A lonely little girl makes a new friend.
It was one of those fine, sunny days that gave parents a break during the summer months. Children with fireworks in their shoes and circuses and jungles in their hearts raced out their doors and into a million new lives. Finishing up the dishes from breakfast, Cheryl watched all this unfold from the open kitchen window. Boys stuck baseball cards in their bike tires and flew off, girls across the street, carrying fistfuls of jacks, searched the sidewalks for a proper place to play. She caught a glimpse of her own four-year-old daughter as she escaped the table, the back screen door swinging.
“Astrid,” Cheryl called out the window. “Stay in the backyard.”
A plate fell too hard into the soapy water, getting Cheryl’s shirt wet. She dabbed it with a towel as the church clock rang from the center of town. For kids, this counted down the hours until the sun vanished along with all the pirates and princesses and cowboys—at least until the next warm day. Then tired children would show up at their homes with muddy faces and shoes, more work for their mothers.
Cheryl trusted her girl not to get her dress or dolly dirty, despite the sandbox, or garden where Astrid liked to name every flower she saw. Few temptations exist when you’re the new girl in town. The Smith’s had only lived there two months, long enough to get an invitation to a welcome luncheon but not long enough for Astrid to make up for losing her best friend Emily. Back in Ore Canyon, Emily’s mother wrote Astrid lovely notes on behalf of her daughter but now there were fewer and fewer in the mailbox. Cheryl dreaded the day her daughter looked up at her with those milk chocolate eyes and asked if they could move back.
Even now, she could see a forlorn Astrid staring at the kids gathering in the road. Her chin held close to her chest as she probably considered what would happen if she went over there. Having struggled with her own shyness as a child, Cheryl knew her daughter would never make the attempt, and sure enough, the dejected girl turned and walked to their garden alone.
Still at the sink, Cheryl wiped her hands dry and took her wedding ring off the windowsill and put it back on. She had just finished shelving the last dish when she heard two small voices in the yard.
“I like dandelions too.”
“They’re the best!”
A little girl’s tiny voice, not her daughter’s. Not wanting to intrude or be that mother, Cheryl gently put her face to the window, but she couldn’t see Astrid or who she talked to.
“People don’t like them though. They say they’re weeds.”
“What’s a weed?” asked Astrid.
“A bad flower,” replied the girl. “But I like making bouquets of them. I’ll teach you.”
Cheryl pressed her fingers to her smiling lips. Just as her husband Ron kept telling her, nature always sorts itself out; Astrid wouldn’t be without friends forever. The woman tiptoed from the kitchen to the den to give the girls privacy. For the rest of the afternoon, she took care of laundry and sewed patches and buttons.
“I made a friend today!” Astrid announced at the dinner table.
Ron had already been clued in by his wife, but his tired eyes feigned surprise.
“Oh really?” he put down his fork full of mashed potatoes. “Where did you meet her?”
“She walked through our backyard, and we said hi.” Astrid became bashful. “But she’s real nice. I like her a lot.”
“What’s her name?” asked Cheryl, scooping more ham onto her plate.
Astrid hesitated. Squinting like she was solving a math problem, she seemed to pick one out of the air.
“Beezus? Yes. Beezus! And even better, she lives on our street!”
Cheryl had a quick, selfish thought: Maybe Beezus’ mother wouldn’t mind babysitting a few times a week. Under the soft light of the ceiling lantern, her and Ron exchanged winking glances.
“She said you can eat dandelions,” added Astrid. “She’s real smart.”
“What on Earth,” said Cheryl. She’d never heard this before. None of her cookbooks had recipes for flowers.
Ron read her mind. “Why are we shopping at the grocery store, Cher? We should be out in the backyard, eating the grass. Yum. Next time I mow the lawn, I’ll save you a big bag of it. Grass soup!”
“You eat the dandelion leaves,” pressed the little girl, who didn’t like being mocked.
“I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” Ron said in awe.
Astrid giggled. “You’re not a monkey, Daddy.”
Ron scratched his armpits and whooped as the two women in his life laughed at him. The bowl with the potatoes almost got knocked off the table and that’s when Cheryl told them to stop with the horseplay.
That night, after reading to Astrid and tucking her in, Cheryl walked into the bedroom she shared with Ron, who was in the middle of his favorite activity of the night: counting his change and organizing the coins on his dresser. Cheryl sat on her twin bed and took off her earrings and put them on the nightstand. Part of her felt a little bitter that Astrid hadn’t introduced her to her new friend.
