They came back every year to lay flowers at the spot. Two little girls, hand in hand, walked soundlessly up Nora’s driveway. Except for a few inches of height, they were nearly identical, their knobby knees bending in unison, their mud-brown hair tied back in matching rubber banded ponytails. The girls always arrived in mid-June, the Saturday after school ended. They materialized so quietly that Nora often saw them before she heard them. Just two small noses pressing tiny divots into her rickety screen door.
Nora moved in two months before their first appearance. Her house was a bank foreclosure, a fixer upper that had been empty and boarded up for months. She had spent the first several weeks ripping out carpets, scrubbing stains from the hardwood floor and excavating dirt caked windowsills. The first afternoon the girls showed up she was on her knees in the living room, her watery eyes stinging from ammonia fumes.
Nora sensed movement and was startled to see two sets of brown eyes staring at her through the screen door. She stood up stiffly and tugged yellow rubber gloves from her clammy hands.
“Can I help you?” It was too late in the year for school fundraisers and cookie sales.
The girls watched her mutely for a few moments. The taller girl thrust a bunch of flowers towards her, a sad little mix of marigolds and wilted wildflowers held together by a clutch of tinfoil.
“I’m sorry girls, I can’t buy anything right now.” Nora gestured at the cleaning supplies at her feet. “I’m real busy.”
The taller girl shook her head rapidly. Her eyes shone as she opened her mouth and closed it again.
“They’re for Rascal,” the smaller girl blurted. She knocked her fists together. “Our hamster. In the backyard.”
“The backyard? A hamster? I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
The taller girl’s eyes widened, and she turned away. Her sister grabbed her arm.
“Rascal.” She spoke slowly and carefully, as if Nora was the child. “Rascal was our hamster. He’s buried in the backyard.”
“Okay, I see. Okay. Your hamster? You lived here before?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The little girl stood on tiptoe and peeked into the living room. She hesitated and glanced at her older sister, who studied the ground and tapped her foot. “Until last summer.”
Nora opened the door and the girls retreated from the front step. She peered down the driveway and saw a thin woman with shoulder length white-blonde hair leaning against an old car patched with gray primer. The woman absently scanned the street while smoking a cigarette. She dropped a butt on the ground and crushed it with the toe of her shoe.
“Does your mother want to come too?” Nora asked as she stepped outside. After a long silence the smaller one spoke again.
“She’s not our mother. She’s our babysitter. She said it was okay.”
Nora waved at the woman, who shifted her attention to a large patchwork purse slung over her shoulder. She dug through it muttering to herself.
“Excuse me,” Nora called across the driveway.
The woman’s response was a grim smile when she found a pack of cigarettes and tapped one into her hand.
Nora turned to the girls. They were so young. The little one tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear and grinned hopefully. Her sister bent down and untied and retied the shoelace of her ratty tennis shoe.
“Well let’s go find your hamster. This way.” She stepped off the porch and they wound their way through piles of old carpet and paint cans to the side yard.
“So, I’m Nora.” The younger girl smiled and bobbed her head while her sister studied the gate. “What are your names? And how old are you?” She gazed down the driveway at the babysitter who met her stare, tapped ash into the gutter and looked away.
The smaller girl pulled at a thread on her faded seersucker shirt. A button was missing, and a small puckered gap exposed her pale stomach.
“I’m Nanette. I’m six. She’s seven. She’s my sister Marie and she’s shy.” Nora nodded at Marie as the gate scraped open, but the older girl ignored her and moved toward the side yard.
“We need to say a prayer,” Marie said abruptly. She broke away from them and ran down the walkway. Nanette ran after her.
Nora followed the girls into the side yard and stacked clay pots while they combed through neglected flower beds. After a few minutes, she retreated into the house and watched quietly from an open kitchen window. She slid her thumbnail into fissures of cracked paint on the window frame and flicked off small chips, revealing a long-ago coat of faded mint green. A small pile of paint chips collected at her feet. Another project.
