Franki asked Ma the question nobody else would. “Why do all short people end up in the basement?”
“Shh.” Ma pointed upward.
Franki saw nothing but blue sky and glorious clouds floating above. She breathed in the odor of freshly cut grass. Skipped along the gravel path, keeping time with Ma’s quick short strides.
“How tall today?” Ma asked. And with each movement, the badge hanging around Ma’s neck jingled with all the charms she’d attached to the metal lanyard. “And did you take off your shoes like Daddy taught you? They’ll do that, you know when the time comes.”
“Daddy’s gone.” Franki kicked a stone off the path.
After several seconds of the chain jingling, Ma finally said, “He’ll be back.”
Although Franki had heard about the returns, she’d never seen that happen. “I hope so,” she said, and then she felt a lump in her throat when she swallowed. “Four feet, eleven and a half inches.”
“You’re still growing. There’s time.” Ma had a quarter of an inch on Franki. They were almost the same height. “You don’t need to walk me home every day.”
“It’s just that Daddy’s not here to do it.” She sighed. Five feet six inches, was that why Daddy left? “Where did he go?”
Ma grabbed the badge as if to prevent it from hearing. “Hush, little Franki. We don’t question things,” she whispered.
Franki stepped on the gravel path that cut through the middle of a vibrant green field and felt so alive. A cool breeze whistled through tall stalks of grass that surrounded them. Whoever had been cutting the grass earlier didn’t finish. Patches left un-mowed like so many things un-told. Somebody had that job, a field worker, or a maintenance man. Would they return tomorrow to finish?
No more talking during the half-mile walk home. Every so often, Franki took a peek at the sky. What did her mother fear so much? It was just a bright blue wonderment. Franki loved the outdoors. She needed a couple more inches so she could avoid an assignment in the basement like Ma. As they approached the residential area, which was rows of stucco homes, each one resembling the next, she searched for Daddy’s cactus in the front yard.
“Where are the kids?” Franki asked. She’d left her sister playing tetherball with her crazy tall friends near the fountain, near the house. But the streets were quiet except for the tetherball tapping the pole. This is a fragment but it works because Franki seems in a kind of trance
“At home, I’m sure.” Ma removed the clunky lanyard from around her neck and handed it to Franki. She had an edge in her voice when she said, “Stay here.”
The fields whistled in the distance as Ma ran past the cactus and pushed open the front door. Franki heard the children giggling inside. She heard Ma and practically felt her relief. “You girls,” Ma said, and then she snorted. “Such a mess.” Through the window from the sidewalk, Franki watched the four tetherball players eating ice cream and chips, younger but so much taller than she was. Tall like Daddy.
Franki gripped the badge, stared at her mother’s picture, at her pointed noise and bloodshot eyes, and the way her mouth flattened in a straight line, never smiling. Franki put the chain around her neck. Might as well get used to it—she’d be called to the basement soon. Without much thought, her feet moved in the direction she and her mother had come from. Through the whistling fields, along the gravel path, and right up to the fence that surrounded the facility. The place Ma went almost every day of Franki’s life. All these years not even the slightest clue of what goes on behind those walls and underneath the ground in the basement. Franki swiped the badge on the electronic button on the gate of the fence that surrounded the largest cement building she’d ever seen. The only cement building she’d seen. The electronic lock beeped, and the gate opened. Acting like she knew what she was doing, Franki headed toward the stairs on the side of the building. The same stairs she had watched Ma descend so many times before.
Down Franki went, her heart racing with each footstep. The air grew cooler as she went lower and lower. At the foot of the stairs was a huge metal door with an electronic lock similar to the one at the gate. Swipe. “Beep.” But the door didn’t open. Franki took a closer look at the mechanism. A thumbprint would be needed to enter. Her chest nearly imploded as she suddenly realized how foolish she’d been. She ran up the stairs as fast as her short legs allowed.
At the gate, Franki’s hands shook as she swiped Ma’s badge against the electronic lock. Swipe to get in and swipe to get out. Of course, they would find out. She’d never done anything so stupid. But she didn’t actually go inside. No harm, no foul…
As soon as the gate opened, she hoofed it down the path. A glimmer of metal or something appeared in the sky. Was that the thing Ma feared? Then the sparkling bit of something above her head vanished. Franki’s lungs burned as she pushed herself to run faster.
Feet, just get me home safe. I’ll never ask another question again. I promise. One foot in front of the other. Finally, stucco homes, cactus, tether ball, and through the front door. Ma stood in the entryway with her arms on her waist. “Where’d you go?” Ma asked.
Panting, Franki said, “On a quick run.”
Ma’s face scrunched together. “You don’t like to run.”
“I just needed to think.”
Ma looked at the badge hanging around her next. She held her hand out. “Give it to me.”
Franki couldn’t look at Ma. She focused on her feet as she removed the jingling lanyard and handed it over.
Ma clasped Franki’s hand as she gripped the badge. “There are things you don’t need to know yet. When the time comes, you’ll understand.”
And for the first time in her young life, Franki didn’t say a word. She just nodded.