Sad in New York
The bell had rung an hour ago and I was sitting with the rest of the Scouts in a sloppy circle by the hot lunch line, wrinkled green sashes thrown across our chests. The room smelled damp: damp stacks of plastic trays, damp piles of utensils, damp linoleum the custodian had mopped into dry islands around our feet. From where the fourteen of us were sitting, the cafeteria looked vast and deserted, chairs propped upside-down on tables, spiky metal legs pointed toward the ceiling. Out of sight, I could hear dishes rattling, lunch ladies talking, sometimes unleashing coarse bursts of laughter. At lunchtime, this place was chaos; it felt strange to be there after-hours, like we were privy to something we shouldn’t be.
“Girls,” Mrs. Tedesco, our troop leader, announced. “Time to sing.”
Mrs. Tedesco ended all of our meetings like this. We held hands, and under the humming fluorescent lights, offered our closing anthem of praise to the trees. Mrs. Tedesco sang with gusto, like always. She was wearing her usual uniform—baggy blue jeans, untucked plaid shirt, and sockless moccasins—her only concession to scouting the red kerchief tied loosely around her head, tail flapping at the nape of her neck.
A few girls snickered at her, including Carrie, but she was Mrs. Tedesco’s daughter, so she could. Most girls sang along dutifully, earnestly. I whispered the words under my breath. I liked the idea of being a Girl Scout—a girl like the ones on the cookie boxes: cheerful, friendly and fearless—more than actually doing it. I’d struggled my way through gardening and knot-tying. I liked eating the cookies but dreaded selling them, ringing doorbells and standing on people’s porches, subjecting myself to awkward conversations and barking dogs. My strength was rule-following: I liked the sense of accomplishment that came with earning badges, folding down the pages in my handbook and ticking tasks off a list. Some girls (Carrie) were too disinterested to have acquired more than two or three of them. Others, like my friend Aimee, had sashes so heavy with hardware they drooped into their laps. I had ten, the same number as my age. I gravitated toward the less athletic ones: Music, Child Care, Creative Cooking. I’d even managed to complete Wildlife, though I was afraid of most animals (in theory, I wanted a guinea pig, but mostly so I could name it). “Indoor scouting,” my dad said, and I humored him with a “Very funny,” while Mom patiently sewed the next badge onto my sash.
When the song ended, we rose to leave, but Mrs. Tedesco raised one palm. “Hold your horses,” she said, reaching into her giant tapestry bag. The bag sagged by her feet, and she rummaged in it like a junk drawer, emerging with a stack of pale green composition books. “An assignment. For next week.”
There was a single, elaborate groan—Carrie, of course. Mrs. Tedesco gave her a warning look, and Carrie blew her bangs off her face, a move I envied. Carrie’s bangs were blunt and choppy, as if cut with kitchen scissors, grazing the tops of her purple glasses. When she aimed an exasperated stream of air directly upward, they fanned out like a wave.
“Girls,” Mrs. Tedesco said as the books made their way around the circle, “being a Scout means having character, compassion, and courage.” We knew. Not that anyone was really listening. “To build character, you need to know what you think. Express what you feel.” She seemed slightly winded, as she often did, from emotion or exertion I wasn’t sure. “This week, you’re going to keep a Girl Scout Journal,” she said—at this, I perked up: finally, something in my wheelhouse. “Each day, girls. Fifteen minutes. Thoughts and feelings. Cough them up.”
Mrs. Tedesco was not only my troop leader but also my neighbor, which made it even harder to take her seriously. She lived at the bottom of our block of Lyle Road. If I was ill-equipped to be a Girl Scout, Mrs. Tedesco was equally unsuited to be a leader. She could be sarcastic with us, even sour. She didn’t seem in good physical shape, and her hair and clothes were in constant disarray. Her front porch was hung with spindly, dying plants in macramé baskets. She had a bumper sticker that said I’M NOT DEAF I’M IGNORING YOU.
