"Hey, Mom! What's for dinner?" Beatrice kicked off her shoes, pulled off her backpack, and tossed them towards a corner of the mudroom. She padded through their family room into the kitchen.
"Mom? I'm home. School was so…" Her words trailed off as she walked into an empty kitchen. Usually, her mother, Sunny, would be there at the large island prepping dinner, or standing at the stove stirring pots that bubbled or sizzled.
Beatrice never knew what to expect with her mother's adventurous palate and endless online recipe scrolling. Today the stove stood empty and cold, no ingredients covered the island at the center of the large kitchen, and no delicious smells wafted through the house.
Beatrice looked out the window above the sink, empty when it should have been stacked with dishes waiting to be rinsed and placed in the dishwasher. The window overlooked their backyard and the swimming pool, locked behind its protective gate, sparkled in the late sunlight.
The door from the kitchen to the garage banged open, bouncing hard against the rubber door stop. Beatrice gasped as her mother rushed through the door. Sunny balanced a large flat box in one hand. On the top of the box, big red letters spelled out PIZZA next to a cartoon sketch of a round man with slicked-back black hair throwing a pizza over his head.
In her other hand, Sunny carried several plastic grocery bags and her signature bright yellow purse. Beatrice's dad liked to tease her that the purse looked more like a suitcase.
"Is there anything you don't keep in there," her father would joke as her mother giggled and rolled her eyes.
Sunny's bleached blond hair escaped a haphazard ponytail, and her glasses perched precariously on the edge of her nose. Her eyes searched frantically around the kitchen, landing on Beatrice.
"Gimme a hand?" asked Sunny, out of breath. Beatrice rushed to help as Sunny kicked the door closed and set the rest of the bags on the kitchen island.
"Could you get some plates down? Just you and me tonight," said Sunny, smiling at her daughter.
"Pizza? You feelin' alright?" joked Beatrice. Along with her mother's adventurous recipes came a determination that Beatrice only ate well-rounded, all-natural meals. The only time Beatrice ate what her mother referred to as "junk food" was on the rare nights it was just her and Dad. They'd order out and eat in the living room, watching a scary movie. In other words, all the things contrary to her mother's rules.
Sunny squirmed a bit, swiping at her hair, attempting to push the stray strands down. She looked down at the oversized t-shirt and the olive leggings she wore in disgust.
"Tsk. Look at me! I'm a mess. I'll be right back, go ahead and set the island. We can eat here tonight." Sunny disappeared down a hallway, heading to her room to freshen up. While it was rare that her mother might miss a family dinner, it was even more unheard of that her father would miss one.
"Family dinners are the most important meal of the day when I can find out about how my beautiful daughter and my amazing wife spent their day. Nothing is more important," Dad would always say.
Feeling confused as ever by this abrupt and strange change in their routine, Beatrice pulled down two plates and set them on the island counter along with two forks and knives. Then, she began to empty the plastic shopping bags pulling out a 2-liter bottle of soda from one.
Soda? If Sunny Wildenher hated anything more than pizza, it was soda. Shaking her head, Beatrice set it on the counter. The rest of the contents in the bags puzzled her even more: duct tape, an Exacto knife, a garden spade, bleach, and several packs of garbage bags and paper towels.
Her mom rushed into the kitchen, her hair pulled tight into her ponytail again. She wore a different version of the t-shirt and leggings she'd worn earlier. Sunny went to the cabinet and pulled down two glasses.
"You want ice? I don't know how long it's been since I've had a taste of cola. I used to love it so much," said Sunny. Her face looked red and mottled, her eyes swollen and bloodshot.
"Um…sure," said Beatrice looking down at the duct tape in her hand. Her mother pushed each glass against the ice maker, the ice clinking into the glass. Setting the glasses on the counter, she noticed Beatrice holding the duct tape. She stared at the heavy-duty tape and cocked her head to the right and left.
Sunny shook her head, and her gaze moved to Beatrice's face. Sunny smiled, but this smile did not reach her eyes. She gestured to the high stools and pulled the pizza box cover open.
"Sit. Eat," said Sunny.
Beatrice climbed up on the stool as her mother dropped a slice of pizza on her plate. The cola let out a soft hiss as Sunny twisted the cap off. She filled their glasses until the foamy bubbles reached the top of their drinks and sat down next to Beatrice.
Beatrice looked down at the slice of pizza covered in vegetables, debating if her mother would scold her for eating with her hands. She snuck a peak at Sunny to see her staring down at the pizza, her mouth moving, speaking so low that Beatrice could not hear her.
Beatrice leaned closer, and Sunny absentmindedly wiped at her cheek as she continued to mumble under her breath.
"Duct tape…spade? What the...the mattress protector should protect…."
"Mom? What are you talking about? I can barely hear you," said Beatrice.
"Please, honey, just eat the pizza," Sunny picked up her slice and took a bite. She chewed slowly, and as she pointed to her mouth, she looked to Beatrice again with that strange, unsmiling smile. Then, finally, she swallowed, making a loud gulping sound.
"See? Mmmm," said Sunny. Beatrice shook her head, turning her attention to her slice.
Beatrice picked up her slice, taking a small bite. She grimaced. It tasted as though it had been cold for hours, the crust tough and chewy, and the cheese felt like cold slime on her tongue. Her jaw ached as she chewed and chewed until she could finally swallow the bite.
