Other People’s Children

Other People’s Children by Cathy Mellett

It’s 1960 and I’m eight years old, and I live with my grandmother because my mother can’t handle responsibility. Marie comes and goes in our lives. I call my mother by her first name so that people will think she’s my sister. That’s what Granma tells everyone and I’m supposed to go along. Because if people knew Marie wasn’t married when she had me, they wouldn’t like me. 

Marie usually comes to see us when she’s had a fight with her husband Ollie. Sometimes she brings other people’s children with her. Kids from wherever it is that she and Ollie live now. They live in poor places because Ollie can’t hold down a job.

When these kids are with Marie, it’s like they think that she’s their mother. They hang onto her, and they won’t let go. They hold her hand. They interrupt her to ask how soon they can go home together. They do all these things until she brings them into my bedroom to play. They don’t want to leave her at first but then they see my toys.

This is when Marie tells Granma, “I need to talk to you.” She and Granma can sit in the kitchen for hours, drinking coffee. 

They leave the kids with me as if I’m the babysitter. 

By far, the worst kid she brought here was Frank. Frank was the same age as me and his little sister Lily was two years younger. I didn’t mind Lily, but I hated Frank on the spot. He hopped and jumped all over my bedroom, knocking things over. Lily wanted to play with my dollhouse, which was okay with me, but Frank wouldn’t let her. “Put that stupid doll stuff down and watch me,” he said. And she did. He was the boss.

After Frank slipped my pink rhinestone yo-yo into his pocket, I tried to get it back from him. But he sunk his long, dirty fingernails into the back of my hand. When I showed Granma his fingernail marks, all she said was, “Oh, Frank, we don’t do things like that here.” After she left the room, he put the yo-yo back on my desk, so I guess she was right to say what she said to him. 

But later, he knocked over Petunia, my piggy bank, and broke her. When he saw the coins falling out of Petunia, he let out a yell and dove for them and scooped them up. Dimes, pennies, and quarters peeked out through Frank’s fingers. He didn’t care that he might cut his hands on all the sharp, broken pieces. I wished he’d cut himself a thousand times, but he didn’t. He shoved the coins in his pocket, and I tried to get them back, but he pushed my hands away, stronger than me. 

I was surprised that Lily didn’t try to take some of the coins too. She just watched him, her eyes big. It made me like her more. Petunia lay there in pieces, looking sad. Her little straw hat with the violets wasn’t attached to her head anymore. There was no way Petunia could be glued back together.

I told Granma, so she would yell at him. Instead, she put her hand on his shoulder and said, “I’m just glad no one was hurt.” That was all she cared about. Not Petunia. Not me. Then she picked up what was left of Petunia, telling us not to touch the pieces. She didn’t want us to get cut. 

After Marie left, taking Frank and Lily with her, Granma told me that I need to be more generous.

“What do you mean more generous? That yo-yo was mine! And look what he did to Petunia.” 

She said, “You should have given him the yo-yo. That poor boy and his sister don’t have anything. We have to be nice to people like that. They’re poor, Cathy. We have to give them what we can.” 

I asked her if she got my money back from Frank. 

“He needs it more than we do, honey. We’ll get you another Petunia.” 

But she didn’t because the store didn’t have anymore. There was only one Petunia. 

I was happy when Marie and Ollie moved again because that meant that Frank and Lily wouldn’t come back.

But in no time at all, Marie finds Grace who lives next door to her. Grace has stringy blond hair and a dirty face. Granma oohs and aahs over her and tells her how pretty she is. And Marie agrees. Marie looks proud of Grace, as if Grace were her daughter instead of me. She starts bringing Grace with her every time she visits. Even though I beg her not to. 

“Why don’t you want to play with her? She’s an only child. Just like you. You both need other kids to play with.” 

I can’t tell her that I hate it when she lumps me in the same boat with Grace who is little and dumb. She looks like she has seen a ghost and hardly ever speaks. The only good thing about her visits is that she’ll play any toy or game that I want to play. No complaints. If I said, “Grace, let’s jump off a bridge, you go first,” I think she’d do it. 

The next time Grace comes over, Granma says to me, “You’re getting so tall. You’ve outgrown a lot of your clothes and Grace can use them. She doesn’t get pretty clothes like you do. Her parents don’t have the money.” 

Well, too bad for her, I think.

As Granma and Marie are going through my closet, they decide they’re going to give Grace my yellow dress, the one everybody says I look pretty in. It has a velvet ribbon that ties in a big bow.

“But that’s my favorite dress,” I say. 

“Every dress is your favorite dress,” Granma says. She sounds tired of explaining. 

“You can give her anything else. Just let me keep the yellow one.” 

No matter how hard I try, they won’t change their minds.

“We can’t let her put on that beautiful dress. She’s so dirty,” Granma whispers to Marie. “Let’s give her a bath.”

They fill the tub with warm water and use my bubble bath. Granma soaps up a clean washcloth and rubs it very gently, over Grace’s face, down her neck, across her chest, her little knees, and her skinny little feet. I’m so mad I leave the room. 

