Take Care of Her – The End

Chapter 11 – The End

“Ow,” Gretchen said, plucking a white strand out of the part of her hair. There were so many white hairs now. She put the tweezers down. It was silly. Let it go. It had been years. The woman had become older and achier and heavier. The little girl hadn’t changed. Still five. Still wearing her bikini with the woman’s green t-shirt as a dress. Still only seen inside their home.

Their apartment was tiny now. Three rooms. They stayed close to home most days. Gretchen had found a job at the convenience store down the block. No one minded that the little girl came with her. Or if they did, no one said anything. The girl still liked to play in water. They left the city with the museum. She never got to play in the fountain again. There was a tub and the girl played in that. They walked to get groceries. They read books in bed. They saw no one but each other.

“Can we have pancakes?” the girl asked.

“Are we ever going to have something besides pancakes?” Gretchen asked.

“No,” the girl said. Then she laughed. It was the high, free giggle of pure happiness. Gretchen couldn’t help but laugh with her. But the work of laughing showed on the woman’s lined face.

“Honey, I’m tired. Is it okay if I lie down for another minute?”

“You won’t be too long?”

“I won’t be too long.” Gretchen shuffled down the hall to her bedroom. Her head ached. It did that a lot these days. They girl was sweet and tried to keep quiet when the woman needed the lights off. That lovely girl. Gretchen didn’t change clothes. Didn’t even take off her robe. I took all her strength to stand, so she lay down in bed, on top of the covers. The little girl was hunched on the edge of the bed. She always liked to stay close.

“I love you,” the little girl said.

“I love you,” Gretchen said. “I’ll see you when I wake up. Just a few minutes.”

The little girl scooted from the edge of the bed up to the pillow. She didn’t lie down, but sat up, holding Gretchen’s hand. The woman had squeezed the tiny hand once. It was tight. Too tight. Then the fingers relaxed.

When the men came to take the woman away in the black bag, there was no one else in the apartment. It took them hours to stomp around the tiny home. They talked too loud and were nosy. Everything got moved. The little girl stayed in the bed, still and quiet. No one saw her. Once they were gone, the little girl climbed under the covers and waited for the woman to come back. She hoped it wouldn’t take long. She didn’t like being alone.

Take Care of Her – Chapter 10

Chapter 10

When Gretchen woke up three hours later, she was lying on a hospital bed. The little girl sat on a chair in the corner of the room. Gretchen’s matted eyes opened and she smiled through her haze. The girl ran to her and collapsed against the stiff patterned gown. Gretchen cried and wrapped her arms around the small shaky body.

“Hi,” Gretchen said.

“I missed you,” the girl said.

“I missed you. Bunches.”

“Can we go home? You were asleep so long. I don’t like it here.”

“Me neither,” Gretchen said. “Let’s go.” She pulled down the covers and swung her legs over the edge. Her muscles pricked and pounded. She kicked and squirmed against the neural torture. The girl copied her spastic movements with twitches of her own squishy legs.

“Good morning,” the voice said as the nurse entered the room. “I have your meds.”

The little girl shook her head. She tucked herself behind the chair and started whispering. “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. If you take those, then I have to go away. For more than a long time. For longer than you were asleep. For forever. I don’t want to go away. I want to go home. I want to stay with you.”

The nurse handed Gretchen the pills in a small paper cup and a tiny plastic cup of water. Gretchen took them and hid them in cheek, then took a pretend drink of water. After she put down the water and the empty pill cup, she coughed into her fist.

“Hard to get those down,” she said, showing the lady in scrubs a wide-open and empty mouth.

Good job,” the nurse said. “Doctor Brandon is going to be in later. Ring if you need anything.” The nurse left and the room was quiet.

The little girl crept out from behind the chair. There were tears in her eyes. Gretchen showed the girl her hand. In her palm were the pills. Gretchen threw them across the room and they plinked against the linoleum floor. The girl smiled. Gretchen looked around the room. There was a cabinet in the corner. The girls ran to the door and inside in a pile were some regular street clothes. Gretchen pulled them on and shoved her feet in the shoes. She wasn’t sure that anything in this room was hers, but she didn’t care.

“Let’s go. Quick and quiet as you can now. Let’s see if we can sneak out without anyone seeing us. Think we can do it?” The little girl nodded with vigor. Gretchen squeezed the girl’s hand and they left.

They did it. They left together and went home. No one saw them.

Take Care of Her – Chapter 9

Chapter 9

The red dots on her phone never went away.  Gretchen hadn’t taken a call or acknowledged a voicemail or text in almost two weeks. She just couldn’t bear it – couldn’t fathom spending the day, or even an hour away from the girl. It was a life better than Gretchen ever imagined. Until one night, when the girl started crying.

“Honey, what is it?” The girl shook her head. “Tell me. Please. I bet if we talk about it you’ll feel better.”

The little girl sniffed into her pillow, burrowing herself deeper into the big bed. “I’m afraid you won’t be here.”

“What?” Gretchen asked, her heart sinking. “Baby, no. I’ll always be here.”

“I’m alone sometimes. And I get scared. I don’t like to be alone.”

Gretchen wrapped the girl in her arms. “You’re not alone. You’ll never be alone. I promise you. I will always take care of you.” The girl trembled and Gretchen felt the tears on her own skin. They cried together. Sometime in the night, they both fell asleep. Together. In the morning, they both went to see Rachel.

“I’m glad to see you. You missed appointments. I was concerned.” Rachel sat in the chair, notebook in her lap.

“I should have come earlier,” Gretchen said. “As soon as she came. I should have brought her in. Should have made you take to her. You didn’t believe me and I should have fought harder. This has to be so scary for her. I wasn’t a good enough mom.”

“It’s a great initiative you’ve taken. Really embracing this concept of caring for your inner child. You should be very proud of yourself.”

“This isn’t about me. It’s about her.”

“Yes. This of it this way, that by protecting and empowering the child of your inner self-“

“No. Stop your therapy shit. Her. Right there. I brought her in today. You have to work with her. She’s afraid. I want you to help her.”

“I’m not sure I understand.” Rachel leaned in to Gretchen. “Explain it to me.”

“What am I not explaining? Her. I know she’s struggling and I want you to help her.”

Gretchen turned to the little girl. “This is my friend, Rachel. I talk to her sometimes. And she helps me. I wanted her to meet you. Maybe you’d like to talk to her.”

The little girl shook her head. “You. I only like talking to you.”

“Gretchen,” Rachel said, “what’s going on?”

“I want you to talk to her. She doesn’t like me to leave, so I have to stay in the room. But maybe we could all talk-“

“Are you requesting some role play, or some dissociated-“

“I’m requesting that you acknowledge, that you look at and talk to this little girl. Right here. Right now.”

“Gretchen,” Rachel said, “we are the only ones in this room.”

“What is wrong with you? This beautiful little girl, who is scared and needs help and you’re acting like she’s not even there.”

“There is no little girl, Gretchen. There’s only you and me.”

Gretchen kneeled on the floor so she could be as close to the girl as possible.

“I don’t like it here anymore. I want to go home.” The little girl looked up to Gretchen with tears in her eyes.

“We’re going home,” Gretchen said. She stood and took the girl by the hand.

“Wait. Please,” Rachel said. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening. Can you give me a minute? I’ll help. I just want to get something. Something for her. I’ll be right back. I promise. I’ll help.”

Rachel left the room. Gretchen squeezed the girl’s hand.

Take Care of Her – Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Gretchen maneuvered her car into the tiny space. She almost got it, but swore under her breath when her back tire bounced off the curb. The little girl giggled and the bright tinkle echoed. Gretchen couldn’t help but laugh with her.

“Are we going there?” the girl asked, pointing across the street.

“Yup.”

“Are you sure? Mommy never lets us go there.”

Gretchen swallowed. “Today, we’re going.” Both of them ran from the car.

