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Aarju Pandey




Another gray, rainy Sunday. I followed my mother out to the bus stop. She handed me the small black umbrella and put her own hood on, shielding her auburn curls. With a loud screech, the bus came to a halt it front of us. My mom took my warm, dry hand in her cold, wet one and led me up the narrow steps. I normally would have complained about the hard, plastic bus seats, but today was different. Despite the rain, I was excited. Today we were going to Michelson’s Shoes to buy brand new rain boots. After a week’s worth of begging, I had finally convinced my mother that the raggedy brown boots I had were too old and I needed a new pair. She had reluctantly agreed.

“Now are you sure your cousin’s old rain boots are ruined?”

“Mommy! They’re too small and my feet still get wet even if I wear them!”

“But-” I gave my mother an angry look.

“Okay, whatever you say.” We stepped into the warmth of the shop. The salesman sat me down and brought dozens of rain boots. Blue ones. Black ones. Green ones. Purple ones. Each time he put a pair on my feet. I looked at my mother and shook my head no. Then, I saw them. They were on a shelf to our right. The perfect cherry red rain boots. Even Cari Winsome would be jealous of those shiny boots. They were beautiful. I tugged my mother’s skirt and pointed at them. She nodded.

“Um, excuse me, can we have a look at those, please?” The salesman nodded and gingerly lifted them from the pine shelf. I thrust my foot out eagerly. He took the boots and gently slipped them onto my foot. They were just a smidge too big, but they rose to right below my kneecaps the way boots should.
“How do they fit?” my mother asked.

“Oh, they’re perfect,” I lied. The salesman bent down to take them back.

“Are you sure m’am, those are our finest material. I’m not going to say the price is reasonable.”
My mother looked down at her shoes. She looked up, thinking hard for the slightest second and turned right back to face me.

“Those are the ones we’ll get,” she told the salesman.
“Sure m’am, I’ll find them in her size and have them at the counter for you.”

I tugged the hem of my dress as far down as I could to hide the tops of the boots. They were ugly. Too bright. Too red.

The next morning, I jumped out of bed and slipped on a blue gingham dress. I quickly rushed to the window and pressed my nose against the pane. It was raining! Excitedly, I ripped apart the shoebox and pulled on my brand new rain boots. After a quick breakfast of waffles, I sprinted out the door and started the trek to John J. Willard Elementary School. My mother waved goodbye as I left, my backpack slung over my shoulders and my lunch in my hands. I stuffed my lunch into my backpack, with great difficulty, and loosened the laces of my sneakers. I swung them round and round. They were with me in case I wanted to change out of my rain boots. Stomping and splashing in puddles, I skipped all the way to school, impatient to show everyone my shoes. The tall building appeared suddenly out of the fog. Willard Elementary School was made of brick and gray stone, and it had a wide parking lot. The hallways inside seemed to resist dirt or mud and were always gleaming. The teachers were too nice. They always had sickly sweet smiles pasted on their faces. My mother loved the school. She was always telling me how lucky I was to go to Willard. But I was never happy there. The kids were always picking on me and making fun of me. I had been in Ms. Baker’s first grade class for more than a month and I still had no friends. But, today would be different because I had the boots. I would finally fit in.

Carefully, I wiped the mud off my boots before walking into my classroom. I walked in a slow circle around the room, making sure everyone caught a glimpse of the new rain boots. Cari Winsome looked at them then whispered something to Olivia Smith. I smiled smugly; so, she was jealous.

”Hey! Hey listen, Beatrice!” shouted Cari. She said my name like it was a week old can of sardines. I whipped around and looked her in the eye.
“Did you buy those boots at Michelson’s?”
“Yes,” I replied proudly.
“Oh, I went there last year and got the same ones. But, they’re too old now. Don’t you think?”

I didn’t answer. Quickly, I walked over to my desk and sat down. I tugged the hem of my dress as far down as I could to hide the tops of the boots. They were ugly. Too bright. Too red. My eyes fell on Cari’s soft pink ones. Those were the pretty boots.

Ms. Baker walked in click clacking on her shiny pink heels. She gave her perfect glossy curls a toss and walked to the front of the room to the radio. Lifting one perfectly manicured fingernail, she pressed the power button. Violins and violas filled the room, instantly the kids took their cue and raced to their seats. Ms. Baker counted down from three, her rose red lipstick and glossed lips parting in a smile. On one the kids began to chorus in unison. If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands…If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands…I clapped, stomped, and shouted hooray right on time, used to the morning routine.

…………..the sneakers were very used. They had passed through two cousins before me. But, anything was better than the ugly, red rain boots I had been wearing.

