by Katie Darby Mullins
Because you are a stepmother, maybe your laugh is a little louder than the other moms. That’s fine. You laugh even louder when you realize it. Look at how much fun this is, you’re saying. I love being a mom.
But you know you’re not a mom, don’t you? It doesn’t matter how drunk, how high, how fucked up your child’s mother is, you’ll never be her mother. And you know you can’t have one of your own, either: you will never be a mother. You force yourself to think those words, about never being a mother, over and over, so you’re prepared for that pain. But if you’re not a mother, what are you doing here at a park at 10 a.m. on a summer day? Didn’t you want to do something bigger with your life? The voices of your high school friends echo inside your head. You were the most likely to succeed.
You sit on a bench, but the whole time, you try to focus in on the blurry colors of Evie’s movement. Evie. Would you have picked that name? It doesn’t matter. She flutters in and out through the playground’s plastic tubes. They’re aged to look like wood: a far cry from the playgrounds of your childhood, which were real wood. You could get a splinter there—you did. The park is beautiful today, and you’re glad to be outside. It’s about seventy two degrees out, sunny, but not oppressive. Evie isn’t even sweating yet. She’s made a friend already: she’s quick to make friends, but quick to forget them: a common trait, you suppose, in children of divorce. She’s darting in and out of the playground, walking on the wooden perimeter like it’s a balance beam, testing each step before officially committing to it. She’s being careful. She wants you to see that. You mentally note what she’s wearing: blue jean shorts, a pink-striped tank top, those awful plastic shoes with mismatched socks. Brown eyes, brown hair. You do this every time you go out: you want to be able to tell people what she looks like in an emergency.
Your husband tells you to stop being morbid. He’s right, too—you’re just begging the universe for trouble when you plan for disasters. But he doesn’t understand: it would be one thing for Evie to disappear on his watch, but something completely different if it happened on yours. For the first year of your marriage, you never left the house because you were afraid to get in an accident with her in the car. Taking her to the park may not seem like much, but it’s the stepmom equivalent of flying to the North Pole.
The little boy she is playing with falls and has a scratch. He cries softly, the big, gulping cry of a kid who needs attention but not help. “Are you okay?” you call, and he looks away quickly, knowing that he’s not supposed to talk to strangers. You wish Evie wouldn’t talk to strangers so easily, but then, you are always right next to her, always by her side. No wonder she feels safe.
“He’s fine, Amanda,” Evie shouts. You take a deep breath and let it out slowly just like your therapist tells you to: one, two, three… all the way to ten. You smile. “Are you having fun, sweetheart?”
Evie beams, and you see just how beautiful she is in this moment. She’s tall and lanky, bruised and cut-up from daredeviling. She will jump off of anything, and you love that about her, even when you yell, “Don’t jump off of that!” In your heart, you are always a little proud when she does it anyway. It reminds you of yourself—though, that doesn’t make sense biologically.
“Yes!” she says, and then back into the tubes she goes.
A man across the park is watching you. You zeroed in on him quickly: it’s rare to see a man at a park on a Tuesday morning. His hair is blond and close-shaved, so you can’t tell he’s not bald until he’s very close to you: he looks like he’s in the military. He’s short and stocky, has thick fingers and legs. You can’t figure out which child is his, yet, so you are suspicious of him.
“Good morning,” he says. You can’t prove he doesn’t mean it.
“Hello,” you say, but you only ever look at him out of the corner of your eye. Your direct gaze traces a line from where Evie was to where she is going. You never let her all the way out of your sight.
He smiles and sits down on the other end of the bench. “That one’s mine,” he says, and points at the little boy Evie is playing with. You feel foolish all of the sudden. “He’s Chris, and so am I. We call him Christopher, though.” You relax and breathe a little easier. We. He is not trying to flirt with you. He gets safer and safer.
Evie runs to you to get a drink of water, and you hand her the squeeze bottle you keep in your purse. Your purse—just three years ago, it had beauty magazines and lipstick in it. If someone took an inventory now, they’d find toys from the quarter machines, small notes or drawings Evie gave you, plastic animals. It’s like you are a different person now: the person you always wanted to be when you grew up. And Evie is the kid you hoped you’d have.
“What do you do?” you ask the man
“I’m a stay-at-home dad,” he says.
You nod. That seems obvious. “I’m a teacher,” you say.
He smiles. “That’s a good job when you’ve got a kid. Where do you teach?”
“Up at North Hills Elementary.” You smile, you actively try to smile: it is not easy. You turn and look at him: he is in gym clothes.
“That’s where Christopher goes,” he says, and then he takes a deep breath: “At least, before my bitch of an ex-wife filed for divorce. God only know what’ll happen this year. He shakes his head. “She can move anywhere, you know. But I’m fighting it. I’m fighting to keep him with me. I’m all he’s ever known.”
