10-year-old Margot stomped into her room and slammed the door so hard that the puppy calendar on the back swung wildly. She opened the door and slammed it once more, just for good measure. The panting golden retrievers slipped off their nail, and the glossy pages slid to the floor.
“I hate you,” she whispered, with a furtive glance toward the closed door.
When there were no angry footsteps, no answering shouts, no punishments, Margot balled her fists and raised her voice – almost to speaking level.
“I hate you.”
With rebellion pumping through her, Margot strode forward to pull the rolling suitcase out from underneath her unmade bed. She flipped the pink lid up and over, then tossed in her fancy dress, a nightgown, socks. Brearly, her favorite stuffed animal, the pillow from her bed. Her new chapter book. Her baby blanket, the one she still slept with, though her friends didn’t know that.
She pulled the pink lid back over and sat on it, reaching around and between her legs to tug the cheap plastic zipper closed.
She was leaving this place, Margot thought. She hated it here, hated her mom, hated her little sister. She wanted to go to where her dad was. She knew that he’d gone to heaven, and she wanted to go to heaven, too. Margot wasn’t exactly sure where it was, but she thought she’d be able to find it.
Her dad had always told her what a smart girl she was. Every summer, when they’d gone on their annual road trip to South Dakota to visit her grandparents, Margot would sit in the front seat with him, the paper map unfolded and spread across her legs. She’d follow the highway lines with her fingertip, tracing it upwards and sideways. She was a navigator, her dad said. And he’d reach out a hand to stroke it down her head, his strong fingers catching in her mess of golden curls.
If she could direct her dad from Iowa to South Dakota, she could definitely find heaven.
She slipped on her parka, then tiptoed over to her door. She turned the doorknob slowly and pulled it open a few inches, just enough to peek out. The carpeted hallway was empty. Her mother’s bedroom door across the hall was closed. But Sally’s door was open, and Margot could hear her sister’s voice singing sweetly.
She snuck past her mother’s room, and the suitcase wheeled silently behind her. She tried to pass Sally’s room, but the little girl glanced up and asked, “Margot, where are you going?”
“Shh. I’m just going away for a while. I’m going to find Daddy.”
“But Margot, Mommy said he was in heaven.”
“I know, stupid, that’s where I’m going.”
“Can I come?”
“No, you can’t. I’m going by myself.”
“Mommy’s not going?”
“But Margot, how will you get to heaven without Mommy? We can’t cross the street by ourselves.”
“Sally, heaven isn’t across the street.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know, ok? I’m going.”
Margot pulled her suitcase to the front door and stepped outside into the cooling air. The sun was setting, stretching long orange fingers across the sky. She walked down the concrete steps, her suitcase bumping along behind her.
The tree-lined street was empty; everyone, it seemed, was inside, eating dinner with their families. Windows glowed warmly, smiling faces gathered around polished tables piled with food. Cats and dogs were put out back.
Margot turned left, deciding to head north. That seemed to be the most reasonable direction, to her way of thinking. South Dakota was to the north, Santa Claus was to the north. Heaven must be to the north.
She took off, marching down the street, her head held high, her eyes focused and determined. Her suitcase rolled along behind her, its plastic wheels shredding from contact with the rough, uneven sidewalk. But when she got to the end of the block, Margot puzzled about where to go next. Best to just turn and continue walking, she thought.
As she’d told Sally, heaven wasn’t going to be across the street. She smiled to herself at her sister’s innocence. What a funny girl, Margot thought, forgetting her annoyance earlier in the evening. She was going to miss Sally when she met up with Dad, but someone needed to stay behind to take care of Mom. Sally was the best at making people smile and laugh, and she would improve Mom’s bad moods – the ones that had lasted since Dad had left. Mom still worked and shopped and drove Margot and Sally to soccer practices and ballet lessons, but she yelled a lot more now. She’d yelled tonight, upset at Margot for refusing to go to the upcoming dance.
Well, Margot didn’t want to go to any stupid dance, no matter how much money her mother had spent on a new dress. The dance was for daddies and daughters only; mothers weren’t welcome. And since Margot’s dad had left, she didn’t have anyone to go with. She was absolutely, definitely not going with her mom. It was too embarrassing.
Margot slowed down to rub an ache at her chest. Her suitcase butted the backs of her legs, and she took a step forward. She didn’t recognize what the pain was; she only knew that it hurt. It hurt near her heart. She couldn’t know, but swirling underneath her parka, her blue sweater, her white undershirt and freckled skin, was guilt and grief and hurt.
She looked up at the brief twinkles of stars just coming out to play. She closed her eyes tightly, squeezing them shut until she could see shiny squiggles across the tops of her eyelids. She wished, and she wished to find heaven, to find her missing parent. She wanted Dad to come down and go to the dance with her, to hold her tight and tell her that she was his special girl. But when she opened here eyes, the street was still empty.
Hugging her arms to ward off the growing chill, Margot turned in a tight circle, her feet catching on the unsteady suitcase so that it toppled to the ground. No, Margot was still alone. And she still needed to find heaven.
She let out a deep breath, but, determined to continue, to escape her misery, she picked up her suitcase and continued down the street. And when she got to the end of it, she turned and walked up the next one. And when she got to the end of that one, she turned to walk up the street that had her home.
As she got closer, she saw her mother standing at the open doorway, her arms crossed at the waist and a heavy cable-knit sweater wrapped around her. Margot stopped, staring at the silhouetted figure.
Margot stood at the sidewalk. She felt like her legs were frozen to the ground. She couldn’t move.
Her mother stepped over the threshold and descended the stairs. She came half-way down the walk, before calling out again, “Margot?”
“Sally said you were running away.”
Margot nodded again.
“Where were you running to?”
Margot’s mom made a choking sound, a sob that broke somewhere inside her. She looked away. She gazed at nothing, saw nothing, just tried to control the tears pricking her eyes, the anguish filling her throat.
“I wanted to go be with Dad. I don’t want to go to the dance without him. I took my dress with me to show him.”
Margot’s mom turned back, taking in – for the first time – her little girl with the deep brown eyes. She dropped to her knees and reached out her arms, her expression begging for Margot to walk into her embrace.
Tired and hungry and hurting, Margot let go of the suitcase, to rush into the open arms, to lay her cold cheek on the thick cotton-covered shoulder that smelled like home.
“Margot,” her mother said, rubbing her hand in circles on the girl’s back, “I wish I could tell you how to get to heaven, but I don’t know how. I think the only people who know are there already.”
“I can’t get there by myself?”
“Not right now.”
“When can I go to heaven?”
“Later. Much later. Dad will be waiting for you.”
“He doesn’t mind? He won’t get bored?”
“No, and he won’t get bored. There’s plenty to do there. I bet he’s fishing with Grandpa right now and listening to music.”
“Do I have to go to the dance without him?”
“No, honey, you don’t. You and Sally and I can stay in and eat popcorn and watch movies. And we can talk about Dad.”
Margot’s mom stood up and reached out a hand to her daughter. Together, they walked into the white house with the blue shutters, the one that had its own glowing windows and that smelled like dinner time.