“Carol Anne” by Kelly Curran

There are dogs next door, in the house to the right of Carol Anne’s. And not just one or two. She’s tried counting them based on the different barks, but she always loses track. When a siren whines down the road, they all start howling, almost screaming. It’s as if they’re mourning something, perhaps their freedom. Though Carol Anne is not one to get involved with conflict, she’s called Animal Control 3 times since moving here last year. They say there’s nothing they can do for the dogs. At night, Carol Anne stares up at the ceiling, crying, and sometimes she can hear the dogs doing the same. She wonders if the sirens take the place of the moon for them the same way her ceiling does for her. 

Carol Anne had never liked her name. The only other people she knew with the name Carol Anne were old people — plus the little girl from The Poltergeist, so that wasn’t very reassuring. To make matters worse, she had bright red hair that often took the form of an unruly mass atop her head. This hair served as a beacon in her school years, a sort of lighthouse to children, indicating their next victim. Even now, over two decades later, she can remember the jokes. There was the unoriginal “carrot top,” of course. But then there were the more insidious albeit creative ones. 

On winter days, many of the kids would huddle together outside, pushing their bodies into the various corners of the elementary school walls. Packed like penguins, they would leech off of the warmth that came from each other’s sparse body fat. Nooks that faced away from the sharp winds or falling snow were the only source of shelter for the recesses that seemed to last hours as the cold sucked away any possibility of fun, or humidity, from the air. The teachers who had endured years of this arctic cold would insist they “move around to generate heat, tough it out,” but the kids never listened. They insisted rather on taking rotating turns in the middle of the huddle, so one child got a brief reprieve from the cold, for even a small moment. And it was Carol Anne’s turn next. 

As the make-believe timer ended, signaling the turn was up, Carol Anne shifted in position to take the middle. But a whisper spread through the huddle. Like when one wolf begins to howl and the rest follow instinctively. As Carol Anne went to take her position in the center of the pack, she was blocked by a blonde girl in pink snow pants. 

“We all decided you don’t get a turn in the middle.” Carol Anne’s teeth chattered and she stared at that promised land, the warm center, like the middle of a brownie that was fresh out of the oven. 

“Why not?” her voice shook as she asked the question, from cold and nerves alike. 

“Because you don’t have a soul. How can you even be cold if you don’t have a soul?” The kids erupted into laughter, like a stand up comedian had just told a career-making joke. They shifted to push her out of the group and into the barren wasteland of the playground. Exile. She was alone. Exposed to the elements. She would never make it on her own. She asked to use the bathroom and spent the rest of recess sitting in the stall, breathing on her frozen fingers to warm them. 

This is the moment she would remember best. Though there were honorable mentions — sand being kicked in her face, being pushed off the swings and shoved from monkey bars — nothing came close to the world shattering loss she felt on that day. Guilt painted the memory for Carol Anne. She would look back and know she was being dramatic for holding onto that loss, silly. Surely other kids had experienced much worse, as childhood is unkind to even the prettiest, blondest of children. But Carol Anne came to the conclusion that just because someone else suffers more than you doesn’t mean you can’t still be upset about your life. 

And Carol Anne was. She was very upset about her life. She was 28 and unemployed. Her boyfriend of 4 years had dumped her for another woman with a prettier name. And to make matters worse, all the bars she frequented were closed. 

Some days she secretly liked it. Everything that came with The Pandemic. She liked staying inside and pretending she wasn’t missing out  because there was nothing going on to miss out on. She liked binge watching television all day and staying in bed, eating her weight in snacks. She liked wearing the same pair of stained sweats until she did her monthly laundry routine. She liked all of this… until she didn’t anymore.

The onset of winter had not only brought the cold and bleak, but also a weighted blanket of renewed despair. The grey skies blotted out any thought of vitamin D. The snow fell in beautiful sheets, which would have been mesmerizing if it weren’t so isolating. The snow absorbed any hint of sound, any indication of life; it consumed Carol Anne as well. 

 As the dauntingly new year approached, Carol Anne had made a decision to stop feeling sorry for herself. She was going to do all of the things her body and brain had not allowed the year before. She was going to get in shape, find new friends, new hobbies, and a new man who treated her right. To break her isolation, she would even attempt to bond with her roommate’s cat, Hank, who notoriously hated her. 

She was determined on all of these points for about two days. In which time she managed to twist her ankle, stab her finger on a sewing needle, and face rejection, yet again, from Hank. At least his name was worse than hers…

And, the sinking feeling returned. Carol Anne realized something she had secretly known all along. A new year doesn’t really mean anything. For some people, it’s an incentive to try and change the way they live or maybe upgrade their lives. For Carol Anne, it just ended up being a reminder that it had been ONE WHOLE YEAR since she had actually worked out. A reminder that the mind and body are not suddenly more capable of something they had not been capable of two days ago.

Under the microscope of the new year, Carol Anne saw her life for what it was: hopeless and solitary. And as her new year’s resolutions fell away one by one, she started picking up even worse habits. A reverse-resolution of sorts.

It was only when her nails got too long, purely out of necessity, she assured herself. She didn’t own any nail clippers. But eventually, she would chew them to the nub, so short that the tips of her fingers would begin to bleed. And she wasn’t quite sure why she did it…

She read about Freud, the stuff about the oral and anal phases. Freud believed that the reason people are messed up as adults is because their parents messed them up as kids, with Carole Anne specifically falling in the “Birth to 18 months” bracket, the oral fixation stage of life. Freud would attribute this to the fact that she didn’t wean properly; maybe her mother had an issue with breastfeeding. But she wasn’t convinced. 

