All right folks, tonight I feel brave enough to post my first, (very much rough) chapter of my possible, someday (maybe not) book. I have debated back and forth over how I want to do this, but I figure if I don’t start putting stuff out there, it will never happen.
One evening, not so long ago, when tempted to despair over the general crappiness of my writing and my complete ignorance of how to actually put something like this together, I came across an article that helped me a lot. In short it gave two pieces of advice, first- “Just get your basic story down on paper. Don’t worry about perfecting it yet- just get it down and fix the details later. Everyone’s first draft is going to suck. I don’t care who you are- it will. So get the first draft down. It will be terrible, but it will be editable. ” (this was enormously encouraging to me) And second- “get yourself a group of people who will be willing to read and critique your work, and be willing to listen to them!” This second one is incredibly hard for me, first because I don’t like being criticized and second, even if I could find such a group, it’s hard for me to get away from home very often. So I am turning to you, internet. Be kind, won’t you?
A few more disclaimers. This story is definitely based on my life with my sisters, but it is also definitely fictional. It might be hard for you folks who know us to distance yourself from the girls that you know. It’s been hard for me too! But for reasons of plot (and several other reasons) I have cut the number of girls in the story down to four, and my aim is to create four new characters based on a mix of traits and characteristics found in me and my sisters (and even some of my friends). So try not to wonder who did what in real life. A lot of this is completely made up anyway. But enough. Here goes nothing.
I’m writing this sitting in the corner of the breakfast nook in our tiny kitchen. It’s not the most comfortable place for writing in the house, but I like to keep my literary attempts casual and above board. I have found that when I try to hide myself away and write stealthily, one of my sisters is bound to come poking their head over my shoulder to sneak a peak or else whisk the notebook right out of my lap. They know this annoys me to no end, which I finally came to realize is why they do it. So now I feign indifference and they leave me alone for the most part.
On days when I am particularly full of myself, I like to pretend I am Jane Austen, who apparently always wrote in plain sight and then discretely covered her paper with some mundane letter whenever anyone entered the room. My current ‘mundane letter’ is a grocery list, which mom asked me to compile. So far, it reads- Milk.
Even with all my precautions, I still dread anyone reading a story of mine that is half-finished. Of course, I don’t know if I would ever let anyone read a story of mine that is fully finished, because I have yet to finish one. I sometimes think my writing career will be one endless first chapter after another, always waiting for the second.
My friend Em told me that maybe I am trying too hard, and that I should just describe what life throws at me, without worrying about inventing plots and characters and such. It seemed like good advice. She was also of the opinion that it wouldn’t exactly be cheating to take inspiration from a book I knew well- as a kind of jumping off place, and to help me find my own voice.
So I thought about the literature I love most. Pride and Prejudice of course topped the list, followed closely by anything else Jane Austen. Little Women has had a strong influence, as well as Anne of Green Gables. Then of course, there is the inimitable Jane Eyre. Can you tell I’m a girl yet?
Dreaming big, my first attempt was in Elizabeth Bennet style. I quickly despaired of that. I mean, who do I think I am? From there I moved on to Jo March who seemed a little more accessible. But no. Every sentence felt forced and stiff and corny. I find I don’t do sentimental very well. So after those two feeble attempts, I grew despondent. I had hoped I could I identify with at least one of those two characters. After all, they are both, like me, the second sister in a family full of girls. Lizzie, Jo and I also share the happy privilege of playing second fiddle to a strikingly beautiful older sister. Even so, I still wasn’t feeling a connection. Inspiration ebbed low.
I gave up for a while, until the other day, when I was rearranging my books and found a battered paperback wedged behind the second shelf. It was a copy of one of my favorites, a book I hadn’t thought about for years (it has been a long time since I cleaned out my bookshelves)- Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle”. Lo and behold, here was another story about sisters, written from the perspective of a second, less attractive daughter. Apparently this is a popular plot device that seems to work well.
“So,” I thought to myself, “Why not join the club?” And even if I can never hope to match Smith’s poignant wit and unparalleled descriptive powers, and though we don’t live anywhere half so romantic as a castle, I thought I might be able to tackle a book from a journalistic perspective. So pardon me as I shamelessly borrow her style. After all, every artist needs inspiration.
As for getting past the first chapter, I’m feeling more optimistic than usual because, as Em said, life is about to throw something at us. That something, if it happens, is sure to be disastrous. And if it’s true that every artist needs inspiration, than it is equally true that every good story needs a disaster or two.
I suppose I could set the scene properly. I am sitting in the corner of the breakfast nook as I already said and outside, I can see the sun shining over a particularly gorgeous landscape of pine and madrona trees and glimpses of sparkling blue water. I love where I live, and normally such a breezy August evening would have me out enjoying the end of summer sunshine. Instead I am in here, watching my older sister Brittany picking disconsolately at a chip in the old formica tabletop. If life is about to throw something at us, we are waiting here patiently to catch it.