“Okay first graders, I want you to draw a picture of your house today. You can use any colors you like. You may begin,” Ms. Baker instructed. Taking out my sheet of white paper, I began to draw. I drowned out everyone’s voices and just focused completely on my picture. Starting with the small brick building, I traced the outline of my home with a thick crayon onto the page. I drew the spindly, black fire escape and the few, little windows. My house was at the end of a crowded street with many similar brick structures. It was one of many, blending in perfectly with its surroundings. We lived on the fourth floor. One small window offering a view of the street outside. One kitchen with just enough room for two and a cute little stove. One soft bed that creaked and groaned under the combined weight of my mother and I. And one tiny bathroom that just barely squeezed in a shower and a toilet. My house was small but that didn’t bother me. My mother always kept it clean and warm, and did her best with the distinct smell of mold that had been there since we first moved in two months ago.

“It’s our tiny, little heaven,” she always joked. But, I knew that we were better off than we had been in a long time. For two years, my mother had been running from doorstep to doorstep. Interview to interview. Looking for a job, a house, and a place to settle down. Here in Manchester, she was happier. I was relieved that her irritable moods were gone. For, the past two years she had always been on the very edge, waiting to erupt if the smallest thing happened. As best as I could, I carefully colored the red bricks, my hand moving slowly so I wouldn’t draw outside the lines.

While I was drawing, Ms. Baker stopped behind me and glared at my work over my shoulder. Her scarlet lips were pursed, and she shook her head slowly. Suddenly, she grabbed the picture out of my hands and took it to the board. Ms. Baker taped it up there next to Cari’s. Cari had drawn a beautiful Victorian house with flowers planted everywhere and a pretty fountain. I sunk lower and lower in my seat, my face hidden, as Ms. Baker explained how well Cari used different colors and how I should work on my shapes and colors. I was not very sure what I had done wrong. The directions had been to draw my house and that was what I had done. I always seemed to be doing something wrong in Ms. Baker’s class. I could never get it right. I was silent for the rest of the period. I just stayed at my desk and watched as other boys and girls shared their houses and told each other about their bedrooms and playrooms. I was the only person who shared a room with my mom.

My teacher asked to see me in the hallway. I wasn’t surprised; as I was always in trouble.

“Beatrice, love, why didn’t you share your picture with your friends? I asked you nicely, honey,” she inquired. I looked at my hands and shrugged my shoulders, not really knowing what to say. “I really think you need to be friendlier because the kids here at Willard are really a nice bunch.” I shrugged, thinking of Cari Winsome. I wanted to tell Ms. Baker how I felt since my very first day here. I wanted her to know how hard it was. I wanted her to listen to me and understand. I needed her to understand. But, I stopped myself. Ms. Baker wouldn’t understand.

Before we could reenter the room, the kids were coming out for morning recess. I pulled away from Ms. Baker, but she held on. Her iron grip was enough to suppress my feeble attempts of escape, so I hid behind her, instead. I was praying that my classmates wouldn’t see me having a time-out with the teacher.

“Beatrice, I was still talking to you. It’s not time for recess quite yet. So do you promise to try to be nicer to everyone, sweetie?” Ms. Baker gushed in her sugary voice. I nodded furiously and gave one last yank, freeing myself. Still, I was a second too late. Hearing Ms. Baker, everyone stared at me as I ran back into the classroom to grab my jacket. I snatched my coat from my cubby and fell into the back of the line. The air was cold and crisp for October. I hugged my coat closer, as a sudden chill scurried up my spine. The coat smelled like my mother’s freesia perfume and my favorite chicken noodle soup that I had almost every night for dinner. I inhaled the familiar scent, suddenly wishing my mother were there with me. I immediately shook off the thought. I knew she was busy and she would not want me to bother her at work. Through the mud I made my way to the play structure, which was completely deserted. All the other kids said only baby kindergartners played on the structure. But, I liked the playground. It was quiet and the raindrops always glistened on the bright plastic like diamonds. I spread my raincoat under me and swung on the wet swing until it was time to go inside.