“My husband has custody,” you tell him. It’s hard to find people in your position, so you find yourself lying a lot—just by omission. People think Evie is your daughter, and you don’t correct them until you have to. But when it sounds like someone else lives the same way you do—a father with custody—you open up, little by little. You have a checklist of rules though:
1. You do not, ever, say Evie’s mother’s name.
2. You do not ever tell them the truth about said mother: she didn’t even fight for custody, she occasionally uses, she’s a diagnosed narcissist. You think there should be a national registry for people like Evie’s mother.
3. You never share anything negative about being a stepmother—you don’t tell them about how weird it is to have to comfort a child while she cries for her mother, or how it breaks your heart every time she almost calls you ‘mom’ and then corrects herself
4. But sometimes you break rule number 2—because you are only human and you are tired
This time, you are tired, and you tell Chris that your husband has a bitch-of-an-ex-wife, too. You’re tired of court and you’re tired of Evie coming home tired because they stay up all night over there. You’re tired of fighting the head lice she’s had for months because, no matter how hard you try to keep it from coming back, a few hours over there always leads to a re-infestation. You are tired of her implying that you broke up her marriage, when the truth was the ex-wife had a boyfriend before the divorce was even settled. You are just so goddamned tired.
But then you tell Chris that in the long run, everything will work itself out. “Christopher will know who was there for him, whether you win custody or not,” you say, even though you know the custodial parent has more impact. If his ex-wife really is a bitch, and if she wins the custody battle, you know that Chris and his son’s relationship will be strained at best, destroyed at worst. You’ve seen it happen. In these situations, it’s best just to accept that whatever happens will happen. Maybe Chris should marry a woman who can have kids and try again. You worry that your husband wanted to do that, and you involuntarily place your open palm on your flat, empty belly.
You look up to find Evie, but all of the sudden, you can’t see her. Christopher is playing in the thinly sliced tire that lines the playground floor. Chris hasn’t taken his eyes off of him. You pretend that you aren’t worried, but you stand up and start to circle the playground.
“Do you need help?” Chris asks, and you just nod. You are trying not to cry.
“Evie!” you yell. “Evie, are you okay? I can’t see you, honey,” but you can hear your voice become more and more high-pitched and terrified. This is a bad dream. This cannot be happening. Not now, not to Evie.
“Evie!” Chris yells. Christopher tilts his head and watches the two of you. You are running now, running to the back of the playground.
You run through all of the possibilities: has she been kidnapped? Maybe Chris only talked to you to distract you while some second man came to kidnap her. Or maybe she’s hurt: she may be lying somewhere with a broken arm. Or leg! She could be bleeding. What if she wandered off? She got hit by a car. Anything. Everything could have happened.
Finally, though, Christopher says they are playing hide and seek. You know Evie will not give up her hiding place for you, so you tell him to call off the game. It doesn’t take long for her to fall from the roof of a plastic castle tube: she had somehow climbed her way into the triangular top part and held herself there with the traction from the soles of her shoes. She is resourceful. You always say she is resourceful.
You are openly crying now, but you pretend you aren’t, and your voice has gone back to normal. This is a mundane enough occurrence that Evie just asks, “Allergies?” and you nod. She has seen you cry so many times—but she doesn’t know that. Not yet. Years from now, when she looks back at her childhood, she’ll know you are a crier, but not yet.
You can imagine a possibility that months from now, she may actually disappear. You would try to remind yourself of this day at the park when her mother—you’ll name her now, her name is Trudy—calls your husband from out of the blue and says she doesn’t know where Evie is. You’ll try to have empathy for how terrifying it is when your child is lost, but you can’t help it, you judge her: she doesn’t seem scared or upset enough. You hate her. Even more.
And you can imagine watching press conferences with your knuckles white and your teeth grinding, your husband up next to her, them both begging and pleading. You’ll wince when Trudy says something untrue—that Evie has dimples even though you know she only has one dimple, on her right cheek, or that she’s forty-five pounds, when you know she is fifty two. You hate her for not knowing her own daughter as well as you do, and you hate her for being the one who speaks out for Evie. But you also know it’s not your place, whatever that means, to be the advocate here. And your afternoons would be so empty then that one day, you will go to the park and watch the children run around and hold your breath and cry and cry when you know that this time, she won’t drop down from above. You don’t even know what she was wearing.
Katie Darby Mullins is currently finishing her MFA at Spalding University and teaching at the University of Evansville. In addition to editing a recent rock-n-roll crossover edition of the metrical poetry journal Measure, she’s been published or has work forthcoming in journals like Harpur Palate, Broad River Review, Big Lucks, The Evansville Review, and she was recently a semifinalist in the Ropewalk Press Fiction Chapbook competition and in the Casey Shay Press poetry chapbook competition.