The park with the playground is only a half mile from Betsy’s house. There’s a cool slide, a tetherball pole and a freshly painted board for hopscotch. Once they get there, Betsy and her best friend Scooter hang out for hours. But getting there’s not easy. All around the park old houses are being knocked down while new ones are springing up. What used to be an orderly progression of boxy buildings is now a jungle of concrete blocks, piles of sand, spikes of metal. There’s no sidewalk and no grass and if you’re careless a coil of wire will snake your leg or a rusty nail will stab your shoe.
So they’re looking down instead of up when the Nadowski twins show up.
“Uh oh,” says Scooter.
Butch and Burkie are in ninth grade. Since Scooter has four older brothers, she has the inside scoop on every loser in Dwight D. Eisenhower Junior High. The twins are at least a head taller than the girls. Their black hair’s greasy, their skin worse.
Though it’s February in Miami, the air’s still thick and hot. Betsy’s blouse is sticking to her skin and her shorts are riding up her skinny thighs. As usual, she’s wearing her house key around her neck. Her breasts are as flat as her belly, and as the girls run the key wildly swings from side to side. If the girls go left, the twins go left. If the girls go right, the twins go right, too.
Then all of a sudden a hand snags Betsy’s shoulder and flips her around. Butch is only a few measly inches away. When he gets too close, Betsy steps back. And when he gets too close again, she steps back once more. The nails on his fingers are mooned with black crescents and when they brush her chest, she forgets to breathe.
He grabs the chain around her neck and pulls. “This the key to your heart?” says Butch.
Scooter edges her hip next to Betsy’s and sticks a finger in Butch’s face. “My brother’s Harry Shutz,” she says. “Me and Betsy are only in fourth grade.” Then she holds up three more fingers. “Cuatro, you idiot. You mess around with me and my friend and you’re dead.”
By now the chain is wrapped around Butch’s fist. When Scooter yanks Betsy’s arm, he yanks the chain tighter.
Finally, the other idiot brother joins in.
“Leave her alone,” said Burkie. “I know who her brother is, and I don’t want to know him any better.”
In the distance, they hear loopy carnival music. The Good Humor truck is working the neighborhood circuit. A block or two away, front doors are flying open and kids are scurrying on the streets with dimes and nickels in their hands. It’s a minor distraction but it works.
“My mother’s expecting me for dinner,” says Betsy. Her heart is beating overtime but her brain’s kicking in, too. “If I don’t show up for dinner, she’ll call the cops.”
Suddenly Butch smiles real sick and sweet. “You look like dessert. You taste like dessert, too?”
The music’s getting louder. Any second now the Good Humor truck with its white cab and freezer full of ice cream is going to turn onto their street. The moment Butch’s hand loosens, Betsy breaks free. Fifteen minutes later she and Scooter are safe at home.
Ten years old is the worst age ever. Betsy’s too young to be interested in boys and too old not to be scared of them. She’s too young to drive or get a job and too old to play with her Chatty Cathy. And while she’s smart enough to realize that every member of her family is crazy, she hasn’t a clue how to fix them.
They’re in the den, eating dinner on folding trays while a TV blares. Betsy’s father’s enthroned in his La-Z-Boy. He’s wearing boxer shorts and a T-shirt, smoking a Lucky Strike with one hand and nursing a highball with the other. Her mother and brother sit on one couch while she and her sister sit on the one facing it.
They’re not usually all together but tonight’s special. Five pairs of eyes are glued to the screen to watch Jackie Kennedy’s tour of the White House. The First Lady glides from room to room as if her feet were wings.
“This piano was designed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” she whispers.
“Can you imagine the money she’s spent?” blurts Betsy’s father. “She’s sucking this country dry.”
Betsy’s mother fingers her hair while she studies the black and white images. Her wardrobe consists of a series of housecoats, assorted slippers, and eyeglasses with fins. Hugging her is a fencing maneuver. Feint left. Dodge right. Pull back.
