by Kristen Abate
(Originally published in Typehouse Magazine issue 3)
Millie missed the last month of second grade because her mother had convinced herself she could get rich by selling t-shirts. She told Millie she had no time to drive her to the elementary school in town, help her with arithmetic, or make her dinner. Instead, her mother spent her time buying a thousand packs of Hanes 100% cotton shirts, three to a pack, and screen-printing old airplane paintings and Bible versus on them. When the school called, Millie heard her mother tell them she had tuberculosis.
On the last day of June, her mother packed all the t-shirts into the trunk of the 1997 Toyota Corolla with chipped maroon paint and no taillights. Millie crawled into the back seat without instruction. When they got to Maryland’s annual Ocean City Airshow two hours later, her mother cursed as she maneuvered the heavy t-shirt boxes through grass pathways. Her graying blond bangs became laced with sweat and her cheap mascara began to bleed. Their booth stood out in the maze of white cabanas for the simple fact that nothing about it was eye-catching—no shiny sign, no fancy shelves, no name brands, no music, no staff, no cash register—just a long wooden collapsible table covered by two white table cloths from the dollar store, folded t-shirts, Millie, and her mother, whose eyes were wide with mania.
Millie sat on the dusty grass inside the confines of the tent, wondering when she would get to go home, where her mother’s craziness wasn’t so obvious. She ached for the time when her mother would once again comb her hair after her bath, read her Little House on the Prairie and make her chicken casserole for dinner—those few days of happiness before she would crawl into the dark cave of her room and cry for weeks.
Millie felt sick. She was thirsty and needed to eat. Her mother said she had to sell three t-shirts before she could spend money on lunch. Airshow goers funneled through the market pathways, wasting time before the aerial show. The wrinkles in her mother’s face burrowed themselves deeper as every passerby rejected her invitation to look at the t-shirts with tight smiles and slight nods. Her mother’s smile faded as she looked around to see men with their wives and girlfriends stopping to look at airplane video games, pilots and owners congratulating each other on their awards, and the line thirty people deep to look at Ray Ban sunglasses.
“Millie!” Her mother grabbed her arm and pulled up her to stand. “Honey, we’re not making any money and we have to sell something. Here—put this on and go tell people in the crowd to come look at Mommy’s stuff,” she said pushing a large t-shirt into Millie’s hands.
“But Mom, I can’t—“
“Millie, please. Just do what I say, and I’ll buy you a Dairy Queen later.”
Millie’s hands trembled when she stepped outside her mother’s rented tent space and began to wander amongst the packed crowd. She wiped her tears with the back of her hand and tried to walk straight as people shuffled around, pushing to get through the mass. The grownups towered above her and whenever she tried to draw attention to her shirt, no one took notice of her soft voice. She kept her head down and wandered until she was out of the crowd. When she finally looked up she was at the gates of the park. She stared at the chain link fence and the openings where people flowed in and out of the airport. After a moment, she slipped through the opening and out onto the main road.
A glowing red sign in the parking lot of a grocery store read ninty-nine degrees. The stiff t-shirt clung to the sweat of Millie’s back and the rough cotton scratched across her shoulder blades. She thought she might die of heat under its heaviness. Millie tore it off and left it in a bush beside the gates to continue on in her faded daisy-print tank top.
The straight road steamed in the sun for a mile before it seemed to simply disappear into the sea. Millie watched the intoxicating blue expanse of ocean sparkle before her. Sunlight prickled on her arms and streamed through her eyelashes and left a prism on the window of a nearby Starbucks. The trees blustered in the wind, stirring up stagnant, thick summer air. Millie felt specs of dirt catch on her sweaty skin. She trudged on towards the oasis. The street was busy, but most of the cars were on the other side, heading toward the airshow.
Millie inhaled and the air tasted of sweat and sea. A tan convertible pulled to the curb near her. Millie looked over to see a woman with shiny lip-gloss and a wicker sun hat over her brown waves.
“Where are you going all by yourself, sweetie?” she called from her car. The boy in the back seat who looked about Millie’s age had a gleaming blue sand bucket and green plastic shovel on his lap. His eyes were wide with embarrassment.
“Home. It’s not very far from here.”
“Well, this is a pretty busy street. How about I give you a ride to your house?” The woman smiled and waved her hand to motion Millie into her car.
“No, I’m almost there. My dad says to never ride with strangers,” Millie said. Then the light turned green, and the convertible sped off.
When Millie finally reached the glittering beach, her mouth tasted like dirt. She searched out the couple of dollar bills that had slipped from her mother’s back pocket this morning when she was unloading boxes.
