“Why is there an extra chair?” Mildred asked.
I didn’t like Mildred, she was loud. Sometimes when I tried talking to her she would change the topic really quickly. When we were little, she took my toys before I could finish playing with them. It was like living with an alien.
“That’s where mom used to sit,” I said.
“Oh,” Mildred said, “then we don’t need that seat anymore.”
“Yes, but we’re going to leave it there for a little while, alright sweetie?” My dad said.
“Sure, I guess there’s nothing else to do with it anyway,” she replied.
We slipped into a heavy silence.
“I really like the mac and cheese,” I said.
“The secret is the bacon bits and bread crumbs on top,” my dad answered.
The rest of the dinner was eaten in silence. Afterward, my dad practically shoved Mildred and me out the door. He didn’t like us being cooped up inside all day. Mildred started talking before we’d even stepped out of the driveway.
“What’s your favorite book?” She asked.
“I don’t think I can pick just one,” I told her.
“Oh, mine is The Haunted Mask, by R.L Stein. It’s a goosebumps book, and it’s really scary.”
“I don’t think that I’ve read that one.”
“You should, it’s really scary.”
Up and down our suburban street, back before sunset, the key is hidden under the welcome mat. The soles of my grey rubber boots sloshed through the snow. Mildred was still talking about something.
“Are you listening to me?” She asked.
“I asked if you were listening to me, I was talking about The Haunted Mask.”
“I was listening to you, Mildred.”
“So what did I say?”
“You were talking about The Haunted Mask.”
“I just told you that, do you remember anything else?”
“You weren’t listening to me!”
Mildred pointed her finger at me and got ready to shout. I considered shoving her, I was a big guy, like my father. The snow would cushion her fall. My hand reached up and made it’s way to her, almost instinctively. Was I going to go through with this? It hovered over to her upper back, then, as if out of my control, it went up, resting above her neck. All I had to do was squeeze my hand around her annoying little neck. It was going to snow tonight, by morning nobody would even be able to recognize her. My train of thought was interrupted by a loud scream from Mildred, she had just stepped in something. The body of a deer lay under the snow, concealed like a landmine. As soon as Mildred stepped on it Maggots shot out like water from a geezer. She fell back. I lifted her off the ground and carried her away, back towards the house. She looked up at me with wide eyes.
I don’t know if it because I saw death up close, or how light her body felt in my arms, but as I carried Mildred home, I felt a deep shame. Was I really considering hurting her? It must have been another episode. I promised myself to never harm her, no matter how badly I wanted to. I would be Mildred’s protector now. It’s the least I could do, especially after I failed to protect my mother. No, that’s not true, there was nothing I could do. She got into a car crash, it happens.
Mildred started hyperventilating and sweating, shit, a panic attack. I ran home as quickly as I could. She began to tremble, and it was getting harder to hold her in my arms. I tried putting her down, she collapsed. I caught her, picked her up again, and continued back. The wind was blowing against us, my eyes stung with tears. I struggled to keep them open, to see ahead of us. Two headlights appeared from behind, I should have turned around to look, but I didn’t. We were almost hit.
My mother was in a car accident, right? That’s what my dad had told me, and he was an honest guy. She called me that night, I could hear her scream for just a moment before the phone cut off. There wasn’t a crashing sound, just a scream, running footsteps, fire, then silence. Wait, how did I recognize fire through the phone?
I carried Mildred up our driveway and the front steps. I lowered her into a sitting position against the door. She sat there with big, glassy eyes, like a doll. I unlocked the door and carried her inside.
“Come quick, Mildred’s having a panic attack!” I yelled out.
“Coming,” my dad said.
A moment later he was at the door; a big man with a warm face, blue eyes, and brown stubble. He’d never hurt anyone, right?
“What happened?” my dad asked.
“There was a dead deer on the road, she stepped on it,” I said.
“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.
“Go make her green tea with two teaspoons of honey, and get a paper bag for her to breathe into.”
I ran to the kitchen, savoring the proud look on my dad’s face. He picked Mildred up and took her into the living room, resting her on our plush, brown couch. Next, he took a couch pillow and slipped it under her head. He left Mildred’s side for a moment and lit the old wooden fireplace in the living room, casting a calm orange haze over everything.
I let her breathe into the paper bag. Her hyperventilating slowed down and the trembling stopped. The final traces of her panic attack seemed to fade away like a bad dream in the morning. When the trembling and hyperventilating stopped entirely, Mildred started talking again.
“He was ignoring me while we were walking,” she pointed an accusing finger at me.
“Sorry,” I said.
“Listen next time, okay?”
I fought back the anger rising in my throat.
“Good. I’m bushed, can someone read me a bedtime story?”
It was as if nothing had happened to her at all. It’s amazing how easily people can forget, especially when they’ve been traumatized. My dad was about to volunteer, but I beat him to it.
