The umbrella shone like a warning light at the end of the walkway.
Against the sodden wood and dreary sky, the red seemed eye-wateringly bright. Or maybe that was the tears. Dana wiped them from her cheeks, although the misty rain had long ago reduced all of her to a soggy mess. Her hair dripped, creating steady rivulets of water that meandered across her jacket and landed with a plop on her wool skirt. Her mother would scold her and bundle her off to bed with a cup of cocoa if she knew Dana was out here in the rain.
But how could she leave the park when any minute, Carole might come back?
A bone-deep chill had settled over her by the time shadows deepened yet the park remained empty. She could picture her mother, standing by the sink in her neat flowered dress and apron, staring out at the window with that little line between her eyebrows. She did that when her father was late getting home. Hazard of being a policeman’s wife, Dana would guess.
Dana didn’t want to worry her mother, but she just wouldn’t understand about Carole. About the way she made Dana’s heart race and her hands tremble. The way it had felt to fall asleep together in Carole’s twin size bed, pressed close together under the pink, quilted coverlet. The way she’d woken the other night with her hand up under Carole’s nightgown, cupping the soft swell of her breast.
Carole had liked it, Dana was sure of that. Dana had heard Carole moan softly and squirm against her. They’d both liked it when Carole had flipped onto her back and they’d somehow wound up kissing, legs intertwined, rocking and grabbing at each other until something in her seemed to break free and send a warm flush through her whole body.
Dana knew there was something vaguely wrong about what they’d done, but she figured as long as they didn’t talk about it, it would be fine. But Carole couldn’t look at her over the pancakes Mrs. Andrews made them. And the next day at school she’d acted like Dana didn’t exist. They’d been friends since kindergarten for goodness sake.
It had taken a week of begging and pleading to even get Carole to meet her in the park after school, but she’d seemed like a different person as she stood under her red umbrella. Her long ponytail swished back and forth as she shook her head and told Dana they were no longer friends.
And now she was gone, leaving nothing but the umbrella she’d left in her haste to get away.
“Dana Price, your mother was worried sick! What on earth are you doing sitting here in the rain?” Dana tore her eyes away from the umbrella to find her father striding toward her, his uniform making him look even more imposing than usual.
Dana opened her mouth, but the words wouldn’t come out. Kevin Price’s scowl deepened, but there was an edge of concern. “Come on, we’re going home.”
Too tired to argue, she stood and let him tuck her under his arm. He bundled her into the police car, wrapped a blanket around her shoulders, and turned the heater on full blast. He didn’t drive away immediately though and as warmth began to seep into her chilled limbs, she began to shiver.
“Dana.” His voice was deep. Concerned. “What happened? You’ve seemed upset all week. Did someone hurt you?”
She turned to face her father, looking at his worried hazel eyes and the words spilled out her mouth before she could stop them. She told him everything, blushing and embarrassed as she described what had happened in Carole’s bed, and how it had made her feel, but they’d always been close and she couldn’t keep this bottled up anymore.
By the time she finished, she was sure he was going to open the door of the car and tell her to get out, or take her off to the county jail. But instead, he leaned his head against the back of his seat, closed his eyes, and let out a heavy, exhausted sigh. “Oh, Dana.”
She wiped at her eyes. “I’m sorry, Daddy.” She hadn’t even realized she’d started crying again. “I won’t do it anymore and I’ll go to church and I promise I’ll never, ever—“
“NO!” His voice was harsh and she flinched, unused to hearing him raise his voice. He turned to look at her. “No,” he said more quietly, “No, that’s not the answer, Dana. That’s what I did for far too long.”
She frowned at him. “What do you mean, Daddy?” She hadn’t called him that in years, but right now she needed to pretend he could protect her from all of the scary things in the world.
“Do you remember Uncle Dan?”
She nodded, but her frown deepened. Of course she did, but what did her father’s best friend have to do with this? They’d been so close all through the police academy that her father had even named her after him. And then at some point, he’d just stopped coming around. Her mother’s lips had tightened every time she asked why Uncle Dan was never around, so she’d finally stopped asking. “Ohhh.” She blinked at her father through the damp fringe of her bangs. “You and Uncle Dan? You were like Carole and me”
Her father nodded. “I loved him.”
He looked down at his hands where they rested on the blue fabric of his uniform pants. “I love your mother, but in a different way. I thought I was doing the right thing, hiding, pretending like I was normal.”
“Does she know?”
“I don’t know.” He sighed. “Maybe. I think so. One time Dan and I were down in the basement rec room and we weren’t as discreet as we should have been. She might have overheard something. I never asked and she never confronted me.”
“That seems sad,” she said.
“It is, Puddin’,” he replied, using her childhood nickname , and she almost managed a smile. “And I don’t want that life for you. So I want you to be real careful until graduation, then go off to school, and find a way to be happy. I can’t promise it’ll be easy or that you’ll have the kind of life you deserve, but it’s gotta be better than what I have in this little town.”
“What’ll we tell Mom?”
“We’ll tell her you and Carole got in a fight over a boy. And I’ll convince her to let you go to the school in California. Maybe out there things will be easier for you. I’ve heard rumors that there are more people like … like us out there.”
He nodded and shifted the car into drive. “It’s a whole different world out there, Puddin’. And you’re gonna go live the life we both wanted.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
As they drove away from the park, Dana could see the red umbrella in the side mirror, like a beacon of hope.
Obviously, at nearly 1,500 words, I went WAY over the word count for the week, but once the story began to unfold in my head, I couldn’t stop.
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I look forward to seeing you next Monday!