A Short Story
The girl sat reading her book, completely oblivious to the outside world. The soft breeze fluttered the edges of the story she had yet to read. Absentmindedly, she slid her hand to the edge, finger preparing to turn the next page. The bright green tips of the fir tree she sat under waved slowly, lamenting like a sailor’s wife seeing her husband off to uncharted waters.
A fir needle fell from above, landing on her open book. She didn’t notice and turned the page over it. Wisps of auburn hair tickled the sides of her face, refusing to stay in their tight braids. The blanket she rested upon bore multicolored hearts and balloons, dissonant from the lush nature that surrounded her.
My right foot began to fall asleep. I slowly shifted my weight to the left leg, wriggling my toes in my fancy leather boots. They looked great on me, but were terribly uncomfortable. I was beginning to regret my choice in footwear, reminiscing about the Converse One Stars my younger feet once had worn. Or even summers when I wore no shoes at all, preferring a callous over constricting shoes. What had happened to those feet? These aching feet were so tender now.
Instinctively, I drew myself closer to the ground. I hadn’t realized I’d been standing on a fallen branch. I peered through the bushes. She hadn’t even noticed.
With a silent sigh of relief, I checked for other twigs underfoot. Slowly and quietly I cleared my area of anything else potentially loud. My leather jacket creaked quietly as I moved. How long was she gonna sit here? Didn’t she have anything better to do? She was between me and my car and any attempt to sneak around had no cover. I resorted to wait her out.
I looked around, taking in my surroundings. It had been nearly 40 years since I had been here, and the passing time was noticeable. The tree that held my rope swing had swollen around what was left of the fraying rope, choking the limb like a too-tight tourniquet. My childhood fort was in a sad state of disrepair. The roof had caved in some years back, exposing my hand-made furniture to the elements. All my imaginary adventures played like a best-of compilations reel in my mind. The creek I played in wasn’t too far from here, I could hear it faintly when the wind shifted my way. My old house sat sadly behind her in the distance was boarded up, moss growing across the shady side. I let myself glance briefly one time at the balcony before looking away.
I wanted to know why she was here at my childhood home. No one had lived here for years. After the accident, we had been forced to grow up and forget childish things. Mom, Dad, Simon, Sonora, and I had all left, moving all the way across the country to New York. I had been pen pals with my last remaining neighborhood friend, Danni, for a few years after we moved. She told me all about the mythology that had been spun after we left. Everyone claimed our house was haunted; it became that house on the block, the house all the kids were afraid of. Don’t be mean to your sister, or your parents will make you live in the Stevens’ house. Kids dared each other to get close enough to touch the outside. People said they heard noises, saw glowing eyes, and Danni’s letters stopped after someone found out she wrote to me. Her last letter apologized that should couldn’t be friends with me anymore, because they said I was dead and she was using “evil ways” to commune with me. On top of losing Sasha, I had now lost my last childhood friend.
This whole property was heavy with loss. So what was she doing here? This girl was about the same age as when I had moved away, early teens. She had no idea what all had gone on here. It troubled me.
Unexpectedly she looked up, straight in my direction. I held my breath and crouched against the grass behind my sallal cover. She stared intently, like she could see me. Good job, Sorcha. I scolded myself. What do I do if she confronts me? What am I going to say? I lived here first, no I’m not a ghost, go away? And then the awkward, no I wasn’t watching you, but I was watching you. But not watching you, watching you.
I waited, still as a statue. She sat up straighter, frowned, and closed her book. She stood up. Oh crap. Still looking in my direction. She finally turned, collected her things, brushed the dirt off her loud blanket, and walked off away from me towards the house. I watched her walk a few yards, then slowly followed behind. I paused behind each tree or bush like a cartoon secret agent. This was a lot of work for a middle-aged woman who always forgot to do yoga.
When I approached the edge of the clearing I lost sight of her. Which way had she gone? The windows and door were still boarded up after everyone left. She couldn’t go inside. Could she? I scanned the area, not wanting to step into the open and expose my position. After a few minutes, I gave up. At least she wasn’t in my spot anymore.
I pulled the letter from my leather coat pocket and reread it again.
I found a way to fix it. You'll never believe it. You just need to come and see for yourself. Take some time off work, you owe it to yourself, and to Sasha. No excuses. You'll find a way to make it work.
Call me 555-555-5556. I still live at home.
I hadn’t heard from her in almost 30 years, and now my pen pal suddenly reaches out? I had to find out why. She didn’t have a social media account, so I couldn’t scout her out. I had briefly considered the idea that it might be a joke, but something else drew me back to my childhood home, and I needed to go.
As I reread it, I recalled first receiving it and the conversation we’d had over the phone.
Finally, a few days after receiving her letter, I called her on a Friday. It had been a particularly exasperating day dealing with the shipping department at work.
Danni picked up the phone, “Hello?” her voice basically the same chipper birdlike chatter I had remembered.
“Danni? So you send me a letter after this long? What is it?” I knew I did that irritating thing where I use my anger to weaponize my voice, making others feel uncomfortable. Something I’d unfortunately inherited from my mother. Another thing in the long list of ways I was becoming her.
Danni hadn’t been deterred. “Rough day at work? Oh, I know how you get,” she had said and pushed past my icy demeanor with her chipper tone, expertly melting my frigid demeanor. Something she’d been able to do when we were kids, but I hadn’t realized it for what it was back then.
“So listen,” she said. “I was going through my mother’s things after she passed and I found something… about your sister,” her voice had broken for a moment. Old wounds had a way of staying fresh, despite time. “I think you should come home and see for yourself.”
I tried giving her all the reasons why it was inconvenient right now. Work was dealing with this giant shipment, the departments weren’t communicating, and there was just no way I could step away. She didn’t care.
“Sorcha,” she said softly. “You need to see this. It’s worth missing time at work.”
I sighed. “Well, can’t you at least tell me what you found?” I asked, irritation sharply tinging my voice.
“I…” she hesitated. “Really, you just need to see for yourself. I know there’s nothing I can do to make you do anything, you’ll either come or you won’t. Seeing is believing. Like, remember when you saw ‘Sasquatch’ picking apples?”
“There were footprints and everything,” I said, feeling as if I was 11 years old again, terrified yet curiously fascinated, watching a 7 foot tall humanoid picking my parents’ apples. I told everyone at school about it. Danni, Heather, Holly, and Sarah had come to see for themselves. Fresh footprints showed where it had stood. It was proof. I never questioned why Sasquatch wore Vans.
“But then we found out it was your brother in that crazy camo suit, playing an elaborate trick on you!” Danni said, and burst into laughter.
We spoke for 2 hours, catching each other up on our lives. She’d married, moved across town, had kids, then her mother had fallen ill and they had moved in with her. No, I didn’t have kids. No, I hadn’t married, I was in between serious relationships at the moment. Work was good and pretty much what my life revolved around. We talked about our siblings and what they had done with their lives. It was so good reconnecting with her.
When I had pulled into town, I decided to stop home first, rather than finding a place to stay. It had been a long drive from the hotel last night in Portland, OR, and I had needed to get rid of all those cheap gas station coffees. I had wandered down around to the overgrown backyard to find a nice private spot. When I finished and turned around, the girl had been sitting there reading. Somehow she hadn’t seen me.
Back in the present, I shook my head from my daydreams and gently folded the letter and put it back in its envelope. Danni’s return address was clearly written, but I didn’t need to read it to know where her house was. She still lived in her childhood house, having moved back in to take care of her ailing mother, then inherited it after her passing. I shoved the letter back into my leather jacket and walked back to my rental car.
I had paid extra for luxury, I hadn’t wanted to put extra miles on my own vehicle, and splurged on a convertible Porsche. The guy at the rental place had commented on the irony that if we were in Europe, my name rhymed with the car’s. I was used to people’s comments about my name and had simply rolled my eyes. This had been one of those beautiful Pacific Northwest rare hot summers, making for a gorgeous drive with the top down. I reached over the door into the open car and grabbed my bottle of water. My mouth had suddenly grown dry as I stared at Danni’s house across the street. On the phone there had been that safe disconnection from being in person. Now about to see her in the flesh, especially after all these years. What if she was expecting someone else? I’d been another person entirely when we were kids, what if as adults we no longer had anything in common? What would we talk about? Anxiety seized my heart and squeezed my gut. My hands shook as I set the bottle back inside.
Remembering my counsellor’s instructions, I took in deep, even breaths, counting and holding until the feeling passed. I took one last deep breath, stretched my hands, and steeled my reserve. You’re the boss, I told myself. You manage an entire district, have the money to buy anything you want, and have a staff of people to care for your home. She should be scared of you, not the other way around!
The pep talk worked and I marched towards her house as if I had a business meeting and someone had messed up. I used this technique anytime I needed to walk somewhere and didn’t want to talk to anyone. It usually worked.
Danni’s house was just as I had remembered, although the outside could use a paint job. The flowers out front, once a lush English garden, now were mostly weeds and overgrown. Toys lay strewn about, forgotten by the kids I could hear screaming in the back of the house. The edge of sprinkler spray fanned into view, then disappeared again, hinting at the source of noise. I remembered hot summer days and the metallic tang of hose water.
Retrospection distracted my feet and I tripped over a plastic Winnie The Poo, horridly twisting my left ankle in my sexy, impractical boot. I cried out in pain as I fell, knees hitting the cracked sidewalk. If only my New York friends could see me now. They’d be gossiping to all the tabloids. I could see the headlines now. “Woman Fails At Life, Can’t Even Walk“; “District Manager Causes Shipping Delay, Falls Victim To Childhood Icon“; “Once Brave Woman Cries Over Twisted Ankle, Sues Sidewalk“, last one from the National Enquirer.
I looked up to see Danni standing in the doorway. “Oh no!” she cried out and hurried down her porch steps towards me, expertly evading all toy obstacles as if she were a returning contestant on American Gladiators. “Are you okay? These kids, I keep telling them to pick up their toys,” she chattered on as I tried to stand.
My ankle hurt.
“That’s going to need some attention,” Danni said in her mom voice.
It was a different voice than I remembered. She sounded like her mom. I almost laughed in irony, but winced instead when trying to walk.
“Why don’t you come up into the house and I can take a look at your ankle and get some ice on it,” she said more as a command than as a suggestion.
I tried brushing her off. “Nah, I’m fine, I’ll just-ow!” and almost fell over.
Luckilly, Danni caught me. She lifted my arm over her shoulder and supported my left side like a crutch. “No excuses, up we go, come on.” she ordered.
Unable to decline, I sighed and let her help me up the stairs. I could feel my heartbeat in my ankle and knew if I took my boot off, I likely wouldn’t be getting it back on. And I hadn’t thought to bring another pair of shoes. Danni had mentioned going through her mothers stuff, so I had pictured scenes of us sitting around a table inside, laughing over pictures, not adventuring outside.
Danni’s house smelled just like it had when we were kids. The memories flooded back, tied strongly to this scent. So many summers spent imagining different adventures, living the lives of careless children that don’t know how lucky they were to have summers off, and the injuries those adventures caused. I remembered so many times Danni’s mother had helped me into her house to treat various bruises and scrapes just this same way.
The furniture was different, updated to mid 2000’s. Newer but certainly not as new as my living room. An unexpected pang of jealousy stabbed at how comfortable her house felt. Sure, my house was new and expensive, but it lacked this feeling of hominess. Something I hadn’t felt since I was a child. My therapist’s voice echoed something about my feelings of abandonment and as to why I live the way I do. I shooed her away with an inconspicuous wipe of a hand across my face.
Danni helped me to her leather sofa and I appreciated it’s soft comfort.
“Let’s get your boot off,” she said, reaching for the hidden zipper on the inside.
“No, it’s fine,” I said, trying to brush her hand away. “I won’t be able to get it back on, so it’s fine. The boot actually provides a lot of compression, so that’s helping.”
She gave me a dubious look but said nothing.
“Really, it is,” I said, trying to talk her into leaving me alone. “I’m fine.” I tried pushing myself into a sitting position, causing my ankle to hit against the arm rest. Searing pain exploded against my eyes and I nearly passed out. A cold sweat broke out across my face.
“Okay, you are not fine,” Danni said and went for my boot zipper again. “We need to get this off to see how bad it is.”
“No, no, no,” I whined, not even caring how I appeared at this point. I could feel the sweat making my mascara run. “Owwwwwww!”
She ignored my protests and she gently unzipped my boot. The swelling had already filled all available space the boot had, making the zipper difficult to pull. It wasn’t going to be good. With a painful tug that almost caused me to pass out again the boot finally came off. I could feel my ankle throb as the swelling tightened the skin. My owl pattern sock stretched at the ankle making that row of owls appear shocked and concerned. Danni carefully removed my sock revealing an already faintly purple and very fat ankle.
“Augh,” I cried in lament. “I’ve got a cankle!” I was horrified.
Danni gave me a withering look. “It does look painful, I’ll go get some ice.”
“What if it’s broken?” I whined, thinking of all the duties at work that required me to run to different departments and yell at people. I squeezed my eyes shut. How could I yell at people if I had to slowly hobble on crutches? Or be in a wheelchair? The bleak future pushed another sad sound out of my mouth. I opened my eyes to see Danni gone from the room and instead stood the girl I had seen earlier reading under the tree. I cried out in surprise.
