Cages, p.2
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       Cages, p.2

           Peg Kehret
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  The Triple-B Treatment consisted of three things: 1. a long, hot bubble bath 2. a good book to read 3. a bag of chocolate stars. Bath, book, and bag of candy: all three at the same time. She would lock herself in the bathroom, fill the tub with bubbles, place the bag of candy on the edge of the tub, and climb in. Then she’d lie in the warm water, read her book, and eat the chocolate. There was even a ritual about how she ate the chocolate stars: slowly, one at a time. She never took a bite; she only sucked, letting each one melt completely before she took another.

  Nobody but Tracy knew about the Triple-B Treatment, not even Kit’s mother. Especially not Kit’s mother.

  She stopped at the 7-Eleven on her way home and bought the chocolate stars, hiding them in the bottom of her bookbag, underneath her math homework, where her mother wouldn’t see them.

  Dorothy Gillette didn’t allow candy in the house. “It only makes people fat,” she declared. In Dorothy’s view, being fat was an inexcusable crime that should be punishable by law. She ran six miles every afternoon, to ensure that the enemy didn’t creep onto her hips when she wasn’t looking.

  Dorothy was trim, no doubt about that. If only she didn’t feel so superior to anyone who wasn’t. Kit preferred Miss Fenton’s attitude. Miss Fenton laughed at her own pudgy figure and admitted, “Doughnuts are my downfall. Especially chocolate-frosted ones.”

  A bath, a book, and a bag of chocolate. Kit felt better already, anticipating the Triple-B.

  As she approached her house, she saw Wayne’s car in the driveway. Why was he home so early? Her stepfather never got home before 6:30 and it wasn’t yet 5:00. Usually he put his car in the garage. Maybe Wayne was sick. Or maybe—Kit’s mouth felt dry. Maybe he was on another binge.

  She approached the house cautiously, listening. Wayne got drunk every four or five months. When he did, he was surly, often shouting and throwing things. His binges lasted for several days, during which Kit’s mother tiptoed around the house, cleaning up the messes Wayne made and trying to calm him down.

  Once Kit had suggested that Wayne should get help for his drinking problem.

  “Wayne doesn’t have a drinking problem,” Dorothy said. “He only drinks two or three times a year.”

  Kit didn’t know if Wayne was an alcoholic or not. All she knew was that when he went on one of his binges, life at home was miserable.

  She eased the front door open. Silence. She stepped inside. Maybe he was sick. The flu was going around. Maybe Wayne had the flu.

  She hung her coat in the closet and headed for her bedroom. Before she got there, she heard Wayne shout from the kitchen.

  “Damn it, Dorothy,” Wayne yelled. “You know I don’t like broiled salmon. Why are you fixing salmon for dinner when you know I don’t like it?”

  Kit stopped. She knew that tone of voice all too well. She also knew that Wayne had never mentioned a dislike for salmon. He had, in fact, always eaten salmon with gusto.

  Kit listened.

  “I’m sorry,” Dorothy said. “I won’t fix salmon again. Now, what would you like instead? I’ll just run out to the grocery store and buy something else.”

  Kit clenched her teeth. She hated it when her mother let Wayne doormat her like that. Anything to keep the peace, Dorothy always said, but Kit never felt peace was achieved. It was more like surrender.

  Crash! A loud noise exploded from the kitchen. Kit jumped. Then she hurried into the kitchen to see what had happened. Her mother stood beside the stove, blotting her blue sweatsuit with a dish towel. Wayne sat at the kitchen table, barefoot, wearing a suit and tie.

  Amber liquid trickled down the front of the refrigerator and dripped into pieces of broken glass on the tile floor. Kit inhaled the strong, sharp smell of liquor.

  “My glass slipped,” Wayne said.

  “It certainly did,” Dorothy said, as she got a broom and started sweeping up the shards of glass.

  “Slipped right out of my hand,” Wayne said.

  Kit said nothing.

  “Don’t just stand there,” Wayne said. “Your mother needs help with this mess.”

  Kit glared at him.

  “Never mind,” Dorothy said. “I’ll clean it up.”

  Kit turned and started to leave the kitchen.

  “Kit!” Wayne shouted. “You stay here and wash off the refrigerator.”

