Frank O’Neal had been driving the school bus for fifteen years, in that time he had seen all kinds of kids. Shy, polite, cheeky, smart and dumb as rocks. He had seen fat kids, skinny kids, kids who were destined for greatness on the sports field, kids who were destined to get blown to bits in whatever godforsaken war was coming next. Kids who would end up big shots in the city and kids who would never stray further than the county boundary. Frank had never seen a kid like Patty Hewes before.
From the age of six Patty had been hopping on his bus, his first pick up down the dusty pot holed road that bordered her fathers scrubby fields and ramshackle home. She stood alone at the edge of the road, no anxious Mama holding her hand, a small for her age, wiry little thing with white blond hair and bright blue eyes. Frank greeted her with his usual cheery good morning and told her not to be worried about starting school, the other kids would fill the bus up on the way and he would look out her.
“I can look out for myself.” she said in a strong voice with a determined tilt of her chin.
She walked down the bus and took a seat right in the middle, she put her small satchel on the seat next to it and sat with her hands in her lap.
“Are we going now?”
“Yes ma'am.” Frank chuckled to himself, she was a live one.
Everyone in the community knew Patty’s father was a mean drunk who beat his wife and let his home descend into little more than a ruin. Patty was his only child, he told anyone who would listen he wanted sons but his wife couldn't provide him with anymore children. He largely ignored his daughter, she was just another mouth to feed. The bus filled up and the little blond haired girl studiously avoided making eye contact with the other kids. She stared straight ahead, sat like a statue and never spoke a word except for a polite thank you when Frank wished her good luck as she hopped down the step. He watched her all the way into the building, striding purposefully along on skinny little legs without hesitation or any hint of fear. She wore faded dungarees over a plain white shirt. The clothes were worn but pressed and clean. Frank shook his head, he had no idea what to make of her. That was the pattern for two years, Frank would greet her every morning, she would say good morning back, make her way to her seat and sit down. Most mornings she would be holding a book that she would raise to her eyes as soon as they set off, never putting it down until they reached school. Frank learned from the other kids and gossip around town that Patty was the smartest kid they had ever had through the doors of the county elementary school. So smart, she was moved up a class almost immediately, they didn't really know what to do with her. The principal wanted her family to apply for a scholarship to a private school in the neighbouring county. Her father dismissed the idea, she was a girl, there was no point, she would grow up, marry and tend to her husband and children. What use was a fancy education.
Patty largely ignored the other kids, a few spoke to her a little as time passed by but most of them gave her a wide berth. She had a strange aura about her the other kids picked up on. She was never teased, her hair never pulled, her bag never ransacked. She reminded Frank of the dusty skinny cats that wandered the tracks around town. They looked harmless enough as they roamed with their slinky gait, their eyes always alert for danger or prey. If you ever cornered one though they could be vicious.
One day, on the return journey, she was a little late coming out of class and an older boy took what both Frank and Patty considered to be her seat. She walked up the aisle and stood in front of him, he looked out of the window.
“I sit there.”
The bus went quiet except for the rumble of the engine idling, the kids waiting to see who would win the standoff. Frank knew who his money was on.
“Well sit somewhere else shorty.”
Patty narrowed her eyes like a duelist in a western.
“Move or I'll tell Miss Hennessey you cheated in the math test.”
There was a sharp intake of breath amongst some of the others. Billy Low’s face went as red as a tomato.
“I didn't cheat.”
“Yes you did, I saw you copying mine so I got two wrong on purpose. When I tell her tomorrow you got the same two wrong she’ll know what you did. If you move now I won't tell and she won't notice.”
Patty stared at him hard and he got up from the seat, he moved halfway down the bus before he yelled out.
“You're a snitch and everyone knows your daddy's a drunk.”
Patty sat down daintily before she replied in a clear strong voice.
“If I was a snitch I would have told straight away, and everyone knows your daddy ain't really your daddy.”
There was a burst of giggles from the other kids as a now purple faced Billy Low thundered his way back down the aisle towards Patty who had already picked up her book.
“Billy sit down now. Frank shouted, I'd say you're even so don't make things worse by beating on a little girl.”
Billy sat back down with fat tears rolling down his ten year old cheeks, Patty turned the page of her book and grinned. Frank caught her eye and gave her a imperceptible nod, she nodded back. He told the tale to his wife later that night and swore to her the gleam in the child’s eyes was unholy. The next morning Patty greeted him by name for the first time. That weekend Billy’s enraged father turned up at the Hewes farm, after a furious argument Patrick Hewes chased him off with a shotgun and returned to beat Patty so badly she could barely sit down for a week. Her mother didn't intervene, thankful for once it wasn't her.
By the time she was eight, Patty was notorious amongst her peers at school. Her intelligence was leaps and bounds ahead of the other kids but she was quiet and reticent. From what Frank overheard she was earning a pretty penny by doing the older kids homework. Her teachers were almost in awe of her ability and found her to be polite and studious but distant. Patty didn't engage with anyone, one or two kids tried to be friends but were rebuffed by her lack of interest. Her English teacher tried to win her confidence by bringing her books, newspapers and magazines, but Patty refused to be drawn when gently questioned about her home life or future plans. The child was an enigma alright and Frank could not help but think she was heading for a world of trouble when she grew up. He was a simple man but Frank was nobody's fool. He knew America was changing as the fifties drew to a close more and more women were joining the workforce. Teaching, nursing and office work were the main professions but he didn't think that would be enough for his little Patty, not nearly enough.
