Alethea Alden


Alethea Alden

Alethea Alden is a Minnesotan who moved to London for a year, over five years ago. Previously she was a foreign correspondent for the women's travel writing blog Pink Pangea. She is currently writing short stories, and a novel about complex relationships between family. Alethea received a merit scholarship from the English department for the MA in Creative and Life Writing and is a member of the Goldfish committee.
Contact: aletheaalden [at] gmail [dot] com

City Girl


Laurel heard voices across the street and carefully peeped over the top of her book. Two guys who were in the grade above her at school, Charlie and Sam, were walking towards the center of town.

It was late Saturday afternoon in early autumn and Laurel was sitting on her front porch. Her mom was at work in the library up the road and Laurel was itchy for something to do. She tried to keep reading Jane Eyre but couldn’t concentrate anymore and gave up, sticking the book on the wicker table inside the house and locking the door. She walked from their house, an ancient two story structure with a tin roof, on the far residential end of Main Street towards the other end, kicking piles of burnt red and orange leaves on the sidewalk with her sneakers. The wind whipped her long brown hair across her face and some of it stuck in her lip-gloss. Pulling the hair from her lips she saw their neighbor Mrs. Olson, sitting on her crooked front porch smoking in her slippers and curlers, and waved.

Laurel passed the Methodist church and the small grocery store, which had fluorescent tag boards in the window advertising deals. Next door the laundromat puffed thick steam onto the sidewalk in front of her and for a moment Laurel couldn't see anything. When she emerged on the other side of the steam, Charlie and Sam were leaning against the video store right in front of her. Chains looped down the sides of their legs from their belts and disappeared into the endlessly deep back pockets of their baggy JNCO jeans.

“Hey,” said Charlie. “What up Laurel?” His brown hair was frosted on the tips and spiked hard with gel. The other one, Sam, tilted his pimpled chin up at her as he took a long drag of his cigarette.

“Hi,” Laurel said softly.

“You comin’ to Matt’s tonight?” Charlie asked. Matt Erickson, the loudmouth of the eleventh grade, was having people over that night because his parents were out of town. Laurel was a freshman and didn’t know if she would normally be invited to these parties. She was new in a town where everyone had known each other since they were born.

“Ah, yeah. Maybe.” Her hands hung awkwardly by her side so she stuck them in the back pockets of her jeans. She had plans with her friend Jennifer to watch a movie. Jennifer wasn’t very popular, but she was in a lot of Laurel’s classes and was one of the few people that showed much interest in being friends with her. 

“You should come,” Charlie said. She saw Sam look over at her boobs and was glad she was wearing her new low cut t-shirt. 

Laurel smiled at Charlie shyly. “Yeah. Maybe,” she said as she ground the toe of her sneaker into the sidewalk. There was a long pause so Laurel said, “I gotta go. See ya.”

“Maybe see ya tonight,” Charlie said as he exhaled a mouthful of smoke. Sam nodded his chin at her again. Walking away Laurel swung her butt, but just a little bit so it didn’t look too obvious. Crossing the street to the library, Laurel paused, zipped up her hoodie a little higher, and opened the door. 

Her mom was behind the desk checking out Mrs. Johnson, who looked like she was a hundred years old. Laurel scanned the return cart and picked up the Hope Floats VHS with Sandra Bullock. After only a couple months of living in town it already surprised her to find a movie in the library she hadn’t seen before. The old woman was shuffling towards the door and Laurel held it open for her with a smile. “Bye Mrs. Johnson.”

“Oh thank you dear,” she said and patted Laurel’s arm. 

Laurel went and plopped down on the checkout desk in front of her mom. 

“Hi Mom.”

“Hi Laurel,” her mom replied with a smile. “What are you up to?” Laurel’s mom was wearing her usual outfit, a wool skirt, turtleneck, sweater and Birkenstock clogs. Her greying hair was piled on the top of her head, held in place with a pencil.

“Just wanted to check this movie out.” Laurel picked up the barcode wand and scanned her library card and the video’s barcode. “Can I go over to Jennifer’s tonight to watch it?” 

“I’m glad you and Jennifer are getting to be better friends. Are her parents going to be home?”

“Yeah, they’re always home.”

Laurel’s mom looked up at her inquisitively. 

“It’s ok Mom, I checked.”

“Ok, be home by ten.”


“Laurel you’re 14. Be home by ten.” 

Laurel groaned. “Ok fine. See you later. Love you Mom.”

“I love you too, sweetheart. Don’t be late.”

Leaving the library Laurel noticed Charlie and Sam weren’t standing in front of the video store anymore and she didn’t see them anywhere along Main Street. Laurel walked past her house and turned the corner to Jennifer’s. Her mustard yellow house was at the far end of the block.

Laurel knocked on the door and Jennifer’s mom opened it. She was younger than Laurel’s mom, bleached her lanky hair, and wore tight jeans and a short purple t-shirt that showed some of her stomach. A cigarette was hanging out of the corner of her mouth. 

“Hi, I’m Laurel, Jennifer’s friend —”

“Jen’s up in her room.”

“Thanks,” Laurel said, but Jennifer’s mom had already turned away from the door and was walking back towards the couch coughing loudly. The house was dark and smoky, with brown carpet and curtains. A commercial for laundry detergent blared loudly from the TV in the living room. Laurel ran up the carpeted stairs and knocked on Jennifer’s door, which was covered in pictures of N’Sync and 98 Degrees that had been cut out of magazines in the shape of hearts, and went in.

“Hey,” Laurel said. Jennifer was sitting on the floor painting her toe nails green, her long blond hair covering her face. 

“Hey,” she said, not looking up.

Laurel plopped on the bed and told Jennifer about running into Charlie and Sam on her way to get the video. “They asked if I was comin’ tonight, to Matt Erickson’s party.”

Jennifer glanced at the movie Laurel brought and said, “Oh, I seen that movie already. Wanna go to the party?”

“I thought you didn’t wanna go. Yesterday you said to Matt —”

“I wasn’t going to tell him that I was gonna go. What, don’t you wanna?” 

“I dunno. My Mom said I have to be home by ten —” 

Jennifer snorted. “You’re such a party pooper! Just call her and tell her you’re spending the night.” Looking up from her nails she smiled and said, “Charlie thinks you’re cute.”

“Really?” Laurel asked. She glanced over at herself in the mirror on the back of the bedroom door. “I guess I could call my Mom. I’m not sure if she’ll let me spend the night though —” 

“I already got my cousin Nick comin’ to pick us up later.” Jennifer stuck her leg into the air to inspect her toes. “Here, lemme paint your nails. What color do ya want?”

Later, when Jennifer went downstairs to ask her mom about dinner, Laurel stood in front of the full length mirror on the back of the bedroom door. She reached into her shirt and pulled each of her boobs up higher in her bra. Tugging her t-shirt down a little she turned to the side to see the effect. Frowning, she picked up Jennifer’s mascara from the dresser, and just as she finished brushing the goopy black stuff onto her eyelashes Jennifer opened the door, saying “C’mon, the Mac ‘n Cheese is ready.” Laurel quickly stepped backwards and blinked, the wet mascara going all over her eyelids. 

Jennifer laughed, “You look like a raccoon,” and backed out of the room. 

Laurel looked at her reflection. Taking a tissue from a box on the dresser she sucked on the corner before scrubbing the smudges on her eyelids. 

Going downstairs Laurel sat down next to Jennifer at the kitchen table and started eating her macaroni and cheese. They could see the TV in the living room, an episode of Baywatch was on and a helicopter was rescuing people from a sinking ship. After finishing dinner, they sat and watched another couple episodes of Baywatch and drank orange pop. 

Jennifer was sitting by the window. A car pulled up by the side of house and flashed its lights. “He’s here, c’mon, let’s go.” Walking past the living room, Jennifer called, “Goin’ out, Ma, see ya later.” 

As she shut the front door Laurel heard Jennifer’s mom say, “Bring me a Pepsi when you come home.”

“Your mom said bring her a Pepsi when you come home,” Laurel said as she ran down the porch steps. 

Jennifer laughed, “She always says that, but she’ll be passed out by the time we get back.” 

A boy who Laurel recognized but didn’t know his name jumped out of the passenger side and pushed the car seat forward for them to crawl in the back. His short, gelled hair stood straight up in chunks. 

“Whud up, Cuz,” Nick said as he gunned the engine and peeled away from the curb. “Hey Jen’s friend.” 

Laurel knew that he knew her name. “Hi Nick.” She pulled the seat belt over her lap and buckled it.

“Thanks for pickin’ us up, Nicky,” Jennifer cooed over Radiohead blaring out of the speakers. The friend lit a joint and passed it to Nick. After a long drag, Nick reached behind him with the joint and Jennifer took it, inhaling deeply, coughing, and handing it to Laurel. She shook her head and whispered, “No thanks.” 

“Such a party pooper,” Jennifer said as she handed the joint up to the front, still coughing.

Their headlights formed a tunnel on the dark country road, illuminating the yellow dividing line every few seconds, the fields of corn they were passing invisible in the darkness. The music was too loud to talk and the smell of the smoke in the closed car made Laurel nauseous and lightheaded. She was worried about Nick driving while he was high. A deer could jump out in front of the car at any moment, and it was hard enough to avoid hitting them sober. Ten minutes later they turned into the driveway of a farm, past a cracked pink toilet and a rusted old truck that had grass growing out of the missing windshield. Turning past the house, Nick pulled up in the big lot behind the barn where the car wouldn’t be seen from the road. There were already five other cars and trucks parked there under the floodlight shining off the barn, and a group of people standing around the hoods.

