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H A N N A H R E G O

1942

    Estelle knew going to the movies alone was a bad idea. But what else was she supposed to do? Sit home and mope? Her happiness wouldn’t be dependent on Shirley, no siree-bob. Estelle was ten years old, and she could go to the movies any time she wanted, with or without her older sister.

     Shirley said she had other things to do. Meaning, other friends to be with, rather than her own flesh and blood.

     Estelle didn’t miss her sister’s company at all. Well. Not at all during the movie. The movie was Bambi, and Shirley would’ve loused about it being too kiddie. Estelle herself didn’t even like Bambi. Disney was suddenly too much like real life, with uncomfortable calamities licking at your hooves.

     No, she didn’t miss Shirley or her commentary. Not until the crowd from the theater thinned out around Main Street, and Estelle was on her own.

     Then she felt stupid. Vulnerable. What if the air raid sirens went off? Because fate would deliver that unfairness to her, to be caught on the streets, defenseless and deer-like. 

     Estelle imagined the sirens, their phantom drone. That ear-jumping jolt as they worked themselves up and all that tight lidded panic that followed.

     When the sirens came, everyone pulled down a curtain of control, as if ceremony could protect them. The drills at school were ritual by this time: Make a single file line. Hold onto so-and-so’s shoulder in front of you. Go pass Missus Mellors’ Office and down the stairs. Down to the bomb shelter, that lair of corrugated metal walls with the same collection of storybooks and stale blankets. During the drills, Estelle tried to make the first graders laugh, because making the little kids laugh was the right thing to do. Even when she herself was petrified. 

    She passed the upholstery shop. Here on the sidewalks, what would she do if the sirens came? What ceremony would save her? There was none. Granted, they hadn’t been bombed, not here in the good old U.S. of A…not yet.

     It was a warm night, like any other night in the summer, but Estelle tasted October in the air.  She walked quicker.

     Despite all her practiced dread, Estelle jolted in surprise when she saw something –someone–  following her. She saw her shadow twinned under the street-light at the corner. But this twin shadow didn’t belong to her.

     Clearly, the shadow belonged to a man, the elongated, square lines, the silhouette of a man’s hat on the head. He sounded like a grown man too, his footfalls heavy and slapping on the sidewalk. He was five or six steps behind her. Estelle’s surprise quickly cooled to a creeping chill.

     Because, what kind of man was this? You hardly saw men anymore. They were all off dying somewhere. What kind of man was this behind her, a man her country rejected?

     What was wrong with him?

     Of course, of course, this was the wrong sort of night to be without Shirley.

     Maybe he wasn’t following her. Maybe the uneasy remnants of Bambi were polluting her perception, and she was over-reacting. She’d know if he was following her when she crossed Jackson Street. Hardly anyone cut through Jackson Street.

     She crossed, waiting hopefully for him to pass by.

     No. He stayed right behind her.

     No one else was out on the street. There weren’t even cars on the road, ever since the gas rationing. Estelle counted the concrete sidewalk squares. It took her nearly three steps to cross an entire square. She told herself if she could cross each square in three steps, she’d be okay. It had worked until now, anyway.

     He followed her down the Old Bridge Turnpike, past the one deserted house with the vines crawling over it. Past the nice houses, with humming bird feeders and neat victory gardens. Past the candy shop, closed now. Miss Flossie was upstairs, above the shop. Estelle could tell because the light was on.

     Estelle looked up at the light, half ready to throw herself at the door, sobbing and screaming and raising hell. But would Miss Flossie come down in time? And then what would Miss Flossie do, exactly? What if the man had a knife? Then Miss Flossie might die, for nothing. Boom, just like Bambi’s mother.

        Estelle looked away from the light and forced herself on, counting her steps per sidewalk square. There were only a few more blocks until home. There was Missus Benton’s place now, with the litter of cigarette butts looking bone-like at night. Normally, Estelle scowled at the untidy house, but now, it was welcomed as a search light. Missus Benton’s was on one end of the block. Estelle’s house was on the other, just around the corner. There was hope…

     …but it would be her luck, to have that safety snatched away, once that hope was in view.

     Estelle slowed, as if each step were on a tight wire. Running seemed inconceivable; running would break this three-step-per-square ritual, which had thus far kept her safe. She wondered what she would do, once she walked up the porch stairs, if she would run then.

     No. Evading this man took all the patience and ceremony of an air raid siren. There must not be panic involved. To panic would bring ruin.

    He noticed the slowing of her pace. He still kept his distance. But he spoke, breaking the rules of this established predation.  

     “Aren’t you afraid, being out here on your own, little girl?” He sounded exactly like Bambi’s hunter would, if he ever came onscreen.

     Estelle whipped around, facing him. She could see nothing of him, except that he was a man standing in the dark, just as she presumed.

     “No, mister.” She affected a saunter, trying to invoke the cocky attitude that the first graders knew her for. She walked backwards, closing in on the corner. Amazingly, the man stayed still, never once stepping into the light to be seen.

     Estelle summoned her cheek, her vinegar, her flippancy towards Bambi and bomb shelters and this horrible night.

     “I’m not alone. You’re with me!”     

     She disappeared around the corner and pounded up the porch steps to safety, leaving the shadow behind.