I posted this short story last year for a brief period of time. This story’s always been near and dear to my heart and is probably one of my favorite things I’ve written. If you like it, why not consider reading “Beneath The Mimosa Tree,” and perhaps even my upcoming novel called “Baseball Girl.” Coming in March. Happy Halloween!
Janie’s big house on the water overlooked Annapolis in St. Margaret’s and had recently been featured in Annapolitan Magazine. Her father and mother had purchased the renovated show home two years ago, before her mother took it upon herself not to care about anything. Prior to this home, they had lived in a smaller colonial in St. Margaret’s on the other side of the highway. Janie’s best friend had lived next door to her, and though she thought the new house was pretty, she missed her cozy little bedroom with honeysuckles outside her window and her friend just steps away from her door. Her old bedroom had been a painted a soft yellow, with green and white polka dot curtains adorning her windows. Janie’s room was small, but she liked it. When she moved to St. Margaret’s, she and her mother chose purple as her new room color, but she didn’t like it from day one. She never complained about the color because she didn’t want to hurt her mother’s feelings; her mother thought it was “just the right shade to brighten Janie’s day.” As if, Janie thought.
Janie’s new home never seemed like a happy place, for not long after they moved in, trouble moved in right along with them. Her mother started going out at night. She began going to the movies by herself, which was unusual because she was never a very independent woman. When she would come home from school, Janie would find her mother sitting on the back porch, some kind of drink in hand, staring straight ahead at the water. She had few words to say, and her blank stare suggested that she really didn’t care how Janie’s day was or what letter grade she got on her test.
Her mother started seeing a doctor to help her from being too sad. The doctor tried all kinds of different medications, and Janie examined the many prescription bottles that lined the counter of her mother’s bathroom. Janie felt her mother start to disappear little by little. Janie also became an expert eavesdropper, listening in on the conversations her parents would have when they thought Janie was asleep.
“You’re not making much progress,” her father said.
“I’m doing the best I can. Do you think I like feeling this way?” her mother would shout.
“No, I don’t. I’m just not sure what I can do about it,” her father said.
“There’s nothing you can do about it. I don’t need your help.”
Janie’s father became quiet, and then he gently spoke. “I’m here for you, whether you think I am or not.”
Her mother did not respond.
After her mother left, Janie and her father stayed in the big house, and Janie often wondered why. Their evenings were spent talking about sports, school, friends, television shows, and activities, but they would never talk about her. That had been decided the night Janie had a crying fit, blaming herself for her mother’s swift departure. Janie had yelled at her father, “How could you let her leave? How could you let her go? She was my mother!” and her father, a smart, even-tempered lawyer who rarely showed any vacillating emotions, screamed so loudly that the neighbors actually called the house to see if everything was okay. He shouted at Janie that one and only time, “Why would I want her to stay? She wanted to go! She didn’t want to be with us!” Janie watched him sink into the couch, placing his hands over his eyes, sobbing quietly, his heart obviously broken. She had never seen her father cry before and so, for her father’s sake, she had decided never to speak of her mother again. Likewise, her father, though they never discussed his meltdown afterward, had secretly pledged the same thing. It was then that her mother’s name, Ella, went missing.
But Janie’s little heart couldn’t be mended; the day Ella walked out of their lives and packed her five suitcases—the only things she took with her were clothes, shoes, and one scrapbook of memories—Janie’s heart hardened. Since her mother had left, Janie, thirteen and unsure as to how to deal with her anger, started a weekly ritual of getting on her Schwinn and nervously riding it across town. Her father never knew she did it because she’d take to the bike after school and before he got home from work. On her first outing (she had never ridden on a one-lane road before), when she got to town, she actually walked her bike over the bridge into Annapolis because she was too scared to ride it across into oncoming traffic. She didn’t like the cars roaring by and became anxious by the feel of the wind on her face as the cars passed. She was a skinny teenager. She didn’t have a lot of meat on her bones and she wasn’t very athletic. She had mousey brown hair that she usually wore in a ponytail high on her head and freckles across the bridge of her nose. Her eyes were hazel and she was particularly proud of her near-perfect teeth. Prior to the move to St. Margaret’s, her mother had been in charge of everything because her father worked long hours at the law firm. Her mother had never really let her stray too far, so the idea of riding her bike over to Murray Avenue became a silent rebellion against her mother and her former commandeering ways. She also saw it as a sign of independence, of doing what she wanted, when she wanted, with no one to answer to each time. This she liked very much. The bike rides became her own escape from reality combined with an element of detective attached to it. On her rides, she felt happy.