By we, I mean my three sisters and I. Britt, destroyer of formica tabletops, is seventeen, and the oldest. She has a beautifully sweet face, with round cheeks and an enviable dimple, but underneath all of that there is such a strength in her appearance that people always think twice before opposing her; including her sisters. Sometimes I’m amazed at how much she looks like my mother, with her long dark hair and eyes to match.
Perhaps my amazement is the greater because I look nothing like my mother, or my father for that matter, who is also dark. I have blond, stringy hair, a crooked-ish nose and a pointed chin. The only feature I have working for me is a pair of rather interesting eyes that are sometimes blue, sometimes green, and sometimes seem to have no color at all. However, having unique eyes can be a nuisance, since they always seem to draw attention and that attention has not been consistently positive. Unasked-for commentary runs the gamut from ‘stunning’ and ‘gorgeous’ to ‘ghostly’ and ‘dead looking’. Or this observation- a personal favorite which was given to me by a girl at my old school- “Girl! You got witches eyes!”
I might have forgotten that long ago comment if said classmate had liked me a little better. But seeing as she rather disliked me, she made up a little chant to go with her friendly description, adding to it another word that rhymes nicely with ‘witches’. It was, apparently, pretty amusing, and it caught on. Let’s just say it became my theme song for that very unpleasant year. But I don’t let the past bother me, obviously. And now I am way off track. Back to my sisters if you please.
Although I am nowhere near as strong as Britt, I am taller than her by a few inches. I missed being Irish twins with her by a mere seven days, which means, or course, that I am sixteen. I might as well get our ages overwith, since we run straight down the ladder.
Samantha, or Sam, as she prefers to be called, is fifteen, and Becca fourteen. We sometimes wonder why my mother had a baby every year for four years and then broke the habit cold turkey, but we have never asked. Maybe she was tired of girls.
Sam has a different look as well- with a head of copious, curly black hair that makes me jealous most of the time, unless it is first thing in the morning. She managed to inherit a pair of blue eyes as well, (we think they come from Grandpa Price) but they aren’t half so interesting (or terrifying, whichever you prefer) as mine. Sam loves to read like I love to write and right now I can tell she would rather be lost in her latest series than sitting across from me on this worn vinyl bench.
Becca is my father, in miniature. And I do mean miniature. Despite her fourteen years, she is a tiny little creature, with dark hair and pale brown eyes- the picture of delicacy and gentleness. You would never guess from her meek outer shell that inside there dwells a not-so-subtle wit and the temper of a volcano.
I would go on, but no doubt their characters (and mine) will become clearer in time if I can keep this thing going. All this time that I have been distracting myself by describing my sisters, they have been discussing the problem at hand.
Britt has been wishing that mom would come home so we could go shopping, instead of sitting around waiting for the end of the world to come. I silently agreed with her as I scribbled, since waiting for the end of the world is a seriously depressing business.
But Sam responded reasonably, if not cheerfully, that even if we went shopping, we would probably have to take it all back. She then added, in a tone that was bound to get under Britt’s skin, (who is fond of looking presentable) that she didn’t care a bit whether we got new clothes for school this year or not, just so long as we didn’t have to move.
This pronouncement upset Becca, whose skinny legs began swinging in an agitated manner from the edge of the countertop where she was perched. The thought of moving had never occurred to her. She naturally wanted to know how we could lose a house that was already bought and paid for.
It’s a good question. We have been living in the house ever since Grandpa and Grandma Price died and left it to us. I was only five at the time, so it is really the only house I remember. They had built the house some forty years earlier, and had chosen, as it’s location, a deserted stretch of clifftop that overlooked the waters of the Puget Sound and had a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, with The Mountain framed almost dead center in the living room window.
Property with such a view had cost them a pretty penny, so they had contented themselves with building a modest home- just big enough for the four of them- grandma and grandpa, my father, and my father’s younger sister Aunt Lucy. This meant, of course, that it was a good deal too small for the six of us when we inherited it. But it is cute and charming and full of sweet memories. We’ve never considered selling it, even for a moment.
Through the years, the spectacular scenery has drawn more and more people to the area until the deserted clifftop has become a thriving, though smallish city. And every year the property taxes have increased to such an extent that dad’s paycheck barely covers them. So a few years ago, mom had to go back to work part time to pay for groceries and such. Sometimes dad jokes that he wishes the glorious, volcanic mountain would finally just blow its top so we could all save a few bucks.
Charming as the house is, it is also in desperate need of repair. And compared with all the big, beautiful, new homes that have sprung up around it, it’s a wonder the snooty new neighborhood association hasn’t kicked us out long ago. We have been trying to set aside money for repairs for years now, starting with a new roof, but there always seems to be something else to pay for. It doesn’t help that dad and mom have dedicated themselves to keeping us in the excellent private school that our church started a few years back. That costs us as much as a mortgage and then some.
