Palo Alto Weekly 19th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Adult

Blown to Cheyenne

by Mary Lee McNeal

About Mary Lee McNeal

Mary Lee McNeal of Palo Alto won first place for "Blown to Cheyenne," a poignant account of an unsteady moment in the friendship of two fourth-grade girls in a windy Wyoming town.

When the main character in "Blown to Cheyenne" allows her best friend's silk scarf to fly away before a snowstorm, she confounds herself, her friend, her teacher and her father by making up elaborate excuses for the disloyal act.

"I wanted to write about that struggle that a child must continue, to live a life of the imagination with love of language at its center," McNeal said. "I also like trying to show the kinds of struggles young girls have over friendships."

McNeal, 61, is a writer and poet who in 2002 published her first book, "The Space Between Us," available at Kepler's Bookstore. With an agent in New York, she is currently trying to publish a novel.
McNeal grew in Rawlins, Wyoming, and incorporated memories of the austere weather of her hometown in "Blown to Cheyenne." The story is part of a series of shorts the author is writing with interwoven characters.

"To me, it's a very quiet, but central story in this compilation, because it places the weather at the center of the reader's consideration," she said, adding that Rawlins sits on a high plateau where "the wind just roars.

-- Tony Burchyns

The year was 1949. The children on the asphalt playground were huddled in small groups for warmth, except for a few boys who ran yelling in purposeless circles, as if the wind drove them. The nuns had quickly herded them outside when the bell rang ten minutes earlier. If it snowed, students were allowed to stay in the classrooms for recess, and it looked as if a blizzard might blow in soon, but at 10:15 only a few isolated, dry flakes fell. Sister Barbara, at the classroom window, pressing her thighs in thick black skirts against the heater under the window ledge, heaved a sigh and said a prayer of thanks for fifteen minutes of peace.

Outside, Lily and Carol, best friends, stood apart from the rest of the fourth graders, shoulders hunched against the wind, faces close enough that the steam from their two mouths rose in one cloud. Lily's thin face was tense, her nose red and cheeks pale, dark blue eyes wide. A gust of wind wrapped itself around her knees. She'd left her leggings on a hook in the classroom, and knew better than to try to get back inside before recess was over. Carol stuffed her mittenless hands in her sleeves. Pieces of her dark red hair escaped the scarf she wore and blew across her face. The girls turned their backs to the wind, but it swept up the hems of their wool coats. Lily shivered. Carol made a series of little jumps to warm herself. She watched Lily's face change when she mentioned Heidi, the latest in a series of library books they shared. Each night Lily read a chapter and gave the book to Carol to read the next night. Then they talked. Carol wanted to discuss Peter, the goatherd, but Lily wouldn't stop talking.

"I was bawling my eyes out about the Alm Uncle!" Lily said. "He must have been so lonely! Just when he starts to love her, she gets taken away! She was the one thing--" A gust whipped the tied ends of Carol's silk scarf, bright yellow with swirls of pink, orange, and red, over her mouth. Lily's eyes widened.

"Oh! Where'd you get . . ."

The wind took the last words, but Carol knew what she'd said.

"It's my mom's," Carol answered, touching the silk fabric. "She left it on the bench by the fireplace, so I grabbed it. She'll never know I took it if I put it back tonight." She grinned, a chipped front tooth giving her round face a touch of the rogue. "Doesn't it look like sunshine?" They often talked about going together someday to a place in California they'd heard the sun never stopped shining; they called it Holywood.

Lily felt the scratchy wool of her headscarf against her cheeks and under her chin. "Oh, it does. Almost like fire! Please, can I wear it? Just for a minute?" The colors of the scarf made her feel something physical, like hunger. The landscape around them lacked any color except various shades of gray, white and brown, and if you were very observant and could stand to stay outside long enough to see it, a hard silvery glint in the sky. The days and weeks that would follow would contain the same absence of color.

Lily begged until Carol agreed to trade. They carefully gripped the ends of the two scarves as they passed them to each other. It took Carol only seconds to secure the plaid wool around her head, but Lily had a harder time tying the silk scarf, getting it to stay on her fine, slick hair. She had to tie it very tight and still it wanted to slide down. She pulled it up over her ears repeatedly, until it stayed. She took off a mitten with her teeth and slid her fingers over the tied ends. The soft silk fed her hunger.

After some talk about the Alm Uncle, Carol wanted to trade back again. "This thing itches like crazy," she said, rubbing her chin where the wool square was knotted.

