KILLING CAROL ANN

By JT Ellison


I’ve just killed Carol Ann. Sweet, innocent Carol Ann. Her blonde hair flows down her back and trails in the spreading pool of blood.

It seems I’ve known her my whole life. Every memory from my childhood is permeated by the blonde angel named Carol Ann. Skipping up the street after the ice cream truck, getting lost in the shadows during a game of hide and seek, watching her sit in the window of her pink room, brushing that glorious golden hair. I think of Carol Ann and I rewind into an eight-year-old child, bored and alone, wishing for a different life. What have I done?

***


She spied me sitting on our front step, twirling my fingers through the dandelions in the flowerbeds. Mama had sent me out to pluck the poor, insignificant weeds from the ground, worried they’d ruin her prized flowers. To hear her garden club talk about them, Mama’s flowerbeds were local legend. Full to the brim with the heady blooms of gardenias, azaleas, jasmine, roses, sweet peas, hydrangea, daylilies, iris, rhododendrons, ferns, fertile clumps of monkey grass, a smattering of black-eyed Susans… the list went on and on. A green thumb, Mama had. She could make any flower grow and peak under her watchful gaze. All but me, that is. Her Lily.

The strange girl I’d come to know as Carol Ann stood on the sidewalk in front of the A-frame house I grew up in, her shadow casting shade across my left foot. I looked up, interested in what has caused the momentary cooling. It was past 90 degrees, a sweltering summer day. A yellow haired goddess stood before me.

“Hey girl,” she said. “Would you like to play?”

“Do I wanna play?” I answered, numb with fright. I’d never had a playmate before. Most folk’s kids steered clear of me. Mama’s garden club friends didn’t bring their spawn to visit with me while they played canasta under the billowing tent in the backyard. The nearest child my age was a bed-ridden boy who coughed constantly. Mama made me go over there once, but after I screamed as loud as I could and pulled his hair, she didn’t make me go back. There was no one else.

“Are you simple or something?”

“Simple?”

“Oh, never mind.” She turned her back and started away toward the river, skipping every third step. She wore a white dress with a pink ribbon tied in the back in a big bow – the kind I’d only ever wear on Easter, to go to the services with Mama. Even from behind, she was perfect.

“Wait!”

My voice rang as true and strong as it ever had, deep as a church bell. She stopped, dead in her tracks, and turned to me slowly. Her eyes were wide, bluer than Mama’s china teapot. Then she smiled.

“Well. Who knew you’d sound like that? I’m Carol Ann. It’s nice to meet you.”

She strode to me, her hand raised. I’d never shaken hands with a girl my age before. It struck me as awfully romantic. She grasped my hand in hers.

“How do,” I mumbled.

“Now, is that any way to greet your dearest friend?” Her voice had a lilt to it, southern definitely, but something foreign too. She squeezed my hand a little harder, her little fingers pinching mine.

“That hurts. Stop it.” I tried to shake loose, but she was like a barnacle I’d seen on Tappy’s boat once. Tappy took care of the rest of the yard for us. He wasn’t allowed to touch the flowerbeds, but someone had to mow and weed and prune. Mama could grow grass like no one’s business.

“Not until you do it right. My God, am I going to have to teach you manners as well as how to bathe?”

She wrinkled her nose at me and I realized how sweet she smelled. Just like Mama’s flowers. I was lost. I looked her straight in those china blue eyes, my dull brown irises meeting hers. Cleared my throat, but didn’t smile.

“It’s nice to meet you as well.”

Carol Ann dropped my hand then, and laughed, a tinkling, musical sound like wind chimes on a breezy afternoon. She had me enthralled in a moment.

“Let’s go skip rocks in the river.”

“I’m not allowed. Mama says—”

“Oh, you’re one of those.” She dragged the last word out, gave it an extra syllable and emphasis.

“One of what?” My hackles rose. Two minutes and we were having our first fight.

She smiled coyly. “A Mama’s girl.”

Back then, I thought it was an insult. I reached out to smack her one good, but she pranced away, closer to the river with each skip.

“Mama’s girl, Mama’s girl.” She sing-songed and danced and I followed, my chin set, incensed. Before I knew it, we were in front of the river, a whole block away from Mama’s house. I wasn’t allowed to go to the river. A boy drowned the summer past, no one I knew, but all the grown-ups decided it wasn’t safe for us to play down there. This girl was new, she wouldn’t know any better. But if I told her that we couldn’t be here, she’d start that ridiculous chant again. I didn’t want to be a Mama’s Girl anymore.

We skipped rocks until dinnertime. Mama skinned my hide that night. She’d called and called for me to come to dinner, had Tappy look for me. Carol Ann and I were too busy to hear. We skipped rocks, whistled through pieces of grass turned sideways between our thumbs, and dug for worms. I showed her how to bait a line and she nearly fainted dead away when I put a warm, wriggling worm in her hand. Tappy found us right after sunset, took me home screaming over his shoulder. The joy I felt wouldn’t be suffused by Mama’s switch. Never again. I had a friend, and her name was Carol Ann.

It was the first of many concessions to her whims.

***


“My goodness, Lily, can’t you try to look happy? You’re all sweet and clean, and we’ll have some ice cream after, if you’re good. Alright?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I mumbled, sullen.

Mama had me spit shined and polished for a funeral at church. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to run off to the river with Carol Ann, skip rocks, have a spitting contest, something. Anything but go to church, sit in those hard pews and listen to Preacher yell at the old folks who couldn’t sing loud enough because their voices were caked with age and rot. I didn’t think that was fair to them. I remember my Granny vaguely, with a moldy smell and a long hair poking out of her chin, but she’d scoop me in her arms and sing to me, her voice soft like the other old folks. I liked that, liked to hear them whisper the words. It made the hymns seem dangerous in a way. Like the old folks knew the dead would reach out of their very graves and grab their hands, pull them down into the earth with them if they sang loud enough to wake them.

But Mama wasn’t hearing no for an answer today. We walked the quarter mile to the Southern Baptist, greeted our brothers and sisters, sat in the hard pews and celebrated the death of Mrs. O’Leary. Preacher made sure we knew that we were sinners, and I felt that vague guilt that I was alive and Mrs. O’Leary was dead, though death was supposed to be a glorious state of being for a reformed sinner.

We finished up and put Mrs. O’Leary in the ground. I tried hard to hold my breath in the graveyard so no spirits could inhabit me, but the graveside service took so long I had to breathe. I took small sips of air through my nose, felt my vision blacken, then Mama pinched my upper arm so hard I gasped, and I gave up trying to hold my breath. All the ghosts had been waiting for that moment when I took in a full breath of air. They were inside me now, there was no reason to fight them.

I begged to be allowed to go home, to be with Carol Ann, but Mama kept a firm grip on my arm while I cried. Folks thought I was grieving for Mrs. O’Leary. I was grieving for myself.

Mama decided homemade ice cream was just as good as the Dairy Dip, after all.

***


One day a massive storm came through. The trunks of the trees were black with wet, the leaves an emerald bas-relief to the long boned branches. Storms frightened me; the ferocity of the winds, the booming thunder felt like it was tearing apart my very soul. Carol Ann and I had taken refuge in my room. She rubbed my stomach, trying to calm me, crooning under her breath. Nothing was working; I was shaking and sweating, a low moan escaping my lips every once in a while. Carol Ann was at a loss. She stood, leaving me on the floor, and went to the window.

“Come away from there, Carol Ann.” My voice sounded panicky, even to me. She turned and smiled.

“Don’t be a goose, Lily. What, do you think the wind’s going to suck me right out that window?”

A flash of lightning lit up the room and the thunder shook the house. I whimpered in response, my eyes begging her to come back to me. She turned and stared out the window, ignoring my pleas.

Then she whirled around, a wide smile on her heart-shaped face. “I have an idea. Let’s be blood sisters.”

“Blood sisters? What’s that?”

“What? You’ve never been blood sisters with anyone before, Lily? My goodness, where have you been hiding all these years?”

“There’s no one to be sisters with, Carol Ann. You know that.” I felt vaguely superior for a moment, but she ended that.

“We need a knife.”

“Why?”

“My Lord in heaven, Lily, how do you think we’re going to get at the blood?”

So I snuck out of my room, slunk down the stairs, gripping each with my toes so the wind didn’t whisk me away when it tore the roof off the house. The storm was loud enough that Mama didn’t hear me go into the kitchen, get a Henckels Pro from the rack next to the stove, and make my way back up the stairs into my room. Carol Ann’s eyes lit up when she saw the blade.

“Give that to me.”

I did, a sense of wrongness making my hand tremble. I think I knew deep in my heart that Mama wouldn’t want me becoming blood sisters with anyone, no matter what the course of action that led me there. But that was Carol Ann for you. She could always convince me to see things her way.

Carol Ann took one of my sheer cotton sweaters, a red one, and laid it over the lamp, so the room became like thin blood. We sat in the middle of the floor, Indian-style, facing each other. She made sure our legs were touching. I was scared.

“Okay. Stop fretting. This will only hurt for a second, then it will all be over. You still want to be my blood sister, right?”

I swallowed hard. “I think so.”

