The Polka Dot Dress This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

By , Fort Wayne, IN
The grass was soft under my feet, springing up nimbly as my small shoes trod over it as I skipped across the field, doll in hand, beside my sister while my mother and two younger brothers followed behind. We concluded our fruitless search of the grass for my sister’s doll’s shoe, and Samantha wore only one shoe that day. I think that shoe just might have saved our lives.
I glanced up at the trees, my blonde hair swinging from side to side as I chased after my sister, the tall bows far above my head swaying in the gentle breeze, the sun shining brilliantly. We cut to the left, towards the cracked sidewalk and street and away from the small cemetery that seemed large to me from my small viewpoint. Being six doesn’t give you much height from which to view the world.
We ran across the street, my sister and I, laughing, leaping over the grass and dirt of the front yard and up the two cement steps to the white porch and screen door. We are laughing as we pull it open, our arms laden down with carrying Kirsten and Samantha, our ever faithful companions. The robin’s egg blue floorboards of the porch are chipping under our feet, but we don’t even see them as we push open the heavier front door and step into the living room with its pale green walls and wood floors with knots and grease stains. Building toys are spread across the floor, Lincoln logs, tinker toys, building blocks, Lego’s, most of the morning’s creations stomped into the floor by small feet or swept aside by little hands. No matter, they will be rebuilt, bigger and better than before.
My sister and I slip off our shoes, still disappointed at the loss of the shiny black shoe that is absent from Samantha’s foot, but we will have to find boots for her to wear instead. Up the stairs with bare feet scuffing on the floor, we go, turning the corner of the hall and into our bedroom with its ugly, pink floral wall paper that we do not even see. We are hell bent on the tub that holds the doll clothes, in desperate search of shoes for Samantha’s feet. We find them, little mauve boots that are ugly as sin, but we think they are beautiful, and on they go, onto the little doll feet so that Kirsten and Samantha are now wearing matching shoes.
Mom is calling for us downstairs, her voice echoing in the stairwell. Up we get, leaving the mess we have made and taking our dolls as we thunder down the stairs, our little feet making a noise that could be likened to thunder.
“Get your shoes on,” she says. “Let’s go see Daddy.”
We scamper to where we have left our shoes beside the door, eager to make the short trek through the cemetery to the campus where Daddy teaches and climb the stairs to the little, dusty attic office where our artwork is taped to the door. Maybe we can go to the library, and run through the empty rows listening to the echo of our footsteps or stand at the windows and stare at our house from stories up. Maybe. But we don’t.
Dad comes through the door, but my sister and I aren’t paying much attention. We look up and smile, say high, then focus again on putting on our shoes while the dolls sit beside us.
“There’s a gunman on campus,” I hear Daddy say.
Mommy doesn’t believe him. “You’re joking.” She almost laughs, but not quite. The shock keeps her from laughing.
“No, I’m not. There’s a gunman on campus.”
I didn’t exactly know what was happening. Gunmen do not exist in my world. Or they didn’t, up until then. I imagined an old man with silver white hair and a hunting rifle. At least, I think I did. That’s what I imagined years later, anyway. Just then I was staring at my shoes on my little feet, and wondering if maybe we left Samantha’s shoe at the neighbors’ or if it is still in the field beside the cemetery, waiting to be found.

I watched from the porch at times, others from the screen door, my hands pressed against the glass. The big white house I called home became a safe house to more people than just me and my family. People came flocking over from the campus, through the cemetery, and stood in the porch and living room.
The field that just minutes before had been subject to a search by children for a doll’s shoes now became a parking lot for Emergency vehicles. Ambulances, Police Cars, Fire trucks, News vehicles...they fill the field, trampling the soft grass into the earth with wheels and feet much bigger than my own so that it cannot just spring up again and be just the same as it was before. Off in the distance, I see a helicopter land. It comes down slowly, landing in another nearby field. It’s an emergency helicopter, but I don’t care. I don’t care that it is here to airlift injured people to the hospital because the Ambulance is not fast enough. Life flight means nothing to me. It’s just a helicopter, and I don’t often get to watch one land, so I cannot take my eyes from it. I can feel my sister beside me, her eyes fixed on it as well, captivated as I am.
“Mom! There’s a helicopter!” I yell, Mom comes over and watches the helicopter for a minute, but it isn’t as fun for her as it is for me. It means something different to Mommy.
After a while Mom and Dad put on a movie and I sit between my brother and sister on the sofa, watching The Hobbit unfold on the old TV. I’m not even distracted by the people milling around. All I care about is the story.
“Can we check the news?” Daddy asks nicely just as we reach the part where Smaug is lying on his bed of gold.
My siblings and I nod, knowing that Daddy is only being polite and they are going to check the news anyway. On the table next to the TV is a little black radio, a little dusty, and a voice is issuing from it. I don’t pay attention to the radio, but watch as black and gray fuzzy lines wave across the screen and obscure Smaug from view.

