Authors: Cynthia Voigt
Tags: #Retail, #Ages 12 & Up
To Jessica & Walter
he woman put her sad moon-face in at the window of the car. “You be good,” she said.
“You hear me? You little ones, mind what Dicey tells you. You hear?”
“Yes, Momma,” they said.
“That’s all right then.” She slung her purse over her shoulder and walked away, her
stride made uneven by broken sandal thongs, thin elbows showing through holes in the
oversized sweater, her jeans faded and baggy. When she had disappeared into the crowd
of Saturday morning shoppers entering the side doors of the mall, the three younger
children leaned forward onto the front seat. Dicey sat in front. She was thirteen
and she read the maps.
“Why’d we stop?” asked James. “We’re not there yet. We’ve got food. There’s no reason
to stop.” James was ten and wanted everything to have a reason. “Dicey?”
“I dunno. You heard everything she said, same as I did. You tell me.”
“All she said was,
We gotta stop here.
She didn’t say why. She never says why, you know that. Are we out of gas?”
“I didn’t look.” Dicey wanted some quiet for thinking. There was something odd about
this whole trip. She couldn’t put her finger on it, not yet. “Why don’t you tell them
“Cripes, James, you’re the one with the famous brain.”
“Yeah, well I can’t think of any stories right now.”
“Tell them anything. Tell them Hansel and Gretel.”
“I want HanselnGretel. And the witch. And the candy house with peppermint sticks,”
Sammy said, from the backseat. James gave in without a quarrel. It was easier to give
in to Sammy than to fight him. Dicey turned around to look at them. Maybeth sat hunched
in a corner, big-eyed. Dicey smiled at her and Maybeth smiled back. “Once upon a time,”
James began. Maybeth turned to him.
Dicey closed her eyes and leaned her head back. She put her feet on the dashboard.
She was tired. She’d had to stay awake and read maps, to find roads without tolls.
She’d been up since three in the morning. But Dicey couldn’t go to sleep. She gnawed
away at what was bothering her.
For one thing, they never took trips. Momma always said the car couldn’t run more
than ten miles at a stretch. And here they were in Connecticut, heading down to Bridgeport.
For one thing.
But that might make sense. All her life, Dicey had been hearing about Momma’s aunt
Cilla and her big house in Bridgeport that Momma had never seen, and her rich husband
who died. Aunt Cilla sent Christmas cards year after year, with pictures of baby Jesus
on them and long notes inside, on paper so thin it could have been tissue paper. Only
Momma could decipher the lacy handwriting with its long, tall letters all bunched
together and the lines running into one another because of the long-tailed, fancy
z’s and f’s and g’s. Aunt Cilla kept in touch. So it made sense for Momma to go to
her for help.
But driving off like that in the middle of the night didn’t make sense. That was the
second thing. Momma woke them all up and told them to pack paper bags of clothing
while she made sandwiches.
She got them all into the old car and headed for Bridgeport.
For a third—things had been happening, all at once. Things were always bad with them,
but lately worse than ever. Momma lost her checker’s job. Maybeth’s teacher had wanted
a meeting with Momma that Momma wouldn’t go to. Maybeth would be held back another
year. Momma said she didn’t want to hear about it, and she had ripped up every note,
without reading any of them. Maybeth didn’t worry her family, but she worried her
teachers. She was nine and still in the second grade. She never said much, that was
the trouble, so everybody thought she was stupid. Dicey knew she wasn’t. Sometimes
she’d come out and say something that showed she’d been watching and listening and
taking things in. Dicey knew her sister could read and do sums, but Maybeth always
sat quiet around strangers. For Maybeth, everyone in the world was a stranger, except
Momma and Dicey and James and Sammy.
Momma herself was the fourth thing. Lately she’d go to the store for bread and come
back with a can of tuna and just put her hands over her face, sitting at the table.
Sometimes she’d be gone for a couple of hours and then she wouldn’t say where she
had been, with her face blank as if she couldn’t say. As if she didn’t know. Momma
didn’t talk to them anymore, not even to scold, or sing, or make up games the way
she used to. Except Sammy. She talked to Sammy, but even then they sounded like two
six-year-olds talking, not one six-year-old and his mother.
Dicey kept her feet on the dash, and her body slouched down. She looked out through
the windshield, over the rows of parked cars, to where the sky hung like a bleached-out
sheet over the top of the mall buildings. Bugs were spattered all over the windshield
and the sky promised a heavy, hot day. Dicey slid still further down on the seat.
Her skin stuck to the blue plastic seat covers.
James was describing the witch’s house, listing the kinds of candy used for various
parts of the building. This was the part James liked best in Hansel and Gretel, and
he always did it a little differently from the time before. Picturing the almond Hershey
bar roof and the shutters made of cinnamon licorice sticks, Dicey did fall asleep.
She woke covered with sweat from the hot sun pouring in through the windshield. She
woke hungry. Maybeth was singing softly, one of Momma’s songs, about making her love
a baby with no crying. “I fell asleep,” Dicey said. “What time’s it?”
“I dunno,” James said. “You’ve been asleep a long time. I’m hungry.”