“That dress she’s wearing. I’d give an arm and a leg for that dress.”
Sitting next to her is Betsy’s brother. The brother lives at home but commutes to the university every day. He’s watching TV with one eye and skimming through his Intro to Psychology textbook with the other. “It’s probably Oleg Cassini,” he purrs. “If not Cassini, then Givenchy, I’m sure.”
Betsy’s condemned to share both the couch and her bedroom with her older sister. The sister’s been going through what their mother calls a “difficult phase.” As far as Betsy can tell, this difficult phase has lasted forever. Her mouth is a cage of braces, her hair scouring-pad frizzy.
Most seventeen-year-olds fill their closets with shirtwaist dresses that hourglass their waists. But the sister has no waist. She buys belts in the Men’s Department because they’re the only ones that fit. Hatred fuels her existence.
“You’re inhaling my air, rodent.”
“Move over, rodent. I’m catching your cooties.”
The brother looks up again from his textbook. He and the sister are only eighteen months apart. They are Steve and Edie. Ozzie and Harriet. Frick and Frack. From across the room, he joins the fun and zeroes in.
“Don’t you have someplace else to be?” says the brother. “Some other vermin to play with?”
Betsy furrows her forehead. On the screen, there’s a dining table as long as a bowling alley. The crystal and silver sparkle. When Mrs. Kennedy smiles, her teeth gleam. Then Betsy looks around. Everything she’s ever known is chipped or torn and needs replacing. The couch is blotched with food stains. The stuffing’s crawling out of the cushions. The very plates they’re eating from are held together with glue.
The father holds one up. “Do you think the White House,” he scowls, “could spare a fucking few?”
Betsy blinks. Then she lets the words wash over her. She’s unsullied by her surroundings, untouched by derision or doubt. For somewhere deep inside, somewhere untainted and pure, she guards a secret. She knows that once upon a time the world was perfect. That once upon a time children felt loved. That once upon a time people were happy. And if she’s patient — if she brushes her teeth and does her homework and cleans behind her ears — then maybe, just maybe she’ll find happiness, too.
Squirming in her seat, she looks again at the screen. The Blessed Jackie Kennedy doesn’t seem to hear them. Instead her voice floats like clouds. Like fat-cheeked babies flying in the air with rings above their heads.
“I hear she smokes,” says Betsy’s mother. “Maybe I should take up smoking.”
The following afternoon the school bus dumps Betsy and Scooter around two blocks from their homes. They walk in tandem. Their shoulders are touching and their feet are in sync. Bundled in their arms, their schoolbooks are cinched by thick elastic bands. Two My Friend Flicka lunchboxes sit perched on top.
Every house they pass looks the same. Jalousie windows. Concrete blocks. Spindly palm trees that bend and dip and wave like hands. Their routine is always the same, too. After walking to Scooter’s house, they exchange their goodbyes and count the minutes until they see each other again.
“See you later, alligator,” says Scooter.
“In a while crocodile.”
Betsy’s house is three doors down. Once she lets herself in, she races to her bedroom. Betsy’s mother irons every day from one to four o’clock while she watches soap operas. Her brother and sister are at school, her father still at work. Betsy quickly changes into her shorts and sneakers. Then she forages inside the refrigerator, pours herself a glass of milk, and races out once more.
Exactly eleven minutes and thirty-six seconds later, she’s back at Scooter’s house. Since both of Scooter’s parents work, a housekeeper named Velma’s in charge. Scooter’s four older brothers smuggle in beer, women, you name it. As long as they stay confined to their bedrooms and show up for dinner, Velma considers her job done. When Betsy knocks on her door, Scooter’s arm is elbow deep in a bag of pretzels.
It’s another sticky day. Just running up and down the sidewalks makes the girls’ foreheads sweaty and their shirts cling. The two have divided the neighborhood into friendly and enemy turfs. Down the block, a group plays kickball on the street every afternoon. Mostly friendly.
