SUNRISE UPON A FROZEN WINDOW PANE by Pete Madzelan
THE WAY OUT
by Anara Guard
The Big Kids sit on one side of the table, the Little Kids on the other. Jack and Chrissy aren’t really that much bigger than me and Evan, but they make us sit on the skinny side, squeezed in our folding chairs against the wall. The Big Kids get the chairs where Mom’s knuckles can reach them faster but they’re closer to the door, so they can escape.
Actually, we all have Escape Plans. “Actually” is my favorite word. My teacher, Mrs. Reynolds, says it a lot. Today she said, “Actually, boys and girls, the Bill of Rights does not give you freedom of speech to speak up in class.”
Chrissy’s plan is to run away and live in the woods. We look through the Sears Catalog together, picking out one thing to buy on every page. The thing she wants most is a green two-person pup-tent that costs eight dollars. But she keeps spending her money on candy.
Jack’s plan is to swivel and duck, just as Mom comes at him. He looks like a circus acrobat, twisting and twirling out of his chair, darting across the room, out the door.
But for an Actual Escape Plan, we’re supposed to use the rope ladder. Last winter, before he went away, Daddy brought it home and dumped it into the empty bathtub. Mom said he must have lost another bar bet. He acted like he wasn’t listening and he told us, “Now, if a fire breaks out, you’ll have yourselves a way down. You just hook one end around the faucet, open the window and throw the other end out.” Only he always says, “win-der”. Us kids were lined up in the bathroom, and we all turned and looked at the win-der like he wanted us to. It’s the frosty glass kind that you can’t see out of, with little wires running through it, like in the doors at school. That win-der has never once been opened but no one said so.
“You fill the tub with water,” Daddy said, “soak the rope ladder good and it won’t burn. You can’t burn wet rope; did you know that?”
He seemed real happy about that, but it was one of those tricky questions that grown-ups ask. You don’t know whether to shake no or nod yes. It would be dumb to say no, you never knew that before but you might be a smart-aleck if you guess yes. We just stood there and looked at the heap of thick rope in the tub, our safe way down if things catch fire.
Now that he’s gone, sometimes I can’t sleep. I watch the headlights sweep across the ceiling, always the same direction down our one-way street, like the tail of a giant ghost cat. I wonder if there would actually be time to soak the rope when the flames are burning. There are a lot of ways a fire could start: with the blue box of wooden matches in the kitchen, or when somebody forgets to turn off the burner and boils the kettle dry. The end of Mom’s cigarette, glowing red when she snatches it up and sucks on it, like a tiny traffic light warning us to quit it, quit it right now whatever we are doing.
When she makes me take a bath, I have to boost the rope out first, an armful at a time. It feels like coconut husks, smells like the basement. The rope flops onto the floor and I stand on it my own little island while the water trickles into the tub. I lie in the lukewarm water and Stripey, our real cat, sharpens his claws on the pile of rope: a skritchy sound, as if the tub’s claw feet have come alive and are pawing at the ground, eager to clamber down the rope ladder and waddle away.
When Daddy comes back, maybe he will bring us a new Escape Plan. I want trap doors with slides behind them for the Little Kids, capes of invisibility for the Big Kids. I want a magic hat and a winged horse for me. I know he has a good Plan. It’s in his pocket. I hope he doesn’t use it all up before he comes home.