Copyright (c) 2015 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
By R. Peterson
Alison Weatherbee's mom and step-dad were fighting … again. Even though they were in the kitchen, even though she pressed her hands over her ears, she could still hear their raised voices. “All I ask for is a little co-operation,” her mother sobbed.
“You want me to pay your electric bill after you’ve sat on the couch all day feeding that giant butt of yours box after box of Twinkies. Is that what you call co-operation?”
“I had a bad day … Twinkies make me feel better … I didn't realize I was getting through a box a day until a month ago. I'm trying to cut down,” Vicky Hicks bawled. “You said these pants didn’t make me look fat.”
“Why should I blame a pair of pants because you can’t stop stuffing your pie hole?” Fred Hicks snapped as he looked for his playing-cards. Friday was poker night at Ed Fowler’s.
Alison closed the front door behind her and realized she could still hear arguing. What did the neighbors think? It was a chilly December night - twenty degrees. Alison zipped-up last year’s hooded parka and took a frustrated walk, somewhat guilty about leaving her mother. The tired woman had hand-sewed a long rip in the right shoulder; the matched blue thread didn’t show in the faded nylon unless someone was very close. That wasn’t likely to happen. Alison had no friends.
Large flakes of snow were falling as she walked west on Galbraith Street. A car boomed past spraying freezing slush and clumps of ice. The most popular song of the week faded from the car’s radio - Petula Clark’s Downtown. Alison hummed the tune as she kicked plowed chunks of ice back into the gutter. She remembered tomorrow night was the Sophomore Hop … no one had asked her, not even pimple-faced Ernie Davis. She’d prayed every night last week that he would call. He asked Gina Edwards instead … Alison’s only friend. Now she’d be eating her lunch alone in the corner of the school cafeteria.
Alison wondered if the lights really were so much brighter there on Townsend Avenue. She loved looking in the store windows at the latest fashions. Most of her clothes came from Ted’s Second Hand Store (her mother was excellent at mending). Her mother bought a few things from J.C. Penny, if they had a good sale and if Fred didn’t gamble away her sewing money. Alison closed her eyes and imagined she was Chloe O’Brian dancing inside the Cloverdale High School gym to The Exiles, that new band from Butte; she spun around in an exquisite white-satin gown exactly like the one in the window of Jan’s Styles. It wasn’t Ernie Davis dancing with her either; it was Greg Hanson, captain of the football team. Guys lining the cinderblock walls in the gym, gazed at her with longing and desire – girls with fury and envy. The sound of police sirens dissolved her fantasy. Embers lit the western sky. A house was burning on the south-west corner of Main Street and Galbraith. The large mansion where the strange woman from Italy lived … the woman whom everyone called "The Witch" … Melania Descombey.
Three fire trucks and six police cars jammed both Main Street and Galbraith. People spilled over from the sidewalk onto the road. “It’s about time someone burned that old witch out!” an onlooker cried. Alcohol fumes reeked from her stepfather’s noisy friend. A dozen firemen poured high-pressure water on the blaze. Even to Alison’s untrained eye the mansion was a total loss. Giant wooden- beams turned to charcoal, then toppled like dominoes inside the inferno. Pops like gunshots blasted fragments of glass into the frigid air as rows of canning jars exploded on exposed basement shelves. Snowflakes danced with the rising embers like a religious ballet - bringing together heaven and hell.
“Is that old witch still in there?” City Councilman Bill Davis asked Sheriff John Walker as he pointed to the dying flames.
“I don’t think the poor woman hasn’t left her house in years,” the sheriff said, his eyes searching the destruction, “I’m afraid … maybe she was.”
The flames became steam and black smoke, rising from burnt rubble piled high like an island in the center of a lake turning to ice. Alison had to step into the soggy residue to avoid firemen who were rolling up a hose. Something glittered on the charred ground. She reached down and picked it up. It was a necklace that looked like real gold, with a pendant attached to a broken chain. She wiped away soot and put it into her jacket pocket. Probably just a piece of the old woman’s costume jewelry.
Alison tried to swallow-away a lump in her throat as she turned north on Main Street and kept walking toward downtown. Melania had been full of life and had been very nice to her. The more than a century-old lady, had even given her a kitten when she was six - the same year Alison’s father died. She shook her head remembering finding Snuggles squashed in the street … ten-years ago was a long time and pain and tears were both better left behind.
Alison lingered in front of Jan’s Styles admiring the white chiffon dinner dress by designer Jane Derby in the store window. A Ford Fairlane rolled past with Susan McKinney driving. A half empty Tasty Treat paper cup was flung from the car in her direction by a passenger Alison recognized from her history class at school. “Take your dirty eyes off that dress,” the girl yelled. “I might want to wear it to the Spring Formal.”
The smoking Ford disappeared down Townsend Avenue as Alison brushed Cherry Coke from her pants and coat. Her hand was trembling, and she put it in her coat pocket to keep it still. She was afraid that the car might turn around and come back. Marsha Hicks was known for fighting girls over things a lot less important than dresses. The car continued to rumble up the street. “Why can’t bad things ever happen to people like that?” Alison mumbled as she unconsciously rubbed the relief images on the pendant. She tried to resume her daydream.
