Chapter 5

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Still plugging away if anyone is interested….

Chapter 5

After I finished my fourth chapter in my literary career, I hit a wall.  I just wasn’t sure what to write since life has been monotonous in the extreme. School has been the same, day after day.  Dad still hasn’t got a job and Mom has been working long hours at hers, while Britt has been trying to wrestle with two.  Homework is just homework, janitor work is janitor work. I’ve been wishing that Adam would occasionally take some notice of me and have still been trying to convince myself that I wish nothing of the kind.   But today I can write again because today, something finally changed, and for the better,  But it took living through the worst day in history to get there.

I started the morning with the usual dream-intruded-by-alarm-clock routine.  I’d stayed up way too late trying to study for a particularly heinous history test, so I was doubly tired.  It felt like the sleepy hollow had swallowed me whole, and I couldn’t get out.  Eventually I just rolled out, landing on the floor and knocking that stupid three legged table on top of my head for the umpteenth time.  I left it lying there, grabbed my robe and stormed out the door, tossing a glare towards the snoring occupant of the top bunk.

If I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, a shower generally helps steer me in the right direction, so I headed to the bathroom.  It was still very dark and I stepped on- oh, I can hardly write it.  Sometimes, when we forget to put Cinnamon (she’s our cat) out at night, she decides to do her business in the house, and always in the same spot- the bathroom mat in front of the shower.  We have tempted her with treats and fancy litter boxes to no avail- she will insist on using that rug.

So cursing fates and felines, I picked up the rug, hopped over to the toilet on one clean foot to shake out the remainder, and then wadded the mat up into a ball and hurled it down the laundry chute, telling myself not to forget to warn mom about it.  I then hopped to the shower, first rinsing my foot off and then the rest of me.

I did feel better after my shower, but as I was brushing my hair, wishing it was thick and shiny like Britt’s, I noticed a very large blemish on the end of my nose.  Generally speaking, I have pretty clear skin, so I’m not sure where this thing came from- probably history test stress.  I groaned inwardly and began fishing in the cabinet for something to help.  Now Britt keeps all manner of supplies and makeup in this cabinet, all purchased with her own hard earned money.  I tell people I prefer the natural look to wearing makeup, but the truth is, I’m just too cheap to spend any money that I might chance to come across on cosmetics.  However, this was an emergency.  I began slapping on creams and astringents and anything else that might reduce the swelling.  I found a nice shiny new tube of concealer and was too busy opening it  to notice another face in the mirror.  When I finally looked up, I saw that the face was Britt’s and it was looking disapproving..

I could tell by her face that she was getting ready to lecture, so I dropped the makeup and prepared to get the worst over with.  I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t guilty anyway.  She laid it into me pretty thick, about how maybe someday, I might think about buying some of my own things for a change- how she was sick and tired of all her sisters using her things without asking, and then losing or breaking or ruining them by leaving the cap off.

The minutia of her list of grievances told me that this was something she had been wanting to say for a while now, but had refrained.  I tried to defend myself here and there but then remembered the jacket I had lost and still hadn’t told her about or the bottle of expensive lotion I had just dropped the lid to and hadn’t bothered to fish out from behind the sink. So I just took the rest of the lecture in silence, apologized quietly, and slid out of the bathroom, my red nose glowing like a veritable Rudolph.

As I headed downstairs, I noticed the offending cat sitting on the step below me.  She is always grumpy in the morning, but this morning I was grumpier.  I had no intention of letting her claw my leg in passing as she is so often prone to do.  So I took an ill-judged leap over the next three steps to avoid her, and as she reached out a lazy paw to swipe in my direction, I clocked my head on the low ceiling overhang above me.

Finding myself crumpled at the foot of the stairs, I thought about returning to bed then and there and calling in sick.  But I knew that darn history test couldn’t be avoided.  So I added a throbbing forehead-egg to my list of today’s facial flaws and continued to the kitchen. I have been a morning person since early youth, and am usually the first one up downstairs so it was no surprise that the kitchen was still dark  when I went in.  Another non-surprise?- it was still raining outside.

We are currently living through yet another record breaking wet streak, although it’s hard to imagine how it can be worse than a few years ago when it rained for 52 days straight.  Normally the wet doesn’t  bother me too much, but after 53 days, I start thinking that ‘moderation in all things’ would be a good motto for the weather to adopt as well.