“I’ll read to you, Mildred.”
“Alright,” she went upstairs without another word.
“You handled that well,” my dad said
The fire crackled and another memory shot through my head. My dad burned something, the same night my mom died.
“You’d better get going,” he said.
I didn’t want to meet his gaze. I kept my head down and ran up the stairs. I loved my dad, right? Why was his gaze making me so uncomfortable? Usually, it carried nothing but pride and joy, but now there was something else, something much colder... already halfway up the stairs, I turned around and peered into his icy blue eyes. Another memory, it was the same way he used to look at my mother. Cold. No! They got into a car wreck, it happens, but how had she died while he was left unscathed?
I was still thinking about it as I entered Mildred’s room.
“Why does your face look like that?” She asked.
“I’m just thinking.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“The Haunted Mask, and how it’s the least scary goosebumps book.”
“I thought you said you’ve never read it?”
“I haven’t, I was just joking Mildred.”
“Oh, you’re not very funny.”
I nodded and went over to her bookshelf to pick up the same book of fairy tales we read to her every night.
“Read me Goldilocks and the three bears,” Mildred said.
I flipped to the right page and began reciting the story without looking down.
“Three bears went out for a walk one day,” I began.
“That’s not how the story starts,” Mildred said, “there was a great big father bear, a middle-sized mother bear, and a tiny baby bear, that’s how the story starts, look at the page and read.”
I resisted the urge to smack her across the face, why shouldn’t I? No, wait, something that night had made me promise myself not to hit her. I couldn’t remember what though, shit, the memory loss is always the first stage. We were on a walk, but something happened to her, and I promised to protect her…
“Shit, what happened?”
“Hey, you can’t swear,” Mildred yelled.
“Did I say that out loud?”
“Stop it, you’re scaring me! Just read the story, you can improvise if you want but not too much.”
I nodded, dimly aware of the fact I was having another episode. Memory loss, saying random thoughts out loud, then...the last stage.
“A little girl named Goldilocks went down the forest path. She got hopelessly lost, and soon the sun began to set. She ran down the path until she arrived at a small house in the woods, with all the lights on. She entered the house and saw three bowls of porridge on the table, one was too hot, one was too cold, and one was just right.”
Mildred cowered under the covers, she did that sometimes when she was upset. I put the book down, she couldn’t see it through her blanket anyway. I‘d just improvise.
“Goldilocks ate the porridge that was just right, then she ventured further into the house and found a bed for herself to sleep in. The girl lay under the covers, even though this wasn’t her house and she didn’t belong. It turned out that the house was owned by the three bears, who decided to raise her as their own. The bears tried their best, but it was hard for the animals to raise a human child. Father bear was the first to run out of patience, he demanded that they kick the little girl out. Mother bear refused, and in a fit of rage father bear mauled her to death. Ashamed of himself, he swore to protect little Goldilocks. Unfortunately, his animal instinct eventually took over, and he mauled the child to death too. The end.”
Mildred was trembling under the covers.
“I’m sorry if I scared you,” I said.
“You should be,” she mumbled.
I nodded and started walking towards the door.
“Wait,” Mildred said from under her blanket, “I like scary stories. can you tell me another scary one?”
“Tomorrow,” I said, “good night, Goldilocks.”
“My name is Mildred!”
“I know, I was just joking.”
“I knew you were joking, I was joking too,” Mildred said.
“You’re not very funny.”
I left Mildred’s room and walked downstairs to make sure the front door was locked for the night. My dad was already there. Was that grey hair in his beard? We went up the stairs together. Another memory hit me, my stomach dropped. Three years ago, pushing someone down the stairs. I turned to face my dad.
“How did she die?” I asked.
“Mom, how did she die?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Alright, let’s go downstairs so we don’t wake Mildred up.”
We sat on the brown couch together. My dad leaned forward, clasping his hands together. The fireplace was off, and the room was cold. Cold, like my dad’s eyes. Wait, what color were they? I looked over at him, they were dark, the darkest shade of brown I’d ever seen. They had always been that color, right? Word association: I’ve always thought of them as cold, and nighttime is cold, and they’re dark as night. That makes sense. Blood pulsed through my head.
“She fell down the stairs,” my dad said.
“Could I have more details?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“Well, you were the first one there. I heard you yell, so I ran down the steps and called an ambulance. Your mother asked me to light the fireplace while we waited for them to arrive, she was cold. And, um, as you know, the ambulance was too late.”
“Was I having one of my, um, episodes…”
“I think so.”
“Where were you when it happened?”
“I don’t think that’s something we need to be worried about.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I think so."
We settled into a deep silence.
“So I’m father bear.”
“Oh sorry, I didn’t mean to say that out loud.”