“Hey Patty, we've got a fresh pick up today, a new family has moved into the old Crawford place, he's a doctor, moved out here from New York City. They've got a young girl your age.”
Patty’s ears pricked up with interest, the Crawford place bordered her fathers land and had been empty for almost three years after the old man died with no family to replace him. It was a fine old house in pretty gardens that really belonged to another time. Patty had seen workmen coming and going for months now restoring the place and last week a movers truck had pulled up and Patty’s watchful eyes saw fine looking furniture and carpets being ferried inside, the workmen being directed by an elegant looking woman with dark brown hair drawn up into a loose bun. The bus rounded the corner and Patty pretended to read her book while she watched the same woman fuss with the clothing of a young anxious looking girl.
“Good morning ma'am” Frank greeted his new customers with his usual cheer. “Hop on honey”, he addressed the frightened looking child with his kind eyes and watched as her mother disentangled the child's hand from her own and gently propelled her forwards onto the bus.
“Off you go now, have a good first day, and remember what I told you. I'll be right here when you come home.”
Patty rolled her eyes, ’what a baby,’ she thought. The kid wouldn't last five minutes in school. Frank was thinking the same thing. If Patty was comparable to a wild cat, this girl looked for all the world like a new born foal. All gangly legs, wide brown eyes, and ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble. Still she was a game little thing, she straightened her shoulders, stilled her quivering lip and walked purposefully down the bus until she got level with the only other occupant.
“Can I sit here?” She asked in a small voice gesturing at the seat taken by Patty’s school bag.
Frank sighed in resignation waiting for the refusal from the blond and prepared for the tears he felt were sure to follow from the brunette. Patty’s eyes rose from the adventure story that currently captured her imagination.
“You've got the whole bus to choose from.” she said dismissively and returned to her text.
Frank let the engine idle for a minute.
“I want to sit with you. Momma said I was to make a friend today and you're the only one here.”
The girl held her ground despite her tremulous voice and the frankly intimidating, cold eyed stare of a girl smaller than she was. Patty looked up again and her eyes were captured by wary but warm brown ones. She found she couldn't look away. The girl was so pretty with her pale skin and long wavy brown hair. Her summer dress was a cut above anything she had seen before, she even smelt pretty, like flowers. Patty lifted her bag off the seat and onto the floor, the new girl smiled, revealing a row of small, perfectly even white teeth and sat down.
“I'm Eleanor Frances Perkins, she said shyly. You can call me Ellen.”
Patty found herself smiling back.
“I'm Patty, Patty Hewes.”
Frank put the bus in gear and drove away with a surprised smile gracing his lips. The bus made its usual stops and the other kids looked wide eyed at the pretty newcomer sat by Patty’s side keeping up a largely one sided conversation. One of the boys kicked Ellen's shiny new satchel down the bus.
“Pick that up Jeff.” Patty barked without raising her eyes or moving an inch.
“Sorry, he stuttered bringing the bag back and dusting it off quickly. “It was an accident.”
Ellen turned to her rescuer with a wide, grateful smile. She reached out a soft warm hand and grasped Patty’s slightly grimy one. Patty was too surprised to let go. Once they arrived at the school the unlikely pair were the last off the bus. Frank watched as Patty stepped off first and turned to help the new girl step off safely, their little hands still clasped together. He smiled to himself, perhaps his little wild cat just needed a smitten kitten to tame her.
The arrival of Ellen seemed to be a catalyst for the events that were to shape the rest of Patty’s life. Firstly her mother became ill, the small lumps under her arm she had felt months ago and ignored were the tell tale signs of the cancer that would claim her within a year. By the time she realised how ill she was it was too late to do anything about it except resign herself to her fate. She almost welcomed it, worn down by the drudgery and hopelessness of her situation, any dreams and aspirations she once had, had been pulverised under the weight of a brute of a husband and the spirit crushing poverty and hardship she endured. Her daughter, who should have provided some companionship and comfort was a virtual stranger, an eerie sprite who looked at her with disappointment and eyes full of accusations she couldn't deny. She had failed her child, failed to provide her with a safe home, a full belly or a joyful heart. Instead she knowingly used her daughter as a shield from her husbands outbursts, as a extra pair of hands with the chores and even, god help her, as a whipping post for her own frustration. She would not fail her now, she knew the child was unnaturally gifted. Patty had a chance of breaking away, of making a life her mother could only dream of. So six months before the cancer claimed her Margaret Hewes contacted her younger brother Pete and begged him to come and protect her daughter, to guide her, to make sure she completed her education and made her escape. Patty watched her mother fade away in front of her, as the weeks turned into months, Maragret took to her bed, her eyes glassy with pain and drugs. She smelt of death, Patty was no stranger to death, she had been raised in farming country where animals were used up until there was nothing left. That was happening to her mother now. Patty continued to go to school, word of her mothers illness spread among the small community and Ellen's house became her safe haven and a second home. Charles and Julia Perkins had taken to Patty as soon as she tentatively stepped over the doorstep holding onto Ellen's hand. They found her to be charming and polite with old world manners and she shared an obvious, touching bond with their own precious girl. A month after Ellen started school Patty began to get off the bus with her and spend an hour at the Perkins’ house before returning home. She told Ellen's mother that she would see her safely home from the bus stop after school and escort her there in the mornings. Julia smiled at the earnestness of Patty’s tone, she saw no harm in the two girls spending time together, they were good for eachother. Ellen's grades had picked up under Patty’s guidance and god knew Patty was going to need a friend in the coming months. The Perkins family took Patty under their wing. She accompanied Ellen and her mother on Saturday trips into town where they were allowed to go to the cinema in the morning while Julia visited the beauty parlour, and then she would take them for a soda or ice cream as a treat. Charles would talk to Patty like an adult. As a doctor he gently explained the course of her mothers illness and the pain that was to come. He would discuss articles in the news, impressed with her expansive knowledge and ability to argue her opinion. He would laugh with them at Lucille on the tv, even dance along with a giddy Ellen when rock and roll bands were on the Ed Sullivan show. When uncle Pete arrived Patty was typically wary. He was a tall, wiry man with a dour expression and taciturn personality. He took his dying sisters wish seriously, he was here to look out for young Patty and make a new life for himself in the process. Pete had seen active service in Korea, once released from the army he found it difficult to adjust and was drifting aimlessly. Now he had a purpose once more, a mission, a promise to keep for his only sibling and he vowed he would do his utmost to uphold that promise. So uncle Pete moved in to the tiny space in the eaves of the Hewes home. Gradually, as Margaret became too ill and in pain to function he took over the household tasks. He was a strong man, he worked tirelessly on the land and with his pride stung Patrick was stirred from his drunken apathy and the two men worked in tandem to redress the neglect the house had fallen in to. Pete sank in what little money he had, new equipment was bought, fences were mended, fields of scrub were cleared and the house was painstakingly repaired. Patty watched developments and divided her time between Ellen's house and her own home. In the evenings she would sit by her mothers bed and read her favourite passages from the bible, the smell of decay strong in her nostrils as she watched the cancer eat her away. The night she died Margaret took her daughters hand and pulled her close.
“I'm sorry Patty, I'm sorry I wasn't the mother you needed, but I loved you from the moment you began to grow inside me. Remember that.”
Her mother lay back exhausted by the effort to force the words out through the pain. Patty sat at her bedside and said nothing, she felt empty and cold. She wished she was older, she wished there was something she could do. When Patty woke and walked into the kitchen the next morning uncle Pete handed her a glass of milk and told her that her mother had died. Patty nodded and asked if was alright for her to go over to the Perkins’ house. She looked scornfully at her father who leant against the doorframe his body heaving with sobs.
“Have some respect you little brat...”
“She's gone, where was your respect when she was still here?”
Her father lurched off the wall towards her but Pete quickly stepped between them and told Patty to go to her room.
“The child has just lost her mother, leave her be. Let her go, she doesn't need to be here when they come to take her away, she doesn't need to see that.”
The two men locked eyes until Patrick looked away, shrugged his shoulders and went outside.
Patty dressed herself and walked the fifteen minute journey to the Perkins’ house in a dream like state. She tapped on the door and Julia opened it as she did every other morning. She took one look at Patty’s tear stained face and gathered her up in her arms. She spent most of the day under a blanket on Julia's couch and allowed herself to be hugged, petted and fussed over. Ellen sat in the floor at her feet and held her hand.
“Can Patty come and live with us momma? She can share my room...”
“It's alright Julia, Patty spoke in a flat resigned voice, I have family, uncle Pete will take care of me.”
“You're always welcome here Patty, there will always be a place for you in this house.”
“I know, thank you.”
Julia drew a compliant Patty onto her lap and held her as she cried and remembered her mothers final words, she cried for something she never knew she had missed.
The following day she returned to school. At her mothers funeral a ten year old Patty stood dry eyed and tight lipped as the small community turned out in force to mourn her. Where had these people been while the life was being sucked out of her mother, first by her weak, drunken bully of a husband, then by the cancer she had faced alone. She turned away from everyone except her uncle and the Perkins family. Ellen held her hand tightly all day. They stood at the graveside while uncle Pete talked quietly with Julia. He asked for her help raising his niece. There were matters pertaining to a young girl he knew he needed a woman's help with. Julia promised the family would do all they could. Life carried on for Patty in a similar routine to before, school, chores, homework and Ellen. The two girls were now inseparable, Ellen had other friends, she was an outgoing and popular girl, Patty felt no threat or jealousy towards them, she was pleased that Ellen fit in and enjoyed school. Patty was secure in the knowledge that with a meeting of eyes or a tilt of the head, Ellen would happily gravitate back to her side. The blond girls day only began when she got her first look at Ellen in the morning. Ellen with her pretty clothes, long dark hair, warm brown eyes and sweet smile was the most precious thing in Patty’s life. As they navigated their way through middle school Patty’s intellectual prowess drew the attention, the principal of the small town provincial school felt he was failing Patty. Uncle Pete was summoned and a full scholarship to a fine private school was offered. This time it was who Patty refused to contemplate it, she would carry on through high school in town. Patty had already decided on a college education that was almost unheard of for women in the small county she called home. Patty was not sure yet where her ability would take her, she had talked it over with Julia and Charles who listened open mouthed as a twelve year old Patty laid out her life plan which naturally to her contained Ellen as a matter of course. She wanted them to choose a college and go together. Charles already knew not to patronise Patty, as he lay in bed with his wife that night he broached the subject that was beginning to worry him.
