SANDRA LOCKED HER BICYCLE to the parking sign outside the Madison Messenger building. She caught her breath standing in the sunshine on the sidewalk. It had been a warm day for early April, and she had sweated through her clothes.
To the south, she could see dark, rolling clouds gathering against the intense blue of the rest of the sky. The wind had been coming from that direction, so she expected that she might have a wet slog home. Even here in the city, the air smelled of new plants: trees, crops, grass. Planting had only started this month, but spring was impatient to burst forth.
“Hi, Sandra. You’re early.” Randy Schmidt, the reporter whom she shadowed when she was not drawing in court, stood at the copy machine. He picked up his copies and walked with her to their cubicle.
“I got held up after my last class, so I skipped lunch to get here.”
“Real reporters eat at their desks.” He pulled a brown paper bag from a drawer. “We can ‘do lunch’.”
“Does this count as a lunch date?”
Randy laughed. “Think your dad will mind?”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been on a date.”
Sandra settled into her side of the cubicle and extracted her lunch from the messenger bag she carried when she rode. They both ate silently for the first few bites.
“No court today,” she said. “Do you have an assignment this afternoon?”
“Not yet, so I’ll go to the nursing home with the photographer. Do you want me to make up something for you?” Randy was responsible for keeping her busy when there was no work for her as a sketch artist. So far, she had learned how to replace the corona wire in the photocopier, clean and repair the fax machine, maintain the typewriters, and sharpen several hundred pencils. She also wrote draft copy for the reporters when there was too much material for them to write it all by deadline.
“No, thanks. I’d like to finish writing up the text to go with the pictures from the county jail last week. Then all I will need is to visit the probation office.”
“Want me to set that up?”
“I called them last week, and we agreed to visit this week. Would Friday be good?”
“Friday afternoon. I’ll call them to confirm it, and get someone to cover for me if any calls come in while we’re out.” He put the waxed paper from his sandwich in the wastebasket and took out an apple. “You know, Sandra, this special spread on criminal justice is going to be a big hit.”
“I’m just glad Mr. Manning likes it. It’s been fun and exciting to put it together.”
Sandra had been working afternoons at the Messenger since Christmas. The regular sketch artist was in New Mexico, convalescing and pregnant. She was expected back in June, after Sandra graduated from high school. For Sandra’s last semester, Joseph Manning, the editor, had arranged for her to enroll in JRN505 at Ohio State University, which made the hours at the newspaper count for school credit. The school gave her afternoons off, because she had met the course requirements for graduation.
As a sketch artist, Sandra accompanied Randy to court whenever it was in session. She also went with him to the police station, on patrol with the county sheriff, to arraignments, grand jury meetings, and the hospital when injuries were involved.
The reaction to her sketches had been enthusiastic, and readership of the Messenger increased every time an issue came out with her artwork.
Last month, she had pitched the idea of a special issue on the criminal justice system, from arrest through the police and court systems, to prison, and back out through the parole system. The editor approved it and asked Sandra to work on it whenever she was not on call with Randy.
Their lunches finished, Randy left to interview a nursing home resident, taking the staff photographer with him. Sandra rolled a sheet of paper into her typewriter and started to write…
When Sandra pushed out the door at five o’clock, the sky was darkening rapidly, though sunset was a couple of hours away. A stiff breeze from the south pushed debris up Main Street and across High Street. With this breeze, I should get home before the rain hits, she thought. She mounted her bicycle and leaned into the crosswind for the two blocks on High Street before turning north on Highway 38.
The first heavy drops pelted her when she still was two miles from home. In seconds, that turned into something like a giant bucket being emptied on her head. She kept riding as fast as she could, pushed by the half-gale blowing her along. In no time, water was running inside her jacket and down her skin. She might as well be swimming. At least it’s not cold.
She passed a large billboard for Skoal chewing tobacco. With her head down and concentrating on getting home, she did not recognize the frisson of her hair standing up.
A blinding white light surrounded her. Her scream was lost in the sound around her.
The light subsided quickly. The sound (was that an explosion?) receded, replaced by a loud ringing in her ears. Where am I? What am I?
The questions refocused her mind and caused her to take stock of her situation. She felt and saw the gravel in front of her head, and recognized the edge of the asphalt. Her right knee and the right side of her face burned.
Testing her joints, she found that she could move, and she got up. She had a hole in her right trouser leg and road rash. Her left wrist and hand had some abrasions, but her watch had taken most of the blow. The watch band was a bracelet now.
Her bicycle lay in the ditch about ten feet up the road. Only half the billboard was still attached to its upright, blowing in the wind like a flag. The other half was in pieces, most of them black and some still smoking, strewn downwind for about fifty feet.
