“You ready, Betty?” I hear my friend Alexa call from the other room.
“Almost, give me a second!” I struggle with the plastic wrap, pulling one more layer over my plate of cookies.
“Let’s go see the fire trucks!” Alexa says.
I pick up the cookies and hurry into the front room, where Alexa waits with Carrie. We all live together in this big house. Alexa leaves sometimes to ski in the special Olympics. I don’t do anything like that. Carrie’s learning how to take care of our paperwork. Noah is teaching her. She’s new, but that just means she’s a new friend. Good enough for me.
“Let’s go to the fire trucks!” I rush past them to the door.
“Have a good time!” Noah calls to us from the other room. I like him. He’s like my dad, but he lives with me. He takes care of us. Most of us in the house are different in some way. Some of my friends can’t hear, and some hear voices that aren’t there. I only hear regular things, but they say I have Down Syndrome.
Alexa pulls a beanie on over her thick grey hair and grins. I carefully balance my plate of cookies in just one hand and open the door. The weather’s pretty good; cold of course, with some clouds in the sky, but at least it’s not rainy. We walk up the sidewalk through the neighborhood.
“What are the cookies for?” Carrie asks. I look over and grin at her. Today she’s wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and a broad, energetic smile.
“They’re for the firefighters!”
“I’m sorry, what was that?” She looks like she can’t understand me. I don’t know why. For some reason a lot of people seem to have trouble understanding me.
“Betty loves the firefighters,” Alexa explains to Carrie.
“I know she does!” Carrie grins. Suddenly, it seems to click. “Oh, they’re for the fire fighters?” she asks.
“Yeah!” I bob my head, deciding it’s not worth it to point out that I just said that.
We round the corner onto 15th street. There are more people out on this street. People walking alone or in groups, or walking their dogs, make their way up and down both sides of the busy street. Cars and busses add a constant background hum to our conversation as we make our way down the sidewalk.
“Very cool,” Alexa says, then changes the topic as we see a lady walk two large black labs past us. They glance up at us as they pass, their brown eyes sparkling happily.
“Aww!” I cackle.
“Cute, isn’t it?” Carrie says.
I nod, remembering that she has a hard time understanding me.
“I love dogs,” she says. “Do you have a favorite type?”
I shrug. “Labs.” I try to speak loudly and slowly.
I nod, smiling that she understood me.
“That’s awesome! When I was a kid I had pet schnauzer, do you want to see a picture?”
Carrie reaches into her pocket, gets her phone, and with a few taps of the buttons on screen she brings up a picture of her with her dog in her lap.
“Aww, he’s cute!”
“Thank you! His name was Hercules.” Carrie puts her phone away. I like her, I think. She’s good at understanding me. Not many people are. I look around at the buildings. We’re still a few blocks from the fire station, and the cookies are going to get cold. I hope they’ll still like them.
Something crunches under my foot. I look down and see piles of salt on the ground.
I bring my foot down harder, resulting in a louder crunch. I grin.
“That’s funny, Betty,” I chuckle to myself.
“You like the salt?” Carrie says.
I nod, enthusiastic. Carrie joins in and we stomp on the salt together for a few seconds, laughing at the noise it makes.
“Wait, Betty, do we turn here?” Alexa points at one of the crosswalks.
I look up where she’s pointing. The buildings have changed. The station is down that road. I nod. “Yeah, turn here.”
Alexa presses the button to light up the sign that will let us cross. We wait. I shift from foot to foot. I do it to keep warm, but also because I’m nervous that the cookies will get cold and the firemen won’t like them.
The man lights up on the sign, and the cars stop so we can walk across. We get to the other side and start down a steep hill. The station is at the bottom of this hill. We’re getting closer!
A family is walking up the hill toward us. They have an adorable little toddler.
“Aww, he’s so cute!” I declare, smiling down at him as they get closer.
The father moves between me and the toddler, taking his child by the hand and telling him to keep walking. I frown. They didn’t let me say hi. I glance back at the family as they walk away. The mom and dad share whispers that I can’t hear, but I can see the look in their faces well enough. I scared them. I never thought I was a scary person. I’m just Betty.
