The Only Adult in the Room
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~
Prentiss Fitch stood and watched as her mother stuffed a black dress and a pair of pointy black shoes into an already-full suitcase. She was happy that her mother was going away for the weekend but not happy that she wasn’t going to have the house all to herself.
“Please, mother! I’m old enough!”
“No, you’re not! Fourteen is too young!”
“I’m almost fifteen.”
“You still act like a child. When I see you acting like an adult, I’ll start treating you like one.”
“Squeak is as much a child as I am!”
“She’s eighteen and a senior in high school. I trust her. I’m paying her to be the adult while I’m away.”
“She’s not eighteen! She’s seventeen! I’d rather go to the funeral than to stay here with Squeak for three days!”
“I thought you liked Squeak.”
“I like her well enough, but I don’t want to be with her every minute for three days.”
“As you get older, you’ll find yourself having to do many things that you don’t especially like doing.”
“Oh, mother, I think I’ll just kill myself!”
“All right. Just don’t make a mess.”
“A fat lot you’d care if I did kill myself!”
“Whenever you say things like that, I’m aware of what a child you still are.”
“Just give me the money that you’d pay to Squeak, and when you get back you’ll never know she wasn’t here.”
“I’m not sure I follow that line of reasoning.”
“What I’m saying is, you don’t have to pay Squeak. Just call her and tell her not to come. Then you can give me the money that you would have paid her.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because I don’t need a sitter, that’s why!”
“Would you rather stay at the county jail?”
“I can drop you off at the county jail and you can spend the weekend there, safely locked in a cell.”
“They wouldn’t let you do that!”
“Oh, yes, they would! The sheriff is my third cousin. He’d do anything I asked. So, what’s it going to be? Squeak or the county jail?”
“That is such bullshit!”
“I’ve asked you not to use that kind of language. I’m your mother, not one of your school friends.”
“Nobody ever does what I want!”
“That’s not true.”
“I’m hungry! What am I supposed to eat while you’re gone?”
“Stop your whining! You sound like you’re three years old. I just spent my entire paycheck on food. If you can’t find anything to eat, I guess you’ll just have to starve.”
“I want fish sticks and Tater Tots.”
“Squeak will be here soon. She’ll fix them for you.”
“Squeak can’t cook.”
“There’s nothing to fixing fish sticks and Tater Tots. All you have to do is preheat the oven and then put them in when the oven is hot enough. The only hard part is remembering to take them out before they burn.”
“I don’t want her to fix them. I want you to do it.”
After her mother left, Prentiss tripled-locked the front and back doors and turned on all the lights in the house. She didn’t want to admit it to her mother, of course, but she was afraid alone in the house after dark. Until Squeak arrived, she would be listening for any little sound outside that might indicate somebody was trying to break in.
She went into the kitchen to find something to eat. She would leave the fish sticks and Tater Tots for another time. It would take too long to preheat the oven, anyway. She fixed herself a baloney sandwich with lots of mayonnaise, put the sandwich on a plate and carried it into the living room. Her mother didn’t like her eating in the living room, but what did it matter? When one was alone, one might do as one pleased.
She turned on the TV and sat in her favorite spot on the couch, balancing the plate on her knee. On TV was a show with singing and dancing. She saw the dancers leaping in the air and heard the singing but she didn’t care for that kind of entertainment at the moment, so she didn’t pay much attention. Her attention was focused on the front door and to any sounds that might mean Squeak had arrived.
The singing-and-dancing show ended, and a comedy show with lots of laughter came on. She tried to focus her attention on what the actors were saying, but she was too nervous. It was after eight o’clock. It had been dark out for more than two hours and Squeak hadn’t come yet. She was going to kill Squeak when she saw her!
The comedy show ended and another one started. When the second comedy show was nearly over, she decided to call Squeak’s home and find out what happened. She let the phone ring and ring, at least twenty or thirty rings, but nobody answered. Squeak’s mother, at least, should have answered.
She began to scare herself with thoughts that Squeak and her mother had been murdered by a madman lunatic prison escapee, like in a horror movie. He would rape both of them, of course, and then slit their throats. He probably knew that Prentiss was waiting at her house for Squeak to arrive. He had her address and would be coming for her next.
