Kathleen J. Stowe
As the television reporter walked away toward the van, a squirrel barked, then another one chittered. I looked up into the branches of the old maple tree to find the angry animals. The flutter of a curtain in a second floor window caught my eye. For just a second, I saw Effie Murkowsky’s face, but there was something more than that—I shuddered as I imagined a veil of disappointment fall over her eyes.
I turned away and looked toward the television van, wondering how I could ever convince them not to play the video they’d just taped. But the van accelerated around the corner, and I was alone.
I ran all the way home.
Winded, I staggered onto the porch, leaned over and caught my breath, pushed through the door, and stumbled up the steep flight of stairs to my bedroom. I would never be able to face my only real friend again. Effie, how could I have been so stupid?
The week before, Effie had waved at me from her locker. She whispered, “Can you come to my house after school?” Her eyes begged me. “Heather, please . . .”
I nodded and scurried away to join up with Sara and Jennifer sashaying down the hall to gym class. Jennifer glanced back over her shoulder at Effie and frowned. “Is she still your friend?”
Since I’d started attending middle school, I’d struggled to balance my wanting to be part of the popular crowd against the fact that Effie had been my best friend since I was three years old. I tried to pinpoint the moment when Effie became a liability. Was it all the weight she gained over the last summer? Or the fact that she didn’t care how nerdy the clothes she wore were—something her mother might have worn years before? Or that she never knew the right words to say when boys were around? Nothing she did was cool at all.
“Oh, Heather, thank you for coming.” She sniffled and blew her nose. Her eyes were swollen—she’d been crying for a while.
Effie told me everything. Her dad had embezzled money—whatever that meant. I knew it was bad. Effie’s mother told the children they were ruined. “We won’t be able to hold our heads up in the neighborhood.”
“You won’t hate us all, Heather, will you?”
“You’ll always be my friend, won’t you?”
Effie stared into my eyes. “Are you sure?’
“True blue. Forever.”
So when Sara and Jennifer showed up at my front door and pointed down the street toward Effie’s house and the police cars and television vans, I hesitated. Sara said, “Look—Channel 3. They’re interviewing people who know Effie’s family. We could be on television.”
Trailing after Sara and Jennifer up the street toward Effie’s house, I thought of only one thing: I could be on television.
We were there in minutes, mixing with the crowd.
“What’s going on?”
“They’re here to arrest Ralph Murkowsky.”
Sara and Jennifer pushed me toward a pencil-thin woman wearing way too much makeup with her black hair pulled straight back and lacquered into place. It was Alicia Parker—from the evening news. Jennifer called out over the hubbub, “Ms. Parker, we knew the family.”
The newswoman’s head swiveled toward Jennifer’s voice and she waved at a cameraman as she pushed through the crowd. She looked us all over and then stared straight at me. “What’s your name?”
“Heather,” I whispered.
“You need to speak up. Someone said you know the Murkowsky family.”
I froze. Alicia Parker moved the microphone toward me.
Effie had called two days before to say that she thought her father might be arrested by the end of the week. She sobbed. “I’ll understand if you think my family is too weird to be around.”
“No.” It was all I could say.
On the other end of the line, Effie waited—maybe twenty seconds—for me to say more. Then she sighed. “Thanks for being such a good friend.”
Alicia moved the microphone closer as she stooped down to my level. “Heather? Can you talk to me?” My mouth was dry, my tongue sticky. Any words I could think of were a large knot permanently lodged in my throat. “I’ve only got a few minutes. This is your last chance to be on television.” Alicia’s voice was low and enticing.
Sara whispered in my ear. “Your last chance.” Jennifer squeezed my hand and smiled broadly. I felt like a reluctant bride being encouraged to take that first step down the aisle into the rest of her life. I nodded, willing myself not to think of the day Effie picked me up off the asphalt after I crashed my bicycle. Of the day she ran to get my mother when I tumbled into the ditch while hunting tadpoles. Of the day she stood by me when I confessed I cheated on a history exam. Of the afternoon she sat in the bathroom with me for five hours while my first period started. I remembered all the promises I’d made. And then I forced myself to forget them. It was the only way.
“Heather, how well did you know the Murkowskies?”
“I’m—” I swallowed the vile taste in my mouth. “I used to be Effie’s best friend.”
“She’s their oldest daughter.”
“How long have you known her?”
“Since I was three.”
Alicia leaned down closer. “How would you describe Effie and her family?”
I heard Effie’s sad voice. If you think my family is too weird . . .
Sara elbowed me, I jumped forward and my teeth hit the microphone. An angry hiss echoed through the crowd. Alicia said, “Shit.” The cameraman frowned.
I spoke into the microphone. “They’re all just too weird.” My voice sounded like the whine of annoying cartoon character.
Alicia Parker smiled. “That’d be a wrap.”
The squirrels above started chittering and barking.
KATHLEEN J. STOWE began her professional career as a registered nurse. For the last twenty years, she has been an international flight attendant, though during that time she has also pursued her creative writing goals. Kathy has had short stories published in Virginia Adversaria, Mslexia, and FUTURES.
Most recently, her short story “Monsieur Lapin” was published in the Spring 2007 issue of Rosebud. She has also published other short stories and poems at various webzines. Kathy lives in Norfolk, Virginia, with her husband and two cats.
“I have always been fascinated (and horrified) by watching people do almost anything for a chance to be on television. That combined with my interest in the concept of betrayal led me to write this short story. My first draft came in at over 3000 words. Radical editing resulted in this, much improved, version.”