Unlocking Sarah: A Stormy, Winter Day

From the start of first daylight, the snow fell heavy. The wind howled. Roads were impassable and school cancelled. The dark gray sky swirled with large flakes, of all different shapes. By midday, children ventured outside, to play, throwing snowballs, building snowmen, and clearing sidewalks in front of colonial style houses, instructed by parents home from work.

By late afternoon the street was quiet. Everyone had gone inside, except nine year old, Sarah. Sent by her grandmother for a quart of milk to Angie’s Convenience Store on the edge of her neighborhood in Syracuse, New York, the young girl was happy for the grownup errand. Whistling a tune, Sarah turned out her driveway and started up the middle of Farmer Street. Though a large snowplow had been there an hour before, its’ tracks were filled in.

Sarah felt in no rush. Zigzagging here and there, the snow at her knees to her snow pants, she tipped her head back and tongue out, catching snowflakes. She thought of the candy she’d buy at Angie’s, in addition to the milk. Up the street, at the end of the Fitzgerald family’s driveway, in a snow bank, stood three red plastic sleds and a shovel, propped upright.

Just a few houses ahead, at the corner, Sarah crossed over, where triple-decker apartments lined the street. Glancing up ahead one block to the next corner, at the intersection of Farmer and Helen Streets, just a short distance before and on the same side of the street as Angie’s, Sarah noticed, through the blowing snow, a parked car.

Its’ head lights, dimly lit, faced Sarah. A man sat in the driver’s seat, watching her. Sarah’s instinct told her to cross to the opposite side of the road – the right – as far away as possible. Her eyes straight ahead, as the wind blew snow in her face, Sarah wiped her eyes with her mitten. About parallel to the car, Sarah saw the driver working to crank down his window. Her heart beat faster and she picked up her pace.

The man stuck his head, blocking the blowing snow with his bare hand, squinting his eyes. “Hey!” he called, “Can you tell me how to get to Schiller Park?”

Sarah froze.

Odd question, she thought.It’s so close.

Sarah pointed straight ahead in the public park’s direction, answering “two blocks up,” and wanting to keep on, traipsed ahead.

But he interrupted, with a deep voice.

“Can you show me on a map?”

Sarah’s mind whirled. A chill ran up her spine. She stopped and turned, thinking, A map? I just told him it’s right up there. He doesn’t need a map.

The man rustled a square chart, flapping it like a flag moving in the wind, tempting her.

“C’mon,” he begged. “Show me.”

Sarah looked over. Don’t go near him.

“Won’t take long,” he promised.

Sarah contemplated. He’s dressed up nice, wearing a suit.

She’d been raised to do as she was told and before she knew it, she crossed over the street, moving toward him, fighting the wind and snow. When within about ten feet of the car, Sarah saw he was in fact wearing a business suit, similar in color to that of his car, like a robin’s egg.

Sarah went closer. The man smiled. With the tip of his index finger, he tapped a location on the map, causing the paper to make a snapping sound.

“This it?” he asked. “Here, closer, so you can tell me.”

Sarah did as she was asked and came so near that she could hear his car engine purr and notice his greasy, stringy brown hair. She stood, about five feet away, glancing at the length of the dark dashboard, its’ round silver knobs and larger than life steering wheel, covered in soft fur, like rabbit, mixed with shades of brown and white.

With a quick, recurring wave of his free hand, he beckoned, this time in a softer voice, “Closer.”

Sarah stepped ahead, so near she could feelthe car engine purr. He smiled, exposing his teeth, which were straight but yellowed.

Sarah felt his eyes look her up and down.

“Nice snow pants.”

Sarah noticed his voice had turned a strange tone, like he was hungry.

She looked down at her blue L.L. Bean bibs, the ones she skied in every weekend at Labrador Mountain. The red trimmed jacket she had on and had left part way unzipped, which her mother didn’t like her to do, matched.

Suddenly, an odd laugh arose from the man, age about thirty-five. He flung the atlas on the passenger seat and moved his hand in between his legs, gazing down. Sarah followed his gawk, and what she saw caused her stomach to drop, eyes widen, and mouth fall open. His suit pants were collected at his ankles and from his waist down, he was naked. His penis stood straight up and his hands moved up and down upon it.

The men turned to Sarah. His icy blue eyes met her brown greenish ones, so similar to her mother’s. He laughed then snarled his pointy nose, seeming pleased with himself.

Sarah felt numb. Without a second thought, emphasizing each word, nine year old Sarah blurted, “You – are – disgusting.”

Sarah’s mind then told her to move.Get out of here!

But Sarah’s body wouldn’t follow. Her legs felt heavy and weak.

Somehow, she snapped out of her daze, though, and bolted toward Angie’s. She started for the corner. Behind her, she heard the car door fly open.

The idea that the guy was going to grab her raced through Sarah.

“Get back here!” he growled.

He was out of the car and had pulled up his pants. Struggling to secure his belt, he was slipping and sliding, his suit jacket open, his cream colored Oxford shirt unbuttoned two holes. In a second, he was running and soon upon Sarah, his breath hard and heavy. She waited for his grimy hand to snatch the collar of her jacket, tug her back, and throw her into the worn seat of his K car.

