Mother and I were chatting over coffee in the kitchen, when we were interrupted by a tapping at the kitchen door.
“Are you Mrs. Lashtissimon, Darryl’s Mother?” came the voice from the silhouette as I walked towards the screen door.
“Yes I am,” I said. I balanced my coffee cup in my left hand while I undid the latch. “Actually, it’s pronounced ‘Lahtissimon,’ but do call me Melissa.” I awkwardly pushed the door open.
An attractive young woman stepped into the kitchen. Mother introduced her to me as Mrs. Clark, the lady who lives one block over, towards the school. Then she offered our unexpected guest a seat and a cup of coffee.
“I’m so glad to meet you, Melissa,” Mrs. Clark began effusively, as Mother placed a cup and saucer on the table in front of her. “Little Sarah never stops talking about her new friend Darryl! I feel like I’ve known you for simply ages, and here I am meeting you for the very first time!”
Mother poured the coffee.
I blushed crimson red. “Then you must be Sarah’s mother,” I guessed. Mrs. Clark nodded cheerily. “Sarah certainly has attached herself to Darryl these last few weeks!” I observed. I smiled as I added, “Darryl even calls her his ‘shadow,’ but I know that he’s secretly pleased by all the attention she gives him.”
Mrs. Clark shoveled sugar into her coffee cup, poured in a smidgen of milk, and stirred it thoughtfully. Her face dimmed to serious caution, “I don’t really know a polite way to bring this up,” she said, clanking the spoon into the saucer, “but it just has to be done!” She lifted the cup, sampled the coffee, set the cup back down, and added a bit more milk. While she stirred it again, she looked up at me. “Darryl has been telling Sarah all sorts of wild stories; and well, please forgive me, but Henry and I are beginning to think she really believes them!” She glanced nervously at Mother for support and received a warm smile. She looked at me as if terrified at my reaction; after all, she had just accused my son of misleading a younger, more gullible child.
Frankly, I didn’t know what to do at this point! I’m certain that Darryl hadn’t told her anything that wasn’t true, but in these parts, the truth about the Lahtissimon family could easily pass as science fiction. Darryl should know when to keep his mouth shut!
“Ah, Mrs. Clark…” I said, stalling for time. How could I wrap this up in a neat little package that would satisfy her and explain all the things that Sarah had been told? “I’m sure that we can get to the bottom of this with very little fuss,” I promised. I glanced over to Mother, who gave me her best ‘don’t look at me’ look.
Darryl burst into the kitchen at this point. Part of me was relieved for the diversion, but the other part of me was terrified of new complications to this situation.
“Grandma, is there any apple juice?” he asked as he made a beeline for the refrigerator. “Oh, hi Mrs. Clark,” he said over his shoulder as an afterthought.
“Honey,” I said in a strained voice. “Could you come here for a minute?”
“Okay, Mom. There’s nothing to drink in here!” Darryl complained, “We don’t even have any harng!”
“Now that will be enough from you, young man,” I chastised, “That’s not very courteous to your grandmother; and besides, you’re not old enough for harng.”
“I know that!” Darryl whined, “I just mean we don’t have anything. You don’t keep harng in the refrigerator at home, anyway!” He slammed the refrigerator door shut.
I prematurely returned my attention to Mrs. Clark, who already had a wide-eyed look on her face. “I don’t know where children get these wild ideas,” I apologized sympathetically, “Darryl knows full well that there isn’t a drop of harng within twelve light-years!”
“Mother!” came Darryl’s reproachful voice from behind me.
“I know, I know!” I conceded, desperately wanting him to leave the room so I could talk with Mrs. Clark, “I forgot about Earth Watch Base up on the Moon!”
I instantly covered my mouth with my hand, but somehow my foot had sneaked in first.
“Way to go, Mom!” Darryl said sarcastically as he poured himself a glass of milk.
Mrs. Clark began to laugh, nervously at first, then wholeheartedly. “Goodness, you certainly had me going there for a moment!” she said, slapping her hand on the table as she laughed. “That was a perfect set-up!” she congratulated us. Her laughter subsided rapidly, as she realized she was the only person laughing. “That was very well done,” she concluded.
Darryl left the room to return to whatever he had been doing, and we three women were alone in the kitchen again.
“No one can say you don’t have a good sense of humor,” Mrs. Clark said admiringly, her sides still aching. “But this matter with Sarah is serious. My husband and I are very finicky about how we raise her; we’ve always prided ourselves on how we’ve taught her to separate fact and fiction. She even knows about Santa Claus!”
