понедельник, 8 октября 2007 г.

reve_en_encre: sooo behind

Exactly that.

Another side, Another story

         

To hear our parents tell it, you’d think she some kind of genius.

“Veronica’s always been a reader!” they’d say, glowing with radioactive pride. “She’s so smart! She’s going places!”

It sucked to be the good kid.

Of course, upon considering her juvenile delinquent brother (three arrests by the age of sixteen – no easy feat in suburbia) and myself, the sulky one, it wasn’t too hard to fall into the categorization of “good.” She was the family’s saving grace, it would seem, the one who turned out just right. Never mind that she spent much of her early years an outcast, with few companions besides myself for many years, or that she couldn’t be bothered to give schoolwork any real consequence until her sophomore year of high school. But they never told anyone about that. They did, however, gladly recount the tale of a tiny three year old Veronica gazing wide-eyed at the Toys ‘R Us bag her mother was trying to smuggle into the closet, pointing, and announcing to the family: “Toys!”

 

Proof of genius? Hardly. Proof that America has become so commercialized that even a toddler can recognize a corporate logo before she can properly pronounce her own name? Maybe.            As for this “reader” business, I suppose it’s true. But I can remember a time when it wasn’t so. This is the part where her parents would try to hush her up and quickly change the subject to something like the value of the vase her sister broke at a friend’s house. Only they aren’t here now, are they? And so I can tell you what I remember.

           

I remember lots of things about kindergarten. Learning how to read is one of them. I remember when written words didn’t mean anything to me – they were just squiggles on paper, there to occupy the blank space beneath the picture. Veronica was much the same. We would have been content with that forever, only then Mrs. Macintosh got her hands on us. I’m not going to spew some crappy inspirational story about how this wonderful woman took us under her wing and taught me about the wonders of the written word – in fact, to be honest, the lady was a bitch. If there was anything she enjoyed about her work it was the opportunity to scare little kids shitless. The “get up and read to the class” game was her idea, no doubt intended as a means of entertainment. It probably was, right up until I got my turn.

“What’s this?”

“A monkey!”

“What’s it looking at?”

“The people!”

“Wrong! It’s looking at the banana!”

           

I still remember the look on Macintosh’s face: “Is this kid for real?”

I was, unfortunately, but not for long. It was after that that Macintosh and her grizzly-haired aide (whose name escapes me, I’m afraid) started giving Veronica and I “special attention” By which I mean a firm warning to our parents, and hours spent at a little plastic blue table apart from the others learning from little floppy paper readers. All the stories seemed to be about animals living in houses. It was through them that we at last learned to read. How long the process took I couldn’t say, except that when it was through I began mangling words on purpose because hey, the other kids did it too, and who wants to be a freak? 

           

This is, of course, where Veronica screwed up. She didn’t mess the words up on purpose – why should she? And so it was that she became the favorite, the Pride and Joy. We stayed close for years afterwards, of course. We couldn’t not. But things changed. While I hung out with friends and listened to music, she settled into her armchair with something by some Russian or other. While I discovered the joys of pot, she began practicing for her SAT’s in earnest. While I went to concerts and crashed parties, she scoured pamphlets on Universities whose names I couldn’t even begin to pronounce.

           

I should have known where this was going. Veronica was the Pride and Joy, the one who would glorify our family name. In case you hadn’t noticed…well, this family of ours wasn’t a name one would particularly care to glorify. We were close, Veronica and I, different as we were. But I have to admit I didn’t see the change in her. She went about her business as usual. She got up on time, did her schoolwork, excelled at it. She replaced the bookshelf that collapsed under its own weight. She rode me about settling for community college. She filled out about a couple dozen applications and sent them off.

 

Graduation time came and went. That summer I was almost never home. I traveled with some friends, hit some beaches, lived it up. And all the while I worried for poor Veronica back home, with only her books and her praise to keep her company. I never imagined that she wouldn’t be there when I returned. My parents played it off of course.