Around the corner, the Purpura and Esposito kids are excavating a vacant lot and building a tunnel underneath. Friendly but stupid. There’s a brand new family from Cuba three blocks over that everyone wants to play with. They don’t speak a word of English but their mother’s always baking. Empanadas. Churros. Tres leches. Friendly and delicioso, claro que si!
The last thing either of them wants to do is head home. So when the sun’s setting, when a red purple bruise colors the sky, they walk the streets looking for trash. It’s amazing how much stuff they’ve collected from people’s curbs. The spillover from garbage cans. The loose change people drop carelessly on the sidewalk while they walk. The girls each have a shoebox full of treasures hidden under their beds. A stopwatch. A Cracker Jack toy. A yo-yo. Enough mismatched earrings to fill an entire Band-Aid tin.
And later, when night’s settled, when their families are too busy or preoccupied, they take out their flashlights, slip under their mattresses, and peruse their salvaged goodies. They turn them over in their chubby little fingers, wondering about the stories behind each and every object. And since they’re both alone a lot, their stash is their constant companion, their raison d’être.
When Saturday night comes two days later, a teary-eyed Scooter knocks on Betsy’s door. She has no idea where her parents have gone for the evening. Her brothers are supposed to be babysitting but no one’s babysitting the babysitters and strange cars are piling up on their front lawn.
“They’ve kicked me out,” she confesses.
Betsy’s house is oddly quiet except for the sound of the den TV. She gives her friend a hug, tells her not to worry, and shares a conspiratorial grin.
“First there’s Wells Fargo,” says Betsy. “Then there’s The Defenders. No one will bother us for hours.”
Within minutes, they’re both under Betsy’s bed. The flashlight throws a yellow cone of light on Betsy’s shoebox, the contents of which are emptied on the floor. Scooter’s breath feels hot on Betsy’s face. Her friend’s a knot of restless elbows and knees and when she talks, she’s zooming at 45 rpm instead of 33.
“Let’s go on a scavenger hunt,” says Scooter. She digs into her pocket and fishes out a crumpled piece of paper. “I found this in Harry’s room. You can’t believe what I find in Harry’s room.”
Betsy’s eyebrows nearly jump off her head. “It’s dark out,” she says. “Really dark out.”
“All the kids do it,” says Scooter. “We’ve got a list. We’ve got a flashlight.” Then she nods her head toward the den. “Do you really think we’ll be missed?”
Betsy uncurls Scooter’s fingers and grabs the paper. It looks like a girl’s handwriting, all circles and curlicues. On the bottom is written: First team to find all ten items wins a very special prize! Some of the things would be easy to find on the ground. A dead lizard. A penny. A black rock.
But there’s no getting around the other seven items. To find them, you’d have to walk the neighborhood and knock on doors. It’s the latest parlor game. A bunch of teenagers ring your doorbell, laughing, asking you to forage through your pantry and scrounge inside your desk.
“I don’t know,” says Betsy.
But Scooter cannot be contained. Her heels are kicking the mattress. She’s licking her lips and jerking her shoulders like she’s raring to go. As much as Betsy hates to disappoint people, she seems to do it on a regular basis. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” she says again.
Scooter reaches inside her shirt and pulls out a necklace. In the dark, Betsy makes out bits and pieces of pastel-colored candy bouncing on a string.
“Here,” says Scooter. “Need a bite?”
The scavenger hunt is a bad idea. Betsy knows for sure that it’s a bad idea. If she says no, her friend will never forgive her. But if her parents find out, she’ll be grounded for life. So before they leave, Betsy makes a decision to tell them — hoping and not hoping her family stops her.
The noise from the TV has gotten louder. The girls follow the sounds of familiar voices and peek inside the den. On the television, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble are selling One-A-Day vitamins. Betsy’s father is laughing so hard little tidal waves of booze splash in and out of his glass.