Outside the museum hung bright swatches of fabric that billowed from the roof to the sidewalk. The swaying designs looked like dancing kites. In the courtyard outside the entrance, there were dozens of holes in the ground. Scattered in between those, were flat colored lights, designed to shine up to the sky. The little girl ran to where other children were playing. They darted around the building’s pillars, playing hide and seek. She gasped when the lights flickered on and sent blues and pinks and purples onto her skin. And then she squealed. Jets of water erupted from the holes in the concrete, sending cold sprays onto her warm skin. She jumped and splashed and clapped, throwing her head back with laughter and blinking when she squirted her own eyes with water.

Gretchen looked on and smiled. She had always wanted to do that as a kid. Never had the chance. The little girl bobbed in and out of the jets, circling the other kids. She chased them, coming close but never fast enough to tag any of them.

“So you’re one of the nutty ones too?”

Gretchen turned to the question.

“I used to line the car with garbage bags for the ride home. Anymore, who cares? Gonna get wet and dirty again tomorrow anyway.” The woman was a tall pixie-cut slice of cool mom calm.

“For sure,” Gretchen said. “Which is yours?”

“Pink shirt. Rain boots. Pants only. Pajamas,” she said, ticking off and pointing to splashing kids.

“Four?” Gretchen asked in awe.

“I like sex,” the mom said. “Yours?”

Gretchen pointed to the little girl. “Green t-shirt. It’s mine.”

The mom squinted her eyes, but didn’t see a little girl in a green shirt.

“I’m Gretchen.”

“Felicity.”

“We’re across the river. South. You guys near here?”

The mom nodded. “Their dad teaches. Some romance language that doesn’t pay a lot.”

“That must be nice,” Gretchen said.

“It is,” the mom said. “Except the days when it’s not.”

In the background, another woman’s voice bellowed and the handful of kids at the perimeter of the water scattered. The only kids remaining were the pink shirt, the rain boots, pants only and the pajamas. The mom stared at Gretchen.

“I just love watching them play,” Gretchen said.

The mom ran into the water. “Let’s go, gang. Come on.”

“Aw,” Gretchen said. “Maybe we’ll see you here again sometime.”

The kids huddled together, banging off elbows and knees as the mom hovered over them, trying to keep physical contact. She practically ran them into traffic hustling them all across the street.

Gretchen watched them disappear into the crowded sidewalk. “The kids left,” she heard.

“I know,” Gretchen said. “That’s disappointing.”

“You play with me,” the girl said.

“Oh…honey…I don’t,” Gretchen started. The girl frowned. Gretchen flipped the girl’s pigtail, then took off her shoes where she stood and ran into the water jets with the little girl.

Take Care of Her – Chapter 6

Chapter 6

“Why do you think you had the dream?” Rachel asked.

“I’m telling you,” Gretchen said. “It wasn’t a dream.”

“Okay. What do you think it was?”

“It was a girl. It was me. It is her. From my picture.”

“Why do you think-“

“I’m sorry, but this wasn’t my idea.” Gretchen said. You told me. You suggested this idea of taking care of myself. Of her. She’s here now I’m taking care of her. ”

“Do you think it’s reasonable, for a capable woman like you, to be so eager for a solution to her grief that she would invent this? To not think of caring for an inner child as a metaphor, but to start believing in a created-“

“She was always here. I don’t think my grief had anything to do with it.”

“She was there. I don’t think my grief had anything to do with it.”

“Is she here now?”

Gretchen was silent.

“Can I see her?”

“She’s right there.” Gretchen gestured to the girl in the corner, her legs in a ring, her fingers playing twiddle games. The register in the wall behind her kicked on and she jumped when the air hit her skin. She giggled and her pigtails shook when she laughed. Gretchen had put them in crooked, but neither her nor the girl seemed bothered by that.

“I don’t see her, Gretchen,” Rachel said. “It’s only you and me in the room.”

“You don’t have to make fun of me.”

“I’m not. I’m really not.  I’m concerned. I’m trying to map out what this coping strategy is. If it’s the best avenue for your work and energy now.”

