The first day that we knew our mother had disappeared, only my six-year-old sister was worried. My other sisters and I didn't see it as a problem at the time. Honestly, I don't think we really cared. Not on that first day.

We were sleeping when we first knew, but it wouldn't have mattered what time it was or what we were doing, we would have reacted the same way to Angie's telling us that Vicky wasn't home. It wasn't exactly unheard of for her to be absent, but even as used to it as the rest of us were, and as much as we tried to tell Angie not to worry about it, it still bothered her, especially if it was late at night. I guess that's not exactly surprising though. If most six-year-olds wake up in the middle of the night and go to their mother's room, they usually expect to find her there. That's never been the case with our mother.

I didn't hear her come into our room until she was already there, whispering in one of those really loud voices a little kid uses when they're trying to be quiet. A voice that isn't a whisper at all.

"Ricca? Lydia? I had a bad dream."

I didn't move at first. I was hoping that if I just lay still and pretended I hadn't heard her, that I was still asleep, that Angie would go to her room or to Vicky's room and leave me and Ricca alone. Even half asleep at somewhere around 2 am I knew better than to hope that Angie would go to Leigh. Even though Leigh was six years older than Angie and shared a room with her, we all knew and that under no circumstances could anyone wake her up in the middle of the night and expect to escape with their hearing fully functioning.

I heard my older sister shifting around in her bed, across the room from me, and mutter something I didn't really understand back to Angie. I remember thinking to myself she was giving herself away by answering. Don't get me wrong, I love Ange too, but if she's not screaming or bleeding, I'll leave someone else to respond to her nocturnal needs once I'm out for the night. Especially if my guilty conscience mother hen sister is there.

"I had a bad dream," Angie repeated, a little more loudly and insistently this time, and her voice even cracked a little.

She was pushing the envelope with the sympathy buttons here...I knew she meant what she was feeling, but that didn't make it easier to feel bad for her when I had just lay down to sleep an hour ago and I was going to have to wake up in a couple more for school. Ricca must have been pretty tired too, because she sat up in bed- I didnt look, but I could hear her- and asked Angie in a foggy voice if she was okay.

I could sense an entire script of dialogue between them in the makings, possibly including a full recap of every detail of Angie's dream, Ricca's sympathetic comments, and possibly even crocodile tears if Angie got worked up enough- all with me an extremely unwilling audience. Eager to head this off, I spoke up loudly through the blankets that were spread over my head.

"Ange, why don't you go tell Vicky and see if you can sleep with her?"

"I already tried," came Angie's patient explanation. "I can't find her, Lydia. She's not in her bed. I don't know where she is."

It sounded like she had moved closer to us. Like maybe she was standing right where our heads were. I resisted the urge to tell her to go back to sleep and instead just pretended that I was sleeping again, even though I knew it would do no good now.

It wasn't exactly uncommon for our mother to leave in the middle of the nights without mentioning it to us, or to just never come home after her job let out. I guess she figured with me being sixteen, and Ricca being seventeen, we were fine looking after Leigh and Angie until she decided to come around again. It wasn't exactly like she was a hands on PTA mom even when she was around.

"She's probably still working," I heard Ricca mumble to Angie. That was actually a possibility; sometimes Vicky did work overtime at Solid Gold, the bar she worked at as a "dancer," more commonly referred to as a stripper. I really, really try not to think about that much though. It brings in money, when Vicky remembers or bothers to float it our way, and as long as I don't think too hard about how or why, I guess my view is that it doesn't really matter.

Doesn't mean I tell everyone at school that my mom's paycheck involves lap dances, though.

"It's okay, Ange," I heard Ricca say. "She'll be home soon...here, get in bed with me."

That had obviously been what Angie was hoping for, and she wasted no time following the suggestion. I could hear blankets rustling as Angie settled in with Ricca and the mattress creaking as their bodies adjusted, but they finally settled into relative quiet. I didn't give our mother another thought; I just went back to sleep.

A few hours later, when I woke up to my and Ricca's alarm, I still didn't think of Vicky. With four kids in one house with one bathroom going to three different schools, our house could make Pearl Harbor look peaceful in the mornings. There's always way too much going on to barely even have time to get myself ready, and then you have to worry about making sure Angie ate and got her hair fixed and isn't wearing the same clothes three days in a row, and that Leigh gets out of bed and moves towards the door without too much screaming and headaches. Then once Leigh's up she locks herself in the bathroom and there has to be a minimum of twenty minutes with everyone pounding on the door needing to use the bathroom while she takes her time in the shower and experimenting with how much makeup she can put on that Ricca will let her get away with. The kid is twelve years old , in seventh grade, but the way she wants to leave the house every day, you'd think she was heading to Hooker Central or something. She barely outgrew her training bra yet and she's worried about looking SEXY- for a bunch of pimply preteen boys that haven't even hit their growth spurt or voice change yet.

Well at least I hope it's for those boys. If Leigh wants to look like a tarty pop star for her teachers or something, well, what's just too disturbing to think about.

I've never really been one to care about that kind of crap myself. It's not like I'm a tomboy or want to be a guy or anything. I hate sports, can barely cross a room without banging into something, and I have long hair and wear feminine clothes, not that there would be anything wrong with me if I didn't. I'm just not that interested in super girliness, with the makeup, elaborate hairstyles, dresses or skirts, high heels and jewelry.

All three of my sisters are more like that. Even Angie likes to wear kiddy dress up stuff like heels and boas and pretend candy makeup. For me, it's more of a hassle than it's worth. Makeup itches and smears, dresses are uncomfortable, heels hurt my feet. And it's not like I have the time to screw with it every morning anyway.

So by the time Ricca and I pried Leigh out of bed, then the bathroom, gathered everyone's school stuff, slapped down breakfast for Angie, if no one else, engaged in a yelling battle in veto of Leigh's chosen outfit (which came from Ricca's closet and was a discussion I stayed out of, I might add) we barely even heard Angie when she tugged on Ricca's arm, repeating with a faint worried frown that Vicky still hadn't come home yet.

"She'll be here later, Angie," Ricca told her quickly, and then, shaking her off gently and giving her a hurried smile, "go stand on the porch, the bus will be here soon."

When I ushered Angie out the door, just as Leigh and Ricca were beginning to engage in another heated debate, I saw that Vicky's car was still parked outside. That was kind of strange, but not so much that I worried. I didn't remember if she had taken it to work or not the night before. Usually she did and then brought it back for me and Ricca to use in the morning; otherwise we'd have to take the bus with our sisters, and normally neither of us would be ready by the time it showed up. But sometimes if Vicky planned on working especially late, or just didn't want to come home, she would have someone pick her up or drop her off, or she'd drop the car off once she was off work and take a cab or something. If she remembered. That was usually a pretty big if.

I didn't say anything about it to Ricca. When we finally made our way to Vicky's car to drive to school, she didn't mention Vicky's absence either. We figured she would be back by the time we got out of school. We still weren't at all worried.

Sounds insane, huh?


You probably noticed that I call my mother by her first name. All of us do except Angie. I guess she's still young enough to really want her to be a real mom, however inadequately she might try. I'm not sure when it started, exactly, but I know it was Ricca who initated it.

Not to her face, of course. Ricca's too polite for that, or she was when it all started. Just around me, at first, when no one else was around, her voice dripping with bitterness, and usually only when she was really pissed off. Me, being the more laidback one, outwardly, anyway, got a huge kick out of hearing it, and somehow I ended up saying it to Vicky's face. I don't remember if it was accidental or not, but when she didn't really react, didn't seem to view it as an insult or even different from normal, it became my and Ricca's, and eventually Leigh's, standard way of addressing her. Given enough time, I bet Angie will take it up too.

I don't think Vicky exactly wanted children, but once she had them, she didn't exactly not want them either. I think to her, we are just there, and she can choose to notice us or not depending on how she feels. Like we're dogs or something. She feeds us, gets us things like clothes, when she thinks to, and kept us alive through babyhood, but from what I remember about Leigh and Angie being babies, it was in the same offhand way you might bottlefeed an abandoned puppy. Doing it because you have to, not because you really chose it or enjoy it.

Vicky was never the type to go to Back to School Night or school plays, to sign us up for sports teams or ballet, and even if she had, I doubt she would have gone to any of it to watch us. She never helped us with homework or even asked if we had any, never seemed to care much about our friends or grades or if we were behaving in class. She would deal with us or something we needed if we asked her to outright, but other than that, once we were out of diapers we were pretty much left to our own. She didn't discipline us or get angry, but neither did she really praise us or spend much time with us either. Especially in the last few years.