Scream when he catches you!She told herself.

Her fear that no one would hear was real. The streets were still empty. Windows of homes, piling up with snow, closed. A natural born runner, though, Sarah moved fast, the snow falling all about her. She gained a distance, managing to reach the corner, beside Angie’s store. She stopped to turn back. Through the blowing wind and snow, she saw the man stop dead in his tracks.

He raised his fist and threatened, “I’ll get you next time!”

Then, gurgling up something from his throat, he spit a good distance in Sarah’s direction and retreated to his car.

Creep! Sarah screamed in her head.

She looked away and turned the corner, with her chest pounding, snow falling. Standing beneath the protection of the store’s overhang, below Angie’s sign, which clanked against the brown, peeling clapboard of the building, Sarah clenched her eyes shut. Though safer, she felt stung. Yet this was worse than any bee sting. It felt wicked, and wrong.

She zipped up her jacket as far as the zipper would allow, looking past the store, down Helen Street, where triple-deckers stood side by side. Somewhere nearby, a wind chime sang eerily.

Sarah stood, debating, whether to head home a different direction, one not as well known to her, or head into Angie’s.

Sarah’s mind whirled. What will Angie think?

Suddenly, a pick up truck turned the corner, its’ engine roaring and plow throwing snow in each direction. The wind howled. The sign above Sarah continued rattling. She stared at the truck until it passed, making her decision. Sarah turned, placing her hand on the knob and turned it, opening Angie’s door. Gusting snow and air followed her in, to the narrow entrance. The door slammed behind.

Knowing Angie would be standing just to her left, at the register, Sarah looked down at her boots. She and her mother had recently picked them out together. Sarah loved the cream colored fur at the top but the recall of the man’s hands running up and down his privates stole the enjoyment from her new purchase. She stomped the soles on the mat, procrastinating.

Angie, about Sarah’s mother’s age, who had been reading The Post Standardnewspaper, looked up, surprised to see someone, especially someone so young.

“Hi, sweetheart,” she said, almost like a question, in her motherly way, while she folded up the paper, setting it to the side.

Wearing an orange colored turtleneck sweater, her thick dirty blond hair above her shoulders, she took off her reading glasses, hung by a multi-colored beaded croaky, letting them rest on her chest. Fixing her eyes on Sarah, she chomped her gum loud. Her brows furrowed.

Sarah felt blood rush to her face. She couldn’t manage her usual hello. Does Angie know? Her stomach churned.

Sarah examined the store wall, behind Angie, near where the man sat in his car. There was no window.

Sarah exhaled. Angie can’t know.

The gaze of the nine year old then moved to the right of Angie, to the large display of candy. Each brand lay in an individual cardboard box of the same size, filling the wall top to bottom. Sarah knew every one by heart. Her eyes fell on her favorite – the oversized Charleston Chews. She bought one every time she was there. But she looked away, and headed straight into the store, glancing at the ice cream case with the plastic cover, directly beside Angie’s register and desk.

Normally, Sarah loved sliding the cover back to decide between a Hood ice cream sandwich or sugar-cone filled with vanilla ice cream, topped with hardened hot fudge and crushed peanuts, wrapped so tight in paper it was difficult to unravel but worth the effort. This day, Sarah couldn’t fathom eating either and instead, feeling anxious, circled the two narrow, short aisles, browsing, the overflowing shelves reading labels, as if interested.

Campbell’s Tomato Soup


Prince Thick Spaghetti


Dole Sliced Pineapples

Should I tell Angie? Sarah wrangled.

She was thankful for the tall shelves that hid her.

Though Sarah knew that if she told Angie, she would give her a hug and call the police, Sarah, instead, considered her escape.

There were two options home. One, back the way she’d arrived, but Sarah realized that the man might still be sitting in his car. Two, leaving to the left – the long way home – down Helen Street to Burlingame Road, which would lead her to her backyard, though Sarah wasn’t as familiar with that route.

Suddenly, Angie appeared at the head of the aisle. Sarah jumped.

“Need help, honey?” she asked with concern.

Sarah looked at Angie. She wanted to tell her what had happened, and started to, but her mouth wouldn’t move. Their eyes locked, then Sarah dropped her gaze to the floor.

“No, I gotta go,” was all Sarah managed to say before she shot for the door, brushing by Angie.

Without saying goodbye and feeling Angie’s surprise at her odd behavior and quick departure, Sarah darted out the door.

Out front, where it was still snowing, Sarah considered peeking around the corner. Perhaps the man had left. She preferred to walk home her normal route, but in the end, fought her urge and leaving Angie’s, turned left, to walk down Helen Street, the sidewalk of which was covered in drifts of snow.

Walking on a few blocks, feeling nervous and alone on the less familiar way, Sarah made a left then a right, onto Dewitt Street, usually busy with traffic, now empty. About a quarter mile down, she turned left onto Burlingame Road, a quiet side street, where single-family houses and land lots were large. Sarah breathed easier. She was closer to home. At the end of Burlingame, around its’ circle, two houses backed up to her backyard. She could cut through them to get to hers.

