Out of the Blue
I remember Maura in the snow, singing her heart out, her small figure swaying in the falling flakes. It can't be the same girl, not after 25 years. It can't be.
An insert of Christmas carols arrived in the newspaper, and I sat with it on the edge of my three-year old son’s bed. “Instead of a story tonight,” I told him, “let’s sing some bedtime songs.”
He settled back among his stuffed animals to listen. I leafed through the booklet and sang all the best carols: “Silent Night.” “O Come All Ye Faithful.” “We Three Kings.” Then I came upon one I hadn’t sung in years—not since 7th grade in Columbus, Ohio: “Jingle Bell Rock.” My whole 7th grade music class had learned that stupid song and sung it for the parents at our holiday concert. I’d hated it—in fact, most of the kids had hated it. We were all embarrassed by its funky pseudo-rock-and-roll beat, and how Mrs. Shaker, the music teacher, made everyone tap their toes and snap their fingers on stage. In public. I recalled that the last time I’d ever sung that humiliating song was the night I’d gone caroling with my best friend Katie and some other friends on our street, the tunes from our junior high holiday concert still fresh in our heads.
We’d gone up and down our street singing all our favorite carols. Then we went around the block. One door midway along was opened by a girl we knew only slightly from school—a new girl, a shy, odd girl named Maura Dedwich. Was she really odd? Or maybe it was only her last name that made her seem so. That, and the quiet way she slipped through the halls at school. She had long, pale hair and sad eyes in a thin face. (“Here comes that old dead witch!” Terrence Parker, a boy in our music class, always teased when Maura came into the music classroom. I never teased, but I hadn’t stopped Terrence.).
None of my group of friends really knew Maura. She was like a shadow of a girl, and I had not made the sort of effort I knew my mother would have wanted me to make, had she known about Maura. Whispered gossip around the lockers at school had it that Maura came from some other state and lived with her grandparents, which definitely seemed weird… and possibly her parents didn’t want her anymore, or something, and maybe there had been, like, a scandal.
Standing there at Maura’s front door, I resolved I would make an effort to get to know this new girl after the holiday break. It could be my New Year’s resolution.
An elderly couple appeared behind Maura in the doorway now and smiled out at us.
“Carolers!” cried the woman, laughing delightedly. “How wonderful! Do you know these minstrels, Maura, dear?”
Minstrels! I liked the sound of that.
“They’re from school,” Maura said in her soft, whispery little voice.
“Friends of yours? How nice!”
I felt myself flushing. It was guilt and remorse that made me speak up. “Do you want to come sing with us, Maura?” I blurted out the invitation and Katie, at my side, glanced at me in surprise.
Then she loyally added her voice to mine. “Sure, come on,” Katie urged. “We’re going to sing at a few more houses and can always use more voices.”
Maura’s pale face lit up with the first animation I’d ever seen there.
“I’d love to!” she cried, looking to her grandparents for permission. When they nodded, she ran to get her coat. Her grandparents beamed at me and Katie and our small band of pals, and I knew they were thinking how kind we were, what nice kids. I basked in the glow of their approval, still wishing I’d reached out to Maura earlier.
So off we went through the falling snow. We sang at all the other houses on Maura’s block—two songs at each house—and Maura insisted we sing “Jingle Bell Rock” if anyone requested an encore. “I love that one!” she told us. “It’s my absolute favorite!”
Katie jabbed me in the side with her elbow. “We hate that song,” she pronounced.
“It’s just such a weirdo song,” I explained.
Maura turned to us under the light of a street lamp, her eyes wide and pale blue. Snowflakes filtered down on us as she shook her head, flaxen hair shimmering on her shoulders. “Oh, no,” she said. “I could sing it over and over! It’s the happiest song I’ve ever heard.”
My son seemed to think so too. “Sing it again, Mommy,” he begged now, and I did, one more time, showing him how to snap his fingers. As I sang, I wondered fleetingly what had ever become of that girl, that Maura Dedwich. She hadn’t come back to school after Christmas break that year. I never got to be friendly to her as my New Year’s resolution. Hardly anyone had noticed her departure; and soon she dropped out of my consciousness all together. In fact, more than twenty-five years had passed since I’d thought of her.
I tucked Nicholas into his bed and dropped a kiss on his forehead. Then I went downstairs to the living room, where my husband was grading papers. Tom and I both taught at the college. It was the end of the semester, and a similar stack of final essays was waiting for me to grade. Annoyingly, the refrain of “Jingle Bell Rock” bopped in my brain as I made a pot of tea. I hummed the song as I carried the tea over to the low table by the couch.
I sat next to Tom and poured out cups of tea for us both, then I picked up my pen and the first essay from my stack. Next to me, Tom scribbled a comment and a grade on the essay he’d just finished reading, and placed the paper on top of others in a pile on the cushion between us. I glanced down at the cover page, and the words seemed to shoot right up at me:
Quests for Manhood in Hemingway’s Short Fiction
“Whaaaat?!” I grabbed the paper. “That’s impossible!”
Tom looked up from his work. “What is it?”
I shook the essay at him. “This student! Maura Dedwich! I once knew a girl named Maura Dedwich!”
“Well, maybe it’s the same girl,” Tom said.
“No, it can’t be! I mean it’s weirder than that. I only just now thought of her a few minutes ago—when I was upstairs—for the first time in, like, twenty-five years!”
“Okayyyyy,” said Tom. “And maybe it’s really her.”
“No—it can’t be. That was back in Ohio. In junior high.”
Tom laughed. “People grow up,” he pointed out. “People move to California. We’re here, after all.”