They’re all sitting in their usual spots. The sister. The brother. Her mother, Betty notices, isn’t laughing quite as hard as the others. It’s more like fake laughing. The mother’s looking at the father. Then she’s glancing again at the screen as if she’s thinking it must be funny why isn’t it funny. But moments later her hands fly up, her mouth opens, and the fake laughs erupt once more. Ha! Ha Ha! Ha! Like machines guns. Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha!
“I’m going to Scooter’s,” Betsy announces.
The mother nods her head and waves a hand while still staring at the screen. “Take a flashlight, sweetie. Don’t forget a flashlight.” The girls dash into the kitchen, grab a large brown paper grocery bag, and then they’re gone.
They’re bathed in darkness. There’s no sun or moon or stars. Betsy and Scooter walk slowly, hand in hand, opting to choose houses only where the lights are on. One of them holds the paper bag while the other one knocks on the door. Then they count one mississippi two mississippi all the way to fifteen to give people time to answer.
Instead of reading the list, they just thrust it out. The words come quickly. We’re on a scavenger hunt can you help us we’d be ever so appreciative if you’d help us.
Mrs. Purpura’s in her nightgown when she opens the door. She’s a big person and with her nightgown on everything that’s pulled up during the day hangs down.
“A Neil Sedaka record? I think I can manage that.” When she turns around to get it, the top half of her body has a running start on the lower.
Mrs. Esposito takes the list from their hands and spends fifteen minutes tearing apart her house. She invites the girls into her kitchen while she looks. From a distance they hear the sound of a ball bouncing against a wall. A lamp crashes. A kid laughs.
“Tommy and Tim Esposito are gross,” whispers Scooter. “Truly, truly gross.”
One’s a grade behind them while the other’s a grade ahead. While the girls sit at the table and nibble on cookies, the boys join them. They’re in their pajamas, scratching their ears, their scalps, their balls. Betsy itches like the fleas are jumping from them to her. Then suddenly the boys snatch the paper bag.
“Come on. Just one look. One quick look.”
Scooter narrows her eyes. Then she snatches the bag back and slaps their wrists. “Ask first, why don’t ya.”
Soon all four of them are eating cookies and humming. Betsy likes the kitchen. It smells like vanilla and still has Christmas cards taped to the fridge. There’s a clock on the wall that’s shaped like a black cat. It’s googling its eyes and swinging its tail. It’s like a lullaby, the way it swings, and pretty soon Betsy starts nodding her head, dipping her chin, and swinging, too. Then suddenly she realizes the time. The small hand’s on the eight, the big hand’s on the six. She kicks Scooter under the table and points.
“Holy cow, Scooter! It’s 8:30!”
Her friend sighs. She turns to the boys, bats her eyelashes, and smiles. “You don’t by any chance have an Archie comic we can borrow, do you?” Next she tosses out what Betsy knows for sure is a lie. “We can take it tonight and bring it back tomorrow.”
People, Betsy is learning, are surprisingly consistent. The boys have been and will always be friendly but stupid. They scurry to their room and run back with a comic in their hands. Betty and Veronica are on the cover but it’ll do. Seconds later, Mrs. Esposito shows up with a blue clothespin, a Bazooka gum wrapper, and a red button. Now all they need to finish the list is a pair of fuzzy dice.
Once they’re back on the sidewalk, Betsy’s aiming in one direction while Scooter’s pulling her in another. Betsy wants to get home. She needs to get home. But Scooter’s feet are skipping like she’s weightless. And when she talks, her voice warbles in a crazy singsong way. We’re almost done. We’re almost done. We’re almost done.
The streets are even darker now. One by one people are switching off lights. Silhouettes are slinking behind curtains. Whatever voices they hear are dimmed.
And somehow the neighborhood seems different. In the darkness, blocks they’ve walked a million times before look unfamiliar, while every sound is amplified. Newspapers whip the curb. Mailbox doors thwack opened and closed. When a tomcat on a fence releases a blood-curdling scream, Betsy feels her heart lurch.
