“Faster than I Could Follow” – Anna Scotti

At the end of summer the year I was seven, my Aunt Elizabeth came to visit and I fell in love. Elizabeth was my mother’s sister but you wouldn’t have known it to look at her. She had a rope of thick, glossy black hair she’d twist around and around her hand while she was talking. When she got done talking she’d twist the rope up on top of her head and let it go, fluffing it out with her fingers as it fell to make it wild and big like a go-go dancer’s.

Elizabeth had a tiny small waist hardly bigger than mine, and small breasts that poked straight out, separate from one another. You could see that if she took her clothes off her breasts would look the same, pointed and distinct, not like my mother’s, which flopped into a wide low cushion beneath her robe at night. When I told my mother I was in love with Aunt Elizabeth, she looked sort of surprised and irritated and said, “You’re not in love with her, you just love her, same as you do me and Daddy and your brother Scott.”

“No, ma’am,” I contradicted. “It’s not the same.”

My mother squeezed out a tight little laugh but I could tell she was aggravated. “You can’t be in love with her, Amanda, because you’re blood relations, and anyway you’re both girls. And I don’t want to hear another word about it.”

I think Scotty was a little bit in love with Aunt Elizabeth, too, and I know my dad was. The first night she was with us she came to dinner with all her makeup on, red lipstick and a red dress, too, and a red scarf around her white neck. My dad looked up when she came into the dining room and said well, in a funny voice. Well, well, Elizabeth.

When my mom came in with a plate of pork chops she said the same thing, but she said it in the voice she used on me when I did something dumb that she thought was kind of cute all the same. Scott and I both wanted to sit next to Elizabeth but I got to, and I watched the way she ate and tried to do the same. When she finished she put her fork down face first at the edge of the plate, instead of tines up at the top of the plate. I did the same, and my dad shot me a look, but he didn’t correct me.

“Well,” Elizabeth said, pushing back from the table, “time to dance some of that off.”

“Honey, it’s too late to go out now,” my mother began. “We’ve got to get up early in the morning.”

Elizabeth pulled her hair up into a coil and looked at me and winked. She winked like nobody else, without crinkling her face at all. She just closed one eye and let the thick black fringe of her lashes rest against her white cheek.

“Not me,” she contradicted. “Isn’t this my vacation? Just give me a key and I won’t make a sound when I let myself in, promise.”

Mama wanted to argue but my Dad interrupted. “Elizabeth is grown, Billie, and she can take care of herself. Let her go on if she wants to.”

I tried to wait up for her, but when I woke up, there she was beside me, curled up with the covers around her like a cocoon, hair spread across the white pillow. A silky scarlet robe was thrown over the foot of the bed, and a matching strap peeked out from beneath the twisted sheets. I touched Elizabeth’s hair as lightly as I could but her green eyes opened and smiled at me. “Hey, snaggle tooth.” Her breath was stale with sleep but I didn’t mind. She had the whitest teeth and her eyebrows were like brown feathers across her forehead.

When I went into the kitchen Mama was at the stove turning bacon with a fork. She had on her blue robe with the stitches pulled out. I thought of Aunt Elizabeth’s silky gown and my cheeks got hot.

“I don’t want any,” I said. Mama put down the fork and wiped her hands on her apron front. “Well, of course you do,” she said. “It’s Saturday, isn’t it?”

My mother was right, eggs with bacon was a special weekend treat. But I didn’t want to sit down at our battered old table with her in that faded robe with her big shelf bosom and morning smell and my father more than likely in his underwear. “Well, I don’t want it,” I said again. “Auntie said she’d take me out to eat.”

I regretted the lie as soon as I heard it. But my mother looked pleased and when my father came in a moment later, not in his underwear after all, but with his chin still stubbled and his hair uncombed, she told him.

“Liz is a sweet girl,” Mama said, and my father nodded.

“She’s your sister, ain’t she?”

When Scott came in he was dressed too, so my mother was the only one still in her nightclothes when Elizabeth wandered in, pretty and fresh in jeans and a clean white shirt.

She smiled around the table as she reached for the juice. My mother warned, “Now, don’t fill up. Remember your promise to the little one.”

Elizabeth looked confused but she must have gathered something from my undoubtedly miserable expression. “I told them you’re taking me out to eat,” I said carefully, leaving her an out if she chose to deny me, but I was leaving the way open for her to rescue me, too.“Just me, not Scotty.”

“How come—” Scotty began, outraged, but before Elizabeth could answer, my mother broke in.

