Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Kelly Ayers
“Kelsey, why are you still awake?”
“Mom, it’s too hot. I can’t sleep.”
“It will be cooler soon. Try to go to sleep now.” Mom said as she turned from opening my bedroom window. She came to my room to make sure I kept my promise of reading one more chapter of my Miss Marple mystery before going to bed. I watched her close the door behind her, leaving just enough light from the hall. My room always seemed the hottest in the house. Dad said it was because it was too close to the sun. My brother said it was because I talked too much. The heat in Port Washington, New York started the first week of June, our summer vacation.
I sat on the edge of my bed swinging my legs back and forth. I imagined them as a fan, hoping if I moved them real fast, I might stop the sweat from running down the sides of my face.
The dim light in the hallway was bright enough for me to go back to finishing my chapter if I lay at the foot of the bed towards the door. I grabbed my pillow placing it as close to the end as I could to put my book in the middle. Propping my elbows, I looked over my shoulder noticing the slightest breeze ruffling the windows’ white curtains.
Mom and Dad were in the living room downstairs. They were talking about the Olympics starting in Atlanta. There was a big block party planned celebrating the Fourth of July and the Olympics in Atlanta. My friend Janie’s dad, Mr. Carpenter posted announcements on the trees on our block with multi-colored thumbtacks like buttons. He matched the construction paper with the sweet scented magic markers, strawberry for pink, lime for green. Janie wanted to add her “Happy Fourth of July” posters, all painted on white paper with big red firecrackers in the middle, and stick-figure girls and boys alongside, with the names of all our friends in different colors. Her Dad agreed, as long as they were on the opposite side of his.
There was so much happening all at once in our neighborhood. But the whole time, all of our closest friends planned to help Jana Coleman celebrate her birthday. It felt like the most important party of the summer.
My friend Ellen and I couldn’t wait for our friend Jana’s twelfth birthday party which was supposed to happen after the block party. We thought of Jana as our big sister since she was a year older than us, and the leader of all our friends. Her five year-old little brother Ned ran in circles after lunch; weaving between Jana’s parents and her fourteen year-old brother Jack and eight year-old sister Nan as they tried to blow up bright colored balloons shaped like the sun and stars. A long picnic table covered with a dark blue paper table cloth and plates and napkins matching the balloons were evenly set on either side of the decorated table.
“I want cake, I want cake now!” Ned said as he tried to hang onto the red feathered Indian head-dress clinging to his carrot-top mop of hair looking as if it would fly off any second in the hot breeze slapping someone in the face. His fat, roly-poly body somehow raced across the freshly mowed lawn as if he had more air in his lungs than his inflated body could exhale.
We wore our new summer skirts and flowered tank tops to the party. After we sang Happy Birthday, we sat on the front lawn which sloped towards a steep driveway. With our legs outstretched, we could almost touch the driveway with the tips of our toes. We left our white keds behind, under the picnic table.
It was a regular Sunday afternoon. Ellen was worried about her sick grandmother in Rome. Her parents were traveling there the day before the Olympics to be with her. Even though Ellen was worried about her grandmother; she felt better knowing she and her brother Brad would be staying at our house. She called it her “second home.”
“They’re supposed to call me before they get on the plane.” Ellen told me as she placed her yellow paper plate holding the last remaining streaks of white cream frosting from Jana’s cake on the lawn. She wrapped her freckled arms around her sunburned legs like she did when we talked about our favorite books, turning her cobalt blue eyes in my direction.
“I hope your Grandmother is all right. How sick is she?” I asked shading my eyes from the sun.
“I’m not sure. My mother won’t tell me. But I’m scared it’s really bad. I heard her crying last night. I want to go with them, so does Brad. He doesn’t want our parents to leave us here.
“Oh, it’ll be all right. You’ll see.” I said placing my arm around her shoulder.
Ellen rested her head on the dark green blades of grass leaving her knees bent, then stretching them out until her heels touched the edge of the lawn. She looked up at the sky, squeezed her eyes shut for a second, then opened them wide.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Sure.” I wish I could live up there with the sun, with nothing to worry about, or be sad ever again. I’d lie next to the light and let it warm me like a big flannel blanket.”
“Wouldn’t you be lonely?”
“No. You’d be with me.”
She turned her head towards me shading her eyes.