“Don't you think the girls are almost too close? Patty just mapped out the next ten years of their life. High school, college, she's got it all figured out.”
“You know how single minded Patty is, but they're twelve years old, they haven't hit puberty yet, then boys will come along and change things. They aren't old enough to realise the effect growing up will have on their friendship. For now, they're as close as sisters. Leave her to her dreams Charles, life will butt in soon enough.”
Patty was set on realising her dreams, uncle Pete’s arrival had eased her life at home, he formed an impenetrable barrier between her and her father, and he made sure she had time to study after school. The girl was going places and he was determined to be part of it. Patty would spend happy hours curled up on Ellen's bed regaling her wide eyed friend with tales of their life together through college and then once she secured a high powered job in New York city, what sort of home they would have, what cars they would drive, even the name of their dog.
“I'm not as smart as you Patty, what if you leave me behind?”
“I won't, don't worry about anything, I'm smart enough for both of us.”
“Maybe I could be a teacher, do you think I'm smart enough for that?”
“Of course you are, you'll be a great teacher.”
“I’ll make sure the apartment is kept nice and cook your favourite things. Will we have enough money Patty?”
“Sure, I'll make lots of money, I'll buy you jewellery and all the pretty dresses you need. We will be the best dressed couple in the city.”
“I don't need fancy things, I'm just happy with you.”
Words like that we're music to young Patty’s ears. Ellen would wrap her arms round Patty’s smaller frame and cuddle them together before it was time for Patty to make her way home, the glow inside keeping her warm on the short walk to her home where uncle Pete would be sat out on the newly mended porch waiting for her.
All was happily going to plan for Patty, she watched unconcerned through their young teenaged years how the pimply faced, gangly youths in town would be drawn to Ellen only to be giggled over when they were alone later. Occasionally they would go to school dances or into the diner in town driven by a surly uncle Pete who would chide them to be careful and stick together. They made a pretty pair, Ellen with her traditional, pretty, girl next door looks and Patty with her cool blue eyes and white blond hair. Boys would come over, they would buy them a soda, Ellen would blush shyly when asked to dance but Patty would nod and watch from the sidelines knowing Ellen would come back to her flushed and happy. Patty had little time for the local youths, she rarely danced with them, she didn't like the way boys felt next to her body. They didn't smell right, they didn't fit right, they were too rough in their handling, to eager to pull her close. When one tried to steal a kiss she looked at him with such outrage he dropped his hold on her as if she was on fire. One night Charles brought them home, Patty was staying over as it was a Friday and the girls were going to spend Saturday together. They curled up in Ellen's single bed and whispered in the dark.
“Have you ever kissed a boy?” Patty asked her friend as they faced each other.
“Joe Given kissed my cheek tonight when we were dancing.”
“That doesn't count, have you kissed one on the lips?”
“No, have you?”
“No” patty admitted. “I wouldn't like it.”
“How do you know if you've never done it?”
“I don't have to stick my head in the oven to know I wouldn't like that either.”
Ellen giggled at her side, Patty pulled her in closer, so their noses were almost touching.
“I think I'd like kissing you.”
When Patty spoke the words their lips were almost brushing, Ellen could feel her warm breath against her face.
“How do you know if you've never done it?”
Ellen echoed Patty’s words from before, she put a challenge in them she knew the other girl would not be able to resist. Her heart pounded in the dark room, she went hot all over, she found Patty’s hand at her side and laced their fingers together. It was Ellen who moved her face closer and pressed her lips to Patty’s thin unyielding ones. She drew back.
“Well, did you like it?”
“I don't know, it was too fast, let's try it again.”
Ellen smiled and moved back in, Patty was ready this time, she captured Ellen's fuller lips and angled her face to put some pressure on, she inhaled through her nose, smelling everything that was Ellen, flowers, sweetness, and safety. When she drew away Ellen let all the breath she had been holding out in rush. Her body tingled strangely, she could feel the life flowing between them through their joined hands. She was fourteen years old and had no idea what she was feeling. It was wonderful and scary at the same time, like a couple of winters ago when Patty had persuaded her to slide down the hill on a makeshift wooden sled and they zoomed so fast and out of control they couldn't breathe. They kissed again, slower and more experimentally, taking the time to savour it. Afterwards Patty lay on her back her breathing a little ragged.
“Yes, I like it.” she said.
They giggled like the children they were.
“Is it wrong Patty, kissing another girl like that.”
“It didn't feel wrong to me. I've read about women who live with other women like married couples. No one will care in New York city, we can be together there. I've got everything worked out, we will go away to college, away from here. You're my girl Ellen, you will always be my girl.”
“What about my parents, what about school, your daddy, and uncle Pete, will they hate us?”
Ellen's voice was climbing as realisation set in. She knew little of the world outside their little community, but she knew that kissing Patty like that would cause more outrage and scandal than any of the local gossip of affairs, and unplanned pregnancies had stirred.
“We can't tell anyone, they wouldn't understand, they would separate us. We have to be careful. Do you want the same as me Ellen, do you want to be my girl?”
“I’m scared Patty.”
Ellen snuggled closer in Patty’s arms, she could feel her heart beating hard in her chest, she began to cry, soft silent tears rained down on Patty’s neck.
