything to have a reason. “Dicey?”
“I dunno. You heard everything she said, same as I did. You tell me.”
“All she said was, We gotta stop here. She didn’t say why. She never says why, you know that. Are we out of gas?”
“I didn’t look.” Dicey wanted some quiet for thinking. There was something odd about this whole trip. She couldn’t put her finger on it, not yet. “Why don’t you tell them a story?”
“Cripes, James, you’re the one with the famous brain.”
“Yeah, well I can’t think of any stories right now.”
“Tell them anything. Tell them Hansel and Gretel.”
“I want HanselnGretel. And the witch. And the candy house with peppermint sticks,” Sammy said, from the backseat. James gave in without a quarrel. It was easier to give in to Sammy than to fight him. Dicey turned around to look at them. Maybeth sat hunched in a corner, big-eyed. Dicey smiled at her and Maybeth smiled back. “Once upon a time,” James began. Maybeth turned to him.
Dicey closed her eyes and leaned her head back. She put her feet on the dashboard. She was tired. She’d had to stay awake and read maps, to find roads without tolls. She’d been up since three in the morning. But Dicey couldn’t go to sleep. She gnawed away at what was bothering her.
For one thing, they never took trips. Momma always said the car couldn’t run more than ten miles at a stretch. And here they were in Connecticut, heading down to Bridgeport. For one thing.
But that might make sense. All her life, Dicey had been hearing about Momma’s aunt Cilla and her big house in Bridgeport that Momma had never seen, and her rich husband who died. Aunt Cilla sent Christmas cards year after year, with pictures of baby Jesus on them and long notes inside, on paper so thin it could have been tissue paper. Only Momma could decipher the lacy handwriting with its long, tall letters all bunched together and the lines running into one another because of the long-tailed, fancy z’s and f’s and g’s. Aunt Cilla kept in touch. So it made sense for Momma to go to her for help.
But driving off like that in the middle of the night didn’t make sense. That was the second thing. Momma woke them all up and told them to pack paper bags of clothing while she made sandwiches.
She got them all into the old car and headed for Bridgeport.
For a third—things had been happening, all at once. Things were always bad with them, but lately worse than ever. Momma lost her checker’s job. Maybeth’s teacher had wanted a meeting with Momma that Momma wouldn’t go to. Maybeth would be held back another year. Momma said she didn’t want to hear about it, and she had ripped up every note, without reading any of them. Maybeth didn’t worry her family, but she worried her teachers. She was nine and still in the second grade. She never said much, that was the trouble, so everybody thought she was stupid. Dicey knew she wasn’t. Sometimes she’d come out and say something that showed she’d been watching and listening and taking things in. Dicey knew her sister could read and do sums, but Maybeth always sat quiet around strangers. For Maybeth, everyone in the world was a stranger, except Momma and Dicey and James and Sammy.
Momma herself was the fourth thing. Lately she’d go to the store for bread and come back with a can of tuna and just put her hands over her face, sitting at the table. Sometimes she’d be gone for a couple of hours and then she wouldn’t say where she had been, with her face blank as if she couldn’t say. As if she didn’t know. Momma didn’t talk to them anymore, not even to scold, or sing, or make up games the way she used to. Except Sammy. She talked to Sammy, but even then they sounded like two six-year-olds talking, not one six-year-old and his mother.
Dicey kept her feet on the dash, and her body slouched down. She looked out through the windshield, over the rows of parked cars, to where the sky hung like a bleached-out sheet over the top of the mall buildings. Bugs were spattered all over the windshield and the sky promised a heavy, hot day. Dicey slid still further down on the seat. Her skin stuck to the blue plastic seat covers.
James was describing the witch’s house, listing the kinds of candy used for various parts of the building. This was the part James liked best in Hansel and Gretel, and he always did it a little differently from the time before. Picturing the almond Hershey bar roof and the shutters made of cinnamon licorice sticks, Dicey did fall asleep.
She woke covered with sweat from the hot sun pouring in through the windshield. She woke hungry. Maybeth was singing softly, one of Momma’s songs, about making her love a baby with no crying. “I fell asleep,” Dicey said. “What time’s it?”