I opened the cupboard above the sink and my day suddenly brightened.  There was actually a box of granola left for breakfast!  I pulled it out, but it felt very light.  I emptied it into a bowl, half of it was sugary dust, but I didn’t care.  I had a moment’s guilt, finishing the box, but after all, the early bird gets the worm.  And if I ate fast, no one would have to know that I was selfish.

I next turned to the fridge, but I should have known on a day like today that there would be no milk.  In my opinion, there should never be an excuse for running out of milk- or at least the person who finishes it should say something about it.  My granola hopes dashed, I thought about toast.  But no, I was in a bad enough mood to insist that I deserved that granola- with milk.  The store wasn’t too far- just ten blocks or so, and if I took Britt’s bike, I could be there and back before anyone noticed.  I grabbed a jacket and a handful of coins from the bowl on the shelf and headed towards the backdoor when I caught myself, the scolding of just ten minutes ago dimly echoing in my ears.

“I am so sick and tired of my sisters borrowing my stuff without asking.”

I hesitated with my hand on the doorknob, but finally thought better of it and headed back to the stairs.  I jumped the cat again, this time remembering to duck my head, and within seconds, I was knocking on Britt’s door and poking my head inside.

There she was, sitting on her little bed, and having obviously just taken a shower, she was brushing her long dark hair- such a thick, shining mane.  I unconsciously began twisting my own straggly locks into a bun at the back of my head, as if to get them out of sight, and looked around.  Besides the bed, there was little else in the room.  A desk was in one corner, a very small and decrepit dresser -missing five out of eight drawer knobs- was in another.  The final corner was dominated by a lifesize cardboard cutout of Harrison Ford wearing a storm trooper uniform and pointing his blaster right at me.  Normally I don’t mind Britt’s collection of Star Wars paraphernalia, but this morning, I was in no mood to be shot at, by Han Solo or anyone else. I glared right back at his cardboard face.

“Did you want something?” Britt asked, wondering no doubt why I was making faces at the corner.

“Yes,” I replied, “I wanted to ask…”

But before I could make my request she interrupted, saying-

“I’m really sorry about yelling at you before.  I didn’t mean to, but I just get kind of fed up sometimes, having so many younger sisters and never being able to call anything my own.”

“You have your own room,” I thought grumblingly, but on the outside I just nodded.

She went on for a while, talking about the stresses of school and work and all the decisions she was having to make about what to do with her life after she graduated.  I feel kind of bad about it now, but right then, I wasn’t in the mood then for sympathizing, or anything else really except eating my breakfast.  So it was my turn to interrupt.

“Yah, so, umm, can I borrow your bike to run to the store real quick? We’re out of milk again.”

She looked on the verge of annoyance again, but catching herself, she smiled graciously and reminded me just to make sure and take the bike chain with me to lock it while I was in the store.

I figured this would be a bad time to remind her that the bike chain had been lost a few weeks earlier when Becca had had the brilliant idea of taking the cat for a walk, using the chain as a leash. As soon as the lock had clicked around Cinnamon’s neck, she had taken off like a ginger-colored streak, yowling hellishly.  We didn’t see her for a few days after that, but eventually she made her way back home.  She was still alive (only just) but she was missing the bike chain.

I was thinking about this regrettable incident as I made my way back downstairs, and so forgot to think about the victim of the story who was still waiting on the fifth step, claws newly sharpened on the armchair below and ready for a fresh attack.

I drew a sharp breath through my teeth as I felt the needle-like barbs pierce through my sock and grip my ankle. I aimed a retaliatory kick in her direction, but missed and hit the wall. Forgetting all pity for what she had recently been through, and thinking only of what I had suffered this morning at her feline hands, I felt she deserved nothing more than to be chucked out in the rain.  And chucked she accordingly was, but not before she added several long gashes to the top of my hands.

My acne-fied nose was throbbing, my forehead splitting, and both ankle and hands were oozing small trickles of blood as I headed to the back door again to make another attempt at the milk.

But lo and behold, whom should I find in the kitchen but a pajama clad pair of ruffians with their hands in my bowl of granola.  I stood there for a second, watching as they dug through the sugary fragments, searching for the biggest clusters.

“Hey!” I eloquently managed.  “That was mine!”

“It’s okay, we left you some,” replied Becca cheerfully, hopping off the counter and going to the fridge. Sam had the grace to looked a little abashed as I picked up the bowl and surveyed the few dried up raisins in the bottom.

“Oh bother,” said Becca, “Did you know we are out of milk?”