My parents have always been open with us about money matters, and we have always been glad to sacrifice in what little ways we can, since dad’s job has never been what could be called lucrative. But yesterday we were informed that dad was at the top of the list of cutbacks at his restaurant.
Despite his managing there for 15 years, the powers that be are looking for someone younger and more energetic. I can never understand why the movers and shakers of this world never seem to remember that being younger with more energy also means being immature with zero experience. At any rate, it will be their loss if they really let him go. But I keep telling myself I don’t believe they really will, and I’m just going to keep writing until we know the worst.
I find that writing in the present helps me to feel one step removed from what’s going on in front of me. The last five minutes have been spent by Sam and Britt arguing back and forth about the likelihood of losing the house, with Becca looking on like a spectator at a tennis match. But I always feel like I need to protect her from the dark side of life, so I put down my pen and interrupted with a comforting word or two.
“Becca, I’m pretty sure we won’t lose the house,” I said, “ You know mom and dad have always managed before.” This seemed to cheer her up considerably. Then, feeling I should be honest, I added,
“But I’m betting we will have to say goodbye to private school this year.” Becca’s hopeful face dimmed a bit as I said this, but Britt positively bristled. Apparently that thought hadn’t crossed her mind, for she burst out in protest.
“What are you talking about?” she almost yelled. “School starts again in just a couple of weeks! We have to go back! Remember, I was voted student body president at the end of last year? I can’t just walk out on that. And where would we go? Public School?” Her voice dropped to a whisper at these last two words, as if saying them would make going back to the school where the girls who loved to chant, a reality. I shuddered.
“Mom and Dad will think of something,” Becca said loyally, calming her big sister down in her turn. I could see in her eyes how desperately she hoped this was true. She had been looking forward to attending the school since her oldest sister had started there four years earlier, and particularly coveted the real musical education it offered. (She and I both play the piano, and although I have achieved a certain level of proficiency by dint of ceaseless struggle, she is one of those annoying people with innate abilities)
Anyway, I should have gone and hugged somebody at this juncture, since we were obviously all on edge and needing support, but I’ve never been very good at expressing myself that way. I’ll make you a batch of cookies any day, and even throw in some extra chocolate chips if you’re feeling really down, but don’t ask me for a comforting cuddle. Instead, I watched Becca hop off the counter and wedge herself into the breakfast nook with us. She laid her head on Britt’s shoulder and sighed. Sam merely nibbled one of her abundant curls and said nothing. A silence descended gradually, like the sun outside the white shuttered windows.
It’s dark now, but no one has made a move to make any dinner. I’m hungry enough to get up and start something, but it seems callous of me under the circumstances. We are sitting here still, waiting for a familiar sound that we have never dreaded before- the sound of dad returning from work. We almost always know when he is coming, even from several blocks away, by the tell tale rattle of the muffler on his car. Years ago, we christened his decrepit vehicle the Toyota Corroda, and have been expecting it to die ever since. But it refuses. Well, maybe today it has decided to give up the ghost. It would be fitting.
No, wait, someone’s at the front door. Oh dear, it’s not dad, it’’s mom. Now why is she coming home early and wherefore the fake smile that fools no one?
I’m finishing this chapter sitting in the living room window seat. I have nothing to cover my writing with if anyone should prove too nosy- no decoy shopping lists or letters to Grandma Clark. Everyone is too glum to care what I am doing. I figured I might as well finish the chapter, even though the ending is unhappy, as you might have guessed. No last minute reprieve was given us. Dad lost his job. What a stupid phrase that is- losing a job. It sounds like he got out of bed this morning and just couldn’t find it.
At any rate, mom left work early after she got his phone call. She said she wanted to be here to greet him when he got home, but I am sure she also wanted to give us a few minutes to adjust to the idea, and teach us how to put on a good, reassuring smile.
When she first entered the kitchen, it looked as if she was thinking about how to let us down gently, but Sam hates beating around the bush, so she up and asked her point blank what had happened. There was a moment of silent devastation, but once the worst was known, mom squared her shoulders and got to work. That’s always mom’s way of dealing with difficult things, and I must say I haven’t found a better one. But perhaps writing will do just as well if I get any good at it.
Getting to work meant briskly asking if anyone had thought of something to do with the chicken. We all stared a little guiltily at the defrosted poultry sitting neglected in the sink. Britt mumbled something about not being hungry, but this was the cue I was waiting for. I have yet to find the catastrophe that will make me lose my appetite, and I was pretty ravenous by this point. I hopped up and suggested we make dad’s favorite chicken dish. Without waiting for an answer, I filled a pot with water and turned on the stove.
Soon I was sliding diced chicken into a skillet of browning butter. Oh, there is just something about the rich, savory smell of browned butter that speaks to me. I took a deep sniff. My sisters think I’m weird, the way food comforts me, but I just tell them that I come by it naturally. Having a dad in the restaurant business will do that to you.