Carol Anne believed nature ruled over nurture. She had willingly smoked her first cigarette at 16, and she had not liked it one bit. She later described it to the feeling of water going down the wrong tube,and the hacking and coughing to get the feeling out of there. She didn’t smoke or bite her nails for a very long time after that, so logically, that should have ruled Carol Anne out for an oral fixation. But here she was, 12 years later, smoking cigarettes and masticating fingernails like her actual life depended on it. And by that point, it very well might have. 

 It seemed, to her, that her life had been paused on a very depressing scene and she had no way of pressing the play button again. She would smoke her evening cigarette watching the sunset, the way the milky oranges and reds bled into one another. And she got the feeling her life would probably be exactly like this until the day she died.

Carol Anne lies in bed,  listening to the sirens retreat and the howling begin. It won’t stop for a while; it may be 10 minutes before the frenzy calms and the dogs finally realize the sirens weren’t meant for them in the first place. It’s all different sorts of barks: deep intimidating ones, harsh frantic cries and sad crooning howls. It’s in this moment that Carol Anne realizes she hasn’t slept well in days, maybe weeks. It’s hard to tell when everything is blurring together. These days, the smallest noises keep her up; the dogs’ howling of course, but even Hank, the cat, makes a mid-night ruckus. Her roommate, however — a faux animal activist — says she can’t sleep just because she’s thinking about “those poor little doggies…” 

Carol Anne doesn’t have to see the dogs to know that they are not sweet, they are not cute, and they could put her out of her misery if she let them. Which, in her desperation, she has considered a few times. She supposes something must have happened to those dogs in their “Birth to 18 months” bracket that changed them permanently. They probably could have been sweet family dogs, good around children, or at the very least plucky strays eating out of trash cans and avoiding getting hit by cars. But they’re chained, locked in a yard so filthy the snow has turned brown, and she can hear the pain in their voice when they speak. Carol Anne lies awake thinking that there must be some animals that just aren’t worth saving. 

The dogs finally settle and she closes her bagged eyes for just a moment when a nearby sound immediately prompts them to open again. It’s Hank, she can already tell, but she fixes her ears toward the door so she can make him out better. 

Hank’s developing some quarantine habits as well. Lately he’s been pacing around the house at the most inconvenient of times, meowing at everything. And not a regular cat’s meow either. It’s a non-stop chirping, purring chorus that sounds more like birds or crickets than an actual cat. Carol Anne might find it cute if she could sleep. 

As another chirp escapes from Hank, she can’t help but wonder what he’s meowing at out in the living room. She reaches for her phone, tucked under her pillow, and googles “What do cat meows mean?” The first article states that “the trills and chirps cats make signify their excitement or happiness” over something. Carol Anne props up on one elbow and looks around the mostly empty room; what the hell is there to be excited for in this place?

She sluggishly gets up to use the bathroom before another attempt at sleep, leaving her room behind and venturing out into the hallway. But before she can close the bathroom door, Hank runs in behind her, chittering the whole time. He’s pacing, like he’s been waiting for her to do this for ages. Carol Anne stares at Hank, bathroom door still ajar. At his pure excitement over just being alive. And she wonders why she can’t feel the same way. She sits on the toilet as Hank explores the bathroom. He circles back to her and brushes up against her leg. Suddenly all the pent up months of isolation, fear and doubt coming flooding out of her. 

Sitting on the toilet, with the sweatpants she’s been wearing for 5 straight days bunched around her ankles, she starts to sob. Heavy sobs, like waves washing someone out to sea. She covers her mouth, not wanting her roommate to hear her. But then she thinks of the dogs next door and how they don’t care who hears them. So she cries aloud, knowing she can never be loud enough to get this sinking feeling out of her stomach.  Knowing that no one will come to rescue her. 

Most animals would be terrified by this display of suffering, thinking perhaps the human is dying and it’s best to leave it alone in their embarrassing pain. They might run away, or hide, or possibly ignore it in that way cats are so capable of ignoring. But not Hank. 

As Carol Anne continues to match the dogs in decibel, Hank runs out of the bathroom in a hurry. When he returns, he has his favorite toy, a mangled, felt mouse, dangling from his teeth. But Carol Anne is too busy relinquishing herself to the last few months to notice. Hank sets the mouse by her feet and he begins to cry with her —  a high chirping cry — until she takes notice and shudders to a stop. 

She wipes the tears from her rosacea cheeks. Carol Anne looks at Hank, who looks right back. He nudges the mouse in front of her, perhaps asking her to join in his make-believe game of cat and mouse. He does his meow again, the one that means he’s excited. Carol Anne can’t believe she could be the cause of such commotion. She stands upright and pulls her sweatpants to her waist. She scrounges her memory for the last time she was excited to see anyone, but comes up empty. And what’s more, she can’t remember the last time anyone was excited to see her either. Hank paws at his mouse, pushing it even closer to her. She picks it up, throws it out into the hallway. Hank runs for it in a burst of energy. Carol Anne assumes this is the end of their game, the end of his excitement. But just as she creeps back to her bedroom Hank returns, ready for her to throw the mouse again. Carol Anne smiles, reaches down and picks up the mouse. In the distance a siren wails, just loud enough to hear. The dogs next door remain silent. 

Kelly Curran received her B.A. in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles in September of 2019. She grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and currently resides in Los Angeles as a screenwriter, actress, blogger and podcast host. You can find her work on Spotify under “The Table Roast” or her blog at kellyasap.wordpress.com. Instagram @pole.princess.

Photo by Nick Bolton on Unsplash