People tell me that I’m different. People tell my friends that they’re saints for putting up with me. But I’m just like anyone else, aren’t I? I work at Pizza three times a week. I walk to the fire station to look at the trucks. Today is special because I’m bringing them cookies. I’ve lived in my home for almost eight years; before that I lived with my parents, but they’re getting too old to take care of me. I like dogs and babies and toddlers. I’m Betty.
So why do people seem scared or upset by me? I know Noah makes me take medicine at night for my mind. I think Carrie will too once she knows how. But lots of people take medicine. I’m not the only one that does that, so why do I seem to scare people like that mom and dad so much? I don’t know. I’m Betty, just like Carrie is Carrie or Alexa is Alexa. I’m not dangerous, I’m not scary.
I kick a pebble, and it bounces into the street. “Focus on the firefighters, Betty,” I tell myself.
I stumble a little and catch up with Alexa. The station is just a couple buildings away! We’re almost there. I crunch on the salt with Carrie a little more and we finally come to the station.
The big garage doors are closed. I can see the big fire trucks behind the glass, but the doors aren’t up, so the trucks can’t come out to the street. I walk up to the smaller side door where I can see a little office behind the window, but that door is locked too, and there isn’t anyone in the office.
“Well, looks like there isn’t anyone here today,” Carrie says. “Should we go back?”
“Nobody’s here?” I can’t believe it. I stare in through the tinted glass at the darkened room. I can see my reflection; my face stares back at me, with sad eyes and deep care lines. This can’t be right. They were supposed to be here. They need their cookies. They’re getting cold on the platter in my hands. But I can’t give them the cookies if they aren’t here!
“They have to be here.” I push my nose against the glass.
“Betty, they aren’t here.” Alexa comes up and tugs gently on my arm. “We can try again tomorrow, okay?”
“No. They need to be here!”
“Betty, we need to go back.”
“No. No!” I protest, but I don’t resist when Alexa pulls a little more firmly on my arm. I back up from the window. There’s a spot of vapor where I breathed on the glass.
We start back toward our house. Everything looks bleak. I hadn’t noticed just how heavy the gray clouds are in the sky. Carrie tries to get me to crunch the salt underfoot with her, but it isn’t fun. The salt is just gritty, crusty to the bottoms of our shoes. The city is loud. The noise of cars and people is jarring. But when we get back to the house, I’m still not relieved. Just sad. My cookies are cold. I drag myself up the stairs to my room.
* * *
I sit down at the dinner table. After we pray for our food, everyone else starts talking. I look around our table: Noah, Alexa, Bruce, and Nick are here, as usual, and Carrie is with us too. Noah turns to look at me.
“What did you do this afternoon?”
I don’t respond. “What did I do?” I mutter under my breath, where nobody can hear me but me. “Just stay in my room, I guess. Why? Betty, you should’a gone for a walk or something.”
“Noah, can you pass me a napkin?” Carrie asks. He nods and hands one to her. He looks back to me.
“How was your morning, Betty?” Noah says. “Alexa told me you went to the fire station.”
“Fire station,” I nod, sad. Wait, that’s what it was. Why I kept to myself this afternoon. The fire fighters weren’t there. My cookies got cold. I drop my fork in frustration. “They weren’t there!”
“They weren’t there?” Noah asks, a question that turns into a statement when he sees me shake my head. He can tell I’m upset. Noah is good at reading me, even though most people can’t even understand me when I talk. He leaves me to stew over my mashed potatoes. I had forgotten why I was upset, but I remember now. The firefighters need their cookies. I’ll take them to them later. I stare down into my potatoes and wait for dinner to be over.
Carrie gives me my medicine after dinner and I go back up to my room. I close my door and pull out a jigsaw puzzle I’ve been working on for a while. I stare at the pile of pieces—seven hundred and fifty brown and green tiles that are supposed to make a park in autumn. I put a couple together, but it’s slow going. Finally, the clock on my desk reads 11:00. I’ve never stayed up this late, and I’m very tired. But the firefighters need their cookies.
