"And Sarah Laughed" was written as an experiment with a close third-person narration that focuses on a child. Funny how everything can seem scarier when seen through young eyes. The photo is an oldie, taken at least four years ago by me, but recently edited in Adobe Photoshop CS4.
"And Sarah Laughed"
Brian watched the movers carry the last few boxes from the truck into the house. The men grunted and sweated as they worked under the late afternoon sun. Brian heard his mother calling out directions from inside the house, telling the movers to put the large box in the living room and to please be careful with the white box.
The boy’s father stood talking quietly with the movers’ boss in the shadow of the pine tree on the front lawn. As Brian watched, his father slipped some money out of his wallet and handed the bills to the other man. The boss frowned before pocketing the money and walking away. Brian wondered if the man didn’t like money.
As he waited for his parents to finish with the movers, Brian stood in the driveway and felt the heat of the pavement soak through the soles of his sneakers. He was afraid that if his parents didn’t finish soon, his shoes would melt and he would be stuck like gum to the black tar. He knew his mother wouldn’t like that. But she would be a lot angrier if he got his clothes dirty.
Brian’s mother had dressed him as best as she could. The boy longed for his grey t-shirt with the Batman logo, or his blue Superman shirt, but his mother had given him a green-and-white-striped shirt too heavy for July as well as a lecture on how important first impressions were. The family was moving to a cleaner, wealthier, better neighborhood, and they needed to look like they belonged. Brian’s claim that there was no way a snobby neighborhood was better than home earned him three days without dessert, and the boy was certain that his mother had dressed him in the uncomfortable khaki pants as additional punishment. Two growth spurts had saved his feet from a pair of old brown leather dress shoes. Glancing down at his grey and black sneakers with the bright blue laces, Brian rocked back and forth on his heels and wished that his clothes would melt instead of his shoes. He had always liked his sneakers.
Brian began to swing his arms. He wanted to play with something, but his toys were sealed away in a brown box somewhere. Brian rocked in the hot sunlight, but he froze as he was struck by the idea that his toys had never made their way into the movers’ truck. He thought of a cardboard box filled with action figures, Legos, and Game boy games sitting in the middle of an empty room that had been his bedroom for seven years. Maybe, just like his friends and his school and even the neighbor’s brown dog Sparky, the box had been left behind. The thought sent him sprinting across the driveway. He met his mother at the front door. Brian dove at her legs and wrapped his arms around her thighs, tears rushing to his eyes. Choking on the words as his mother tried to keep her balance, he stuttered out his fear.
“Brian, your toys were one of the first things we put on the truck.” Soft, white hands tried to pry Brian’s arms loose. “You watched us put the box with all your toys inside the truck first thing this morning.”
Brian shook his head and pressed his face against his mother’s leg. “It’s not gonna be there. It’s not!”
“Come on, sweetie.” Her voice was gentle, but Brian knew that his mother only called him ‘sweetie’ when she was upset. He had seen her lose her temper only a few times, but those had been terrifying days and Brian quickly had learned to look for the warning signs. “It’s alright, sweetie. Please let go of Mommy’s legs.”
Brian’s mother bent down and put her hands on the boy’s shoulders. “It’s okay, honey. I promise the movers brought your toys. We’ll unpack those first thing after we meet the neighbors, okay?”
Calmed, Brian looked up at his mother. He had inherited her soft brown eyes, delicate chin and the patch of freckles across her sun burnt nose. The shaggy mop of dirty blonde hair on his head was from his father.
Brian’s mother ruffled his hair and smiled. He smiled back uncertainly and wondered why his mother wasn’t trying to smooth his hair down like she normally did. Maybe she had realized that she was fighting a losing battle and finally decided to wave the white flag. Brian hoped she had done just that. He didn’t like the idea of her fighting a war against his head.
“So then,” his mother said as she straightened. She wore a yellow sundress and her dark hair was in a bun. “Are you ready to meet the neighbors?”
Brian’s smile faded, but he nodded and took his mother’s hand. They started across the driveway and were joined by the boy’s father. Brian’s father was taller than his wife and usually complained about how he was a little fatter than he would have liked to be, but Brian had always though that his father was a strong man, stronger than a bear. He was someone that Brian loved, but also was a tiny bit afraid of. Brian’s father grunted and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Brian saw dark patches under the sleeves of his father’s blue polo shirt. Brian’s father made a face at his wife and grumbled, “Let’s get this over with.”