“You’re braver than we are,” I confessed, the memories of our first Christmas in Thorgelfayne still fresh in my mind. “We haven’t quite updated Darryl on that.”
“Then you understand!” Mrs. Clark patted my hand and beamed a 500-Watt smile. “You know precisely how difficult it is to bring up a child with an unpolluted mind!”
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly call it pollution,” Mother began, but I glared her down and Mrs. Clark ignored her. That was a conversational path I didn’t care to follow.
“So Henry and I have a plan,” Mrs. Clark revealed triumphantly, “with your permission, of course. Darryl says you’re leaving this week. We’d like for Sarah to ride with you to the airport. Then she could see that you’re leaving on an ordinary, everyday airplane, and not some spaceship!”
My thoughts churned furiously. We weren’t going anywhere near the airport; we had a date with the space-jitney from Earth Watch Base at the big tree in Lakeforest. However, I can’t refuse a request this reasonable out of hand! I glanced at Mother, but she looked just as helpless as I felt. Maybe Mrs. Clark could be dissuaded by our late departure. “That isn’t very practical,” I said, “We’ll be leaving here at eleven in the evening. Maybe we could work out some other way to educate Sarah?”
“That is certainly well past her bedtime,” Mrs. Clark said, “I’ll have to discuss it with Henry.” She rose from her seat and pushed the chair back under the table. “I’ll phone you and let you know well in advance,” she promised. With that, she left, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. Our real departure was one o’clock, but surely even eleven o’clock would be too late. Little Sarah wouldn’t even be awake to witness the event!
To my dismay, Mrs. Clark called back a few hours later to say that she and her husband had decided that the value of the experience would more than compensate for Sarah’s lack of sleep. So we did have to go through with the charade, after all!
Later that evening, Harshan, Mother and I worked out our plan. Mother would drive us to the airport, with the Clarks following us in their car. We would say our goodbyes in the main terminal, after which mother could walk back to the parking lot. The Clarks would return home, while mother would circle back, pick us up, and take us to the pick-up point at the big tree. We could pull it off with time to spare; the only drawback was that it would turn our simple departure into an entire evening of play-acting, but what could we do? Our only hope was that the Clarks would decide not to come along because of the late hour.
Friday evening, everything went smoothly as planned. The Clarks arrived early, and we headed out to the airport with time to spare. Every time we stopped for a red light, Mother glanced into the rearview mirror to make sure that they were still following us. She could see the Clarks pointing out the landmarks to Sarah, so that she would be suitably impressed with the fact that they were headed to a mundane airport, and not to some fantastic outer space launchpad.
Soon, we arrived at the airport, parked the cars, and began to walk towards the terminal.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Mrs. Clark asked in astonishment.
“Nothing I can think of, why?” I asked, somewhat mystified.
“Your luggage!” she cried, “Don’t tell me you are going to travel halfway across the country with no luggage!”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. I started to turn back to the car, since the luggage was still in the trunk, but then I thought: do we really want to lug all that baggage into the terminal and back just to pull off a charade? We all stood there for a moment, a trifle confused.
“Of course we have no baggage!” Harshan explained in a matter-of-fact voice, “I brought our baggage to the airport this morning.” Mrs. Clark looked incredulous. “You know how easily baggage gets lost! You know how it goes: breakfast in Chicago, lunch in Paris, baggage in Brazil!”
Mrs. Clark chuckled at the old joke, “I guess you’re right. It does make things easier at the last minute, especially when you’re travelling with children!” Then she turned to her husband, who was carrying a very sleepy Sarah, “Henry, maybe we should try it!” Henry, however, didn’t exactly look enchanted with the idea.
It went exactly as planned. We said our goodbyes and walked down a corridor. The last thing I saw before we walked around a corner was Mrs. Clark, kneeling beside her cranky daughter and helping her wave goodbye to us. We waited a few moments, then Harshan cautiously peered around the corner. “The beach is clean!” he announced solemnly.
“You mean the coast is clear!” I corrected. We scurried back down the hallway past the ticket counters and out the door. Darryl was getting very tired and hard to deal with. He thought all this ‘secret agent’ stuff would be fun, but now he just wanted to go to bed.
