“You remember the way, sweetheart?” Debra’s mother said. She was leaning against a battered yellow station wagon with old-fashioned wood paneling adorning its sides. Clutching a child’s lunchbox and schoolbag, she stood before her daughter, fresh and crisp in her starched navy blue uniform, her habitually disobedient hair stuffed into a bun at the back of her head. Her ugly black work shoes tap-danced nervously over the asphalt and her cheeks were flush with excitement. It was a big day for both of them.
Debra smiled. Her sneakers were engaged in a jittery tap-dance of their own. They didn’t know how determined she was not to let on she was scared.
“Right on Orange, left on Revere,” she recited. It was a song she knew by heart. Her mother had begun teaching it to her the day the factory called to tell her they were finally hiring again.
“That’s my good girl,” her mother beamed. She handed Debra her things. “Peanut butter and jelly again,” she apologized. “Next week, when I get paid…”
“It’s fine, Mom,” Debra interrupted. “I don’t mind.”
Peanut butter sandwiches were okay. But she’d had one every day since Dad had gone away.
Debra’s mother knelt and zipped up Debra’s jacket, running her hands along the too-short sleeves. “We’ll get you a new winter jacket, too,” she promised.
“It’s all right,” Debra answered quickly, tugging the sleeves down over her wrists. “Aren’t you going to be late?”
“I got permission to be late today so I could see you off. Tomorrow you’ll be on your own.”
Debra swallowed the painful lump in her throat and forced a cheerful nod.
Her mother’s eyes were very bright. “You will be careful, won’t you, dear?”
“Don’t worry,” Debra said. “I walk to my friend’s house by myself, right?”
“But that’s just down the block! This has turns, and a traffic light…”
She broke off suddenly and reeled Debra into her arms. The lump rose again in Debra’s throat and she was afraid she might cry. “I’d better go,” she said, wiggling her way out of the embrace.
Her mother sighed and clambered to her feet, using the wagon’s bumper for support. “You’re right,” she said, straightening her collar. “Just remember what I told you, okay? Goodbye, Debra.”
Debra glanced down the long street that stretched out before her, dim with the early-morning fog. It was six blocks until the first turn. She couldn’t even see it from here.
“Bye, Mom,” she croaked. It seemed to stick in her throat.
She stepped backwards as her mother climbed into the car. Its horn honked playfully.
“Bye to you, too, wagon!”
Debra waved, then turned away and didn’t look back.
“Right on Orange, left on Revere,” she repeated. Her feet were leaden but she forced them along the sidewalk, kicking away the crisp dead leaves that snapped at her ankles like untrained puppies. Her mom would be upset if she missed the bell.
At last she reached the end of her street. She held her breath as she turned right. A car engine revved somewhere behind her, and she jumped even though she wasn’t crossing yet. She felt dizzy. Her mother’s advice was swimming through her head like sums on a math test. What if she got lost? What if she got hit? What if a stranger spoke to her?
It was another block to the light, and when she reached it she stopped dead, waiting cautiously for the green, both feet planted firmly on the sidewalk, not even touching the curb. When her turn came she looked both ways, repeating and exaggerating the motion, and through the fog she thought she caught a glimpse of a yellow station wagon on the side of the road behind her.
She rigidly faced forward, pretending not to notice. The road ahead was cleaner, brighter; the sun was peeking through the clouds on the horizon. Her feet grew lighter, too, as she crossed, shifting the schoolbag in her left hand and gripping the lunchbox tightly in her right, swinging both in steady rhythm as she walked. Halfway down the block she knelt and fiddled with her shoelaces. Peeking over her shoulder as she bent forward, she spotted it again, the yellow wagon, which had rounded the corner after her and was still following at a respectful distance.
There was a skip in her step as she pressed on, on towards the schoolyard, now only a few blocks away. She could hear the cries of the kids on the playground, see the sash of the crossing-guard directing traffic, smell the exhaust of the buses that brought the children who lived on the far side of town. And suddenly she was on the last block and she was running, running towards the final intersection, the one guarded by the gentle white-haired man with the threatening crimson sign, and then she had flown across it and was vanishing into the thick crowd of students and teachers. She turned, breathless, and caught the full view of it at last: a yellow station wagon trimmed with brown wooden panels, its driver dressed in navy blue.
It was four o’clock when Debra’s mother returned home, looking tired but pleased, her hair and clothes no longer so tidy. She smiled when she found Debra sitting quietly at the kitchen table, poring over her sums, also looking tired but pleased.
“How was your day, sweetheart?” she inquired cheerfully, enfolding her daughter in a grateful hug. “Were you scared walking to school by yourself?”
“Nope,” Debra replied without hesitation.
“Did you remember to look both ways and cross with the light?”
“Yes, Mom,” she said, smiling, glad her mother already knew the answer to that question.
“You’ll be all right walking, then, when I take the car to work tomorrow?”
“Of course!” Debra answered. She went over to the window and looked appreciatively at it, the familiar yellow station wagon with the wood paneling, parked, once again, comfortably in front of their house.
Lori Schafer is a part-time tax practitioner and part-time writer residing in Northern California. Her short stories, flash fiction, and essays have appeared in numerous print and online publications, and the manuscript of her first novel, My Life with Michael: A Story of Sex and Beer for the Middle-Aged, is currently under review by an Australian publisher. Her second novel, an erotic romantic comedy entitled Just the Three of Us, is out on query. You can find more of her work on her blog at lorilschafer.blogspot.com.