“Are you okay?” the girl asked in that teenagery sort of sneer. She was still holding the blanket and book.
Oh, sweetheart, the cold, judgy lady in me wanted to say back to her, but the pain distracted me and only a groan came out.
Danni came back in holding a ziplock bag of ice and a thin dishtowel. “Sasha, this is Sorcha,” she said.
My heart seized. She was Danni’s daughter, and she’d named her after my sister. A flood of conflicting emotion crashed over me. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
Sasha eyed me, probably seeing my ruined makeup and clothes and wondering what was wrong with this crazy lady. “You were friends with my mom when she was a kid?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I struggled to come up with something profound to say. Danni set the ice pack on my ankle. The shock of temperature difference took my breath away. “I saw you reading at my old house.”
She gave me a surprised look, then glared at me. “I like reading where it’s quiet. Is there something wrong with that??” she demanded, glaring at both her mother and me.
I was certainly surprised by her reaction and backtracked. “No, no, I just…noticed.”
“Okay then,” Sasha said with sarcasm, and stalked out of the room.
“You remember being that way, don’t you?” Danni asked, rolling her eyes at where her daughter had just been standing.
“I remember thinking I was so smart, that I knew everything,” I said and chuckled. “Yet knew nothing.”
“Oh yeah, that’s where she’s at all right,” she said and joined my dry laughter. “It’s so hard just getting her to help out with chores without that attitude. It irritates me so much, but I remember doing that to my mom. No wonder she used to threaten us with the wooden spoon!”
We laughed thinking of her mom’s empty threats. They had been enough to drive us out of the house and leave her alone.
“Are you thirsty?” she asked. “Coffee? Tea? Soda? Water?”
“Any whiskey?” I asked, gritting my teeth against the pain.
“I don’t have any of that on hand, but I do have some Tylenol and ibuprofen, though,” she said.
“Coffee and Tylenol, then, please,” I said and settled back into the cool leather of the couch. The ice was helping, but it made my skin so cold. I repositioned it, feeling the heat of my ankle. I really did a number on it.
“How do you like your coffee?!” Danni hollered from the kitchen.
“Like I like my men,” I yelled back. “Strong, sweet, and blonde!”
She laughed at what my mom had always said about she took her own coffee.
Danni returned with a mug and a pill bottle. The coffee smelled enticing and I gladly sipped it’s soothing hotness, despite the temperature of the day. I took the max dose of Tylenol and handed the bottle back and relaxed as I continued to savor the coffee.
She returned with a glass of water and set it on the coffee table next to me. “You might want water, too.”
I nodded and thanked her.
Danni took a steadying breath and held out a box. I set the mug aside and accepted it, peeking inside. It was a framed photo of my sister, the pane was broken and glass shards tinkled as the box shifted. I remembered the picture but hadn’t seen it for years. Sasha was about 15, it was the last photo taken before her passing. She smiled brightly at the camera, a world of possibilities ahead of her. She’d wanted to be either an archaeologist (inspired by Indiana Jones), or a history professor (also influenced by the movie franchise). She absorbed all historical facts she could get her hands on and would annoyingly recite them as often as she could, to our (her siblings’) dismay. This photo was the one the news used to spread the unfortunate passing of such a vibrant young woman.
“Where did you find this?” I asked, my breath catching in my throat.
“My mom had it after the memorial,” Danni said, voice uneven with emotion. She sat in the chair across from me. “After…after everything happened, it got put away in a box. A couple months ago, I was going through my mom’s closet and it fell off the top. I heard the crunch and knew something broke. I wasn’t expecting to find…that.”
I nodded sadly and looked at the picture of my sister again.
“I don’t mean just the picture,” she said like I should know what she was talking about.
I looked at her in confusion. “What do you mean?”
She motioned towards the box. “Look under the photo.”
Looking more closely, a sharp, folded corner of paper peeked out from under the photo. “What’s this?”
“It’s in her handwriting,” she said softly. “I didn’t read it, I didn’t think I should,” her voice grew quiet. “I just put it back where I found it and wrote you that letter.”
Setting the box on my lap, I carefully pulled the paper from behind the photo. My name was written on the outside in my sister’s scribbled handwriting. She was right.
We’d written so many notes to each other, sliding them under each other’s bedroom doors at night when we were supposed to be asleep. It was the one way we could communicate without waking our parents or siblings up. We’d share our dreams and wishes, heartbreak and embarrassment, everything.