Shaking herself off, Sandra walked to her bicycle. She remembered the oft-repeated warning not to ride in a thunderstorm and swore at herself. She would allow herself to feel grateful for her close escape later.
Still distracted, she almost swung back into the saddle. She noticed that her front tire was flat. Not just flat but destroyed. A large staple or nail, probably from the billboard, ran through the tire and the inner tube. She could smell the rubber that had melted around the nail.
Visibility was down to less than a couple of car lengths. I hope everyone slows down. She began pushing her bicycle towards home, hoping to make it to the shelter of the school bus stop near their driveway. She had no idea how long she had been unconscious, but it occurred to her that it was closer to sunset than it should have been. She turned on her taillight, which seemed almost useless in the downpour.
A full-sized pickup truck passed her, splashing her as it went by. She muttered one of the oaths her father used when he smashed his thumb, laughing at herself as she did it.
The pickup stopped almost out of sight. Instead of backing up, the driver jumped out and ran toward her.
“Sandra! What the hell are you doing out here?” She recognized the broad shoulders and messy brown hair, now slicked down around his head. Bill Southern was a senior and the editor of the high school newspaper. Sandra had been one of his writers until the Messenger job took her away from school every afternoon.
“Hi, Bill. You’re getting soaked.”
“Never mind me, what happened to you?”
“I think it was a lightning strike. Slashed my front tire.” She pointed to the destroyed billboard.
“Jeez, that wheel stinks. Let’s get your bike in the back.” He picked up the bike easily and carried it to the back of the truck.
The rain stopped as they pulled onto the road.
Ten minutes later, Bill pulled up outside the Billingsley farmhouse. Marcia and Martin both came out. Marcia ran to her daughter, while Martin shook hands and thanked Bill for bringing Sandra home. They got the bike out of the truck, and Bill drove off.
Inside, finally safe, Sandra began shaking…
Bill caught up with Sandra as the students filed out of Spanish class.
“Hey, Sandra, got a minute?”
“I never see you at lunch anymore.”
“I pack it now and eat it at the Messenger.”
“Makes sense. I envy you, working at a real newspaper.”
Sandra shrugged. “Aren’t you planning to major in journalism at OSU?”
They arrived at Sandra’s locker. She began organizing her messenger bag. Bill leaned on the next locker.
“You’re a junior. Got a date for the prom?”
“No. I hadn’t even thought of it, and no one has asked. I am younger than the others, you know.”
“That doesn’t bother me. Would you like to go? We’re both going to college next year, so it’s our last chance.”
“Sure. I figured that was something I would miss. Let me clear it with my parents, but I can’t see why they’d say no.”
“Great. I can’t afford a limo, but maybe I can get Dad to lend me the car. The truck is past being able to clean.”
“If we take the truck, we can wear overalls instead of a tux and a gown, eh?”
He laughed. “Let me know tomorrow. Thanks.”
“Thank you. Bill.” She smiled as he skipped down the hall.
Parental permission was the easy part. Bill confirmed that his father would let him drive the family car, if he cleaned it and detailed it.
Her mother asked the harder question, “What will you wear?” Neither Marcia nor her daughter followed fashion, so the Billingsley family lacked those kinds of magazines. Sandra picked up what she could at the Rexall drugstore, and she pored over them with her mother for several nights. They both sketched ideas from what they saw.
The following Saturday, Marcia drove Sandra to Columbus. They came back with a pattern and fabric. The dress would follow Sandra’s figure nicely, with room below the waist for dancing, running, and other activity. With no straps, it drew attention to her blond hair and her strong shoulders, giving the observer something to notice instead of her relatively flat chest.
Most important, Marcia guessed that it would be the easiest pattern to follow. As Sandra worked the sewing machine, she was grateful for her mother’s insight.
Unspoken was why a seventeen-year-old senior would invite a fourteen-year-old to the prom. But Bill and Sandra had known each other since Sandra arrived in seventh grade, and they had worked on the school papers and yearbooks all that time. Martin and Marcia knew that he was a shy boy, and that he had been bullied in middle school. He had not taken anyone to the prom the year before.
Bill stood at the foot of the stairs and gawked. Sandra barely caught her own jaw. She had never seen him in anything but jeans, his hair almost never combed. The new tuxedo fit him well. She was surprised to feel a stirring at his appearance that she had never felt before.
“My god, Sandra, you look fabulous!”
Sandra patted her hair to make sure it was still there.
“Mom gets the credit for the hairdo. I’ve never put it up.”
“I mean, the whole package. That dress makes you look – well, great!”