I understood that Mrs. Tedesco had reasons to be unhappy. Her son, Miller, had “a problem with anger,” according to my mom. Three years ago, he’d been kicked out of the junior high for fighting with a teacher and sent to a special school. Shortly after, he was caught trying to rob a Radio Shack, and went to juvenile hall. Now he was living with an uncle somewhere in—New York? San Francisco? Carrie never mentioned Miller, though we spent enough time together; she was always showing up at my house to play. Which was funny, since we weren’t in class together—I was in fourth grade, Carrie was in fifth—and we never talked on the playground or at lunch. She was in Scouts, of course, though we didn’t interact there either. Our friendship existed apart from school, born of convenience, the proximity of neighbors. She’d show up—after school, on weekends—and hang around my house until five-thirty, when my mother would gently say that her mom must be wanting her home, and Carrie would shrug, fan the bangs off her brow, and wander back down the street.
We never played at Carrie’s. For one thing, after school, Mrs. Tedesco wasn’t home. This was the reason for the housekey Carrie wore around her neck on a white shoelace, an accessory that struck me as tough and cool. Mrs. Tedesco worked 9-5 as an assistant manager at Thriftway, every day except Tuesdays, when she left work early to run the Scouts. “I told my manager, I need to do this for my daughter,” I’d heard her tell my mother, and it bothered me that she said this—like she was pretending to be a different sort of mother, like she and Carrie were close, like Carrie even cared. That the reality was so different didn’t deter Mrs. Tedesco, or it had escaped her. My mom, of course, just nodded, being kind. I assumed she was thinking about the day Mr. Tedesco died. Eight years ago, he was walking in from work and had a heart attack on their front porch stairs. Miller, six years old, had been watching out the window, waiting for him, and saw him collapse. When Mrs. Tedesco rode off in the ambulance, frantic, it was our house where she dropped her kids—“never dreaming he wouldn’t make it,” my mom said. It was a story she referenced surprisingly often. “No warning,” she said, every time. “Those children—” She shook her head. “Life can change in a day.”
I had only a vague recollection of Carrie’s brother. I remembered him as skinny, not the kind of skinny that signaled wimpiness but the kind that signaled mischief, bony and lean—or else I remembered him that way because of the trouble he got into later. I felt sorry for Mrs. Tedesco, losing her husband and then her son like that, though I was also kind of glad a robber wasn’t living down the street. At least, though, with Miller around, Carrie had had a partner. Without him, she glued herself to other parents, teachers, kids, me. She was loud and irreverent, her voice perpetually hoarse, as if she’d spent all night screaming at a concert. She knew all curse words and parts of the anatomy and was happy to explain them to any interested parties. Elaborate arrangements of friendship pins clotted the laces of her sneakers, in different meaningful color combinations—yellow for friend, red for crush, green for enemy—even though friendship pins had been way more popular when we were younger. Not that Carrie cared. Her popularity seemed less about being trendy or “in” or having true friendships than other girls wanting to align themselves with her, out of fascination or fear.
I didn’t like playing with Carrie, and found it confusing that she liked playing with me. I wasn’t bad or cool or popular. To her, I should have been boring, and maybe I was, considering the games we played. Carrie’s favorite was one she’d invented: Sad in New York. In it, she was the advice columnist, Dear Diana, and I was the person writing in with problems I needed her to solve. I assumed the name Diana had been inspired by Carrie’s obsession with Princess Di. My letters were all signed by someone who called themselves Sad in New York (a place, Carrie claimed, lots of sad people lived). Dear Diana: My friends are dying to go to the school dance but I don’t want to. I’m hopelessly uncoordinated! How do I gracefully back out? Anti-Socially Yours, Sad in New York. Or: When my boyfriend and I argue he always wins. It isn’t fair! How do I get my way? Desperate, Sad in New York. Or: Everyone has designer jeans but my parents don’t believe in labels. What do I do?? Feeling Uncool, Sad.
Carrie always traveled with her purple backpack—overstuffed, festooned with rabbit’s foot keychains—in which she carried the notebook we handed back and forth. I put sincere effort into my letters. I was trying to capture the tone of advice columns I’d seen in the paper, an over-punctuated bounciness that seemed at odds with whatever the letters were about. Carrie would always read what I’d written and frown, as if impatient with these “problems,” then dash off her reply: Dearest Sad, Lighten up. Don’t you know how to have fun? Or: Sad, Get a new boyfriend and then get a clue. Or: Tough luck!!! When we weren’t doing this, we were playing Queen, in which I was the servant and she was the queen.