I start down the staircase. There’s a loud creak, and I pull my foot back. I try again, stepping on a different part of the stairs. It still creaks, but more quietly. I slowly move down the stairs, testing each carpeted stair individually before I put my weight on it, to keep it from creaking loudly. I make it down to the kitchen and stick my platter of cookies in the microwave. They’re better warm, especially when it gets this cold at night. I hope the firefighters like them.
I warm them for twenty seconds. I’m scared the low hum will wake someone up. I open the microwave when there’s still one second left to keep it from beeping and waking people up. I put some paper towels over the cookies to keep them warm. I set the platter down long enough to put on my coat and my beanie, and I pick them up and start for the door.
“Wow, Betty, it’s cold!” I tell myself, pulling my coat tighter around me as I start down the stairs and out across the sidewalk. I’ve never been out this late before. At least the cold woke me up. I’m not tired at all anymore. It’s also misty. I can’t see the street lights; just a fuzzy orange glow in the mist, but it gives me enough light to see where I’m going. A gust of wind blows up the street from behind me. I want to pull my coat tighter around me, but I can’t let go of the cookies. I’m shivering a little, and if I try to hold the platter with one hand, I might drop them. I finally make it back to 15th street and take a left.
Am I in the right place? This is 15th street, but it looks like an entirely different city. The dim orange haze from street lamps is mixed with the loud bright red and green of traffic lights. The neon signs in front of each shop are overwhelming. Loud talking and laughter spills from the bar next to me.
Someone bumps me, offering a gruff, fake apology as he hurries past. I grip my platter tighter, almost dropping them as I stumble a step forward. I steady myself and stick my tongue out at the man’s back. I know he can’t see me, but I don’t care. It makes me feel better.
The firefighters need their cookies. I start walking again. Something crunches under my steps. I look down and see fresh salt. I grin and stomp on it a little, thinking of Carrie. Maybe we’ll go for a walk again tomorrow. The streets look completely different at night. I don’t like it. And it’s so cold. It’s seeping into my bones; I feel stiff.
The buildings on my left drop back, making the sidewalk wider. I’m next to the pizza place now. I see a lady huddled against the side of the building in a blanket, far enough from the door that nobody will talk to her. She looks hungry.
I look down at my cookies. They’re still warm, but they won’t stay that way for long in this cold night. They might not stay warm for the firefighters if I stop to give her one.
But she looks so cold.
I walk up and sit down next to her. She has a black hoodie and a grey sweatshirt on over that, but I can still see her face pretty well. Her hair is a faded, dirty blonde. She has some care lines in her face, but not as many as me. She has hollow cheeks, like she hasn’t been eating enough.
“Hi!” I say.
She just stares forward at the street for a couple seconds. I wait, and after a moment she looks over at me. “Hi.”
“Do you want a cookie?”
“Do you want a cookie?” I ask again, extending the platter toward her.
“Oh. Uh…” She trails off, looking back to the road. I wait for her to decide. Maybe she doesn’t like cookies. Wait. Maybe the firefighters don’t like cookies either. What if I should take them donuts instead? I don’t know how to make those, and I haven’t gotten my paycheck yet, so I can’t buy any.
She looks back at me and starts a little, like she forgot I was there. “Thank you.” She takes one of the cookies off the top of the platter and bites it. “It’s soft,” she says before she finishes chewing. “Tastes good.”
“I made them,” I say. I can feel a grin spreading across my face. “Oatmeal raisin.”
“Thank you,” she says again.
“What’s your name?”
She looks at me, confused.
“What’s your name?” I repeat myself.
“Oh.” Her eyes take on a kind of distant look. She thinks for a moment before she answers. “I, uh…don’t talk to people much, so…I don’t really…have a name.”
“What?” I set the platter down on the ground next to me. “Everyone has a name.”
She shakes her head and shrugs.
“What about Heather?”
She looks at me, something between confused and surprised. “What?”
“Your name could be Heather.”