Nick yanked the driver's seat forward for Jennifer and Laurel to crawl out. Laurel took a deep breath of fresh air and tried to steady herself. The breeze brought the faint smell of manure with it. Nick’s friend opened the trunk and took out a twelve pack of Leinies and a cheap bottle of vodka. Scanning the crowd Laurel recognized most of the people from school, but hadn’t learned everyone’s names in the last two months. She spotted Charlie standing with Sam across the barnyard. 

Matt Erickson sauntered over towards their car, crushing a can of Leinies in one hand and tossing it to the edge of the yard. The white in his John Deere trucker’s cap winked in the floodlight for a moment as he looked her up and down approvingly. 

“It’s the fresh meat! Hey City Girl.” 

Laurel cringed and tried to cover it with a smile. “Thanks for having us, Matt.” 

He laughed, “So polite. What, you gonna offer me a host gift or somethin’?” 

The look in his eye was crudely suggestive and she quickly shook her head and tried to laugh. “Just sayin’ hi. I’m gonna go find Jennifer, she’s wandered off —” Laurel turned around and started walking away, scanning the crowd for Jennifer. 

“Hey Laurel.” Mandy and Samantha, two girls in some of her classes were in front of her next to the barn drinking out of red plastic cups. Mandy stood leaning against the barn tapping one of her cowboy boots up against the wooden siding. 

Unable to spot Jennifer anywhere Laurel walked towards them. “Hey guys.”     

“Saw you talkin’ to Matt,” Mandy said and took a long drag of her cigarette, blowing the smoke at Laurel. 

“Just sayin’ hi and apparently being too polite. He thought it was weird.” 

The girls laughed. Samantha offered Laurel a cigarette from her perch on a straw bale. Hesitating, Laurel took it. As she started to panic that she had no idea how to use a lighter, Samantha lit her own cigarette and then lit it for her. Laurel inhaled just enough to make it catch.

“So, what’d ya do for fun on a Saturday night in the city then?” Mandy asked, emphasizing city. 

“Did you hang out at the mall?” Samantha asked. 

“Naw the malls are all in the suburbs. I dunno, I went to the movies, or a museum, or a show.” Laurel puffed on her cigarette and didn’t inhale. Mandy raised one eyebrow and Samantha stared at her through a cloud of cigarette smoke.

“All on one night?” Samantha asked. 

Mandy sneered saying, “So you’re a goodie two shoes huh.”

Before Laurel could say anything Jennifer came over carrying two red plastic cups, and laughing said, “Heyyy it’s the party pooper!” her long blond hair swinging around her face. “Here,” Jennifer said hanging her arm across Laurel’s shoulder and handing her the other cup, almost spilling the contents of her own cup down Laurel’s chest. Nodding at Laurel’s cigarette she said, “Look at ‘choo, bein’ a badass!” 

Laurel smiled and laughed nervously as she sipped the contents of the cup and fizzing bubbles went up her nose. A little bit of pop and so much alcohol it made her throat burn. 

“Charlie ‘n Sam are here,” Jennifer said. 

“Do you like one of them?” Mandy asked Laurel, a conniving edge to her voice. 

Avoiding Mandy’s gaze Laurel said, “I just ran into them earlier, they asked if I was comin’ to the party.” 

Jennifer laughed and trilled, “You like Charlie.” Laurel glared at Jennifer and blushed. Shrugging nonchalantly, Laurel raised Jennifer’s arm causing most of her intoxicated friend’s drink to spill down her own arm. Laurel shrieked and jumped away from the sticky liquid. 

“Whoopsy,” Jennifer said and giggled. Mandy and Samantha laughed, too. 

“I’m gonna go wash my arm,” Laurel said and walked towards a hose she had seen on the other end of the barn. 

After she washed her sticky sleeve the best she could without soaking herself, Laurel stood and looked at the group in front of her. Nick was doing donuts on the other end of the barnyard, his tires squealing, making the two farm dogs yap and howl. Mandy was over flirting with Matt, throwing her long hair around and sticking out her boobs, while Matt ignored her as he watched Nick, hollering and pumping his fist into the air. Jennifer was leading Nick’s silent friend into the barn. Charlie was still standing with Sam and some other guys smoking a few feet away. Laurel took a sip of her drink and wrinkled her nose. 

“Hey Laurel,” Charlie said walking up to her. “Didn’t think ya were gonna come.”