“Better go easy on the butter,” Becca said morosely, suddenly appearing at my elbow to stir a pot of boiling pasta. She always stirs things when it’s time to do dinner chores, whether things need stirring or not. I think she thinks it makes her look busy. “Who knows when we will be able to afford it again? Looks like it’s back to margarine.”
“Rebecca,” Sam replied with a touch of motherly scolding in her voice. She set down the stack of plates she had been carrying to the table and turned around, wearing the expression on her face that we all knew meant she was about to get a little preachy. She is apt to do so when things get difficult.
But Becca headed her off with a pious folding of the hands and an impish gleam in her eye. “For I tell you,” she quoted glibly, “do not worry about tomorrow, what you will eat or drink, or how much butter you will have. For tomorrow’s butter supply will worry about itself.”
We all laughed, even Sam. All in all, the evening was an interesting study in coping mechanisms. As we waited for dad, trying not to picture him cleaning out his desk and saying goodbye to beloved co-workers, we each turned to the thing that helped us most. Mom was busy straightening the living room, compulsively dusting and scolding us for leaving all of our junk around again. Becca took refuge in her humor, Sam in her books, I in my cooking and Britt- well Britt was sitting silent on the couch, looking as if making up her mind to do something desperate.
Before long, we could hear the Corroda in the distance. “There’s dad,” Becca declared unnecessarily, sitting up straighter on the piano bench where she had been plunking out a melancholy little tune. “Is it just me, or does his car sound sadder than usual?”
“Come on girls, let’s do our best to be cheerful,” mom replied, ignoring this last question.
None of us quite knew what to do as we heard the car door slam and his footsteps approach. When he entered, we were all standing there in a pitiful attempt at nonchalance, as if formally lining up to greet him at the end of the day were a normal occurrence.
His eyes took in the scene- the unusual silence, the sympathetic looks on all our faces- but before he could say a word, there suddenly burst forth from the piano the woeful sounds of Frederic Chopin’s most lugubrious funeral march. Becca had decided to break the awkward tension of the room in her usual way. And as usual, mom gasped and protested, while the rest of us silently asked ourselves where she got her nerve and wondered if she had gone too far. Dad hesitated a moment between disapproval and amusement, and then, to our infinite relief, tipped back his head and roared with laughter.
Unorthodox as her ice-breaking methods often are, they are usually effective. So instead of hedging the subject and pretending all was fine, we all laughingly headed to the kitchen, squeezed around the too-small table, ate our brown-buttery chicken and discussed our precarious future openly.
“What I want to know is, what are we going to do about school?” Britt asked after we had discussed possible job options for dad. “It’s my senior year and I don’t think I can stand the thought of changing schools now.”
“I wouldn’t mind leaving school so much if I could just homeschool,” suggested Sam with brightening eyes at the prospect of how much more time she could devote to reading.
“Someone would have to oversee your schooling if we did that,” mom reminded her, “and I am sure I wouldn’t have the time. I am going to need to ask Dr. Johnson if I can increase my hours at the office.”
“Mom,” Sam retorted, the familiar stubborn expression descending, “I think you could trust me to stay at home and be responsible for my own work.”
“But, wait,” Becca protested before her mother could reply, “Is there really no way for us to go to school this year? I thought maybe…” But her voice caught in her throat and we could all see the swelling tears wobbling in the corners of her big brown eyes.
“Well, there is one thing we can do,” dad said hurriedly, almost knocking over his glass in his eagerness to wipe the disappointed look off of her face. He never can stand seeing any of us sad, particularly Becca. “But it wouldn’t be an easy fix. I talked to Dave today.”
Sidenote- Dave is one of dad’s oldest friends, but we girls know him as the principal of our school, Mr. Templin. We have been close with the Templins as long as I can remember, and his daughter Em, whom I have mentioned already, is my best friend. End sidenote.
“I called him because (deep sigh) I had to stop him from cashing that first month’s tuition check we just sent in. But he was so unwilling to see you girls go that he made me a deal- (dramatic pause) If you are willing to take it. I’ll have to leave the decision up to you, since I am not sure what kind of schedule I am going to have and don’t know how much help I can be. And keep in mind, it would probably only be temporary until I can get my feet under me again”
We all turned to him, including mom, waiting to see what kind of deal our principal possibly could have offered. But dad was reticent to continue. He took a hasty bite of chicken and chewed it as long as was feasible.
“What is it dad?” Sam finally asked. “It can’t be that bad if Mr. Templin is asking us to do it.”
He swallowed, took a deep breath and went on.
“Well girls, he told me that the school is in need of a new janitor. Or four new janitors as the case may be.”
I am so excited to actually be starting a chapter two, that I am going to keep right on going, even though it’s ridiculously late and I am yawning from the strain of the day.