 

“Veronica? Oh, didn’t we tell you? She’s studying abroad! Yes, it’s wonderful – we’re proud, so very proud. She’s going make her name known,” she laughed at their cocktail parties. The truth is, we never did hear Veronica’s name again. Or rather, they didn’t. I did, but I sure wasn’t about to tell them that. It wouldn’t have mattered anyways – she wasn’t Veronica anymore. She was V.L. Cunningham, publishing some bestseller or other. I recognized the story at once. How could I note? It was about us after all, about how it all started, back with the floppy little paper readers and the animals that lived in houses.

 

 Last time I saw those booklets was sometime around second grade, and to be honest with you I kinda wish I’d held onto them. Then they’d be proof, at least. Proof that no one is perfect, proof that my mother didn’t spit my sister out of her womb armed and ready to make up for her other kids’ mistakes. Proof that even she, the girl with the collapsing bookshelves, had to start somewhere.

 


Sam’s Gift

 

            Sam wasn’t allowed to play in the closet.

“It’s ‘cause that’s where they hide the Christmas presents,” Jeanie Dean told him, one afternoon on the swing set. Her blond pigtails bounced as she lifted her legs and sailed forward, reaching into the sky. “I saw my Dad put them up there yesterday, when he thought I was watching TV. He didn’t see me follow him, but I did. He hid them behind in a big box on the top shelf. Is that where your daddy hides them?”

           

It made sense to Sam, and he ran home from the playground that day, ready to begin his search for his hidden gifts. Only he couldn’t do it that day, because he had to help Mom with the grocery shopping. Then he had to clean his room, ‘cause Aunt Alison said good little boys always cleaned their rooms, and didn’t he want to be a good little boy and make his mommy happy? Then he had to eat his dinner, vegetables and all. Then after dinner, Dad called. Sam talked to Dad on the phone, and he had to ask very politely how the weather was in Arizona (dry – it was raining in Massachusetts), and how Miss Christy was. What he really wanted to ask about was the presents. But then Mom took the phone into her room, and when Sam heard her start yelling and throwing things he realized that he wasn’t getting into the closet that night, or maybe even the next.

           

It wasn’t until Saturday (raining again, so he couldn’t go to the park), when Mom was at book club and Aunt Alison was in the den watching the shopping channel that Sam finally got to peek into Mom’s (it used to be Dad’s too) closet, keeping his eyes peeled for anything that might look like a Transformer or maybe – could it be? - that hockey stick that Dad promised.

           

When Sam finally opened the door to the closet there were no Transformers. Just shoes. Lots and lots of shoes. There were shoeboxes on the top shelf too, and while Sam thought maybe the presents were in the shoeboxes he hoped they weren’t, ‘cause then they’d only be little presents and definitely not a hockey stick.

           

There were other closets in Sam’s house, and he wasn’t allowed to play in them either.  But he wasn’t really playing in them or anything. He was just looking, very carefully. He didn’t even touch any of Mom’s stuff, not when he checked the hall closet (no hockey stick), or the bathroom closet (nope) either. There was only food in the kitchen closet, the one Aunt Alison called a pantry only Sam thought it was a funny word ‘cause it sounded like panties.

           

There was no hockey stick in the pantry, whatever it sounded like. Sam might have given up then and there. It was almost lunchtime, and he could hear Aunt Alison snoring on the couch, and any minute now Mom would be home. But it left just enough time to check one last closet.

 

Sam didn’t want to go into Aunt Alison’s closet. It wasn’t that he was scared or anything – he was seven years old, not a baby. He’d never been in Aunt Alison’s bedroom before, not even when it used to be Dad’s office. Especially not then, because that was where Dad did his work, until he started working in the office with Miss Christy. Sam wasn’t sure where Dad did his work now, but it wasn’t the office anymore. It was Aunt Alison’s bedroom, it had been ever since Dad left and Aunt Alison came to “lend a hand around the house,” and it smelled like old lady. So did the closet, the one that used to hold all of Dad’s important office papers (but maybe not so important, since Mom threw them all away in the garbage can out back). Only now it held old lady stuff instead, funny shoes and big purses and hats with flowers on them. But there, sitting right on the top shelf over the clothes rack, was a big box. Sam’s eyes widened at the sight of it. Jeanie was right! A box, a big one!

           

Big enough to hold a hockey stick.

 

He had to see for sure. Sam stood on tiptoe a moment, stretching his arms over his head. He couldn’t reach the top shelf, not on his own. But there was the little chair, over by the desk, the one Aunt Alison called an ottoman but it was really just a little chair with a little pillow on top for her to rest her ankles on when she was reading. Sam dragged it over to the closet and climbed up onto it. He almost fell when the pillow shifted suddenly, catching himself on the doorknob just in time. So he took the pillow off and climbed back up, and this time he didn’t slip but he was a little lower than before. But he could see the box, and it was big.

           

Dad did hide the Christmas presents, Sam thought reaching as high as he could. Even with the aid of the little chair, he couldn’t reach his hockey stick. The one Dad had promised him, before he went to live in Arizona. He must have hidden it before then, maybe even the night Miss Christy came to pick him up and Mom threw all the papers away in the garbage. But it was there! Sam reached higher, higher, and gave a little jump. His fingers just brushed the wood of the shelf before he came dome on the chair, which shook a little. Sam jumped again. This time he managed to scratch at the shelf before he came down. A little more! Jeanie would be so jealous when she found out! Mom, maybe would be mad. It was still two weeks until Christmas. I just want to see. It was okay. If she was really mad, maybe he could go visit Dad in Arizona. He had an apartment there, and maybe if Sam was good Dad would let him sleep on the couch, and they’d play hockey during the day, and maybe he’d even let Miss Christy play too.

           

Sam jumped again, and for an instant, just an instant, his fingers scraped the cardboard of the box. Almost! And Sam jumped again, and this time he caught the edge of the shelf with his scrabbling little fingers, caught it and held on tight until he heard a loud creaking sound, and for a second he thought he might have broken the little chair or ottoman or whatever but it didn’t matter ‘cause the box was there, it was sliding towards him and it was big and kinda heavy –

 

“Watcha drawing there, kiddo?”

 Sam struggled to hold the crayon properly with just his left hand. He wanted it to come out just right. “It’s me,” he said, to the smiling nurse. “Me and my dad. We’re playing hockey,” he explained. The nurse took a closer look at the drawing and laughed. “How cute! But sweetie, you can’t play hockey with your arm in a cast like that – you have to wait till it gets better, and the doctor says it’s okay for you to play.”

“I know,” Sam scribbled away. Outside he heard his mother squawk loudly, yelling into her phone in the hall. The nurse looked up with a frown, but Sam wanted to finish the drawing before Dad came. “My dad’s coming soon,” he explained. “He’s going to visit me here. Mom’s mad. Aunt  Alison is mad too, ‘cause I was looking in her closet. My friend Jeanie said her dad hid her Christmas presents in the closet, so I thought maybe my Dad did too. And there was a big box, and I thought maybe it was my hockey stick,” Sam paused in his drawing to sigh. “But it wasn’t. It was just a TV.”


The Blabbermouth

                "So I'm thinking of dropping my geology class."

                Monica carefully and deliberately marks her page in her book. "How come?" she asks, keeping her tone friendly and attentive. She watches Valerie drop onto Francesca's bed and sigh.

                "My professor's an ass, that's why. Remember that quiz I had Tuesday? The one I studied all night for?"

                Monica does not remember. "Yes," she answered. Valerie grunts. "I got it back today and I had a forty. Can you believe it? A fucking forty!"

"It was tough?"

"No! Not at all! In fact, most of my answers weren't even wrong!"

                Valerie begins to fiddle with the knick knacks over Francesca's bed, unaware of Monica's raised eyebrow. "It was a short answer quiz. What was I gonna do, guess? I knew my shit. I was sure I did well, then this crap happened."

                Monica considers asking Valerie to leave her roommate's things alone – the sorority bitch won't be happy to learn they were handled. But Monica doesn't really care. She's already opening her book again.

                "Did you talk to the professor?"