“You think? Now, Lily, what did I say about you thinking? That’s what I’m here for. I do the thinking for both of us, and everything always turns out just fine. Now quit being such a baby and give me your arm. Your right arm.”

I didn’t want Carol Ann to think I was a baby. I held out my arm, which only shook for a second.

Carol Ann was mumbling something, an incantation of sorts. Then she held up the knife and smiled. “With this blade I christen thee.” She ran the blade along the inside of her right arm, bright red blood blooming in the furrow. She smiled and took my arm. “Say it,” she hissed.

“With this blade I christen thee.” She drew the knife along my arm and I almost fainted when I saw the blood, dark red, darker than Carol Ann’s. Then she took my arm and her arm and held them together.

“Our blood mingles, and we become one. You are now as much Carol Ann as I am, and I am as much Lily as you are. We are one, sisters in blood. Quick, we need to tie this together, let our blood flow through each others veins.”

She grabbed a sock off the floor and wound it around our arms, then beckoned me to lie down. I put my head in her lap, my arm stretched awkwardly and tied to hers, and she held me as our blood became one. I felt at peace. The ferocity of the storm seemed to lessen, and I felt calm, sleepy even.

“ LILY!” The scream made me jump. It was Mama. She saw what Carol Ann and I had done. I didn’t get to see Carol Ann the rest of that muggy summer. Mama sent me away to a white place that smelled of antiseptic and urine. I hated it.

***


I came back from the white place in the fall, quieter than before. The leaves were red and orange and brown, the skies were crisp and blue. I was worried that Carol Ann may have moved away, the drive was empty across the street, the window dark. When I asked Mama, she told me to quit it already. No more talk of Carol Ann. I wasn’t allowed to see her, to play with her, anymore.

I went back to school that year. Mama had been keeping me home before, teaching me herself, but she figured I needed to be around more girls and boys my age. I was so happy that she did, because Carol Ann was there. She had moved, but only a couple of streets over. She was attending the Junior High, just like I was. We didn’t exactly pick up where we left off. Carol Ann had many other friends now.

But I’d catch her watching me, on the periphery of her group of devotees, and wink at me in welcome. Those moments warmed my heart and soul. She was still my Carol Ann.

Our school year progressed without incident until Carol Ann came up with a new game. The pass-out game. Every girl in school wanted to be a part of it. We’d line up in the bathrooms, stand with our backs against the wall, hold our breath until the world got spinny. Carol Ann would cover our hearts with her hands and push. Hard. We’d pass out cold, some sliding down the walls, some keeling over. Carol Ann reasoned that it stopped our hearts for a moment, and that’s why the teachers got so upset when they found out.

Of course, they found out when I was doing the heart pushing on a seventh-grader named Jo. I got suspended, and the fun stopped. No more pass out game. No more Carol Ann, at least until I wasn’t grounded any more.

They rezoned us for ninth grade, decided we were big enough to go to high school. I had to take the bus, which I normally hated, because it drove past the Johnson’s farm, and their copse of pine trees with the hanging man in them. I knew it wasn’t a real dead man, but the branches in one of the trees had died, and they drooped brown against the evergreen, arms, legs, torso and broken neck. Mama used to drive me to Doctor Halloway this route, ignoring my requests to go the long way past Tappy’s place. I hated this road as a young girl, just knew the Hanging Man would get out of that tree and follow me home.

When the bus would pass it by, I’d try not to look. Since I was a little older now, it wasn’t so bad in the daylight. But as winter came along and the days shortened, the hanging man waited for me in the dusky gloom.

The next year, Carol Ann started taking the bus. Life got better. She was only on it some days, because she had a lot of dates now. Most days, after school, I’d watch Carol Ann riding off in cars with shiny, clean boys, throwing a grin over her shoulder as they faded into the gloaming. But there were times that she come out of the school, clothes rumpled, mouth red and raw, and jump on the bus just before it pulled away from the curb.

We sat together in the back, those idyllic days, talking about boys and teachers, the upcoming dances and who was doing it. I was fascinated by sex, though I’d never experienced it. Carol Ann had – you could tell that about her. She promised to tell me all about it, every gory detail. She never did.

Carol Ann snuck vodka from her parent’s house and slipped it into her milk some mornings. She’d share the treat with me, and we’d get boneless in the back of the bus, giggling our fool heads off. One day she taught me how to make a homemade scar tattoo, using the initials of a boy I liked. I watched while Carol Ann mutilated herself, took the eraser end of a pencil and ran it up and down her arm a million times until a shiny raw burn in the shape of a J appeared. When she handed the pencil to me, I tore at my skin until a misaligned M welled blood. I have that M to this day. I don’t remember which boy it was for.