“Who names their daughter Beezus,” she whispered to her husband. “Honestly. I wonder what sort of mother would let her child run into a stranger’s backyard. She could at least have the decency to introduce herself and her daughter.”
Interrupted in his counting, Ron gave up and added his pocketknife to the stack. He humored his wife by walking over and kissing her on the forehead.
“I’m sure we’ll all meet Beezus and her parents very soon. In the meantime, give our kid a little leeway. I don’t want her pressured into anything if she’s not ready.”
Ron had a soft spot for his daughter. Coming back from the war, many men promised themselves that their children would never know stress or inconvenience of any kind, and Cheryl considered this a ridiculous overreaction. Yet, again, they were both at fault for allowing their daughter’s social calendar to dry up. They decided to move to June Street, the kid had no say. The guilt ate at both of them at different times, depending on the day.
“You know,” he said, getting into his bed. “Beezus isn’t too bad a name. Jane Austen had a relative named Philadelphia. Now that’s loony.”
Cheryl got up to go to the bathroom and set her curlers, thinking about how she had the only husband in the neighborhood who was a bigger Jane Austen fan than his wife.
A few hours later, Cheryl’s eyes opened, not because she had a bad dream. One minute, she was sound asleep, the next, awake as a hummingbird. She lay there in the blackness, confused. She wasn’t prone to insomnia and her husband didn’t snore. In the bed next to hers, Ron seemed to have also woken up. He murmured, grumbled. She could see the shape of him lift his torso.
“What was that?” he said.
Their ears tuned to the small nightly sounds of the silent house, the predictable clock, the reliable engine of the refrigerator. But there was also a swish, swish of something lightweight. Cheryl perked up.
“Astrid,” she uttered, pulling her body off the bed. Her feet felt around for slippers on the floor. “She’s talking in her sleep. Maybe a nightmare.”
“I’ll take care of it.”
Cheryl didn’t try to hide her presence in the hallway, but when she realized her daughter was actually talking to someone, she stopped. With light feet, she moved as close to Astrid’s door without being noticed. The girl was whispering.
“…I like Wilbur best of all, but when Charlotte’s gone, it makes me cry.”
Cheryl opened the bedroom door and took a moment to fumble for the light switch. The lamp with the clown and his balloons lit up, and Astrid, bright-eyed and awake, seemed surprised by her mother. Cheryl looked around the room.
“Who are you talking to?”
The girl sunk further under her covers. “I don’t know.”
Astrid remained tight-lipped and unusually stubborn.
Cheryl had a thought. “Is it Beezus?”
Astrid reluctantly nodded her head and her mother sighed with all the air in her chest cavity. She’d suspected Beezus of being an imaginary friend but hoped against hope she was wrong. Why couldn’t Astrid be normal? Why couldn’t she be like other children and make friends easily? Disappointment in her daughter blinded her but she couldn’t act on it. She went over to the girl’s bed and tucked her in extra tight.
“Well. You can talk to her tomorrow. It’s sleep time now.”
When Cheryl returned to her bedroom, she tossed the slippers off and laid flat on her back on the bed.
“She’s imaginary,” the woman said to the dark. The thickness of her voice conveyed everything.
“I’m sorry, hon.” Ron sucked in a breath. “Do you want to talk about it?”
When did he want to talk about anything unpleasant? Cheryl refused and rolled over, hoping she could eventually get back to sleep.
Over the next week, Astrid began getting into small bits of trouble.
She picked all the roses in the garden and threw them away. She stole baseball cards out of bike wheels she saw in other people’s yards. She started knocking trash cans over. Astrid, the apple of every teacher’s eye, a girl who saved sparrows, had suddenly become the menace of June Street.
There were plenty of witnesses, too. The Smith’s telephone rarely ever rang, but now Cheryl had to handle daily complaints from neighbors. She could hardly look anyone in the eye at the butcher. In a world where parents tried to leapfrog over other children’s accomplishments, Cheryl had nothing good to say about her own daughter.
When confronted by her mother and father, the girl’s answer was always the same.
“Beezus told me to do it,” she shrugged, nonplussed.
