By Véronique Béquin
Alice turned over in her sleep. The bed was as narrow as a crib, and only two feet longer at most. Alice’s long legs flopped over the end of the mattress, one arm dangled over the comforter; the other was tucked under the hard pillow against the whitewashed headboard. Alice’s auburn curls touched a faded string of purple grapes and vine leaves painted on the board in a Naïf style. The bed was in the children’s room along the window wall. A second, similar bed with a steam train motif at its head was on the opposite side, squeezed between a tallboy and a chest intended for spare blankets. There was nothing to spare in the house—the wooden box was used for George’s and Stevie’s toys.
Alice had fallen asleep straight away after her nieces left for school on the bright yellow bus with muddy tires. The neighboring children fell silent when the two girls climbed on board. Stevie was the eldest at seven. George, who was really Georgina, but only ever answered to the more definite sounding George, was only six, but had the confidence of a CEO. She marched in and out of rooms, rearranging the lives of the people who happened to be there with unexpected and matter-of-fact observations and comments. George was the family’s oracle, although her wisdom was not necessarily welcome. Stevie, on the other hand, only spoke to Missus Swift’s dog Marcus, next door, and to the neighbor’s three cats across the street.
Alice had come to stay. She didn’t know how long for—as long as needed was her plan. Her sister Milly, Stevie’s and George’s twenty-nine-year-old mother, was in the nearby hospital. Milly was dying from stab wounds her ex-husband had inflicted on her. The police had been too busy to impose the restraining order granted only the month before. Milly’s two girls knew their mother was dying. They had been at the kitchen table eating pasta and broccoli when their estranged father had broken the back door down and rushed at their mother with a large hunting knife. He hadn’t come for them, or even looked at them. He had walked out as quickly as he came, leaving Milly bleeding against the kitchen sink and his daughters too scared to cry.
It was George, not Stevie, who had called the police and her aunt Alice straight after that: “Come right now, Auntie Alice. It’s very bad here.” George had stood guard by the door until help arrived. George had told the EMS crew: “My Mom’s bleeding a lot! My sister needs your help fast.” Stevie had held the dirty dish towel against Milly’s stomach. The paramedics had been the first to hear the almost silent moan coming from Stevie’s throat.
Alice had come right away. She looked as if she had known this would happen someday. Of course, she said nothing of the kind, except when asked by the police if this was unexpected. George, who should not have known such things, had stated a few times in her short life: “Daddy, please don’t kill Mommy, please.” Milly’s ex-husband had been found cowering in a nearby barn hours later. He hadn’t asked about his daughters. When he’d asked about Milly, he had seemed disappointed to be told she was lingering on in a hospital bed.
Alice was Milly’s older sister by ten years. A brother between them had been stillborn, Alice being old enough to know of the dead baby. Alice’s father had beaten her mother up until the baby boy had died before really living at all. Their mother stayed. Milly came along. Alice had made up her mind to never bring children into a world that was that unfair, that cruel. Alice felt her womb was poisoned before she ever knew she had one. She kept an eye on Milly and food on the table whenever Milly asked. Alice kept an eye on Stevie and on George, too. She didn’t know how her sister had dared bring children, girls at that, into the world. Alice told herself she lacked that courage—or that foolishness. She never asked Milly about that. She never spoke of the past repeating itself. George would have said: “Tomorrow is another day, Auntie Alice!” What would George say now?
Milly’s and Alice’s mother had died before her granddaughters were born. Cancer got her as it did her husband a few years after that. She never knew life without his fists on her body. Milly died three weeks after she was stabbed. The trial was over quickly; the girls’ father was charged with murder, and the court granted parental rights to Alice.
Alice thought she’d move the girls to a new neighborhood. A new home, new school. New kids to make friends with, without any old stories hovering. She didn’t have a clear plan yet. A few months after the attack, Stevie and George still didn’t want to leave the house where their mother had been alive with them. So, Alice moved into her sister’s house. She kept her ideas about any changes to herself for now. She didn’t sleep at night in her sister’s bed. She watched George and Stevie sleep. She watched out for their dreams. Blankets slipped and arms let go of a plush bear or a furry crocodile. Alice watched and picked up arms and blankets and toys, carefully replacing them into safety. Though she realized this couldn’t go on forever—for now, she watched over them, and slept on one of the girls’ small beds, only when morning came again.