"Oh, not yet. I just got it to stay! Just 'til Sister rings the bell. Please?" Lily begged.

Just then Betty Tyler joined them.

"Selfish." Betty clicked her tongue at Lily. She'd apparently heard everything they'd said. "It's Carol's scarf and she wants it back. Stop begging like a little brat." The tassled ends of Betty's knitted hat made a red line under her chin. Carol smiled at her. Lily's spirits sagged. She glared at Betty. Her frizzy bangs stuck out under the hat, and her freckles looked like dirt, Lily thought.

"You just want to wear it yourself," she said, hearing the childish tone in her own voice, feeling already the loss of the silky scarf, its colors, maybe of Carol. A tangle that rose when Betty was present was something Carol was unaware of, and something Lily didn't yet know how to work.

"I want it back right now," Carol yelled, Betty at her elbow.

Lily untied the knot at her throat, holding tight to one hand-stitched corner. She wasn't sure she meant to let it go, only that the tiny act of lifting her index finger from her thumb would let it become the wind's affair. Then the wind had it; it snapped and flared as Carol jumped but failed to catch it. The three girls stood in a circle, chins rising, eyes moving slowly upward, as the bright cloth billowed and rose like a flame against the steel-colored sky. It whipped and whirled, higher and higher, until it disappeared into thick clouds. Lily was as shocked as the other two. She'd guessed a corner of the rough brick building, one of the bare branches of the trees near the church, or the tall weeds in the vacant lot across the street would catch it. Then she'd have run, with some drama, to retrieve it. But no, it had blown straight up over their heads and away.

She quickly told herself, and prepared to convince Carol and Betty, that it had been an accident, but Carol was already running toward the school door. "I'm going to tell Sister!" she howled. "That was my mom's best scarf! You knew that!"

Betty was right behind Carol, yelling back at Lily, "You are in so much trouble!"

Lily stood on the playground and watched the two pull together on the door to get it open. Her light brown hair was already blown into tangled strings across her face. She felt guilt and worry, but she also felt a quickening, an excitement she hadn't expected. What would happen now? It was out of her hands. She stood still as the other kids ran toward the sound of the hand bell Sister Barbara rang. Alone on the playground, Lily listened to the wind. It will snow soon, she thought. She slowly turned toward the door, which had already closed behind the last student.

Inside, Sister Barbara had had enough. It was March! Jesus, Mary and Joseph, how long could this weather go on? It could get anyone down; half the kids had colds and coughs, there were no substitute teachers available, Gerry Meyer was making her class a living hell, and now, spoiled Carol Stevens, who never paid attention in class and had too much in the way of material goods and too little in the way of discipline, stood in the hall near the stairs whining that Lily Ryan, one of her prize students, had thrown Carol's mother's "best scarf" to the wind.

"She did it on purpose, too!" Betty Tyler chimed in. "I saw the whole thing!" she blurted, "Lily meant to do it; I saw!"

The nun marched to the stairs, looking for Lily.

Lily, when the nun confronted her, launched into an elaborate description of how the wind "snatched the scarf like a live thief." The nun decided Lily's flights of imagination, her recent tendency towards exaggerated language, needed to be squelched. She counted on kids like Lily to keep things steady in this harsh place, where she was stuck until her superiors decided to move her, where the train's whistle was about the saddest sound she'd ever heard. Kids like Lily were the only hope against a classroom full of Gerry Meyers.

"Enough dramatics, Lily. Did you try to find the scarf?" she asked, her voice sharper than she'd planned.

"Sister." Lily said, lifting her chin and looking directly into the nun's eyes. "That scarf is probably in Cheyenne by now."

The nun drew her lips together, suddenly furious. So sure, this formerly mealy-mouthed snip of a girl sounded! So willing to admit that nothing-no scarf, no intention of finding it, no human endeavor at all could prevail against that wind. The girl was becoming just a little too carried away with herself. She wanted to shake Lily, who had never sounded sure of anything before, was afraid of fractions and most of her classmates. When, how, had she become so bold? She grabbed the girl's shoulder and steered her towards the door of the classroom.

"You listen to me, Missy. You go right back out there and find it. And don't come back until you have." The nun turned her back on Lily and entered the classroom, her skirts swishing around her ankles.

