The Audacity Gambit: Chapter 1

Emily took a quick headcount before clapping her hands for attention.

“Hey folks, now I know you hate ice cream” —a chorus of high pitched, giggling denials rose from the summer-tawny grass— “but it looks like some bowls magically appeared in the kitchen, so we better go take care of it.” She slid back the screen door with her foo¬¬t before adding, “toys get put away first, please.”

A half dozen sets of hands rushed to scoop up sun-faded action figures and battered metal vehicles. The smallest child, Mathilde, held a ball with great concentration, setting it on each tread as she navigated up the stairs to the porch. The others stepped around her with the ease of practice and filed past Emily, dropping handfuls into bright buckets labelled “people” and “cars”.

Taking a quick glance at the common yard for any ignored toys, Emily waved to Mrs. James in the next lot. The two women watched the toddler finally surmount the steps, beaming as she reached the porch. Before she could get distracted by the buckets of toys, Emily herded the child into the trailer.

The double-wide had an open plan that placed the kitchen directly off a set of sliding glass doors that served as the main entrance. The centre island was ice cream topping central, a cluster of step stools occupied by shorter kids busy customising their prepared bowls of ice cream. Concentrating faces hovered over the array of bananas and sprinkles Emily had set out. Other kids sat tailor-style on the linoleum, pulling their bowls away from the inquisitive cat stalking between them.

Emily saw no bickering and sighed happily. “Bananas?” she asked the child at her feet, who was still holding the ball. Receiving a silent nod of affirmation, she added some fruit to the little bowl before handing it down to already sticky hands. Hannah, still a toddler but enough older than Mathilde to be bossy about it, stomped up and demanded bananas as well. Emily happily complied; fruit was fruit, even if it was smothered in ice cream.

The cheerful environment persisted through the ice cream and the arcane lots drawn by the group as they picked who got stuck helping wash up. Julian, Hannah’s older brother, lost the draw. He was clearly torn between the importance of helping with a grown-up chore and the fact that he was six. Emily helped him roll his sleeves up over his plump brown arms to match hers.

“Okay buddy, we’re a team. Let’s do this!” They high-fived, Emily holding her hand steady so he wouldn’t miss. Julian refused her assistance as he climbed up the low step stool and, once balanced, his perpetually-in-need-of-a-trim swarm of dark hair was almost level to Emily’s. At eighteen, she’d given up hope of having another growth spurt.

An LP videocassette of public television children’s shows kept everyone else occupied in the little raised living room on the other side of the kitchen island. She went through the dishes quickly with the help of Julian’s anxiousness to join the rest of the group. She picked him up and swung him off the stool while he kicked his feet and laughed. The moment his toes touched the worn linoleum, he ran to join the others singing along with puppets.

With everybody occupied, Emily wandered through the trailer, tidying the inevitable detritus of children, turning on lights as slow summer twilight crept in. This was Julian and Hannah’s house, and probably the nicest one in the trailer court, purchased new in the mid-‘80s unlike the other trailers, which were holdovers from the ‘70s. Even though it was the same basic double-wide layout as most, it felt more spacious and modern because the excess of wood and faux-wood details were bright shades of pine. Emily remembered it arriving, each half of the house on its own trailer, even though she must have been barely older than Julian at the time. The Terrins had let her explore the house once it was set up, displaying the magnanimous patience of folks still a long way from having their own children.

Emily started a load of laundry and grabbed an ice cream cup from the freezer chest across from the dryer. She leaned against the wall separating the tiny laundry room from the living room and methodically scooped out orange and vanilla ice cream with the wooden spoon. She legitimately enjoyed watching the trailer court’s kids, but herding and entertaining seven kids all afternoon and evening was still tiring. She could hear the kids’ high voices through the thin panelling, bursting loudly into nonsense declarations but staying cheerful. Any guilty feelings for taking a break were softened by remembering that she’d forgotten to scoop herself a bowl of ice cream from the gallon tub.

With the casualness of practise, Emily hid the empty cup as she walked the short distance from laundry room to kitchen to throw it away. Her stealth was unnecessary: the entire group was glued to the television. Everyone in the court had the same twenty-odd cable channels, but not everyone’s parents had the patience to tape their favourite shows.

Emily checked her watch and clapped her hands for attention. Seven sets of eyes pulled themselves away from the screen to look at her and she smiled. “Just until the end of this show and then it’s time for teeth and bed, folks.” Distracted complaints rang from the group while somebody wearing a costume counted on the television.

Stepping outside, Emily lit a cigarette and hopped up onto the porch railing, swinging her legs. Across the way, Mrs. James was still leaning against the doorframe, one bare foot half-resting on the steps up to her single-wide.

“Kids in bed yet?” She ashed her slim menthol into the grass with a tap of a red nail.

Emily shook her head, sending her cloud of dark hair trembling. “They’ve got about ten more minutes left in their show.”

“Okay, when they’re settled, call me over. I’ve got to talk to you about something.” Emily nodded, stubbing her cigarette out in a rough clay ashtray made by one of the children during a Christmas present craft session. “Sure thing, Mrs. James.”

The bathroom-and-bed routine ran through with only minor hitches, inevitable when getting a group of children to brush teeth and empty bladders before bed. When everyone was clean and empty, Emily got the visiting kids bunked down in sleeping bags on the floors of the two children’s bedrooms. Emily turned on nightlights and left the doors open a crack, giving a stern word to the two oldest girls to remind them to be nice to the littler ones. Setting the living room to rights, she idly wondered what her neighbour could want.

The proud result of a summer home improvement project, the porch extended over half the length of the trailer. The two women opened up camp chairs at the end opposite the bedroom windows. Emily pulled over a side table and set it between the chairs. Mrs. James trotted back to her trailer and returned carrying a pitcher, two glasses cupped in one hand.

“Were they good for you?”

Emily nodded. “They always are, but I think the slumber party aspect puts them on their best behaviour.” She centred an ashtray between them and took out her cigarettes. “What was it you wanted to talk about?”

Shaking her head, the older woman poured out the glasses. “It’s awful good of you to do this.” She pushed one drink, sloshing dark, towards Emily.

“Watch the kids? That’s what I do. And it’s not like I’m still in school or anything.” She took a sip and winced at the sugary tea.

“What are you going to do about that?”

“School?” Emily threw a puzzled look through the half-dark. “Well, we can’t really pay for a four-year, so I’m moving to full time at the grocery until I can figure out an associate degree or something.” Mrs. James shook her head and Emily protested, “It’s not like I know what I want to do or anything. Everybody says you have to go to college now, but my Aunt Janice didn’t—”

“And that’s why she lives in a trailer court. Don’t you have even the smallest dreams, Emily? To live in a real house, with windowsills? Something that wasn’t shipped in halves by a truck? To have an actual yard? It’s going to be a new millennium in a couple of years, you should be meeting it guns blazing.” She extinguished her cigarette with a quick twist and lit another. “You don’t even have a car, child.”

“I have my bike, besides—downtown is like, ten minutes’ walk from here.” Emily shook out a cigarette of her own, confused at the track of the conversation.

“Who bikes? Do you want to live in a town of 15,000 the rest of your life?” It was quiet for a while, save for the snarl of cats fighting and the main road in the background.

Emily exhaled through her nose, brow set. “I guess I don’t really know, Mrs. James.”

The older woman leaned back in her chair and took a triumphant swig from her glass.

“Go check your children and then come back. Bring some snacks.”

Reassured that all the children were breathing and beds were dry, Emily brought a bowl of chips and a plate of cheese slices and pepperoni with her as she rejoined Mrs. James.

They munched quietly for a while and Emily tried to look objectively at the older woman. Mrs. James, like all her neighbours in the Royal Oak Trailer Court, was an unchanging fixture in her memory. She’d always been there in her single-wide full of knobby crocheted spreads and thick paintings from junk stores. Middle-aged and of middle height, gold-brown highlights covering the incoming grey in her natural auburn hair, the woman was friend of her aunt’s, just another one of the adults present in her life since forever. Their relationship clashed with the current mood, now she sat next to Emily, radiating some sort of heavy information.

“Can I call you Becky?” Emily asked before she realised it. “I mean, if that’s okay.”

The older woman laughed as she folded a slice of meat around cheese. “It’s about time. You’re an adult now, Emily—and it’ll be easier to have this talk if you’re not deferring to me.”

Emily pulled her legs up into the seat of the chair and settled back. With as much carefree disinterest as she could muster she lit a cigarette. “So. Becky. What is it you want to talk about?”

This post is part of The Audacity Gambit – Serialised. Learn more about when the book was first published here, see the archive and overall content warnings here, and find more of my writing here. I’m over on both Comradery and Patreon, if you feel like supporting my creative endeavours. If you’d like to subscribe to this story, here’s a handy email box for you: