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The Teacup Dress
By Rachel Geffrey
Jayna wasn’t a bad person; she just liked to explore when no one was home. This wouldn’t be a problem if she was exploring her own home, but that was not the case. She reasoned that if people gave her a key or a code then she had permission. And she did, to an extent. She had permission to come over and let the dogs out when Mr. and Mrs. Hammond had to stay late at work. She had permission to go in and water the African violets in Mrs. Goldblum’s front window when she flew south like the birds to Florida for the winter. She did not, however, have permission to climb over the fence into Old Mrs. Maynard’s backyard after school when she heard the car pull out of the driveway, take the key from under the mat where she once saw the lady hide it, sneak in, give the fat calico cat a scratch, and pad around inside the orange brick split-level ranch, but that didn’t stop her; orange brick split-level ranch, but that didn’t stop her.
Mrs. Maynard had lived next door to Jayna since what felt like the beginning of time, but never, not once in Jayna’s long eight-and-three-quarters years of life, could she ever remember meeting the woman face to face. She barely saw her outside the house at all, and Jayna had certainly spent her fair share of time looking for her. She was curious to see who tended the big pots at the side of the house to make the round, red tomatoes and fresh, fuzzy mint grow so tall and who plucked all of the cherries from the tree that swallowed part of the fence between their houses (mostly, she just wanted someone to share the cherries with her).
One year Jayna decided that she would meet Mrs. Maynard on Halloween. All of Jayna’s neighbors always got so excited to see her dressed up. They'd all ask her what she was (even though she was obviously a space cowgirl fairy) and tell her how creative she was and how big she was getting and give her extra candy because her baby brother, Noah, was too little for big kid candy. But Mrs. Maynard didn’t give out big kid candy on Halloween. She never even opened her door. Charlie across the street, who was twelve, said it was because she was mean and didn’t like kids. He told her about how Mrs. Maynard yelled at him and his friends when they played kickball in the street and left a soccer ball in her yard by accident. Jayna thought that sounded pretty awful. She remembered the first time it happened, back when there were big pots full of purple and yellow flowers in Mrs. Maynard’s front yard. She remembered hearing a crash and seeing the soccer ball among broken pieces of orange ceramic in a big pile of dirt next to the driveway and hearing yelling from the windows. After that, the flowers disappeared. She knew that big kids never lied and she was still kind of mad about losing the flowers, so she made sure to stay away from the house next door.
She was still curious, though, so after a little while she decided that she would just stay hidden while she looked. When the weather got warm again she started peeking through the fence every day after school let out. That’s when she noticed the key under the mat. Every Monday and Thursday a dark blue car would putter down the street and stop in Mrs. Maynard’s driveway. A tall woman with too-white tennis shoes would climb out, clomp around to the back of the house, and let herself in with the mat key. She always stayed inside just long enough for Jayna to almost get bored enough to leave her super secret spy post, peeking out from under the hedges. When the lady came out she brought Mrs. Maynard with her. Still, though, Jayna never got a good look at her neighbor. It was hard to get a good look at someone’s face when they were always wearing big sunglasses and floppy hats. After a month of watching, Jayna decided she would sneak over to investigate. She really made a better spy than a space-cowgirl-fairy, anyway.
Jayna knew from movies and stories that spies had to have rules—that was kind of like rule number one. She didn’t really like rules but she wanted to be a good spy. She didn’t think it made sense for her only rule to be that she needed rules, though, so she gave herself the Eight Things Rule. When Mrs. Maynard left in the blue car, Jayna would go into the house and let herself look at eight new things every day, because she was eight years old (she didn’t like to round down, but she couldn’t very well look at three-quarters of something). Part of this rule was to make sure that she didn't go through the whole house in one day and would always have something new to look at the next time. The other part of it was to make sure that she didn’t stay too long, because everyone knows that rule number two of being a good spy is not to let anyone know you’re a spy, and that meant not getting caught.