At night o’clock, a police drama began. There were car chases, sirens and gunshots, but Prentiss paid only the scantest attention. She heard voices outside, people passing on the street. As long as people were out there, she was probably safe from anybody breaking in. If somebody wanted to kill her, they would probably wait until two or three in the morning.
She needed to go to the bathroom, not having gone since she came home from school, but she didn’t want to leave the relative safety of the couch and the voices on the TV. Finally, when the need became dire, she armed herself with a huge flashlight and a sharp pair of scissors and went down the dark hallway to the bathroom, turning on every light as she went.
When she returned to the couch, she felt a little better and was able to breathe a little easier. After all, she wasn’t a baby. She could do whatever she had to do. It was like standing up in English class and giving a speech with her knees knocking together. Just the thought of it made her ill, but when it was all over she realized it wasn’t so bad and she had been foolish to be so scared.
As long as the police drama was on, she felt it was still early enough that Squeak might show up before bedtime. The voices of the actors, even if she couldn’t make out all the words, were comforting.
The police drama ended at ten o’clock, though, and that’s when she began to be really scared. The ten o’clock news started. She hated the ten o’clock news. She wanted to turn to another channel, but she was afraid that somebody might be watching. If they knew she didn’t like the ten o’clock news, it might make them mad enough to kill her. She was better off, she decided, to just leave the TV where it was.
She stood up and went to the front door, pulling back the curtain just an inch or so and looking out into the darkness of the front yard. She saw movement out there, close to the house, as if somebody was sneaking around, trying not to be seen. No, on second thought, it was probably only the shrubberies blowing in the breeze.
The ten o’clock news ended with a cavalcade of commercials, and the ten-thirty movie began. It was a riding-and-shooting western, but at least there was nothing horrifying about it. She wanted to concentrate on the movie, to help her forget that she was alone, but she began to feel sleepy and longed to go to bed. She wished her mother was there and she didn’t need to be scared. She wished Squeak was there, silly and annoying, the way only Squeak knew how to be.
At eleven o’clock, she decided to call Squeak’s home again. If Squeak’s mother was in bed, the phone would wake her up, but that didn’t matter. She was an old crab anyway, and if she wasn’t on her high horse about one thing, she would be about a dozen things.
She let the phone ring and ring, as before, but still Squeak didn’t answer and neither did her mother. She seriously considered calling the police then, but she couldn’t think she would say if she did. No matter what she said, she’d sound like a fool. When you call the police, they expect you have some kind of crime to report, at the very least.
She returned to the western movie and was on the point of getting herself calmed down preparatory to going to bed when the phone rang. It was the most welcome sound she had ever heard! If it wasn’t Squeak, it had to be her own mother calling to check on her. She would let the words pour out of her, trying to keep from crying.
It wasn’t Squeak calling, though, and it wasn’t her mother. It was nobody. Or, rather, it was nobody who chose to speak. There was a brief intake of air from the other end of the line and then the connection was severed.
It could only mean one thing. Somebody was calling to make sure she was at home before they broke into the house to kill her.
Now she was scared beyond all reason. She clamped her hands over her mouth to keep from screaming. She went from the front door to the back door and back again. She turned on all the lights in the house that she hadn’t turned on already. She turned the radio on in the kitchen to dance music, loud enough so that anybody outside could hear it. She increased the volume of the TV, so that it sounded like there were many people in the house having a party.
Another hour went by. It was now after midnight. The phone didn’t ring again. She was less scared now and more sleepy. She ate a whole bag of marshmallows and some hot dogs, cold right out of the refrigerator. She wanted to go to bed, but she didn’t dare go into her bedroom and lock herself in, the way she did every other night. She thought about making a bed on the couch, but that was too out in the open and would make her too vulnerable. If anybody broke in, they’d find her without even having to look for her.
When she walked into the dining room, an idea came to her. Why couldn’t she sleep on the floor underneath the dining room table, where she would be hidden from view but would still know if anybody came into the house?