I was always relieved when Carrie went home. Still, I felt an obligation to play with her. Maybe it was because my mother always referred to her with an oblique sorrow. “Why don’t you have Carrie over?” she would say, meaningfully, sometimes adding: “It would be nice.”
I took my Girl Scout Journal seriously. That week, I worked on it every day. If Sad in New York’s letters were moody and depressing, the Girl Scout Journal was hopeful and earnest. I listed boys I had crushes on. I mused about what it would be like to someday kiss one. I wrote about worrying my period would never come, my chest would never grow. With the exception of one crush (Paul Shin) none of this was true. I was in no rush to grow up; the prospect of my period terrified me. I was attempting to sound like a dreamy girl in a novel, the kind who confesses her secret thoughts and worries and they’re private and embarrassing but also somehow girlish and charming. I’d had a similar experience when I made my First Confession, inventing sins I’d committed because I couldn’t think of any real ones.
“What have you got there?” Dad asked. He was sitting on the other side of the dining room table, pencil scratching in his sketchbook. Dad and I could sit in a room together, serious but quiet, which I liked.
His chin was bent over his sketchbook. “More specific?”
“A journal,” I said.
“Huh.” Dad made an approving sound. “For what class?”
“It’s not for school. It’s for Girl Scouts.”
“Scouts assigns homework? Don’t you already get enough homework?” My father, unlike most parents, felt I was being overworked by our suburban public school system—“plenty of time for being chained to desks,” he would complain. Mom usually ignored comments like this. She was going back to school to be a guidance counselor; she was good at staying calm. Dad was an insurance broker but, at night, was working on a children’s book. In it, a girl named Juanita Bonita boards a magic carousel and ends up roaming around Philadelphia having eye-popping adventures. For reference, Dad sometimes had me pose like Juanita, pretending to gaze out windows or stare at tall buildings. Occasionally I caught him studying his own face in the mirror above the living room couch, wearing exaggerated expressions of confusion or horror or surprise.
“It’s not like regular homework,” I said. “It’s fun.” I paused. Fun wasn’t the word. “It’s a scouting diary,” I told him.
Dad frowned. He wasn’t a fan of the Scouts. “‘To serve God and my country,’” I’d heard him say, quoting the pledge. “What is this, a cult?” During the Vietnam War, Dad had been a conscientious objector. A year ago, he’d stopped going to church. My mom still went every Sunday, dragging me with her. I missed having Dad there, but also felt proud of him. Confusingly, between my parents, Dad was the more outspoken, but from what I could tell it was Mom who called the shots.
“Is that different from a regular diary?” he asked.
It was, though it was hard to describe exactly how. A scouting diary required an extra openness, candor, and girlness—but I hesitated to explain. “I guess not,” I said. Dad returned to his drawing, and I returned to my journal. I don’t understand my parents, I wrote, with a deep internal sigh. And my parents don’t understand me.
That Sunday, when I heard a knock on the front door, I was upstairs journaling about how I wished I were more popular, and Mom was in the office, studying. Dad was doing yard work. It was possible neither of them had heard. I hoped the person—Carrie, I was certain—would just go away. Then I heard a longer, harder knock, followed by the doorbell, the creak of the office door, and Mom’s footsteps on the stairs. “Oh, hi, Carrie,” she said, and my heart sank. “Jess! Carrie’s here!”
I pressed the tip of my pen into the page until it left an inky blot. I am not in the mood to play with Cathy—but alas, I wrote. Grudgingly, I made my way downstairs. Mom was by the front door, chatting with Carrie, who had assumed her usual pose—eyebrows raised slightly, hands folded, as if gracing me with her presence—even though it was her who had showed up at my house. As usual, her bulging backpack was hooked on her shoulders, as if she were prepared to move in. “There’s fruit in the kitchen,” Mom said, then retreated upstairs, shutting the office door.
“Guess what?” Carrie greeted me.
She smiled. “I’m going to visit my brother.”
“Really?” Carrie was prone to exaggerating, but this seemed too important.
“Easter vacation. My mom and me are going to Florida,” she said.
“Neat,” I allowed. “Where is he?”
“Um, Florida?” Carrie said, drawing out the word to underscore my stupidity.
