No one seemed to notice her there, alone. Concentrating on her hands folded in her lap, she was oblivious to the boisterous commotion around her. Fingering the ribbons in my hair, I glanced around at the other children – running, swinging, playing marbles and hopscotch-wondering why she wasn’t playing with them. I jumped out of the swing and quickly walked toward her, dodging balls and bodies as I went.
“Hello, my name’s Abbigail. What’s yours?” I said, staring at the top of her head, noticing that her hair was the same shade of brown as my favorite teddy bear’s.
“Charlotte,” she whispered.
“What’s that in your lap?” I asked, sitting down beside her.
“My locket, it’s broken and I can’t fix it.”
“Can I try?”
Turning she looked at me with tear-filled eyes, clutching the locket tighter in her small hands. Slowly she opened her hand, reluctantly dropping the locket into mine. A faint smile quivered at the corners of her mouth.
“My sister’s picture is in there.” Tears slid down her cheeks as she stared back at her hands. “She’s dead.”
Concentrating deeply, I fumbled with the locket. Charlotte continued staring at her hands as the tears subsided.
“There, got it.” I smiled, holding it up for her to see. Her eyes danced as she looked at the tiny heart swinging from its gold chain.
“Thank you,” she beamed, taking the locket and quickly fastening the chain around her neck.
“You’re welcome. Do you want to come to my house after school?” I asked.
“Yes, I would love to, if momma says it’s alright.”
Our friendship blossomed through the school year. Discovering we lived only a few blocks from each other, we spent as much time together as we could. Charlotte never wanted to go to her house so we always played at mine.
“Your house is nicer and there’s so much more to do here,” she would say.
We had a great time at my house, having tea parties, talking about other girls at school, playing dress-up, and telling secrets.
“I wish I had blonde hair like yours,” Charlotte said one day while braiding my hair.
“Why? I love the color of your hair, it’s beautiful.”
“It’s onlyÃ¢Â?Â¦” she began, glancing wistfully at the mirror.
Reaching up she gently opened the tiny heart still hanging from her neck.
“My sister had blonde hair,” she said, showing me the picture of her sister. “I think if I had the same color hair as Myra’s, maybe my dad would love me more.”
“I’m sure he loves you no matter what color your hair is,” I said, staring at the picture. “What happened to your sister?”
“Myra and her friends were playing jacks in front of our house and the ball bounced into the street. When she ran out to get it she was hit by a car.
Dad stayed in the hospital with her for two weeks, until she died. He wouldn’t let momma see her, he said it was her fault and he would never forgive her for not watching close enough. He still blames her for Myra dying.” Charlotte snapped the locket closed, looking suddenly alarmed.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“Almost four-thirty. Why?”
She scurried around the room, picking up her things.
“Momma said I had to be back by four o’clock. Dad is coming home at four-thirty today and I have to be there before he is.”
“Well, you’re already late,” I said, grabbing the bag with her dolls inside, “Just go down stairs and call your mom. Tell her we lost track of time and you’ll be home in a few minutes.”
“You don’t understand,” she choked. “Momma said to be home by four and she doesn’t abide excuses. Oh God, I hope my dad isn’t home yet!” With shaking hands she reached to take the bag from me.
“Well, call me later.”
“I will if I can,” she promised, dashing out of the bedroom and down the stairs.
Charlotte wasn’t in school for the next two days. Friday afternoon I went to see her.
I knocked on the door. After waiting for several minutes, I sat down on the steps, deciding no one was home. I glanced back at the house as I stood up, preparing to walk down the steps. The door opened and a woman, with the same honey-brown hair as Charlotte’s, stood in the entrance.
“Who are you?” she asked, glancing up and down the quiet street.
“I’m Abbigail. I came to see Charlotte, she hasn’t been in school lately and I wanted to make sure she’s okay,” I answered, walking back up the steps.
“You can’t see her. She’s sick and right now she’s in bed sleeping.”
“Are you her mother?” I asked.
The woman nodded. Her hair was a mess and she had bruises on her arms and a cut across her left cheek.
“Will she be well enough to come back to school soon?” I asked, trying not to stare at her bruises.
“She won’t be in school for a while. I’ll tell her you came by though,” she replied, closing the door before I could say anything else.
I stared at the door for a moment, a growing knot in my stomach telling me there was something wrong. I crossed the lawn in search of a window that might be Charlotte’s.
I climbed through the rose bushes into the back yard, a cramped space, littered with beer cans, and an assortment of empty liquor bottles.
Looking at the house, I saw a window with cheery yellow curtains. I knew this had to be Charlotte’s room. Yellow was her favorite color.
“Yellow is the color of happiness,” she had explained to me while tying yellow ribbons in my hair.
Placing a block of wood under the window, I climbed onto it so I could see inside, poking my head up just as the bedroom door opened and Charlotte’s mother stormed in. I crouched beneath the closed window, hearing every word she screamed.
“That friend of yours was just here! What have I told you about inviting people over? If your father finds out about this you’ll wish you were never born, you hear me?”
“But, but mommaÃ¢Â?Â¦” I could hear Charlotte begin to cry. “But momma, I didn’t tell her to come overÃ¢Â?Â¦”
“You just better pray he doesn’t find out, for both our sakes! Damn it girl, don’t you ever learn? Just do exactly what he tells you and follow his rules – exactly – without question, but no, you can’t seem to do that and look what it gets us! I don’t know when you’ll be healed enough to go back to school – look at your face, and your back, you can’t even sit up. It’s your own fault, I told you to be in the house by four o’clock!”
“I’m sorry momma, I’m so sorry.” Charlotte’s sobbing seemed to soften her mother.
“Oh sweetheart, I know. Someday we’ll get out of here, I promise.” Brushing the tears from my eyes, I crawled to the corner of the house, diving back through the rose bushes and into the front yard.
“What the hell are you doing in our yard?” a man yelled, standing in the driveway next to his car. I dashed across the yard, up the street and didn’t stop running until I was home.
Awake in my bed that night I wrestled with telling someone my terrible secret. I kept hearing Charlotte’s sobbing and her mother’s words replaying in my mind. If her father could do those horrible things to her for getting home late, I shuddered to think of what he might do if someone knew. My heart hammered in my chest as I recalled the fury on his face when he saw me climbing out of the rosebushes. Someone should know what I had heard, but I was terrified of causing her more pain. I knew I had to talk to Charlotte the next time we saw each other. Maybe I could convince her to tell a school counselor, they would protect her. I finally found sleep as the sun cast its faint yellow light on my bedroom wall.
I never had that talk with Charlotte, or ever saw her again, though I visit her often. Kneeling on the warm grass, I wipe dirt off her headstone, gently placing yellow daffodils there. Charlotte is safe now, peacefully resting between her sister and mother.
I still struggle to swallow the lump that rises in my throat, remembering that night, and the horrible weeks that followed. Ten long years have passed and I continue tormenting myself, knowing I should have told someone. Would she be alive now? What would her life have been like, if I had never gone to her bedroom window?
I gaze wistfully at the yellow flowers on her grave, knowing I will question myself until the day I too am laid to rest.