This story is by Éowyn Peterson and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
The Date: May 1946
On the street front, shop windows stood poised above the rush of buses and taxi horns, but in the alleyway geraniums nodded over their windowsills and a doll buggy stood jammed against the cement steps. Where the height of the brownstone became lost in the upper boughs of the elm trees a huge sign boldly proclaiming, “Laurie’s Lotion Lifts the Spirit” ran between it and the building across the way. For the resident children of said buildings the broad wooden top of the sign frame was the favorite form of transportation.
It was to this that Sally O’Grady returned one fine day in May. She’d gone downstate to work at Uncle Larry’s soda fountain, but now she was back again for a visit, and very fine indeed she came with her fluffy brown bob, brown tipped pumps and red lipstick. The bus stopped at the corner across from the alley, and Sally, her eyes tired, but with a decidedly happy smile, descended into a mob of children shrieking joyous hellos.
Mother O’Grady was alone in the kitchen, clearing away the table loaded with dishes, decorated with the remnants of breakfast, when Sally came down next morning. Slipping her bare feet under the table and picking up the coffee pot, she poured a stream of the scalding hot elixir into a mug, and chin on one hand began drinking it.
Mother O’Grady stopped her work in surprise, “Don’t you want sugar and cream?”
Sally started and blinked, “Yes, I suppose so, thanks Mother,” and after adding a dash of cream she went on with her drinking.
“Like to go marketing with me?” began her mother again.
“I think I’ll just stay around here,” Sally said. “It’s been so long since I’ve been here,” she shrugged, “I feel like I need to visit it again.”
“Very well dear,” said Mrs. O’Grady, then gave a furtive look over her shoulder. Sally was looking out of the window, absently twirling her mug with one finger against its side. What had come over her? She’d always been such a good steady girl! Perhaps the devotion had been a bit dogged, but what had possessed her to go running off like she had with nary a goodbye to a friend? Mother O’Grady shook her head over it, then taking off her apron, shook the matter out of her mind with it.
With the slamming of the outer door the house seemed to come alive to Sally, listening for her first movement. Finishing off the last bit of her coffee she set down the mug, and the thump seemed to shock the whole house.
“How absurd this is!” Sally said to herself, and getting up began with determined noisiness to wash the dishes, humming with the sloshing of the suds. When she had finished at the sink, the silence, untouched by the hum of traffic outside, came back stronger than ever.
Wandering past the rooms, bursting with girlish finery and boyish inventions, she pushed open the attic door. Her feet fit into the familiar dustiness in the tilting darkness of the stairway. As her head emerged into the hole of sunlight the staircase opened into, she caught her breath in dismay. She couldn’t have said what she had expected, but it wasn’t this – lumber stacked against the wall, and boxes of old things she had not even known the family owned. A typewriter and flowers in a broken bottle . . . where was the neat wonder of her world of imagination?
Pinching her lips tightly together she looked to the window, and a rush of relief flooded her to the see the tendrils of swaying green cut with sunlight. She pushed up the window, and the leaves came in and smote her face with all the joy of old friends, and there – bridging free air before it disappeared into an opposite tree – ran the top of the sign.
The thought came so quick and strong she didn’t even have time to stop its madness. In a moment she was squeezing out the window, bare toes and fingers gripping with the memory of childhood. The wind, bigger than she remembered, pulled her, but she clung tightly to her hold and emerging triumphant from the first gust was prepared for the next. It came, and the window slammed shut behind her.
Sally felt suddenly sick. Inching around and taking care not to look down she tried to open it. Nothing happened, and shake it as she might the window remained decidedly shut. The depth of the traffic whizzing carelessly by at the end of the alley, and the extent of the city buildings stretching out for miles round smote sickeningly upon her. The family was going to be gone for hours. She would die of thirst or faint from hunger. She gripped the tree trunk, and pinching her lips against the angry moans of her empty insides, closed her eyes.
* * *
“Hello-a,” said a voice in the low tone of a man which held a lilt of boyish humor. Sally’s eyes flew open, and she looked down. It was Jim. His chin had become more determined; his eyes certainly bluer, but the blue-black of his hair and the funny way it went up on the back of his head was just the same. Dressed in slacks, with his sleeves rolled up, he was standing on a ladder which leaned against the sign near where it met the other building, and was looking down the wood path toward her.