She frowns, her brow crinkled. She thinks for the better part of a minute, then nods.
“Heather. Yeah, Heather. I like that.”
“Good.” I nod, then hold my hand out. “I’m Betty.”
She smiles and shakes it. “Hi.”
I pick up my platter of cookies. “I need to go take these to my friends now,” I tell her.
The cookies are just barely warm now. She looks up longingly at the plate, her face asking an unspoken question.
“You want one more?” I lower the platter and let her take one more. She takes one of the biggest ones.
“Thank you,” she says, biting into it.
“Have a good night, Heather!”
I start down the road again. Sitting down for a second made me colder. I need to keep moving to warm up again. I start taking longer steps, crunching the salt with heavy footfalls. I stop at the edge of the sidewalk and let a couple cars pass before I hurry across the street to the next block.
Up ahead, I see four men wearing thick, dark clothes. I can smell cigarette smoke even though I’m not close to them yet. They look scary; I don’t want to go near them. I turn to the right and wait for the pedestrian light to show so I can cross the busier street. I keep watching the men, nervous. They don’t come close to me, though. They just stay where they are, laughing back and forth and coughing. That’s disgusting.
The light changes, allowing me to walk across the road. I do quickly, and start down the sidewalk again so I can come to the fire station. I haven’t walked on this side of the road as much before. The stores look different in the night, but I recognize the toy store when I pass it. Just one more block.
I cross the street and keep walking. I press my thumb down on one of the cookies. It’s not cold, but I can’t really call it warm anymore. “Hurry up, Betty, they’ll still like ‘em as long as they aren’t frozen,” I tell myself, and start walking more quickly, almost running. I get to the end of the street and round the corner. The fire station is close, just at the bottom of this long hill I’m walking down.
I think how happy they’ll be when they get them. It’s been a cold night, and they’ve been working hard. They’ll need to take a break, and they’ll be happy to have a warm snack. Not warm anymore. Lukewarm at best. Still better than nothing, right?
I shiver. This street is darker than 15th. There aren’t any glowing neon stores, and there are fewer street lights. The shadows seem to creep and crawl with a mind of their own.
“It’s okay Betty, we’re almost there,” I tell myself.
I can see the light of the station ahead. Almost there! I walk past a gap in two buildings.
“Hey, lady!” A voice barks. A man wearing dark clothes walks from between the buildings, stopping in front of me. Another one walks out and stands close to me.
“What do you want?” I ask.
“What? Give me your pocketbook.”
“Your money.” The man takes a step closer; I can smell smoke in his breath. “We won’t hurt you. Just give us your money and you can go.”
“I don’t have any.”
“I don’t have any,” I say again, shaking my head back and forth to prove my point.
“Look, we don’t want any trouble,” the man closer to me says. He moves so he’s standing behind me.
The first one takes a step closer. He’s too close. I step back and trip over the other man’s foot. I fall to the ground. My platter of cookies crashes on the street next to me. The plate shatters, and the cookies splash in the wet gutter.
“No!” I roll over and crawl to the cookies. It’s no use. They’re soaked.
I start crying.
“Look, lady, just give us your money and we’ll go!”
Why won’t they believe me? I already told them I don’t have any, and that’s the truth.
“Hey!” One of them grabs me by the shoulder and rolls me over so I’m looking up at them.
“Stop!” I wail.
“Hey!” This is a new voice, firm and harsh. The two men look up from me. They glance at each other and dash off into the alley.
I sit up, blinking back tears. Another man walks up to me. He’s taller and stronger than the first two, and he’s also wearing black, but he’s different. The first two were wearing worn-down jeans and hoodies and jackets. This one is wearing a black uniform, with yellow reflective strips on it and badges on the sleeves and chest. I recognize the two axes sewn on his shirt pocket. He’s a firefighter.
He crouches down next to me. “Are you okay?”
I shake my head, trying to stop sobbing. “They broke my cookies!”
He hesitates. “Your cookies?”
I nod. He understood me, even with my added crying.
“Oh. They fell in the gutter.” He looks back to me. “But are you hurt?”