“Because you and I have planning to do, young man,” she said sternly. Her voice didn’t fool us. She was talking about his sleepover birthday party the next Friday night. He was inviting four friends, and not one of them was me.

“Well,” Elizabeth said brightly. She stood up and tugged on my pony tail. “Did you pick a spot yet?”

Gratitude washed over me.

“Never mind, Mandy. We’ll just drive around and see what we like.”

Aunt Elizabeth’s car was the same shade as her lipstick, a scarlet two-seater with a white top that folded back, and a white leather steering wheel and dash. It was exactly like Barbie’s convertible and I would have ridden in that curved bucket seat forever, with the wind burning my sun-chapped face and the black road narrowing to a point along the horizon, watching Elizabeth whistle soundlessly as her hair streamed out from beneath a nylon checkered scarf.

We ended up at the Cozy Corner on Decatur Street eating pigs in a blanket and Danish pastry, laughing out loud as much as we wanted, even when the other diners, gray looking people like my parents, turned their tired eyes to us—disapprovingly, I hoped.

“Are you going to live with us from now on?”

I knew she wasn’t. I understood about vacations, but I asked her because it was the only way I knew to tell her how much I wanted her to stay. The bitter little smile that twisted up the corners of Elizabeth’s red ripe mouth caught me by surprise. “Maybe I ought to,” she said vaguely.

Hope turned in my stomach like a half-chewed meal. “You could,” I told her. “You could share my room, I wouldn’t mind. And—”

Aunt Elizabeth grinned. “Now, you know I can’t do that, Amanda. What about your Uncle Bobby? Who’d look after him?”

I felt my face grow blank. This was the first I’d heard about an Uncle Bobby. Did my mother have a brother they’d never told me about?

“Your Uncle Bobby,” Elizabeth insisted. “My husband.” She put her coffee down and touched her mouth with the corner of her napkin. “Well, husband-to-be.”

Jealousy made my heart beat fast. Still, I saw the possibilities. Husband meant wedding and wedding meant flower girls and bridesmaids, a new white dress and patent leather shoes for me. Maybe a crown of rosebuds or a wicker basket of creamy pink rose petals to carry over my arm.

I wanted to ask about the wedding but Elizabeth was in a strange mood. She leaned across the table toward me, talking low and serious, as if I were an adult. “I wouldn’t leave old Bobby,” she said, her eyes fastened to mine. “Not forever. But don’t think I’m not tempted.”

She looked up then, over my head, and gave somebody a brilliant smile. I turned around to see, but it was just old Mr. Andrews behind the counter. He lifted up his hand and wiggled his fingers at Elizabeth till he caught me looking. Then he blushed and turned away. I looked at Elizabeth and a laugh bubbled up out of me and spilled out between us.

“Come on,” Elizabeth said, tapping the salt shaker with one curved red nail. “Show me the sights in this old cow town.”

Every night Elizabeth went out in her red convertible and every morning she was there when I woke up, with her hair spread out over the pillow smelling of peaches and cigarette smoke. School started up and I had to go despite all my pleading. The fear that I’d come home and find her gone sat in my belly like a knot of dough. But day after day I’d hurry inside and find her waiting. We’d spend our afternoons watching television or driving around in her car sipping soda pop. Then after dinner she’d get up and go.

One night at dinner the phone rang. My mother answered and called to Elizabeth, but she bent over her fruit salad and pretended not to hear. Scotty and I stared at one another, clean amazed. You had to answer when spoken to. Least ways, we kids did. Adults, you just expected them to, without being told.

My mother called twice and then she came into the room and looked at my father, at Elizabeth. “You ought to take it, honey,” she said gently, but Elizabeth shook her head.

“You ask him if he’s got the house cleaned up yet,” Elizabeth said defiantly. “You tell him I’ll come home then, when he’s got the window fixed and the door put back on its hinges. You tell him I’ll come home when, when I can blink my eyes without seeing stars!”

Elizabeth shouted that last part and my mother stared at her, shocked, then put her fingers over her mouth and pursed her lips. “Little pitchers, Elizabeth,” she said finally, and left the room. Elizabeth stood up and brushed imaginary crumbs off her lap. “I’m sorry,” she said to my father, and he shrugged.

“You know, Liz,” he said, “you don’t have to go back. You could find a job here, or go back to school. It’s not like you and Bobby have children to be concerned about.”

“Children,” Elizabeth said harshly, as if children were some kind of disease, a parasite, something yellow and crusted you find stuck in your teeth or in the corner of your eye after an afternoon nightmare. “Children!” Then she looked at me and Scotty and her face went soft.

