Freya Badgett ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Her name was Mrs. Hoffenecker, first name Alma. She told people she was a widow, but the truth was she was a divorcee, which she didn’t like to admit. Her husband left her for another woman when she turned a bitter forty, but that’s another story. She got as much money as she could out of him in the divorce settlement and was able to live comfortably on her own. Luckily, there were no children.
At age sixty-two, she saw she was living too much on her own. She wasn’t lonely or lacking, exactly, but the years were passing her by at an alarming rate and she saw herself dying in twenty or twenty-five years without ever having made a mark on another person’s life. There would be no one to mourn her or even to remember her after she was gone. She might enrich someone else’s life, and they hers, if given the chance.
She had always liked children or at least she thought she did. She was a college graduate and very well-read. She saw herself as a reading tutor to disturbed, underachieving high school students—nothing was more important than being able to read well—but the words disturbed and high school in the same sentence bothered her. People had changed so much since she was in school. She didn’t want to get herself into a situation where she felt threatened by hulking teenage boys.
Younger children seemed to be the thing. Over five years, but younger, say, than fifteen. She placed an ad in the local newspaper: Dependable widow with lovely home and plenty of love to give will babysit older children at agreed-upon hourly rate. Days or nights, weekdays or weekends.
The first call she received was from a Mrs. Badgett. She had to go out of town on a business trip, Mrs. Badgett did, and had no one to leave her thirteen-year-old daughter with. The daughter’s name was Freya and she was really no trouble at all. Just a quiet, clean, orderly and well-mannered girl.
Mrs. Hoffenecker asked Mrs. Badgett to bring Freya around at five o’clock so they could all meet. If they all liked each other, Mrs. Hoffenecker saw no reason why they couldn’t make a go of it.
After ten minutes of strained, getting-to-know-you conversation, Mrs. Badgett laughed nervously and jangled her bracelets.
“I don’t really like leaving my daughter with strangers,” she said, “but I don’t have much choice. We’ve been her less than a month and we don’t know hardly nobody at all.”
“No family?” Mrs. Hoffenecker asked sympathetically.
“No, we don’t know nobody worth knowing.”
“You’re a business executive?”
“Yes, I travel frequently with my job.”
“That must be interesting.”
“Not so wonderful when you have children to take care of. You can’t take them with you and you can’t go off and leave them by themselves.”
“What do you think, Freya?” Mrs. Badgett asked. “Do you want to stay with this nice lady for two days while I’m gone?”
Freya had been sitting on the couch the whole time, looking straight ahead, hugging her arms. At the sound of her mother’s voice, she raised her eyebrows, puffed out her lips and shrugged her shoulders.
“Good!” Mrs. Badgett said. “Then it’s settled! I’ll drop her off Friday afternoon after school.”
“I’m looking forward to it!” Mrs. Hoffenecker said, but what she was really feeling was nausea at the thought of a stranger, a surly teenager, living in her house for two days.
On Friday morning she cleaned the guest bedroom, even though it wasn’t dirty, and changed the towels in the guest bathroom, even though they hadn’t been used. She went to the store and bought food she wouldn’t ordinarily buy, such as frozen pizzas, chocolate ice cream and soda.
At the appointed time on Friday afternoon, Mrs. Badgett let Freya out in front of the house and drove off. Freya knocked timidly and Mrs. Hoffenecker opened the door with a bright smile. She couldn’t keep from noticing that Freya looked unhappy. She didn’t particularly like—and who would?—being dropped off at the house of a stranger for a weekend.
“Welcome to my home!” Mrs. Hoffenecker said.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” Freya said expressionlessly.
Mrs. Hoffenecker took Freya upstairs and showed her the room where she would be staying. Freya threw her suitcase on the bed and went into the bathroom and relieved herself without even bothering to close the door.
“There’s clean towels in there for you if you want to wash up,” Mrs. Hoffenecker.
