Stella Ridley Sixteen



Suddenly Deena pulled me around in front of her facing the door and whispered one word loudly in my ear: “Move.”

And I moved toward the open front door and moved even faster once I hit the first step of the porch—it felt as if my knees were jerking up to my chin with every step. I don’t know what Deena had planned to do once we got out of the house—we were both in pajamas and barefoot—but once we hit the porch, it was clear what we would do, for there was the Strange Man’s car, still loudly running in its sputtering last-gasp way, but fortunately not being watched over by some accomplice. Suddenly we were out on the main road and Deena was driving very fast even though she was having trouble managing the steering because it had so much play in it. Everything about our escape seemed to involve exaggerated movements—I felt as if I had suddenly found myself in a cartoon.

We were driving inside a great roar, the car shaking and shimmying and clanking, and in the midst of all that racket, we heard a muffled cry and exchanged a glance of horror. I looked in the backseat and saw a bound and gagged figure lying sideways on the seat. “It’s Miz Minnie’s boy!” I said.

“Holy Jesus!” Deena said and then shouted “Well help him, Tella! Don’t just sit there!” I clambered over the seat. Now those were the days before criminals had discovered the infinite uses of duct tape: the Strange Man had stuffed a sock in Miz Minnie’s boy’s mouth and tied what was apparently one of Miz Minnie’s silk scarves around his head. As I was untying this, I looked deep into Rupert’s eyes and saw despair and relief, but he couldn’t talk and began coughing a dry convulsive, racking sort of cough that made it hard to undo the rough boat rope he had been hog-tied with.

Deena started looking back into the backseat and the car was swerving all over the road. “Don’t you worry, honey! Don’t you worry!” she shouted. “I’ll take care of you!” At first I thought that she was talking to me. Deena slowed down but we were still flying and there was a sound coming from behind us that sounded like screaming, and then the sirens were just right on top of us. I guess the police could be forgiven for being sure that the criminal would emerge from the car when they—and they really did this—hollered “Get out of the car with your hands up!” Of course we obeyed. It was actually a bit thrilling to feel like a criminal for just a minute.

The sheriff came to Deena’s house, along with highway patrolman Rodney Altere, who asked Deena if she was really all right so many times she told him to stop it or she’d scream. The final outrage of the night for me was that I was not allowed to participate in their discussion but was sent to bed with a measly glass of cold chocolate milk. I lost no time in feeling dissatisfied with the fact that no one solicited my observations or opinions, though I was much more irritated that I could find no truly suitable place from which to eavesdrop. But when I got to my room, I just fell into my bed, overwhelmed with a kind of weariness unfamiliar to me then.

When I woke up later, the whole house was dark. I kept trying to go back to sleep but I kept thinking that I could hear someone down in the kitchen throwing things around, or strange cars stealthily pulling up to the house, or the whole house gathering itself up as if preparing to shout or shudder. When I held my breath and listened, though, all I could hear was my own heart beating in my ears. Still, I thought perhaps that Deena couldn’t sleep and had gone downstairs, so I got out of bed and went down. Deena wasn’t there, but there was a strange car parked in the driveway—a highway patrol car. In the vague light, I could see that Rodney was sitting in it, just sitting there. I went upstairs to Deena’s room and moved Monkey over and got in bed with her. Deena opened her eyes, I could see that she hadn’t been able to sleep either. I snuggled up to her and she put her arm around me from behind, and we talked quietly in that way that people who are about to go to sleep do—with long intervals of silence between sentences and words.

“We’re safe now, honey,” she said: “He won’t come back.”

“If Wolf had been here,” I said. And then I started sobbing uncontrollably. Deena just held me and let me cry. She didn’t say any of the things that others had said that made me angry—didn’t tell me not to cry (“there-there, now: it’s not the end of the world”), didn’t tell me that Wolf was in heaven, didn’t tell me that Wolf was old in human years and that it was his time to go, didn’t tell me—and this was the most insulting, outrageous thing that anyone had said to me—that I should cheer up because I could get another dog. I wept for a long time, so long that Deena just fell asleep, and I wept not just for Wolf but for a whole world that seemed to have gone with him, wept for myself and for Miz Minnie’s boy, wept because of things large and small, wept until the grief seemed gone out of me and in its place was a tight knot of anger and despair.

Stella Ridley Fifteen


The Strange Man

One night after a particularly spectacular thunderstorm had subsided into a steady rain tapping its million fingers on the tin roof of the house, we heard an odd noise as we were on our way to bed. We both paused at the bottom of the stairs. It sounded briefly as if some very large creature was thrashing and lashing about in the mud, then we heard a tiny thud, and then the front door flew open and he was suddenly there five feet in front of us, the deranged tufts of his hair oddly backlit by the lights of the car he had driven through the flowerbeds right up to the front of the house. (Stealth was not, apparently, part of his plan.)

He wasn’t a tall man, probably only slightly taller than Aunt Deena, and he was dripping wet, standing at the terminus of the muddy, wet tracks he had made into the house. I looked at him as if I had all the time in the world, Continue reading