"Ok, Mom. Out with it. Where's Dad? And why does this pizza taste like it's three days old? WTF?" Beatrice quick-fired questions at her mother. "Why are you acting so weird?" Beatrice heard her voice rise an octave, her frustration and confusion brought tears to her eyes.
Her mother turned, her jaw hung slack, and her eyes devoid of emotion. Sunny blinked, seemingly returning to reality as her eyes filled with tears quickly replaced by anger. She banged her fists on the table, making the plates, along with Beatrice, jump.
"Just. Eat. The. Damn. Pizza." Sunny's words came out clipped, in a voice Beatrice didn't recognize. Beatrice jumped from her stool, backing away from the island and her mother.
"Ya know what? I'm not hungry. I'm goin' to my…." The words dropped out of Beatrice's mouth as Sunny pushed her chair from the counter and rushed to Beatrice. She placed her hands on Beatrice's shoulders, and Beatrice caught a glimpse of her mother, the sane, normal, no junk food-eating mother she knew. And she saw desperation and sadness in Sunny's eyes.
"Honey, please, just eat. You will need it. Then I will explain everything. Please. I'm sorry it's no good, I…I didn't know what else to do. Please. Eat," begged Sunny, the tears spilling over.
"Ok, Mom. Ok. I'm just... I mean... You're scaring me." Beatrice searched her mother's eyes, trying to understand this crazy behavior. Sunny patted her shoulder softly, as the far-off look returned to her face, smiling again in that unsmiling way.
"Nothing to be scared of, honey," said Sunny.
How does someone smile and look angry? Sad? Scared? All at the same time?
Both returned to their seats, and as Beatrice finished her slice, her mother continued her slow, quiet mumbling. Beatrice could only pick up some of the words.
"Spade…too small. Shovel…garage. Passports…the…cash." The words that Sunny spoke made no sense. None of this made sense to Beatrice.
She pushed a bite of partially chewed food to her cheek to ask, "Mom, where's Dad?"
Sunny's mouth stopped moving, and she stared out the back window towards the pool, then down the hall towards their bedroom.
"Don't talk with your mouth full," came the automatic response. Beatrice sighed loudly and dropped the crust of the pizza on the plate.
"Ok, out with it. What's going on?" asked Beatrice.
Sunny nodded, saying more to herself than to Beatrice, "Yes, I suppose it's time. He should be done by now." Her mother clenched her fork in her hand. Her eyes looked wild, darting back and forth; a new smile came over her face that made Beatrice's blood run cold.
"Who should be done with what, Mom?" Beatrice asked softly.
"Your dad - he should be done dying now. We've work to do. I think I've got what we need. Duct tape, though why I chose a garden spade, what was I…." Beatrice jumped up, and her stool banged to the floor as she backed away from her mother.
"What? Mom, is this a joke? It's not funny."
Although Beatrice hoped this was some sick joke her parents played on her, her hands shook, and her stomach felt tied in knots. Her mom hopped down, the fork still in her hand, a crazed smile that reflected in her eyes floated upon her face.
"Ya know, it's his fault we don't eat pizza. He always had to be the good guy, but he's not. Or he wasn't." Sunny chuckled softly.
Beatrice heard herself whimper, and her mother continued on. "Oh honey, no worries. I've got our passports, Costa Rica doesn't have extradition laws. So we can live on the beach."
Beatrice stared at her mother a moment, her breaths coming in short, uneven gasps, and then darted down the hallway to her parent's bedroom.
"Dad? Dad!" she yelled out. She skidded to a stop at the threshold of their bedroom. Her dad lay on the bed, his hands loosely gripping a large chef's knife that protruded from his stomach. She could see the design on the blade handle; this was her mother's favorite knife. Beatrice's father gifted it to her mother for Christmas last year.
"Very sharp, that knife. Sliced like a champ. It's too bad I won't be able to use it anymore. But, hmmm…I guess I could bleach it," said Sunny tapping her index finger to her chin as she joined Beatrice.
"Dad? Daddy?" whispered Beatrice, tears rolling silently down her cheeks.
Beatrice stared at the large red stain spread over her dad's stomach and across the bed; the iron tang of blood flooded her nose. She watched his chest, praying without hope that it would reveal his breath. Then she looked at his face, pale and grey. His lifeless eyes stared towards the open door, and his mouth hung open as though he tried to call out to her. Had she eaten pizza while her father used the last of his life to call out to her? How could her mother do this to him? To Beatrice? She moved to run to his side, but her mother held her tight.
"Lemme go! Lemme go!" Beatrice tried unsuccessfully to wrench her arm out of her mom's grasp. "We need to call an ambulance!"
"No, no, no. No ambulance, sweetie. Dinner is made, and Daddy is too. So maybe we put him in the backyard, and we stay. Say he left us? Then you don't have to leave your friends." Her mother nodded as if her words sounded utterly logical and expected. Again she looked at Beatrice, her eyes out of focus and her smile lacking any of the sunny disposition her mother typically had.
Tears rolled down Beatrice's face; horror pulled her face down in a silent scream. She looked back at her father. What would happen to her now? What would happen to her mother?
Her mother raised her eyebrows in an unspoken question. Sunny clutched the fork tightly in her hand and pointed the silver tines at Beatrice. Beatrice recognized the choice her mother was giving her, and in a split-second decision, Beatrice returned her own unsmiling smile to her mother.
"I dunno. Costa Rica sounds nice, Mom."
Sunny took Beatrice's hand and led her towards the kitchen, "C'mon, honey. We can talk about it over another slice of pizza."