At Circle Time, we all sat on the plush, sea green carpet. Eager to redeem myself from the morning, I listened intently as Ms. Baker read a story aloud. I soaked up every syllable, and gave her my complete attention. Later we had to write about the story on a lined piece of paper. I wrote about how I liked the story because it was happy, like I had seen Cari and the other kids write countless times. I stopped writing about not liking the story long ago, when the teacher had become angry at me for it. We had free time until lunch. I walked right over to the book shelf and picked out my favorite: a small, weathered copy of “Cinderella.” The book had been torn apart and taped back together many times, but the vibrant pictures were still are pretty as ever. I read it over and over again, stroking my finger along Cinderella’s ball gown and her sparkling shoes. The book was beautiful, with brightly colored drawings and a soft, worn cover. Kids had written things all over it, but it still kept a certain beauty. After reading the book as many times as I could without becoming bored, I joined two other girls at the sand area, who were building a castle. I kept to myself on the other side of the box, trying to build my own. Even after what seemed like a very long time, all I had was a shapeless lump. I tried again and again to build my castle, never making it past my lump.
Soon, the bell rang for lunch. Sharp and loud. I joined the traffic to the cubbies, to dig my lunch out of my backpack and proceed to the stuffy, crowded cafeteria.

“Nice boots, Beatrice,” Cari flashed a smile in my direction, and then went to giggle with her friends. I walked hunched over so my dress would cover the boots. As all the kids were scrambling for the cafeteria doors, I hurriedly exchanged my rain boots for sneakers and followed them out.

The sneakers were very used. They had passed through two cousins before me. But, anything was better than the ugly, red rain boots I had been wearing. I spotted a small tear in the flesh of my shoe. I knew water would seep right through them, but I kept them on. Rushing, I shoved the boots into the bottom of my cubby, under a layer of broken pencils and bits of erasers and drawings I hadn’t taken home.

I spent the rest of the day in my sneakers. We had to do math work after lunch. I silently groaned. I absolutely hated math work. I never understood any of it, and Ms. Baker always seemed to be calling on me. I always froze in my chair. Even when the answer was in my head I could never bring it to my lips. As Ms. Baker talked about number lines, I lay my cheek on my cool desk. The minutes ticked by slowly. I drifted away from the quiet sounds of kids working around me and closed my eyes. It was suddenly very foggy. I was standing outside the school. The rain was soft and icy against my warm face. All the kids stood in front of me in matching pink rain boots. I looked down at my own red boots.

“Beatrice! Up this instant!” My head snapped up. Ms. Baker looked furious. Everyone around me was snickering. I sat in the corner for the rest of math time.

A second bell indicated the end of another school day. I took my time as I walked out the main gates and started the trip home. I was used to walking home alone; I had been ever since the first grade started. I loved the walk. It was my favorite time of day. I meandered through the pretty town, passing meadows and ponds. I walked past tall, intimidating houses. Cruel and beautiful, like Cari’s. Houses with perfectly trimmed bushes and “touch-me-not” lawns glared at me as I ambled by. Tinted windows and sharp, white fences kept me out. They were too perfect. Every extra crunchy red leaf on the lawn was swept way and every extra twig on the tall oaks was broken off. Gleaming cars were parked outside along long winding driveways, looking as though brand new. These unfriendly houses stood all the way up until the river.

I crossed the swing bridge, pausing to admire the murky currents under me. The bridge was weak and creaky, as if it took much effort for it to stretch across the wide river and support me. Even though the river was small, it seemed huge, roaring below me, and the bridge over it was almost insignificant. I was very careful as I crossed, expecting the wood buckle under me any second. But, it never did, faithfully taking me to my side of the river.

On the other side of the bridge, houses were scattered all about. There was no order or set up. The lawns were wild and rebellious, muddy and refusing to be kept. Chipped paint covered the sad, rundown houses. The cars parked outside did not gleam. The rusty vehicles looked as though they had survived a grave ordeal. Gnarly trees grew out of control on front lawns, their roots stretched out, embracing an entire house. I passed rows and rows of these defeated houses. I was getting closer to home. Then I arrived at my street. I walked past building after building of brick. They all looked exactly the same. My building was only recognizable by the fading number painted on the front, 16. I opened the creaky front door and made my way to the stairwell. My mother never let me use the elevator, because it was always getting stuck between two floors. I trudged up the four flights of stairs and used the key under the doormat to let myself in. Wrinkling my nose at the smell of mold, I leaned down to take off my boots.

I had forgotten the boots. They still lay, tossed into my cubby, as I had changed in a rush before lunch. I wondered if I should go back, but I did not. Let them lay there. I did not want them, anyway. Nobody would want such ugly boots. I would just let them stay. I did not care. I sat myself on the couch and waited for my mother. It was almost dark outside, but she still wasn’t home. I hoped she did not have too much work today. Whenever my mother was late from work, she was angry. She would remind me of how she was when we were not living in Manchester, sulking and distant.

Even though I had convinced myself that I did not care, waves of worry began to creep up on me. I imagined my mother’s disappointment and anger at my carelessness. I hated the repulsive boots, but I didn’t want my mother to be angry at me. She was never happy when she came home from work and the last thing I wanted was to make her crabbier. Just then, I heard the door creak open.