“You’d come with me, right?” She looked at me, still and silent.
She took my hand resting at my side, slipping her fingers between mine and held on.
“My truest friend in the whole world.” she said
Turning her head back, she closed her eyes again. We seemed to be there a long time, and I thought Ellen fell asleep. The sun slipped between the clouds making it just dark enough so our shadows disappeared from the driveway as if our hands reached over and erased them.
The afternoon her parents were to leave from Kennedy airport; we were in Ellen’s bedroom waiting to hear from her mother who promised to call before they boarded the plane. It was the hottest afternoon ever in Long Island, N.Y.
She grabbed her white slippers from her closet, turned towards her small suitcase sitting on her bed covered with a light blue bedspread sprinkled with yellow daisies. She placed them on top of her white cotton nightgown with small red strawberries around the collar which looked flattened from her wearing it all summer.
“I wonder how long the flight is.” She grabbed a few pairs of shorts and matching tee shirts, some plaid, some plain colors, navy blue and light green. All had front pockets where she saved her allowance for the corner store to buy cokes, red hots and potato chips.
Ellen and I loved the summer, sometimes keeping our wet bathing suits on underneath our shorts and tank tops which we never seemed to grow out of. We only wore our keds and flip-flops if our parents made us. When we knew we could get away with it, we kicked them aside walking the hot sidewalks and running through our backyards, the soles of our feet grass-stained and calloused. Our bodies sunburned, with patches of pink where our skin peeled off in the middle of our cherry-red skin. Every summer, our mothers took us to get a “pixie” haircut. This meant we all had the same short hair and bangs cut straight across the middle of our foreheads. We’d use bobby-pins to keep them off our sweaty faces as the summer dragged on. In the bright sun at the beach, Ellen’s hair looked red instead of dark brown. I always said that my hair looked the same, even though my mother said it was really “strawberry-blonde.” We thought we both had blue eyes and freckles because we were best friends
“Oh yeah, I can’t forget these.” She held out a dirty, old pair of yellow flip flops to add to the suitcase.
“They’re so gross.” I said.
“They are not, not like yours. I hide them under the bed; my mother never looks under there.”
“How do you know?” I asked trying not to laugh.
“I told them I threw them away.” she replied.
A car horn signaled that my dad was out front coming to take us to our house. Ellen grabbed her suitcase off the bed, barely snapping it closed. “Hurry” she said as she slipped her feet into her keds, running down the hall with me following behind, barely able to keep up.
“Hey Dad.” I said as we approached the sky-blue Rambler. Ellen got in the back, as I sat in the front.
“Hello Ellen.” my dad said as he turned around to greet her.
“Hi Mr. Adair.” Thanks for letting me stay with you.”
“Love to have you dear. “You’re always welcome.”
Mom met us at the front door, wrapping each arm around us at the same time. “Oooh, let me get a squeeze from this one.” she said hugging Ellen. We both giggled as she led us into the house.
“Dinner will be ready soon girls. Brad’s here Ellen. Your Uncle Edward brought him over just a few minutes ago.”
Before Ellen and I turned to follow my mom into the kitchen to get a glass of iced tea, I peered into the living room. I could see my brother Bill and Brad crouched on the floor, on either side of the beige sofa centered in the middle of the hardwood floor. On each armrest, a GI Joe was perched with a machine gun in hand. The boys were moving them around, and then dropping them on the cushions or floor.
“I’ll kill you first. I have a grenade instead of a gun.” one would say as the other peeked around his side seeking a better angle of attack.
“Hi you guys.” I said.
My brother turned his head quickly in my direction as one of the smaller pillows came flying across the room, almost hitting him in the cheek.
“Hi Kels.” he said as he ducked.
I watched as Brad rolled on the floor laughing very hard.
“What are you two up to now?” my dad said as he entered the house.
“Just knockin’ off the enemies.” one of the boys replied.
“Well, when you’re both done on the battle field, come have some dinner.”
For nine year-old boys, our brothers were always looking for trouble, sticking up for each other every time. They were like Ellen and I, best friends and hardly ever seen apart.
We sat down to a cold pasta salad, corn on the cob and watermelon slices. The four of us kids laughed when we bit into the hot, buttered corn, and a kernel would pop off hitting one of us nearby.
Mom had just brought in a large plate of watermelon slices with chunks of cantaloupe on the side, when the phone rang in the hallway.
“Hi Renee.” Yes, Ellen’s here. Hang on. Ellen, your mom’s on the phone.” my mom said.
Ellen got to the phone before I could even take my first bite of watermelon.
“Mom, mom can you hear me?” I heard Ellen on the phone by the stairs. She told me later that she could hardly hear her mother speak, but heard her crying. “I thought we were going to get disconnected. The operator kept asking her for more money.”
I could see her mother trying hard to get more change out of her wallet; while struggling to keep the phone to her ear.
“It was so noisy; we couldn’t hear each other, so many voices in the background. I heard them announce the flight was leaving, and then there was a dial tone.”
Our brothers went into the den to watch TV. Ellen and I sat at the dining room table and played Monopoly.
“I think I want to go to bed now.” Ellen said after rolling the dice and collecting her two-hundred dollars.
“Ok.” I said.
She left the table in her white nightgown with the red strawberries. I heard her sniffle, and then she walked faster down the hall to my room where we both would sleep that night, and closed the door.
I heard my mom in the kitchen. She was at the sink washing dishes, with her “Don’t kiss the cook” apron still wrapped around her pale pink skirt. She rinsed the last dinner plate placing it in the dish drain, and then turned to see me come in.
“Hi dear. Where’s Ellen?”
Hi Mom. She went to bed.” I said, standing behind her at the small round kitchen table.
“Oh, it’s still early. She must be tired. ”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Everything all right?” she asked,
“Yeah. Where’s Dad?’ I said, sitting at the table.
He’s in the shower” Would you like some tea?” she asked standing at the stove waiting for the kettle to boil. “I hope he can stay awake long enough to watch the news.”
“No thank you.”
“What’s wrong Kel?”
“Just worried about Ellen, and her grandmother.”
The kettle began to whistle. My mom sat down beside me placing her hand over mine. She leaned towards me and placed her other hand on my cheek.
“They’ll be all right.” She whispered.
My face was wet with tears I didn’t expect or want. I felt that huge lump in my throat I get every time I try to stop myself from crying.
She wiped the tears away, and then kissed my face.
“What if she dies?”
“Her grandmother. I think Ellen thinks she’s going to die.”
“Well, she may die. But hopefully she won’t that’s why her mom and dad are going to Rome to be with her.
“To say goodbye?”
“Maybe. So, you might say a prayer tonight.”
“For Ellen, and her parents too?”
“Sure.” I think that would be very nice.”
“I think I’ll go upstairs and try to go to sleep.” I couldn’t help running into my moms’ arms. I buried my face in her white blouse, smelling her pretty Jean Nate perfume.
“Good night my love.” Mom, with her long, slender fingers ran them through my hair, then lifted my head and kissed me on the forehead.
“Good night Mom.” I started upstairs to my room. I could still smell Mom’s perfume on me, making me want to skip my bath so I could have her with me all night. The door to my room was open halfway. Ellen slept in the bed on the right side of the room, furthest from the door. I could see her lying on her stomach, with her face towards the wall. As I tip-toed into the bedroom to get my nightgown from the dresser; the hall light showed her rosary on the floor. I picked it up, placing it on the dresser against the wall between our beds.
I got into bed, slipping in between the cool sheets, which felt good on my sunburned legs. I could hear Ellen breathing across the room, it was that quiet. As usual, I couldn’t help seeing that stupid black and white cat clock over the dresser; its white-tipped tail tick-tocking back and forth. I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I imagined that the cats’ smiling face was watching me, and it made me mad.
I folded my hands together and said a prayer, wondering if it was the same prayer Ellen said with her rosary.
I turned over on my side so I could see my friend across the room. I heard the crickets and a car pass by. I closed my eyes, surprised at how fast I fell asleep.
I woke up wondering if it was morning. I had been asleep for such a long time the lights were still on downstairs. I turned over and looked at the clock on the wall. It said 11:15pm. I heard the news was on, recognizing Walter Cronkite from anywhere. I looked over at Ellen, she was still asleep.
“Harry, Harry. Please wake up.” my mom said.
“What is it?”
“Oh my God!” my mom screamed. I grabbed my pillow holding it tight against my chest. I couldn’t move until I heard Ellen move around in her bed. I watched as she rolled over, shook her head back and forth, and then was still. I was so afraid she would wake up. I had a terrible feeling that what was happening downstairs was bad news.