Brian’s mother glanced at her husband. “You promised to behave.”
“I know, I know, and I will. Keep your shirt on.”
“But Mommy’s wearing a dress.”
Brian’s father looked at the boy blankly, then let out a deep, rolling laugh. “Yes she is, buddy. Yes she is.”
“Let’s try the next door neighbors first,” Brian’s mother suggested. “Then we can go to the end of the street and circle back.”
“Whatever’s fastest,” Brian’s father said. “We’ll be cooked medium-well if we stay out here too long.”
There was no reply. The family silently turned up the driveway of the neighboring house, a large brick building with a dark, peaked roof and a huge black door. There was a brass knocker shaped like a lion’s head in the center of the door. Brian’s mother avoided the knocker and rang the doorbell.
Brian’s grip tightened around his mother’s hand as the heavy chime sounded out. She squeezed his hand back as the sound faded. The seconds slid by.
“They’re probably not home,” Brian’s father suggested hopefully.
“Maybe not,” his wife agreed. “Come on, we can try them again later.”
The family turned to leave, and the black door swung open. A girl about Brian’s age stood in the doorway. Her brown hair was tied up in pigtails. She had a small, pointed face and was very pale, paler even than Brian’s milk-skinned mother. She wore a light grey button-down jumper that matched the color of her glasses-framed eyes, and there were shiny black shoes on her feet. She wore a white, long-sleeved lab coat over her jumper.
Brian took one look at the coat and asked the girl, “Aren’t you hot?”
“Brian!” His mother jerked his hand roughly. “Where are your manners?”
“Sorry,” Brian mumbled quickly.
The girl looked at him for a long time. She said nothing. Her expression was the one most girls wore when they saw a squashed bug. Then she switched her attention to Brian’s parents. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“We’re the Shepherds,” Brian’s mother answered with a smile. “We just moved in next door. We were hoping we could introduce ourselves to your parents. Are they home?”
“Parent,” the girl said. “Singular.” Then she turned and disappeared into the house. She left the door open.
“I guess we’re supposed to follow?” Brian’s father suggested after a pause.
“I—” Brian’s mother bit her lip. “I guess so.”
Brian’s father slowly pushed the black door open. “Hello?” he called. “Is anyone there?” Brian’s father took a step inside, and the clacking of a computer keyboard slipped around the door. “Your daughter left the door open. Is it alright if we come in?”
A woman’s breathless voice answered a few seconds later. “Yes, sorry! Please come in, I’ll be right out.” The clacking continued.
Brian’s parents exchanged a quick glance, then stepped inside and shut the door. The black wood groaned as the door swung into place.
The lighting was dim and Brian couldn’t see anything at first, but a sweet, sticky smell touched his nose. The boy sniffed, scratched his nose. Then he sneezed. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand, and sneezed again. His mother fished a handkerchief out of his father’s pocket. She bent down and told him to blow his nose. Brian did as she said, and when he was finished, he looked around the house.
The family stood in a large foyer. To their right was a dining room, and to their left was a living room. A hallway connected to the foyer and stretched towards the back of the house. At the end of the hallway, there was a sliding glass door that led to the backyard. The girl was outside and closing the sliding door. Brian watched her for a moment, then sneezed and made an unhappy noise as he looked around again.
There were flowers everywhere. The walls were covered in flowery wallpaper, and the rug Brian and his family stood on had a pattern of blue flowers. A vase of yellow blossoms stood in the middle of a dining room table, and there were purple flowers across the foyer in the living room. Orange flowers were on the table in the middle of the foyer. Brian’s head spun from all the pollen. He sneezed again.
“Just what his allergies need,” Brian’s father whispered.
Brian’s mother told him to be quiet.
The keyboard clacking stopped and a chair scraped in a room down the hall. There were sharp footsteps, and then a woman in a light pink t-shirt and yellow shorts appeared. She had the same pointed face as the girl in the lab coat and the same pale skin, although the woman had let the sun color her a little. Her hair looked as though it might have been the same flat brown as the girl’s in the past, but there were highlights now. The woman’s eyes were grey, but they didn’t look at Brian the same way they would look at a dead bug. But she wasn’t really looking at Brian.
“Sorry about that,” the woman said. “Big report that needs to be finished by Monday.”