“Don't cry, everything will be alright.” Patty kissed the top of her head and stroked her hair.
“I am your girl. I've been your girl since that first day on the school bus.” Ellen sniffled.
“Then its settled. Go to sleep now, everything will be alright.”
Three months eased by, the mild spring weather turned into the baking heat of summer. The two girls spent as much time as they could together. There were no excuses for sleep overs so kisses were snatched here and there. In the quiet of Ellen's house while Julia was out on errands and Charles was still at work, in a dusty corner of a storage barn when Patty’s daddy and uncle Pete were well out of range and on long walks through the sparse woodland that surrounded their neighbouring homes where Patty roughly carved their initials into the bark of a tree and they settled under the leafy branches drowsy and dusty from their walk. Their kisses became practiced, a gently dance of lips and tongues. That day they kissed until they were breathless and Patty laughed saying her vision was starting to blur. They lay together and dozed a while before they made their way back to Ellen's house. To her surprise Ellen's parents were sat out on the porch waiting for her, she felt Patty stiffen beside her, wondering if somehow they had got careless and been seen. Ellen scanned their faces, there was no trace of anger, her father looked worried, his face drawn and anxious, her mother looked sad, as if she had been crying.
“What's wrong, you knew I was with Patty, we're not late home, it's only just six.” Ellen babbled the words out, knowing she sounded guilty but unable to help herself.
“We have some news, we've been waiting for you to come home to tell you sweetheart.”
Julia looked pointedly at Patty whose heart had begun to thunder in her chest, something awful was coming, she just knew it.
“I need to go home, I said I'd be back for dinner. I'll see you for school in the morning.”
“Bye Patty, I'll be ready at eight.”
It was still uncomfortably warm, Ellen waited for someone to say something, the air seemed to hum, the tension mixing with the sounds of nature. Gently Charles told his daughter that her grandmother had died, he was travelling to Chicago the next day to see to his mothers funeral arrangements and settle her affairs. Ellen was upset but not distraught with the news. She barely knew her grandmother, her father had moved to New York to study in his early twenties, he met Julia while at med school and they married once he graduated. He gained an internship in a Brooklyn hospital but had always wanted to practice as a family Doctor. Once they had saved enough money he was able to buy into the small community practice in town. They were happy with the move, Julia missed the vibrancy of the city, the shopping and convenience but once they settled she conceded the slower pace and relative safety of the small, mainly agricultural outback was a better place to raise their child. As a family they had made an annual seven hundred mile journey to visit around Christmas time, occasionally Charles visited alone. Ellen had a sense of foreboding about what was to come. Her father carried on in the same matter of fact tone. As the only child he would inherit his mothers estate in its entirety. A large house, a considerable amount of money, in short, Charles wanted to take his family home. He wanted to move back to Chicago and use his mothers money to set himself up in practice. It was the best thing for all of them he said, a great opportunity, it was what he had always dreamed of, returning to his childhood home and being a family doctor in the community he was raised in. Ellen listened with an increasing sense of dread and a sick feeling in her stomach. She looked at her mother and saw a reluctant acceptance of their fate. They had no control over this, no opinion other than perhaps to decide the furnishings of the family home. Suddenly Ellen understood Patty and her frustrations with more clarity than she had ever done. This was Patty’s greatest fear, that everyone around them had the power to make decisions for them, about them, with no consultation process that mattered. Ellen appealed half heartedly to her mother. Her mother who she knew loved Patty as another child, she had watched her grow, revelled in her achievements, provided comfort in her mothers death, promised her there would always be a home for her with them.
“What about Patty momma, she's my best friend, she's part of our family, I don't want to go, I don't want to leave her.”
Julia shook her head softly, dislodging the tears that welled in her eyes. She had no option but to support her husband, no income, no way of providing for her daughter, she was as helpless as Ellen was. Charles had made up his mind, he had dismissed all her arguments until she had nothing left to fight with. They were going to Chicago and there was nothing she could do except make the best of it.
“She can visit Ellen, in a few years you can go to college together like you always planned to.”
“You promised her a home momma, I'll never see her again, I'll....”
“Enough Ellen”, her father cut in harshly, “Don't be so dramatic, you're a child, there will be other friends. Chicago is a big city, it has great schools, you will have lots of friends.”
Ellen gave her mother one last look before she stepped off the porch and took off towards the Hewes home, her eyes blinded by tears.
“Let her go Charles, let her go.” Julia wearily went inside, the screen door swinging between them.
By the time she got to Patty’s Ellen could hardly breath through the combination of running and crying. Her hair was in disarray, her shoes scuffed where she stumbled, her face was swollen and awash with tears. Patty sat on a fence rail in the last of the evening light, the sky burned orange and purple. She was silhouetted against the eerie empty backdrop of fields and scrub. Her shoulders were hunched, her head hung down. Ellen threw herself into Patty’s arms and sobbed out the changes to come, Patty was rigid, her face closed and her eyes like chips of flint.
“I thought it was something like that, you can't blame your momma, she has to do what's right for you.”
“You want me to go..” Ellen cried in disbelief.
“Of course not, we don't have a choice Ellen, Patty’s words were laced with bitterness. When are you leaving?”
“I don't know, can't you do something? I thought we'd always be together, you promised, you said I was your girl.”
“I keep my promises, you are mine. All we can do is wait until we're old enough. College is not that far away, nothing will change unless you forget about me once you get to Chicago.”