  Kit wanted to scream. First she wasn’t cast in the play, then she’d had to listen to Mouthy Marcia, and now Wayne was on another binge.

  “Wash it off yourself,” she said. “You’re the one who threw your glass and made a mess. Why should we clean it up for you?”

  “She doesn’t mean that, Wayne,” Dorothy said. “We know it was an accident.”

  Just once, Kit thought. Just once, why can’t you stick up for me? Why must you always pretend he’s sober?

  “It wasn’t an accident,” Kit said. “He’s drunk and he threw his glass on purpose. Why can’t you admit that?”

  Dorothy winced. “Please,” she said, “don’t make things worse.”

  “You animal,” Wayne said. He stood up and pounded his fist on the table. “That’s what you are. Nothing but a stupid little animal.”

  “Now, Wayne,” Dorothy said. “You don’t mean that. He doesn’t mean that, Kit.”

  He had called her that before when he was drunk and it always made her furious. Kit spun around and rushed out of the kitchen. Wayne lurched after her.

  She wasn’t afraid of him. Although Wayne bellowed and called her names when he was drunk, he had never hit her nor, to her knowledge, had he ever hit her mother. But Kit refused to listen to any more. She grabbed her coat, picked up her bookbag, and ran outside, slamming the door behind her.

  As she sprinted down the sidewalk, she heard Wayne open the door and shout after her. With no walls to confine it, his voice seemed louder and deeper. The harsh words chased her, nipping at her heels.

  “Animal!”

  “Animal.”

  “Animal. . . .”

  THE bus wheezed to a stop. Kit looked out the window. Should she get off here or ride a few more blocks?

  She decided to keep riding, all the way to the mall. The mall was open until nine; she would wander through the stores until then. Maybe she would try on some clothes, daydream a little before she went back home.

  She knew she would go home. Although Kit sometimes fantasized about running away, she had no place to go. Despite her problems, she knew she was better off at home than on the street. Most of the time Wayne was OK—not great but tolerable. His binges always made life miserable for awhile but she knew from experience that in a few days, Wayne would be sober and contrite, swearing to Kit’s mother that he would never drink like that again. Never. And Dorothy always seemed to believe him.

  Kit got off the bus at the main entrance to the mall and went inside. The aroma of melted cheese, sausage, and tomato sauce floated from Pizza Hut. Her stomach growled. She wished she had some of the broiled salmon that Wayne was so angry about. At noon, Kit had been too excited and nervous about the cast list to eat lunch and she’d spent all but twenty-three cents of her money on the bag of chocolate stars and bus fare. She couldn’t even buy herself a sandwich.

  Mentally, she became Sharon Shocker. “EMACIATED BODY FOUND IN MALL. STUDENT STARVES IN FRONT OF PIZZA HUT.”

  She sat on one of the benches in the center of the mall, opened the bag of candy, and popped a chocolate star in her mouth. She rolled the candy around with her tongue, making it melt. It wasn’t as good as the Triple-B Treatment but it was the best she could do.

  The mall was crowded. Shoppers hurried past, laughing and talking. Surrounded by people, Kit felt completely alone. Everyone else in the world seemed to have someplace to go and someone to talk to.

  The longer she sat there, the more miserable she felt. It wasn’t fair. She would have been a good Frankie. Better than Marcia the Mouth. And Marcia could afford to go to college without a scholarship.

  She ate some more chocolate s
tars. Why should she have to put up with Wayne’s insults, just because Wayne got drunk and Dorothy wouldn’t stand up to him? Why did he always have to call her an animal? He’s the one who acted less than human, not her.

  She ate another chocolate star. If her face broke out tomorrow, what difference did it make? Who would care?

  Tears filled her eyes. Kit stood up, wiped her eyes on the back of her hand, and jammed the remaining chocolate stars into her bookbag. Then she headed for Pierre’s. Maybe she’d feel better if she tried on the latest fashions. Kit couldn’t afford to buy anything, but there was no charge for looking.

  She lingered awhile on the main floor, listening to the music. A shiny black grand piano stood beside the escalators, while the pianist, in black suit and black bow tie, sent elegant music up and down the moving stairs.

  She rode the escalator down, intending to try some free cosmetic samples. As she passed through the jewelry department, she heard someone call out, “Kit.”

  Marcia Homer stood a few yards away, waving. “Kit!” she called again. “Come here a minute.”

  Kit walked over to where Marcia stood with a salesclerk and a stocky man in a dark overcoat.

  “Daddy,” Marcia said, “this is Kit Hathaway. She’s going to do the publicity for my play. Look, Kit, Daddy’s buying me a present, to celebrate my getting the lead.”

  Kit didn’t want to look but she knew it would be rude not to. Mr. Homer beamed as the salesclerk pointed to several pieces of gold jewelry.

  “I get my choice,” Marcia said. “Isn’t it exciting? They’re all 24-carat gold and I can have whichever one I want. Which would you pick, Kit? Help me decide.”

  The clerk put another box, containing a locket, on top of the glass-topped counter.

  Kit looked at the glittering array. Each box was lined with soft gray velvet; each held a piece of jewelry. Some boxes contained more than one piece. The treasures sparkled and gleamed like a pirate’s bounty.

  The largest box held bracelets. Kit eyed them longingly. One was particularly beautiful. It was made of three slender strands of gold, braided together. If Kit had her choice, she’d take the braided gold bracelet but she didn’t tell Marcia that.

  “They’re all pretty,” she said.

  “I kind of like that thick gold choker,” Marcia said. She giggled. “It looks the most expensive.”

  Kit thought the choker was gaudy but she said nothing. Mr. Homer picked up the choker; the clerk held Marcia’s hair up while Mr. Homer fastened the choker around Marcia’s neck.

  Watching them, Kit felt even more alone than she had earlier. Kit’s father had died when Kit was four. She still kept his picture on the table beside her bed but when she looked at it, he seemed more like a character in a book than someone she had known and loved and lived with.

  Her only real memory of him was of sitting on his lap each evening, snuggling close while he read the comic section of the newspaper out loud. She could not remember his voice or his laugh; she remembered only that she was happy when he read to her. She did not remember how he looked, either, except for that brief moment in time when the camera captured him. When she closed her eyes, she could remember the photograph, but not the man.

  Kit was nine when her mother married Wayne Gillette. By then she could read the comics herself.

  Two weeks after the wedding, Wayne got drunk. Kit was shocked by his loud, rude ways and horrified by her mother’s docile acceptance of them.

  During that first binge, Wayne told Kit it was time to stop calling him Mr. Gillette and start calling him Dad.

  Kit shook her head.

  “You don’t want to call me Dad?”

  She shook her head again.

  “Fine. You can call me Father.” Wayne laughed uproariously. “That’s even better. I’m your father now; that’s what you should call me. Father.”

  Loathing rose in Kit as she looked at the unshaven, disheveled man. “You aren’t my father,” she said. “You’ll never be my father.”

  The laughter stopped abruptly.

  Kit’s mother, too quickly, said, “She doesn’t mean that, Wayne.”

  “Yes, I do,” Kit said.

  “Please don’t be difficult,” her mother said. “Wayne is your stepfather now; it’s only natural to call him Dad.”

  Kit couldn’t believe that her own mother would betray her.

  “Before long, you’ll want to call him Dad,” her mother went on. “Until then, you must do it because it’s important to Wayne. And to me.”

  Kit never did it. She just didn’t call him anything. And from that day on, she never again called her mother, Mom. It was always Dorothy.

  At first, Dorothy asked her not to. “I’m your mother. I want to be called Mom, not Dorothy.” When Kit persisted, Dorothy gave up.

  Kit often wondered what her life would be like if her father had lived.

  Marcia and Mr. Homer blurred; Kit blinked furiously, angry at herself for being so emotional.

  “Oh, this is so elegant,” Marcia said. “Real gold against my skin makes me feel like a queen.” She put both hands to her throat and stroked the choker. “How does it look on me?”

  “See for yourself,” the clerk said. She turned an oval mirror, which sat on the countertop, toward Marcia. Marcia peered at herself while the clerk gradually adjusted the mirror to give Marcia a view from a different angle. Mr. Homer hovered behind Marcia like a bee at an apple blossom.