Brian’s mother shifted. “We can come back later if you—”
“No, don’t worry about it. I was dying for a break anyway. You are the perfect excuse.” The woman offered her hand. “I’m Linda Miller.”
Brian’s mother shook Linda’s hand. “I’m Carol Shepherd. This is my husband Jim, and our son Brian.”
Linda smiled at Brian’s father, then bent down so she was eye level with the boy. Her eyes narrowed a little as she looked at him. “How are you, Brian?”
Smiling uneasily and inching a little closer to his mother, Brian said, “Good. Thanks.”
“How old are you?”
“Same as Sarah.” Linda straightened up. “I saw her go out back if you want to join her. I’m sure you two can play for a bit while your parents and I talk.”
Brian did not answer. His mother gave his hand a little shake. When he remained silent, she said, “I’m sure he’d love that. Go ahead, sweetie. We’ll be right inside if you need us.”
Very slowly, Brian released his mother’s hand and started towards the sliding glass door. He circled around the table with orange flowers and stepped into the hallway. He passed the office Linda had come from and a gleaming white kitchen with a vase of red flowers on its counter.
“Oh, and Brian?”
Brian stopped and looked back at Linda.
“Stay away from my Birds of Paradise, okay?”
Brian had no idea what she was talking about. He wanted to ask, but Linda turned back to his parents and kept talking to them. Brian turned around again and went to the door. Behind him, Brian’s mother said that he was a little shy. Then the boy heard her say that she felt very overdressed. Linda laughed and praised the yellow sundress as Brian pulled the sliding door open and stepped into the late afternoon heat. He shut the door, cutting off the voices of the adults. Cicadas filled the void.
Brian stood for a while, waiting for Sarah to turn around. She did not. She was bent over a brightly colored plastic table set up in the shade of a big oak tree, working on something that Brian could not see. Brian took a deep breath and started across the lawn.
“Don’t come over here.”
Brian froze with one foot in the air. “Why can’t I?”
“Because I don’t want you to.”
“Because you’ll ruin my experiment.”
Brian frowned. “I will not.”
“You will, too.” Sarah’s lab coat flared out as she whipped around. “I’m a scientist, and I’m doing hard work over here, so you stay over there and keep away from my experiment.” She put her fists on her hips and stood with her feet apart while she looked at him coldly. Then she turned away and bent over the table again.
Brian pressed his toes against the top of his planted foot, against the bright blue shoelace. He slipped his hand behind his back and took a firm grip on his other elbow. Very quietly, the boy asked, “What kind of experiment?”
The lab coat rose and fell as Sarah gave a loud sigh. “None of your business. Now be quiet.”
“I like experiments.” Brian pressed his toes harder against the blue shoelace. “I could be your helper.”
Sarah looked over her shoulder and opened her mouth to say something, but stopped. She half-turned towards him. In one quick move, she balled one hand into a fist and pressed it against her mouth and grabbed her elbow with her free hand. She held herself stiffly as her eyes slowly traveled from Brian’s unruly hair down to his sneakers. Her gaze caught on the blue shoelaces before snapping back to Brian’s face. She lowered her fist and smiled at him. Her teeth were small and pointed. “All right, you can help.”
Brian started forward excitedly. “What do I—?”
“Freeze!” Sarah thrust out her hand. “Not another step.”
Brian looked at the girl blankly. “But you said I could help.”
“You will.” Sarah lowered her hand and looked around the yard. She pressed a fist against her mouth and gripped her elbow with her other hand again. She tapped her foot three times on the soft grass, then pointed towards the house. “There’s a bucket over there. Use the watering can to fill it, and bring it over here. But don’t come too close.”
Brian turned and saw a large red bucket and a watering can sitting next to an empty flowerbed near the house. Eagerly, Brian trotted across the lawn and grabbed the watering can. He lifted the can and went to fill the bucket, but paused when he saw that the pail was half-filled with soil. Brian called out to Sarah, but she told him to fill the bucket anyway. Brian obeyed. The full bucket was heavier than he had expected. He splashed water and bits of dirt on his clothes as he carried the bucket across the lawn.
Sarah looked at him as he drew near. “Close enough,” she said just as the boy was about to step into the shade. “Put it down right there, and go find a stirring rod.”
“A stirring rod.”