She waited until Freya was finished and then took her back downstairs.
“What would you like to eat?” she asked.
“I’m not hungry,” Freya said.
“You don’t want any dinner?”
“I think it’s customary to say no thank you.”
Freya looked closely at Mrs. Hoffenecker as though seeing her for the first time. “I don’t really have time to eat now anyway,” she said. “I have friends waiting. I’ll grab something later, when I get back. ”
“What? You mean you’re going out?”
“You don’t think I’m going to sit around this dump for two days, do you?”
“I’m supposed to be in charge of you and I don’t think your mother would like it if…”
“My mother doesn’t give a shit what I do as long as I don’t end up in jail or on a slab in the morgue.”
“Are you wearing eyeliner? At your age?”
“I know my mother told you I’m thirteen, but she’s full of shit, as usual, which you’ll find out as you get to know her. I’m sixteen and I’m not a virgin, either.”
“I don’t think I care to hear about that!”
“She’s not supposed to leave me unattended. I’ve been in trouble before.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“You name it. Say, do you think you could lend me twenty dollars? Ordinarily I’d ask for fifty but on such short acquaintance I’ll make it twenty.”
“I’m not giving you any money.”
“Just add it to your babysitting fee when we tally up. My mother won’t even think to question it.”
“I’d feel better if I talked to your mother first about this.”
“Yeah, but that’s just the thing, isn’t it? She’s gone off for two days and nobody knows where she is. She does that on purpose, you know? She’s the world’s worst mother. She doesn’t want you calling her or anybody else. She’s gone off on a wild weekend with her latest boyfriend. She doesn’t want to be reached, believe me!”
“I don’t believe it. She’s on a business trip. Why would she lie to me about such a thing?”
“Because she’s a damn liar, that’s why! She never tells the truth. She doesn’t even know how!”
“She brought you into my home under false pretenses!”
“Whatever you say, lady! I don’t have time to stand here and gab all night. If you could just give me that twenty, I’ll be on my way. On second thought, could you make it thirty?”
“I’ll make it fifty if you promise not to come back.”
“What? I have to have some place to sleep tonight, don’t I?”
“That’s no concern of mine.”
“Just make it thirty and I’ll be back by about midnight.”
“If you were my daughter…”
“Say, do you have an extra door key you could let me use?”
“I’m not giving you the key to my house!”
“Suit yourself. I’ll have to ring the doorbell and wake you up. It might not be until two or three in the morning.”
“You said midnight!”
“Well, you can never be too sure about those things, can you?”
“Just where is it you’re going?”
“I don’t think it’s any concern of yours. I told you I’m meeting friends. We’re going to a party.”
“Your mother expects you to stay here.”
“You really are naïve, aren’t you?”
She gave Freya three ten-dollar bills and spent the evening watching banal TV fare. At bedtime she triple-locked the doors and turned off all the lights and went upstairs to her bedroom.
She took three sleeping tablets instead of the usual two and went to bed and slept soundly, except for disturbing dreams toward morning in which she thought enormous rabbits with knife-like teeth were trying to get into the house. God told her to get out of bed and stand against the wall in a certain place to protect herself from the rabbits, but she didn’t seem to be able to move her limbs.
At seven-thirty she woke to birds twittering outside her window. She arose with an anxious feeling, forgetting at first what it was she had to be anxious about, and then remembering Freya. She went down to the hallway to the guest bedroom and listened at the closed door. Hearing nothing, she quietly opened the door. Freya’s suitcase was still on the bed, but except for that nothing was any different. She took the suitcase downstairs and put it in the coat closet until someone came and picked it up.
At nine o’clock she was in the kitchen eating her breakfast when the front doorbell rang. She was going to ignore it, until it rang a second and then a third time. When she went and opened the door, there stood Freya.
“Jesus, lady!” Freya said. “What the hell’s the matter with you? Why didn’t you let me in last night? I rang and rang!”