I’m in bed with a flashlight, and this week is my turn for the top bunk. We rotate between the three of us, Sam, Becca and I. Sam is on the bottom bunk and Becca has the twin bed in the corner which we call ‘the sleepy hollow’ because of the large divot in the middle of the saggy mattress. Britt sleeps in the ‘postage stamp’. That’s what we call her room because it is roughly the size of one.
After reading all this, I realize that we name a lot of things around our house. I think it must be to try to endear them to us. Like dad’s crappy car, or the uncomfortable bed, they don’t seem so bad if we have pet names for them. And the ‘postage stamp’ really is insanely small. But Britt prefers a tiny room to sharing with us. Come to think of it, we have never named our room.
There isn’t much that is nameworthy about it except that when we leave the window open, the most delicious smell of pine and salty sea air comes wafting in. And you can hear the waves best from this corner of the house. If I were Anne of Green Gables, no doubt I would have thought of a romantic name long ago.
As it is, our three-man room is not very large either- just a converted attic space where the ceiling slopes down and hardly leaves room for a bunk bed at all, let alone a pillow and my head. I’ve been looking at the plaster ceiling for a while, trying to think what I should write but really focusing on the imprint of a squashed mosquito that has been there for many years now. No one has ever bothered to wipe off the tiny corpse- there seems to be an unspoken agreement about this, and we all secretly wonder just how long it will last. If mom knew about it’s existence, she would go for a damp rag immediately. But as far as we know she has never entered the quiet refuge of the top bunk. And I’m glad of it. There’s a strange kind of comfort in knowing that no matter what changes life brings, that darn mosquito will still be there. But enough about dead insects. I was going to write about our evening.
Dinner did not end well after the ‘janitor announcement.’ We could all tell that dad felt really bad about mentioning such a plan, but I don’t see why. It’s a legitimate idea, even if unpleasant. But I could see Britt in the corner, again with that desperate look on her face. Sam tried to keep things light by asking a question or two about the job requirements. Becca just looked blank and slid out of the nook. Predictably, we heard the piano start up again. This time it was Beethoven- one of his stormiest.
Mom was already up and had the table cleared and the dishes half washed before any of us thought to help her. And though dishes are probably my least favorite thing to do, I got up too. We sighed off and on as we scrubbed. The table fell silent and dad went into the living room to turned on the t.v. The sounds of a basketball game soon mingled with the banging piano. Britt quietly vanished, and I watched Sam fish a book off of the windowsill and disappear behind it.
Once the dishes were done, I wandered out to the couch to sit with dad. I’m not much of a basketball fan, but I figured I could suffer through it for once, just so he wasn’t alone. Britt was usually the one to watch sports with him, but she was nowhere to be seen. Becca, having apparently worked through her feelings and shelved them with a resounding c minor chord, came and joined us. I’m not sure how long we sat there- a few quarters or halves or innings- however basketball works, when we were all surprised by the sound of the front door opening.
We all turned to see who it was and there was Britt wearing a frustrated expression and holding something behind her back. Evidently she had hoped to sneak into the house as unnoticed as she had left it. Mom poked her head out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a dishtowel and Sam looked up from her book.
Britt looked so guilty, cornered by the front door like that with all of us staring at her, that I was afraid she had committed some crime. “Honey?” mom said, in that gentle voice that asks all questions at once. Britt swallowed a few times and then, realizing it was hopeless, let it out.
“I got a job,” she stated bluntly, and she held out what she had been hiding behind her back- a black apron with the name of the fast food restaurant that had just opened down the street stitched across the top in red and white thread. We just sat there, stunned, leaving the obvious question for Sam to ask.
“Why do you think?” Britt burst out in reply, and her vehemence surprised us all. “I’m seventeen now- maybe it’s time I started to look out for myself. And maybe this way, I won’t feel so guilty wanting new things and maybe we can afford to go back to school without…. Her voice faltered and she looked close to tears. I’m pretty sure she realized, like we all did, that she would have to flip an awful lot of burgers to cover our tuition.
Dad looked hurt, confused and defeated. He got off the couch and quietly headed to his room. Mom’s eyes followed him through the door, and then they turned back to Britt, who looked horrified. She then said, “Honey,” again in that voice that expresses all the understanding and sympathy in the world. Mom packs a lot of punch into the word ‘honey’, because Britt finally burst into tears and fled the scene.
We could see which direction she was going because the upstairs landing is just visible from the living room. When she got to the top, she turned right instead of left, which meant she wasn’t seeking solitude in the ‘postage stamp’. She had chosen our room, which was usually a cue for some sort of sister meeting. Becca, always the more sympathetic one, jumped up immediately and followed her.
I know it is callous of me, but I prefer to let the crying episodes pass before getting down to the business of sorting out problems. So I sat with mom for a bit. After all, she needed some support too. I wish I could say that even though I am rotten at offering comforting hugs, I am good at dishing out consoling words, but the truth is, I stink at both. I think mom understands though. At any rate, she didn’t have much to say either, so after five minutes of silence, and after realizing that Sam had put down her book and was giving me the eye, we headed upstairs together.