Laurel smiled at him. “Hey. I was hangin’ out with Jennifer and she wanted to so —” 

“Cool,” Charlie nodded. She saw him glance at her boobs and then quickly look away. Neither of them said anything and they stood awkwardly for a minute not looking at each other. 

“You wanna ‘nother drink or somethin’?” Charlie asked and stole a quick look in her direction. 

“No thanks, I’m ok,” Laurel said. 

A moment later Charlie asked, “You wanna maybe go to a movie or somethin’ sometime?” 

“Ah, yeah. Maybe,” Laurel said and smiled, just as Matt yelled, “Hey, City Girl. Come ‘ere.” 

“Cool,” Charlie nodded. They looked at each other quickly and smiled before both looking away again. 

“Well, I guess I’d better —” Laurel gestured towards the spot where Matt, Nick, and several other guys from their grade were standing around the hood of Nick’s car. She noticed Mandy walking away from them.  

“Ok, yeah. See ya later,” Charlie said and strode back over to Sam, hands deep in his pockets, his wallet chain swinging against his leg as he walked. Laurel smiled as she went over to Nick’s car. 

“We’re doin’ shots. Here.” Matt handed her a red plastic cup with way more than one shot of vodka in it. “Show us how it’s done in the big city.” Smiling playfully, he added, “Bottoms up,” and the guys all tapped the plastic cups on the hood of the car and drank the contents in one gulp. 

Laurel, a half step behind, tapped her cup too and, when she tipped it to her lips, only managed a swallow. The vodka rolled around and burned the inside of her stomach. She felt like she was going to puke. Matt hollered and pumped his fist into the air while the other guys screamed “Yeah! Again!” thrusting their empty cups into the air. 

Smiling feebly Laurel said, “Thanks,” and turned to walk away. She heard them laughing, “What’s wrong City Girl?”

Walking to the edge of the barnyard near the house Laurel leaned up against an old tractor and put her cup on the hood. She bent over for a few moments, breathing heavily, willing the waves of nausea to pass. Looking up she saw Charlie talking to Mandy across the lot by the barn. Mandy was throwing her hair over her shoulder and sticking out her boobs. Laurel sighed. Zipping up her hoodie she turned and walked around to the back of the house and opened the flimsy wooden door to the kitchen.

It was dark inside but the floodlight from the barnyard illuminated the metal of the kitchen sink giving the room a faint glow. An old rotary phone was mounted on the side of the cupboard by the door. Laurel picked up the receiver and dialed, then sat down gingerly on a kitchen chair.


“Mom, please don’t be mad,” Laurel said, her voice quavering. 

“Laurel?” Her mom’s voice said sleepily. “What’s wrong? What time is it?”

“It’s after ten. I’m ok. It’s just, could you - would you, come and get me?” 

“Aren’t you at Jennifer’s around the corner?” 

“No,” Laurel said quietly. “I’m at a party and everyone is drunk and I don’t have a ride and I just want to come home.”

“Are you ok?

“Yes, I’m fine. I just want to go home.” 

There was a long pause. “Where are you?”

“At a farm on Highway 10 just past the turn for Shaffer.”

“Oh Laurel.” There was another long pause. “Thank you for calling me. I’ll be there soon.”

“Thank you Mom.” 

Laurel hung up the phone and went to the sink. A glass with a pattern of gold and brown flowers was sitting in the drying rack. She filled it up from the tap. Outside music was playing on a car stereo and a girl was shrieking excitedly. Laurel stood and watched everyone out the window for a while. She took a few sips of water, poured the rest back into the sink and put the glass back in the drying rack. 

Leaving the kitchen and closing the back door behind her, Laurel turned to walk around the other side of the house away from the barn. 

“You ok?” 

Laurel jumped and whirled around. Charlie was standing next to the house a few feet away smoking a cigarette, the red tip glowing in the dark as he inhaled. 

“You didn’t look so good – I mean, like, you didn’t feel so good.”

“I – I’m ok,” Laurel said shifting back and forth between her feet. 

“You comin’ back to the party?” 

Sighing, Laurel looked down at the ground and rubbed the toe of her sneaker in the dirt and shook her head. 

“You leavin’?” 

She looked up at him. “Yeah.”

“I’ll walk you to the road.” 

Laurel stared at Charlie and then nodded. They walked around the far side of the house towards the road, past the pink toilet and the old truck. Standing on the ridge of the ditch Charlie lit another cigarette and offered Laurel one, but she shook her head. After a few minutes the lights from Laurel’s mom’s car glowed in the distance, growing bigger as the car approached them and started slowing down. 

Charlie nodded to Laurel and said “See ya later.” 

“See ya,” she said as he turned and walked back towards the party. Laurel watched him disappear into the dark and then walked down through the ditch to her mom’s car.