“I-I’m here.”
“Hi, honey. How was school today?” She wore the familiar smile, but her eyes were sunken deep into her soft skin. They drooped downwards, sad.
“It was fun,” I said, as I tried not to meet her searching gaze.
“That’s good. Where are your boots? I’ll put them on the rack to dry,” I said nothing, pretending not to hear her. “Where are they, honey? I don’t see them here,” she sounded more inpatient, as she combed the closet.
“I forgot them at school,” I finally said. She turned on her heel to face me.

“Oh! Beatrice, they were brand new!” My mother put her head in her hands. She stayed just like that for a while, staring at her calloused hands “Well, you’re not getting another pair, so you can just have wet feet for the rest of the year.” With that she stood up from the couch and went into the kitchen, the conversation was clearly over. But, I definitely couldn’t wear those boots again. They were the worst, most hideous boots ever. I followed her into the kitchen, and stood behind the bunch of mismatched stools. Images of the dreary Monday flitted through my mind. Cari’s carnation pink boots. My own ugly fire trucks. The spacious Victorian house where I could never belong.

“But…everyone at school…the boots…they all…” I began sentence after sentence, spitting out words and never quite saying what I wanted.
“Can’t you buy me another pair, mommy?” I asked, my voice whiny and cranky. I already knew her answer, but my hopes escalated anyway.
“Absolutely not. You wanted those boots,” her words were final. We were both silent as I wolfed down my pasta and went to bed as quickly as I could.

Tuesday morning I jumped out of bed and threw the floral patterned curtains open. I noted, with satisfaction, that it was raining once again. My mother would have to buy me new boots today. Even so, she did not say anything about the rain as she set down my toast and juice on the table. I waited intently for her to bring up the subject as I chewed slowly and washed down bits of bread with orange juice. I stared at her as she bustled about, lacing her sneakers for work and straightening her apron. Not a word escaped her lips, while she pulled her hair back in a secure ponytail. I was starting to worry. At 7:30 it was time for me to start the walk. I opened the closet door and dug out my own sneakers. Hesitantly, I put them on and tied them tightly.

“I expect your feet will get wet, so I’ve put some extra socks in your bag. You should get going now or you’ll be late,” she finally said. Turning from me, she grabbed her coat and left for work. I stood motionless, in shock. Finally, I started down the steps to the front door.

The rain had gotten worse. It was no longer drizzling but cascading down in great torrents. Before I had even gotten to the end of the street my feet were cold and wet. The extreme rain easily broke the barrier between my feet and my thin, tired shoes. I pulled the hood of my rain jacket tightly over my hair; however, it was of no use. I knew that by the time I made it to school I would be soaked through.

Somehow, I made it to the main door of Willard without getting the top half of my dress wet. I left muddy footprints on the surface of the spotless linoleum. Soon, I found my classroom. It was surprising that I wasn’t late, since I had left my house nearly fifteen minutes after my regular time. I squelched into Ms. Baker’s room in my sneakers. At my cubby, I peeled off my sopping socks and pulled on the new warm pair that was in my backpack. I searched under my cubby for the rain boots. They were there, exactly as I had left them the day before. As quick as I could, I shoved my feet into them and left my sneakers in their place to dry. I walked to my seat and waited for Ms. Baker to turn on the radio.

8 thoughts on “CHERRY RED

  1. dijju

    was that story really real or was it fake? how much time did it take you to write it? i really really liked it.

  2. Thanks ‘To GBG’ for point out the error/enhancement.

    This world needs more constructive criticism.

  3. “I can see how your writing is being polished with time.” I am sure if you did edit this line you would have have eliminated the phrase “being polished” with a more polished version.
    Great going Aarju, the ‘story’ is great.

  4. Aarju, I read your short story last night and enjoyed every word you wrote and, interestingly, I was thinking about your red rain boots this drizzly morning. I can see how your writing is being polished with time. Subtle observations, effortless fluency, very promising.

    Improvement suggestions: Edit thoroughly before publishing. (You could have definitely avoided that error in the fourth sentence, for example). Considering the profundity of the writing, Beatrice, a first grader, could have been more believable if written in the third person. But, of course, writing in the first person gives you the advantage of readily exposing your characters to the audience.

    Beatrice somehow weirdly reminded me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. I read that book a long time back and I think I will read it again one day.

    Aarju, your writing already has the power to stimulate. Please do keep writing and sharing.

  5. This is what school children in America go through everyday. Very well elaborated article and flow is good too. Keep it up.

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