“How can you say nothing will change, I won't see you every day, I won't be able to hold your hand or kiss you and make sure your happy.”
“I don't have to see you every day to know that I love you. I can wait for you, I'll wait as long as I have to, then I'll come for you and no one will be able to stop us.”
“How do you know? How do you know there won't be some other girl to take my place?”
Patty drew back then and smiled, the smile she only had for Ellen.
“Because you're the only one. In this whole world full of people, you're the only one I will ever truly love.”
Then Patty leaned forward and kissed her full on the mouth, she no longer cared if she was in view of her father or her uncle Pete or the whole damn town. It didn't matter anymore.
They had three more months, Ellen fretted and cried but Patty was stoic and strong. It was a hitch in her plan, not the end of it. Yes she would miss Ellen desperately but it wasn't forever, it wasn't the end. Julia found it hard to look Patty in the eye, she felt she had let her down and reneged on her promise to be there if she needed her. She seemed so affected Patty had to speak up, Ellen was busy with homework so Patty went down to the kitchen with the excuse of getting them lemonade.
“Julia, don't feel bad, I know this isn't your choice. You've been so good to me, I felt welcome here, like I fit somewhere. I won't forget it, I won't forget you. It was like having the momma I always wanted.”
Julia cried and pulled Patty close, the pale, serious little girl whose eyes could cut right through you had captured her heart as soon as she crossed the doorstep holding on to Ellen's hand.
“Oh Patty, I would have been so proud to be your mother, she loved you, remember that. Ellen loves you and so do I. You're a special girl Patty Hewes, I'm so sorry I won't get to see what a special woman you turn out to be.”
“You will get to see, I won't forget those who helped me, I don't blame you for going away. I won't ever stop being Ellen's friend, I won't forget everything you've done for me.”
Patty released herself from Julia's embrace and slipped back upstairs to Ellen and their homework.
In the end there was no grand farewell, no last embrace with tears and more vows. Patty watched from a distance as little by little the house was emptied, Ellen was kept busy with the arrangements and Patty made a conscious decision to stay out of the way. They carried on at school as if nothing was changing because Patty refused to believe anything was different and she persuaded Ellen to adopt the same view. They would write, on Sundays once she had Ellen’s number, Patty would use the telephone from the store in town and they could talk. Patty was fifteen, her grades were impeccable. Her teachers and the principal were all on board to assist their remarkable student in her quest for a college education and a career. They had long discussions about suitable schools which offered full scholarships due to her lack of means. Patty was driven by the hardship she had endured. She was interested in social reform and justice. The principal encouraged her to look into law programmes once she had her college degree. It was exciting and overwhelming but Patty was determined. With her teachers help she began to plan and map out her future. She could get work once she enrolled and save enough until Ellen could join her. They would rent a small apartment until she got her law degree and started her career. Patty spent night after night working it out, looking for flaws and ironing them out. She read about the large law firms in the city, noting their history, their hierarchy and if they had any female employees. She was under no illusions, it would be a long hard road. Female attorneys were almost unheard of in the early sixties but there were women out there blazing the trail, Patty was determined to join them.
Ellen left with her mother on the train on a Saturday morning in October, the house lay shuttered and empty, the furniture gone ahead the day before, Charles had been in Chicago for a month already. Patty didn't go to the station, she said her goodbyes the night before, she didn't cry but held Ellen patiently while she did, they promised to write, Patty said once a week was enough, Ellen had to concentrate on her studies to be able to join her in college. Julia sat quietly and listened to her two girls make their plans. Patty sounded so certain, so grown up, her heart ached for the childhood the girl had missed out on.
“I'll look out for you Patty, you're going to change the world some day.”
Patty gave her one of her rare, true smiles.
“I'll have you to thank for that.”
“I'll see you soon Ellen, I promise, uncle Pete says I can visit at Christmas.”
“I'll be waiting. I'll write as soon as I get there...”
“See you soon.”
Patty left then, she slipped out of the bare house like a ghost. She refused to cry, she wasn't a child, it wasn't goodbye.
The letters duly arrived and Ellen sounded bereft, pages and pages of longing and missing that made Patty’s eyes mist and her heart ache. Ellen hated her new school, the other kids had their own circle of friends, they either made fun of her country ways or ignored her. Her momma was miserable, her daddy was at work all the time, the house was cold and draughty. The litany went on. Patty tried to cheer her up, she wrote and told her to remember all the times they spent together and all the plans they made. She told her she went to their tree and sat on the cold ground pretending Ellen was with her to keep her warm. She told her she missed her smile, her scent and her kisses. She signed them from your girl Patty and reminded her that every week that went by they were another week closer to being together.
On the first of December uncle Pete met Patty at the school gates, he held his hat in his hands. He told Patty Ellen had been hit by a car outside her new school. After years in the country she was unused to the pace of the city, she was distracted, running from a group of girls that had been teasing her, she ran straight into the path of an oncoming car and though she made it to the hospital she died a short time later. Julia had called the town store and they passed the story on. Julia asked Pete to bring Patty to Chicago for the funeral, she said it was important and he had to bring her, to drag her there if necessary. Julia knew Patty, she knew she would never accept this, she refused to say goodbye when they left, she had to say it now. Patty listened, she heard the words all jumbled together in uncle Pete’s low steady voice, she didn't remember anything else until she woke up in her own bed two hours later. Uncle Pete sat at the side of her and took her delicate hand in his work worn one.
“I know it's hard, you have to be strong and carry on. You're little girl is gone Patty, it's time to grow up and stop dreaming.”
Pete was a simple man, he fought a war and saw friends die in a foreign land he had never heard of. People died everyday, the world kept turning, he would make sure Patty kept going, he had promised his sister and like Patty, he didn't break his promises.
Julia was right, he virtually had to carry Patty onto the train for the journey. He wore the only suit he owned and the pair sat like statues the whole way, neither slept. Pete watched Patty like a hawk, she had barely slept or eaten since hearing the news. She was disappearing into herself. Even her daddy’s sneering words hadn't roused her. Patty’s father was a virtual stranger around the house this past year, rumour had it he had taken up with a woman in town. She didn't care, she was happier without his malevolent presence around. He had never returned to his drinking ways but he had no time for Patty, her accusing stare unnerved him, she would never forgive or forget the beatings he handed out, they barely spoke. It was tough for uncle Pete though, doing the work of two men on the land he would never have a claim on, he did it for Patty, she knew it as well as he did.
Charles Perkins met them at the station in Chicago, he shook hands with uncle Pete and greeted Patty sadly, he seemed to have aged ten years with grief. Patty barely glanced his way, he was already dead to her. Julia was a different story, for the first time Patty seemed to snap out of her stupor and respond in an appropriate manner. She allowed herself to be hugged, she cried, she sat in the large cold sitting room holding Julia's hand and they talked like equals while Charles and Pete sat in the kitchen dulling his pain with whiskey.
“Did you see her in the hospital before....” Patty asked in a pained whisper.
“Yes, we saw her, she looked perfect, she didn't have a single mark on her. She woke up just once, all she talked about was you. She said she always thought it would be you to leave her behind. She said you was to look out for her. She wasn’t making much sense. I can't believe she's gone, I keep thinking any minute now she's going to walk in here complaining about everything and none of its real, it's all some awful nightmare and I can't wake up. Her daddy can't look me in the eye, he blames himself, and god help me Patty, so do I. I blame him for bringing us out here and I know it's written all over my face.”
“I can't make it better. For the first time ever, I don't know what to do.”
Patty’s knuckles turned white with the grip of Julia's hand.
“I saw your letters Patty. No, don't turn away from me. There is no shame here. I don't care, do you hear me? I. Don't. Care. I think I always knew how you felt about each other and I'm glad, as young as she was, I'm glad she knew what it was like to love somebody, and I'm proud it was you. I'm proud.”
Julia took Patty up to a spare, spartan room in the rambling old house. She held her tightly one last time.
“We will get through tomorrow together. I'm glad you're here, even if it's the last time I ever see you. I understand, I'll always think the best of you Patty.”
“I don't know what to do.”
Patty quietly whispered her words from earlier, for the only time in her life, she had no plan, her dreams snatched away, her future invisible. Julia had already turned away.
Patty woke in the night, she wandered the upstairs landing until she found Ellen's bedroom, she crept inside and picked up a pillow, she hugged it to her face and inhaled the scent of her childhood friend, she felt calmer and comforted. Ellen had not left her by choice, she had not abandoned her, she loved her, she would always love her now. The next day passed, Patty learned that early, no matter how bad a day could be, it would pass. She watched as Charles and Julia Perkins stood side by side yet miles apart by the graveside. She watched as the casket got lowered into the ground and the stark simplicity brought home the finality of it. Ellen was gone, there would be no fancy apartment, no dogs, no cars, no happy ever after in the big city. At the end of the day the sun went down as it always did. Patty and her uncle Pete began the long, silent, journey home. The long days of winter carried on, so did Patty. She went to school, she cut a solitary figure. She completed her work robotically, her grades slipped, she felt she had no purpose, no plan, the school days slipped by unvarying. She made the appropriate responses when asked questions by her teachers, but the loose circle of friends she had made through Ellen drifted away again. Only uncle Pete was constant, his largely silent, solid presence was the rock she could cling to. On Sunday's when she used to call Ellen, she allowed herself fifteen minutes to talk to her in her mind. She would tell her she missed her, that she felt hopeless and aimless, she asked for help, she asked for a sign she wasn't alone. None came.
Patty slid into depression, Pete had no idea how to help. Once she reached sixteen, Patty was as tall as she was going to get. Her slight figure filled out, she had a small waist, small breasts, and shapely legs. She had her long hair cut into a shorter, neat, style. She surprised everyone when she suddenly took up with a young man she met in the bookstore in town. No one knew where he had drifted in from, he was twenty two with a goatee beard, loose clothes and dirty blond hair longer than hers. It was 1966, America was in the throes of rapid social change that was filtering slowly down from the cities to the outlying areas. Tipper had wandered into town after dropping out of school, he brought tales of student protests, rallies and dope filled dreams of free love and equality. Something about him made Patty smile, his dreams were as hopeless as hers. It was impossible to change things from the bottom, you had to claw your way to the top, that was where the power was. He took odd jobs around town and lived in one room of a crumbling long abandoned house. Patty began to spend most of her free time there, ignoring Pete’s objections and the disapproval of the narrow minded towns folk. There were slow kisses and lingering embraces. He smelt stale and unwashed, but he was calm, unthreatening and easygoing. Losing her virginity to him seemed to be a natural progression. The experience was short, uncomfortable and disappointing. Patty felt nothing beyond the initial pain of penetration, he was awkward and inexperienced, he pushed into her without care or consideration. A few thrusts later he collapsed onto her before rolling away and drifting off to sleep. A lone tear trickled down Patty’s face, she shifted away from the damp, dirty mattress and walked the miles home in the early hours slipping into the house straight into uncle Pete’s unwavering stare. He took one look at his niece and noticed everything, the smudged make up, the creased and hastily buttoned clothes, the unmistakable scent that was washing off her. For the first time ever her blue eyed gaze slid away from his. He did not need to say anything, Patty closed her bedroom door quietly. She never saw Tipper again, she purposely avoided town, he didn't come looking for her, after a while he packed his battered duffel and drifted off again.