My father got up and went into the other room where my mother was, and after a while they both came back. We finished our dinner and didn’t speak of it again.

Scotty ended up letting me come to the party after all, when the boys had finished eating. They’d had pizza and potato chips and sodas and bowls and bowls of salted peanuts, Scotty’s favorite, but I wasn’t feeling too sorry for myself in the kitchen with my parents and Aunt Elizabeth. We had a pizza of our own, and Elizabeth was telling about her job selling makeup in a big department store. She said husbands would come over while their wives were shopping and fall in love with her, and then the ladies wouldn’t buy anything. My mother kept interrupting and shushing but she was laughing as hard as we were. My father watched us with a funny, puzzled smile that made me feel, for the first time, like it wasn’t always kids against adults. Sometimes it was boys against girls.

Oh, I wanted that. Remembering, I want it still, to be a grown up girl in a tight pretty dress teasing the husbands and making them fall in love with me. I would have given up all the years of childhood still owed me just to be there in that cool bright store, bare-armed beneath the lights, laughing with Elizabeth and trading lipsticks and flirting with the husbands, knotting my hair up on top of my head and letting it go, letting it go.

I didn’t and did know both, the way kids do, that by the time I got there to where Elizabeth was, she’d be somewhere else altogether. I’d be the slim bare-armed laughing girl and she—the wife frowning sour-faced from the shadows? The dry-lipped woman testing hand creams at the bargain counter?

There was something there in that kitchen, moving away from me faster than I could follow after, and I wanted desperately to catch it in my two hands. I wanted to hug Elizabeth and my mom and dad all at once, and make us all promise not to change, to sit there every night laughing together, one girl, two ladies and a man, but all friends together trading stories and laughing. I was still laughing but I could feel myself about to cry, and my Mom looked over at me and was about to say something. But then Scotty came in for sodas and when he handed them out of the fridge to me he said, “Here, you can carry these in,” and that’s how I got invited to the party after all.

I liked sitting with the boys even though they were two years older and usually ignored me. There were two I especially liked, Michael Ray and Michael Patterson, and they both used to tease me, but in sort of a nice way. I pretended not to like it but I didn’t mind. After a while my parents came in and said they were going out to a movie and that Aunt Elizabeth would be in charge. The boys were having a gross-out contest, everybody telling the most disgusting thing they could think of. Then Michael Patterson told about a séance his sister went to where they called up a spirit from the other side and it moved an ashtray clear across a tabletop.

“That’s nothing,” Michael Ray said contemptuously, and then he told about the roller coaster at Thrill World that’s haunted by the spirit of a soldier who stood up on it and got his head cut off.

When Aunt Elizabeth came into the dining room all the boys looked at her and some of them got that sad, dumb look my dad had in the kitchen. But Michael Ray kept talking and their attention swung back to him. I’d heard his story before but it was making me kind of jittery anyway.

When Michael Ray finished everyone looked around, trying to think of something even scarier to tell. Aunt Elizabeth put her elbows on the table and lit a cigarette. “Did you kids ever hear about the boy and girl on Lovers’ Lane?” she asked, exhaling a stream of smoke through her nose.

“Is that the one where the guy’s fingernails scratch the roof of the car?”

Aunt Elizabeth shook her head impatiently. A strand of black hair flew onto Tommy Jergen’s face and he pretended he didn’t know it was there, but I knew he knew.

“That? That’s not a true story,” Elizabeth said. “This is a true story. It happened to a girl I knew back east.”

The boys watched her expectantly but she took her time, tapping her cigarette against the paper plate in front of her. “Mandy,” she said quietly. “Turn out the light. We have enough light from the kitchen, don’t we?” The way she said it was all spooky but I got up and turned the lights out anyway.

“A boy and girl went to Lovers’ Lane in the boy’s car,” Elizabeth began. She took a puff of her cigarette and looked around at us, and her eyes were big and frightened in the half-light. “They went up there to kiss.”

Michael Ray began to laugh but Scotty shushed him.

Elizabeth put out her cigarette and stared at Michael Ray. “They weren’t supposed to be up there,” she said quietly. “They knew there was a maniac loose in the woods. They knew.”

The way she said it, you knew something was going to happen to them, and that it would sort of be their own fault.

“When they got ready to leave, the car wouldn’t start.” Elizabeth laughed bitterly. “The boy had forgotten to get gas and they’d run out! So he decided to walk to the gas station, through the woods. He warned the girl to keep the doors locked until he came back. He told her don’t you open that door no matter what!”