As far back as I can remember, that's always been up to Ricca. She's not the oldest, but she's the oldest of the girls, and right now she's oldest by default. But that's another story.

Even when our brother was still around, it was always up to Ricca to make sure everyone was okay, back as far as when Leigh was born. I guess once she was four or five Vicky figured Ricca was smart and mature enough to have things covered, so she quit trying. Who knows.

I've given up trying to understand our mother. I didn't know much about her anyway. I've felt that she was hardly more than a stranger to me for most of my life. I know she married young and had me, Ricca, and our older brother Jaden within a span of three years. I know our father, who she never speaks of, took off one day and never came back. I know she was the rebellious hippieish daughter of a southern preacher, and the hippie part isn't exactly ancient history today. I know that after our father left apparently while she was still pregnant with me, she apparently went through a string of jobs and men to try to make ends meet before finally settling at her current workplace. The men resulted in the birth of Leigh and Angelina- both named after soap opera characters, just like me, Jaden, and Ricca. And I know that as many guys as she must still go through, Vicky doesn't get pregnant anymore- five accidents is more than enough time to learn from your mistakes, I guess, even for someone as slow to the draw as Vicky.

At least she never brings the guys home. At least she cared enough to keep them out of our lives. Or maybe that was just more convenient for her.

But other than that, all the stuff that anyone could know about my mother...what do I really know? And what does she really know about me, about any of us?

I would bet next to nothing. I would also bet that her not knowing doesn't bother her.

Jaden got out. Practically the same day he turned 18 he took off, went to take care of his own self, without a single thought to the rest of us, as far as I can tell. He said he was already fending for himself anyway and might as well make it official. I can't decide if the guy is smarter than all the rest of us or a traitor for leaving us behind. I mean, we don't even have contact with him anymore. It's been over a year, and I have no idea what Jaden is doing or even if he still lives in the same place. I don't know if he has a job or roommate or girlfriend or even a kid. He doesn't know anything about us either, and after the first month or two, with a pissed Ricca giving him the ice queen routine, he stopped trying to contact us. Either he doesn't care enough now that he has his own life to check up on us or he doesn't care at all.

Yeah I'm leaning more towards traitor on how to beg the oldest Sherwood child. I know that's where Ricca and Leigh stand.

Ricca could get out too if she wanted to. If she decided to. She'll be eighteen in six months. She's smart, she could get a job, a scholarship. She's pretty, she's a hard worker, one of the type A's that kill themselves doing all the work no one else will do. She could do whatever she wanted, if she wanted it badly enough.

But she won't. I know my sister, and for as long as the rest of us are here, especially Angie, and for as long as we need her, Ricca won't be going anywhere. Never mind her own life. She'll stay, I'm almost positive, to help us with ours. That's the kind of options Vicky and her way of life leaves us with. Get your own life and desert everyone, or have one of your own until you're too old to get one anyway.

I wonder sometimes if when I'm eighteen, I'll leave too, like Jaden, or if I'll stay, like Ricca. I want to leave. I want to go off to school or to work, to have something that's all mine, no responsibility for anyone but myself. I've never had anything to myself. I was born into two older siblings, and I"ve shared a room with Ricca since day one. I've always had people ahead of me to catch up to and my sisters behind me to look back at.

I could do it too. I could get away. I'm as smart as Ricca, it's just that I don't try. If I got myself together, studied and did the SAT and turned everything in for the next two years, I could probably get straight A's, and I could make my way out. I could.

But then I'd have to think about Ricca, left behind with no one to talk to on her level, no one to help her out, no one to understand. I'd have to worry about Leigh always giving Ricca grief trying to slip under her radar. Maybe getting through guys just like Vicky does, with one less person to keep her in line. And I'd have to think of Angie and how she wouldn't understand, how she would think I left because of her, because she did with Jaden.

I think of all of that and I know that I won't leave. Not now, not until something is different, not until something changes.

I didn't think the change would come so soon, or that it would only serve to trap us all the more completely, to make it even more certain that leaving was not likely to be an option in my future. Vicky made sure of that. Or I guess more accurately, the lack of Vicky. Because despite what Ricca and I had said to assure Angie, despite our own thoughtless certainty, when we came home from school that first day, Vicky wasn't there