Nora’s head jerked up when Nanette cried “Oh here, here!” The little girl brushed leaves from under a scraggly hibiscus plant and Marie knelt and carefully peeled the tin foil from the stems of the bouquet. She placed the bunch of flowers on a little mound circled by dirty white stones. The girls leaned against each other. After several minutes Nanette edged closer and spread the flowers across the little grave.
“We need to go.” Marie said. “She’ll be mad.”
Nanette patted the little mound. “You were a good hamster, Rascal.”
Her shoulders began to shake, and Marie wrapped her thin arms around her sister and buried her face in her hair. Inside the house Nora swallowed hard. After a minute Marie pulled Nanette to her feet and they fled down the side yard.
Nora hurried through the house and watched as the girls burst through the gate and ran to the idling car. They scrambled inside calling “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” as the babysitter banged the door shut. Nora hustled across the driveway and waved awkwardly as the car lurched away, screeching from a loose fan belt. Nanette craned her neck and peered at the house; one small hand pasted on the side window.
The car disappeared around the corner and Nora turned and trudged to the house to gather her cleaning supplies. It was late afternoon and her whole body ached from the long hours on her knees. The girls’ brief visit had left her jittery and depleted. As she stuffed rags in the washing machine in the garage, her eyes were drawn to the remaining moving boxes stacked along the far wall. She searched out the hastily scrawled labels—“Carly baby,” “Carly 1 year,” “Carly 2 years,” and finally, one small box, “Carly 3.”
She closed her eyes and commended herself for looking at the tightly taped boxes without breaking down. After five years of grinding grief, she had just begun to believe she had found an effective therapy in the labor of fixing up this old house. She peered at the boxes in the damp recesses of the garage and wondered if moisture had invaded the jumbled mementos, if the coloring books and old merry-go-round tickets were slowly disintegrating. She turned abruptly and switched on the washer, shoved the buckets under the workbench and retreated. She heaved the garage door shut with a dull thud.
The girls returned the next June, and for several years more, the passage of time marked by growth spurts and longer ponytails. Their slender figures would appear at the front door; Nanette smiling expectantly while Marie hurried to the side gate. In front of the house, the same babysitter waited by the car and smoked cigarette after cigarette and stared into space.
The routine was repeated each year. Nora led the girls to the gate and watched quietly as they moved solemnly along the walkway. Marie’s bouquet always included marigolds and a random collection of wildflowers and grasses. Nora watched them from her kitchen as they hunted for the little mound of dirt and white rocks that marked Rascal’s grave. They laid the flowers across it and sat on the lawn for several minutes, hugging each other and talking quietly.
During the five years of their annual visits, they never came inside the house, and their exchanges with Nora were subdued. But each year their conversations grew slightly longer, and the three of them developed a routine. They chatted for a few minutes and Nora offered the girls water and peaches from her tree. She would slip quietly into the house and yield them the backyard. After they arranged the flowers Marie wandered the yard and checked it for changes, while Nanette circled the tree in search of ripe peaches. Eventually they placed their empty cups on the redwood picnic table and hurried to the front yard and the waiting car.
Each June, Nora wondered at the depth of their devotion to a tiny hamster but knew better than to ask. Over the years she made steady improvements to the house and yard, but never had the heart to remove the ailing hibiscus guarding Rascal’s final resting place. After rainstorms, she rearranged the stones and reshaped the lumpy little grave. She planted marigolds in a nearby flower bed.
The weather was oppressively hot the last time the girls visited. As they walked up the driveway, Nora was surprised by how much they had changed. They were now dressed in tank tops and cutoffs and Marie’s hair was no longer in a ponytail. Shaggy bangs obscured her face as she crossed the driveway with a defiant swagger.
She strode toward the gate, slowed only by Nanette’s insistent whispers. Nora came outside and unfastened the latch. “Hey girls.”