Gretchen wished she could make Rachel see the girl. She’d love to show her that she wasn’t crazy.

Maybe she was.

But, for now, Gretchen chose to play along. Yes. There were only the grown-ups in the room. Yes. It was just a dream that crossed a boundary. Yes. She would come back in two days to talk again.

Until then, she decided that she wanted to really play for a while. So she left. And she took the little girl with her.

Driving through the city calmed her. Not the bridges. The bridges themselves were fine, but the crossing lanes and jockeying frazzled her. The neighborhoods, she liked. Her hands and feet steered on autopilot and she watched the brownstones and the people on their stoops pass her windows.

“You took a long time,” the voice said from the back seat.

“I know,” Gretchen said. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m glad you left. I didn’t like that lady talking about me. It made me sad.”

Gretchen glanced in the rear-view mirror and smiled. The little girl was there, still in her oversized green shirt. Her legs bounced the front passenger seat as she talked.

“That’s why I left,” Gretchen said. “I didn’t want you to be sad.”

“Are you tired?” the girl asked.

“No. Why? Are you sleepy? Do you need a nap?”

“I don’t like naps. They make me sad too.”

Gretchen smiled.

“You like to take naps. When you come home.”

“What would you like to do?” Gretchen asked.

“Play,” the little girl said.

“Okay,” Gretchen said. “Let’s go play.”

Take Care of Her – Chapter 5

Chapter 5

The little girl sitting across the table from Gretchen had pigtails. She had been there since Gretchen came into the kitchen. There was a scream, but the little girl didn’t seem to hear. She simply sat in the big seat and swung her legs. Gretchen slid into the seat next to her, no longer having the strength to stand. She opened her mouth to ask any of the million questions flying through her head. None came out.

Gretchen backed away from the table, knocking the chair to the floor. She ran into the bedroom for the picture. There it was. Same little girl. Same bikini. Her sweaty hand slid across the picture as her fingers felt for the rigid edges. She was having a bad dream. Not a nightmare. Just a really weird dream. Made sense. She hadn’t slept for shit lately and this was her brain’s way of finally letting go. There wasn’t actually a real child in her apartment. Her therapist wanted her to take care of the little girl inside her, and her screwed up synapses gave her an apparition girl. A ghost guest. Wouldn’t last long. She’d wake up hot and headache-y, sad and alone soon enough.

She decided to wait it out. Since she was up, she figured she’d make coffee. Her hands and arms worked. They usually didn’t in dreams. It was a constant terror that she’d try to punch, and instead her fist floated away from her body and through the air. Or her legs would kick, and never connect with dirt or shins. She leaned on the counter and watched the dark brew drip. It smelled like coffee. Without thinking, she touched the stream. It was hot. Her skin burned and she sucked on her finger. Coffee. She could taste it. She shook her hand and poured herself a cup. Normally. it was cream and sugar. Tonight, it was black.

The girl stared in wonder at Gretchen’s coffee routine.

“You want some?” Gretchen asked.

“My mommy doesn’t let me have coffee,” the girl said. “Did you get a boo boo on your finger?”

The girl could talk. Why not? Gretchen decided she’d play along. She wanted to remember all of this — take it back to Rachel and let her untangle what it meant.

“Your mommy sounds very smart,” Gretchen said.

“She reads a lot,” the girl said, nodding.  “Big books.”

Gretchen stared into her mug. She was right. Her mom always had a book. As a kid she didn’t care. As a teenager, she hated it. Only mom on the bleacher who wasn’t watching. Or at least pretending to watch. Her mom was the one reading. And it was embarrassing reading. Romance. Alien science fiction. Gretchen had tried, begged her not to. Her mom didn’t care. Reading made her feel better. So mom was going to read.

“Are you hungry?” Gretchen asked. The girl shook her head. “Cold?” She shook her head again. “I’m cold. I’m going to get you a sweatshirt.”

