Stacie was ten years old to the day when she lost her Mama. Cole was putting her to sleep, because Mama was out dancing with Dan, her new boyfriend.
“I like him,” she said.
“Dan? Why?” Cole asked.
“He got me a birthday present.” She held out the wooden boy and girl dolls he’d carved for her.
“That doesn’t make him your dad.”
“I know it doesn’t,” Stacie said, hurt. “I love Vince the most.” It was true, too: Vince was a constant, even if the only constant thing about him was inconsistency. But Mama’s boyfriends were always exciting. Gerald was a fisherman, and he’d taught Stacie about poles and types of fish and how to refresh the salt in a rubber bait by massaging it in her palms. Rex was an artist – he drew pictures of Stacie and let her splash them with watercolors to give to Mama for Mother’s Day. Dan was a woodworker, and he made her presents, and that was nice, too.
“Good night,” Cole said, and Stacie knew he didn’t want to talk anymore.
A few minutes later she was awake; the sky had turned dark very fast and there was a gentle rapping at the door. Cole was climbing out of bed, and she realized it hadn’t been a few minutes at all, but a few hours. She sat up.
“What’s that, Cole?” she muttered, rubbing her eyes.
“Stay there,” he said.
Stacie leaned back into her pillow and petted her stuffed bear, Jimmy, a gift from Vince. But as soon as Cole made it out of the room, she slid out of her bed and padded over to the bedroom door. Clutching Jimmy to her chest, she stuck her nose in between the slightly open door and the wall and she eavesdropped, even though Mama had told her not to.
“Who is it?” Cole asked loudly, without opening the door.
There was a short, muffled answer. Stacie thought she heard the word ‘police.’
“What are you doing here, then? We’re not doing anything wrong,” Cole answered, on edge as always. Stacie thought maybe if it was the police, he should let them in. Maybe they were here to protect them from something. Maybe there was a burglar running around outside. In fact, maybe he had a gun pointed at the policeman and he needed to come inside for cover. Anxious, she stepped into the hallway. The policeman was answering, and she still couldn’t understand what he said, but she heard the door creaking open and breathed a sigh of relief for him.
“What do you want?” Cole snapped.
“Can I please come in, son?” Stacie tiptoed closer so she could see the policeman.
Cole sighed obnoxiously so he wouldn’t think he was welcome – he did that a lot – and pushed the door aside to make room.
“Thanks.” Stacie thought he glanced over to where she was, just barely visible, and she breathed in softly as she tried to hide a little better.
“My name is Officer Dixon. What’s yours?”
“Well, it’s good to meet you, Cole. Is anyone else here?” he asked.
“My sister is sleeping.”
“Okay. I want to ask you some questions, if that’s alright.”
Cole didn’t answer. Officer Dixon didn’t seem to mind.
“What’s your mother’s name?”
“And her last name?”
“Do you know where she is?”
Cole answered fast: “She went out with her boyfriend Dan. She was supposed to be home sooner than this. She’s always home on time, though. I’m sure she has a good reason. Mama takes good care of us.”
“I’m sure she does, Son,” Officer Dixon answered. “That’s not why I’m here, although I like to see a boy so devoted to his mother.” He breathed in hard. “Do you mind if we wake up your sister now?”
Stacie started, pattered back to her bed as fast as she could go, and closed her eyes. When Cole came in a few moments later, she stretched as though she’d been asleep, but she didn’t think he bought it. She followed him to the living room, hanging her head.
“This is Officer Dixon,” Cole said, gesturing.
“Very nice to meet you,” the officer said. “What’s your name?”
“Stacie.” Her voice was small next to the policeman’s.
“Well, Stacie. Cole.” Stacie could hear his breath mingling with his words as he paused. “This is the worst part of my job. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your mother was in a car accident tonight. Both she and her boyfriend were killed.”
Stacie felt as though she’d been punched in the head.
“What?” Cole was shouting. He stood up. “You’re lying to us!” he said. “My mama is coming home! She’s just late, that’s all!”
Stacie was still trying to get her head back on straight. She shook it.
“Don’t you listen to him, Stacie Mae,” Cole went on. “Don’t you hear a word of it!”
Officer Dixon looked like he might cry. Stacie wondered if he had known her mama.
Cole got louder. “You’re trying to take us from Mama! You’re just making this up so we’ll go with you! I won’t go!” He folded himself up into a creaky old recliner, as if trying to latch himself to the house. Stacie wondered why he was doing it; she thought he just looked easier to pick up and carry out, a parcel of a person. He was silent now, except for heavy breathing.
“It’s my birthday,” Stacie said. Officer Dixon pressed his lips together.
“What’s your dad’s name?”
“Vince,” she answered, glad that they would get to see him. He’d make her feel better.
“We don’t have a dad,” Cole corrected, sitting upright. “Vince is just a friend of ours. Stacie is confused.” He shot her the same look he did the time she told Mama that his best friend Matt had smoked a cigarette.
Officer Dixon narrowed his eyes. “What’s Vince’s last name?”
Stacie felt her pulse in her throat, throbbing. “I don’t remember,” she said.
“You can check our birth certificates,” Cole pressed. “It’s just Mama.”
Stacie watched the floor, ashamed of her mistake. Her head began to pound.