"I want a drink of water," Elaine said quite plainly
for a 3-year-old. She wasn't thirsty, just hoped to delay bedtime.
But her mother's expression warned her not to try any more tricks.
Her mother leaned over the lowered
side of the wooden baby crib to tuck the blanket around Elaine,
kissing her forehead. Mommy must be tired from working overtime.
Probably why she didn't want to observe their usual bedtime ritual.
She hadn't even read her a story!
It wasn't fair. Not the least bit
sleepy . . . Elaine felt like playing. When she gazed across the
room at the shelves holding her toys, Raggedy Ann, slumped in
a corner, winked a button eye, and her embroidered mouth lifted
in a smile. The fuzzy teddy bear beckoned to her with outstretched
"Good night, Elaine." Mommy raised
the side of the bed and switched off the overhead bulb before
going out, leaving the door ajar when she left. A yellow rectangle
of light from the hall spilled into the room and over her toys,
enticing her to play all the more.
Heavy footsteps came down the hall.
The huge form of her stepfather blocked the warm glow as he filled
No, no, please don't come in.
"Sweet Elaine, you didn't think
I'd let you go off to sleep without a good-night kiss, did you?"
His gravely voice dripped a false sweetness.
Dread clenched her, and she turned
her head away before he reached the crib. But she imagined his
rough hands with their ragged and dirty fingernails, black hair
sprouting from the backs, even before they lifted her nightie.
Elaine shut her eyes tightly. But
she was unable to block out the smell of stale cigarette smoke
clinging to his clothes or the acrid odor of his dried sweat mixed
with his beery hot breath.
Without knowing how she did it,
Elaine lifted out of her body just as her stepfather's rough fingers
touched her skin. She glided to her waiting playmates. After settling
herself on the floor, she gathered her toys around her.
Once, she glanced across the room
at the little girl in the bed, a little girl with pale, wispy
hair just like hers. Her stepfather leaned over the other child,
but Elaine didn't want to see anymore.
There seemed to be someone else
in the room--she could hear whispering and breathing sounds--and
in the darkest corner she could almost see something . . . something
scary. But whatever it was, it wasn't as frightening as her stepfather.
No matter how spooky the noises
or menacing the moving shadows, nothing was as bad as what the
man was doing to the child in the bed.
Elaine hung onto Raggedy Ann and
the teddy bear until her stepfather left the crib and disappeared
from the room. In an instant, she returned to her body, closed
her eyes, and fell asleep.
For the first time in her life,
Elaine Brinsfield felt happy, truly happy. The new emotion came
about because she had a friend, a genuine friend. Never had she
been close enough to anyone to consider them a friend--not in
grammar school, high school, or college.
But now she had Caro.
"So where do you want me to put
this?" Caro half-pushed, half-carried a large wooden bookcase
through the door into their small, sparsely furnished apartment.
Elaine looked around. "I don't know;
what do you think?"
Caro leaned against the bookcase,
flipped a lock of dark hair away from her gaudily made-up eyes,
and frowned. "Aw, come on, Elaine, knock it off! You've said that
every time I've asked you where we ought to put something. You
gotta have an opinion . . . after all, this is your home as much
Elaine quickly explained: "It's
just that I feel so terrific to finally be supporting myself,
not having to answer to my mother anymore. I can't be bothered
with the details."
Caro puckered her bright coral lips.
"Okay, I'll decide where to put it. But remember: It's up to you
to fill it. You're the one with all the books."
"Oh, I will, and it'll be fun."
And it would. She'd brought all of her romance and mystery paperbacks
with her, as well as her child-development and preschool books.
"This place ain't gonna be half
bad!" Caro announced while surveying their surroundings.
Though it appeared drab at first
sight, the one-bedroom apartment with kitchenette and bathroom
and its plain white paint and utilitarian furniture had been miraculously
transformed by the addition of the young women's personal belongings.