There were piles of clothes of assorted cleanliness slung throughout the bedroom. She managed to put on worthy clothes for work, but this search made Gretchen admit that she had been wearing the same boxers and t-shirt around her house for…a long time. Surely there was something she could put on this kid that wasn’t blotched with wine or smeared with duck sauce. Clothes. Drawers. She had drawers. With clothes she’d washed when she still cared.

“Here we are,” Gretchen said, holding out the green t-shirt. The kid was gone. “Honey?” A squeak came from the bathroom. She turned the corner and saw her. The little girl was standing at the sink. The mirrored front of the medicine cabinet was open and her small eyes stared at the bottles of pills. And the small scissors.

The girl reached her hand toward the high shelves.

“Let’s get you covered up,” Gretchen said. She handed over the shirt and closed the panel.

The shirt hit the floor and the finger, opened the mirror and pointed harder. “Want,” the little girl said. “Help.”

“No…no, okay, come on.” Gretchen steered her out of the bathroom. “Let me help you put this on and we’ll get some breakfast, okay? I’ll take care of those later.” The girl lowered her arm to her side. Gretchen slid the shirt over the small body in the tiny bathing suit. The hem hit at her bony knees. “Now, what can I make you to eat?”

The girl smiled. “Panny cakes.”

“Let’s go have pancakes,” Gretchen said. She didn’t know why. And to be honest, she didn’t know how. But thirty minutes later, Gretchen and the little girl sat down to breakfast. They didn’t talk. The food was delicious, and they both smiled and laughed as they ate. Butter landed on both of their hands somehow. The little girl threw her head back with giggles when Gretchen licked it off her own thumb. She closed her eyes to enjoy the last sugary bite. When she opened her eyes and reached for her coffee, the lone grown-up realized she was alone in the kitchen. There was no little girl. Gretchen shook her head at herself and started to clean up. Her plate was empty, except for a shimmery coating. The other plate held two cold, hard pancakes and congealing syrup.

Take Care of Her – Chapter 4

Chapter 4

The bedroom floor was covered with an old blanket, mismatched shoes and an outdated video camera the size of a microwave. A frayed sweater and a dusty bouquet of silk flowers flew into the pile. Gretchen grunted. She couldn’t find it. Already on her hands and knees, she edged deeper into the closet. She winced and drew back her hand to rub her knee. Something sharp had cut into her skin. She groped blindly and grunted in frustration. Why had she kept every box from every pair of shoes she’d ever owned and then tossed them in this hole? She dragged an armful out onto the floor. Only one had a pair of shoes in them. Ugly ones. Another box had padded push-up bras and a garter belt. She shoved that one right back in the closet and far out of sight. The third box was heavy. Whatever was inside shifted when she lifted up the box. She’d found what she was looking for.

There was no system or strategy for her photographs. Years collided together—polaroids on top of glossy, drug-store developed prints. Her fingers touched faces. Her mother. Her father. Her sister. Her grey and white cat. She hadn’t wanted to do this. Rachel had suggested, and Gretchen was desperate. So far, this wasn’t helping. She turned the box upside down and the pictures cascaded onto the floor. Using her fingertips, she picked through them. Finally, she found what she was told to look for. A picture of herself. Kindergarten. First grade maybe. Outside in the sun. Gretchen was wearing a bathing suit. Her hair was mousy brown and laying on her shoulders in wet streaks. Her little belly rounded out between the nylon top and bottom. Her eyes were closed because she was smiling so wide. It was her and Gretchen didn’t know this girl.

Gretchen put the little girl on her nightstand, under her reading lamp. She was supposed to take care of this girl. That’s what Rachel said. To be the caring adult to give this baby in her bikini boundaries and respect and love. No matter what. She was lucky to brush her own teeth these days. How was she supposed to take care an inner child? She’d likely just tell the kid she was going to grow up to be a mess. Who’d never wear a bikini again.

As the grown up, she felt badly for saying that. She felt it. With all her heart. But, she didn’t want to tell the little girl that. Little one looked so happy. She didn’t want to take that away. The room went grey, then black and she closed her eyes.