Millie walked into Roy’s Beachside Store, and turned left down the first aisle. If anyone asked her why she was there alone she would say her mother was tanning on the beach and sent her to buy them some drinks. She picked a root beer from the case and turned to walk to the front of the store.
“Hey,” a voice whispered from behind a revolving rack of “Greetings from Maryland” post cards. Millie peered around the rack and found the boy from the back of the lady’s car staring at her.
“Um, hi,” she said.
“You told my mom you were going home.”
“Do your parents let you come to the beach alone?” he asked, still whispering.
“Yes. Well, kind of. I don’t have parents. And I live at the beach,” Millie said, crossing her arms over her chest and raising her chin.
“Don’t have parents? Like you’re an orphan?”
Millie rolled her eyes and muttered, “No, not like I’m an orphan.”
“I’m Brian,” he said seriously.
“Your name is Cleopatra?”
“Yes,” Millie said, her face grave. “That’s a weird name.”
Millie’s eyes jumped to the door as a singsong chime announced the entrance of six teenage girls in bikinis. The storeowner told them to put their shirts on or they wouldn’t be served.
Millie looked back to the boy, whose eyes had not strayed from her face. Millie hadn’t had anyone to play with since the last time she went to school. “Well,” Millie said, “do you want to see where I live?”
“Um. My mom was going to buy me ice cream. And I was going to make a sand castle.”
“Oh, come on, don’t you go to the beach every day?” Millie grabbed Brian’s hand and pulled him toward the front door of the shop.
Brian resisted, saying he needed to tell his mom, but Millie was strong and she pulled him outside without Brian’s mother or the storekeeper noticing, thanks to the playful whining of the six teenage girls who were putting on their clothes.
“Stealing is bad,” Brian said, pointing to the bottle of Root beer in Millie’s hand. “I own that shop, it’s not stealing.”
Brian stared at Millie, his eyebrows tucked together like he was equating a particularly difficult subtraction problem. “I have to tell my mom.”
“No!” Millie whispered. She turned and ran into the line of trees that separated concrete from sand, her flip-flops spraying earth behind her. Brian didn’t follow her immediately, but soon he was next to her, breathing hard from his desperate scramble to catch up to her.
They ran for a long time, always staying under the cover of the stubby trees and bushes. The beach and the glittery ocean were to the right of them, and mansions to the left of them. Millie convinced herself she lived in one of those fancy houses. She stopped suddenly and put her hands on her knees to catch her breath. Brian almost fell trying not to run into her. He looked back in surprise and she started giggling, laughing harder and harder until Brian was laughing with her and they had to gasp to catch their breath.
She pulled her bottle of root beer out from where it had been tucked into her shorts. After taking a big swig, she handed the bottle to Brian. She thought of her mother, at the airshow by herself. She knew her mother wasn’t thinking of her, wondering in the crowd all alone.
Millie reached for the bottle in Brian’s hands. “I’m hot. Let’s get in the water.” “My mom said to never get in the ocean without her watching.”
“Do you always do what your mother tells you?” Millie asked, as she led the way out of the shade, onto the beach, and then up onto a mountain of rocks where the beach ended. Brian fell twice and scratched his palms before they reached a pool of water nestled into the rocks. Mussels clung to the sides of the tube, the sunlight lighting up their shells. Millie dropped herself down to the side of it, took her flip-flops off, and dipped her feet into the cool water. It tingled at first, but the freeze felt delicious on her skin. She knew not to go in the ocean without anyone watching. Brian followed, and let his legs hang down into the pool. They watched the waves batter the rock wall in front of them, ocean mist chilling their skin, the crashing sound so loud they could barely hear each other talk. Millie felt much better being in the open air, with the mist spraying on her face and the sea laid out for miles before her.
Millie felt Brian looking at her. She knew her pink tank top with the big daisy on it was dirty and her wavy hair was stringy and her sparkly nail polish was chipped. He told her she didn’t look Egyptian. She told him she looked like her mother, and her father was the Egyptian one. She told him her ancestors lived in palaces and that her great-great-great-great-times-a-thousand-grandmother was probably the real Cleopatra. Brian nodded slowly.
He asked what happened to her parents. Millie opened her mouth, but she couldn’t think of a single lie, so she was honest. “I don’t like to talk about it,” she said.
“There’s things I don’t like to talk about too.”
Brian’s eyes dropped to the water. Millie waited while he toyed with a rock and dropped it down into the pool. “Like that when my dad goes away to the Army, my mom leaves after she puts me to bed at night. And when she comes home she brings someone with her. I never see them, but I can hear.” Millie didn’t exactly know what Brian meant, but the pain in his face made her sad. “Nobody knows,” he said after a moment.