“Thanks, Bill. You look good yourself.”
Martin and Marcia appeared on the porch. They could see that the two young people wanted to get on with their adventure.
“What time do you want me to bring her back, sir?”
“I don’t expect you to go clubbing in Columbus,” said Martin, “so bring her back when she tires of you. She knows we have to sing in church tomorrow.”
“My dad wants the car back by one, so it will be earlier than that.”
“Fine. Have fun, you two.”
Sandra felt exposed. She blushed as Bill took her arm and led her down the hallway to the gymnasium. It had never occurred to her to go to the school dances before this year. She was delighted to discover how much she liked dancing, and to find that she could do it without tripping, or stepping on her partner.
Still, this was her first date, and she had never walked on a boy’s arm before. The many stares they got may have been for Bill – he was easy on the eyes – but she also met a lot of surprised gazes.
“It’s a stage, dear,” her mother had said. “Just like our concerts. Head up and let the confidence flow.” Martin, a retired Navy musician, had made sure all his children learned an instrument in addition to voice. They performed regularly throughout Madison County and sometimes in Columbus or Springfield.
Sandra smiled and returned the greetings of those friends who snapped out of it soon enough to say something.
As they danced, Sandra was glad that her gown was light weight and sleeveless. The old gym could have used air conditioning tonight. She danced mostly with Bill, but also with her friends in the high school orchestra and the other boys on the school paper.
She was surprised to see Master Sergeant Monroe and his wife Samara on the sidelines among the chaperones. She introduced Bill, then took him to meet her friend Karen, a freshman.
Karen was in awe of the tall, handsome senior, but also delighted to be at a dance with her friend Sandra. Sandra was pleased to see that the Wester brothers, who had bullied Karen in the fall, did not show up.
Most especially, she enjoyed the feeling of dancing close with Bill. Not at all the same as dancing with her father, or older brothers (who were long gone from home). From what she could tell, Bill liked it, too.
She wasn’t ready to stop when the orchestra leader announced the last dance.
“It’s only eleven,” Bill said as they walked to the car. “Want to go somewhere else?”
“I didn’t get a chance to visit the food table. I could split a pizza if you like.”
“Mamma Leone’s?” She tugged a little on his arm and smiled. The pizzeria was across the street from the Messenger building.
On the sidewalk outside the restaurant, Sandra heard a familiar voice behind them.
“Cradle-robbing tonight, Southern?” Jerry Wester. As he approached, Sandra could smell the beer. They turned toward the door, so they could see him. His brother Jimmy was with him.
“From what I hear, you two need to mind your business,” said Bill.
“Little girl ain’t toting her deadly book bag tonight.”
“That’s not my only weapon, Jerry,” said Sandra. “Back off. Now.”
“I don’t like your tone, bitch. Do you, Jimmy?”
“No.” They both rushed at Bill and Sandra.
Jerry was on Sandra’s side. He ran full-tilt into her raised knee and doubled over, as she straightened her leg and her right heel nailed his foot to the pavement. He flew forward and fell face down.
Jimmy met a solid right punch to his solar plexus, and also fell as Bill brought his left fist down on the side of Jimmy’s head.
For a brief moment, Sandra and Bill looked at each other in surprise.
The two Westers scrambled to get up. Bill held the door for Sandra, and they slipped through into the pizzeria. He leaned on the door long enough for Jerry to slam into it and reconsider taking the fight into the establishment.
“That was exciting,” Bill said, as they pulled slices of the medium four-seasons pizza to their plates. “You didn’t scream or anything. You were awesome.”
“I’ve been running into them ever since we moved here. If there had been time to think, I would have been scared.”
“I heard about your book bag.”
“Yeah. Karen and I worked on that until they stopped picking on her.”
“Well, I feel safer with you around, too. Want to go out again, maybe with more casual clothing?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“A movie? Spartacus and El Cid are both in town.”
“So is La Dolce Vita,” she said with a mischievous smile. “I’ve always wanted to go to Rome.”
“I’d like that, too, but they won’t let us in.”
“Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston are fine with me. You pick one. I’ll ask my folks about next Saturday. Okay?”
Bill pulled in front of the Billingsley house at midnight. He stayed for a while to chat, and got permission to take Sandra to the movies the following weekend.
With the gown hanging and her hair down, she went to the kitchen for a glass of water. Her parents had already gone to bed.
She lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling. She did not want to fall asleep. Instead, she wanted to revel in the Cinderella feeling of the evening. Her body had other ideas after all the exercise, and soon she was fast asleep, dreaming of adventures in Rome with men who moved like Bill but whose faces she could not see.
© 2022, JT Hine