“I dunno,” James said. “You’ve been asleep a long time. I’m hungry.”
“I dunno. I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry. Go ask someone what time it is, okay?”
James climbed out of the car. He crossed to the walkway and stopped a man in a business suit. “Twelve thirty,” James reported.
“But that means I slept for more than two hours,” Dicey protested.
“I’m going to eat,” Sammy announced from the backseat. He opened the bag of food and pulled out a sandwich before Dicey could say anything.
“What do you want me to do?” James asked, looking into Dicey’s face. His narrow little face wore a worried expression. “Want me to go look for her?”
“No,” Dicey said. (Now what had Momma gone and done.) “Sammy, give Maybeth a sandwich too. Let her choose for herself. Then pass the bag up here.”
When everyone had a sandwich, and James had two, Dicey reached a decision. “We have to wait here for a while more,” she said. “Then we’ll do something. I’m going to take a walk and see if I can find her.”
“Don’t you go away too,” Maybeth said softly.
“I’ll be right where you can see me,” Dicey said. “I’ll stay on the sidewalk—see?—just like a path in front of the stores. Then maybe later we can all go into the mall and look in the stores. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Maybeth smiled and nodded her golden head.
Dicey did her best thinking when she walked. On this warm June afternoon, she walked so fast and thought so hard, she didn’t even see the people going past her. If Momma went past she’d say something, so Dicey wasn’t worried about that.
She was worried that Momma had wandered off. And would not come back.
(“You always look for the worst,” Momma had often told her. “I like to be ready,” Dicey answered.)
If Momma was gone . . . But that wasn’t possible. Was it? But if she was, what could they do? Ask for help, probably from a policeman. (Would he put them in homes or orphanages? Wouldn’t that be just what the police or some social worker would do?) Go back to Provincetown, they could go back home. (Momma hadn’t paid the rent, not for weeks, and it was almost summertime, when even their old cabin, set off alone in the dunes, could bring in a lot of money. Mr. Martinez wasn’t sympathetic, not when it came to money, not when it came to giving something away for free. He’d never let them stay there to wait for Momma.) They could go on to Bridgeport. Dicey had never seen Aunt Cilla—Great-Aunt Cilla. She knew the name and address, because Momma had made her write it down four times, on each paper bag, in case something happened: Mrs. Cilla Logan, 1724 Ocean Drive, Bridgeport, Connecticut. Aunt Cilla was family, the only family Dicey knew about.
The sun beat down on the parking lot and heated up the air so even in the shaded walkway Dicey was hot. The kids must be hot too, she thought, and turned to get them.
Momma must have gone away on purpose. (But she loved them, loved them all.) Why else the addresses on the bags? Why else tell them to mind Dicey? (Mothers didn’t do things like going off. It was crazy. Was Momma crazy?) How did she expect Dicey to take care of them? What did she expect Dicey to do? Take them to Bridgeport, of course. (Dump it all on Dicey, that was what Momma did, she always did, because Dicey was the determined sort. “It’s in your blood,” Momma said, and then wouldn’t explain.)
Anger welled up in Dicey, flooded her eyes with tears, and now she was swept away with the determination to get the kids to Bridgeport. Well, she’d do it somehow, if she had to.
Momma wasn’t at the car when Dicey returned, so Dicey said they’d wait for her until the next morning.
“Where’ll we sleep?” Sammy asked.
“Right here—and no complaints,” Dicey said.
“Then Momma will come back and we’ll go on tomorrow?” Sammy asked.
“Where is Momma? Why’s she taking so long?” James asked.
“I dunno, James,” Dicey answered. Maybeth was silent, staring.
After a few minutes, Dicey hustled them all out of the car and trailed after them as they entered the mall.
The mall was built like a fortress around a huge, two-story enclosed street, where store succeeded store, as far as you could see. At one end of the central section was a cage of live birds in a little park of plastic trees and shrubs. The floor of their cage was littered with pieces of popcorn and gum wrappers. At the other end, the builders had made a waterfall through which shone different colored lights. Outside, beyond the covered sidewalk that ran like a moat around the huge building, lay the huge, gray parking lot, a no-man’s-land of empty cars.
