Mara A. Cohen. Embodied Effigies. November 2016. Issue 6: 51-55. Original URL: https://effigiesmag.com/archives/issue-six/
From the blue spruce tree in front of Holly Hills Elementary, I could see the big yellow school buses lined up around the traffic circle. The shouts and laughter of children boarding the buses drifted on the thin, crisp air of a Denver winter to where I waited for my ride, Elaine Krakauer, Josh’s mom. I felt unsettled when school let out, and her blue Volvo wasn’t there. But you never know with grown ups. Maybe she’d run late at dentist appointment or something.
Riding on the bus, it didn’t seem that far to East Cornell Avenue where I lived. The bus made several stops before mine, so I always had plenty of time to look out the window and think or to talk to Hein Lee or one of the other kids until they got off. Our front door was never locked. Mommy was usually there a er school, but I liked the days when I beat her home, and I could pour my own glass of milk and not have to answer any questions about my day. Probably she’d had to take my brother Danny to one of his doctors’ appointments. Some of them took a long time. Probably that’s why I was supposed to play at Josh’s house a after school. His mom usually had cookies.
The kids who lived close enough to the school to walk home were long gone. The buses were nearly full. There was still no sign of Elaine Krakouer or her blue Volvo.
Diesel engines roared to life and giant brake drums squealed. My heart pounded as one by one, the buses pulled away, big tires crunching over salted pavement. I gently pressed the bottoms of my clutter boots so they formed designs in the snow, doing my best to keep calm. I must have given a convincing performance, because none of the teachers’ aides or ladies from the office came out to ask how come I was standing there alone, or to tell me to come wait inside the building.
The chirping of a lone robin pierced the eerie silence of the depopulated schoolyard, and I realized I was cold. I struggled with my zipper, and by the time I’d gotten it zipped all the way up over my chin, my fingertips were red and numb. My left knit mitten was clipped inside my left sleeve, but the right one was missing. I burrowed my hands inside my jacket pockets and conducted an archaeological investigation using my sense of touch: Balled-up Kleenex. Pilled acrylic from the lining of the jacket. The sharp edge of a fingernail. Bits of playground sand. A bottle cap. I stood there by the tree for what seemed like an eternity. The sky's deepening cast of violet matched my mounting sense of dread.
It’s not as if it never occurred to me to go inside to look for a grownup who could help me. I considered walking around to the main entrance to try the doors. Maybe the school building was still unlocked. Maybe one of the ladies would still be in the office and could call my mother to tell her what happened. Or maybe I could find Mr. Russell, the custodian, to help me. But supposing Elaine Krakauer came along right when I left? Then she’d think I’d forgotten she was picking me up and that I had ridden my bus home. Plus, the doors to the school might all be locked, and the blue Volvo might come and go without me ever knowing it.
One thing was certain. I had to get home so my mother would know I was safe. I didn’t want her worrying about me like she had to worry about Danny, especially times when he got sick, but other times too. I had to hurry so Mommy wouldn’t worry. My boot treads crunch-crunched over the shoveled sidewalk as I began my trek home.
I didn’t know the names of all the streets, but I knew every turn by heart. I walked as fast as I could because it was already late. I trudged past the first three smaller streets that wound their way through to other neighborhoods. Distances were greater than they’d seemed from the window of my bus. The journey would take me longer than I’d calculated, and for the first time, I began to panic, not for me but for Mommy. What's she doing right now? Did she think I’d gotten on the wrong bus and that now I was lost? Maybe she thought I’d run away from home. Or that I’d been kidnapped!
“Hey, kid! What’re you doing?” The girl marching along in my tracks looked to be about a year older than me. Bundled up in a hat and scarf, I couldn’t see her whole face, but I didn’t recognize her from school. There was something odd, something intimidating about her. I hoped she’d go away.
“What’cha doing?” the girl repeated.
“Walking home,” I replied flatly.
“Oh. Are you a girl or boy?” she demanded. I said nothing. “Hey!” the girl insisted. “Is something wrong with you?”
“I missed my bus,” I shrugged.
The girl considered this for a moment and then asked, “Do you have pets? I have a Labrador Retriever. Also two guinea pigs. And my brother has a snake. You have to feed it crickets. And mice.”