                "Yes! I took him my quiz and I was like 'How is this wrong?' And he said he thought I was guessing. On a short answer quiz. What the hell?"

"Hmm."

"I know! And he wouldn't listen to a word I said after that. He did the same shit to the guy behind me too. I was so pissed."

"Yeah."

"I mean, what the hell am I supposed to do now? If knowing my stuff isn't enough to help me pass, what will?"

                Monica nods, though she doubts Valerie notices as she gives a Pepto-Bismol pink flag emblazoned with Greek lettering a wave. "All the guy does is go on and on about how stupid we are. It's insulting! I just wanna smack the shit out of him. Stupid old fart. I fucking hate him, I do. I don't wanna drop, but seriously, what can I do? Monica?"

                Monica lowers her book. Valerie is at the edge of Francesca's bed now, gripping the flower purple sheets. "What would you do?"

                Monica marks her page again and sets the book aside. She lifts her eyes to the ceiling and hmms. She looks attentive, thoughtful, considering..

                If she had a coin right now, she would flip it.

                "It sounds like this whole thing has you stressed. If this guy's going to give you a hard time, it isn't worth it. You can always retake the class, right?"

                Valerie's face lights up like a 60 kilowatt bulb. Or maybe a 40 kilowatt. She bounces to her feet, leaving Francesca's sheets wrinkled in her wake,  and grabs her bag. "You know what? You're right! Thanks, Mon!  I'm going to the registrar's office right now."

"Awesome."

"What would I do without you?"

"No idea."

                A laugh, and Valerie is gone. Monica considers Francesca's rumpled sheets and misplaced knick knacks only for the briefest of moments before she picks up her book and resumes her reading.


Denim

                "This is the one, Nikki. You'll see, this is it!"

                I looked through the windshield at another shopping plaza, another store. I was tired before I even got out of the car. Some kids experience a moment of epiphany when they realize they can't rely on "grown ups" for everything. This may come after witnessing an ugly divorce, or learning about a parent's "wild child" days. For me, the moment came during a shopping spree.

                I received my favorite pair of jeans for my fifteenth birthday, before a trip to France, my Quinces gift. My abuela, funding the expedition with abuelo's credit card, decided the affair called for a whole new wardrobe. I was the oldest grandchild, after all. If they couldn't throw me a lavish party, they would at least make sure I was turning heads overseas. While other girls were paraded before photographers in poofy white dresses I toured Paris in style.

                They weren't actually jeans, I suppose. They weren't actually  made out of denim, but rather some soft, comfortable, cotton-like material dyed to look like denim, with white rope laces in place of a zipper at the fly. They fit my Cuban hips like a glove, a miracle in the land of tall skinny girls and short chubby girls. I didn't even have to get them hemmed. They were my miracle pair, the fifth and last I tried on.

                Even after France I wore those jeans almost every day. I was a creature of comfort, usually too lazy to put much effort into my clothing, hence the wardrobe revamp before my trip. While other girls showed off their pedicures in pricey heels, I clung to my scuffed Converse. I'd have worn my miracle jeans forever, if they hadn't started to give out on me two years later. I'll never forget how horrified I was when I found the first hole along the hem. I could have cried. They meant that much to me. They had a good run, those jeans, but it was time to retire them, even if I wasn't quite ready to let them go.

                "Don't worry! We'll find you another pair. We'll go  back to the same store. Those places always have the same things," Abuela announced. My grandmother said she'd find them, so she would. Why wouldn't she? She'd never let me down before.

                After store number 4, though, my patience had worn thin. I was tired, hungry, worse yet, I was horribly, horribly bored. I was unhappy, too. I wanted those damn jeans. I had the old pair on, feeling I owed them one last go. We walked into the store. "Do you have anything like these?" my grandmother asked the bleached-blonde girl at the register. Before she could shake her head, I knew what the answer would be. It wasn't that store.  

                Two more "This is it!" 's later, and I'd had enough.

                "We'll try again next week. There are more stores on the next road over. Maybe we got them at one of those," Abuela said as we headed back. But I knew it was pointless. It seems silly that I would get so upset over a pair of jeans. But it was more than that. I really had expected to find another pair. My grandmother was, after all, the shopping queen, right? She could find anything, do anything – except when she couldn't.

                Later that week, I tore another hole in my miracle jeans. Enough was enough – even I couldn't justify wearing them in public at that point.  Needless to say, I've never found another pair like them, not for lack of trying. For some time afterward my grandmother promised me she was till still keeping an eye out for them when she hit the stores, but I knew better. Thinking back on it now, it seems stupid and spoiled. I think I knew it even then.   I folded those jeans up and tucked them away in a box somewhere in my closet and haven't thought about them since, until now. They're probably still there.


Ch. 1: “Tori”

 

She was drowning

She sank deeper and deeper into the darkness, unable to scream or struggle. Her limbs were trapped to her sides. It was like she was wrapped in a burial shroud, tight and heavy.

It was dark.

She was alone in the dark, and she was drowning. She was going to die, and no one, no one –

            Tori Coren bolted upright in bed as she woke, gasping harshly. It was the only shound to be heard in the dormitory besides the slow, steady breathing of nine soundly sleeping girls. They slumbered on, unaware as Tori kicked her sheets away and swung her feet to the warm wooden floorboards. Her simple cotton shift club to her small frame, and she brushed a lock of sweat-soaked dark brown hair out of her eyes. She stumbled over to one of the long, narrow windows set deep in the whitewashed walls. Even with every one of the windows open, it was stifling inside the dormitory. Small surprise she’d dreamed of drowning! It was a wonder no one had suffocated in their sleep thus far. Tori leaned her elbows on the window frame and thrust her head out into the night air. To her disappointment, it was only slightly cooler than the air inside. Not enough, she knew. Her knees wobbled slightly at the memory of that awful breathless sensation. If she didn’t shake it now she’d never get back to sleep, and she couldn’t do that without some fresh air. Well, she thought, sighing. No way around it.

            A quick glance back over her shoulder assured her that the other girls were still fast asleep. Outside the dormitory, at the far end of the corridor, Dorm Mother Hanna was probably snoring away. The coast was clear, for the time  being. No one noticed Tori as she lifted herself up onto the windowsill, then stood on tiptoe to grab the awning overhead. Here goes.

            With the ease of years of practice,  Tori heaved herself up onto the arch(?) over the window. She scooted herself further along a bit before carefully turning herself around. Almost at once, a breeze tickled the bridge of her nose. Ah, she thought, pressing her back to the cool shingles of the rooftop. Much better!

            It was the dead of night in Atwater. Tori’s perch offered her an excellent view of the port town, second only to that from the old clock tower over Town Hall. It was almost eerie to see the flagstone streets so devoid of the merchant center’s hustle and bustle. At this hour, the only activity to be seen was at the harbor. That never slept, and the moonlight shone down on fisherman’s barge and steel plated Naval vessel alike as they came and went. Tori watched the dock hands scurry like ants as the fishermen set out to beat the dawn rush of colorfully painted tourist barges. Summer had come with a vengeance, and the river would be crawling with them the next day.

The river.

            The Miruv River – the lifeblood of Atwater, it wound through the whole of the Regency from its mouth deep in the Old Kingdom to Asuzu in the North, and beyond. It glistened like a fat silver serpent in the night. Tori had spent all thirteen years of her life near its shore, the daughter of a fisherman. She had never feared it. She swam well enough, after all, and even helped her brother with is sloop messenger service during the holidays. So why the nightmares of drowning? She couldn’t be sure, but she didn’t think this was the first. She considered it a while longer, as she watched a Naval cruiser coast into the harbor. Stress, maybe? Next year would be her final year as a primary student, after all. And exams were drawing near. But then, she’d never been one to worry herself much about schoolwork. That was more her sister’s department.

            Just a dream, then. It was only a dream. Tori folded pale arms behind her head and tilted her head back to admire the sky. The stars shone brightly above, and the fresh air rejuvenated Tori. The memory of the sensation was gone to her now, all tension draining from her muscles as the panic and fear were gotten.

Below, Atwater slumbered on.

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