Brian looked at the girl blankly.
Sarah sighed again. “Like a stick.”
Brian brightened and began his search. By the time he had found what he needed, his wet clothes had become warm, sticky, and uncomfortable. But he didn’t mind, and he ran back to the bucket with a long stick in his hands. “Now what?”
Sarah was bent over the table again. “Now you stir the water and the dirt, and don’t stop until I tell you to.”
“Because it’s going to help with my experiment. Now stir.”
Brian plunged the stick into the water. He stuck the wood as far as he could into the soil at the bottom of the bucket, and began to stir. He worked in silence, occasionally glancing at Sarah to see how her work on the experiment was going. She never looked at him, and Brian found himself staring at the back of her white lab coat. He grew bored with the view, and his eyes wandered to the girl’s hair. He paused in his stirring as he noticed that two bright red hair ties held her pigtails in place.
“I like your hair ties,” Brian said.
Sarah froze. “I don’t.”
“I think they’re nice.”
“I think they’re stupid.” Sarah began to move again, but all Brian saw were her shifting shoulder blades beneath the white coat. “My mom makes me wear them.” The pigtails swung forward as Sarah leaned farther over the table. “She says I look like I got all the color sucked out of me.” The lab coat paused briefly. “I hate them.”
At a loss for words, Brian looked down at the bucket and continued stirring. He began to sweat and wondered why Sarah hadn’t let him join her in the shade. He wanted to ask, but didn’t.
Brian had worked most of the dirt loose and was watching the mixture thicken into mud when something green suddenly broke the surface. Brian stood looking at the thing for a long time. “Sarah?”
A heavy sigh. “What. Now.”
“There’s… something here.”
Brian was surprised when Sarah suddenly appeared at his side. She stood with her hands on her hips, staring into the bucket at the mud and the green thing floating on the surface.
“Keep stirring,” Sarah ordered. She turned and started back to the table.
Brian followed her, the stick in his hands dripping mud. “But—” Brian’s voice died as his eyes fell on the tabletop. He saw a shallow dish filled with purple water. A few thin rocks sat in the water, and there were small, shiny purple lumps on the rocks. Brian had seen this before. “You’re growing crystals,” he said.
Sarah crossed her arms and tapped her foot on the grass. “So?”
“I saw one of my friends do it once. He got a kit for his birthday and he showed me how to grow crystals on rocks.” Brian looked away from the dish and stared at Sarah. “He didn’t need anyone to stir anything for him.”
Very slowly, a wicked smile spread over Sarah’s face.
Brian pressed his toes against his blue shoelace. “Why did you make me do that?”
Sarah began to laugh. She threw her head back and let the sound roar out of her small body. Her teeth gnashed open and shut as she laughed, sometimes letting the sound come out as a bellow, and sometimes forcing it through her teeth in a loud hiss. When she stopped laughing and looked at Brian, the light caught her glasses strangely, and the boy could not see her eyes. He only saw himself reflected in the lenses, standing with one foot pressed on top of the other and a muddy stick in his hands.
“You’re so stupid!” Sarah shrieked. “You really thought you were gonna help me? You’d just mess everything up. I bet you can’t do anything. I bet you can’t even breathe right.” Sarah dropped her voice and cocked her head. Brian’s mirrored self vanished, and the girl’s grey eyes took the reflection’s place. “I’m a scientist. I don’t have time for things like you. I can’t believe you even thought I would let someone as—as noxious as you near me.”
Brian gripped the stick tightly. “I’m not… oxious. I’m—”
“Noxious,” Sarah snapped. “Not oxious. That’s not even a word, dummy.” She pointed at his shoelaces. “And anyone who wears shoelaces like that is totally noxious, because you’re loud and annoying like them.”
Brian blushed. He hunched down, pushing his chin beneath the level of his shoulders. The stick shook in his hands. “That’s not true,” he whispered.
Sarah put her fists on her hips and spread her feet wide. “Is too.”
Brian made no reply. He didn’t have the chance to. The sliding glass door of the brick house opened, and Linda Miller emerged with Brian’s parents trailing in her wake. The three adults started across the lawn.
“Hey, kids,” Linda said. “Did you have—” She froze when her eyes fell on the red bucket next to Brian and Sarah. Linda looked from the bucket to the stick in Brian’s hands and back again. She turned very pale under her tan and stumbled forward.
