Friday, January 28, 2022 Jan 28, 2022
48° F Dallas, TX


A short story, based on characters from her upcoming third novel
By  |

CAROLE AND RICHARD were eating breakfast when the scream shattered their affable Saturday morning silence.

The screeching of tires was followed by another scream. “Oh, my God,” said Richard, pushing away his plate. “Someone’s been hit.”

“There’s a girl running after the car, shouting for it to stop,” Carole reported, staring past the trailing ivy that screened the window, her eyes searching the street.

“I can’t look. I’m going to be sick,” said Richard.

Carole rose from the table, paying no attention to the newspaper as it fell to the floor, its pages spreading like wings. “I think we ought to go out there, see if we can help.”

Richard turned reluctantly to face the window. The young woman gave one final, despairing cry then fell to her knees in the middle of the street and began to sob. The car was out of sight now, the sound of its engine merging into the traffic from the well-traveled boulevard at the end of their peaceful cul-de-sac.

“If someone were hurt, she wouldn’t have stopped,” Carole reasoned.

“It was probably an animal,” Richard said. “But it’s all over now. There’s nothing we can do.”

“I’m going out,” Carole said, starting toward the front door.

“No,” Richard said firmly. “It was hard enough dealing with that one dog we let the girls have. I can’t go through it again. Come on, let’s go back to bed.”

Much as Carole wanted to be held, to have Richard put his arms around her and reassure her that whatever had taken place outside their window wouldn’t touch them, she had to know what had happened.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” she promised, “as soon as I clean up the kitchen. Unless the girls wake up first and want breakfast.”

“I’ll be waiting for you,” Richard said, kissing the back of her neck as she turned toward the front door, her hand on the knob. “Now promise me you won’t go out there.” His voice betrayed his panic that something unpleasant might enter if she opened the door.

Carole smiled her acquiescence and returned to the kitchen. Clearing the table, she saw the girl walking slowly back down the street in the direction from which she had come-away from the cars and the traffic. For the first time Carole saw her face clearly. It was Sally Craver, from three houses down. Carole still thought of her as a teen-ager but the face she saw was that of a woman. There was a sense of surrender in her walk, as if she had abandoned all hope of changing what had happened. Carole began calculating-Sally must be 18 by now, a year older than their older daughter Julia. Her hands trembling, she held Richard’s plate under the faucet, washing the remains of his breakfast down the disposal.

With the kitchen in order again, she checked on the children. Both her daughters were still sleeping soundly. She looked at her watch-it was only 10 o’clock. On Saturday they often slept till noon. Then she opened her own bedroom door. Richard had already fallen back asleep. It wasn’t always like that. There was a time when he couldn’t go to sleep without her in his arms. Night or morning. She closed the door gently, careful not to wake him. Then, fearfully, she started toward the front of the house. She had to know what had happened out there in the street. Better to face it alone. Then by the time Richard woke up again, she would be able to reassure him it was gone- whatever it was.

Unlocking the front door, she remembered the first time she had opened it to find Sally Craver standing on the other side, wearing a starched pinafore, her hair in pigtails. How many years ago had it been? Fourteen? She couldn’t have been more than 4 years old.

“I want to play with your little girl,” Sally had announced. “My mother says I can only stay an hour.”

Carole had taken her into the bedroom where her 3-year-old daughter Julia smiled happily, but with no apparent surprise, at the unexpected appearance of a playmate. They had only been in their new house a week. Julia seemed to take it for granted that the house would provide her first friend as well as her first adult-sized bed.

“I want to play wedding,” Sally had announced, quickly appraising and dismissing the toys available for her amusement.

“No,” Julia countered stubbornly, continuing to build a zoo with her blocks. “I have to make cages so my animals won’t run away.”

“We’ll put ’em in the closet,” Sally suggested helpfully, gathering up the rubber animals. “It’s dark in there-they’ll go right to sleep.” She began throwing the animals into a comer behind a row of neatly arranged shoes. Grabbing a lion, Julia quickly joined her.

Carole, watching from the living room, smiled as Sally took a white nightgown from the closet and slipped it over her head. “I’ll be the bride,” she said to Julia. “You can be the groom, because you’re already wearing pants.”

“I like wearing pants,” Julia said firmly. “I never want to be the bride.”

And so on those terms their friendship was forged. The attraction of opposites bound them for the next five years. Julia liked staying home; Sally liked visiting her. They played together almost every afternoon, seldom quarreling, until the year the neighborhood school they both attended announced a sombrero-decorating contest in honor of Mexican Independence Day.

Carole could still remember the passion with which Richard had announced that Julia was going to win and that was that. So what if the school had strongly suggested that the children be allowed to create their own hats-without parental guidance? Richard was “between assignments,” as they say in Hollywood, and had been for several months. The prospect of a blue ribbon in the Mexican hat contest meant more to him than it did to Julia. Once the contest was announced, Julia was no longer free to spend her afternoons playing with Sally. She had to help her father decorate her hat. “I don’t want her going out there unless she has a good chance of winning,” he explained to Carole when she questioned his motives.

Their combined efforts produced spectacular results-a sombrero with long, multicolored ribbons stapled to the brim. Attached to the end of each waist-length ribbon was a fanciful woven animal. Julia was a Mexican Maypole in motion, and she won the blue ribbon in a walk.

After that, Sally stopped coming over to play. Battle lines had been drawn, and the next year at the sombrero contest, Sally appeared in a pathetic imitation of Julia’s prize-winning creation-half as many ribbons, half as long.

Though Richard had just completed a well-paid assignment writing a television movie, he was determined Julia would successfully defend her title. Carole had spent hours making paper tissue flowers for Richard to staple on the enormous sombrero they had bought from a stand on Olvera Street weeks before. By the morning of the contest, the entire surface of the hat had been covered with brightly colored paper blossoms.