“Thank you,” said Nanette. Marie mumbled a response and grabbed her sister’s wrist and pulled her down the walkway. Nora returned to the house and was quietly watching them from the kitchen window when Nanette hurried over and knocked on the door. Nora blushed. Had they always known how closely she had been observing them?
Marie waited by the edge of the patio holding a bouquet of wilted wildflowers, her free hand stuffed in the pocket of her cutoffs. She rocked on her heels and watched Nora.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but could we borrow some marigolds? We usually have marigolds, but we don’t this year.” Nanette’s voice trailed off as she glanced over at Marie.
“We don’t have them because they all died,” Marie said flatly.
“Of course, you can.” Nora swung the door open. “Sorry about your flowers. It’s been so hot. Maybe if you give them some extra water they’ll come back.”
“Oh, they’re not coming back.” Marie pressed her lips in a tight line. “She poisoned them. She made our garden into her ash tray.”
“I am so sorry.” Nora looked from one girl to the other. “Your babysitter?”
The girls were silent. Nanette’s eyes flared as she watched her sister.
Marie frowned at her fingernails. “Yah, that’s right, our babysitter. Our babysitter did it.”
“Well that’s a shame.” Nora walked to the flower bed. “Go right ahead. I’m lucky, I guess, these flowers seem to thrive here, even in the heat. Which ones do you think Rascal would like?”
Nanette carefully plucked a few flowers. “Oh, the bright yellow ones. She always loved the yellow ones.”
Nora watched Marie follow her sister’s movements. Marie’s stony eyes locked briefly on Nora’s and she turned her face away.
“Well, you girls help yourselves,” Nora said. “Let me know if you need anything else. Maybe some water?”
Marie swiped her nose and studied Nora. Nora held her gaze as Marie twisted long strands of hair and brushed them against her mouth.
“We’re okay. Thanks. Thanks a lot.” The older girl looked away.
“No problem,” said Nora.
Nanette straightened and flashed a smile and handed several marigolds to her sister. Marie inspected the small bunch of flowers and drew one out and handed it to Nora. The girls turned and walked to Rascal’s gravesite.
The next June the girls didn’t reappear on schedule. Nora watched for them for several days, and when she left the house, she tucked notes into the frame of the screen door, with instructions on how to open the new gate. When she returned to the house the sight of the untouched notes made her throat ache.
July and August passed with no sign of the girls, and Nora reluctantly assumed she would never see Nanette and Marie again. One muggy afternoon while she watered her now healthy garden, she studied the hibiscus plant. It was one of the few plants that hadn’t responded well to her efforts, but she couldn’t bring herself to replace it.
She pruned the withered leaves and arranged the stones around Rascal’s grave. Her eyes filled with unbidden tears and she stood up quickly. She took a deep breath of the humid air and studied the peach tree, dense with the washed-out green leaves of late summer. The same dull green as doctors’ scrubs in pediatric wards.
That afternoon while running errands Nora stopped at a convenience store for a can of soda. When she reached the register, she stopped short. The gaunt face, the flaccid white-blonde hair, the unmistakable slouch of her body—it was the babysitter.
“Anything else?” the woman rasped as she rang up the soda. Even from across the counter, Nora could smell the reek of her multi-pack a day habit. When Nora didn’t respond, the babysitter pulled away from the register and narrowed her eyes.
“I know you,” she said, with a small jerk of her head. “You’re the hamster lady.”
Nora slowly unfolded a five-dollar bill and handed it to her. “And you’re the babysitter,” she said evenly. “How are Nanette and Marie? I haven’t seen them this summer.”
The woman let out a loud bark of laughter and slapped change on the counter. “The babysitter! Is that what they told you?” She shook her head. “If that isn’t the funniest damn thing I’ve ever heard. Jesus!”
Nora flushed as she stuffed change into her purse.
“What? I’m sorry, you’re not? The girls told me,” she stammered.