Three minutes later, Alison reached the intersection of Townsend and Wallace. The smoking Ford was dead in the street, its passenger side caved in by a flat-bed truck. Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire still playing on the car radio, echoed off the store-fronts. Marsha Hicks sat on the curb in front of The Royal Theatre with Susan McKinney. Blood ran from a long gash in Marsha’s forehead. “Do you think it will leave a scar,” she wailed as an angry farmer danced around his hissing radiator and twisted bumper. “Didn’t you see the red light?” he lamented. “Didn’t you see the damn red light?”
It has to be just a coincidence; Alison told herself as she avoided crowds of people just exiting an early showing of The Sound of Music … I can’t be that lucky!
Alison turned right on Garlow Street, one block north on Meghan Way and headed east. She wanted to look in the window of Wedding Bells also a favorite store. Twenty minutes later, a black stretch limousine, going west, crossed the center line and pulled to the curb. The electric window slid down. To Alison it sounded like a magician’s wand in a fantasy movie. “Chloe!” the uniformed driver gushed. “He mirado por todas partes para usted! If your papa finds out Pablo Gonzales let you outa his sight, I will be fishing the bottom of eso Río de mocasín de agua viejo, frío … wearing cement waders.”
“You must be mistaken,” Alison stammered.
“No se trata de un error,” the Hispanic driver pleaded. “You can go anywhere you want as long as I am here to watch you.”
Alison looked down. The ragged ski-parka was now a black Maria Brillas coat with a bird wing collar. White Edith Head pants looked painted on. Alison lurched back when she caught her reflection in the rear view mirror. The face that stared at her was stunning and beautiful. “Por favor, Chloe” Pablo begged. “Let me takes you somewhere.”
“What the heck,” Alison mumbled as she climbed into the backseat, “… one night can’t hurt.” Pablo started the car and then waited. He had the radio tuned to KRNR. The soft sound of the Byrds singing Turn Turn Turn filled the interior of the luxurious automobile. “To Spare-a-Dime,” Alison told him. “I don’t feel like being alone.”
The café on the northwest corner of Main and Townsend overflowed with teenagers. Jesse Paco stood-up from a table and whistled as Alison walked through the door. “Chloe! Over here!” He tipped nerdish Tommy Barnes from his seat and slid the chair out. Alison looked around greeted by smiles everywhere. So this is what it’s like to be popular.
One of the Cloverdale Stallion cheerleaders, a girl Alison knew from reputation pulled her into a booth filled with football players. The table was cluttered with soda cans, glasses of creamy milkshakes, and a large plate of French Fries, obviously intended for sharing. Louis Armstrong’s crushed-gravel voice crooned Hello Dolly from the tiny jukebox wall-box speakers mounted next to each booth. Terra Madsen leaned in to whisper in Alison’s ear. “I know you have a thing for a certain someone,” she giggled looking toward where Jesse stood holding the empty chair. “But you’re the one who said it was best to kindle his fire.” Terra pointed to a craggy boy sitting on the other side of the booth. “I know a gorgeous guy who would be happy to stir up a little jealousy.”
Alison gasped; the boy grinning at her from across the table was Greg Hanson. “Hi Greg,” she gushed. His grin was now a full blown smile.
“Well … hello Chloe,” he sang. Alison though she could smell alcohol on his breath.
“Did you hear?” Terra gushed. “Susan McKinney ran a red light and plowed into Luke Fowler’s flatbed Dodge. Marsha Hicks banged her hollow head on the rear view mirror and she’s gonna look like the Bride of Frankenstein when doctor Descombey gets through stitching her up.”
“That’s too bad,” Alison suffered the first twinges of guilt scratching at her conscience.
“Yeah, too bad she got off so easy,” Terra blurted. “You know you hate that slut as much as I do, Chloe.” Terra squirted catsup over the French fries. “You haven’t forgotten when she splashed spaghetti sauce on your white pants just before cheerleader tryouts have you?”
Alison remembered the vicious face ordering her away from the dress in the window of Jan’s Styles. “No, I haven’t,” she told Terra.
Alison looked at Greg Hanson. He was just about the best looking guy she’d ever seen. I wish he’d ask me to the Sophomore Hop she mused. A minute later … he did.
It was after eleven when the crowd left Spare-A-Dime. Pablo insisted on driving her home. Alison had never seen such splendor as the estate on the far south end of Irish Way. A long circular drive swept around seven magnificent fountains, each shooting jets of water lit by colored lights twenty feet into the night sky. Lush foliage surrounded a brick path leading to an entryway made of stone and dark ironwood.
Alison stood just inside the entrance, aware that she didn’t know where Chloe O’Brian’s bedroom was. A Spanish woman dressed in a maid’s uniform appeared holding an armload of folded clothes. “Justo estaba tomando éstos hasta su habitación,” she said. “If you’d rather I took them to your room tomorrow …?”
“No, take them up now,” Alison told her, looking at the clothing and the name on the uniform that said Maria. “I might be out of underwear.”