Caro's posters brightened the walls. Elaine added her collection
of plants to the wide windowsills and end tables, as well as some
colorful pillows into the corners of the plain brown couch and
Together, the roommates had bought
floral-print bedspreads for the twin beds in the room they shared,
and Elaine's accumulation of stuffed animals along with Caro's
collection of perfume bottles and fingernail polish helped to
make the bedroom more homelike.
After selecting a tape from her
large collection, Caro turned on her stereo, which she'd placed
beneath the one large window. "Might as well enjoy ourselves."
The loud, pounding rhythm of a hard
rock band assaulted Elaine's ears; Caro's taste in music would
take some getting used to. From the beginning, Elaine knew she
and Caro had dissimilar preferences in many areas, but since Caro
was exceptionally tolerant, she wouldn't complain when Elaine
played her more subdued recordings.
Elaine was well-aware that she might
have to do some adjusting. Her mother's warnings returned unbidden:
"It will never work . . . you and that hussy have absolutely nothing
in common. You'll soon realize how good you had it here at home
and beg me to let you move back."
But her mother was wrong: Elaine
would never return. This was the beginning of a new life for Elaine--all
the misery and loneliness of the old one had been left behind.
Caro glanced at her imitation diamond-studded
watch. "Oh, shit! It's later than I thought. I gotta shower and
dress for work."
Inwardly, Elaine winced at Caro's
vulgar speech, though she knew her facial expression displayed
nothing; years of practice had made her an expert at hiding her
true feelings. Besides, Caro's warm and friendly nature more than
made up for any flaws.
"Damn, I hate to leave you with
such a mess. Do you think you can handle it okay?" Caro crossed
the beige carpet in her long-strided, undulating manner.
"Oh, sure; there's not much left
to put away. After I finish here, I'll walk to the supermarket
and pick up a few groceries." The proximity of a shopping mall
and the day-care center where Elaine taught had been major reasons
for their choice of the apartment. Elaine didn't have a car.
Caro owned an old Datsun and could
drive to her job as a waitress in one of the most popular dinner
houses at the small boat harbor nearby.
Halting in mid-stride, Caro spun
around in front of the bathroom door. "Crap! I was s'posed to
take you shopping, wasn't I? I'm sorry--I forgot all about it.
If you're going, you better do it right away . . . this isn't
the safest of neighborhoods. Don't suppose it'd be wise for you
to be traipsing around after dark."
"Don't worry; I just want to do
a couple of more things around here; then I'll go."
"Tell you what: I'll drop you off
at the store on my way to work."
"Okay, that'll be terrific." Elaine's
words were uttered needlessly, because Caro had disappeared behind
the bathroom door.
Elaine felt good inside. Caro always
made up for her forgetfulness with a considerate offering. After
a struggle, Elaine wrestled the bookcase against the wall and
shoved two cartons full of books closer to it. She might even
have time to fill most of the shelves before Caro was ready to
Preoccupied with her task, Elaine
didn't notice when the shower stopped. Caro hollered, "Where the
hell are the towels?"
Startled, Elaine jumped from the
stool she'd been sitting on, and the books in her lap thudded
to the floor. Caro stood naked in the open doorway, beads of water
glistening on pink flesh, her hair a wet, black cap.
Feeling slightly embarrassed, Elaine
averted her eyes. "I'll get you one." She hurried toward the bedroom.
"They're still packed, but I know which box they're in." Keeping
her head turned, she handed Caro one of the large terry towels
her mother had grudgingly given her as a housewarming gift.
Elaine thought she detected amusement
in Caro's voice. Maybe she'd eventually get used to her roommate's
habit of strolling around nude.
In a remarkably short time for Caro,
she reappeared wearing the white peasant blouse and short black
skirt with a tiny, white organdy apron--her waitress uniform.