I can hear them as I lie on my bed. Look at all the bubbles, Grace. Look at how nice and clean you are. Look look look, they say.

Grace doesn’t say anything because she hardly ever says anything.

Marie tells me to bring in some towels. “And hurry up. We don’t want Grace to get cold.”

I hope she will get cold. I hope she’ll get so cold she’ll catch her death and not come back.

I get the towels and sling them onto the bathroom floor next to the tub. 

I want Granma and Marie to see how unfair all of this is and tell them, “It’s like I’m the maid here!” 

They look at each other and laugh. 

“Isn’t she a Sarah Bernhardt?” Granma says, lumping me in with some old actress. 

They wrap Grace in my bathrobe and wash her hair in the sink. Grandma tells Grace to hold a dry washcloth to her eyes, so she doesn’t get shampoo in them. 

“You’re going to look so pretty in your new dress,” Granma says to her. “You have such pretty blond hair.” 

After they’re done, they go to my dresser for packages of the new socks and underpants Granma gave me for Christmas. 

“They’re a little big for Grace,” Granma says, “but they’re new and clean, so they’ll do just fine.” 

They set her hair in ringlets, and after it dries, they put my yellow dress on her. She does look pretty. But suddenly I feel old, like I’m not a kid anymore. I feel like Grace is the child and I’m the adult.

They tell Grace and me to go to my room and play while they make dinner. They’re making chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy. “I’ll bet you’ll like that, won’t you, Grace?” Granma says. But it is my favorite.

My grandfather made the cedar chest that sits in front of my bed. Even though he died before I was born, I know that he was a carpenter, and that the furniture was a wedding present for Granma. It’s the color of maple syrup and very shiny and has a lock and key that I love to play with. When I get married, it will be mine.

I watch as Grace plays with my toys, wearing my dress, and I get madder and madder. I know exactly what I’m going to do, and my excitement spreads like those pinpricks you get in your leg when you sit too long.

I open the chest and take out all the winter clothes. I line the bottom of the chest with a blanket because I don’t want it to feel hard.

The key is in the palm of my hand and I tell Grace to get in. I hold her hand to help her keep her balance. Once she has stepped inside, she turns around like she thinks she has entered a fairyland.

“Lie down, Grace,” I say. I make my voice happy, so she doesn’t get scared.

As she lies down, she almost hits her forehead on the lid. She stops for a moment and looks at me. I worry that she won’t get in, so I give her a nod, and she lies on top of the blankets.

“Fix your hair,” I tell her. “You don’t want to mess up your pretty hair.”

She parts her long, blond finger curls so that they stream over her shoulders. I talk to her a while, about all the fun we’re going to have this afternoon, maybe we’ll play hopscotch outside or maybe we can walk to the corner store for ice cream. She looks at me as if she believes me.

Then I say, “Bye, Grace,” and close the lid.

I can hear Granma and Marie in the kitchen, getting ready for dinner. It’s chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy. My favorite.

If she cries, I’m in a whole lot of trouble. I sit next to the chest and listen carefully, waiting for a whimper that might become something more.

When I lift the lid to check on her, her hair is still in place, her hands folded over her stomach. She glances at me, then looks at the space in front of her, the place she probably sees when the lid is closed.

“See, Grace,” I say. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re not afraid, are you?”

She shakes her head no. She’ll be fine.

I close the lid quietly and dress up my Barbie. I slip Barbie’s new pink plastic heels onto her tiny bent feet and take her for a walk back and forth across the cedar chest. I put my ear to the lid and listen hard, but I hear nothing.

I used to have three turtles. I raced them on top of the cedar chest, to see which one was the fastest. It was so much fun. After a while, I started racing them like cars, moving their little bodies fast toward the finish line that I made with a piece of string. One day, Granma brought one of the turtles to me as I was doing my homework. “Look at what you did,” she said. The little turtle had no more toes, just ragged skin, like the ruffles on a doll’s dress. The rest of the turtles were the same. I hadn’t noticed how slowly they moved in their tank.

She said, “How cruel, how cruel you are.” She pointed her index finger at me and pretended to slice the top of it like she was cutting a stick of butter and said shame shame shame on you. Shame shame shame. I felt terrible and started to cry. 

“How can I fix them, Granma?” I asked. “How can I make them better?”

“You can’t fix them. You can’t make them better.”

“Maybe their toes will grow back,” I said.

“Their toes will never grow back,” she told me. “They’re all going to die.” And this made me cry even harder. She took them away to I don’t know where. Sometimes I think of them at night when I’m saying my prayers and I cry all over again as if it just happened. But this has nothing to do with that. This is different.

The bottom of the lock has a thin silver wire. You don’t have to use the key to lock the cedar chest. If you turn the wire a certain way and close the lid, the wire snaps the lock in place. So that’s what I do. Right before I throw the key inside with Grace. When I hear the lock click, I know that what I’m doing is a bad thing, but it feels so good to do it. I try to keep my laughter down so Marie and Granma can’t hear.