It was folded up into a flat little triangle, one edge carefully tucked into a flap, securing it with an old, hardened piece of bubble gum.
“…And I couldn’t open it,” she admitted with a nervous laugh.
I grimaced at our gross sealing technique and broke the age-brittled seal, carefully unfolding the old notebook paper. The white had faded to a light tan, the blue and red lines only a faint trace under the purple, girlie loops and little hearts dotting the ‘i’s and ‘j’s. The series of folds left a texture of diamonds across the paper. The little ripped edges of the spiral edge were still attached, like hanging chad. We had devised a perfect fold that sealed the letters, but left them thin enough to slip under the crack of the door. I couldn’t recall ever having read this letter.
I'm so scared. There's so much I want to say to you... But I don't know how...If mom and dad only knew, I'd be in sooo much trouble! I've been sneaking out with some girlfriends. We ride our bikes around the neighborhood. I can't tell you their names, should this letter fall into enemy hands (i.e. mom and dad!)!!!!!!!!! We don't do anything BAD, we just like the quiet when everyone's asleep. We talk about boys and makeup and clothes and celebrities. Did you know that the girl in Ever After was in ET?? Crazy, huh?? That's what Cynthia says. Anyways, like I said we ride on our bikes and one night some guy started following us. Tonight I'm going to confront him. Cynthia says there's nothing to worry about and that it's best to confront situations like this head on. So that's what we're gonna do. I'm still scared, though. (Don't tell Cynthia!! She'll make fun of me!!!!) So if anything happens to me, you'll know why. He seems nice though! He smiled! Love, Your Sissy Sasha XOXO
My heart thudded against my chest as I read the note. She must have written it before we found her the next morning, below the balcony. The medical examiner had declared she had fallen from above. The same balcony she expertly scaled nearly every night. I had argued with my parents that it hadn’t made sense. She’d climbed that a million times, and she had fallen a few times, too. She never once hurt herself. I knew her bruised face looked more like fists than the ground. The body does strange things after the heart stops pumping, was the blasé official response. My grieving parents wanted to be as far away as possible, so we moved from Washington State to New York. About as far away as one can get.
“What does it say?” Danni asked quietly, interrupting my thoughts.
“I-I…” I tried to answer, then simply offered it to her to read for herself. My heart rate increased the throbbing in my foot and I squeezed my eyes shut against the mental images.
Danni’s troubled exhale let me know she had finished reading. I opened my eyes. Our gazes locked. I knew I was mirroring the same look her face held.
“You know what they’re gonna say,” I began. “It’s not enough evidence to prove anything.”
“Yeah, but shouldn’t you at least try?” she asked quietly.
“Try? With what? There’s no name, no description. Some guy that smiled 40 years ago. What would the police have to go on?” I asked in exasperation.
She shrugged. “Maybe Cynthia remembers?” she asked.
A lightbulb went off in my head. “Do you know where she is these days?” I sat up straight, not caring about my ankle. Adrenaline, Tylenol, and caffeine were working just fine. “Wait, why have I never heard anything about this from Cynthia?” I asked, suddenly chilled.
Danni gave me a stricken look. “That’s right, you’d think… She still lives here, in town,” she said. “She moved away for a while, went through rehab a few times, came back home and lives with her sister, Nancy in the apartments over by Safeway.”
I knew the apartments she was referring to and the people who frequented them. A lot of bad stuff went on there. I wondered what had caused Cynthia to fall down that path. So many questions took over my mind and a stabbing headache set in. I realized the inevitable.
“I’m going to have to move home,” I said, face in my hands. “I can’t let this go. Sasha wanted this to be found. I have to do this for her.”
Danni smiled solomnly at me. “You’re so brave.”
I shrugged. “I don’t really have a choice.”
Danni got up and embraced me. “If you need a place to stay while you figure your stuff out, we have a little mother-in-law shack out back I was staying in to help my mom,” she said into my hair. “It’s all furnished and everything, you’ll have privacy. And it’s only one floor so if this becomes a problem,” she said and sat back to motion at my ankle, “you can hobble around more easily.”
I nodded, awestruck at her offer. “We haven’t spoken in years, Danni, I’m honored you would offer your home up like this,” I said, choking back tears.
“That’s what friends are for,” she said. “Pinkie swear we’ll always be friends.”
I smiled and offered her my right pinkie. “I pinkie swear,” I said and locked pinkies with her.
“You find that bastard who killed your sister.”
I nodded solemnly. “I will.”