The gunman shot four people, all of them monks. Friends of ours had to lock themselves in the basement and pray that they would be safe. Of the four shot, two died. The gunman, once he had wreaked havoc on this little world of monks and people who live in peace, entered the church, and slipped into the back pew where my family always sat. And shot himself.

My father went to the funeral. I didn’t go, and I didn’t want to go. Daddy always went to work without me, so I didn’t feel left behind. But he came home so that Mommy could go to the funeral. And I wanted to go to that. Mommy never went anywhere without me, and I fussed to be brought along. But the answer was no.
Mommy cried.
I watched as Mommy dressed for the funeral. She never really wore dark colors, so she only owned a navy dress with big white polka dots. I watched her as she stood in the yellow bedroom, slipping into that dress, and watched as she went to the full length mirror with its big oak frame, where it sat in a corner, and straightened it. She was crying. Tears were sliding down her face, her hands pulling at the dress to straighten it. I was still unhappy that I was not going with her, but I was sad that Mommy was crying. Mommy does not cry. It was the first time I can ever recall that I saw Mommy cry. But cry she did as she walked out the door and across the street and through the cemetery to the burial, her back to me as I watched from the porch window, this time all alone. I watched her go, and then I turned and went inside to play with my brother and sister until Mommy returned. I don’t remember if she was crying when she came back. I don’t remember her coming back at all. She did, but that’s all I remember, watching her walk away in the polka dot dress.

On Sunday, my mother walked into the church, beautiful and composed. Mothers are always beautiful, but not all mothers are strong. And mine is strong. She led the way, carrying my littlest brother, and entered the pew. The very last pew. And we followed her, never questioning. All throughout Mass I was bored, and I stared at the wood of the pew in front of us, wondering if there was still blood on it. Everything had been cleaned away, but not a soul there could ignore the fact that the peace of the little world, even in the sanctuary of the church, had not gone unaltered.
After Mass Father came and he kissed my mother’s cheek, tears in his eyes, and he thanked her for taking her seat.
This pew was where my mother always sat and prayed, knelt to say her prayers and scold us for misbehaving, and she would take her seat, blood or no blood having been split there. That’s the kind of strong my Mother is.

I skipped home, through campus and across the street, climbing the steps to the cemetery under the shade of the tree, innocent and happy, flanked by my brother and sister. But only a few steps into that blessed yard of stones, my mother called to us, telling us to stop and pray. She led us to the graves, no stones marking them, and told us to say a prayer for the poor souls that had died. She knew we couldn’t put faces to the names, because the good men we had lost were people to us, not names, and the names on the little plastic markers meant nothing. These were just graves...
We said our prayers hurriedly, eager to go home and change into clothes for play, but as my brother toddled away and my sister hurriedly concluded her prayer, I slowed down to finish mine.
Pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death...
I could smell the grass and the fresh turned earth as I crouched next to the two fresh graves, all the colors saturated and the breeze blowing, stirring my hair and clothes. I couldn’t resist, and I reached out, almost guiltily, knowing that I should leave the grave untouched. My small fingers touched the fresh dirt and I scooped up a small handful, letting it trickle down through my fingers, leaving a fine dust on my hand along with the scent of earth.
“Amen.”
I finished the prayer and stood up quickly, dusting my hand off on my skirt, and ran over the grass towards my family, eager to catch up with my sister so I wasn’t alone, leaving the graves behind me.

We never did find that shoe.





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