When we got to the door, I pulled on the doorknob and the short end came out in my hand. I heard the end with the stick fall through onto the floor inside the bedroom. No doubt, in the drama of the moment, Britt had been a little too forceful with it and loosened the rusty old screws again. This was a weekly occurrence. I knocked quietly and waited for an answer.
None came except the sound of footsteps and someone rummaging around for something. In a moment, we saw the tiny shape of a Barbie doll’s foot emerge through the knob hole and turn to the right. The door opened with a pop. It was Becca. We came quietly in and Sam headed straight for the bottom bunk, but still holding one side of the knob, I bent down to grab the other piece. But it was really broken this time- the stick had fallen out of both sides. I threw the pieces into the box by the door, which contained various items that could replace the handle in case of emergency- an old toothbrush, a bent butter knife and other odds and ends. I left the broken Barbie leg in the door hole. With it’s rubbery grip, it was by far the best substitute.
I then swung myself up into the top bunk and surveyed the scene. I could see Britt over in the corner, leaning against the crooked closet doors. It looked like the tears were over. Becca was making a nest for herself in the ‘sleepy hollow’, surrounding herself with her numerous ratty stuffed animals, like a barricade against the realities of growing up.
We sat for a long time in silence, and as the second oldest, I was feeling it my duty to say something, but before I could, I found my head suddenly bashed against the low ceiling above me.
“Sam!” Becca said reprovingly, having a go at the motherly tone that usually belonged to Sam herself. I rubbed my head and swung it over the edge of the bed to glare at her. She was grinning apologetically while lowering her legs and said,
“Sorry- old habit.”
When we were younger, we had often played this trick on each other. We would wait until just before we thought the top story occupant was asleep, and then with feet well planted, push up on the piece of plywood which was all that held the upper mattress in place. Mom had forbidden us to do so years ago, after one particularly exuberant push had succeeded in flipping board, mattress and sleeper onto the bed below, damaging all parties concerned. But in times of anxiety, the old impulse had a tendency to resurface, like a nervous twitch. So I forgave her, but grudgingly. And at least it had broken the silence, because Becca piped up.
“So how long are we going to avoid talking about this? I’d like to get rid of the extra elephant in the room. Lumpy doesn’t like competition.” And she patted a particularly decrepit stuffed pachyderm whose threadbare trunk was drooping over her shoulder as if hoping for peanuts.
“I’ll start with an apology,” Britt replied much subdued. “I’m sorry I made dad feel bad, but I had to do something! I mean, are any of you actually willing to be a janitor at your own high school?”
“Well,” I replied, hesitating, “It’s not the greatest solution, but I would be willing to do just about anything to stay in school this year. And it’s not like anyone would have to know. We would be working after school hours, right?”
“You really think we could keep this hidden?” she scoffed back at me, and then continued. “I was elected to be student body president this year. How can I lead the school, and then be expected to empty trash and scrub floors? And wearing all my old stuff from last year? Look at my shoes!” and she brandished a worn out sneaker at us, causing the frayed laces to flap violently. I don’t think I could stand it.”
“Oh come on, who cares how you are dressed?” Sam spat back, legs extending upward to the plywood platform again. I gave her a warning look and she lowered them. “What does it really matter? Everyone knows we don’t have a lot of money, and if they are going to be petty about it, then that’s their problem.”
“That sounds great Sam, but you’ve only been there for one year,” Britt replied. “You don’t know what it’s been like, struggling for three years to fit in when you are the only poor person in a class full of rich kids. And just when you are finally getting somewhere, you get landed with the janitor job? Do you guys remember how much fun everyone used to make of the last lady who cleaned the school?”
“Oh brother”, Sam snorted. “No one made fun of her because she was the janitor. It was just because she was so grumpy and mean and always yelling at us.”
“Well either way, the idea stinks. After a year of cleaning up after a bunch of snotty high schoolers, we’ll probably end up grumpy and mean too. Try to put yourself in my place, Sam! I know you have never cared what other people think of you, but I’m not happy ignoring the rest of the world and sticking my nose in a book.”
Now if there’s one thing I try to avoid at all costs, it’s a conflict. So before Sam could splutter an angry response I jumped in.
“What if we just gave it a try for a while? It’s only until dad can find a new job, right? I mean, what other options do we have? It’s either that or starting over in a new school”
“Or homeschool,” Sam interjected. We ignored her.
“And that way,” I continued, looking at Britt, “You could just use the money from your new job to get yourself some clothes and stuff. We could do the janitor work on afternoons and Saturdays, and no one would need to know. Sam wouldn’t tell anybody, right?” We all knew that she wouldn’t be above proclaiming the fact to the world, just to prove that she didn’t care. She shrugged noncommittally in response, but I knew she wouldn’t tell if it was something that involved all of us.