I got out of bed. My legs felt heavy, it was hard to move them as fast as I wanted. I got to the door which was open enough that I could hear what was going on downstairs. I got halfway towards the stairs then stopped, my feet stuck on the carpet.
“The flight is TWA 800.” I heard my dad say.
“What are they saying Harry? Is it the same flight?” my mom asked.
“Yes, I understand you can’t give out any information but…”
“Tell them their name Harry. The flight left from Kennedy.”
“I was just hoping we could… We have good friends who….”
It got very quiet, and then mom started to cry.
“All right. I understand. Thank you.”
“Barbara, they won’t tell me anything.
“Why?” my mothers’ voice was shaking.
“Because they can’t. They’re not sure if…”
My Dad’s voice sounded the same way it did when he heard his older brother died, like he was going to start crying very hard.
“They have to be absolutely certain that it was the same flight. Until then, they can’t answer our questions. Not now.”
“But, what about Ellen?”
“Hopefully Barb, we’ll know what to say when the time comes.”
I walked back to my room wishing I could be someone else.
It felt like I had been sitting on my bed forever after hearing what just happened. I tried to move wanting to lie down. My legs felt glued together with sweat. I was sitting Indian-style, and tried to remember when that happened. Tears streamed down my face dropping from each side of my chin like warm raindrops. I could hear my parents’ muffled words. The TV was turned down or turned off. The light at the bottom of the stairs was the only light on. I wondered if our neighbors had watched the news, whether they would call or come over. I smelled cigarette smoke and heard the clinking of glasses. My parents were probably at the kitchen table where we ate breakfast every morning. My dad loved his scotch, pouring the honey-colored liquid into a tall glass. My mom’s favorite was a thin glass of sherry, with one ice cube.
I didn’t want to think that my best friends’ parents had died. I thought I must be having a nightmare, and soon I would wake up to find Ellen standing at my bed poking me, giggling. “Come on sleepy-head, time to get up.” But it seemed the longer I wished for that to happen, the more I thought it wouldn’t. It might be a long time until Ellen laughed again. I put my pillow back so I could lie down and try to sleep. I stared at the black ceiling, our house felt sad like when my Uncle Richard died. The only time I heard my dad cry.
Feeling the coolest breeze floating in from the opened window nearby, I squeezed my eyes shut as hard as I could. Then, as another breeze covered me like a light blanket, I drifted off to sleep.
It felt like someone was standing over me, then moving closer. I heard voices, but didn’t recognize who it was right away.
“Kel, wake up its Mom.”
I was so cold, as if someone had turned a fan on over me and left all the windows open. I pulled the sheet up to my chin hoping I could get warmer.
“Kelsey, come on dear. I need you to wake up now.”
My eyes felt stuck together. I finally got them open enough to see my mom sitting on the edge of my bed. I felt her rubbing my back like she did when I was sick.
“Kelsey, you need you to come downstairs now.”
“Where’s Ellen?” I said, trying to see her bed.
I sat up, hoping I would feel more awake.
“Downstairs? Why? When did she go…?” I couldn’t get my legs untangled from the cool sheets.
“She’s been up for awhile. Her Uncle Edward is here now.” my mom said taking my hand from under the sheet.
I looked into her eyes, noticing the tiniest tears starting to fall.
“Please mom, tell me. Was it their flight?”
She nodded her head, putting her other hand over her face, like she was trying to hide that she was crying. No one had to say another word. I pulled my hand out of hers, swinging my legs over the side of the bed.
“I got to go downstairs now.” I said, finally getting my legs out from the twisted sheets.
I didn’t turn around to see if my mom was still sitting on the bed, or if she was even behind me. I reached the top of the stairs, suddenly feeling stuck. It seemed silly that I felt afraid of going downstairs to see if my best friend was okay. I turned my head to find my mom following close behind.
“Come on. We’ll go down together, all right?” she said taking my hand.
We walked slowly down the stairs holding hands. My other hand was sweaty, sticking to the banister. It felt like the longest walk ever. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, I saw Ellen sitting in the middle of the beige sofa. Her Uncle Edward sat on her opposite side, with his arm wrapped around her, her head resting on his shoulder. I let go of Mom’s hand and walked towards my friend. I thought my mom was still with me when I got to the sofa. I turned around only a little to see that she was now sitting at the chair near the phone in the hall. I wondered how she got there so fast.