“I know, but—where?” I didn’t want to spell out the alternatives: special school, uncle’s house, jail. I was trying to be nice. “I mean, where’s he living?”
“With my aunt,” she said. “Aunt Mimi. She’s not really my aunt. She’s my mom’s friend. She lives in Miami.”
Aunt Mimi from Miami—it sounded potentially invented.
“She’s really cool,” she said.
“I thought you said you never met her,” I replied, then felt badly. Carrie never talked about her brother, and she seemed genuinely happy.
“I talked to her on the phone.” Then she scanned the room and frowned, as if dissatisfied with her options. “We can play queen, I guess.”
Like that wasn’t a game we always played, the game Carrie always wanted to play—but I let it slide. Through the bay window, I could see Dad trimming the forsythia bushes, listening to his Walkman, and thought how much I’d rather be out there with him.
Carrie got right into character, plucking the afghan from the back of our couch and perching it, cape-like, on her shoulders. “Fetch me my tea,” she commanded. Playing queen, Carrie’s caustic streak came in handy—she could level a servant with a single verbal blow. She was equally skilled at berating her royal subjects, who assembled in the backyard outside the living room window. “Once again, you all disappoint me,” she proclaimed, with a flick of her hand. Then she lowered herself to the couch and slid off her glasses, the better to drape one hand across her brow. I carried around a tray on which I served her tea and cookies, occasionally fanning her cheeks with a TV Guide.
After about fifteen minutes, the back door slapped and Dad came in, stopping in the living room doorway. “Hi, girls.”
I glanced up. “Hi, Dad.”
He was looking at us with a funny smile. “Hi there, Carrie.”
She blinked at him from where she lay on the couch. Without her glasses, her face looked younger. “Hi, Mr. Seward.”
“How are you doing?”
“I’m doing fine,” she said. Then she smiled and added: “I mean, great.”
My dad lingered another minute, looking toward the window. Finally he said, “Have fun,” and went upstairs. A minute later, I heard the door to the office open and close.
Carrie sat up, rubbing her elbows. “That was weird,” she said. It was a little weird, but I wasn’t giving her the satisfaction of agreeing. She let the afghan slump from her shoulders and pushed her glasses back on. Then she looked around the room, blinking, as if it were a store where she’d been considering shopping but changed her mind. “I think I’m done,” she said, which was a first.
“Okay,” I said, but Carrie was already gone. The front screen door slammed. From the couch, I saw her cut diagonally across the front lawn. The entry practically wrote itself: Cathy was acting weird. She wanted to go home, which she never did—secretly, I was overjoyed. I picked up the afghan and wrapped it around my shoulders. Then I heard Mom’s office door open, and both my parents came downstairs, Dad saying, “Was that Carrie leaving?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Mom sat beside me on the couch. Dad stayed standing. They wore the looks of a serious conversation: Mom concerned, Dad mildly annoyed.
“We need to ask you something,” Mom opened.
My first, panicked thought was that they’d read my journal. Mentally, I went flipping through the entries, looking for anything potentially inflammatory. My parents don’t understand me—I didn’t even feel that way, not really. I’d just written it because it felt right.
“What?” I said.
She looked at Dad, and sighed. “We think Carrie might have stolen something—”
“We know she did,” Dad said.
This news was startling, but felt immediately possible. I believed that Carrie had done it, could do it. I was more confused about how and when she’d pulled it off. “When?”
“Dad saw her,” Mom said.
“When I was in the yard. She stuffed it in her pocket. And now—” He gestured toward the window. “It’s gone.”
“Just—” Mom shook her head. “One of the bells.”
Mom’s bell collection sat along the narrow ledges of the bay window. She had twenty or more: antique brass schoolbells, hand bells, sleigh bells, a copper dinner bell from an eighteenth-century farm. She’d been collecting her bells since she was a little girl. I could see where the stolen one was missing: a small one made of etched crystal. It was one of Mom’s favorites. That this was what Carrie had stolen—something belonging to my mother, who was only ever nice to her, something she couldn’t have really wanted—made me furious. I cycled back through the past half-hour, thinking of times she might have had the chance to take it—when she was facing the window to dismiss her subjects or I was in the kitchen making her an imaginary cup of tea.
