Maggie knew she should probably go home after her errand, but she pocketed the cigarettes and set out with Diane and Robbie along the railroad tracks. They passed the tarpaper shacks where the poor children lived, their hair uncombed and their clothes dirty and unmended. Maggie’s mom didn’t like her to play with the children who lived down there. Her mom said that, although Maggie’s family couldn’t afford luxuries, her dad worked hard to make a decent wage and their clothes were always clean, which was the important thing. Maggie, Diane and Robbie hurried as they passed the junkyard with its mean-looking dog on a long chain near the entrance and piles of rusty scrap metal behind a fence that said “Keep Out – Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”.
Maggie had once asked her dad what the sign meant, and he had told her she would go to jail. When he said it, he had laughed, so Maggie thought he might be joking. She wasn’t entirely sure, though. She wondered if little girls could just ask nicely and be forgiven, like in the prayer.
The iceman’s truck was parked by the roadside. The burly, red-faced iceman was standing beside it in his long overalls and gloves, hauling big blocks of ice off the back of his truck for people’s iceboxes. Maggie, Diane and Robbie watched him shyly. He always had cold treats for the children when he was in the neighbourhood.
“Hey, you kids want some ice to cool you off?” he grinned at them. He gave each of them a Popsicle-sized sliver of ice that had broken off the blocks on the truck bed.
They continued along the tracks, down to the river, clutching their pieces of ice that were quickly melting in the hot sun and dribbling down their arms.
The tracks ran all the way through town, and Maggie had to cross them to get to school and home again. She sometimes had a dream about the tracks. In her dream, a long train was going through, and she was stranded on the school side of the tracks. The train just thundered on and on. Hours passed and then days, but the train never ended. Although she could see her mom and dad through the spaces between the rail-cars, she couldn’t get home to them ever again.
In the bright light of day, though, the railroad tracks weren’t so ominous. As the tracks wound closer to the river, Maggie sometimes found interesting stones in the gravel. Mostly she was interested in the shiny ones like quartz or mica, and she had a jar at home with her favourite pebbles, along with some that her dad had collected for her.
Today’s find was special. It was a tiny piece of shale with the imprint of a snail that might have been trapped in the prehistoric mud. She tucked it into the pocket of her shorts, but not the one with her mom’s cigarettes. When she grew up, she would become an archaeologist and find stones like this all the time. She imagined how impressed her dad would be when she brought this lucky stone home and she knew she could look forward to a discussion about Egypt or dinosaurs.
They walked for most of the afternoon, venturing into unfamiliar neighbourhoods. Maggie had never come this far before and she was starting to become disoriented. Worried about getting lost, she suggested that they head home before they got into trouble.
It was almost supper-time when they returned, and Maggie’s mom was frantic.
“We nearly called the police,” she scolded. “Diane and Robbie’s mothers were all worried that you met a bad man or something.” Maggie pulled the cigarettes out of her pocket and put them on the table, along with four cents change, so her mom would know she hadn’t forgotten her errand. She was annoyed that her mom didn’t trust her. She knew better than to get into a car with some stranger just because he wanted to show her a puppy or something. But she couldn’t say that out loud.
She gulped down her supper – mashed potatoes and canned peas and boiled meat, which she mixed into unrecognizable slurry with even more generous dollops of ketchup than usual – and slunk off to her room.
Maggie and her friends didn’t go on any more long expeditions for a while, so her mom eventually stopped bringing up the incident.
One day, Diane wasn’t there. Maggie and Robbie leaned on the doorbell at Diane’s house until they were certain that Diane’s dad would come hurtling down the stairs, demanding what the hell the kids were doing. But the dark hall was empty and silent.
That night, when Maggie was supposed to be asleep, she heard her parents talking in the kitchen. They were talking about Diane, Diane’s mom and dad, and the Children’s Aid. Maggie could tell that they were keeping their voices low, so it must be some important secret. Her mother had once told her that the Children’s Aid was for children who had no parents, so what did that have to do with Diane?
Maggie slid out of bed and padded into the kitchen in her pyjamas. Her parents looked up at her in the bleak light.
“Maggie,” her mom said, “You should be in bed.”
“I heard what you said about Diane.”
Her parents looked at each other and, from their resigned expressions, she knew that they couldn’t hide the truth the way adults sometimes try to do. She climbed onto her chair, making it clear that she expected to hear the rest of the story.
“Diane and her brothers are living at the Children’s Aid for now,” her dad explained, his voice low and soft.
“Diane’s mom and dad got married far too young and had the kids too fast,” Maggie’s mom chimed in. “They weren’t ready to have a family. But you know how it is with teenagers; they just can’t wait, can they? They were only kids themselves, after all.”
“They had a responsibility.” Her dad was shuffling his empty coffee cup between his hands.
“I don’t know what they were thinking,” Maggie’s mom declared. “Well, at least, now the people at the Children’s Aid will make sure they get looked after properly.”
Maggie was thinking about Diane and her little brothers, all alone in the dark apartment, waiting for their mom and dad to come back.
“Were they going to starve?”
“Diane told a neighbour, and the Children’s Aid came for them right away, Maggie,” her dad said. “Their mother and father were only away for a few hours.”
“It wasn’t the first time…” her mother interjected.
Maggie felt strangely removed, as if she were floating in the air above her parents in the harsh kitchen light and, at the same time, watching herself sitting at the table with them and hearing fragments of their conversation. She wanted to tell them about the long train and how she lay awake some nights worrying that she would never see them again. But her mom would just tell her to put silly thoughts like that out of her head.
“What will happen to them now?”
“Well, that’s up to the Children’s Aid,” said Maggie’s mom. “I guess they will try to get them adopted somewhere.”
“Can’t they just go home to their mom and dad?” Maggie was puzzled.
“Oh, they couldn’t go home to a situation like that,” her mom said. “The Children’s Aid wouldn’t allow it.”
Maggie looked over at her dad. She guessed that he was asking himself that same question.
That isn’t fair, Maggie thought. It wasn’t her fault or Robbie’s or Diane’s that the adults had messed things up. Maybe Diane would get adopted by a nice family and they could still play together. Maybe she and Robbie would just go down to the Children’s Aid anyway and see for themselves.
Maggie’s sleep that night was fitful, tossing her in and out of dreams about Diane left all alone in that apartment with her little brothers, having to be grown up all of a sudden. She imagined that Diane found some canned spaghetti for them in the cupboard, and then there was no more. Diane’s little brothers were crying in the dark. She saw Diane running out into the street in the night, banging on a neighbour’s door and telling the neighbour that her parents hadn’t come back, just as Maggie imagined she had done all the other times.
Then Maggie was in her own house, alone. This time it was her mom and dad that were on the other side of the long train and they couldn’t ever come home. Being alone didn’t scare her, but the thought of never seeing her parents again upset her profoundly. Brimming with bottomless loss, she awoke, breathless, her heart pounding.
Toward dawn, utterly exhausted, she was finally able to fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.
The next morning, no one talked much at the kitchen table. Maggie soaked her corn flakes in milk and stirred them until they were soggy. Maggie’s mom tried to make a bright comment about going shopping for groceries and her dad said that, maybe later, he and Maggie could go to the library.
After breakfast, Maggie walked down to Robbie’s block and found him sitting on the curb in front of his house, absently pulling leaves off the weeds at the side of the road and tossing them into the street.
“Diane went to the Children’s Aid,” Maggie told him.
“That’s a lie!”
“No, it isn’t. My parents said so.” Maggie watched the disbelief in his face turn to realization, then he turned away from her, frowning, and pulled more intently at the weeds.
“We could go and see Diane,” Maggie suggested. She wanted to fix this mess. She might be able to explain to the Children’s Aid people that, if only they would let Diane come home, her mom and dad would be better parents from now on. Deep down, though, she had an awful feeling that something had changed forever, no matter how earnestly she might plead with the adults.
Maggie had been hoping that Robbie would help her think of some plan, but he just sat there, mute, and almost looked as if he might start to cry.
“I’ll see you later,” Robbie choked, staggering to his feet. “I have to go help my mom with some stuff.”
Maggie felt utterly lost. She trudged back up the street to her house, her mind in a fog, and retreated to her room. She lay on her bed for a very long time, toying with the soft fringe of her chenille bedspread. Taking a deep breath, she pulled out her drawing pad. She would draw herself, Diane, and Robbie playing in the yard beside the honeysuckle bush. She knew that drawing something, even if she did it extremely well, didn’t make it real. Her memories of their summer were real, though, and she wanted to capture their magic before they disappeared.
She opened her desk drawer to pull out her coloured pencils. There was a small box that hadn’t been there the last time she’d looked. It had to be from her dad, like the other special little treasures he left for her.
She took the box out and opened it. Inside, there was a shiny tin pinback; it was a unicorn.
Maggie knew it was a talisman.
A Talisman for Maggie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Canada License
Image source: LIFE photograph collection