I was fifteen when the threads started to fray. My younger brother Daniel and I were spending the weekend at Dad's. We were seated around his small table eating spaghetti—the only thing he knew how to cook—when I told him I was going to start pet sitting.
"Good," he said. "Maybe you'll stop asking me for money every time I see you. You guys are about to bankrupt me."
"I need insurance," I said, ignoring him. "Can you get it for me?"
"Why do you need insurance to feed cats?"
"I don't know but all the pet sitters in the phone book had ads that said they were bonded and insured."
"Don't worry about it," Dad said. "Just go ahead and say it."
"No one will know."
"Are you telling me to lie?" He might as well have told me to kill someone. Father's didn't tell their daughters to lie.
"It's not lying it's just... Forget it. You don't need to be insured to feed the neighbor's cat." He put up his hands when I started to argue. "What, you don't believe your father? Now eat your dinner before it gets cold."
The next weekend he agreed to drive me to the Bauers' so I could feed their cat. "Anything to help out my little entrepreneur," he said and I glowed. Until he said we needed to stop at the hardware store to make a copy of the key.
"You can't copy someone else's house key," I said sure I had misunderstood him.
"Watch me." He swerved into a parking space, told me to stay in the car and, before I could protest, slammed the door and bounded away. By the time he got back I was steaming.
"Do you think I'm going to lose it?"
"Of course not."
"Then you don't need the copy you just made. Give it to me."
"Is that how you talk to your father?"
He turned to look at me. "What if something happened? Like you had the key in your purse and it got stolen."
"I'd call a locksmith."
"He wouldn't open it for you, you're not the owner. Besides, you'd spend more money on a locksmith than you'd make pet sitting." I looked down, unsure of what to think. He reached out and cupped the back of my neck. "Let's pick up Daniel. We can go to the mall."
"You hate the mall."
"It'll be fun." He sounded so unconvincing I couldn't help smiling. We picked up Daniel and I stopped thinking about the key. But that night I made up for lost time, obsessing over it as if it were the next day's math test I knew I was going to fail.
"You look terrible, didn't you sleep?" Dad said when I came down for breakfast. His hair stood up in black devil's horns and his undershirt was dotted with crumbs.
"I can't stop thinking about the key. What we did was wrong."
He rolled his eyes and went back to reading the paper. "Better to copy the key than risk letting the cat starve to death. Eat something. You'll feel better after breakfast." He was wrong. Corn flakes couldn't chase my conscience away.
Going back to the Bauers' house Monday was like visiting a friend I had just betrayed. I got off my bike and walked slowly up to the door. The street was too quiet; no one was out despite the warm weather. I swallowed to get some moisture in my too-dry throat then put my ear up to the door. Silence. "Stop being a baby," I said to myself. "Nothing's going to happen." I took a deep breath, squared my shoulders and opened the door.
An orange missile streaked across the floor and up the stairs. Startled, I jumped back and the cat disappeared. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise as I walked through the Bauers' kitchen, keyed up like I had just slammed a case of Red Bull.
"Marmalade! Dinner! Here kitty, kitty." I measured out the cat food, poured fresh water and hoped the cat would come quickly. "Marmala-" I screamed and kicked out as something grabbed my ankle. I whipped around in time to see the cat streak away. "Come back, Kitty. Everything's okay." I said it as much for myself as for the cat.
For each of the next five days I let myself into the Bauers' house, walked through the foyer, turned right at the kitchen and made another right into the laundry room where the Bauers kept the cat bowl. I walked with slow, halting steps, back tensed, waiting for something to leap out at me, retribution for the key misdeed. It was like navigating a minefield. Then the Bauers came back, Dad gave me his key and the acid stopped corroding the lining of my stomach. I laughed at how ridiculous I had been. Three weeks later Dad asked to copy the Connors' key.
"No way. I was fine last time." I said.
"Better safe than sorry."
"They'd be pissed if they found out."
"They'll never know." He held out his hand for the key. I didn't move. "Give it to me." I shook my head. "I'm your father and you'll do as I say. Now give me the key." His voice was low but lethal, a fully-loaded automatic with a silencer, and each word pierced my flesh. Stricken, I handed it to him. He put it in his pocket and when he spoke again he was matter-of-fact. "I'm trying to protect you, Kitten, like a good father should. Every time you get a new pet-sitting job I'll keep a copy of the key in case something happens to yours and I'll give it back to you when you're done. Understand?" It wasn't a question.