I frowned. “But my Maura Dedwich wouldn’t be a kid. She’d have to be my age.” I knew the papers he was grading were from a class of undergraduates. “She’s our age,” I emphasized.
“Well, the Maura Dedwich in my class is an older student,” Tom said. “Older than the others.”
I raised my brows—unwilling to believe in such a string of coincidences. “What does she look like?” I asked, hoping she was tall and dark.
“Oh, sort of small. You know, short,” said Tom, never one to notice particular details of appearance or dress. “And she has really long blonde hair… ”
The memory of Maura Dedwich played behind my eyes… Maura in the snow, singing her heart out on that snowy night, her small figure swaying in the falling flakes, her long white-blonde hair shining under the streetlamp. “It can’t be her,” I said. “I mean, what are the odds?”
“Why not get in touch and ask her?”
My genius husband! Of course I would contact her. So I sat right down and wrote a note for Tom to give this student the next day. Hello out of the blue. I wonder if you might be the girl who came to stay with her grandparents in Columbus, Ohio…
I explained I’d seen her name on an essay on top of Tom’s pile. I didn’t dare mention singing Jingle Bell Rock and how I’d thought of her mere moments before seeing that name on the essay. She’d think I was making it up. Of course she would. Anyone would.
Tom took the note with him to his class the next day, handed it to his student along with her graded paper as if passing a coded message to a comrade. She left the classroom, but Tom saw her through the open door as she stopped in the hallway and opened the note.
Seconds later, he told me, she was back. “I remember your wife! I can’t believe it!”
What are the odds that a girl fleetingly known in seventh grade would turn up thousands of miles away at the college where my husband and I were to teach many years later? What are the odds that Tom would grade her paper just as I was sitting down on the couch, so that it was the top paper in the pile, so that I could read her name on the cover sheet? That series of coincidences is already amazing to me, but on top of that, what are the odds of my singing that awful Jingle Bell Rock to our son at bedtime, triggering my memory of caroling in the snow with Maura Dedwich a quarter century earlier?
That I had sung that song and thought of her only five minutes before sitting down on the couch and seeing her name on an essay was, to me, uncanny. A staggering amount of coincidence.
Maura phoned me, and we arranged to meet for lunch that week. We sat at a little café just off campus, and she told me of that time in her life, back in seventh grade, and how she’d been sent from her home in Connecticut to live with her grandparents in Ohio after her older sister had a psychotic break and tried to stab her. How traumatized she’d been, how peaceful and safe her grandparents’ home had been, what a refuge for a frightened child. She remembered our school and Mrs. Shaker’s music class and the holiday concert. She remembered how I invited her to come caroling in the snow. Her face lit up now as she recalled that night. “How kind you were,” she said. “I was too freaked out to make any friends that semester, but you reached out to me. It felt like a miracle.”
I just shook my head, knowing I had not been nearly as kind as I should have been, knowing that inviting her to sing with us was my last-ditch attempt at reparation.
“I should have reached out sooner,” I mumbled. “Much sooner.”
She hooked a strand of long pale hair behind one ear and raised an eyebrow.
“And it’s all just such a strange string of coincidences,” I told her in a rush, and out came the full story after all, about the newspaper insert of carols, about singing Jingle Bell Rock to my little son, about remembering Maura out of the blue, and then seeing her name on the essay minutes later.
“But I don’t believe in coincidence,” Maura said when I finally subsided.
“Nope.” Her smile was sweet, gentle. “I think this was meant.”
“Meant?” I repeated. Where was she going with this?
“I needed a friend back then, yet you didn’t reach out as soon as you might have, all those years ago,” Maura said softly, staring at me across the table. “Isn’t that right?”
Slowly I nodded.
“But you’ve reached out now. This time when I need a friend, here you are.” She sat back, a half-smile on her lips.
I just stared at her. She wanted to be friends? Well, okay, I was up for that…
“Look—I’m leaving my husband,” she blurted out. “He’s abusive. I need to get away.” In one quick movement, she pushed up the sleeve of her sweater to show dark bruises on her arm, fingerprints pressed into her flesh. “I need to move out—fast—and go somewhere he won’t think to look.”
My heart started beating harder.
“I think that’s why you found me,” she said, her voice low and urgent now. “I think that’s what all this is about. All your coincidences. It’s because I need a place to stay—now.”
“Tonight. Can I please, please come stay with you and your husband?” She leaned toward me across the table. “Just for a couple nights, a week at most? While I sort out something else? While I find a safe place to live?” Her pale eyes met mine pleadingly.
Abusive husband? Safe place to stay? Was the guy going to search for her? Would he come pounding on our door in the middle of the night? Might our son be in danger?
I reminded myself the husband didn’t know me or Tom or where we lived. We didn’t know him. I looked across the lunch table at the woman sitting there, and I saw as if on a transparency a thin seventh grader in her bobble hat under the streetlamp, mittened fingers snapping, sweet voice belting out Jingle Bell Rock as snowflakes swirled around her. I saw Terrence Parker teasing her in music class, saw her grandparents beaming out at us from their doorway, saw my little band of friends tramping the streets on that wintry Ohio night as if we were all a scene inside a snow globe.
I thought of the mystery of it all.
“Yes,” I said. “Come to us.”
Kathryn Reiss is the award-winning author of 20 novels of suspense for kids/teens from Harcourt, Scholastic, AG. She is hard at work now on an adult Gothic novel. Ghosts, memory, time travel, old houses, echoes from the past---these are a few of her favorite things! Professor of English and Creative Writing in her other life.
The paintings in this piece are all by Tom Strychacz. Visit http://www.tomstrychaczart.com to see more of his work.
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