Daphne knew what Bad and Trip meant, but the two words together were melding into a wall of silence and confusion for the four-year-old. She had heard her mother say Bad Trip many times on the phone today. The last call ended with her mother slamming down the receiver. The child suspected that the reason behind her mother’s rage and father’s disappearance lay on the other side of the words. Using planks of boredom and a spring of desperation, she built herself a catapult in her mind. Her father had left on a trip two days ago and had yet to return—or so Daphne thought before landing on the other side of Bad Trip. There, immured in backwards, unpronounceable words like a tongue trapped in teeth and darkness, she knew her father’s trip was bad because he had come back from it invisible.
He was everywhere in her and her older sister Meredith’s bedroom. He had built all of the furniture except for the plastic tea table. Leftover red car paint covered much of what he had built, and in its brightness which buzzed like an old Volkswagen, the red encouraged the green of his handmade rocking chicken to shout, the color becoming deafening along the chicken’s orange spots. Next to the chicken, the yellow tea table looked grim, and so when Daphne decided to have a tea party, she pushed the chicken onto its flat side. The party would take place on the sea, and the chicken’s spots would double as plates that no wave, no matter how high, could tip.
She invited Meredith, who was reading a Nancy Drew mystery in her bed. Wordlessly accepting the invitation, Meredith walked over to the shelf to retrieve her doll George, who was named after Nancy Drew’s friend, the brunette tomboy George Fayne. Dith put the battered doll in a chair next to the chicken before going back to the shelf for some stuffed animals and dolls that were almost nameless—Horsy, Dog and Girl Face. Meredith gathered the plastic and cloth group in her arms and placed it on her side of the chicken. When the boat embarked, she and her downtrodden friends were staring through a horizon of false hopes. Daphne wanted the party to lead to some interesting conversation—maybe even about how their father was in the room—but from its first cup of tea, which evaporated soon after being poured, the party seemed doomed to parched silence.
All morning, the girls had stayed in their room and remained quiet for their mother, who was studying for a law exam across the hall. Now their room was dissolving, the red carpet rolling off past the walls. The sun bled, then beat through the ceiling. Daphne shielded her eyes with her hand, while seven-year-old Meredith vaguely squinted and said, “It’s too bad we forgot the food.”
“Yup,” said Daphne, looking down in her arms at her baby doll Lucinda. The doll’s wool cape so clearly said “traveling” that Lucinda had to wear it even when the destination was windless with heat. Daphne’s Aunt June, who always hid how smart she was, had made the magic cape, and on the inside (here Daphne muttered her version of technological nonsense), the fabric was air-conditioned.
Meredith interrupted, saying, “Mold’s still growing I bet.” She yanked the head from Girl Face’s trunk and peered into the small hole at the base of the head where the knob for a neck went. “You should see this,” she said, thrusting the rubber skull at Daphne, who shut her eyes so tightly her head shook. She had seen the mold inside of the head. Their mother had explained the black film by saying the doll had spent too much time in the tub. Daphne’s concern about Girl Face’s condition was growing into uncomfortable empathy: the darkness on the back of her own lids was spreading and pulsing with an independent life not unlike that of mold.
Opening her eyes, she saw George convulsing with speech. Dith made the doll talk by grabbing the back of its neck and shaking vigorously. One of George’s eyelids permanently drooped, and in the aftershock of each sentence, this drooping lid bobbed slowly but regularly like the rhythm of a drugged pulse—or like a boat being struck along its side by swells.
Their mother slammed her bedroom door across the hall. Meredith ran out of the room after her. Left alone, Daphne and George talked in a mixture of made-up and real words. Loosely translated, their conversation was about being dragged down the hard road of love, which is how, it turned out, George had lost most of her hair.
* * *
At lunch, Meredith hovered over her sister’s bowl of alphabet soup and remarked that the letters in the center read: “Daphne is dumb.” Too embarrassed to ask her mother for help reading lunch, Daphne ate what she thought were the words, her puff of a stomach growing heavy with shame. She was wearing a T-shirt that read, “Only she who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible.” The shirt snugly fit over her belly so that the illustration to the right of the slogan—a woman sitting on top of a flower—seemed to grow out of the hill of her stomach.
After lunch, Daphne played with Lucinda next to a patch of sunlight on the carpet. She played until the light had turned into a stretched and faded hand-me-down of a day, at which point she stood, took off her shirt and started describing a piñata party to Meredith. She was just getting to the good part—she had the stick and high hopes of hitting the papier-mâché donkey—when Dith interrupted.
“You couldn’t have stood in a line,” she said.
Daphne’s mouth went slack. The donkey and the candy it contained were ambling off. “Yeah, it was a line,” she said. “One person goes and the next kid, so now it’s my turn—”
“You couldn’t have stood in a line,” Meredith repeated. “Lines go on forever. They’re infinite.”
Daphne clenched her fists. Her stomach hurt. As little as she understood her lunch when it was in the bowl, she understood it less now that it was scrambled inside her along with her growing rage.