The problem with the Eight Things Rule was that some things were more interesting than others. The first time she went over, she barely made it past the door. She had taken her shoes off because they were muddy and when she first walked in she had to take time to examine the weird fuzzy carpet that was the color of half-dead grass. It was made of lots of longish strings that squished up between her toes when she stepped on them, not at all like the little woven rug her mom put over the hardwood floors at home. There was a tall vase next to the door that came up a little past her hip and was painted with cherry blossoms and long-necked birds. In it were several umbrellas with handles carved into animal heads. She made the duck talk to the dog and counted them as things three and four for the day, after the funky carpet and detailed vase. She pulled on the other two handles in the vase but they were kind of boring compared to the first two. One umbrella was just a wooden stick with a rubbery dot on the bottom. There was no frame or fabric stretched up the length and Jayna didn’t think it would be very good at keeping people dry, but who was she to judge if Mrs. Maynard liked getting wet in the rain? Personally, Jayna loved jumping in puddles in the ladybug rain boots her grandma got her. She rounded out the day’s eight things with the treasure chest-like trunk she found by the stairs and the pile of folders she found inside. When she picked one up, a black disc fell out. She ran her nails along the grooves and it made scratchy noises and sent tingles up her arm.
For the next few visits Jayna drifted through the house, looking at heavy books full of big glossy pictures, seashells bigger than any she ever found at the beach with her parents, twisty pieces of metal that she supposed were supposed to be art, and the stones and pieces of glass hanging in the window that threw rainbows across the whole room when the light hit them just right. Then one day she found a collection of figurines on a table in the living room. She was playing with a carved wooden giraffe that was as big as the tiny bronze Eiffel Tower next to it when she noticed the pictures, two of them in plain black frames on the back of the table.
The first looked like one of her school pictures, just shoulders and a head, but instead of a fully-colored little boy or girl, the picture was faded into shades of brown and showed a young man in a funny tan hat and jacket with shiny badges pinned at his shoulder. There were some curly words written in the corner by his right ear. Jayna couldn’t read cursive very well, but she thought it said I love you, Ruby. She thought that was really sweet and wondered who Ruby was. In the picture next to it, also faded into browns, she saw the man with the rest of his body. He had his arms wrapped around a pretty lady with short dark hair that flipped up at the ends. She had flowers in her hand and a hat with a little veil on her head and was wearing a white dress that fell to her knees and stuck out a little instead of hanging straight down. It looked a little like someone had taken one of her mom's teacups and turned it upside down to make a skirt. Jayna guessed that the woman was a younger Mrs. Maynard and that that was a wedding picture. Even though it didn’t look much like her parents’ wedding photos, she thought that it was one of the prettiest pictures and prettiest dresses she had ever seen.
Jayna knew that her mom had saved her wedding dress and hoped that Mrs. Maynard had saved hers, too. She made it her new mission to find the old, short wedding dress. Unfortunately, she had already reached her eight things that day, so she had to wait until Thursday to start looking, but that was okay. It gave her two and a half days to think about the dress and where it might be hidden.
She narrowed it down to the closet, like where her grandma kept hers, or the attic, like where her mom kept hers, but she realized pretty quickly that thinking up hiding places for the dress wasn't any fun when you couldn't look for it immediately. She tucked her ideas in the back of her mind and decided she to try to draw the photograph so she could have her own copy. She gave up on that pretty quickly, too. The marker boxes at school only had one brown and she didn't know what really in the photo. She didn't want to guess and get it wrong. Jayna knew from her aunt Macy and new uncle Mark that wedding colors were some of the most important things about a wedding. Aunt Macy had almost started crying when the flowers turned out to be baby pink instead of blush. Jayna couldn't really tell the difference but she knew that if it made Aunt Macy cry then it must have been important. She didn't want to get Mrs. Maynard's flowers wrong in her drawing, even if she didn't plan on showing it to her, so she decided to stop trying unless she found a picture where she could see the colors better. So she waited.