I shake my head. “I’m okay. But…the cookies were for you.”
He scrunches his eyebrows up, probably trying to understand me. “For me?”
“You and the other firefighters. I thought you could use a snack.”
“You were walking alone at night, just to bring us cookies?”
“Yeah!” I nod. I hesitate. He doesn’t say anything, so I ask, “Is that okay?”
“Is that okay? Of course that’s okay,” he says. His eyes are wet, like he’s trying not to cry.
“Oh no, what’s wrong?” I ask.
“Nothing’s wrong.” He smiles. “I’m just touched that you tried to do that for us.”
“Still didn’t work.” I look down at the ruined cookies.
A raindrop splashes on my hand. A few more follow, and then a steady drizzle sets in.
“Can I walk you back to your house?” he asks.
“Great. I’m Bill. What’s your name?” He offers me a hand up.
“Nice to meet you, Betty.”
We start walking back up the hill together. I thought the rain would make everything feel colder, but somehow, I don’t really notice the cold anymore.
“Tell me about yourself.”
I glance up at Bill. “Well, I grew up on Renton Hill. Went to school until twelfth grade, doing one of those… what do they call it? Special programs.” I start stomping on the salt. I don’t really remember much about the past years, and I don’t really want to talk about it.
“Where do you live?” he asks.
“Harrisburg and 18th,” I say.
“Alright, that’s not too far.” We cross the street and walk down 15th until we finally reach Harrisburg, then turn and walk down to the large house where I live with Alexa and the others.
“This is the place?” Bill asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“Well, have a good night,” he says. “It was nice to meet you.”
I walk up the stairs and try to open the door. It’s locked. I jiggle the doorknob, but it doesn’t help.
Bill walks back up. “Can’t get in?”
I shake my head and start banging on the door with my fist. After a moment I hear the deadbolt sliding out and a very sleepy and grumpy Noah opens the door.
“Betty? What are you doing? Get inside!”
I trudge inside, head hanging. Noah is mad. I’ve never seen him this mad.
“You don’t just go wandering around on your own after dark! Betty, that was stupid!” Noah leads me into the kitchen and gets me some hot chocolate to warm me up. He offers Bill some hot chocolate too, but he declines.
“Betty, go to your room.” Noah’s voice leaves no room for arguing. I take my hot chocolate and trudge out of the kitchen.
“Goodnight, Betty,” Bill calls. I hear him and Noah talking in quiet murmurs as I make my way up the stairs.
* * *
When I finally wake up, my alarm clock says 11:00 AM. I’ve never slept in so late! I roll out of bed and put on my slippers. I kind of want to stay in my room. I know Noah is mad at me. But I’m hungry for breakfast, so I walk down the stairs and slowly walk into the kitchen.
Noah is waiting for me, reading a newspaper and sipping some coffee. He sets the paper aside when he sees me.
“Betty, sit down.”
I sit down across the table from him.
Noah sighs. “I’m sorry I snapped at you last night. I didn’t know you were trying to take the firefighters cookies.”
I nod, and he continues. “That was really sweet of you. But you have to tell me, or Sam, or Carrie, when you do something like that. And don’t do it during the night, okay? Can you do that for me?”
I nod. “I’m sorry.” I look down at the table.
“It’s okay.” Noah takes my hand. “Just make sure we know what you’re doing before you do that again.”
I nod again.
Someone knocks on the door.
“Do you want to go see who that is?” Noah asks.
“Sure.” I stand and walk into the front room. Through the glass pane on the door I can see Bill.
I open the door, surprised. “Hi!”
“Hey, Betty!” Bill grins. Three more firefighters are standing on the sidewalk at the base of our porch, and a fire truck is parked on our curb.
“Wow!” I stare at the truck.
“Betty, we wanted to know if you could bake us some cookies,” Bill says. “Maybe after that we could show you our fire truck?”
“You think you could do that?” Bill grins.
I bob my head over and over. “Come on in!”
I move back so they can come into the house, and I run back into the kitchen to make some warm cookies.