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Jacqueline Doyle

Where Did Sissy Go?

Great. Our neighbor Mrs. Walker’s here for another of her “little visits,” all cozy at the kitchen table with my mother. “Be polite,” my mother always tells me. “The poor woman just wants company.”

“Good morning, Allegra. Where’s your imaginary friend today?” Mrs. Walker gives my mother one of her usual wink winks, as if children can’t see adults or understand them. Of course she doesn’t remember Sissy’s name. Of course she calls her “imaginary.” She blows on her coffee like it’s too hot, though I don’t know why it would be, making a polite face while she waits for me to answer, not that she cares. My mother tells me not to say that Mrs. Walker’s fat, but Mrs. Walker’s fat, and dying her hair red doesn’t make her look younger, it makes her look even older. You can see the gray roots. The skin under her chin wobbles when she talks and she smells like lily of the valley perfume. It’s gross.

“Sissy fell out of the oak tree,” I say.

“Oh, that’s too bad!” She switches to her sympathetic face. “Did she get a boo boo?”

I’m eight years old, not two. I can’t stand adults who talk baby talk. Children never talk that way.

“No, she didn’t. At least there wasn’t any blood or anything,” I say. “She’s dead.”

Mrs. Walker recoils slightly and puts on her polite face again. She takes a tiny bite of her cherry muffin and dabs her lips with a napkin. My mother puts out cloth napkins and a little pitcher with milk and a plate with something to eat when Mrs. Walker stops by. “I’ll just pick,” she says, and then gobbles all the food in sight.

My mother looks a little nervous. It’s the first she’s heard about Sissy’s accident. I’m sure she’s going to ask me about it when Mrs. Walker leaves.

“There won’t be a service,” I say. “She didn’t have any friends but me.”

I invited my parents and my mother’s friend Evelyn to a funeral service for Barbie when I buried her a month ago. I said she would be missed. Not by me, but I didn’t say that. My mother asked if I wanted to say a prayer but I said no, Barbie didn’t believe in prayers. We ate cake with pink icing afterward.

“Cancer,” I told Evelyn. “It was pretty gruesome at the end.”

Evelyn’s got freckles and she’s tall, a friend of my mother’s from a save-the-whales group, or maybe save-the-wetlands. She neighs like a horse when she laughs. She doesn’t have kids and never knows what to say to me. Which is fine. She didn’t ask about the cancer.

In fact the cancer was taking way too long, so I smothered Barbie with a pillow. It was the merciful thing to do. Besides, I hated Barbie, those long skinny legs, those wide-open blue eyes. All those color-coordinated outfits. She was dumb.

“I think it’s perfectly healthy,” I heard my mother telling Evelyn later. “It’s a phase children go through, learning to cope with death. Allegra’s precocious. She’s only eight. She’ll grow out of it.” Evelyn made one of her noncommittal noises.

I’m not sure she really thinks it’s healthy. It’s not like there’s been a death in the family or any stuff I have to cope with. Next thing you know she’s going to have me back to see that so-called doctor with the hippie sandals and yellow toenails who’s always saying, “How do you feel about that, Allegra?” I can’t believe people pay him to say the same thing over and over. He’s like a windup toy. “How do you feel about that?” He has cat hair on his sweaters and I told my mother I thought I was allergic.

He made me choose toys to play with in his office, and when I ran over a Ninja Turtle with a Mack truck, he asked me “How did that feel?” and I said it felt pretty good, and he nodded and wrote that down. I mean, what’s the point? When I asked him whether he thought there was an afterlife for Ninja Turtles, he said that was a very good question and he’d have to think about it. I doubt he bothered, thinking not being his thing.

I take the bottle of organic apple juice out of the refrigerator and pour myself a glass, careful not to spill. I drain it all in one gulp and rinse the glass in the sink. My mother looks pleased, like there’s no sugary soda in my house, and like see what a normal and well-behaved child I have.

“When’s Jonathan going to visit again?” I ask Mrs. Walker. “Maybe we could play.”

Mrs. Walker dotes on her grandson Jonathan. She’s always bragging about him, “Jonathan this, Jonathan that.” How he walked earlier than kids his age, talked earlier than kids his age, might even have a genius IQ, they’re going to wait to get him tested because he’s so young. In fact he’s a perfectly ordinary five-year-old, and a crybaby.

“I’ll make sure he’s careful,” I say. “I promise.”

Mrs. Walker thought it was my fault when he almost choked on a McDonalds toy the last time he visited her. How is it my fault if he puts stuff in his mouth like that? I know the Heimlich maneuver if it happens again. My mother showed me. My mother disapproves of McDonalds Happy Meals. She only let me go to McDonalds because Mrs. Walker invited me to go with her and Jonathan and she didn’t want to seem too controlling.

“Oh!” Mrs. Walker stands up so suddenly that she jars the kitchen table. She brushes crumbs off her lap as she edges toward the back door. “My, it’s late. I had no idea it was already 11:00. Where does the time go?”

I give her my sweetest smile. Stupid cow. Always asking questions that she already knows the answer to. Time passes. It doesn’t go anywhere. People die. They don’t go anywhere either. Or come back.

I waited for Barbie to haunt me. Nothing happened. I pushed Sissy out of the tree just to be sure. Nothing. Of course an experiment requires more than two cases for statistically valid results.

“Take a muffin with you,” I say to Mrs. Walker, earning an approving nod from my mother. “We picked those cherries ourselves. I climbed to the tippy-top of the tree with a basket. Maybe Jonathan can help next time.”

➥ Bio