Heading up the slight slope to the circle, which wound around, Sarah came upon her older brother, John, age fourteen, snow blowing the driveway of the Dietz’s, diagonally behind their own. The engine sounded loud and both the storm and moneymaking machine created a white out. With the ensuing dusk, the air was growing colder and damp. Sarah followed the clean track John had just made, thinking about how she would tell him what had happened.

Approaching her brother from behind, she startled him. He pulled the throttle back to neutral, turning back, to lean down, trying to listen to what she had to say. The engine continued to rev. From beneath his wool ski hat, his long, feathered brown hair stuck out at the ears. His face was handsome, even dotted with pimples.

Appearing eager to finish his job, he asked, “What’s goin’ on?”

Sarah felt her face flush, like it had at Angie’s. “Um, a guy asked me for directions.”

Like Angie, John furrowed his brows. The wind gusted. The snow blower started to putter, distracting him, and with a gloved thumb, John revved it.

Sarah repeated herself, louder this time. “A guy asked me to look at a map. He was playing with something in his lap,” she said, and swallowed hard. “It was furry.”

There, I said it. Sarah thought, relieved, and knew John, like Angie, would give her a hug. Call the police.

Yet, as Sarah looked at her brother, he put his hand to his ear and shook his head. He hadn’t heard and she lost her confidence. In a voice as loud as she could muster, she said, “Never mind. I’ll see you at home.”

Sarah left him, trudging the deep snow down the slight hill in the Dietz’s back yard, where just beyond, beside the Bank’s family garage and driveway, she arrived beside her house.

At the dividing fence, Sarah opened the gate, entering her backyard, traipsing in the un-shoveled snow in front of the large, low kitchen windows. Underneath the covered back porch, Sarah stepped up two cement steps, dusted with snow, and, placing her hand on the knob, peered through the panes of the hunter green door. Her grandmother, staying with Sarah and her brothers while their parents traveled, had seen her pass in front of the kitchen windows. She stood now just inside the narrow back hallway, her eyes lit up at the sight of her youngest grandchild, back from her errand.

Tell Nan! Sarah’s mind raced.

Sarah turned the knob, opened the door, and stepped in. Nan’s outfit caught Sarah off guard, her sweater being so similar in color and style to Angie’s.

“Glad you’re home,” Nan said, looking happy to greet her. “It’s just about dark.”

Sarah was glad to be home but felt different than when she’d left.

Her mind spun. Tell Nan!

Hunching over to untie the laces of her boots, she released them off at the heel with the help of the carpet, and placed them in front of the radiator, which rattled and cranked. She took off her coat and hanging it on the hook, caught her reflection in the mirror hanging on the wall.

She turned to Nan.

Tell her, Sarah.

But the thought of divulging something so ugly to her grandmother made Sarah shiver.

“Aw, take off your wet snow pants, Sarah,” Nan said, “I’ll give you a hug.”

The thought of her snow pants made Sarah feel like vomiting.The man had liked them.

Sarah unsnapped the suspenders, feeling like she might vomit. She pushed them down to her ankles and quickly stepped out, taking turns with each foot.

Nan outstretched her arms. “Come here, honey.”

Sarah fell into her grandmother.

“You’re cold, Sarah,” she said, rubbing her back.

Sarah wanted to cry. More than you realize.

Sarah felt the round pocket watch, which hung from Nan’s neck. It had been Sarah’s grandfathers’ and reminded Sarah of him as well as the sweet smell of his burning cigar. She drew closer.

Tell Nan. Sarah told herself, knowing her grandmother would keep hugging her. Call the police.

But suddenly, Nan drew a part.

Placing her hands on Sarah’s shoulders at arm’s length, she said, “Dinner’s almost ready, honey. I’ll just stir that milk in the mashed potatoes and we’ll be ready.”

“The milk!”Sarah said aloud.

She’d forgotten all about it. Tell her, now!

“Nan,” Sarah began, looking at her grandmother’s bright blue eyes.

“Yes?”

Staring at her grandmother, though, Sarah couldn’t bring herself to divulge what had happened and instead looked down at her wet socking feet.

“I lost the money,” she said, making up an excuse and mumbling something about the wind carrying it away.

Nan laughed, and gave Sarah a pat on the head. Lifting her chin, she said, “Don’t worry. We can get along without it, come along. We’ll get started and John will be home soon.”

Sarah felt the moment when she could tell Nan– the chance she’d had like with Angie and John, disappeared as fast as it came. She followed her grandmother toward the kitchen, passing the small, turquoise colored wooden desk. It had been Sarah’s mother’s, at her same age. The telephone on it made Sarah pause.

Mom will call, Sarah thought.I can tell her then.

Sarah turned and entering the kitchen, inhaled the familiar aroma of salmon loaf, one of her favorite meals her grandmother prepared. Nan had promised to make it. Nan always kept her word and it was then that Sarah first kept a secret.

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