Mrs. Hoffenecker was speechless as Freya barged into the house as if she belonged there.
“That’s a kind of child abuse, you know that? I could call the cops and have you arrested!”
“I didn’t hear the doorbell,” Mrs. Hoffenecker said lamely.
“I had to spend the night in your garage, sleeping on the cold concrete floor. I might have given myself TB or something.”
“I was hoping you wouldn’t come back.”
“I told you I’d be back! What kind of a monster are you? My mother would just shit if she knew the way you had treated me!”
“I was hoping I’d seen the last of you.”
“I’m hungry! Could I have some breakfast?”
“You might try saying ‘please’.”
“Might I please have some breakfast?”
“If you promise to leave after you eat it.”
They went into the kitchen and Mrs. Hoffenecker cracked some eggs into a skillet. Freya sat down at the table. “I don’t eat bacon,” she said.
“Good, because I don’t have any.”
“I’ve invited some people over. I didn’t think you’d mind. They’re on their way out west and they need a place to stay tonight. They can sleep on the floor or anywhere. They won’t be a bit of trouble, I promise.”
“No, they won’t be any trouble because they’re not coming here.”
“They’re not coming here and if they do, you won’t be here.”
“What are you saying?”
“After you’ve had breakfast, you’re clearing out.”
“You can’t do that! You agreed with my mother to keep me until ten o’clock Sunday night.”
“That was before I knew what an inconsiderate pig you are. I thought I was getting an innocent thirteen-year-old girl and what I got was you!”
“You can’t talk to me that way! You can’t call me names like pig.”
She set a plate of eggs and toast on the table and said, “You have about thirty minutes to eat your breakfast and then you’re leaving.”
“And where am I supposed to stay tonight?”
“You might try the park.”
“I’m not leaving. You can’t make me leave.”
“I have a gun in my desk drawer. It’s always loaded. While I probably won’t kill you, I will shatter your ankle bone. I’m sure that’s bad enough. And, just so you know, I’m a terrible aim. I might try for your ankle bone and hit something more vital.”
“You’d shoot me?”
“Do you want to stick around and find out?”
“My friends will be furious when I tell them the way you treated me! They’ll come here and hurt you! They’ll do some damage to your house!”
“Yes, I would expect you to have friends like that.”
“How much is it worth to you for me to leave and never come back?”
“Do you think I’m going to pay you and your friends to leave me alone?”
“How much is it worth to you?”
“Oh, come now! I think we can do better than that! You offered me fifty last night to get rid of me.”
They settled on two hundred dollars. Freya seemed quite content with that amount.
“That’s the most money I’ve ever had at one time before,” she said, eyes sparkling.
“I knew you could be bought,” Mrs. Hoffenecker said.
While Freya sopped up the last of the egg yolk with the last of the toast, Mrs. Hoffenecker stood by patiently and watched her. When she was finally finished, she belched contentedly and wiped her mouth with the paper napkin.
“Do you have any donuts?” she asked. “I like some dessert after I’ve had breakfast.”
“No,” Mrs. Hoffenecker said. “I think you’ve had enough. It’s time for you to go.”
She escorted Freya to the door and held it open for her. “Do you have everything you came with?” she asked. “Bag? Jacket? I could search your bag to make sure you didn’t steal anything, you know.”
“Hey, man!” Freya said. “That’s an insult! I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a thief.”
“May I look inside your bag?”
“What are you hiding?”
“Okay, I took a bottle of sleeping pills out of your bathroom. That’s all, I swear!”
Mrs. Hoffenecker held out her hand and Freya rummaged in her bag and produced the bottle and placed it in her hand. Before any more words could be exchanged, Freya turned and ran out the door, as though afraid that Mrs. Hoffenecker might strike her. Mrs. Hoffenecker watched her all the way down the street until she could no longer see her. Thus ended Mrs. Hoffenecker’s experiment with reaching out to other people.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp