Marie sat in Mercier’s backyard chalking tri-colored daisies on the pavement, trying not to think.
“It’s almost night time. Maybe she’s not gonna come today,” Jason said scribbling circles in the square of pavement next to her.
Marie just nodded keeping her eyes on her artwork. The sunlight on her flowers grew dimmer and dimmer making her think that Jason might be right. Maybe Yvonne wasn’t coming for them.
This was the most dreaded day of the year for Marie—the last day of summer vacation. Granny and the aunts may have lost the right to every holiday, but they demanded that Marie and Jason stay with them the full three months of every summer while they were out of school. For Marie, that was three months of complete paradise.
She’d wake up in a real bed every morning to the warm glow of the sun pouring through Maddie’s sheer, apricot curtains. Then she’d get the savory aroma of Granny’s sausages sizzling in their cast iron skillet. She’d find Mercier busy in the den with her bowl of grits, picking out the black ones as a favor to Granny. And Jason, well, he would have been running around naked for at least the last half hour already. Granny and the aunts made sure Robert never found out about that little bit of debauchery.
Neither Marie nor Jason had any chores to do, although they loved helping Granny repot and water her daylilies, and helping Mercier raid the nectarine and cumquat trees. Their only real responsibility was to have fun—all—day—long. They watched cartoons—real cartoons that didn’t involve Moses or the Ten Commandments. They were given so many toys and games, they couldn’t find time to play with them all. They laughed out loud with no one telling them to shut up. They danced to Prince and Michael Jackson without getting spanked for “sinning”. They even enjoyed Mercier’s Spanish, piano, and reading lessons, because, unlike Robert, Mercier never asked them if they were stupid when they messed up.
By the afternoons, Marie would snuggle up to Mercier and Granny’s fluffy frames to watch Oprah and listen to them gossip and slurp on peppermints. By the evenings, she would devour Granny’s fresh cut fruit and steak dinner, Mercier’s famous vinegar and oil salad, and an assortment of sweets from Maddie’s loaded candy jar. And she would finish off her nights with a warm bubble bath and cuddle into bed with her stuffed animals, thrilled to do it all over again tomorrow.
Being with Granny and the aunts was like being in another world; Marie’s own personal Disneyland. She wished it were her life all the time. So free and happy every day. But that only made it that much harder when the time came to leave.
Marie looked up from her tri-colored daisies when she heard the hum of an engine and the sharp hiss of breaks in the driveway. Her heart dropped into her stomach when she saw from beneath the yard gate the tires of what she knew had to be a red Saturn. She looked at Jason, and not a word needed to pass between them for them to know what the other was feeling.
“Marie. Jason,” Granny called out from the porch, “Your mother’s here.”
Marie dragged herself up from the pavement and helped Jason pile all the chalk back into its bucket. When she finally came in the house to greet her mother, Marie tried to smile at her but it shaped into more of a grimace. Next to Robert, Yvonne was the last person Marie wanted to see. But Marie was grateful that Yvonne agreed to stay for dinner; that would afford Marie at least two more hours in paradise before she had to go “home”.
When the time did come to say goodbye to Granny and the aunts, Marie was no less than devastated. Her eyes started to blur with tears the moment Yvonne pulled out her car keys. Jason snuggled up under Mercier as if he hoped he might get left behind if Yvonne didn’t see him.
“Oh you’re going to see them all again for Thanksgiving,” Yvonne cooed attempting to mask her embarrassment, “Don’t cry.”
Marie just wailed louder, and Yvonne had to pry Jason’s death-grip off Mercier. Granny whispered something to Maddie who nodded, her brow furrowing. Yvonne took both children by their arms, whisked them over to a corner, and squatted to their eye level. Glaring at both of them she said in a low and barely controlled tone, “You shut this crap up now, or you won’t spend another summer here again. Do you understand me?”
Marie and Jason nodded sniveling and stifling their moans.
“Now kiss Granny, Mercier, and Maddie goodbye,” she said rising back into her chipper coo.
The children did as they were told, hugging each of the three dears as long as they could without another cutting glare from Yvonne. Marie made her way to Maddie last. As she hugged her, Maddie hid her lips in Marie’s hair and whispered, “Is Mommy or Robert hurting you?” Marie hesitated as Robert’s warning reverberated in her mind: What happens in this house stays in this house. You are disobedient, you get spankings. Period. Don’t let me find out you’ve been running your mouth. You think we abuse you? I’ve never “beat” you. But I can.
“No,” Marie whispered back. Maddie pulled back enough to look her in the eyes, her concerned gazed repeating the question. Marie just shook her head.
“Okay munchkins,” Yvonne sang, “Time to go.”
Once strapped in the car, Marie forced a smile at Granny and the aunts waving on the porch until Yvonne pulled out of the driveway. Marie knew Yvonne was livid. She didn’t say a word to them the entire forty-five minute drive home.
When they arrived, it was like stepping back into a nightmare. The shack was dimmed and stank of mold and herbal tea. No bed, no cartoons, no toys or steak dinners.
“What they do now?” Robert barked the minute they came in the door and he saw the look on Yvonne’s face. Marie knew this act. Yvonne wanted Robert to ask that question and exact the punishment that made her feel better about herself.
“They only cut up like that because they have to come home to rules,” Robert barked when Yvonne told him what happened. “Just mad cuz they can’t watch TV and eat ice cream all day. I’m telling you that mother of yours spoils them. That’s why they pretend like they forget how to act when they get back here. We gotta train ‘em all over again after every summer. I told you, they don’t need to be down there the whole three months.”
On and on he went ranting on everyone’s conduct—except Yvonne’s and his own of course. Because they were good parents, and they were in the right.
“What did I tell you would happen if I got another report of you acting up Mercier’s?” he said finally focusing his rant on the children.
“We’d get a spanking,” they whined in unison.
Robert nodded towards the bedroom as he loosened his belt buckle. Knowing resistance was futile, they shuffled passed him silently and took their usual positions bent over the bed. Marie lay there shaking and forcing her mind to go back to her paradise. She wondered what Granny was doing at that moment. Watching the news in the family room sitting in her favorite rocking chair. Maybe sipping her black tea as Auntie Maddie gathered up the last of Marie and Jason’s toys into boxes to await their next visit. Mercier had probably fallen asleep in the den with a copy of Reader’s Digest in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other. Marie shut her eyes as tears streamed down her cheeks. She prayed with all her might that when she opened her eyes she would be there snuggled up under Mercier. That this nightmare was nothing but a dream. Then she opened her eyes and looked up just in time to see Robert raise the black belt and bring it down on her behind.