The first time she made it to Murray Avenue, she couldn’t get too close to the house because they were outside on the porch, playing, what seemed to be, checkers. Her mother looked different to her from the last time she saw her almost ten months ago. Her face looked more relaxed and the rigid gaze was gone from her eyes. And then she saw him for the first time; she got a good glimpse of his face. He was handsome, with a nice tan and dark hair, appeared to be little younger than her mother, and had broad shoulders. Seeing her mother from a distance caused a knot to form in her stomach that did not go away. Not for days.
There was no chance they could see her because she was squatting behind a large pine tree, so she was out of view. She didn’t stay long. When she couldn’t take it any longer, she headed back up the hill, over the bridge and into the traffic, peddling as hard and fast as she could, a heavy blanket weighing on her heart. She tried to ignore the tears that were soaking her face, and rode her bike back to her own house that often felt like a cold, stark museum. As beautiful as it was, it was neat as a pin, the color white predominant in the furniture, draperies, and cabinets, and there was rarely any music on in the house. The sound of silence often made Janie resort to her wearing her headphones and listening to her own music. Her father used to love music in the St. Margaret’s house. Janie remembered that music was like background noise; it was always playing. Her father had a tremendous music collection, but now the CDs just sat dormant in their cabinets, longing to be played.
After nearly two months of secretly spying on her mother’s house, one night Janie grabbed pen and paper and made some notes. She plotted words, enumerated a list of actions, and drew a sketch. She would exact some revenge on her mother, the deserter. The idea came to her earlier when she was sitting with her father at the dinner table. A light bulb went off when he told her a story about mischief night and the odd things that would usually occur the night before Halloween when he was a kid in New Jersey. In his small neighborhood in Cedar Grove, the phantoms would come out and toilet paper homes, spray shaving cream all over cars, and smash pumpkins on sidewalks and streets. Janie had never done anything malicious in her life. She had been a pleaser, always striving to get good grades, brushing her teeth when told, and even helping out around the house. Only recently had she begun to think wicked thoughts.
When she got home from school the next day, she took a quick ride before her father got home to survey the landscape. The little cape cod had a wooden front porch, which was scattered with yellow and orange leaves that had fallen from a neighboring maple tree. Corn stalks adorned the front door, and jack ‘o lanterns lined the stairs. It wasn’t much, Janie thought, wondering why her mother preferred this tiny house as opposed to the one she left one year ago. She did envy the color of the home; it was yellow with black shutters.
As she made her way back home that afternoon still concocting her plan, the only thing that worried her was being out late in the dark. She’d never ridden her bike at night before, and was leery of the busy road and the headlights on the cars. But to make her plan work she knew she had to give it a try. She wouldn’t tell anyone about it and she would have the pure pleasure of knowing she took a few hacks at some of the joy that permeated the air on Murray Avenue. She was willing to take the risk of sneaking out and of getting caught. Something was brewing inside of her.
Later that evening, when her father kissed her goodnight after watching his television shows, she went to her room and dressed in black. She had seen enough movies about burglars and murderers to know that the color of choice when dressing to do something spiteful was black. She slipped on her black jeans and a long-sleeved black shirt. She even had a black ball cap with the Nike logo on it. When she was pretty sure her father was asleep, she snuck out to the detached garage where her bike was kept and opened the side door with her key. She didn’t want to open the actual garage doors because she didn’t want to awaken her father or startle him. She grabbed her bike and helmet, and began peddling in a spirited, frenetic way, to her destination.
When she headed over the bridge, it wasn’t as bad as she thought; there were fewer cars on the road, and though it was dark, with only the twinkling stars above and the lights of the bridge guiding her, she felt an inner calm. The Severn River was tranquil below, and the sound of the water and the breeze relaxed her. She made her way down the two-lane street and across the area where her mother now lived. Again, she parked her bike beyond the pine tree and peeked at the house. It was dark. The front porch light was on, but other than that, the house was black inside. She looked around to make sure no one was up to catch her. There was only one house with lights on, and it was two doors down from Ella’s. She looked around, planned her escape.
The pumpkins, six total, were not large. Two of them were carved; the others were merely there as decorations. She crept over and picked up the first pumpkin like a gemstone at first, her hand trembling a bit, and hoisted it over her head. With all her might, down it came. It smashed hard against the pavement, splattering on the sidewalk and the walkway. She picked the next one up with ease and smashed it with the greatest force, as if she were the strongest woman in the world, a year’s worth of rage being taken out on seasonal, orange fruits. One pumpkin after another became sidewalk art, the guts and the seeds littering the walkway, the chunks of them becoming one with the stairs. Gloriously, she pounded them, rejoicing and gleeful, frightened and enraged. Her adrenaline rushed, and the ebullient smile she wore on her face was satisfying. She saw a light go on across the street and knew her time was limited. When she had smashed the last one, she ran, as fast as she could to her bike, only regretful that there was no time to relish her artwork, her masterpiece, her little ray of sunshine that graced the sidewalk below the clear, moonlit sky.
Copyright © 2012/Stephanie Verni