Alison followed the woman up the stairs. Her room was fabulous, larger than her parent’s entire house on the poor side of Cloverdale. A sunken pool occupied one end of a plush carpeted room. Three bay windows bordered each side of French doors that opened onto a spacious balcony with an excellent view of the southern constellations. The maid placed the folded clothes inside a gilded white dresser, next to a canopy bed draped with silk curtains and dozens of colorful pillows, and then left.
A princess telephone sat next to a crystal lamp on a glass table next to the bed. Alison lifted the receiver. It was obviously a private line … rich kids didn’t have to share a party line with three nosy neighbors. Alison plopped onto the mattress and breathed in the smell of fresh linen and scented silk.
Movement from across the room caught Alison’s eye. Before she could react, a huge black panther streaked across the carpeting and leaped onto the bed. Alison didn’t have time to scream before the exotic cat was licking her face. “I’m sure glad nobody forgot to feed you,” Alison muttered as she led the animal to a large bathroom. She locked the panther inside a huge shower stall and felt instant relief. A walk in closet was large enough to get lost in, and Alison did … blinded by hundreds of designer outfits.
I’m so excited I’ll never be able to sleep … Alison paced the floor. She remembered the hot drinks her mother sometimes brought to her when she couldn’t sleep.
A knock came on her door and Maria entered carrying a tray with a steaming mug of hot chocolate. “I put in a drop of Melatonin,” she said. “El mañana por la noche es el baile and a good night’s rest will make you look excelente.”
“Thank you so much,” Alison told her.
“It is my pleasure,” Marie said and then sighed. “The course of true love is never a smooth one.”
The maid lingered for just a moment and Alison was sure she wanted to talk, but she had no idea what to say to the anxious woman. Marie said an awkward good-night and left looking disappointed.
“This will take getting used to,” Alison whispered as she drank hot cocoa on the balcony and gazed at the stars. “So this is what it’s like … to have everything.”
Alison slept in. She had the house to herself after 9am. Sean O’Brian, Chloe’s father, was away on business and Chloe’s mother, Margie, had day-long meetings with her garden club. Alison spent the afternoon lounging by the pool and taking phone-calls from endless friends.
Greg Anderson had arranged to meet her at the dance. His Mustang was still in the shop after an accident and his father refused to loan him the family car.
Alison called Jan’s Styles. They delivered the white chiffon dinner dress by designer Jane Derby from the store window. Two hours later they returned it with all the correct alterations.
Pablo was quiet as they left the gated mansion … it was almost dark as they drove away. “Your big night I guess,” he finally said.
“I suppose so,” Alison felt a funny ache in her throat sitting in the back seat. They were just rolling past a street light on Galbraith and Irish Way when Alison recognized her mother stumbling down the snow covered sidewalk. The ragged hooded ski-parka she wore did little to hide the dark rings under her eyes or the stringy matted hair. She looked like she hadn’t slept for a week. “Pull over here,” Alison told her driver.
Alison jumped from the back seat of the car the moment Pablo pulled to the curb. “Mother!” she called.
Vicky Hicks turned her tired eyes on the rich girl stepping from the limousine. “You must think this is funny,” her mom told her. “A tired woman, without a car, out in the snow looking for her daughter,” Vicky cried. “She is all I have. My dear child is the only reason I go on living.”
Alison watched her mother disappear down the snowy walk. The old woman’s head turned right and left as if trying to recover a broken heart.
“Where to now?” Pablo asked. Alison could tell her driver had other things on his mind.
“I’ll think I’ll take a walk by myself. You go back to the house and talk to Maria,” she told him. “I think she needs you.”
Ten minutes later, Alison stared at the burned out ruins of the house that stood on the corner of Main Street and Galbraith. An image of her poor mother wandering the snow-covered streets … searching for a lost daughter … refused to leave her mind. Alison reached inside her purse and touched the strange golden amulet as she thought about her mother living with Fred Hicks and suffering through his selfishness without her. “I wish this all had never happened,” she muttered.
A light went on in the old mansion and Alison found herself once again wearing the ragged ski-parka and shivering in the cold night air. Gone were the piles of smoky ash and frozen charred timbers, replaced by jutting gables, covered porches and decorative lattice. The necklace was also missing from her purse.
Alison was turning to leave when a voice called to her. Melania Descombey stood in the mansion’s doorway. “Don’t go,” she pleaded. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you.”
“To me?” Alison stammered. “Why would you want to talk to me?”
“I’ve very old,” Melania said, “very, very old. It’s time for me to take on an apprentice and teach her the ways of the ancients. A long time I have searched.”
“My mother needs me,” Alison told her. “I found out how much … just tonight.”
“You have a good heart and your mother is a lucky woman,” Melania told her. “There are many ways you can help her … that we both can help her. There are many in this time who dwell in fear and darkness. I will show you how to become a light.” The old woman held up a shiny golden medallion with a broken chain and grinned. “This job has many strange and wonderful attaccamentos.”
Alison smiled as she walked toward the lighted doorway.