Elizabeth touched her lips with the tip of her tongue and looked at me. “Do you think she did what he said?”

“Yes,” I answered quickly. “Yes, she did.”

Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, she did,” she agreed. “But then she fell asleep.”

Stupid girl! But I knew it was possible. I’d lain in my own room more than once, paralyzed by a creak on the stairs or a sigh from the closet, and awakened with the morning sun streaming through the curtains.

“When she woke up,” Elizabeth said slowly, “there was a light shining right in her eyes, right through the window. ‘Open the door,’ a voice said.”

“It was the police,” Michael Patterson shouted. “They told her to look right into the light and not look away. The boy’s head, it was on the—”

I couldn’t help it. The dining room window was behind me and I could feel things out there, policemen and maniacs and rustling, whispering things. Even the boys around the table looked scary, with their hollowed-out eyes shadowed in the half-light. Elizabeth’s face was pale and bloodless as a fish, and I couldn’t bear for her to say another word in that spooky, frightened way. I began to cry.

“No, no, no, Baby,” Elizabeth said in her own voice then. “Someone turn on the light.” She pulled me up onto her lap and pushed my face against her shoulder, hiding my face from the gang of boys.

“That’s not what happened at all,” Elizabeth said in a loud voice. “At first the girl was scared, but then she realized it was her own boyfriend come to take her home. He’d bought a gallon of gas and the man at the gas station had given him a flashlight to use in the woods. That’s all. He drove the girl home and the next day they read in the newspaper that the maniac had gone back to the insane asylum on his own. Just walked right in and put on his own straight jacket.”

“Oh, brother,” Tommy Jurgen said, but Scotty told him hush.

After a while I felt better and Elizabeth put me down. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s let these boys tell their scary stories. We’ll go in the living room and look at TV.”

Aunt Elizabeth didn’t sneak away while I was at school the way I’d feared.

I came home one afternoon and there was a strange car parked in the driveway, a big blue square-nosed Chevy with a chrome bumper. I went inside and there was Elizabeth curled up on the sofa with her shoes off, a beefy sort of good-looking guy next to her with his arm around her. I could tell she’d been crying because her eyes were all red and there were raccoon circles beneath them. But she looked happy and the guy looked pretty happy, too.

They hardly looked up when I came in, and I would have gone on upstairs to do my homework, but Elizabeth beckoned me to come over so I did. “I’ve been waiting for you, Amanda,” she said quietly. “I want you to meet my Bobby, and I wanted to say goodbye.”

“Goodbye,” I told her. I felt like asking if she’d stopped seeing stars yet, but I didn’t. Bobby looked like the boyfriend in the story, the one who’d got his head cut off.

Aunt Elizabeth started rattling off a whole bunch of messages for me to pass along to my mom and dad and Scotty. I tried to remember them all, but later I couldn’t. I just remembered her fresh, soapy smell when she bent over to kiss the top of my head, and her hair falling over my shoulders, her scarlet nail polish and the jangle of her bracelets, and I remembered the way her red convertible looked following the Chevy down the drive and out onto the road: smaller, and tamed, somehow, like a bad dog that had been forgiven and was following its master home. Even when the Chevy was out of sight and I could just make out the taillights of Elizabeth’s car, about to disappear around Buckeye Circle and be gone forever, I was remembering her knocking that red convertible right into gear, me beside her in the front bucket seat, laughing with my hair blowing back in the wind, and somehow Bobby beside her too, his big hand on her white leg, real and not real, there and not there, big hands on her, big hands on me.

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Thank you to Anna Scotti for sharing the complete text of her story “Faster than I Could Follow ” for free on the web.  The complete book, Best of Ohio Short Stories: Volume 1, features seventeen additional stories.  Click here to find the book on Amazon.  E-books are also available from all major digital retailers, click here for links.

Anna Scotti is a writer and teacher living in Southern California. Scotti’s poetry has been awarded numerous prizes, and appears frequently in literary journals including Comstock Review, Chautauqua, Crab Creek Review, Extract(s) and Yemassee. Her fiction and poetry can be accessed at www.annakscotti.com. Scotti—then Anna Coates—earned a degree in psychology from Antioch College, Yellow Springs, years before that illustrious institution’s closure and recent phoenix-like rebirth. She holds an M.F.A. from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is currently working on a collection of poetry and a young adult novel, DUCKS LIKE ME. Before settling down and accepting her penurious destiny as poet and schoolteacher, Scotti was a nationally-known journalist and a columnist for InStyle and for the late, great, Buzz: the Talk of Los Angeles.