Before long, we saw Mother’s car speeding up the ramp. Harshan hopped into the front seat. I nearly had to push Darryl into the seat behind Mother before I could get into the back seat myself.
“Everyone’s here, let’s go!” I announced merrily, and slammed the door. On our way to Lakeforest, we congratulated ourselves for a job well done; our simple ruse had worked! It was the ending of a very busy day, we were all tired, and we rode most of the way in silence. From the back seat, I could hear Mother and Harshan quietly exchange observations about road signs and other motorists. I sat behind Harshan, and Darryl was sprawled out on his half of the back seat behind Mother, half asleep. I was pretty tired myself; in fact, I think I must have nodded off a couple of times on the way.
Finally, we arrived at the big tree. Mother slowly parked the car next to the sidewalk. I reached down to prod Darryl. “Wake up honey,” I called gently, “Time to board the spaceship!”
“Okay, Mom,” Darryl yawned. He began to sit up, but his feet bumped into something on the floor.
“Ow!” it said, “that hurts!” It had the voice of a tiny little girl!
“Good grief, it’s Sarah!” Mother lamented, as she leaned against the side of the car. She pinched the bridge of her nose as if a sinus headache were coming on, “Sarah must have climbed into my car while no one was looking. What will we do now?”
“We don’t have much choice,” Harshan observed, looking up. “The space-jitney is about to land!”
“I think I can convince Sarah that this is all a dream,” Mother decided, gathering the sleepy toddler in her arms, “and I’ll take her home to her parents right after you all leave!”
I apologized to Mother for the inconvenience. Since the ruse was my idea, it was my responsibility that it backfired; but Mother wouldn’t hear of it. Harshan and Darryl emptied the trunk onto the sidewalk and carried all our baggage into the clearing behind the big tree. We all reassembled briefly on the sidewalk for our final goodbyes.
“Goodbye, honey,” Mother said tenderly. “I hate to see you go, even if I know you’ll be better off there than here!” She began to cry.
“Then you’ll have to come live with us,” I said.
“Oh, I’m not sure if I’m up to emigrating to another planet.” Mother hesitated. “I’d have to learn a whole new language, and everything.” She gazed at me with loving eyes, and kissed me on the cheek. “No, I think I’ll stay here on good old Earth,” she whispered. Then gave me Sarah to hold while she hugged Harshan and asked him to look after me. After that she knelt down and said goodbye to Darryl.
There was a sudden down draft, accompanied by a rustling sound in the woods behind us. “They’re here!” Harshan announced. I handed sleepy Sarah over to Mother, and we began to step from the sidewalk into the woods.
“I hope they don’t land on our luggage,” I moaned, but Harshan told me not to worry.
Suddenly, a pair of headlights approached, and a car screeched to a halt directly behind Mother’s car. Two car doors slammed.
“Mrs. Franklin!” came a panicked and bewildered feminine voice, which I instantly recognized as Mrs. Clark’s. “I’m so glad we spotted your car! We’ve lost our Sarah! Have you seen our Sarah?” Dead leaves swirled around in the down draft from the waiting space jitney. She wiped her hair out of her eyes. Mother walked up to her and handed her the sleeping child. She received her daughter with obvious relief and gratitude, but she was very puzzled by our presence. “Harshan, Melissa!” she demanded, “What are you doing here? I thought we saw you off at the airport!”
“You did!” Harshan shouted. “That was to convince little Sarah that Darryl was not leaving by spaceship.”
“So what is going on now?” she insisted, “Why are you here?”
“We’re leaving by spaceship!” Harshan replied. “No time to talk now, or we’ll miss our flight!” We scurried into the bushes to the space-jitney. As I looked back, I saw the Clarks exchange expressions of disbelief.
In retrospect, I think that Harshan handled it properly. We had no time to think up another ruse, and our track record on ruses wasn’t very good. For keeping secrets, an unbelieved truth is better than a well-crafted lie, Harshan reminded me, and I had to agree. No one will believe the Clarks if they dare tell anyone the truth; and if they do, Mother is too smart to corroborate it. They know the truth, and the inconvenience it causes them is the consequence of their own foolishness.
Still, as reasonable as that all sounds, I’m not comfortable with it. As we took off, the steward tuned the viewscreen for a departing view. This is standard procedure for space-jitney take-offs. What wasn’t standard was the view: In the middle of the clearing stood a man and a woman, transfixed by astonishment as they looked up. And in the woman’s arms, little Sarah, who slept through it all!