 

——————

 

Looking back over the day, I feel a sense of guilt, as if my bad mood cast a pall on everyone else.  We were late getting out the door, and in our rush climbing into the bus, (have I mentioned that we drive a 1979 Volkswagon bus?  Well, we do, and its brown and battered and the embarrassment of us all.) mom spilled her coffee.  Now my mother is normally the sweetest, most patient person in the world, but she likes her coffee.  So there was an unusual amount of snappishness in her voice as she told us all to buckle up.  The old vinyl seat belts were stiffer than usual in the cold, so I ignored mom’s command.

Sam and Britt had had a brief, though silent tussle over the front seat (Britt had won of course) and so Sam was sulking in the back next to Becca who was sighing over the rain and tracing pictures in the window condensation- lots of frowning faces and redundant clouds.

Mom wrestled the giant stick shift into gear, and we were off.

Soon Mom and Britt were having the same old discussion- about how Britt was one of the only people left in her class- probably the only seventeen year old in the world- without a driver’s license.  Mom was repeating her usual arguments against it, the most compelling of which was the fact that even if she had a license, she would have no car to drive.  Another indisputable fact was that no one else knew how to coax that old bus onto the road- not even dad.  Mom had taught herself the art over several patient years, and even yet, it was unpredictable.

To prove her point and in the middle of her sentence, the horn on the bus began beeping as if being pushed by an unseen hand.  It wasn’t a short little beep either, like it sometimes was.  It was one of those long, unbroken, moaning beeeeeps that tended to catch the attention of every other driver on the road.  A truck passed us on the left, staring.  I crouched lower in my seat.

Mom, no doubt due to her low caffeine levels, cursed ( if you can count ‘darn old horn’ as cursing) and gave it a good hard smack.  At the same instant, Britt suddenly shrieked,

“Mom! look out!”

The next thing I knew, I had been propelled forward and smashed into the back of the driver’s seat.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one who had ignored the seat belt command, because Sam suddenly appeared on the floor next to me.  Becca was sitting securely behind us, looking shaken but unhurt and mom was asking everyone in a strained voice if we were all right.

In the dark and rainy mist, and with the horn to distract her, mom had failed to see the roundabout in the middle of the intersection in front of us.  She had driven straight into it.

She and Britt climbed out of the bus to survey the damage, but they soon came back, looking relieved.  The curb of the roundabout was so high that it had stopped us dead in our tracks, denting the bumper considerably, but nothing worse. And seeing as the bumper was already dented in many places, we weren’t too worried.  Mom backed up the bus , we all buckled up this time, and we drove on, rubbing our necks but feeling thankful.

However, my thankfulness was wearing thin as we arrived at school.  A splitting headache was forming behind my eyes and we were running late.  When we arrived at school and joined the long line of sleek minivans and other vehicles five years old or younger, most of the students were hurrying through the rain on the front walkway, heading to their first period classes.  Therefore, there was a large crowd of spectators in place to watch, as two minutes later, our entire bumper fall off with an echoing clang when Becca slammed the side door.

There was a lot of snickering and pointing as Sam and I ran around to the front, picked up the muddy bumper and tossed it pell mell into the back of the car. Becca had the hysterical giggles again, and Britt looked, to use a worn out phrase, as if she wished the ground would open up and swallow her.  Mom gave us all a “I’m so sorry, God bless my poor girls” kind of look and drove away.  We heard the horn start up again before she had left the parking lot and it wailed into the distance.

Life had to go on however, so in spite of our burning cheeks, we each headed to our classes, cursing our poverty.  In all the chaos and disruption of the morning, I had completely forgotten, as I slid into my desk, that history was the first period of the day.  The tests were already being passed out, and I didn’t have a moment to explain why I was late, or even to catch my breath.  I started fishing in my bag, looking in vain for my lucky pencil, which I realized I had probably left by my bed, along with all my notes.

Resigned to the worst, I pulled out an old stub without any lead in it, and was about to ask if I could go and sharpen it when I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder.  Em was there, handing me a pencil and smiling encouragingly.  Her smile dimmed a bit as she saw me, and I realized I must have looked a sight, with my red nose and my purple egg, my clawed up hands and my clothes muddy from the ridiculous bumper.  I rolled my eyes, and whispered that I would explain later.  Our history teacher was looking disapprovingly in our direction.

