a short story by
For my grandma, Marcia Bauman Thomas, who always encouraged my imagination and writing by telling stories of when I was a young girl and would talk on my play phone. She thought it was the funniest thing because she could have sworn there was someone on the other end.
“Please,” Penelope cried, rocking back and forth on the ground in the corner of the dark room. “Something is wrong with me. I need your help.”
Arleen and Cindy exchanged a look. Penelope wasn’t talking to them, and much as they wanted to help her, there was no way of knowing what would happen if they intervened while she was in this state.
“Something is wrong with me,” Penelope insisted angrily.
Arleen scribbled a note on her legal pad: Penelope was engaging with the voices from the other side today, and it sounded like they were talking back.
“I can’t take care of myself,” Penelope sobbed. “I need help.”
Arleen stole a glance at Cindy, who rubbed one arm absentmindedly as tears crawled out of her eyes and down her cheeks, watching the scene in front of her. Arleen couldn’t blame the girl: she and Penelope had grown especially close in the past few years. It had always been hard to lose Penelope like this, but recently, it had been occurring more and more frequently. Arleen suspected it wouldn’t be long before they lost Penelope for good, though she didn’t mention this to Cindy.
“This is your fault, too,” Penelope announced from the corner. “You should have helped me a long time ago.”
Arleen relaxed. Once Penelope started throwing out accusations like that, the voices would leave. Then she’d be back. Even Cindy was wiping away her tears and putting on a brave smile in preparation.
Suddenly, she and Cindy were sitting in an ornate living room, sunlight sprinkling in through wall-to-wall windows that overlooked a wooded back yard. Arleen knew the house well – Penelope often met them here these days. Still, it took her a moment to adjust to the new surroundings.
The doorbell rang.
“That will be Penelope,” Cindy said.
“I’ll get it,” Arleen replied, and scuffled out to the entry way to answer the door.
As she walked, the house changed again, and Arleen found herself in a dim hallway. Although she recognized this house, too, it had been years since Penelope had rendezvoused with anyone here, but this was where Penelope had met them all for the first time. Arleen wondered what had prompted this change. .
Penelope stood on the porch, holding a grocery bag and beaming. She was wearing a navy and mint striped maxi dress and denim jacket, and Arleen noticed that she had styled her hair and applied some eyeliner and mascara. It was quite the contrast from when Arleen had seen her last.
“You look beautiful, Penelope,” Arleen greeted her, and stood to the side.
“Thanks, Arleen,” Penelope said, breezing in as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “I brought stuff for seafood tacos.”
“Sounds delicious,” Arleen remarked, following Penelope down the hallway to a different living room than the one from which she had come.
This living room also looked out on a wooded area, and beyond that, a small pond. The sun was just beginning to dip below the trees.
Penelope sighed happily. “My favorite place on earth.”
Cindy barreled into Penelope with a big hug. “Hey, friend,” she said, voice muffled. “How are you?”
Penelope returned the hug before setting her grocery bag on the kitchen bar beside her. “I’m good,” she returned brightly.
Penelope took off her jacket and folded it neatly on one of the bar stools before finding an apron in one of the drawers and tying it around her waist. As she scurried around the kitchen, pulling out chopping boards, knives, and pans, Arleen marveled that Penelope still knew where everything was after all these years.
“Can we get some music going?” Penelope requested. “I feel like singing and dancing. Oldies, maybe?”
Cindy frowned, but complied, pulling out her iPod and its Bluetooth speaker. Soon, Wouldn’t it be nice? by the Beach Boys was filtering into the kitchen, and Penelope was dancing and singing into spatulas.
Arleen waggled her eyebrows at Cindy and joined in, but Cindy sat down on a bar stool, still frowning.
“Come on, Cin,” Penelope said, shimmying around the kitchen. “Live a little.”
“This is insane!” Cindy exploded.
Arleen and Penelope stopped dancing, and without anybody touching the iPod, the music had stopped. Arleen knew that wasn’t a good sign.
“What’s your problem?” Penelope demanded.
“My problem?” Cindy spluttered. “My problem is that less than twenty minutes ago, you were absolutely beside yourself, crying about how you need help. You come here, and suddenly everything is okay.”
Penelope’s face fell. “Look, Cin,” she said. “I just need to relax, okay?”
“You used to be real with us,” Cindy replied. “That’s been the place where you’ve faked it, but not here. Never here.”
Penelope sunk to the floor, and Arleen saw they were losing her again. Cindy saw it, too, and relented, coming to sit on the floor next to Penelope.
“Don’t you trust us?” Cindy whispered desperately.
Penelope turned slowly to face Cindy. “Of course I trust you. Both of you,” she added, glancing at Arleen. “More than anyone. You’ve always been here. I just”-
“What?” Cindy probed.
“I don’t know if I should anymore,” Penelope admitted.
Arleen sunk down to the floor and put an arm around Penelope’s shoulder. “We understand,” she murmured.
“I don’t,” Cindy argued. “I don’t understand how you could choose them over us. All of us. We’ve made it our mission to protect you. If you had any idea”-
“That’s just it, Cindy,” Penelope said, shaking her head. “You’ve all been keeping me from things. Things that could keep me here forever.”
“Would that be such a terrible thing?” Cindy asked.
Penelope emitted a strangled sob, and looked around the now-shadowy house.
Her favorite place on earth, Arleen thought wryly.
“No,” Penelope replied eventually. “And yes. They need me there.”
“I know,” Arleen whispered.
“Can’t you please just tell me?” Penelope pleaded.
Arleen shook her head. “I’m sorry, honey,” she said. “I don’t even know myself. I’m just here to protect you until you’re ready.”
It was true. Arleen had shown up at this very house shortly after the incident to introduce Penelope to her first family. She had knocked on the door, not even sure anyone would answer, but a three-year-old, pigtailed Penelope had opened the door and invited her in, much to her parents’ chagrin. That was the only time the two worlds had overlapped; Penelope kept them separate after that. Arleen hadn’t known what happened then, and she didn’t know now, but she had instantly seen Penelope‘s sadness. She only knew that every time a family got too close to the incident, Penelope would start acting up and had to be placed with another family. Then, there were the people who had left on their own: Arleen’s own son, Eric had walked away from Penelope several years ago, tired of being used as a crutch. Soon after, Cindy had shown up. Arleen wasn’t surprised Penelope was choosing the other side, where she had only one family.
“I’m ready,” Penelope said.
“It’s not going to be easy,” Arleen cautioned.
“I know,” Penelope whispered. “But it’s time.”
Arleen and Cindy faded away, and Penelope was left by herself in the dark kitchen.
“You’re very close,” a voice whispered out of the darkness.
“What if I lose everything?” Penelope asked.
“There’s no chance I’ll let that happen,” the voice returned. “Trust me.”
No longer afraid, Penelope straightened from the fetal position she’d been in on the floor and stood up. She walked out to the living room where she’d left her parents.
“We think you should see a doctor,” her mother said.
Her father didn’t make eye contact, and Penelope knew he wished it hadn’t come to this.
She hated to disappoint him, but Penelope nodded.
“I think you’re right,” she agreed.