“I just want you to watch the girls for a day or two,” Carla says as she hunts for her missing sandals. Feeling rushed, she ties her dark brown hair back while the phone is pressed between her head and shoulder. “You have more than enough vacation time to take a day or two off from time to time. It’s been a month since Ian contacted me and I’m worried. This Raven’s Hold has no website and my friend who is a psychologist has never heard of it. My meeting with Mr. Orson isn’t for another two hours, so you have plenty of time to get back home. Just tell your boss it’s a family emergency. He knows about my brother’s problems, so it shouldn’t surprise him that this is happening. If you want, I can call your father to come and take over tomorrow, so you don’t lose your precious vacation time. Love you too, dear.”
Carla waits for her husband to hang up first before turning her phone off and pretending to strangle the device. Snatching her favorite necklace off her dresser, she spins it on her finger and relaxes while watching the pewter penguin fly in a circle. She hears a door opening behind her and swiftly turns around to see her youngest daughter waddle into the room. The four-year-old is trying to walk in her mother’s sandals while her treasured blanket is wrapped around her like a dress. Carla cannot stop herself from smiling as she kneels in front of her child and opens her arms for a hug.
“You look beautiful, Sarah” she whispers to the girl whose face is still covered in tomato sauce. “Where is your sister? The apartment is too quiet.”
“I’m a decoy!” the child happily declares before falling on her rump. “Allison want me to keep you here. She not eating.”
Carla rushes out of the room to find her oldest daughter standing on the kitchen counter with a paintbrush in her hand. The eight-year-old has a pile of books beneath her feet and is on her toes to reach the ceiling. A sloppy rainbow coming out of a yellow triangle has already been completed and her brush is covered in white for the next part. The floor and counter are covered in spilled paint, tiny footprints telling Carla that her youngest has been walking through the mess. Glancing at the four-year-old, she can see smears of red and blue on the inside of her favorite sandals. Walking to Allison, she hoists the frozen girl onto her shoulder and delivers a solid smack to the rump. She is surprised by the muffled impact and notices that the child has stuffed one of her washcloths into her pants.
“I was prepared this time,” Allison proudly says with a grin. Her expression changes when she is sat on the counter and her mother grabs a nearby flyswatter. “The paint washes off with water. Don’t be too mad.”
Carla slaps the flyswatter onto a nearby wasp with enough force to make her daughter jump off the counter. “I don’t know if I’m angrier about the painting or how dangerous it was to stand on a stack of books. At least put your sister’s stepstool up there. I can only handle destruction and danger separately when it comes to you two. Go get me some wipes from my purse, so I can clean my shoes.”
“Are you going away to yell at Uncle Ian again?” Sarah asks while sitting down to take the sandals off. She puffs out her lower lip and hands the shoes to her mom, who gives her a playful pinch on the nose. “You should ground him like you do to Allison. That way you always know where he is.”
“I’ll consider that idea,” Carla replies as she uses the moist wipes to clean the paint. She catches Allison by the wrist when the girl returns with a dripping mop. “Only on the floor and I better not see you using that on your sister. I don’t want to leave your father with any more of a mess than I have to. You stay out of the way, Sarah. I know you’re already thinking of playing in the dirty water. I want both of you to behave while I get ready.”
“Yes, mom!” the girls say in unison.
Carla leaves her bedroom door open enough to hear even the slightest sound from the kitchen. The damp sandals and a large splotch of paint on her shirt make her sigh, driving her to the nearly barren closet. It takes her several minutes to find a shirt that is not stained or so old that she swears it was given to charity years ago. A simple t-shirt is the best she can do and she grabs a dark green jacket in order to have some color in her outfit. Carla jots down a note for her husband to do laundry and leaves a roll of quarters for him to use. As an afterthought, she gets forty dollars out of her purse along with a coupon for the bounce house place next to the laundromat.
“Mom! Allison is stealing snacks!” Sarah shouts from down the hall. The girl can be heard whispering before her voice rings out again, muffled by the food in her mouth. “Never mind! I didn’t see anything!”
“You two are lucky I’m distracted and in a rush,” their mother says, sticking her head out of the room. She sees her daughters on the floor with a box of cookies between them, the package poorly cloaked by a throw pillow. “I’m tired and probably won’t be home until late tonight. Go ahead and eat all of the snacks. Then you’ll get a tummy ache and be too sick for the zoo tomorrow. Is that what you want?”
“We’ll put them back, mom,” Allison says in defeat.
Scooping up her phone and tossing it into her purse, Carla hurries across the apartment to the office. With more than enough time to prepare, she packs a few odds and ends, including the key to Ian’s apartment. Her fingers stop on a picture of her brother when he held his son for the first time. Thinking back, it is the last time she remembers seeing Ian smile or show any genuine sign of happiness.
“What trouble are you in now, little brother?” Carla whispers in exasperation.