  Kit looked longingly at the slender braided bracelet. No one ever bought her a present of any kind unless it was her birthday and even then she never got anything like this. Dorothy believed in practical gifts. Pantyhose. Knit gloves. Hand lotion.

  Kit wondered how the bracelet would look on her arm. She picked it up and draped it across her wrist. It was even more beautiful up close. She stepped nearer to the light on the counter, and moved her arm back and forth, watching the bracelet glint and shine.

  The clerk said, “The choker makes you look older. More sophisticated.” Marcia admired herself and Mr. Homer admired Marcia. No one paid any attention to Kit.

  She hated them. All of them. She hated Marcia for getting the part of Frankie and she hated Mr. Homer for spoiling his daughter rotten and she hated the clerk for fawning over them, trying to make a big sale. She hated Wayne for getting drunk and yelling at her and she hated her mother for letting him get away with it. At that moment, Kit hated the whole world.

  She took the bracelet off her wrist and held it in her hand. She thought of a line from the play: “All my life I’ve been wantin’ things that I ain’t been gettin’.” As the rage boiled up inside her, she decided not to put the bracelet back on the tray. She would keep it.

  She looked quickly over both shoulders. Except for two young women who stood one aisle over, discussing some purses that were on sale, there was no one around.

  Kit swallowed hard, and glanced again at Marcia, Mr. Homer, and the clerk. They were still ignoring her. In the distance, the piano music grew louder. This minute is passing, she thought. If I’m going to do it, it has to be now.

  Quickly, she shoved the gold bracelet in the pocket of her coat.

  She looked around again. Had anyone seen her? The two women were still discussing the purses, Marcia was still turning her head from side to side, and the clerk was agreeing with Mr. Homer that Marcia was a beautiful young woman.

  Kit stood perfectly still. Her heart raced and she could feel the blood rush to her face but nobody noticed. She might as well have been a store mannequin.

  The piano notes floated in the air. Marcia chattered on about the gold choker while the patient saleswoman adjusted the mirror one more time.

  Kit stepped slightly to her right, lifted a gold locket from its box and examined it. She put the locket back and briefly inspected a lapel pin.

  She flexed her fingers, as if to prove to anyone who might be watching that her hands were empty. Then she put her hand in her pocket and closed her fingers around the bracelet. She
could still put the bracelet back, if she wanted to. All she had to do was take it out of her pocket and put it on the tray and no one would ever know she’d removed it in the first place.

  But she didn’t. Somehow, that gold bracelet now symbolized everything she had ever wanted and couldn’t have: a father who didn’t die, a mother who understood her, a part in the school play.

  Just this once, she thought. I’ll never steal anything again but just this once I’m going to have what I want. I will keep this bracelet. I’ll hide it in my underwear drawer and when my birthday comes, I’ll wear it to school and show it to Marcia and tell her it’s a gift from my mother. I deserve it! Why should Marcia be the only one to have gold jewelry? And Pierre’s won’t go bankrupt over one little bracelet.

  “Kit.”

  Kit jumped when Marcia spoke, as if the other girl could read her thoughts. “I’ve decided,” Marcia said. “This choker is the one I want.”

  “We’ll take it,” Mr. Homer said.

  “I’ll wear it home,” Marcia said.

  The clerk wrote up the sale and took Mr. Homer’s money before she remembered to put the other boxes of jewelry back inside the glass case.

  Kit held her breath, wondering if the woman would notice that the bracelet was missing. She didn’t. She was talking to Mr. Homer, asking if he wanted to open a charge account.

  Kit tried to act casual. “I’d better go,” she said to Marcia.

  “See you at rehearsal,” Marcia said.

  Over my dead body, Kit thought, but she forced a smile before she turned and walked away.

  As she rode up the escalator, she kept her hand in her pocket, fingering the bracelet.

  A new thought hit her. TV monitors. What if the store had secret cameras hidden and someone in a control room watched all the monitors to see if anyone was shoplifting? Panicky, she scrutinized the ceiling and the walls above each sales counter. She saw nothing that resembled a camera.

  Kit felt hot. She swallowed and started for the exit. She needed to get out of the mall. Get outside and breathe some fresh air. She didn’t want to call attention to herself by running but she walked quickly, as if she were late for an appointment.

 
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