The makeup amazed Elaine. False eyelashes, black eyeliner applied
with a heavy hand, and purple eye shadow with glittery sparkles
detracted from her snappy brown eyes. Blended streaks of blush
accented Caro's prominent cheekbones, and her full lips were painted
"Here I am, ready or not!"
"Just let me get my purse." Elaine
headed for the bedroom. "Want me to bring you a sweater?"
"What for? I'll be in the car going
and coming. If I get cold, I'll turn on the heater."
Though it was January, the Southern
California winter had been mild, and even at the late hour Caro
got off work on Saturday nights, the temperature wouldn't be uncomfortably
low. But Elaine thought her friend might want to cover the expanse
of bosom and cleavage revealed by the extremely low neckline of
her blouse, a thought that had obviously never occurred to Caro.
"Come on, let's get going." Caro
tucked her envelope purse under her arm and dangled her key ring
from a finger. Her long porcelain nails matched the scarlet of
* * *
Walking home from the supermarket
with two full grocery sacks was a pleasant experience for Elaine.
Despite Caro's warning, though rundown, the neighborhood seemed
safe. She passed a young Hispanic teen dressed in a white T-shirt
and brown slacks carefully polishing the chrome on a shiny black,
low-to-the-ground, older Chevrolet parked in the driveway of a
single-family stucco home. She smiled at him, and he smiled back.
All the houses in the first block
after the shopping center were similar, the main differences being
the color of the paint and the landscaping.
An old man in a shapeless sweater
and trousers, walking a blond cocker spaniel on a leash, nodded
to her as he walked the opposite direction. She side-stepped around
a black girl and a white girl, both about 8, their hair in pigtails,
wearing bright jogging outfits and tennis shoes, playing a game
of hopscotch they'd drawn on the sidewalk. Neither one paid any
attention to her.
The second block held two large
apartment buildings on one side of the street and a small park
on the other. A fairly new park, Elaine guessed, since the trees
were still small and spindly. Inviting benches were scattered
over the green lawn and beside a well-equipped but deserted play
area . . . no doubt deserted because it was suppertime.
The first apartment complex was
freshly painted and built around a rectangular pool, a wrought-iron
gate at the entrance. Elaine peeked in as she strolled by. Large
potted palms, chaise lounges, and canvas sling chairs decorated
the green cement deck. For a moment, she wished she and Caro could
afford to live there.
Quickly, she mentally chastised
herself; she should be grateful for what she had because it was
so much better than living with her mother. By the time she reached
her own smaller, shabbier building, the groceries seemed heavier,
and she was glad to climb the outside stairway that led to the
second-floor landing and the first door, which opened to her and
After putting away the groceries,
Elaine popped the frozen dinner she'd purchased for supper into
the oven and opened a diet soda. The pleasure she'd basked in
earlier in the day returned. She was about to eat her first meal
in her own apartment. Of course, had her mother known it was a
frozen dinner, she'd have had a fit. The thought tickled Elaine.
While waiting, she decided to shower.
After shedding sweatshirt, jeans, and underwear, she studied her
reflection in the oversize bathroom mirror. Huge green eyes with
long lashes stared back from a pale round face. She reached behind
her head and unfastened a large barrette. Her long straight hair,
the color of pale gold, fell past her shoulders. A quick glance
was all she gave her body. It was healthy, and that's what mattered,
but she had a fleeting impression of tiny waist, flaring hips,
and fair skin with a rosy underglow.
After she ate and finally unpacked
all the cardboard boxes, Elaine cast one last satisfied glance
around her new home. She left a lamp on for Caro and went to bed,
tired and happy.
Noises from the living room awakened
Elaine. She sat up, ready to climb out of bed and investigate,
when she noticed Caro's bed hadn't been slept in. The sparkling
sound of her roommate's laughter came through the thin wall, followed
by the low rumble of a male voice. Caro had company. Elaine pulled
her pillow over her ears and hoped she'd soon fall back to sleep.
Return to the Order Page for Astral