My sister and I stared at each other for half a heartbeat before bolting out of our chairs at the same time in the direction of the telephone.
“I GOT IT.”
“NO!!!! YOU GOT IT LAST TIME!”
Few things are more boring than a summer vacation when both parents are working. In a perfect world we would have had an energetic nanny or endless trips to summer camps.
Unfortunately, the world is rarely perfect.
Divorced and struggling to make ends meet, my parents split summertime straight down the middle – six weeks with mom, and six weeks with dad.
What I remember most about my childhood summers was the boredom – hot, stuffy endless afternoons where the roaring nothingness made you feel like you were choking. There are only so many times you can reread your favorite book, play out the same scenarios with your Breyer horses, or stare sightlessly at the mindless dribble of afternoon television. It always seemed so unfair to me. The good television wouldn’t come on until our parents returned home and wanted to watch their own shows. They always wanted to watch the most boring shows, too. What could Fox News have on Inspector Gadget or Looney Tunes?
I realize now that my parents were not entirely comfortable leaving us at home by ourselves. We were under strict instructions to keep the blinds drawn and the front door locked.
We were never to answer the door.
Even answering the telephone became an exercise in safety. While we could pick up the phone we weren’t allowed to divulge that our parents weren’t home. Or our names. Or our parents names. Or anything at all, really.
Not only did our parents drill this into us, they used to test us. We regularly received phone calls that went something like this:
“Hi, this is Mark. Who is this?”
“Can I help you?”
“This is Mark. I’m a friend of your mom’s. I really need to talk to her.. can you put her on the line?”
“She’s in the shower right now.” (This was our standard lie.)
“She just called me so I know she’s not really in the shower. Can I talk to her? Put her on the line. This is really important.”
“Actually, if she just called you it was probably from her work – she’s not home right now.”
At that point there was usually a soft click as the original caller handed the phone over to our mom and we realized we’d been had.
“BECKY! You are in HUGE trouble young lady! What if that had been a bad guy trying to see if it was safe to break in? You COULD HAVE BEEN KILLED! HAVEN’T I TOLD YOU TIME AND AGAIN…”
Yeah. I’ll spare you the rest of the lecture. The lecture usually revolved around the “fact” that at any given moment large herds of predatory, murderous, child-hating puppy-killers were milling about outside of the front door at all times, just waiting for the chance to pounce.
With the constant threat of our imminent deaths hovering over our heads like an evil storm cloud, it’s small wonder my sister and I freaked out the day my dad came home early.
I think it was the summer I was going into fourth grade, which would have made me around 8 or 9 and my sister, Brandie, around 11. Brandie and I had what I like to refer to as a “hate-hate” relationship. Bookish and shy, she was the kind of quiet, reserved child that most parents dream about. Unfortunately, as her hyperactive, extremely noisy younger sister I brought out the worst in her.
Our interactions with each other tended to be noisy confrontations punctuated with lots of “LEAVE ME ALONE”s and high-pitched whining.
And those were the good ones.
The day my dad came early was no different. Trapped in the house with each other, by the time the afternoon rolled around the two of us weren’t even speaking. It was hot that afternoon… miserably hot. My skin was sticking to itself unpleasantly, making me whiny. Brandie had somehow managed to gain control of the remote control, and she lounged on the couch holding it smugly. She was watching something that bored me, and I was trying to figure out how to get her to change the channel. I knew from experience that asking her to change it was of no use. Even if she was watching something she hated, if I asked her to change it she would keep it on the same channel just to spite me.
I perched on the arm of our faded orange lounge chair, picking at the material and pretending to read my book. In reality, I was biding my time. I’d seen her finish a glass of tea only a few minutes before. If I was lucky, when she went to the bathroom she would forget to take the remote with her.
I reread the same page of the book three or four times, growing impatient. While I may have been quicker and more energetic, Brandie had an endless supply of patience, especially when it came to torturing me. I was just about to give up and see if I could whine enough that she would change channel when we both heard the garage door open.
We both froze in our seats, eyes widening.
To better comprehend our sudden terror you have to understand that our dad never came home early. He NEVER. Came. Home. Early.
It’s small wonder my sister and I both came to the same conclusion when we heard the creaking whine of the ancient garage door opener slowly creeping into action –
This was it.
This was IT.
The herd of child-murderers was finally breaking in. They had found a way to open the garage door and were heading in to steal all of our secondhand furniture and kill us both.
We were going to die.
Choking on our terror, the two of us simultaneously bolted for the only door in the house that had a functioning lock: the downstairs bathroom.
Under normal circumstances I was faster than my sister, but terror seemed to give her feet wings. She reached the door half a step ahead of me..
And slammed it in my face.
I heard the sound of the lock sliding into place and began jerking on the handle, wailing. “Let me in! Let me in! You locked me out!” I started crying, pounding on the door with my fists.
“NO! Go AWAY!”
“LET ME IN! HE’S GONNA GET ME! LET ME IN!” I alternated between pounding on the door with my fists and jerking on the handle, trying to force it open.
“GO AWAY!” Brandie’s muffled, equally terrified voice held a peevish tone. “GO FIND YOUR OWN HIDING SPOT!”
“THIS IS THE ONLY DOOR WITH A LOCK!” I howled.
“TOO BAD!” came the reply.
‘LET ME IN! HE’S GOING TO KILL ME!” I scrabbled at the door frantically.
I feel I can honestly say I’ve never known more fear than I did in that very moment. There was wasn’t a shadow of a doubt in my mind that a masked, knife-wielding man was about to round the corner and take my life. I could feel the fear in my throat, gagging me, and I redoubled my efforts.
“LET ME IN! PLEASE!”
“SHUT UP OR HE’LL KNOW I’M IN HERE!”
“LET ME IN! PLEASE! LETMEIN, LETMEIN, LETMEINLETMEINLETMEIN!”
“NO! Go away or he’ll find me too!”
And that is how my dad found us on the day he decided to surprise us with some McDonald’s for lunch— me, red-faced and terrified, throwing myself against the door and screaming for sanctuary … and Brandie, safely ensconced behind the “safe” door and hollering at me to go get killed somewhere else so I didn’t give away her hiding spot.
Parenting. It isn’t for the weak.
Oh, and Brandie dearest?