Realising she was pregnant hit Patty with the force of a hurricane, she had unwittingly drifted straight into the life she had been fighting to escape since she was five years old, the trap had closed over her head before she even realised it was there. For the first time in her life she was in a state of panic, at least it shook her from the depressive stupor that had invaded her being for the last twelve months. She refused to be stuck in this mess, the end of high school was looming, she had work to catch up on, college applications to pour over. She cursed her stupidity and carelessness, she raged hopelessly against her body and the child that was growing inside it. She held no love for it, no hopes or dreams. She wanted it gone, she swore to herself she would not slip again if she was given another chance. She had no idea what she would do if she was saddled with a child at barely seventeen. She was summoned to the principals office when her condition became too apparent to hide anymore. Patty never raised her eyes from the carpet as the principal who had held this girl up as a shining example of what could be achieved, expressed his horror and disappointment in no uncertain terms. Patty was screaming inside, her face burned and she swallowed tears that had served her no use in the past few months. She ignored the knowing looks from the community as she walked by, her haughty gaze directed straight ahead. People gossiped and stared, she ignored them all and wracked her brain for a way out. Then one day after a long dusty walk in searing heat she saw the glimmer of one. She stumbled to the ground in pain once she arrived back home, her underwear and thighs coated in thick red blood, she still had six weeks to go. Uncle Pete summoned the doctor, he had barely said a word about her pregnancy and thankfully her father had not been seen around town for months. The doctor diagnosed her cervix was weak, the weight of her unborn child was too much for her young body. He advised complete bed rest until she was due to give birth. Patty and uncle Pete exchanged looks, two days later he watched his niece set off from the house in the searing heat of an August day. She walked for miles, she walked through crippling pain welcoming it, urging it on. She reached a horse farm she used to visit with Ellen when they were children. A old farm hand did his best to hang onto his panic and fear as Patty gave birth to a perfect, tiny baby girl. Her eyes remained closed, she never took a breath. He wrapped the child up and handed her lifeless body to Patty. She cried desperate tears of relief over her daughters dainty features on the blood spattered floor. Afterwards Patty spent three days in the hospital before emerging to bury her child next to her mother. She named the child Julia, only Patty, her uncle and the minister were present. A week after that Patty Hewes returned to school, she had been handed a second chance and there would be no more mistakes. She turned to work with renewed purpose and clear goals. She had neglected her studies since Ellen died and look where that had landed her. Work would once again be her saviour, her ticket out. With the support of her teachers Patty studied with an intensity that was frightening. She completed her high school education and received her certificate. Her principal helped her fill out detailed applications to the top three private colleges in New York. He did not believe lack of means should be a barrier to a first class education. There were full scholarships available and he was determined his remarkable student would be accepted. Patty had the sharpest mind and the most towering capability for learning he had ever encountered. While she waited she studied in preparation, applying to schools of that calibre would mean she would no longer be the big fish in the small pond that was home. She would be competing with the finest brains of the richest families and she had to be ready for that. Patty returned to the habits of her early years. She planned. She covered every eventuality and scenario. Patty had worked odd jobs around town since her teens and had saved religiously. She would need clothes, books and study materials. She worked out a budget she would have to adhere to. Once she passed the rigorous entry requirements and impressed the faculty at a face to face interview Patty was accepted at her first choice of college. She was on her way. The young woman said few farewells. The principal, one or two teachers who had supported her, and she sought out Frank O’Neal, long since retired from driving the school bus. Frank could easily be found sat every afternoon sipping coffee in the same busy diner Julia Perkins used to take the girls in to for a Saturday treat.
“Hello Frank, I'm leaving for college next week, I just wanted to stop by and say thank you. I always knew you were in my corner.”
“Well if it isn't little Patty Hewes, look at you, all grown up and ready for the big city. I knew on that first day you were going places. I'm sorry about your little lady, you two were as cute as buttons.”
Patty rolled her eyes but smiled at him kindly.
“Thank you Frank, nobody talks about Ellen anymore”, she whispered. “Goodbye now.”
“Bye Patty, it was a pleasure.”
Frank watched her stride off into the sunshine, her determined gait, tilt of her head and proud posture exactly as it was when she was just six years old. He smiled, he had a feeling he would never set eyes on the girl again, but he was sure he hadn't heard the last of her. The Sunday she left for college Uncle Pete drove her to the station, she wanted to travel alone, she wanted to arrive alone, a mysterious presence who blew in from nowhere. Patty Hewes was always able to look out for herself.