“You didn’t see her take it, did you, Jessie?” Mom asked.
“What? No!” I said, offended. “If I had, you don’t think I would have stopped her?”
Mom studied me, and nodded, as if deciding to let me believe this. “Did anything happen between you two today?”
“I don’t know,” she said mildly. “Anything unusual? An argument?”
“She told me she’s going to visit her brother.”
Mom’s eyebrows rose lightly. “Is she?”
“Supposedly. But it’s possible she was making it up,” I said. “And then she bossed me around. But that’s not unusual.”
Dad interjected, “What does that mean?”
“We play this game. She’s the queen and I’m her servant.”
He frowned. “And you agree to this game why?”
I didn’t say anything. It hadn’t occurred to me I had a choice. I looked at Dad. “Why didn’t you say something to her when you came in here?”
“I—” he began, then stopped. “I thought I’d better talk to Mom first.”
“It’s complicated,” Mom said.
“Why is it complicated?” I looked at her, at both of them. “You’re telling Mrs. Tedesco, right?”
Neither of them replied, but both their expressions seemed to deepen. Dad’s grew more indignant; Mom’s face looked traced with pain, like it did sometimes in church. I knew what had happened: Dad thought they should tell, Mom didn’t. Mom won. Of course. Carrie had stolen from us and was getting away with it.
“I really think you should tell her,” I said. “I think she’d want to know.”
Mom paused, then gave me a sorrowful smile. “Carrie’s been through some hard things,” she said. “We’re going to let this one go. But if it happens again—or if you see anything—we will.”
Tuesday before the meeting started, I watched Carrie like a private eye. She was laughing and joking around with the other Scouts like nothing was different and I felt a seed of resentment growing in my chest. I couldn’t imagine doing something so blatantly wrong and just carrying on, guilt-free, unaffected. I thought about how lucky she got that my mother had decided to spare her. How she’d been caught in the act and didn’t even know it. Aimee was talking to me about the spelling homework, and I pretended to listen. I hadn’t told her what happened, not because I was protecting Carrie but because I didn’t want Aimee thinking less of my parents for letting her off the hook. The night before, I’d vented my frustrations in the final four pages of my Girl Scout Journal, a storm of emotion, cursive loose and sprawling. Cathy is a THIEF. She stole right from under our noses and I have no idea why mom let her get away with it. Nobody even likes her. I for one despise her and her stupid friendship pins. I only put up with her because my mother makes me. What choice do I have???
“Girls,” Mrs. Tedesco said. “Journals, please.”
Talking slowed to a dribble as the Scouts reached into their backpacks and retrieved their pale green books. It was only then, handing mine to Aimee, that I felt a simmer of nerves. I wondered what Mrs. Tedesco would think when she read it, if she’d know who Cathy really was. I watched my journal travel around the circle, hand to hand, stopping at Mrs. Tedesco, who shuffled the book to the middle of the pile like a card in a giant deck, and dropped it into the big tapestry bag that she would carry out of the cafeteria and into her car and Carrie’s house.
Carrie didn’t come over that week. I tried to let myself enjoy the hiatus, but I was worried. That she’d found my journal in her house and read it. That she was mad at me, or hurt—but so what if she was? I tried to tell myself the likeliest scenario was that she was afraid my parents had figured out she’d stolen and was lying low.
Then, on Saturday, there she was: a measure of her boldness, or obliviousness, or maybe desperation. “Carrie, hi,” I heard my mother say, inviting her inside. Her tone, I thought, was way too generous. When I appeared in the living room, Mom was smiling like everything was fine. “It’s a beautiful day,” she said. “Why don’t you girls play outside?”
It was true that, outside, there was nothing much for Carrie to steal from us, though I doubted that was motivating my mother. It was nice out, the first day that really felt like spring. Carrie and I filed out to the backyard, where we sat on the lawn by the forsythia bushes. She pointed out that she’d rearranged her friendship pins again.
“I don’t know anyone else who still wears friendship pins,” I replied, picking at the grass.
>Carrie merely shrugged. She seemed no different than usual, and I resented the time I’d wasted assuming anything different.
“Queen?” she said.
“I’m not really in the mood,” I said. “I kind of hate Queen, actually.”
She shrugged again. “Suit yourself.”