“And even if someone did find out, it’s honest work and nothing to be ashamed of,” I concluded, trying hard to convince myself of something I didn’t really believe myself.
It was Britt’s . But there wasn’t much to be argued against this. It was pretty sound advice, if I do say so myself, and I could see that she was caving. But before the subject closed, Becca voiced the last objection that was probably hovering in the back of all our minds.
“I guess we there’s not much else we can do, and I’m game if you are,” she sighed, looking worriedly at her delicate little hands as if imagining them already wearing a pair of smelly rubber gloves. I was proud of her, since I knew how hard it must be for her to contemplate starting her high school career as a custodian.
“But you guys,” she continued with a little smirk, “How on earth are we going to pull this off? You know we all suck at cleaning.”
There’s nothing quite so nice as a hearty laugh after a long day of trouble. I’m pretty sure King Solomon says something about it somewhere. Mom, hearing the laughter, must have felt that the all clear had been given because she suddenly appeared at the door to assure us that dad was all right, give us all another hug and tell us everything was going to be fine. And as mature as I would like to think that I now am, I still love that she kissed me and tucked me into bed (even though she must have known I had no intention of falling asleep yet). I wonder if she will ever get over the habit.
School started today. But I am home again now, sitting outside on my favorite rock. The mountain is peeping out at me from a rim of clouds and I have some extra time to write. I know I said I gave up writing in clandestine fashion, but today- well today just called for it. It really was such a strange day. Life-altering might be too strong a term, but I feel like a different person than the girl I was this morning. Details forthcoming. I want to do this story justice.
We felt more prepared for the dawning of a new school year than we had foreseen since apparently mom had a little money set aside for us to go shopping after all. It wasn’t much, and we found ourselves at the mall last week, trying to make the most of our meager sums. Britt had already received her first modest paycheck, so she combined it with what mom had offered and was able to cover most of her wardrobe bases. She seemed to be truly enjoying herself, going back and forth from dressing rooms to clothing racks, heaping her arms with garments and returning almost all of them.
Sam and I, who both rather detest shopping, milled aimlessly about for a while, examining droopy sleeves and heels of shoes with little interest. I then noticed Becca a few aisles down, apparently engrossed in something. I walked discreetly over and peeked down the aisle to see what she was doing. She had laid out sundry items on a bench- some new shoes, a pair of jeans, a cute sweater and shirt- and was muttering ‘eeny-meeny-miney-mo’ under her breath and jabbing at the items with closed eyes, as if she didn’t want to know which items hadn’t made the cut until she had to. Sam came up to investigate as well and then we looked at each other, unspoken agreement in our eyes. Before Becca could get past “My mother said…” Sam interrupted her with
“Hey Becca Bug.”
Becca Bug’s eyes flew open, anger plainly written on her face as she looked at us. Whether it stemmed from the use of her much-detested old nickname or the fact that we had discovered her chanting that foolish childhood rhyme, it was hard to say. Probably both.
“Sorry,” Sam continued hastily. “No offense, but we were wondering if you maybe were in need of a little assistance.” She looked at us both, confusion mixing with the anger.
“It’s your first year of high school,” I clarified. “You need at least one entire new outfit.” And we both fished out the crumpled bills mom had given us and held them out. Her look changed to one harder to read. She looked as if she were wrestling with herself, so I made things easier for her.
“Look. You know Sam and I could care less what we wear to school. And Aunt Lucy just sent us three whole bags of Anna’s old clothes, which we can share. But there’s no way in heaven you would be able to fit into anything that ever belonged to Anna,” I reasoned.
This was true enough. Sam, our cousin Anna and I share long, lanky genes, which means we can also share long, lanky jeans. (no apologies- bad puns are an author’s privilege)
“So it’s only fair that since Nat and I have such a nice big hand-me-down wardrobe,” Sam went on, “you should have this,” and we wedged the money into the coveted shoes and fled, before she could protest.
Thus we arrived at our first day, less shabbily attired than we had foreseen, which did wonders for our morale, since there was an unpleasant task ahead of us. Before first period, the four of us sheepishly sneaked into the principal’s office to ask him how the whole janitorial thing was going to work. Mr. Templin looked surprised at the question and replied that seeing as school was only a half-day today, we could take the afternoon off.
He said it with a little smile pulling at the corner of his mouth, as if the idea of four girls tackling this job amused him. I had to nudge Becca in the ribs to prevent her saying something rude about the whole affair being his idea. (she later denied having any such plan, but I know her too well.) We simply tried to smile in return, but I’m not sure if we succeeded. At any rate, he said there wasn’t anyone around today to show us the way things are done, so it would have to wait until a better time.
This put all of us in a better mood at least, and we were able to enjoy all the various reunions and catching up that the first day of school usually entails. The school is really so small that this ritual doesn’t take long. I am part of a class of 22, and I think in total, the school falls just short of 100 students. Out of my small class, and probably because I am already so close with my sisters, I only have one other real friend whom I have already mentioned- Emily Templin.