“Sally O’Grady,” he said, voice slow in wonder.
Sally lifted her eyes to the heavens. Briefly thinking of lifting her hands, she recollected her perch and decided against it, but with care she was able to primly smooth her skirt.
“The window shut unexpectedly, would you be so good as to bring that ladder over here?” she said.
“I see,” he said, and she could hear the laughter choking his voice. “Very well then.” Climbing down and picking up the ladder he propped it farther away from her against the same building.
“What on earth are you doing?” she said, tightening her grip on the tree.
Leaning into the corner of the building, he looked up at her; eyes wide and innocently blue, but she caught a wicked gleam in their depths. “Well, those dates you never kept, you can fill them right now. In fact, I’ll be turning the debt in my favor.”
“I’ll save your life after you’re done. Start explaining.”
“I’ll call for help.”
Jim began to chuckle, “Oh no you won’t.”
Fury tingled inside her, but he was right, of course. Foolish as she felt now, it was nothing to what she’d feel if strangers saw her.
“What do you want explained?” she said.
“Why you went rushing away without a goodbye to anyone,” he said. The sudden cut to seriousness shook her, and she looked down to see the hurt in his eyes.
“I just wanted to have fun. And you know I couldn’t have that here,” she said.
“What about your work?”
“We’d all been working for four straight years. I wanted fun and you all would have stopped me,” she shot back, but her voice trembled as her gaze flicked to the shrapnel scars on his hands.
“And you got that at the soda fountain; strange you don’t look too happy, but that wasn’t the work I meant.”
“I haven’t written one silly line since I left,” Sally said.
“They couldn’t have been half as silly as you were for not writing them.”
“No one wanted them anyway. Your editor friend wouldn’t even look at them.”
“You should try again,” Jim said.
Shifting on her perch, Sally blinked away sudden tears, “I can’t; my study disappeared.”
“Your family cleaned up, did they?” he said, his voice kind. “I’ve got a deal for you, Miss Sally O’Grady. If you promise the minute you come down to write something, anything – it can be a rant against me if you want – I’ll get you down.”
Pride struggled, but it didn’t really care that much, and there was something deeper and greater that she loved far dearer, which wanted to fly.
“Very well then Jim, I promise.”
“That’s my girl,” he cried triumphantly. Before she could even shriek “Jim!” he’d vanished round the corner. Moments later there was the scrape of a window behind the tree opposite her own, and then his voice, “Come on Sally.”
“But Jim, I’ll fall – I’ll die of terror! Why couldn’t you have simply brought the ladder like a rational being?”
“Knowing you, it wouldn’t have been a bit rational, by the time you’d reach the ground you would have lost all your literary drama. Now it will only be mounting to new heights.”
The height, the depth – the greatness and terror of them was far more than she’d ever imagined. Sky, which had been hidden from her seat under the branches of the tree, rose in blue splendor above her, the rooftops of the city edging the skyline with a range of far off skyscrapers. What fearless little sillies they had been as children; or was to be fearless the only way to really know breath snatching joy? It was a flash of a thought, brief and poignant, but one she remembered all her life.
Then she was at the window, and Jim was there, hands extended to draw her over the sill. Turning from Jim, though her hand remained in his, she gasped. Standing on a little table next to the window was her typewriter and beside it, in an old green coke bottle was a single stem of red carnation.
“Jim, why did you do it?”
“I knew you’d see sense after a while, and as no one else could have an office up here, I made it up for you.”
“Office? What do you mean?”
A grin lit his face, “So you haven’t heard? I’m the chief editor of “The City Hawk” now. Our offices are on the first floor of this building.”
“You were repairing the sign mountings.”
“I know the quirks of it and wanted to see it done right, besides I always hoped you’d come along it again someday.” His eyes were serious and deep now, and his fingers held hers a little tighter.
Sally laughed shakily, “And you were right.”
“Now what about that paper. The magazine needs a story, a good story, and you’re going to give it to me,” he said.
Sally lifted her chin, “Very well Jim, I will.”