One afternoon, after Astrid was ordered to stay in her room as punishment, Cheryl hung laundry up in the backyard, fretted over her husband’s upcoming business trip and how she didn’t want to be left dealing with this alone. She took a clothes pin out of her mouth and finished hooking up a sheet to the line when she saw Mrs. Lemon calling her over to the fence that separated their property.
“Good morning,” Cheryl said, smiling.
“Anything but,” replied Mrs. Lemon. “I have it on good authority that your daughter knocked my milk cans over this morning. I woke up and saw all my milk spilt on the porch. The mailman told me he saw your daughter running around at dawn.”
“She’s not allowed up that early.” Cheryl’s face grew red. “I’m so sorry.”
“She’s a wild animal.”
Cheryl’s instincts kicked in. “No, she certainly is not a wild animal,” she snapped. “She’s a little girl having a difficult time adjusting to a new place. Back home, she was an angel. Smart, sweet. Now… Astrid blames all her actions on her ‘friend’ Beezus.”
Mrs. Lemon’s demeanor changed. Startled, she held a hand to the heart of her flowered dress.
“Beezus? I don’t find that amusing, Mrs. Smith.”
“Lots of kids have a-”
“We don’t talk about Beezus anymore,” Mrs. Lemon said, her voice hushed. She eyed the neighborhood for spies. “Not around here at least.”
“So, she’s real?” Cheryl had to take a step back. “Where does she live? I’d like to-”
Mrs. Lemon gaped at Cheryl as if she were insane. “I don’t know where she lives now. She moved away last year, and good riddance, I tell you. Very few things scare me, Mike’s got a gun and all, but nothing scared me more than…her.”
What sort of American suburb is scared of a child? Cheryl nodded, not wanting to rock the social boat too hard before she made crew.
“We’ll pay for the milk,” she promised.
Spooked, Mrs. Lemon just walked away without a goodbye, back to her house. Her door shut loudly. Cheryl entered her own home in a trance, the screen whining as the back door closed. Strangely enough, this information soothed the woman. They had someone to blame! A reason for Astrid’s dark turn toward madness. At least their daughter wasn’t the problem, she wasn’t the problem, and the solution was clear as rain.
“Beezus is real,” Cheryl told her daughter, later that night. The girl soaking in the bathtub looked blankly at her mother in the doorway.
“You need to tell me where she lives.”
Astrid pouted. “I’m not. She’s my friend, not yours.”
“Oh, you just wait, young lady. When your father gets back, he’ll have something to say about this.”
Cheryl turned to leave when she heard,
Astrid kept her eyes on the rubber duck in the water. She lifted it in the air and made it dive and blow bubbles.
“Beezus doesn’t like you.”
Cheryl almost laughed. She didn’t know what to do with this information. Years away from the schoolyards, a rejection still hurt.
“And? What of it?”
“She told me I should leave you and live with her.”
Later, while Astrid slept soundly, the grownups in the house were wide awake. Cheryl paced the bedroom while her husband picked out ties to throw in his suitcase. She mindlessly went into the bathroom and brought in razors and Burma-Shave to add to the pile.
“I wish you weren’t leaving,” she repeated.
“Do you want a Christmas this year?” he asked, unusually cross. “We need that money. You know what I always say. Salesman are fisherman and we have to go where the fish swim. I’ve overfished this area. I have no choice.”
“I don’t like what she’s telling our daughter.”
Her husband took a moment to think about things, to understand what she said. A practical man, he’d suggested earlier in the week that they take Astrid to a shrink; he believed all the new age psychosomatic ideas like Dr. Spock’s would fix their little girl. A few hours ago, when he heard Beezus was real, he rejoiced, only wanting to focus on the good. Sharing his wife’s worries did not come naturally to him.
Ron walked over to Cheryl and hugged her, nuzzled her cheeks.
“I’ll be back in two days,” he said. “I’ll go with you to Beezus’ house. I promise. We’ll sit down with her folks, have a discussion. Have a few drinks. Heck, maybe we’ll all be friends. We could use some friends around here.”
“I know. I’m being ridiculous. Why did you marry someone so silly?”
“I like silly broads. There just weren’t any at my old high school. What?”
Giggling, she hit him with a pillow, and he took that as a sign to lock their door and throw her on the bed.