To pass the time, I read a couple of pages of my latest Nancy Drew. Once I start a Nancy Drew, it’s hard to stop, so I have to remind myself to listen for Grace. By the sounds coming from the kitchen, I can tell that Granma is going to call us in for dinner soon. I rub my face hard to make it red as if I’m upset, like I saw a girl do in a movie, and I run to the kitchen.

They have set the table for dinner, four places instead of the usual two.

I yell, “Grace locked herself inside the cedar chest!”

Granma and Marie put down those cups of coffee real quick. Granma runs ahead of me into the bedroom. Marie follows behind. When Granma tries to lift the cedar chest lid, she sees that I wasn’t kidding. The chest is locked.

“Well, we’ll just unlock it,” she says. “Where’s the key?” She holds out her hand.

“That’s the problem,” I say, thinking I sound pretty grown up. “She has it.” I point to the cedar chest. 

Granma says, “Oh, my God, oh my God, this is awful.”

“I told her not play with it. And I told her not to get in there, too.”

“This is awful.” She raps on the cedar chest. “Grace! Grace, are you alright?”

Marie says, “Mother, she couldn’t smother in that short time.”

“The poor thing,” Granma says. “She must be frightened to death.”

Granma phones one of her tenants, Rudy, who lives on the second floor, and tells him what happened. He has tools.

Marie talks to Grace through the lid. “It’ll be all right, hon. He’ll be here in no time, and we’ll get you out.”

Still nothing from the cedar chest.

Soon, I hear Rudy taking the steps, two at a time.

When he sees us gathered around the cedar chest, he says, “Oh, for God’s sakes! How long has she been in there?”

“She just did it,” I say. “Right before Granma called you.”

“Stupid kid,” he says. I love this.

He puts down his toolbox and runs his hand along the back of the chest lid. “Well, she really did it. The hinges are on the inside. There’s no way to get the lid open unless I cut off the lock. It’s a shame. It’s a beautiful piece.”

“We have no choice!” Granma says.

“No, I guess not.”

Rudy tells Grace that there’s going to be a lot of noise and not to be scared. “We’ll have you out of there in no time. Just hang on.” He gets out a little saw and a chisel.

As Rudy works on the lock, Granma asks me why in the world Grace did what she did.

“Beats me,” I say, shrugging my shoulders. “I told her not to.”

I put my hands over my ears because of the noise. When Rudy finishes and raises the lid, everyone bends forward to see how Grace is doing. She blinks. She looks pretty much the same as before, but her eyelids are a little pink. No one comments that she looks like she’s going to cry. They raise her up like a body in a magic trick. I’m scared she’s going to tell, but she doesn’t even look at me. I wonder if she’s afraid of me or if somehow she doesn’t remember that I was the one who made her get in. 

Granma looks at the gaping hole in the lid, the raw wood like an eye socket.

I say, “Boy, Grace, if I’d done that, I’d be in big trouble.”

“Well, make sure you don’t ever do nothing like that!” Rudy says.

He slams the lid of his toolbox and leaves.

After we eat dinner, Granma and Marie spend the rest of the evening making a big deal over Grace, hugging her, asking if she’s all right, giving her cookies. “What’s a little cookie?” Granma says, handing her another one. Grace plasters herself to Marie’s side, and Granma tells her she’s really brave.

The next time Marie comes to visit, she doesn’t bring Grace.

“She doesn’t want to come anymore,” Marie says. “I don’t know why. It’s too bad. She’s a sweet girl. She was a good playmate for Cathy.”

No, she wasn’t, I think. 

Granma looks disappointed. I go to my room. Now that I know Grace is gone for good, I touch all my things that she’ll never touch again: the dollhouse furniture I had placed so perfectly, the jacks, and my dolls, my pink yo-yo, a hundred little things.

I was finally able to take all these things away from her, but I can’t take away the most important thing. Marie. Grace still lives next door to her, and she can see and talk to her. Every day if she wants.

Someday, Grace will outgrow the yellow dress. She may never have anything as pretty as that again. But she’ll still have Marie. Until Marie moves again. I think that wherever Marie moves, another girl will take Grace’s place. They always have. Other people’s children have always followed her. One girl after another, like that story about the French girl Madeline. Twelve little girls, all in a line.

I feel so tired. And even though I’m glad that Grace will never be back, I want to know what she saw, feel what she felt. I open the chest and get in. After a while, I close the lid. Even though there’s a blanket under me, the bottom of the chest is hard hard hard. There’s no light at all, not one little bit. Not even something that looks like a far-off star in the sky. This is the darkest place I’ve ever been.

Cathy Mellett is an artist and writer whose stories and essays have appeared in The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, Southwest Review, The Yale Review, and elsewhere. A former Pennsylvania Council of the Arts Fellow in Fiction, she now resides in Ann Arbor, Michigan.