“I’m going home, Scooter. This isn’t fun anymore. I’m going home.”
They almost make it.
As far as they can tell, the house appears vacant. No lights. No noise. No movement. The only thing the girls notice is the car in the driveway. The flashlight is in Scooter’s hand, and when she scans the yard it lands on the white dice hanging from the rearview mirror. She sprints to the car, tries the handle, and inches open the door.
“Geez Louise,” says Betsy. “Are you crazy?”
But stealing the dice isn’t as easy as Scooter thinks it’ll be. The string’s tangled. So Scooter slides onto the front seat, sticks the flashlight between her legs, and twirls the dice until they untwist. The last item on the list is finally in her hands except for one snafu. When she tries to leave, she shuts the car door a little too loudly. A moment later, a dog starts barking. Within seconds, the porch light flicks on.
The Nadowski twins are two steps behind their father. He’s an older, hairier version of his sons. Though he’s wearing a tank top and a pair of shorts, all Betsy notices is the carpet of fur that runs up and down his arms and legs and across his chest. He’s slurring his words as he speaks.
“You girls breaking into my car? Jesus H. Christ, I’ve shot men for less.”
For once Scooter’s speechless. And suddenly Betsy realizes that if they don’t make it home that night, no one will know that they’re missing. Betsy’s parents will think she’s at Scooter’s house and Scooter’s family will think she’s at Betsy’s.
“We were playing a game,” says Betsy. She waves the paper with the list. “It’s a scavenger hunt. We’re playing a game.”
Butch steps forward. He’s grinning real hard and stretching out his arms like he’s a game show host giving away the big prize.
“I told them it’s okay, Dad. I told them they could keep whatever they want.”
The father looks the girls over. Up down. Up down. Up down. Then he shuffles off inside the house.
Time freezes. The girls stand paralyzed waiting for the boys to make the next move. If they run, the boys can run faster. If they scream, would anybody hear? Finally, Butch walks up to Betsy, grabs the key around her neck, and reels her in. Burkie’s got his confidence up, too. He starts sniffing Scooter’s hair then he loops a few strands around a finger.
“You owe us big time, little missies,” says Butch.
Betsy’s shaking so hard pee starts dripping down her leg. But Butch doesn’t notice. It’s like he’s hypnotized, like the hold he’s got on the girls has put him in a trance. His eyes are half shut and he’s talking through his teeth.
“One of these days I’m gonna pop your clutch,” smirks Butch. “My, won’t that be fun?”
Then for reasons Betsy will never understand, he drops the key and turns around. The girls watch as he and his brother open the door and head back inside the house. Betsy and Scooter seize their chance, drop the bag, and run. Their hands fist while their sneakers grab the sidewalk. They feel the wind on their faces, smell the salt of the ocean miles away. Before long, the dog has quieted. The only sound Betsy hears are their footsteps on the pavement and her heart hammering in her chest.
Three days later it’s Tuesday, and Betsy and Scooter are in school. The teachers and students are standing on the grass behind the classrooms. They’re in fire drill formation only there’s no fire drill. Instead each pair of eyes is staring at the sky waiting for astronaut John Glenn to lift off in the Friendship 7. There are three fourth grade classes, the field’s nearly filled, but Betsy manages to find Scooter in the crowd. They jump around and wave to each other. Even though they’re fifty yards apart, they’re still connected. Like the planets, they’re tethered in their orbits, though they’re pulled towards the sun.
And then they see it. Along with thousands of other people standing on their school lawns, Betsy watches the small bright dot rise. There’s no doubt in anyone’s minds that they’re witnessing history. All of their worries, all of their disappointments, all of the small cruelties hurtled their way suddenly disappear. The dot rises and rises until it arcs. The clouds part, and the door to heaven swings open. Betsy swears she hears angels sing as it seamlessly joins the sky.
About the Author
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Arts and Letters, Catapult, and The American Literary Review.
She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.