The bus driver, Mrs. Bean, caught us with the vodka-laced milk. Carol Ann wasn’t allowed to ride the bus anymore, was expelled from school, exorcised by the administrators. I didn’t see her as much after that. I think the school and Mama really did their best to keep us apart. It was probably a wise decision.

***


Even though I grew up, got some distance on my childhood, got away from Carol Ann, I still was captivated by memories. Spilling on Carol Ann’s bike, scraping the length of my thigh on the gravel. The year she pushed me into the cactus while we were trick-or-treating. The day she nearly drowned when she fell through the ice on Gideon’s Lake, and I laughed watching her panic before I went to help. Carol Ann did nothing but get me in trouble, and I was happy to leave her behind as an adult.

Mama had to go into a home over in Spring Hill a couple of years back. I chose it because they had nice flowerbeds, and I visited her often. We’d walk amongst the flowers and she’d remind me of all the terrible things I did when I was a kid, and sometimes we’d laugh. No one thought I’d ever grow out of my awkward stage, but I did. I went off to college and everything. Carol Ann went to a neighboring school. I’d see her every once in a while, working as a waitress in one of the coffee shops on campus, or shopping in the bookstore. I learned that it was best to ignore her. If I ignored her enough, she’d get the hint and leave.

After school, I moved back home to live in the A-Frame house I grew up in. I lived a quiet, uneventful life. I was a landscape artist. I built gardens for the children of Mama’s garden club friends. I was almost happy.

Late one evening, I was shocked and surprised when the doorbell rang, and Carol Ann was on my front step. I’ll remember that moment forever, that nagging sense that somewhere, deep inside me, something was very dreadfully wrong.

I hadn’t seen her in years, yet she’d come to my door, in the flesh, with rain streaming down her face. Her blond hair was shorter, wet through, darker than I remembered. She was a skinny thing, not the radiant beauty I remembered from my childhood.

I remembered freezing at the door, unsure of what to do. She knew better than to come calling, that was strictly forbidden. We’d laid those ground rules years before, and she’d always listened. I was saved by the phone ringing. I glared at her and motioned for her to stay right where she was. Carol Ann was not invited into my house. Not after what she did all those years ago. It had taken me a long time to get over that.

The phone kept trilling, so I’d turned and went to the marble side table in the foyer, the one that held the old fashioned phone. I’d picked it up, almost carelessly. It was Mama’s nurse at the Home. I listened. Felt the floor rushing up to meet me. Everything went dark after that.

***


When I woke, the sun was streaming in the kitchen window. Somehow I’d gotten myself to a chair. I remember there was coffee brewing, the rich scent wafting to my nose. Carol Ann stood at the counter, a yellow cup in her hands. She took a deep drink, then smiled at me.

“Hey, Stranger.”

“Hey, yourself,” I replied. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“You needed me.” She’d shrugged, a lock of lank blond falling across her forehead. “I’m sorry about your Mama. She was a good woman.”

I had a vision of Mama then, standing in the same spot, her hair in curlers, rushing to finish the preparations for a garden club meeting, stopping to lean back and take a sip of hot, sweet tea and smiling to herself because it was perfect. She was perfect. Not flawed and messy like me. My heart hurt.

I did what I had to do. “Carol Ann, you need to leave. I don’t need you. I never did.”

“C’mon, Lily. We’re blood sisters, you and I. We’re a physical part of each other. How can you say you don’t need a part of yourself? The best part of yourself?”

“ NO!” I screamed at her, all patience gone. “You are not a part of me. You aren’t…”

There was only one way to get through to her. I grabbed the porcelain mug from her hand, smashed it on the counter, and swiped it across her perfect white throat. She fell in a heap, blood everywhere.

As I stood over her, watching her hair turn strawberry, I felt a tug and looked down at my leg. Carol Ann was trying to grab a hold of my foot. I kicked her instead. She stopped moving then.

***


The thought is fleeting. What have I done?

I’ve just killed Carol Ann. She was never sweet, never innocent. She was a leech, an albatross around my neck. I didn’t need her. Carol Ann needed me. That’s what Doctor Halloway always told me. That’s what they said in the hospital too. They told me I’d know when the time was right to get rid of Carol Ann once and for all. Mama would be so proud.

The blood drips, drips, drips from my arm. I feel lighter already.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

J.T. Ellison is a thriller writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her short stories have appeared in Demolition Magazine and Flashing in the Gutters, and she received an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 2006 Popular Fiction Contest. Her first novel,ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS , is due out from Mira Books in November 2007. Ellison blogs at Murderati and is a founder of Killer Year.

More information on her work can be found at www.JTEllison.com.


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