“Oh man. I’m their stepmother. Actually, their ex-stepmother. Their father left with them last summer. Moved to someplace in Colorado. I don’t know what they’re doing, and I don’t much care. For five years I took care of those kids, did the best I could.”
She thrust her face toward Nora and placed the palms of her hands on the counter.
“But I wasn’t their mama,” she said, and lowered her voice. “Never could be, didn’t really ask to be, and they never forgave me for that.” She huffed and licked her chapped lips.
“I tried. Even took them to visit the ashes at your house every year.”
Nora froze. “Ashes? You mean their hamster?”
The woman looked down at the can of soda. She silently pushed it across the counter.
Nora recalled the girls standing by the gate, waiting for her to release the latch. Marie’s brittleness. Nanette’s eagerness to please. Their immoderate devotion to a creature with a brutally short lifespan. She gripped the counter to steady herself.
“Hey.” The woman cleared her throat. “I did the best I could. There was just no pleasing those girls.” Her mouth curved down and trembled slightly as she motioned to the next customer.
“Thanks.” Nora blinked and stepped away. “Thanks a lot.”
She left the store in a daze. She sat in the car with the engine running and gulped the soda that now tasted like tin. As she swallowed the last sip, she made up her mind and shoved the car into gear and headed to the garden supply. She emerged from the store with two bags and put them in the trunk of her car.
When Nora returned home, she headed to the walkway and retraced the path of her melancholy little visitors. She grabbed a spade and pried open the first bag of potassium fertilizer for the hibiscus.
“I should have known you needed something different.” She massaged the powder into the ground around the plant and opened the second bag of rocks. She carefully tucked a handful of clean white rocks into Nanette and Marie’s circle of pebbles, now gray from weather and age. She barely made a dent in the ten-pound bag.
Nora brushed dirt from her knees and surveyed her bed of marigolds. She filled the watering can and swung it in a wide arc over the flowers. The petals dipped and bounced in the spray, providing a brief landing spot for the tiny droplets. She sat on the grass and held vigil as the water slipped off the flowers and vanished into the earth.
Maureen Simons’s work has appeared in PANK, Palo Alto Weekly, Sea Ranch Soundings, and elsewhere. She has attended the Yale Writers’ Workshop and Janice Cooke-Newman’s Lit Camp. She lives on the Sonoma Coast in northern California.
The best. Thank you dear Maureen!!
Wonderful writing, absolutely beautiful and haunting at the same time.
Oh my Maureen – when I saw the award you received I had to read this story! More please – that was beautiful.
From the Coast in Carlsbad, CA
Very happening story! The step-mom caused me to judge her as nothing but a burnt-out cig-butt, but it seemed to me that not being able to get near those little girls after 5 years was heart-breaking to her.
An excellent story, nicely told. I’d have liked an extra sentence about the step-mother/babysitter waiting at the car to give me a better idea of how she might have felt. Unlike the commenter above, I saw the babysitter as an uncaring vacuum. Even her comments at the store didn’t change my impression. If that was a reveal, it didn’t work for me. I’ll read it again – all good stories deserve a second read, wouldn’t you say?
Well done – good writing.
Maybe I’m reading something more sinister into this story than intended, but I’m discovering “clues” in the following lines, when Nora encounters a checkout clerk who turns out to be the girls’ stepmother:
“I tried. Even took them to visit the ashes at your house every year.”
Nora froze. “Ashes? You mean their hamster?”
Earlier, Marie, the more reticent of the girls, claimed that their “babysitter” killed the marigolds they would bring to the hamster’s grave: “She poisoned them. She made our garden into her ash tray.”
And isn’t it odd that a hamster would not only have a favorite flower but a favorite color?
“Oh, the bright yellow ones. She always loved the yellow ones.”
I may be way off base, but since the “babysitter” isn’t really a babysitter, I’m supposing the “hamster” isn’t really a deceased pet.
This story is written with understated grace. It’s full of subtleties and mysteries, which make it a quite rewarding read.
This was really beautiful 🙂