Brian gulped as Linda reached them and peered inside the bucket. He saw her eyes lock on the floating green thing. Slowly, Linda bent down and picked up the bucket. “Please no,” she muttered. “Not the plant bulbs.” She turned the pail over and let the contents spill on to the ground. The mud landed with a soft splat and slowly spread over the grass. In the mud was one undamaged plant bulb and several shredded ones. Brian suddenly felt very afraid of Linda.
Linda bent down and picked up a ruined bulb. The torn plant hung dripping from her fingertips. “You killed my flowers,” Linda muttered. “You killed my Birds of Paradise.”
Brian felt hot tears rush to his eyes. He hunched down as far as he could and pressed his toes down on top of his foot so hard that a soft gasp of pain forced its way through his lips. “I’m sorry,” Brian stammered. “Sorry! She told me to. She made me—”
“Did not!” Sarah yelled. “He’s a liar!”
Linda rounded on her daughter. “You knew what these meant to me! You knew, and you let him kill them!”
“He did it himself,” Sarah said. She edged around the table, putting the bright plastic between herself and her mother. “I told him not to, but he said he wanted to make a mud pie. I tried to stop him, Mommy. I really did.”
“Liar,” Linda said. She started towards Sarah, but stopped after a single step. She looked at her daughter coldly. “I’ll deal with you later,” Linda said softly before looking at Brian. Her eyes were hard. “I can’t believe you did this, you horrible little monster.”
The tears began to roll down Brian’s cheeks. He wanted to run. But then his mother was there, standing beside him with her hand on his shoulder.
“It was a mistake, Linda,” Brian’s mother said. “Brian would not have done anything to your flowers on purpose. It was just a mistake.”
Linda did not move her eyes from Brian. “These flowers are everything to me. I need them.”
“That’s a little dramatic,” Brian’s mother murmured.
Linda dropped the ruined plant bulb. She stood over the shredded plants and looked at their muddy bed for a long time. Then she raised her foot and stomped on the dead bulbs. Mud flew from under her foot and splattered her legs, Brian’s pants, and his mother’s yellow sundress. With her foot still in the mud and without looking up, Linda said, “Get off my property.”
Brian felt his mother’s hand tighten. He felt a soft pressure on his shoulder as he was turned around and guided away. Brian’s mother steered him across the lawn. His father fell into step beside them and lightly placed his hand on Brian’s hair. Brian did not feel the touch, and he did not look up. The only sound as the family walked across the grass, over hot pavement, and up the front steps of their new home was Brian’s choked sobbing.
Just before the family slipped inside, Brian’s mother gently took the muddy stick from his hands. She tossed the stick away and led Brian inside. She brought him up to his new room, and sat him down on his new bed. Then she went to the box labeled BRIAN’S CLOTHES and found the boy’s old Batman t-shirt and a pair of blue shorts. She changed her son and held him close as he sputtered out an apology for ruining his dress clothes. She told Brian not to worry, that she would have them looking good as new in no time. Then she gently drew the story of the scientist and the stick and the bucket out of him. When he had finished speaking, she told Brian that she was not angry with him, and then she helped him unpack his toys. When that was done, she brought Brian downstairs and told her husband that she thought it would be good if the family went out for dinner that night and then stopped for ice cream on the way home.
“But I’m not supposed to have dessert,” Brian said.
She smiled. “How about we make a deal, honey? We’ll forget that punishment if you’ll come out with us tomorrow to meet our neighbors. The ones in the white house. They have a son about your age.”
Brian hesitated. “Does… does he want to be a scientist when he grows up?”
His mother took his hand and squeezed it. “I don’t think so.”
The boy nodded. “Okay.”
Brian’s family climbed into their car and drove off in the evening. While the boy played with Batman and Joker action figures in the backseat, his parents spoke quietly to each other about their neighbor and how something felt very out of place.
As the car slipped by the large brick house with the black front door, Brian’s action figures paused. The boy looked at the house and saw that all but one of the windows were dark. He thought that the room with the light on probably held a woman crying over the loss of her Birds of Paradise, as if she did not have enough flowers already. Down the hallway and through the sliding glass door, the boy imagined the girl standing over purple crystals with a fist pressed against her mouth and her foot tapping on the grass. He pictured her smiling as the deepening darkness sucked the last bit of color out of the world.