The dreadful test was finally over, and even though I have no idea how I did, I was just relieved that it was done.  The next period was choir, perhaps my favorite class.  We have lately been working on learning Mozart’s requiem, and I was perversely happy when Mrs. Byrd asked us to turn to page 33- The Lachrymosa movement.

As Em began on the piano, the dark and doleful tones blended so perfectly with my mood that I started in a little too exuberantly. Mrs. Byrd stopped directing and looked straight at me.  Her voice gently said,

“A little less please, sopranos,” but her eyes exclaimed “Tone it Down, Natalie!”

I didn’t much care.  I was feeling better already.  If life was going to be such a vale of tears, I might as well be singing about it.

I even thought, a little rebelliously, that if I kept on singing loud, she might tell me to take a break with the singing and let me have a turn accompanying the choir for once.  She usually has various students on rotation to play, (mostly Em) but I have only ever had one shot at it, and I was so nervous, I failed miserably.  But I didn’t know how else I was ever going to improve in this area of my piano education, so I sang with all the gusto I had.  My neighbor to the right, quietly, but very noticeable slid her hand up and plugged her right left ear. Man it bugs me when she does that.

But at the next break in the music, instead of asking me to go to the piano, Mrs. Byrd asked instead if I would please sing the solo on the next page!  I wanted to say no, but didn’t know how.  Cheeks flaming and cursing my own foolishness, I prepared myself to sing alone in front of the whole class.  Thankfully, the bell rang with two measures to go and I smiled in relief.  Saved by the bell.  But no, she took me aside after class and told me she would like me to take all the solos throughout the piece, since my voice seemed strong enough.  I sighed resolutely, stomach churning at the prospect.

 

But thankfully it was now lunch time, and if there is anything that makes me feel better, it’s food.  When I got to the lunch room, I saw that the sun outside was actually making a break for it.  The room was flooded with the almost forgotten sight of sunshine and soon, I was not the only student sitting in my chair, eyes closed, sandwich forgotten, letting the golden light bathe my upturned face.

Our school is so small that everyone has lunch at the same hour, and it’s usually a pleasant time.  Em was sitting with me, and I had already regaled her with the tale of our woeful morning.  If she wanted to smile, she made no sign of it. although in the retelling, I could tell that it wouldn’t be long before I myself would be laughing.

I opened my eyes and noticed Adam sitting in the corner, by himself as usual.  He looked up, catching my sideways glance and I blushed infuriatingly when he smiled.  He looked almost as if he would like to get up and come and talk to me, but before he could make up his mind, all three of my sisters came and seated themselves around the small table.  I could tell that they wanted to commiserate about the mornings events, and although I understood, I couldn’t help being a little bit frustrated.

But before my sisters had even gotten past discussing the depressing breakfast of dry toast we had had, we were interrupted by the art teacher, Mr. Lowe who suddenly appeared next to our table.  It was most unusual for a teacher to venture into the confines of that room during lunch hour, and an unnatural hush descended.  We all looked up at him, perplexed, wondering if we were in some kind of trouble.

“Sorry to bother you,” he said in a perfectly friendly tone. “But I seem to have mislaid a stack of sketches that I was hoping to grade this afternoon.  I was just wondering if one of you might have seen them while cleaning my classroom last night.”

His voice was not loud, but in the sudden silence, it seemed to carry to every corner.  I saw Britt’s face redden and Becca squirm uncomfortably in her chair.  Involuntarily, I sneaked another glance in Adam’s direction.  He was watching the scene with an inscrutable expression on his face and I shifted my gaze quickly away in time to hear Sam tell Mr. Lowe, in a slightly shaky voice, that she hadn’t seen them.  The rest of us murmured the same.  He thanked us and unmercifully continued,

“All right, but if you happen to see them, could you let me know?  It’s possible they got thrown out, so keep an eye on the trash, will you?”  And then, thank heavens, he left, leaving behind him four rather devastated females.

We could sense the stares of the other students on the backs of our heads and I felt as if our secret was leaking out to every corner of the crowded room, filling up the silence until whispers and giggles took it’s place.

Em looked at us, pityingly.  But I could see that Sam growing angry, and she suddenly lifted up her head and looked around the room, as if defying anyone to laugh openly at us poor, destitute girls whose bumpers fell off in the rain, and who had to clean the school for tuition money.   Britt, scraping together all the dignity she could as befits the president of a school, calmly stood up, threw away her half eaten lunch and walked out of the room.