Just as Julia was getting out of the car to take her place in the schoolyard competition, Richard had an inspiration. He picked up a paper rose that had fallen off the hat and told Julia to hold it in her teeth until the judges had made their decision. As Sally saw Julia making her way across the playground, looking like a miniature Rose Bowl float, she broke into tears, threw her hat in the trash can, and refused to compete. She begged her mother to take her home and so did not witness the winning of a second blue ribbon by Julia.

The next morning, when Carole went into the kitchen to make coffee, she saw Sally standing beside their mailbox, at the edge of the street. After she had plugged in the coffeepot, she went outside to see if Sally had left a message for Julia. She had-but not in the form of a letter. Their new mailbox-which featured brightly painted blossoms on a white background-had proved to be an unbearable reminder to Sally of her loss. It was now scarred with deep ugly scratches.

Carole could still remember calling Sally’s mother that morning, Richard prompting her in the background, trying to explain that for someone who works at home, a mailbox is a critical link with the outside world-a lifeline through which pass business inquiries, scripts and paychecks.

Sally never came over to play with Julia again. But by that time their younger daughter Jessica had gotten old and articulate enough to become her big sister’s best friend, so Sally’s absence from their lives went unnoticed.

The next year Carole and Richard decided to enroll their children in a private school. Occasionally, driving them back and forth, they would pass Sally walking to the end of their cul-de-sac to wait for the bus to the neighborhood school she still attended. Later they would see her mother teaching her to drive and then, finally, Sally alone at the wheel.

But they never waved as they did to their other neighbors. There was no greeting from either side to indicate that they had ever met.

Today, nine years later, Carole was still frightened by the violence of the emotions that would impel a nine-year-old child to take a knife to a mailbox. Richard had done his best to paint over the scratches but whenever she brought in the mail, Carole could still see the scars from that anguished assault.

Standing at the mailbox now, leaning against it for support, Carole looked hesitantly down the street, searching for some evidence to explain the scream. Despite everything she and Richard had said to reassure each other, she still expected to see a corpse, human or animal, lying unattended on the empty street. But nothing out of the ordinary appeared in her range of vision. Then she looked toward the circle of houses that closed off the end of the street to through traffic. Seated on the curb of the house three doors down was the forlorn figure of Sally Craver.

Carole was certain Sally could see her, but nothing in her manner indicated she was not alone on the street. Without even bothering to put her hands in front of her face to hide her pain, she began to sob.

Slowly walking toward her, Carole repeated her name over and over in a soft voice, in the way one reassures a wounded animal that no further harm is intended.

“He’s gone and he’s never coming back.” Sally turned her tear-furrowed face to Carole as if continuing a conversation that had been momentarily interrupted.

So it was as simple as that, Carole thought with relief. Sally had had a fight with her boyfriend and he’d driven off in anger. But that cry of anguish… She had forgotten how much love could hurt. What did it say about her marriage that she and Richard could hear the sound of passion and mistake it for death?

Carole thought again of Sally screaming for the car to stop, then falling to her knees in the middle of the street. Passion left you naked in front of the neighbors-oblivious to everything except your own pain. When was the last time she’d run down the street after Richard? All she remembered was being pregnant-it must have been with Jessica -she couldn’t even remember why they’d argued.

But suddenly Richard was backing out of the garage and she was screaming at his car that she wouldn’t be there when he got back. She had gone into the house and told Julia to pack her toys-they were going to visit her grandparents in Texas. Then she had calmly called the airline and made reservations on the next available flight. But before she could pack her suitcase, Richard was back begging forgiveness. She never told him about the plane reservations.

“I’ll die without him,” Sally was sobbing shamelessly, her head on Carole’s shoulder.

“Dying is easy. This is what’s hard.” Carole pulled Sally to her feet. “I’ve got to get home. The girls like to sleep late on Saturday, but they’ll be waking up soon, wanting breakfast.” Carole invited Sally to come home with her, but she just shook her head and continued to stand beside her mailbox, nervously moving the red flag up and down as if signaling for help.

“Remember when Julia and I used to play wedding and I always wanted to be the bride?” she asked.

Carole nodded.

“Is Julia dating anybody special?”

Suddenly Carole saw Sally again at their mailbox, engraving her anger-competing, always competing-violating their safe, private world with her emotions.

“Her father doesn’t… I mean, we don’t think she’s old enough,” Carole answered defensively.

“She’s just a year younger than I am. I’ve been going steady since the eighth grade.” Sally sounded as if she were boasting. Carole gave an involuntary shudder imagining Julia in the street running after a car, screaming for it to stop, falling to her knees and sobbing, without a thought for the neighbors. How could she spare her daughter what lay ahead? God-she was beginning to think like Richard.

“Of course she never wanted to be the bride.” Sally was smiling through her tears. “Maybe she was right.”

“In those days she refused to wear dresses,” Carole laughed. “Now she doesn’t wear anything else. But she’s not ready to be a bride. Not yet.” Please, God, not for a long time yet, she prayed silently-and wondered just when it was that she had begun to be afraid of the future.

As Carole started up the street toward her house, Sally called after her, “I’m sorry about your mailbox.”

Carole waved. “Don’t worry. That was a long time ago. We’ve forgotten all about it.” But of course she never would-any more than she would forget what had happened today.

The postman was just sorting their mail as she reached her house. But when he saw her, he put the letters directly into her hands. “Anything going out?” he asked.

“No, thanks, not today,” Carole replied.She walked slowly to her front door thenturned around to look once again at thestreet. She had gone out to make sure nothing had died. Now she was going inside forthe same reason.