Soon it became a ritual. Every Friday night after our spaghetti dinner Dad would ask me how business was and if I had a pet-sitting job I'd tell him. Then I'd hand him a key, he'd copy it the next morning and give it back when my job was done. Eventually I wondered what all the fuss had been about.
I knew my dad would be pleased when the Bauers asked me to cat-sit again. They were my first repeat customers and proof I was doing a good job. But Dad's reaction was not what I expected.
"Why don't you tell them you're busy?" He smiled and dried the plate I handed him.
"You've been working hard. Give yourself a break."
"I can't. I'm saving for a car. Besides, I don't want to let Mrs. Bauer down."
"She'll find someone to take care of the cat." He put the plate away and reached for another. "I'll pay you what you'd get for taking the job."
My jaw dropped like the free fall ride at Six Flags. My father never offered up money. "Why would you do that?"
"I'm proud of you. I'd like to be able to do this for you. Please let me." His eyes were so soft. But it was his smile when I said no to the Bauers that I knew I'd remember forever.
Mom told me about the break-in a few weeks later. "The Bauers were having some work done on their home so it might have been one of the construction guys..."
I couldn't hear over the ringing in my ears, couldn't see past the black and white spots that clouded my vision. I sank into a chair and tried not to vomit.
"What's the matter?"
I wanted to tell her so she could tell me that what I was thinking was crazy. But what if she didn't?
"I'm just... surprised. I almost took care of their cat."
"Oh, Baby," she said and swept me into a hug. While she crossed herself I tried to tell myself that my father wasn't a thief.
For the next few weeks I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep and didn't want to talk to my friends. The thinner and more aloof I became, the more they wanted to talk to me.
"You look great. Are you doing South Beach? The Zone?"
"You're so lucky. I wish I could lose weight like that."
"I heard Dan Walsh wants to ask you out. He's, like, the most popular guy in school."
After a while I began to enjoy the attention. Nothing had happened, no one tried to arrest me or my father, no one even talked to us about the break-in, so it had to be a coincidence. I let myself relax. Then Dad blew out the superhero suit.
"The Connors? Didn't you sit for them before?" he said. Then, when I nodded, "Why don't you tell them you're busy?" He was casual, like it was nothing.
"The Bauers. It was you," I said and burst into tears. To me it was everything.
"Don't touch me! You stole from them and I helped you do it." I waited for him to tell me I was wrong.
"If you calm down, we can talk about this."
"Calm down? When I became a cat sitter, you became a cat burglar." I wiped my eyes. "How did you get into the house? You gave me back the key."
"I made two copies."
I started crying again. "You're crazy. I'm calling Mom. I'm telling her to come pick me up and that-"
"You're not going to tell her anything. You're overreacting."
"We're going to jail. I hate you!" I began pounding him with my fists.
"Ella, stop!" He grabbed me by the wrists. I struggled against him but he was too strong. "It's okay," he said. "They're insured. They'll get reimbursed. They might even get more for what's missing than it's really worth." He squatted down, put his hands on my shoulders and looked me in the eye. "You see, Ella, I did them a favor. Now they have more money to buy nicer things and we have a little something for ourselves too. Everybody wins."
He made it sound so logical. I hiccupped. "They're going to blame me. I had the key."
"No. You gave back their key months ago. You had nothing to do with them when this happened. You're completely out of the picture." He smiled and for a moment I thought he was going to take a bow. Then he got serious again. "Don't you know I'd never do anything to get you in trouble? A good father protects his kids." He gave me a quick hug. "We're good, right? You'll tell the Connors no?"
"Dammit, Ella." His breath came out in a rush and I tried to stay out of his way as he paced furiously. But then his face cleared and he looked at me with an expression that seemed both amused and admiring. "I know what you're doing. You're waiting to hear your cut, aren't you? I was putting your share away for college but—"
"That's not it. What you're doing is wrong."
