Charlotte’s Family Tree

by Kristi Petersen Schoonover
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Charlotte noted the copy of Swiss Family Robinson on her daughter’s night stand. “Is that the story Daddy read you tonight?”

Abby nodded. “Mommy, will you please take me to Disney World?”

And because Charlotte had never believed in telling her child half-truths or responding with vague answers, she said, “No.”

Their New Year’s Eve had carried an invulnerable air; Johnny had brought home three live lobsters, Charlotte had let herself get a little drunk, and they’d even let Abby stay up to watch the ball drop.

But after the question about Disney World, she wanted the night to end. She went into the master bedroom and stripped out of her velvet to get ready for bed — but through the sheer curtains, she could see the glow of a fire Johnny had going outside. She climbed into a sweatshirt and pulled up the hood; while she tied a loose knot under her chin, she noticed something on the dresser. Something she hadn’t seen in a very long time, something she was sure was still buried in a trunk in the attic.

A framed photo of Charlotte and her Mom. Taken in 1979 in front of the Tropical Serenade in the Magic Kingdom. Charlotte was only eight, but two buds on her chest poked through her T-shirt; next to her, her mother, who would have been forty that birthday had she lived, was all bones with a yellow tinge to her skin. The woman’s orange halter top was stained, and even her wig looked like it had been dragged through a long ordeal.

She felt dizzy. “Johnny?” she called without thinking, but it came out a raspy squeak. And then she remembered he wasn’t in the house.

She heard a pop-clunk — above her, in the attic.

“Hello?”

No response.

With trembling fingers, she took the photo off the dresser, opened the top drawer, and buried it underneath her thigh-highs.

In the back yard, a light snow fell.

Still shaken, Charlotte stepped onto the brick patio and closed the slider behind her. Normally, she looked forward to the time she and Johnny had alone, but at that moment, she felt an unidentifiable weight between them.

“What now?” Johnny had wedged a snack-laden end table between the Adirondack chairs in front of their fire-pit — the bottom of an old Weber grill. He held a glass of champagne in each hand. “We had a nice night, it doesn’t have to be over yet. What’s wrong? She didn’t go down okay or what?”

She hesitated, knowing that if she went further, it might garner one of his occasional ‘quit-being-a-sad-sack’ lectures, and she wasn’t in the mood. “Everything’s fine,” she said. She glanced over at the bedroom window and half-expected to see someone peer back at her.

Johnny looked in that direction, too. “What?”

“Nothing. I’m just tired.” She nodded to the spread he’d put out. “A lot of food. Dinner wasn’t enough?”

He shrugged. “Hey, it’s not New Year’s without the damn cheese ball. At least not in my estimation. Happy New Year.” He kissed her on the cheek, handed her a glass of champagne, and sat down in a chair. “Cheers.”

She raised her glass and forced a smile. “Cheers.”

He guzzled what was in his glass, set it down on the table, and reached for a cracker. “So, everything is fine.”

Charlotte nodded. “Yeah.”

“Hey, she loved that lobster. Just next time we should remember to maybe take that roe out of there. It was nasty.” He cut into the cheese ball and balanced a hard pink bit of it on a Wheat Thin. “Funny thing is it only seemed to bother me.” He chuckled. “I can’t believe she ate it.”

“It’s the same stuff that’s in the Chinese egg rolls,” Charlotte answered.

“She’s growing up fast,” he said. “A little too fast, if you ask me. You know she wants to go to the pond to look for chickadees tomorrow by herself?”

“Did you tell her she could?”

“Why not.” He bit into the cracker. “It’s just on the back of the property and she already waits at the bus stop by herself, she goes to the library by herself. What’s the difference?”

A snowflake landed on Charlotte’s eyelid; she let it melt. The fire was going enough so that her shins, even through her sweatpants, were getting hot.

“Which brings me to the next thing I wanted to mention at dinner tonight, but thought I should wait until now.” He put another lump of cheese on a cracker and offered it to her, but she shook her head. He shrugged and put it in his mouth. “I did a lot of research today online and I’m thinking we should take Abby to Disney World. Like in the next week or so.”

Charlotte shivered, but not because a gust had rushed in from somewhere, and not because a few snowflakes pelted her cheek.

She hadn’t realized until that moment that this conversation had always been inevitable. From the day she’d discovered she was pregnant it had been looming in the back of her mind, because a trip to Disney World, in her family and in Johnny’s, was a rite of passage. Their parents had taken them, and it was expected that when they had children they would take theirs, and not doing it was just shirking some kind of parental responsibility. A third of her was relieved. A third of her was terrified.

And the other third of her had just figured out that the dinner, the book, and the photo had all been part of a plan.

Johnny didn’t notice. “We can get out of this crappy weather, and the rates down there are cheaper because it’s not that busy between New Year’s and Martin Luther King Day weekend. The college doesn’t open until the end of January anyway, and I’ve got no problem pulling her out of school. She’s way ahead of everybody in her class.” He stabbed at a log with a fireplace poker. Sparks burst skyward. “She’s going to be seven in February. I think we should take her. Most of her friends have been there, and it’s not that I want to keep up with the Jones’ or anything, but she’s really the right age.”

Charlotte was seething, but wasn’t quite sure how to articulate everything she felt at the moment: Had Abby been a willing participant in this? Did Johnny actually think these tricks were going to sway her?

Johnny rested the poker against the side of the house and wiped his hands on his jeans. “So what do you think?”

She looked over at him, and all that came out was “That was a shitty thing to do, Johnny.”

“Excuse me?”

“The dinner was fine, the book was obvious but the photo was just going too far.”

“Whoah.” He put his hands on his hips. “What are you talking about?”

Charlotte rose from her chair. “You read her Swiss Family Robinson and told her there was a treehouse there? She asked me tonight if we could please take her to Disney. And the book was next to the bed. And one of those horrible photos of my Mom that’s been up in the trunk and hasn’t seen the light of day in years was on my dresser. That’s really unfair.”

Johnny was quiet. Then he let out an exasperated sigh, and she knew what that meant. “The fact that I decided to read her Swiss Family Robinson had nothing to do with the Disney business. She wanted to know who Johann David Wyss was because she saw the award in my office. You’re paranoid.”

“But you did mention it, didn’t you?”

“Look, yes, I mentioned it. And as far as the damn photo’s concerned, there’s no lock on that attic door. She probably got it herself.” He sat back down in his chair, stared into the fire, and muttered, “I should hope you’d know me better than that.”

There was only the sound of the wind.

Finally, Johnny spoke. “She’s a kid, alright? Now I know you’re not a big fan of Disney World and all of that, and I know you had a big traumatic experience down there in the treehouse. But her childhood isn’t anything like yours was, and I think sometimes, angel, you … go a little overboard.” He sat back down and poured more champagne in each of their glasses. “She’s going to go down there, and she’ll have a good experience. Pretty soon we’re going to have our hands full with her thinking about boys and eye shadow, and I don’t want you sitting there feeling guilty when she’s thirty and she’s coming back to you asking you why we never took her to Disney World. Here.” He handed her the refilled champagne glass.

She blinked and looked at him.

“At the rate she’s going, Charlotte, she’s going to be too big and miss all the magic.” He reached for her hand, and squeezed it, hard, like he did when he delivered bad news. “I’ll call tomorrow and make reservations, and I swear, you won’t have to go anywhere near that treehouse, okay? I’ll handle that.”

A burning log popped, and the snow fell harder.

The trip on which the incident had happened had been spontaneous, too. Not because Charlotte and her younger twin brothers had been in danger of being too old, but because their mother had been in danger of dying.

On their first day her father told her that Disney World was the most magical place on earth. By ten that morning, though, Charlotte disagreed: nothing had changed. Being in Disney World hadn’t magically spared her of being responsible for the twins. Being in Disney World hadn’t magically made her Mom better … the violent cough hadn’t magically stopped the moment they’d set foot on Main Street.

Charlotte hadn’t even been allowed to carry her own ticket book: “We need to stick together as a family, because I need you to help me with your Mom and the twins,” her Dad had said. “Besides, you don’t want to lose the tickets.”

But Charlotte knew she wouldn’t lose them. She was old enough to carry her own money; old enough to pack the twins’ lunches; old enough to mete out her mother’s pills when Dad was at work. She was old enough to dust the living room, clean the toilets, and put the twins’ laundry in the washing machine. In her estimation, she should have been allowed to not only have her own book of tickets, but go anywhere in Disney World — at least in Disney World! — by herself.

So as a family, they had gone on If You Had Wings and Mission to Mars, and Charlotte had hoped she’d go up so high she’d never come back down; they had ridden Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and she’d hoped when their car had emerged they’d be in some other world; at the end of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea she’d been disappointed to discover they hadn’t arrived in Atlantis. And when each fantasy ended, they were back out in the sunny plazas looking for the nearest bench so they could let Mom rest.

And just when Charlotte had been certain that the whole concept of ‘the most magical place on earth’ was nothing more than the most violating kind of lie a parent could ever tell a child, one of their rest periods landed them in a shaded area across from the Swiss Family Treehouse.

She had always wanted a real treehouse in the yard; she had asked her father, but he had said, “it’s not a good idea, sweetheart. With the twins and your Mom being so sick, I really need you to be close by at all times. If there’s an emergency, or I need you to do something in a hurry, I can’t be climbing trees looking for you.” She had prayed for God to grow a treehouse in her yard; she had even wished for a treehouse on the evening star. And all of that had proven futile. Until that moment, in Adventureland, where her treehouse — and not just any treehouse, the MOTHER-OF-ALL-TREEHOUSES — called to her with its scent of indoor swimming pools and jasmine and the sounds of festive organ music. The Swiss Family Treehouse was the place she’d been looking for, the place where no one could reach her.

All she needed was a B Ticket.

“I’m going to get us some pineapple juices,” her father said. “You all stay here until I get back.”

“Can I go in the treehouse now?” Charlotte asked.

“When I get back. You be a good girl and entertain the twins.”

Charlotte envied the other kids skipping by her. They didn’t know how good they had it.

The twins whined and clambered all over her mother, who was coughing while she tried to control them.

“Charlotte,” her mother tried to make her voice forceful. “Take these kids, will you?”

But Charlotte was dreaming about the treehouse.

“Charlotte Ann. Help me like you’re supposed to.”

Just then, her mother’s quilted bag fell off the bench and spilled its innards, and a strange impulse came over Charlotte. In a move so swift she shocked even herself, she swiped one of the ticket books and ran.

“Charlotte!” she heard her mother gasp.

Charlotte had never been very good at gym class; she was chubby and her ankles hurt when she ran. But that day, she didn’t feel the pain; she felt instead like she had wings on her feet.

She gave the woman her ticket and the tree embraced her. A giant wheel spun and bamboo cups ferried water from a running stream to the upper levels; stairs upon stairs snaked through the boughs; there was a bedroom with a skylight where at night she could look out at the stars; there was a sink fashioned from a giant clam shell and an organ that played by itself; and there was, at last, her little bedroom. With three hammocks and a desk and a bureau.

“Charlotte!” Thunk, thunk, thunk “You get back here!”

Mom was coming up the stairs.

No, no, no, she was not going back down there. She was going to live in the treehouse. She was going to sleep in one of the little hammocks and smell oranges and coconuts for the rest of her life. There was a door to the little room and she tried to pull it open, but it was locked tight. She got down on her knees and tried to crawl underneath it, but she was too fat.

Her mother appeared at the base of the narrow stairs. “Charlotte,” she gasped, and reached for her as she limped up one stair at a time. There was only one way for Charlotte to go, and that was down.

The way Mom was coming up.

Suddenly her mother stopped, clutched the handrail, collapsed, and fell down the stairs.

A week later, Charlotte’s mother was dead.

The Boardwalk Inn’s arched entranceway gaped like a huge mouth. They got off the Magical Express bus, and Johnny stood with his hands on his hips, surveying land he’d just conquered; she was half-surprised he didn’t have one hand tucked into his jacket.

“This place is nice, right?” He set his hand on her lower back. Abby ran ahead to the white cottage-style front doors.

“It’s very nice,” she responded with feigned interest.

But when they stepped inside, she was pleased. The place was carousel beautiful; white and gold and clean and bright with polished hardwood floors, gilded lamps, mahogany tables, flower-patterned settees and palm trees in the corners.

“Look at that!” Abby pointed to a chandelier. Golden horses with mermaid tails merry-go-rounded its center.

It was the opposite of the dark hole they’d stayed in during that trip; Charlotte remembered devilish Tiki gods lurking in every corner and a cavernous room full of screeching tropical birds. Here, nothing leered at her; here, the only noise was the pleasant sound of a band playing a Charleston.

“I’ll go check us in,” Johnny said.

She watched Abby put her arms out and twirl, her ice blue dress billowing. Charlotte’s mother had made her a dress like that when she was younger than Abby; she had dubbed it her Alice in Wonderland dress and worn it until the seams split. She’d asked her mother to sew it back together for her, and had left it on the sewing table.

She’d always hoped it would show up, repaired, next to her birthday cake or under the Christmas tree, but it never had.

She noticed Abby was talking to herself.

“No, she bought this for me at the big mall,” Abby said.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Johnny waving her over to the front desk. “I’ll be right there,” she mouthed. She turned back to Abby. “Honey, I’ll be right — ”

But Abby was gone.

“Abby?” she called, scanning the room. But she didn’t see her — or any other children, either. “Abby!”

A door easing shut attracted her attention. Outside? Had she gone outside?

“Abby!” She ran through the doors, down a long flight of steps, and into the pool area, seized by a panic she didn’t quite understand. She caught the flutter of light blue fabric through the trees. “Abby!”

She stopped when she saw what was ahead of her: a giant clown with a roller coaster structure behind it — the pool’s water slide.

Abby was at the top, ready to slide down.

“Get down from there!”

But she sat down and all Charlotte saw was the top of her head, whizzing around a corner and out of sight. She splashed into the pool, shoes and all.

“Abby, damn you!”

Four or five people turned and stared at her, and behind her, she heard Johnny laugh.

“We had your swimsuit in my backpack, you know!” he shouted.

“I’m glad you think this is funny,” Charlotte said. “She just ran off!”

He frowned. “She goes in the pool all the time at home by herself. She’s a good swimmer and there’s a lifeguard right there.”

“That’s not the point. She ran off.”

Abby climbed up out of the pool and spattered her way over to them. Her dress clung to her legs.

Charlotte seized her daughter’s wrist. “That was not funny, young lady. We ought to put you back on that plane right now and take your ass home.”

“Hey.” Johnny grabbed Charlotte’s arm. “What is with you?”

“She had better not pull this shit again while we’re here, Johnny, I mean it.”

“Stop it,” he murmured, glancing over at the occupied patio chairs by the hot tub. “People are staring.”

Abby burst into tears.

He shot Charlotte an angry look, then turned his attention to Abby. “Your Mom’s just not feeling well right now, honey.” He set down his backpack, unzipped it, and pulled out a small pink bag. “Here’s your bathing suit, now why don’t you go to that building over there and get changed, okay? And when you come back, you can go down the slide a few times if you want, so no more tears.”

Abby threw her arms around Johnny’s neck, but never took her hurt, angry gaze off Charlotte.

Charlotte shuddered.

She watched Abby walk away. The girl’s shoulders were hunched, and her sopping wet dress left a trail of water drips on the cement. Charlotte saw the people by the hot tub and knew that they were only pretending to read their magazines; she knew that behind their sunglasses, their eyes were on her defeated daughter. And she felt guilty, because she recognized the scene. What had she been she so upset about? “I don’t want to make her hate me,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Johnny nodded in the direction of the bar, a red-striped structure shaped like a circus tent with LEAPING HORSE LIBATIONS lettered on bright yellow banners. “Why don’t we just go have a drink,” he said.

They climbed up on neighboring barstools and Johnny reached for his wallet. “Yelling in Disney World. You’re something else, you know that? Abby’s been here ten minutes and all she’s doing is wondering why the hell you’re limiting her and screaming at her on top of it. She wasn’t doing anything we don’t let her do at home.”

“She took off,” Charlotte said.

He raised an eyebrow. “She does at home.”

“She tells us where she’s going.”

He raised his other eyebrow.

She relented. “Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have yelled, but I got really frightened.”

The bartender lifted the stack of paper coasters emblazoned with DISNEY’S BOARDWALK and wiped the counter underneath them.

“Give me a Johnny Walker Black straight up and a glass of red wine for her,” Johnny said. “Please.”

The bartender nodded and went to the other end of the bar; Charlotte thought he was going to turn back to her to say something, but then changed his mind.

Johnny set a hand on top of hers. “Look, this trip got off to a bad start and we should start over. But let me tell you something. You ruin this for her and you’ll be the one I’m putting on a plane. Because I’ve just had enough. You’ve sulked from day one and I’m done.”

The bartender set their drinks in front of them.

“We’re going to the Magic Kingdom tomorrow. If you don’t want to come, you don’t have to. But you’re going to be missing out.” He picked up his glass. “Now, cheers.”

Charlotte clinked glasses with him and tried to dispel the dread.

Surprisingly, there had been frost the night before, and a chilly breeze whipped off the lake as they approached the Magic Kingdom’s Main Gate; Charlotte, however, was sweating. Abby skipped a few yards ahead of them and occasionally stopped to dance to music pumping from inside the park; Charlotte thought she recognized a tune from The Music Man.

“Abby, don’t go so far!” she called.

“She’s fine,” Johnny said. “Let her do her thing. Hey, check these out.” He pointed at the walk in front of them, which was tiled with octagonal bricks. They were etched with messages: WE LOVE YOU GRANDMA! THE SMITH CHILDREN and WE MISS YOU LULU 1946-1986. Each brick also had the familiar Mickey Mouse symbol.

They reminded Charlotte of grave markers.

She reached out and gripped Johnny’s arm. “I can’t … I can’t do this.”

He looked back at her. “Yes, you can.” He nodded in Abby’s direction. “Look at how happy she is.”

Charlotte eyed Abby, who had already reached the row of admission gates and was jumping up and down, waving at them to hurry up.

“I guess she can carry her own ticket book,” Charlotte said.

Johnny laughed. “Honey, there are no more ticket books, there haven’t been for a lot of years now. It’s all single admission and our hotel keys get us in.” He dug into his back pocket and retrieved his wallet to pull out his key and Abby’s. “You brought yours?”

Charlotte nodded, and a weight lifted from her as her card was sucked through the slot and she slipped through the turnstile.

“See?” Johnny said, shoving his wallet back in his pocket, “You set foot in the Magic Kingdom and nothing bad happened.”

Yet, Charlotte thought. Johnny handed her a park map, and she opened it with trembling fingers, expecting to see If You Had Wings, Mission to Mars, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Perhaps there was a way they could just avoid all those rides; she was certain there had to be plenty of other things to do. But when she looked at the listing of attractions, she was surprised to find that none of what she’d remembered was on the list.

“They closed them,” she said aloud, although she hadn’t meant to.

“Closed what?” Johnny asked.

“Oh … just … some things I remembered.”

“It was a long time ago, I told you. Things are different.”

She looked again at the map, specifically at Adventureland, hoping the Treehouse was gone, too.

It wasn’t. It was still there.

He gripped her hand, and she caught sight of Abby, skipping down the street, admiring everything around her. She had a sudden flashback of that day, then: the kids that had passed her as she sat on that miserable bench. How envious she’d been of them, that they had freedom. That they were allowed to be kids.

She needed to just let Abby, she decided, be a kid. And though she kept careful watch, as they went from Tomorrowland to the Tea Cups and Small World to Splash Mountain, she caught herself not only enjoying, but reveling in Abby’s fun. Abby tromped around in the Sleeping Beauty dress they’d bought her, and when she posed for a photo with The Little Mermaid, she said that someday she’d live under the sea, too. Charlotte regretted having kept her daughter’s life as Disney-free as possible. While Johnny and Abby were at The Country Bears Jamboree, she stole away to the gift shop so she could get the girl a few things for her birthday.

As she filled up a bag of fake jewels at a shop called Tinker Bell’s Treasures, she thought, this is a new Disney World. This place does have magic.

But her euphoria only lasted until just before sunset, when they entered a breezeway and heard the drums that signaled their impending arrival in Adventureland. She pulled on Johnny’s hand. “Maybe we should go. It is getting late, and we have dinner reservations at the Flying Fish in two hours.”

“We can hit a couple of things in here now, we’ve got time.”

But she didn’t take another step. “I … wanted to clean up a little bit, get Abby out of that dress and into something different — ”

Johnny faced her and set a hand on her shoulder; he reached up and brushed a strand of hair away from her face. “This has been a great day and you’ve done great. Abby’s having a blast and so are we, right? Let’s not go wrecking it.”

She looked deeper into the crowded breezeway. People filled the benches outside the restrooms, clogged the entrance to a tropical-themed gift shop, and huddled around their double-strollers and massive backpacks. But there still weren’t enough of them to completely obstruct the view of what was beyond.

The base of the treehouse.

Abby rushed ahead of them. Johnny and Charlotte found her out in the plaza, pointing to the tree’s boughs. “She’s up there today.”

Johnny crouched down. “No, Cinderella lives in the castle. The Swiss Family Robinson lives up there, like I told you,” he said.

“Let’s go now!” Abby clapped her hands and handed Charlotte the light-up Tinker Bell wand. “Can you hold this Mommy?”

Charlotte wasn’t listening. She remembered the defiance, the anger, the lawlessness of the moment she’d swiped that ticket book; she remembered feeling hopelessly trapped with nowhere to go but to her ailing mother; she saw her mother fall and heard her chip-thin thighs crack on the way down. It hit her that her daughter was just a year younger than Charlotte had been on that day.

She grabbed her husband’s arm. “Please don’t take her up there.”

He stood up. “It’s all going to be fine, angel.”

“Let’s go, Daddy!”

“In a minute, Abbs. Just hang on one second, will you?” He lowered his voice. “Why don’t you go over to the Bazaar and look at some dresses or whatever — see if you’d maybe like something new to wear to dinner tonight. I’ll take her, and when we come down, we’ll go do Pirates or something and then maybe we’ll have time to do one more thing before we’ve gotta head back to the hotel.”

Charlotte hesitated. She looked up at the treehouse, its leaves aflutter in the breeze; she looked at Abby, who was fidgeting in anticipation; she looked at Johnny’s earnest expression, and it struck her that he had been enormously patient. More than patient. And if she let them go up in the treehouse, just this once, they would never want to do it again. They would move on with their vacation and visit the other parks, visit the places that weren’t even in existence in 1979. Charlotte would go home with her daughter, her husband, and enough happy memories that her very first trip would feel like it had never happened, and she’d feel silly she’d even put up such a stink. “Fine,” she said, and watched them walk, hand in hand, up to the sign that read SWISS FAMILY TREEHOUSE.

When Charlotte came out of the gift shop, her husband sat alone. “Where’s Abby?”

“I thought you were going to be awhile yet.” He shifted on the bench to make room for her. “Did you get nice stuff?”

Where is she?

He didn’t answer, and she recognized his hand-in-the-cookie jar look.

“You let her go back up there by herself?”

It’s Disney World and nothing’s going to happen.” He stood up. “Be reasonable, I’m right here. I’m sure she’s fine. She really wanted to go again and take another look at the organ room up there and I just couldn’t climb any more stairs.”

But Charlotte was furious, and without another thought, she went off toward the treehouse.

“Charlotte!” He yelled after her. “She’s going to come back here! I can’t come with you!”

But she ignored him and went up to the treehouse entrance, prepared to march right up the stairs.

Until she set her foot across the threshold. Something about the fake wood under her feet, something about the smell, indoor swimming pool and jasmine, brought her back. She felt the clothes she wore that day, her little blue jean skort and Alice in Wonderland T-shirt, her Mickey Mouse ears with her name embroidered on them. She could feel sweat in her hair, because the ears were a heavy material and they were hot.

“Ma’am,” said a Cast Member, HARVEY. “It’s a little past dusk so we’re going to be closing this down.”

She couldn’t turn back. “My daughter,” she said. “My daughter is up there.”

HARVEY eyed her. “I haven’t seen a little girl in awhile, Ma’am. Are you sure?”

Charlotte ran. She ran across the suspension bridge. She grabbed the hand rails and wished she could take the stairs two at a time, but they weren’t the normal rise, she remembered that, and taking them that way would trip her up.

“Abby!” she screamed. “Abby, it’s Mommy!”

No answer. She raced past the library, nearly stumbling as she grabbed hold of the newel post at the base of another flight of stairs. The music had gone from a bass thump-thump-thump to a real melody as she got closer.

Above her, she heard her daughter’s giggle, and voices. “Abby!”

But when she reached the organ room with its giant clam shell sink and dining room table set with china, her daughter wasn’t there and the music had stopped.

Then she saw the flash of the girl’s princess gown, on the other side of the organ room. “Why thank you for that dance!” Abby said.

Charlotte rounded the corner, seized her daughter, picked her up, held her close. She wanted to yell at Abby for scaring her, but the girl’s smell, cotton candy and tulle, calmed her. This was real. Abby was real. She was okay, and Charlotte was going to make damn sure the both of them got out of the treehouse in one piece. “I’m so glad you’re okay.”

“It’s okay, Mommy I had fun. A lady let me go into that room and we danced to the music. She told me only special kids get to do that. It was good.”

Charlotte looked at the doors that were locked and latched to keep guests from walking into the displays; then, she took a deep breath and laughed. A Cast Member had been with Abby the whole time. “Come on, sweetie.” She set her daughter down. “Let’s go find Daddy and get ready for dinner.”

“But I want to say goodbye to the lady,” Abby said.

“I’m sure the lady’s busy making sure the treehouse is all shut down.” Charlotte took her hand, and the two of them made their way down the stairs, past the kitchen with its fake fruit and back over the jouncing suspended bridge.

When they got to the bottom, HARVEY stretched a rope with a sign that said “Closed” across the Treehouse entrance.

On George Washington’s Birthday weekend, a blizzard dumped two feet of snow. Charlotte busied herself in the kitchen making lamb stew while Johnny was out shoveling the walk; she sat peeling carrots at the table. In the living room, she could hear Abby, who sat in front of the fireplace while she painted in a Cinderella coloring book Charlotte had bought in Disney World. Abby was talking to herself, but the conversation Charlotte heard was not the usual conversation with imaginary friends, all “the ship is sinking! We have to jump onto the raft!” or “Ernst, I think you should let your brother ride the ostrich.”

Instead, she heard Abby say, “Well, I’m very sorry about that. Mommy doesn’t always see things the way she should. Even Daddy says that sometimes.”

Charlotte set aside the carrot and put down the peeler. “Abby?”

A momentary silence, then, “Yeah?”

“What game are you playing now, sweetheart?”

“I’m talking to the lady.”

Charlotte frowned and got up. She grabbed the kitchen towel next to the microwave, wiped her hands, and leaned against the wall that separated the kitchen and the living room. “What lady? The one at the treehouse?”

“Yeah. She says she used to be a princess.”

Charlotte, satisfied, turned back into the kitchen, broke a carrot stick in half, and popped it into her mouth.

“You know her, Mommy. We have a picture of her.”

Charlotte nearly choked. “What?”

“You have a picture of her.”

She closed her eyes and managed to swallow the carrot despite a knot in her esophagus — and then she nearly laughed at herself when she realized it was probably a picture of the lady who’d let Abby dance in the organ room at the Treehouse — Johnny had probably taken it.

“You mean in the Disney trip album?”

“No, over the fireplace.”

Charlotte had to admit she rarely looked at what was over the fireplace; she paid a woman to come and clean. Still, she was familiar with the photos on the mantle: she and Johnny climbing out of the limousine at their wedding; Abby when she was a toddler, sitting in a laundry basket with bananas all over her face; a double frame with Charlotte receiving her Master’s degree on one side and Johnny winning the Johann David Wyss Award on the other; Johnny and his brothers at a baseball game. She searched among them, expecting to spy a photo of Abby and Johnny in the Swiss Family Treehouse.

But when she looked she saw there wasn’t one. There was, instead, a black and white photo of a woman in a long, white gown with a tiara on her head and a ribbon across her bodice that read “Miss Connecticut 1964.”

It was her mother. Another photo that had been locked away in the attic for years.

Charlotte looked at Abby, who was daubing red paint on Cinderella’s gown. She remembered what Johnny had said about the mysterious appearance of the picture on her dresser: Abby probably got it herself. Furious, she seized her daughter’s wrists. The paintbrush went flying. “I want you to stay out of that that attic, do you hear me?” she screamed. “If I ever catch you up there if I ever catch you playing with anything you got from up there, I will punish you like you have never been punished before!”

“But I didn’t do it!” Abby burst into tears. “I didn’t do it! The lady that’s always here gave them to me!”

“You stop it! Stop it, stop it, stop lying!”

The bottle of red paint tipped over, and a puddle crept across the floor like blood.

“I’m not!” Abby struggled to get free of Charlotte’s grip. “You didn’t listen to her and she’s real mad at you! She says she’s never going to leave you alone! And I hate you!”

Charlotte felt like she was going to throw up, but she only gripped Abby tighter. Abby’s wailing filled the room, and each shriek felt like it was piercing Charlotte’s lung.

Johnny burst through the front door in a torrent of snow. “What the hell is going on in here?”

But Charlotte couldn’t answer, and Abby finally squirmed free of her mother’s grasp and ran to Johnny’s arms.

One Response to “Charlotte’s Family Tree”

  1. Wonderful story, Kristi. The tension kept climbing to the end. So well done!

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