Again she thought of her own mother—the way she cried after she had been up for days, writing furiously with big black magic markers on newspapers when she should have been cooking dinner. Millie always stroked her hair until the tears stopped and she finally slept.
“Come, I’ll show you where I live,” she said.
She pulled her legs out of the water, and slid her wrinkly toes into her flip-flops and grasped his hand to lead him.
“It’s this way,” she said, motioning toward the rising boulders behind the pool. They trekked across the stone pathway and into a chamber in the rock wall. They stumbled over wet pebbles for twenty feet, and then she pointed to a pool nestled in the bottom of the cave.
“When the tide goes out, that passage way is empty and it leads to my house,” Millie said. Brian’s mouth dropped open and he peered down at the pool.
“Wow. What does it look like in there?”
“It looks like a normal house. It has walls and rooms and great big, pretty lights.” “Cool,” Brian said. “When can we go in?”
Millie shrugged. “I dunno, when the tide goes out. Do you wanna play a game?” “Sure, what game?”
“Let’s pretend we’re in love, and let’s get married, and we can have a sail boat and go on adventures.” Millie waved her arms around, imagining the world come to life. Brian laughed and agreed. She thought that he must have forgotten girls have cooties.
So they got married on the beach, but they didn’t kiss, or even pretend to kiss. They said I love you, but only one of them meant it. They built a sail boat to go on adventures—two humps of sand formed like benches for them to sit on, with an oval shaped trough providing the sides of the boat. They drew a map, and plotted routes. On their maiden voyage they sailed to an island with a castle. It was called Root Island, and the king there was very mean, so they had to sneak around.
Millie and Brian went to the house nearest them on the beach, one that had no people playing or lounging in front of it. Brian and Millie sat in the cool shade on the side of the castle, drinking wine, because that’s what explorers drank, and squirted each other with the hose and muffled their laughter with their muddy hands, in case the king was at home in his castle. They didn’t want to be caught.
When they wandered back to the beach to set sail to another island, the aerobatics show started at the airshow. Fighter jets screamed from above, and Millie could feel her bones vibrating. She squinted against the sun, as the planes circled above the airstrip, turning, weaving, and flipping. They left trails of white behind them, and Millie wondered if her mother was even watching.
Millie looked at Brian, with his head thrown back to the sky and his mouth gaping open with a huge smile. She wanted to look like that all the time. She grinned and looked up again, letting the big expanse of the heavens and the men in planes soaring through it take hold of her thoughts.
When it was over, they returned to the rocks, now a deserted pirate ship they had found on their second voyage. They tiptoed near the perimeter of the rocks, but when Brian got too close to the edge, Millie grabbed his hand and pulled him back. “Watch out! There’s a shark in the water!” she shrieked. Brian stepped back and pretended to shoot it, and then they ran to the cave. They picked up funny shaped rocks and declared they had found cups and plates, left by the pirates. Brian found a blue rock that didn’t look like the others and gave it to Millie.
“I found you a jewel!” he told her. She gazed at it, thanked him, and slid it in her pocket. “Hey, Cleopatra! The tunnel is open—let’s go!” Brian said from the back of the cave. He started to lower himself down into the thin chamber.
Millie tried to protest. “No, Brian. We—we have to get back to the boat.”
“No, I want to see it,” Brian said, dropping down further.
“Brian!” a shrill, new voice echoed in the cave. Brian and Millie turned to see his mother stumbling towards them. Their mouths dropped open, and Millie’s heart pounded. Brian’s mother dropped to her knees in front of Brian and pulled him to her. She started mumbling some incoherent demands and pleads and laments, as her tears poured in a heavy steam to her chin. Brian looked at Millie over his mom’s shoulder. Millie hid her face in her hands, pressing her palms against the hot tears pooling around her eyes.
A police officer with breath that smelled of sour milk and coffee asked her what her name was, but Millie refused to take her face from her hands to answer. She didn’t want Brian to know she wasn’t Cleopatra. She heard him tell his mom that he wanted to play with her again. They were supposed to go to Africa and then find Atlantis. He didn’t understand this would be the last time he saw her, but Millie knew—she had not yet learned to lie to herself.
She kept her head down, her eyes shut, tears squeezing out of the lids. Her mother would do the same when Millie finally returned to the booth where not one t-shirt had been sold, while the police looked on and wrongly assumed Joan Cane’s tears had something to do with her daughter’s seven-hour disappearance.