Lily's mouth fell open. Didn't the nun know it was impossible to recover the scarf ? What did she want? Lily dreaded going back out there. Sister Barbara had no idea how cold it was. By now the rest of the class was crowding into the room. Sister Barbara's attention was immediately diverted by some tussle going on near the coat rack. Lily buttoned herself into her coat, found her leggings and put them on, located her wool scarf under Carol's coat. She took her time, hoping the nun would change her mind, but Sister Barbara's hands were on Gerry Meyer's shoulders as the boy squirmed and yelled, and the other kids stared.

She'd forgotten about Lily.

Lily dragged herself down the flight of stairs, and pushed against the heavy door until she managed to slide through to the outside. The cold hit her in the face, stung her eyes.

She didn't even try to look for the scarf. She hoped it was in Cheyenne, or at least Laramie, or better yet, flying over the pine forest on the Snowy Range. Hurrying across the playground and crossing the street toward downtown, she thought about the nun's fury. You shouldn't have sounded so sure, she told herself. Adults hate that.

Snow began to fall, sticking already to trees, buildings, the tops of her boots. Large flakes caught on her bangs and eyelashes. Home was too far to walk in this cold, but It was only three short blocks to her father's office. He would call her mother, who would know what to do. Lily hoped a great blizzard was blowing in, like the one in February, when they cancelled school for days and hungry deer came into their back yard. The snow had blown sideways; it had stopped everything, drifted over cars, trucks, porches, buildings. It had hidden completely the tumbled rocks on the west end of town, so that they appeared to be a great, white, jagged mountain.

She watched from the corner curb as a semi-truck on the main street through town turned, its rear wheels sliding out of control, then back on track again. She imagined the scarf caught on the highest tree in the forest she'd stared up into last summer on Snowy Range. She walked faster, thinking how easily a beautiful thing could be lost. She'd only meant to let it go, not to lose it permanently. She let the wind push her along the sidewalk towards her father's office.

When she arrived there, she quickly gave a tearful version of the wind-as-thief story to the secretary, Myra Jenks. Myra, who was always nice to the Ryan children, immediately fussed over her, made her stand by the heater, gave her a drink of hot chocolate from her desk Thermos, and knocked quietly on the frosted glass on the top half of the closed door to Lily's father's office. When Myra gestured at Lily to come into the office, Lily stood, a little wobbly. Some drops of chocolate spilled on her hand and she licked them off. Myra took the cup, smiling in a way women of a certain age with no children smiled. Lily's mother was not going to smile like that.

Her father's expression was both annoyed and distracted. He didn't really look at her, although she tried to catch his eye, hoping to engage him in conversation. She wanted to try out the word sly, about the wind. But he picked up the phone and gave their home number to the operator, ignoring her.

"This is a bad business, Lily -- I don't expect trouble at school." her father said as he waited for her mother to answer the phone. Lily could sense his agitation, his impatience. She wished they were home, where he would at least look at her, maybe talk about words. She decided that any drama, any talk, really, would be wasted on him now. She said the word to herself. Sly. She loved the way the sound of the word brought up others: quiet and hide. Maybe she was sly. It would be a long time, she decided, before she would be free of adults, of their silent declarations of who she was and who she should be.

She listened as her father spoke into the receiver, "Kathleen, you'll have to come down to my office to get Lily. Yes, yes, she's fine. Some business about a scarf, says the nun won't let her come back -- All right. Be careful." He glanced out the window. "It's coming down heavy."

He still didn't look at her, saying, "Tell Myra to take you downstairs to watch for your mother." He was already shuffling through papers piled on his desk. Her mother would have to fix this, as she fixed all matters concerning her children.

Waiting at the door beside Myra, Lily stood on tiptoe to watch fat, swirling flakes stick together and begin to cover objects: the fire hydrant, three cars parked on Spruce street, a bench on the sidewalk. When the storm ended and the wind over the white world grew quiet, somewhere above the snow, or under it, the scarf would carry on its existence, Lily thought. Even if it was ripped, pieces of bright color would be somewhere. She thought about Carol. She couldn't predict what would happen next with their friendship, with the nun, with her parents. But she knew it would all seem small, for a time, in the face of the storm that was coming.

By letting landscape, gesture, and dialogue stand for specific but ineffable circumstances of the heart, the writer deftly catches and crystallizes the protagonist's vision of her life and its predicaments. With grace and detail, the story touches upon this girl's quicksilver emotions as she tries to make sense of the mysteries of living.

--Mike Nagler

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