We sat in silence for another minute. I shredded a blade of grass into confetti. But we had to do something, so I proposed a few rounds of Sad in New York. Carrie dug the notebook from her backpack and offered me a pen.
Dear Diana, I scribbled. I had a dinner party and my guests stayed forever. Is there a polite way to make them leave? Feeling Annoyed, Sad in New York.
I passed it back to Carrie then waited. Another kid might have seen the letter as a cue to leave, but Carrie wouldn’t notice. Carrie didn’t notice anything. I stared at the living room window, picturing her picking up that crystal bell and stuffing it in her pocket. Today, the sun was too bright to see inside the house; the light bounced off the glass.
Carrie handed back the notebook.
Dear Sad: Every party has a pooper and that’s you!
I stared at the page, my face growing warm, and grabbed the pen.
Dear Diana: I did something very very wrong and no one knows. Should I tell??? Feeling guilty, Sad in New York.
I shoved it at her and waited. My heart was skipping lightly. But Carrie returned the notebook instantly, saying, “I can’t answer this.”
“It’s totally lacking in detail,” she said, in the same haughty tone the queen used to address her subjects. It occurred to me that the queen and Dear Diana were essentially the same person. “What wrong thing did she do?”
Carrie squinted at me through her glasses. In truth, the question was not unfair; the letter was too vague. But Carrie never critiqued my letters, barely seemed to read my letters. She must have been wondering if I knew about her stealing. I wanted to blurt out: My dad saw you do it! Then the back door opened—my mom, coming out to water the flowers, like she had some sort of tension radar.
“I don’t know,” I said.
She laughed. “How can you not know?”
“I meant, I don’t care. I didn’t even feel like playing.” I swiped torn grass from my knee. “Just make it up. Whatever you want.”
Carrie thought for minute then declared: “Kidnapping.” She huddled back over the page and scrawled: You stole someone’s kid? Return them, you sicko!
After one more half-hearted round, I told her I didn’t feel good, and when my mom called after me as I ran upstairs, I didn’t stop.
The next week, the air in the cafeteria was still and stuffy. The wide brown shades were yanked down halfway, blocking the sun, but the windows were sealed. The heat was amplified. Everything felt amplified. The smells of fries and burgers from that day’s hot menu. The buzz of the fluorescent lights. There were shadowy spots on the linoleum, damp patches where the mop water hadn’t dried.
“Girls,” Mrs. Tedesco said. “I read your journals.” She heaved a heavy sigh. “Most of you really dialed it in.”
A few girls, Carrie included, rolled their eyes. Mrs. Tedesco lifted the stack from her bag, wrapped in a thick rubber band.
“But there was one journal that was exactly what I was looking for,” she said, peeling one green book off the pile and waving it in the air. The journals were identical, so it was impossible to tell whose it was, but I knew that it was mine. I felt a mixture of pride and dread. “This,” she proclaimed, turning to give me a wide toothy smile, “is what a Girl Scout Journal should sound like.” Then she opened up my journal and began to read.
It was so terrible, so incredible, that it didn’t immediately sink in: Mrs. Tedesco was reading my private thoughts out loud. That they weren’t true, for the most part, didn’t make it any less humiliating. Everybody knew the journal was mine. My shock turned to something like repulsion as I watched Mrs. Tedesco’s mouth moving. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever kiss a boy,” she was saying. She was smiling. I could tell she thought my journal was harmless, sweet, like a little kid who’s naked and dancing.
The other Scouts were gracious enough to be mortified on my behalf. They understood that if her intent was to praise me, and shame them, the opposite was true. “Will my chest ever grow?” Mrs. Tedesco continued. Some of the girls were looking at me with awe, or pity. Aimee mustered a supportive smile. Other girls wore expressions of mild disbelief. None of them had been dumb enough to take this seriously.
When I glanced at Carrie, she was watching me from behind those purple glasses, wearing the smug look she always did, and I wanted to explode. Why did she get to sit there with all her secrets hidden? Real secrets? Actual, wrong things? That I was being exposed but she wasn’t—I was filled with a shaky rage.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Tedesco was still reading. Maybe she was going to read the entire thing. I cared so much I almost didn’t. I stared hard at the cafeteria windows, at the deserted playground. Eventually, Mrs. Tedesco would get to the part about Cathy stealing. Even if she was clueless enough to not recognize her own daughter, the other girls no doubt would. Good, I thought. Let them. I hoped Mrs. Tedesco read to the end. “I don’t understand my parents,” she was saying, and I fought back a sudden well of tears, for my parents getting dragged into this, for writing about them in the first place. They struck me then as the greatest people in the world.