The next morning, Cheryl decided to treat Astrid to some fun. They walked to the center of town for hamburger sandwiches, and she watched her daughter’s cheeks find their red hue again. Astrid squealed as they fed the chickens at the Stevenson’s, and a few people even said hello to them. This summer day is what Cheryl had been promised throughout her childhood—the satisfaction of being a mother, of running a home. On the sidewalk, as she and her daughter passed two young lovers strolling hand in hand, her mind went back to courting in her parents’ den. Her wearing a red cardigan, Ron with a flat top and his high school letter sweater. It wasn’t so long ago that they walked through the tunnel together and came out adults. No uncivilized neighbor child was going to destroy their dreams.
When they returned home, Astrid ran upstairs to clean up and Cheryl went outside to take the sheets off the line. When she came back in, she saw someone had filled her milk pitcher on the kitchen table with dandelions. She put down the laundry basket and stared at it.
The girl came downstairs and once she saw the flowers or weeds or whatever they were, she ducked her head and wouldn’t look her mother in the eye.
“Did you do this?”
“Nooo. Beezus did. Don’t worry. She’s gone now.”
“Do not lie to me, young lady.”
“Okay. It was my idea. I did it.”
Without Ron, dinner was a quiet affair. Every few minutes Astrid would pipe up about how great the day was, and what they saw, the eggs and chickens and hamburger sandwiches and kids playing with jump rope, but all her mother could do was wearily watch the sun dip lower in the sky.
Bedtime, and Cheryl felt restless. Ron traveled throughout the year, but this was the first time she’d been alone in the house on June Street. For that reason, she sat up in bed rereading the same paragraph in her book over and over, raising her head only to listen to her imagination. She’d picked a Georgette Heyer romance specifically so she wouldn’t be scared, but every time the refrigerator kicked, or wind blew against window glass, terrible scenarios went through her head. Mrs. Lemon’s husband owns a gun. Why would anyone need a gun to protect them from a little girl?
She got out of bed and walked down the hall and peered through her daughter’s cracked bedroom door. A warm light burned inside. Promised a later bedtime, Astrid pretended to read a picture book to herself, making it up as she went. Cheryl knocked lightly.
“Hi darling,” Cheryl took a seat on the edge of her daughter’s bed. They wore matching white nightgowns, twins with dark features, characters from a gothic novel. “Can I talk to you about something?”
Thanks to recent interrogations, the girl was reluctant to nod.
“Do you miss Emily? Do you miss her a lot?”
Her daughter shook her head yes again.
“Is this why you’re friends with Beezus? You’re lonely? You can tell me.”
Astrid had to think about it. “I don’t know if I want to be friends with her anymore.”
The heavens opened, angels sung, baby birds were born. A weight fell off Cheryl’s shoulders as she imagined the family back to normal, back on the railroad tracks leading to more children, prosperity, a bigger house, a healthy retirement, grandchildren in their arms. She tried not to look happy, but she had to ask…
“Why is that? Astrid? Did you have a fight? What is it?”
“I think she’s going to hurt you,” the girl whispered. “I don’t want her to. Even if you do have another baby.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
Goosebumps formed as the temperature in the house dropped twenty degrees. Nobody, not even Astrid, knew about the quiet conversations she and Ron had in the middle of the night about expanding their household. They originally set the timeline for after his trip, but this Beezus business made them question whether their family could handle another load of distractions.
“Mommy can take care of herself.” Cheryl didn’t sound convincing, but her smile relaxed her daughter. Satisfied, Astrid pulled the covers up to her chin and wiggled. “Can you tell Mommy what she looks like? Can you tell me that much?”
“Yellow hair,” Astrid replied, sleepily. She yawned. “Like a dandelion. She doesn’t comb it. Her face is always dirty.”
“Her mother should take better care of her. Good gracious. I think I see what’s going on. She’s neglected. I should have pity on the girl.”
“Oh, Mommy,” Astrid chided, her eyes closed. “She’s not a girl.”
“No,” her daughter giggled and opened her eyes. “She’s old. Like you.”
Cheryl recalled the child’s voice out the window, how she once thought it was Astrid pretending to be her imaginary friend. That couldn’t possibly have been the voice of a woman.
“Where does she live? Please. Darling. Please tell me. You can have two desserts tomorrow if you tell me.”
The girl’s eyes sparked at the word “dessert”, and she sighed heavily and raised her hand. Without either of them saying a word, Cheryl’s eyes followed her daughter’s small finger and saw it pointed at the attic door on the ceiling in the hallway.
© 2023 Nicolina Torres
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