"Ella!" He pounded his forehead in frustration. Then he took a few deep breaths and when he spoke again his voice was pleading. "You know I wouldn't do this if I didn't have to. But divorce is expensive and soon I'll have to pay for you and Daniel to go to college. No one's getting hurt." He looked at me the same way as when he and Mom told me they were getting divorced and it made me want to cry again. "So who are you going to choose? The Connors who you barely know? Or the father who loves you?"
I don't think I breathed again until I left for college and by the end of my first semester I stopped wanting to run every time I heard a siren. When I came home for summer break I felt younger than I had when I left.
"Make sure you lock up good when you get home," Mom said as I bent down to give her a kiss goodbye. I was on my way out to meet up with some high school friends I hadn't seen in almost a year. "There have been some burglaries in town."
"What do you mean, burglaries?" I said, my party mood gone. It couldn't be Dad. Not with me being away at school all year. But when Mom listed the families that had been hit I knew. I had worked for all of them.
I didn't bother calling my friends, just sped over to Dad's house. I marched up the steps and pounded on the door, barely registering the new BMW in the driveway.
"What a nice surprise," he said and opened the door wide.
"You're stealing again." I pushed past him into the hall.
"I don't know—"
"Stop." I paced a couple of times, while I tried to figure out what I was going to do. "How do you even know when everyone's away? I hear you only 'visit'," I made quote marks with my fingers, "when they're out of town."
"Your brother got himself a paper route. He tells me when people suspend their subscriptions and I see whether or not I have their keys. I built up quite a stash you know." He looked like he was trying hard not to smile.
I tried to tell him to stop, that what he was doing was wrong and that he would get us all in trouble but I knew it wouldn't make a difference. The superhero suit was long gone and I wondered if the next outfit I'd see him would be a bright orange jumpsuit.
The call, when it came, took me by surprise. I was meeting with a client when my secretary sent me an urgent message: my brother needed to talk to me. I excused myself then ran to my office and snatched up the phone.
"Daniel?" After college he had moved to LA to break into the movie business, while I stayed on the East Coast. We hadn't spoken in over a year. "What's wrong?" I listened for the sirens I was sure were coming.
"Are you free next June?" Daniel said. "I'd like you at my wedding." And now here I was on my way to meet Suzanne Palmer, the woman who was crazy enough to marry my brother. Her parents were having us over to dinner so the families could meet.
"Welcome," said Mrs. Palmer. She kissed me on the cheek and told me that they expected Daniel and Suzanne any minute. Suzanne's brother had picked them up from the airport and they were on their way. Mr. Palmer showed me into the living room where my parents were waiting. It was the first time I had seen them together in a decade.
We small-talked for a while then the door burst open and Daniel walked in with his bride-to-be. Suzanne was pretty with large dark eyes and shiny brown hair. Daniel, I noted with amusement, sported blond highlights. Must be the LA influence.
"Hey!" someone yelled and everyone began hugging and laughing.
"Let me see the ring," Mrs. Palmer said and Suzanne offered her hand. "It's beautiful," Mrs. Palmer said and held Suzanne's hand under the light from a floor lamp. She bent closer to it, frowned then turned Suzanne's hand one way then another. Finally, she spoke. "That's my ring." We looked at her, confused. "See those two notches in the band?" She thrust Suzanne's hand in Daniel's face. "Those are from an accident. Tell me where you got this ring."
"That's crazy. How could-"
"I lent it to my sister and it was stolen from her home. She used to live in New Jersey, sort of near you." Daniel looked like he had swallowed his tongue and I couldn't bear to look at my father. "We need to call the police and tell them where you got it."
"He got it from me," Dad said and I held my breath as he gave some story about getting the ring for my mother but never finding the right time to give it to her before they split. He decided to keep it for Daniel to propose with one day. "It was so long ago the pawnshop I got it from isn't even there anymore. I doubt there's anything the cops could do."
To my astonishment, Mrs. Palmer nodded. Couldn't she see through him? Couldn't any of them? My father was a liar. A manipulator. A thief. They raised their glasses in a toast I couldn't hear. On the other hand, I had to hand it to him. He was protecting us. He was doing his job, just like a good father should. He gave me a quick wink and I too raised my glass.
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