“I dunno. I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry. Go ask someone what time it is, okay?”
James climbed out of the car. He crossed to the walkway and stopped a man in a business
suit. “Twelve thirty,” James reported.
“But that means I slept for more than two hours,” Dicey protested.
“I’m going to eat,” Sammy announced from the backseat. He opened the bag of food and
pulled out a sandwich before Dicey could say anything.
“What do you want me to do?” James asked, looking into Dicey’s face. His narrow little
face wore a worried expression. “Want me to go look for her?”
“No,” Dicey said. (
what had Momma gone and done.) “Sammy, give Maybeth a sandwich too. Let her choose
for herself. Then pass the bag up here.”
When everyone had a sandwich, and James had two, Dicey reached a decision. “We have
to wait here for a while more,” she said. “Then we’ll do something. I’m going to take
a walk and see if I can find her.”
“Don’t you go away too,” Maybeth said softly.
“I’ll be right where you can see me,” Dicey said. “I’ll stay on the sidewalk—see?—just
like a path in front of the stores. Then maybe later we can all go into the mall and
look in the stores. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Maybeth smiled and nodded her
Dicey did her best thinking when she walked. On this warm June afternoon, she walked
so fast and thought so hard, she didn’t even see the people going past her. If Momma
went past she’d say something, so Dicey wasn’t worried about that.
She was worried that Momma had wandered off. And would not come back.
(“You always look for the worst,” Momma had often told her. “I like to be ready,”
If Momma was gone . . . But that wasn’t possible. Was it? But if she was, what could
they do? Ask for help, probably from a policeman. (Would he put them in homes or orphanages?
Wouldn’t that be just what the police or some social worker would do?) Go back to
Provincetown, they could go back home. (Momma hadn’t paid the rent, not for weeks,
and it was almost summertime, when even their old cabin, set off alone in the dunes,
could bring in a lot of money. Mr. Martinez wasn’t sympathetic, not when it came to
money, not when it came to giving something away for free. He’d never let them stay
there to wait for Momma.) They could go on to Bridgeport. Dicey had never seen Aunt
Cilla—Great-Aunt Cilla. She knew the name and address, because Momma had made her
write it down four times, on each paper bag, in case something happened: Mrs. Cilla
Logan, 1724 Ocean Drive, Bridgeport, Connecticut. Aunt Cilla was family, the only
family Dicey knew about.
The sun beat down on the parking lot and heated up the air so even in the shaded walkway
Dicey was hot. The kids must be hot too, she thought, and turned to get them.
Momma must have gone away on purpose. (But she loved them, loved them all.) Why else
the addresses on the bags? Why else tell them to mind Dicey? (Mothers didn’t do things
like going off. It was crazy. Was Momma crazy?) How did she expect Dicey to take care
of them? What did she expect Dicey to do? Take them to Bridgeport, of course. (Dump
it all on Dicey, that was what Momma did, she always did, because Dicey was the determined
sort. “It’s in your blood,” Momma said, and then wouldn’t explain.)
Anger welled up in Dicey, flooded her eyes with tears, and now she was swept away
with the determination to get the kids to Bridgeport. Well, she’d do it somehow, if
she had to.
Momma wasn’t at the car when Dicey returned, so Dicey said they’d wait for her until
the next morning.
“Where’ll we sleep?” Sammy asked.
“Right here—and no complaints,” Dicey said.
“Then Momma will come back and we’ll go on tomorrow?” Sammy asked.
“Where is Momma? Why’s she taking so long?” James asked.
“I dunno, James,” Dicey answered. Maybeth was silent, staring.
After a few minutes, Dicey hustled them all out of the car and trailed after them
as they entered the mall.
The mall was built like a fortress around a huge, two-story enclosed street, where
store succeeded store, as far as you could see. At one end of the central section
was a cage of live birds in a little park of plastic trees and shrubs. The floor of
their cage was littered with pieces of popcorn and gum wrappers. At the other end,
the builders had made a waterfall through which shone different colored lights. Outside,
beyond the covered sidewalk that ran like a moat around the huge building, lay the
huge, gray parking lot, a no-man’s-land of empty cars.
But here inside was a fairyland of colors and sounds, crowded with people on this
Saturday afternoon, artificially lit and planted. Inside was a miniature city where
endless diversions from the work-day world offered everything delightful. If you had
money, of course. And even without money, you could still stare and be amazed.
They spent a long time wandering through stores, looking at toys and records and pianos
and birthday cards. They were drawn to restaurants that exuded the smell of spaghetti
and pizza or fried chicken, bakeries with trays of golden doughnuts lined up behind
glass windows, candy stores, where the countertop was crowded with large jars of jelly
beans and sourballs and little foil-covered chocolates and peppermints dipped in crunchy
white frosting; cheese shops (they each had two free samples), where the rich smell
of aged cheeses mingled with fresh-ground coffee, and hot dog stands, where they stood
back in a silent row. After this, they sat on a backless bench before the waterfall,
tired and hungry. Altogether, they had eleven dollars and fifty cents, more than any
one of them had ever had at one time before, even Dicey who contributed all of her
babysitting money, seven dollars.