I imagined my interrogator and her even more intimidating big brother. Where did he keep the crickets? In a bag under his bed? What if the crickets escaped? I envisioned the brother grinning diabolically as he dropped live mice into the snake’s cage. Did the girl help him? Most menacing was the possibility that the girl might delay me from getting home before dark. My heart pounded in my ears as I envisioned Mommy, frantic. I hoped the girl would go away if I crossed to the other side of the street. Instead she followed me, chattering along behind me as I gingerly picked my way over the slick, packed snow to the other side of the road.
I had to cross a wide swath of ice covering a drainage ditch separating the road from the sidewalk. Ordinarily, it’s fun to stomp the heel of your boot over the edge of the ice or step down on it with just enough weight to make it crack. But I had no time for play. I was nearly at the sidewalk when the ice gave way under my right foot, plunging the hem of my corduroys and rims of my boots under the frigid, slushy water. But the big girl was still tailing me so I acted as if nothing had happened.
She finally left me where the sidewalk ended, leaving me to finish my journey on my own. Here, I could either traverse several inches of snow that covered the houses’ front lawns, or pick my way over the uneven heaps of harder snow pushed there by the plows. e latter seemed like the easier option, so I climbed onto the mound of packed snow. Every now and then, my foot sank down, landing me calf-deep in snow, and then I had to li my knees really high to get out. Realizing I couldn’t feel my toes, I wiggled them vigorously inside my soggy socks.
I concentrated on my mother, attempting telepathy to let her know I was safe and doing my utmost best to get home. It was a quiet street, but when a car approached occasionally, I’d watch to see if was Josh and his mom or even my parents’ burgundy Peugeot. After a time, a car with familiar-shaped headlights came into view. A blue Volvo! But it zoomed by without even slowing. I had just enough time to catch a glimpse of Elaine Krakouer in her pointy-rimmed glasses at the wheel. Had she forgotten she was supposed to pick me up from school, or did she just not see me? I turned back in time to see the face of her big brown dog in the rear window looking back at me as the Volvo receded in the distance.
The road stretched ahead as far as I could see. I knew that further on was Yale Avenue, the busy street that led down to my neighborhood. To my left, beyond the row of houses, I could see the tops of cottonwood trees, naked in the winter except for a few squirrel nests. I knew the trees lined the canal and that the packed dirt trail on the opposite side of the banks meandered past my very own backyard. After a heavy snow, my father sometimes strapped on his cross-country skis or snowshoes and set o along that trail. Where the trail reached the end of my block, the steep easement next to Mrs. Swenson’s house was the perfect hill for sledding. Happy times like those felt impossibly far away.
It was twilight by the time I reached Yale Avenue. As headlights flipped on, my anxiety surged. My mother’s panic coursed through every sinew of my being. I saw her standing at the kitchen counter, dialing telephone numbers from her ip-up Rolodex. Had Daddy’s students at the university formed a search party? Maybe Mommy had called the police!
If only I could cross the open fields and then transport myself over the canal to the trail. But that was impossible. e banks were too steep to climb. I imagined my mother’s devastation if I slipped and fell through the ice and drowned.
The sky was completely black by the time I rounded the corner of my block. My heart turned a somersault at the sight of patrol cars parked in front of my house. I hurried up the driveway and through the front door.
All eyes were on me. Everyone looked dismayed -- my parents, my brother, even our white standard poodle tentatively wagging her tail. A pair of towering police officers held their notepads while their tinny-sounding walkie-talkies broadcast coded messages. I knew that some concerned a little girl gone missing, and I felt ashamed.
Mommy’s face flashed relief, then anger as she swept me up in her arms. “Where were you, God dammit! Where were you?” she cried, carrying me down the hall and into my bedroom.
“Josh’s mom!” I blubbered. “ e bus -- (gasp) I -- (sob) -- walked home!”
Pulling off my wet clothes and helping me into a pair of warm pajamas, my mother shhh-shhh-ed me, assuring me that I was safe and everything was all right.
The cheerful yellow of my bedroom glowed golden in the lamplight, and lace curtains hung on my window. But beyond the glass, red and blue lights pierced the blackness, and this time Danny’s disease wasn’t the reason. There was a knot in my throat because of the emergency. The emergency that happened over me.