 

The rest of that day was as miserable as the beginning had been.  Everywhere I went, I caught people staring, whispering.  I told myself I was imagining things- that I was making too big of a deal out of the whole affair.  I tried to convince myself that I could care less what they thought of us, and as I had tried to convince Britt that first night we had discussed it- it was honest work, and nothing to be ashamed of.

But at the end of the day, I caught sight of my sisters in the hall and I could tell they had been having a rough time as well.  As I watched them each head to their lockers with a defeated slump to their shoulders, I felt like I could cry.  Then I heard a sneering voice, the voice of a particularly scrawny sophomore named Jake who always seemed to be compensating for his small size by being the biggest jerk he possibly could.  He was standing in front of Becca, one of the only people in the school smaller than he was and blocking her way as she tried to get past him.

From a distance I could see that he was holding a can of soda open in his hand, and as soon as he was sure all eyes were on him, he deliberately poured the entire thing out at her feet, until she was standing in a puddle of brown liquid.

“Whoops,” he said in mock dismay, “I should probably find someone to clean that up for me.  You couldn’t recommend anyone, could you Becca?” He laughed in her furious face for a moment, and then, dropping the can, turned to walk away.

I seemed to be frozen in place, too angry to move, but I heard a locker slam behind me, and I knew instinctively that it was one of my sisters.  I soon realized it was both as I saw them pushing past people in the crowded hall. The sight seemed to wake me up, and I joined in hot pursuit, unsure of what we were going to do when we reached him. The noise in the hallway seemed deafening, and I found myself desperately wishing that a teacher would intervene before Britt got a hold of the little punk, because I’ve seen what she can do when roused, and I knew it wouldn’t be pretty.

I’m sure Sam was thinking the same thing, since she seemed to be torn between comforting Becca and holding Britt back.  But before Britt could reach him, someone else stepped between them.  All of this takes time to write, but it really was only a few seconds and before my bewildered eyes could register what was happening, Adam Hale had taken Jake by the scruff of his scrawny little neck and gently but inexorably led him back to where Becca was standing with Sam’s arm around her.  Britt stood by, watching and waiting, but looking as ready as ever to pounce.

Adam looked calm enough, but I could see that his eyes were hard as he growled something in Jake’s ear.  Jake shook his head, squirming as if trying to escape.  By this time, everyone was crowding around, and most people were laughing, glad to see Jake getting his comeuppance, since he was the pest of the school.  Adam then shook him slightly, as if he were a big bulldog, teaching a little puppy a lesson. Another attempt at escape, followed by another and rougher shake, and finally Jake squeaked out an apology.

Becca looked as if she would like nothing better than to slap him, but she contented herself with a good long glare.  Then Adam turned the culprit around and marched him out of the hall, the suddenly silent crowd making a path for them.  No one knew what to do, or what Adam was going to do, and I found myself getting nervous again.  I thought of chasing after them, and telling Adam to let him go- that he wasn’t worth getting in trouble over, when the pair suddenly returned.  Adam still had Jake by the scruff of the neck, but he was no longer struggling and looked as limp and defeated as the wet mop he was dragging behind them.

People didn’t stick around much longer, especially when Adam asked in an impressively cold voice if anyone else had a problem with the Price girls. It was all so much like something you would see in the movies that we all stood by, a little shyly and uncertainly, watching Jake mop, and unsure of what to say.  We all felt that a thank you was in order, but Adam’s face seemed to forbid thanks, and to say that he was only doing what anyone else would have done.  But the thing of course was, that no one else had done it- only he had ignored the disapproval and the scorn of a school full of wealthy, privileged kids who had never had to earn a thing in their lives.

Once the cleanup was done, he allowed Jake to slink away with the mop, and then turned to the four of us, gave us a funny little salute, and left without another word.  After a few seconds, we suddenly heard the old church janitor, Mr. Paddock, suddenly raise his voice, demanding in strident tones “Just what do you think you are doing with my mop!”  We saw Jake scurrying up the stairs in a hurry, and we all grinned at each other.

 

That afternoon, after we had finished our own cleaning, we had a powwow in the sanctuary upstairs. We agreed we would never tell mom and dad what had happened that day, but we also agreed that we were done with hiding and secrets.  We didn’t have much of a choice now anyways, but we all felt it was time we manned up and owned the situation. It was a relief really, but the real joy lay in knowing that someone in the school had our backs.

“It’s almost like finally having a brother,” Becca said happily.  

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