But here inside was a fairyland of colors and sounds, crowded with people on this Saturday afternoon, artificially lit and planted. Inside was a miniature city where endless diversions from the work-day world offered everything delightful. If you had money, of course. And even without money, you could still stare and be amazed.
They spent a long time wandering through stores, looking at toys and records and pianos and birthday cards. They were drawn to restaurants that exuded the smell of spaghetti and pizza or fried chicken, bakeries with trays of golden doughnuts lined up behind glass windows, candy stores, where the countertop was crowded with large jars of jelly beans and sourballs and little foil-covered chocolates and peppermints dipped in crunchy white frosting; cheese shops (they each had two free samples), where the rich smell of aged cheeses mingled with fresh-ground coffee, and hot dog stands, where they stood back in a silent row. After this, they sat on a backless bench before the waterfall, tired and hungry. Altogether, they had eleven dollars and fifty cents, more than any one of them had ever had at one time before, even Dicey who contributed all of her babysitting money, seven dollars.
They spent almost four dollars on supper at the mall, and none of them had dessert. They had hamburgers and french fries and, after Dicey thought it over, milkshakes. At that rate, they could have one more meal before they ran out of money, or maybe two more. It was still light when they returned to the car. The little ones horsed around in the back, teasing, wrestling, tickling, quarreling and laughing, while Dicey studied the map. People walked by their car, vehicles came and went, and nobody paid any attention to them. In parking lots, it’s not unusual to see a car full of kids waiting.
At half-past eight, Dicey herded everybody back into the mall,
to use the bathrooms they had found earlier. Later, Sammy and Maybeth fell asleep easily, curled up along the backseat. James moved up to the front with Dicey. Dicey couldn’t see how they were both to sleep in the front seat, but she supposed they would manage it. James sat stiffly, gripping the wheel. James had a narrow head and sharp features, a nose that pointed out, pencil-thin eyebrows, a narrow chin. Dicey studied him in the darkening car. They were parked so far from the nearest lamppost that they were in deep shadows.
With her brothers and sister near, with the two youngest asleep in the backseat, sitting as they were in a cocoon of darkness, she should feel safe. But she didn’t. Though it was standing still, the car seemed to be flying down a highway, going too fast. Even the dark inside of it was not deep enough to hide them. Faces might appear in the windows at any time, asking angry questions.
“Where’s Momma gone?” James asked, looking out at the night.
“I just don’t know,” Dicey said. “Here’s what I think, I think if she isn’t back by morning we ought to go on to Bridgeport.”
“On our own?”
“How’ll we get there? You can’t drive. Momma took the keys.”
“We could take a bus, if we have enough money. If we don’t, we’ll walk.”
James stared at her. Finally he spoke. “Dicey? I’m scared. I feel all jiggly in my stomach. Why doesn’t Momma come back?”
“If I knew, James, I’d know what to do.”
“Do you know the way?”
“To Bridgeport? I can read a map. Once we get there, we can ask directions to Aunt Cilla’s house.”
James nodded. “Do you think she’s been killed? Or kidnapped?”
“Rich people get kidnapped; not Momma. I’m not going to think about what might have happened to her, and I don’t think you should, either.”
“I can’t help thinking about it,” James said in a small voice.
“Don’t tell Sammy or Maybeth,” Dicey warned.
“I wouldn’t. I know better. You should know I’d know better than that.”
Dicey reached out and patted him on the shoulder. “I do know,” she said.
James grabbed her hand. “Dicey? Do you think Momma meant to leave us here?”
“I think Momma meant to take us to Bridgeport, but—”
“Is Momma crazy?”
Dicey turned her head to look at him.
“The kids said so, at school. And the way the teachers looked at me and loaned me their own books and talked to me. And Maybeth. Craziness can run in families.”
Dicey felt a great weight settle on her shoulders. She tried to shrug it off, but it wouldn’t move.
“She loves us,” Dicey muttered.
“But that’s the only reason I can think of that might be true.”
“There’s nothing wrong with Maybeth. You know that.”
“It runs in families. Hereditary craziness.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about it, do you? You’re the smart one, with A’s in school and the science projects that get entered in the state contest.”
“Yeah,” James said. He settled his head back on the seat.