She went into her bedroom and pulled all the covers off the bed and covered the dining room table with them, making a sort of cave. Nobody would ever know she was under the table. It was dark under there, with the covers hanging down to the floor, and was probably the only place in the house where she would feel safe enough to go to sleep. Believing she was hearing voices that very moment outside in the yard, she scrambled under the table with the flashlight, wrapped herself in the blankets the best she could and soon she went to sleep.
She woke at three in the morning and didn’t know where she was. She thought she had died and was in her grave. She crawled out from under the dining room table, went to the bathroom, and walked sleepily all through the house, checking the doors and windows to make sure they will still secure. The TV was still going strong in the living room with talking and laughing, and the radio in the kitchen was broadcasting a sermon for the insomniac worshiper. She was still scared, but not like before. She went back to her bed under the table and went right back to sleep.
In the morning she didn’t wake up until after nine o’clock. She heard the blat of the TV and didn’t know at first where it was coming from. Her first waking thought was that it was Saturday and her mother wouldn’t be home until Sunday night. That meant she had to get through Saturday night the same way she got through Friday night. Damn everybody to hell for going off and leaving her alone! She couldn’t kill her own mother, of course, but she would definitely kill Squeak when she got the chance.
After a breakfast of cereal and toast, she got dressed and sat on the couch and watched some Porky Pig cartoons. She would just sit there all day long if she had to, waiting for somebody to remember that she was alone. Eventually her mother would call long-distance to check on her. She would enjoy telling her that Squeak never showed up and she was scared out of her wits in the house all night by herself, but she made it through on her own and was all the better for it.
While she was contemplating the long, lonely day ahead of her, she remembered that her mother kept a sizeable amount of cash in her jewelry box in her dresser drawer. Money for emergencies that never seemed to happen.
She went into her mother’s bedroom and rifled through the dresser until she found the jewelry box that she remembered but hadn’t seen in quite a while. She undid the little latch and opened the lid. There was the lovely money, just as she envisioned it: a fifty-dollar bill, some twenties, a few tens and some ones. Leaving the one-dollar bills behind, she took all the rest.
She went into her bedroom and packed her overnight bag, just the things she would need for one night: pajamas, house slippers, bathrobe, clean underwear, socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, and a clean change of clothes for Sunday.
When she was ready to go, she called a taxi and went out on the front porch to wait, holding her overnight bag in front of her with both hands. The yard and the outside of the house, she was happy to note, were not as frightening in the daylight. The taxi came after ten minutes.
She told the driver to take her to the Sir Francis Drake Hotel downtown. She and her mother had stayed there for two days in the middle of winter one year when the furnace broke and couldn’t be fixed right away.
She asked for a room for one night and when the man behind the desk looked at her, he asked her if she was alone.
“Shouldn’t I be?” she asked.
“Children are usually accompanied by an adult.”
“Well, I’m not! My mother is gone until Sunday night and I don’t have any place else to go.”
“I don’t think…”
“I have the money to pay for the room, if that’s what’s bothering you.”
After a little wrangling with the manager, they decided to let her stay for the night as long as she paid for the room in advance and as long as she wrote down the name and address of her mother and father as “responsible parties.”
“I don’t have a father,” she said. “My mother will have to do.”
After she checked into her room, she took the elevator down to the lobby and enjoyed a lavish meal in the hotel dining room of fried chicken, french fried potatoes, and lemon meringue pie, sparing not a penny of her mother’s money. Then she locked herself in her room (three locks on the door), where she watched movies all evening long, until she became sleepy.
In the morning, after a restful night of untroubled sleep, she again tried to get Squeak on the phone. Still Squeak didn’t answer, and neither did her mother. Something terrible must have happened there, she thought. It better be good.
She returned home by taxi in the evening. Her mother had been back from her trip for three hours and was “frantic” that Prentiss was nowhere to be found. She was getting ready to call the police.
Nothing bad had happened to Squeak. She wasn’t dead. Her mother was in the hospital for an emergency gall bladder operation. Squeak took advantage of her mother’s unexpected absence to go joyriding across three states with her twenty-year-old boyfriend in his new car. When she came back, she told everybody she had been abducted by aliens in a flying saucer in her back yard, but nobody believed her, and after a while she was forced to divulge what really happened.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp