“Don’t use that kind of language,” her older sister Joy scolded.
“Don’t scold my sister,” her younger brother Benjamin wailed.
The object of objection was a scuffed crash helmet the color of smoker’s tooth which Benjamin had found in the nearby dumping grounds, which was separated from their neighborhood by a reedy gulch. Benjamin had been warned to avoid the area, but one day while seeking a suitable location for a post-nuclear holocaust, he laid a plank across the chasm as a makeshift bridge and crossed over. It was indeed a dangerous area, he soon realized, coming upon a scattering of exposed nails, broken glass, jagged edges of metal, and rodents the size of petrol cans. But just as he was about to commence evacuation, he happened upon this crash helmet discarded behind a crate of broken propellers. It had a large dent in the starboard frontal lobe and the interior was stained worcestershire brown, but he took it home, washed the grasshoppers out, and tried it on. The fit wasn’t bad, although perched atop his slender body it made him look like a spindlelegged alien from the planet Billiard. From then on he wore the helmet whenever he hunched over his comic books in the fort he had built in his closet or while playing space gladiator in the backyard behind the looming cypress tree. He often left it on until forced to remove it under immediate order from a parental unit. His mother worried that he would try sleeping in it and do something horrible to his neck, so she took to confiscating it every night at bedtime.
“You look like a lollipop,” his sister Hope exclaimed. He stuck his tongue out at her but the gesture was obstructed by the helmet's bulk. Nevertheless he grudgingly removed the offending headgear, cowlick sproinging into place. He placed the helmet on the carpet beside his chair.
The three siblings sat in their respective places at the dinner table. The plates before them were empty. The sterling silverware waited expectantly beside each plate. Two chairs were conspicuously vacant. The chair at the head of the table where their father always presided, and the one to its immediate right which dutifully supported the petite derriere of their mother. The siblings listened for the usual sound of clatter emanating from the kitchen, but there was only silence.
“I’m hungry,” Hope whined.
“What do you suppose is taking them so long?” Joy wondered.
Benjamin shot up all the glassware on the china hutch with a semiautomatic index finger and made the accompanying discharge noises by vibrating his tongue against the back of his teeth.
“How long have we been waiting here?” Hope asked.
“Three hours,” Joy replied.
“Do you think they’ve forgotten us?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m hungry,” Hope whined. This was confirmed by a borborygmic grumble. “Shut up,” she ordered her tummy.
It was Friday. Pot roast night. But there was no familiar aroma of roasting meat and baking potatoes permeating the house. The hours dripped passed and it slowly began to dawn on the children that they weren’t growing any less hungry as the evening dwindled away.
“What do we do if they don’t bring us anything to eat?”
“I don’t know. We could always roast Benjamin.”
The sisters turned to appraise their little brother. He aimed a neuron-frying photon ray at them in retaliation.
“No,” Joy finally decided. “He’s probably all gristly and would taste horrible.”
Hope shot her brother an accusing look. “He would probably taste bad on purpose just to annoy us.”
“Besides, Mom and Dad would have a fit.”
“Serve them right,” arms crossed defiantly, “for abandoning us.”
“Don’t be silly. They’re grownups. Grownups don’t just abandon their kids.”
“What about Mrs Pugg?” Benjamin spoke up.
“That’s different,” Joy replied. “It wasn’t her choice to abandon Lenny. She had to be sent away so that she wouldn’t hurt anyone.”
“Maybe that’s what happened to Mom and Dad.”
“No," said Hope, "that makes no sense. They were very good parents.”
“Maybe they don’t love us anymore.”
“How could they just not love us anymore? You don’t just stop loving someone, do you?”
They pondered this.
"Anyhow," said Joy, "they're still supposed to take care of us."
“Maybe they’re just playing Hide and Seek,” Hope suggested.
The siblings exchanged encouraging looks. They rose from their chairs and began to search. Joy looked in the pantry. Hope glanced under the table. Benjamin peeked inside the punchbowl. None of them found the barest trace of parent. With defeated shrugs they resumed their vigil around the dinner table. Benjamin picked up his helmet and clamped it down over his head.
Several more hours crept past. Whiffle, their tortoiseshelled cat, stalked in and was displeased to find her food dish empty. Her narrowed eyes rebuked them as poor masters.
“We could eat kitty,” Benjamin proposed.
Hope was horrified. “Don’t you dare even think of eating poor Whiffle.”
Benjamin set his photon blaster to broil. “Here kitty, kitty,” he beckoning with a finger. Whiffle looked highly unamused by the whole proceedings. She sulked off with her tail in the air.
“I’m scared,” Hope whimpered. “What if they’re never coming back?”
She thought of her father long ago in his polyester slacks, seated on the edge of his patio chair, tossing her high in the air. The grassy sky and the wispy lawn swapping places in weightless rotation, hedges and eavestroughs ablur. Then gravity tugged her ankle and down she plunged, straight into father’s arms, never failing to catch her. She would giggle and he would toss her airborne once again. Why was he not here to catch her now? Benjamin abruptly sneezed in the key of D minor, letting the air out of Hope's memory.
“I don’t think they’re coming back,” Joy declared, her downcast eyes like softboiled eggs. Hope began to sob.
Adjusting his chinstrap, Benjamin stepped onto the dinner table. He knew he would be safe. Whatever fate had befallen his parents could not touch him so long as he had his crash helmet to protect him. He climbed into the gravy boat and, with a jubilant gleam, ladled off downstream towards an immense and unknowable ocean.