“Listen, I’m going to go to a phone and see where the bus station is and call them up to find out how much tickets cost. You lay low.”
Dicey decided to tell him the truth. “Just in case. I mean, three kids in a car in a parking lot at night . . . See, James, I think we’ve got to get to Bridgeport and I just don’t know what would happen if a policeman saw us. Foster homes or something, I dunno. I don’t want to risk it. But one kid . . . and I’m pretty old so it doesn’t look funny.”
“Okay. That sounds okay.”
“We’ve got to get to Bridgeport.”
James thought about that, then nodded his head. “I never listened much to Momma’s talk about her. What will she be like, Aunt Cilla?”
“Rich,” Dicey said.
“It would be a long walk,” James said.
“Long enough,” Dicey agreed. She got out of the car fast.
It was full dark, an overcast night. The parking lot was nearly empty; only two cars besides theirs remained. Dicey wondered how many cars were left in the other three parking lots that spread out from the other sides of the building. It felt as empty as all of space must be. She hoped there were cars in each lot. The more cars there were, the safer their car was for them.
Dicey headed confidently for the walkway, as if she had every right to be where she was, as if she had an important errand to run, as if she knew just where she was going. She remembered a telephone at the far end of the building. It wasn’t a real phone booth, but a kind of cubicle hung up on the wall, with an open shelf underneath to hold the directory. James could probably see her from the car, if he looked for her. From that distance, she would look small.
The walkway was lit up, and the store windows were lit, so she moved through patches of sharp light. At the phone, she took out the directory to look up bus companies in the yellow pages. She ran her finger down the names, selected one that sounded local and reached into her pocket for change.
She heard footsteps. A man approached her, in a uniform like a policeman’s, but tan not blue, and without the badge. He took his time getting to her, as if he was sure she’d wait, sure of his own strength to hold her, even at that distance. He moved like he thought she was afraid of him, too afraid to run.
“Hey,” the man said. His shirt had the word “Security” sewn onto it. Where his belly sagged, the shirt hung out over his pants. He carried a long-handled flashlight. He wore a pistol at his belt.
Dicey didn’t answer, but she didn’t look away.
“Hey kid,” he said, as if she had shown signs of running and he needed to halt her. He was heavy, out of shape. He had a pig-person face, a coarse skin that sagged at the jowls, little blue eyes and pale eyebrows, and a fat, pushed-back nose. When he came up next to her, Dicey stepped back a pace, but kept her finger on the number in the book.
“Naw. I’m making a phone call.”
“Where do you live?”
“Just over there,” Dicey said, pointing vaguely with her free hand.
“Go home and call from there. Run along now. If you were a girl, I’d walk you over, but—”
“Our phone’s broken,” Dicey said. “That’s why my mom sent me here.”
The guard shifted his flashlight, holding it like a club. “Phones don’t break. How’s a phone break?”
“We’ve got this dog that chews things up. Slippers, papers, you know. He chewed the phone. The cord, actually, but it’s all the same—the phone’s broken.”
“Are you bulling me?”
“I wish I was.”
“What’s your name, kid?”
She felt funny, strange, making up lies as quickly and smoothly as if she’d been doing it all her life.
The man took a piece of gum out of his pocket, unwrapped it, folded it in half and stuck it into his mouth, chewing on it a couple of times.
“Tillerman.” Dicey couldn’t make up a new last name, except Smith, and nobody would believe that even if it was true.
“You don’t look more than ten. Isn’t it late to be out?”
The guard grew suspicious. “Who’re you calling?”
“The bus company. My sisters and me are going down to Bridgeport some time soon, to stay with my aunt.”
He chewed and thought. “Sometime soon wouldn’t send you out after ten at night to phone. What’s the rush?”
“My mom just got back from the clinic and she’s gonna have her baby, any day now the doctor said, and my aunt needs to know what time the buses arrive so she can meet us on Monday. So’s we can take a bus it’s good for her to meet. My mom asked me to come find out so’s she can call first thing in the morning, before my aunt goes to church. It’s hard for my mom to get around now—you know.”
“Where’s your father?”
“Dunno. He just up and went, way back, last winter.”
The guard nodded. He reached in his pocket and pulled out the pack of gum. He offered a piece to Dicey, but she shook her head.
“Can I call now, mister?”
“Sure thing,” he said. “I wouldn’t have bothered you except
that there’ve been some windows broken around here. We think it’s kids. I’m the security guard. I’ve got to be careful.”
Dicey nodded. She inserted the coins and slowly dialed the numbers, hoping he’d go away. But he stood there and listened. Behind him lay the parking lot, a vast open space where occasional clumps of planted bushes spread long shadows over the ground.
An impersonal voice answered. Dicey asked about tickets to Bridgeport, how much they cost.
“From where to Bridgeport.”
Dicey grabbed at a name. “Peewauket.” That was what the map said. She pronounced it Pee-Walk-It. The guard, listening narrowed his eyes.
“From Peewauket?” the voice asked, saying it Pwuk-it.
“Two dollars and forty-five cents a person.”
“What’s the rate for children?”
“The same. The charge is for the seat. Unless you’ve got a child under two.”
“What time do buses run?”
“Every other hour, from eight to eight.”
Dicey thanked the voice and hung up the phone. She stood with her arms hanging down at her sides, waiting for the guard to leave.
He was studying her with his little piggly eyes. He held his flashlight now in one hand and slapped it into the palm of the other. “You better get back now,” he said and then added, “You didn’t write anything down.”
“I’ve got a good memory.”
“Yeah? I’ll give you a test.” His body blocked the way to the safe darkness of the parking lot. “You don’t remember anything about broken windows in the mall, do you? For instance, just one for instance, at Record City.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I wonder about that. I really wonder, Danny. You said Danny, didn’t you? Tillerman, wasn’t it? You see, we figure it was probably kids did it, account of nothing’s been stolen. Or maybe just one kid did it, that’s what I’m thinking.”
Dicey glared at him. “I said I don’t know anything about that.”
He put one arm out to bar her in, resting his hand against the side of the phone. “I can’t think of why I should believe you. Nope, now I come to think of it, I don’t think I do believe you. The only question in my mind is, what do I do with you?”
Dicey thought fast, then acted just as fast. She lifted her right knee as if to hit him in the groin where she knew it would hurt bad. He lowered his arm and stepped back, to protect himself. In that one second while he was off balance, Dicey took off. She sprinted into the darkness of the parking lot. As soon as she was in the cover of the shadows, she turned left around the corner of the building, away from their car. He thundered after her.
Dicey ran smoothly. She was used to running on beaches, where the sand gave way under your feet and each thrust of your legs was hindered. Running over asphalt was easier. Dicey pulled away from her pursuer. His steps were heavy and his breathing was heavy. He was out of shape and too fat to catch up with her. She had time to crouch behind one of the little islands of green that decorated the parking lot. She had on a dark shirt and jeans, her face was tanned and her hair brown; she was confident nothing would give her away.
He stopped by the front entrance shining his flashlight out over the parking lot, like one bright eye. Dicey watched him. He listened, but his chest was heaving so much that she was sure he couldn’t hear anything but the blood pounding in his ears. She smiled to herself.
“You haven’t got a chance,” he called. “You better come out now, kid. You’re only making it worse.”
Dicey covered her mouth with her hand.
“I know you now. We’ll find you out,” he said. He turned quickly away from the parking lot and looked farther along the front of the mall. He hunched behind the flashlight. He used the beam like a giant eye, to peer into the shadows. “There you are! I can see you!” he cried.
But he was looking the wrong way. Dicey giggled, and the sound escaped her even though she bit on her hand to stop it.
He turned back to the parking lot, listening. Then he swore. His light swooped over the dark lot, trying to search out her hiding place. “Danny? I’m gonna find you.”
Dicey moved softly away on soundless sneakers through the covering shadows. He continued to call: “I’ll remember your face, you hear? You hear me? Hear me?”
From halfway across the parking lot, safe in her own speed and in shadows, Dicey stopped. Her heart swelled in victory. “I hear you,” she called softly back, as she ran toward the empty road and the patch of woods beyond.
Much later, when she returned to the car, James awoke briefly. “Everything’s okay,” Dicey whispered, curling down onto the cold seat to sleep.