Then Mrs. Tedesco abruptly shut the book. “That,” she said, “is a Girl Scout Journal.” She scanned the circle, her expression chastising, triumphant. I stared furiously at my knees. I’d been spared the last few entries, but so had Carrie. Aimee leaned over and wrote in pen down my forearm: NOT THAT BAD 🙂. But this was Aimee. She was always positive. She was the perfect Scout.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Tedesco had hoisted herself from the chair to return the journals. When she held mine out, I snatched it from her hand. She was saying something but I stood and ran out of the cafeteria, down the wide damp aisle and past the empty tables, out into the hallway and through the lobby doors. Aimee’s mom was supposed to drive me home, but I ran the seven blocks in the purpling dusk. When I reached my house, I was breathing hard. My chest burned. At the back of the driveway, I opened the metal trashcan by the garage and untied a bag of kitchen garbage. Awesome, it said on the cover of my journal, thick marker with three underlines. I stuffed the book in the trash, along with my sash, and jammed the metal lid on top.
Carrie hadn’t been lying about her vacation. She and her mother went to Florida over Easter break. I knew this not because Carrie reminded me—she hadn’t been over since I ran out of the meeting, and we hadn’t spoken at school, not that we spoke there anyway—but because my mom said Mrs. Tedesco had stopped by.
My head snapped up from the couch, where I’d been watching TV since getting home from Aimee’s. “Why?”
I had skipped the last two Scout meetings and hadn’t told my mom. My dad, I thought, would have applauded this act of rebellion, even though it didn’t feel that rebellious. The two hours I should have been in Scouts I’d spent wandering around the neighborhood near the school, staring at strangers’ houses, reappearing just in time for my mom or Aimee’s to pick me up.
Now, though, I worried that Mrs. Tedesco had told my mom about my absences. About my journal. Maybe she’d finally figured out I was writing about Carrie—it occurred to me that may have been the reason I’d done it.
“She wanted to know if you’d feed their cat,” Mom said.
“What?” I didn’t even know Carrie had a cat.
“They’re away for a week, in Florida—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
Mom paused, surprised at me.
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “It’s just that Carrie already told me.”
“Well. Okay.” She nodded, as if that meant we were on the same page. “So they need you to feed the cat while they’re away.”
“But why me?”
“They must think you’re trustworthy,” Mom said, as Dad walked in asking, “Why me what?”
“June Tedesco asked if Jessie would feed their cat while they’re away.”
“And I don’t want to,” I said, childishly. I was hoping Dad would take my side.
“Maybe it was that Wildlife badge,” he cracked.
I was too upset to laugh. Mom was looking at me closely. “Well,” she said finally. “They already left. And I said you’d do it.” She fished in her pocket. “They dropped this off,” she said, putting Carrie’s key in my hand.
I walked down Lyle Road with Carrie’s shoelace tied around my neck. It was officially spring. Flowers were popping up beside neighbors’ walks and fences. A distant lawnmower droned. Cardboard rabbits and Easter eggs were stuck on people’s doors and windows. The key felt warm against my skin.
Carrie’s house was identical to my house—same shape, same layout—except hers was geranium blue. It had no Easter decorations. The porch was covered with sagging wicker chairs, sickly-looking plants. As I climbed the steps, the wood creaked and sagged. I thought about the fact that these were the very steps where Mr. Tedesco collapsed, how strange it must be for Carrie and Mrs. Tedesco to walk up them every day. To the right of the door was the window Miller must have been looking out of when it happened. A heart-shaped suncatcher was suctioned to the glass.
Elise Juska’s short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, The Hudson Review, Prairie Schooner, Electric Literature, The Missouri Review, and several other publications. She is the recipient of the Alice Hoffman Prize from Ploughshares, and her stories have been cited as distinguished by Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. Juska’s novels include The Blessings, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and If We Had Known.