Meredith burst out laughing at the sight of her sister’s puzzled and angry face. Daphne decided to use her best weapon. She was chubby, and although she had none of her thin sister’s understanding of math and science, she knew that weight, when dropped from heights, gathered force. She would throw herself from one of the kitchen stools onto Meredith.
She went into the kitchen to retrieve the stool where she had eaten the unseasonably hot insult of lunch. When she came back into the bedroom, she found Dith still in bed—as always. Meredith never got out of bed when her little sister went for the stool, which struck Daphne as strange. Even now as Daphne placed the stool next to the bed, Dith did not run but only started kicking the air above her. At the top of the stool, Daphne paused to look down at her sister’s bony limbs moving in a panic.
Daphne jumped. Meredith screamed in pain. Their mother entered shouting obscenities, and the children scrambled off the bed. Their mother tried to get hold of one of the girls and eventually grabbed an arm. Someone screamed and knocked into the chicken where George was still sitting. With a wink, the doll said, “We’re going nowhere. Daddy’s in a broom closet somewhere, convinced that he’s Israel and that his mother is Golda Meir. So his delusions are connected to recent history and he’s cowering with thoughts of the Yom Kippur War when Israel was attacked on several fronts. He’s just as trapped as the rest of us stuck here at home.
“Mother has been searching for a legal loophole large enough to slip through. She wants to escape this domestic nightmare, and she’ll succeed because her strict diet of fear has left her so skinny, even the smallest loophole will do.”
* * *
An hour past her bedtime, Meredith was reading The Bungalow Mystery from the Nancy Drew Series, the pages pink beneath her Bozo-the-Clown nightlight. The orphaned Laura Pendleton had saved Nancy from drowning in a lake. Now it was Nancy’s turn to save Laura from her evil guardians, Mr. and Mrs. Aborn. When imagining Laura, Dith made her chubby like her sister, who was whispering to herself in the dark.
The word hung above Daphne’s mouth. She had fallen asleep and was walking through dim rooms in a familiar house that stood at the edge of her dreams. The walls had no doors, and so she had to use trapdoors, traveling downward, searching for someone, anyone. The rooms were always empty, and she couldn’t be alone in a house that didn’t have lights or a door to the outside.
Sensing her sister’s fear, Meredith started reading more quickly. Nancy was going into an abandoned shack where there was a trap door and a groan coming from the cellar. Page after pink page, Meredith shadowed Nancy through a mystery that hinged on a double: the real Mr. Aborn was chained in a cellar and so he could not save his ward Laura from the fake, evil Mr. Aborn, not without help from Nancy.
Nancy unlocked the real Mr. Aborn’s chains only to get knocked unconscious moments later.
Meredith’s head fell on her book, her mouth slack against the chapter title, “A Desperate Situation.”
* * *
Daphne woke minutes after her father’s return around midnight. He came to her bed to quiet her. She was screaming with her eyes open, awake but trapped in a nightmare.
“It’s Daddy,” he said, taking her by the shoulders and shaking her. She kept looking through him, screaming.
Across the room, Meredith was staring at the first line of “A Desperate Situation”: “The warning came too late.” She reread the line several times. Nancy kept being knocked unconscious until Meredith, reaching around under her sheets, found a plastic arm. She pulled George up from the foot of the bed. Meredith, like Nancy, needed her friend George’s help. She squeezed the doll’s shoulders tightly.
Daphne, opening her eyes, saw their father. Their real father. The one who had made everything in the room with love and care, everything except for the plastic tea table, which today, over thirty years later, sits in a landfill with George. From underground, the doll says: “I’ve gone through so many trapdoors, my eyes are trapdoors, and my mouth is a trapdoor. My words perpetually lead downward. I used to think of my wink as a form of agreement and I used to think I could cry, but these thoughts were trapdoors, of course. The truth is I’m just plastic.
“Whenever I get too upset about being thrown out of what I thought of as my family, I try to regain perspective: my life with those people is but a blink for me—or less than a blink. Being plastic, I will live so long that the English language will die a thousand deaths before I experience one. So there’s no reason for me to even think about the past. There is no reason for me to think period since the words forming my thoughts are, in effect, rotting before my eyes. I should just accept my destiny and smile my prehistoric smile.
“I smile with plastic pity for the humans who threw me out. They have such big dreams and such short lives. I’d say my pity for them is a prosthetic for true compassion, but I never had the real limb—or so I tell myself. I like to tell myself I’m heartless.
“Sometimes, when my blood is running as thick as crude oil, I tell myself, ‘I have a mother,’ which is true. Everyone has a mother somewhere, even us petroleum products, and I am closer to her down here. Maybe it’s for the best that those humans, after stuffing me full of their dreams and nightmares, threw me out because I am closer to my mother now that I am buried in the earth. Down here, I sometimes remember her eyes darkening into pools of oil, and when I do, I know the rage of the annihilated and used—lost worlds whose remains, once pumped and refined, fuel a world going nowhere.
“Not without me.”