When Thursday finally came Jayna flew from the bus when it pulled up to her stop after school, raced through the house, passed her mom on the phone in the den, ignored the apple slices and popcorn set out on the kitchen table, and flung herself down in the tall grass right up against the fence. She was so excited that she didn’t even care that she was probably getting gross green grass stains all over the new yellow shirt she got for her birthday. When the tall lady finally pulled up in the blue car and took Mrs. Maynard away, Jayna slithered under the fence and was into the house faster than she could ever remember. The bedroom was the third door on the left from the main hall—she had found it early in her adventures but bedrooms were private and there was so much other interesting stuff in the house that she hadn’t really gone in before. Now she was desperate to explore the closet.
She slid every item along the rack but the only white thing she found was a sweater so fluffy it looked like it was glowing. There were a bunch of boxes on the floor but when the biggest one only held a pair of snow boots she decided that a dress couldn’t possibly fit down there. Kicking off her shoes, she climbed up on the bed, jumping a little to peek at the top shelf. It was lined with hats, but no box big enough to hold a dress.
The attic it is, she thought, and collected her shoes. It took a few tries to find the door with the short little half flight of steps going up. She wrapped her hands around the skinny railings on either side. The stairs were raw wood, almost grayish, and creaked when she stepped on them. The air smelled like pine, dust, and old people, and Jayna decided she kind of liked it. The sunlight slanted through the round windows and painted pretty pictures in the dust swirling in the air. There were big cardboard boxes and green plastic tubs stacked along the walls, but what caught her eye was a table and mirror set under the window. A flat box wrapped in string sat on the table. Jayna scrambled over to it. Her fingers tingled and she almost didn’t want to open it just in case it wasn’t the dress, but if it was then she didn’t want to lose her chance. She slid the string off and cracked the lid.
Folded in the box was a cloud of fabric like a butterfly net. It was yellower than her mom’s dress. Still pretty, just different. She found the shoulders, pulled it out, and draped the dress over a chair. Yellowed lace wrapped around the neck with little pearls scattered in among the stitches. The skirt was creased and stuck out a little funny in places but was still full and swishy. It wasn’t anything like the glamorous floor-length dresses she saw in her family’s wedding photos, but it was beautiful.
Carefully, she flipped through the layers of fabric and fluff at the skirt and crawled into it. It took some twisting to get her arms in the right holes, but eventually she figured it out. The dress wasn’t short on her like it was in the photo—it brushed the floor—but she still felt like a princess. She stood in front of the mirror and twisted so it swirled and swished around her legs. She hummed a song and danced around the room with an imaginary partner like Belle danced with the Beast, watching the light fabric fly out and make the dress look even poofier. She spent so long admiring the dress that she forgot rule number two of being a spy.
When a squeaky step warned her that she was about to be caught, Jayna stopped spinning immediately. She wanted to take the dress off, fling it into the box, and hide until Mrs. Maynard left so she could sneak out, but she couldn’t do it. Not to Mrs. Maynard’s wedding dress. If she was going to get in trouble, the dress made it almost worth it.
The soft footsteps stopped and Jayna finally, slowly, looked up from her feet. The woman standing before her was shorter than she looked in the pictures and had very round shoulders. Her hands looked like they were covered in skin-colored tissue paper wrapped a little too loosely around her fingers. She wore a simple gold ring on one hand and a silver charm bracelet above the other. There were pillowy puffs of skin under the gray eyes hiding behind her big plastic glasses, perched on her long nose. White hair sat like a curly cotton candy cloud on top of her head. She didn’t look anything like the mean old lady Charlie had made her out to be.
The wrinkly face smiled and put a hand on Jayna’s shoulder. “You look prettier in that dress than I ever did, sweetheart.”
#Unreal #RachelGeffrey #TheTeaCupDress #FeedYourHead #GoAskAlice #ShortStory #GoldRing
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