“Hello Kelsey” Uncle Edward said. He turned his head to face me. Ellen was still leaning against his shoulder. I could tell his eyes were red, and he didn’t move his arm from around Ellen’s’ shoulder. For some reason, I noticed his feet on the carpet. He kept turning one of them over on its’ side, then back again. I thought if he twisted it too hard, it would break off.
“Kelsey, can you come sit next to me?” Ellen asked. I could barely hear her.
I walked to the sofa, noticing I would have to step over her Uncles’ feet which now looked frozen. It seemed they were like statues, because their sad faces never changed. Reaching the side where my friend sat, I slowly sat next to her. I didn’t know what to do, but Ellen moved her hand towards me.
“Do you know what happened to my parents?”
“Yes.” Our hands met at the same time. She squeezed mine tight, like the day of the birthday party on the Colemans’ lawn.
“I’m sorry Ellen.” I said.
She covered her face with her other hand. Her uncle moved his hand off his lap and held her face closer to him.
My friend’s body shook, as she cried.
“Please stay here with me, all right?” she asked.
“Okay, sure.” I said.
“I’m going to leave you two alone, if that’s ok with you El?” Uncle Edward
He left us sitting alone, still holding hands. I noticed there were hardly any lights on. My mother had left the chair where she sat earlier by the phone. I didn’t know if I should say anything, so I stayed quiet for a long time. I didn’t want to leave my friend. It was very dark, and I wondered when morning would come. I wanted this night to be over.
I was very sleepy. Before I closed my eyes, I turned to Ellen. Her head now rested on my shoulder, she was asleep. I saw her long dark eyelashes touching her face. They looked like they moved if I watched them long enough. I wondered if she was dreaming about what happened. I hoped not, and resting my head back against the soft cushions, I slept.
“Come on, I can hear it, run.” The roar of the plane was slow to reach us, and getting louder. Ellen pulled me in the direction of where she thought the plane was coming from. “Here, here, wait, I can hear it.” she said. She ran behind me placing her hands on my shoulders to keep me in the spot where she thought we could see it. We looked up to the bluest sky I had ever seen. At first, it was hard to see it, since the sun was in our eyes. “I can see it, can you?” I asked. “Just wait.” Ellen shook me gently from behind.
The loudest noise we imagined was above us, when we spotted it. It was like a huge angry bird screaming at us to look up before it disappeared into the endless sky.
“Wave, wave. Maybe my parents can see us.” Ellen was jumping up and down, on top of my new navy blue keds I had left nearby. I thought she’d get the shoestrings caught in her toes. “Hey mom and dad, have a good trip.” I looked over to see my friend with the biggest smile on her face and her eyes, two glowing blue orbits directed right at that silver bird. It seemed to glide by us slowly, just so we’d see it.
“You don’t know that’s their plane.” I said.
“It has to be.” Ellen was standing right beside me, yet still staring at the sky. I thought she was waiting for her parents to wave back.
“If you say so.” I said as I looked up at the sky with my best friend, thinking a sky like that was meant to protect whatever it embraced.
We all went back to school at the end of August. Ellen and Brad now lived with their Uncle Edward and Aunt Grace. It felt like everyone had gone back to their normal lives. Ellen and I still did all the favorite things we did before; but we’d sometimes stop in the middle of whatever we were doing and talk about her parents. and how much she missed them, as all of us did. Our birthdays were in October, four days apart. I was older, but that didn’t count. We were twelve now, and it only mattered that our birthdays were the same month. It was something else we laughed about, another part of our being the “truest” friends We read our books, wrote our stories, learned to knit, and made new friends.
No matter what time of the year it was, we felt different. It didn’t feel like we were grown-up, since we both agreed, we didn’t want to do any of the things “grown-ups” did, like go to work everyday, or tell our kids what to do. So, we just stayed being us, little girls who were no longer “little”. It was hard to explain to anyone. But, we took larger steps everyday. We weren’t as afraid of the dark, or being sad. The cold winter snow, the burning leaves of October, Easter Sundays in the spring, and those fun, long days of summer seemed everlasting and brighter, like the endless light of the sun.