Since I have known her forever, my introduction to high school was made quite easy. My social skills are abysmal, and I really dislike meeting new people. So it helped immensely, having a best friend already built into my class. I thought at first that it might change our relationship, having her dad in charge of the school and all. I asked myself if she might run to daddy if I ever put a toe out of line. But one afternoon in English class, early in our freshman year, she passed me a note during class, right under her father’s nose! (Mr. Templin is also our English teacher since the staff at our school is stretched a little thin).
I knew then that I had nothing to worry about, and we’ve kept up our old friendship along with a lively, contraband, classroom correspondence ever since. She is one of the few people who knows about my love of writing, but she never asks to see it either, which I love about her. Some day, if ever I get it done, I will dedicate my first novel to her.
Our school isn’t very interesting as far as big school dynamics are concerned. We have no sports teams and very few extra curricular activities, which damages our chances of attracting male students. If you are in the market for high school romance, you should probably go shopping somewhere else. My class had three boys in it last year, and overall, the girls in the school outnumber the boys three to one. Although I should say, my sister Sam has made a few conquests in her short tenure here. Without even trying even. But that’s another one of those innate abilities I do not possess. Britt has never had a boyfriend either, but I think that’s mostly because all the boys are intimidated by her.
However, there are many things to love about our school if you can get past the lack of cheerleaders and a senior prom. (or anyone to go to prom with) Traditionally, the first day back entails a brief introduction to all the year’s upcoming classes, and then we all make our way to the church parking lot and load onto the bus (our entire school can fit into one bus and a few vans) for the annual picnic.
The Pacific Northwest has no shortage of scenic beauties, and every year they take us some place different- a stretch of rocky beach perhaps, or a forested park. Today, they took us for a longish drive up into the mountains, to a state park that featured a lovely river and spectacular water fall. We were lucky enough to get a sunny day for our trip as well, since the PNW has no shortage of rain of either. As the poor old bus grunted and shifted it’s way around the hairpin bends and up the steep hills, I found myself every few minutes, gripping the edge of the seat that I was sharing with Em. As much as I love the mountains around here, I am not a fan of heights. I prefer looking up at them, and not the other way around.
To distract myself from the heart-stopping view, I turned around in my seat to see how Becca was getting on, it being her first day of highschool and all. She was sitting a few rows back with a girl I had never seen, comfortably conversing and completely at her ease. She has little trouble getting to know new people. Sam was three rows behind her, and for once not reading a book. A few of her swains were trying to get her attention, but she was ignoring them beautifully, completely enraptured with the scenery. She has no problem with high places. Britt, the newly instated Student Body President, was up in front, busily talking with the teachers about plans for the new school year. It made me smile, seeing all of my sisters so happy and it made the whole impending ‘cleaning lady’ prospect seem more than worth it.
The rest of the bus was filled with mostly familiar faces- my junior classmates, superior looking seniors, and cocky sophomores giving the awkward freshmen a hard time. But there was one face that didn’t fit any of these categories. It was sitting alone only a few rows up, and it was a new face- one that I had only glimpsed briefly that morning, occupying the desk in the very back corner of my classroom. The face had looked as if it wanted to be left alone, and seeing as it belonged to a boy, I didn’t feel up to introducing myself. I’m not one of your flirtatious types. I had heard his name in the role call, and I remember it was Adam something or other- I’m terrible with last names. I nudged Em and asked her if she had heard anything about him. She is usually in the know on these sorts of things.
She told me her dad had mentioned him briefly as just having moved to the area from southern California, which intrigued me even further since my mother hails from the same corner of the country. Em then went on to inform me that his last name was Hale in such an audible whisper that he turned around and looked right at us. We both felt embarrassed, but there was nothing for it.
“Hi,” I said, my nervousness making me unusually bold. “I’m Natalie, and this is Em.” Em waved awkwardly.
“Well, it’s obvious you know my name,” he said in a flat tone of voice and with a deadpan face that was hard to interpret. Was he mad at us? Annoyed? I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I waited for him to make the next move. He left us hanging for a moment before finally cracking a smile and resigning himself to be conversable . I asked him where he was from (Em was right in thinking he was from California) and I held onto that common ground as long as I could, since I am no good at thinking up topics for conversation. We had enough material to last for a while as sunny CA has been the destination of almost every vacation our family has ever taken.
As we talked, discussing the various beauties of California coasts and mountains I couldn’t help noticing that he was rather better looking than most of the guys in the school. It was easy to miss at first since his hair was badly cut and he was wearing pretty shabby clothes- worn out blue jeans paired with a faded rugby shirt and shoes that made Britt’s old tennies look pretty spiffy by comparison. But as Britt had pointed out so often lately, we were just about the only ones at our school short of money, so it was refreshing to see someone else who shared our plight. Of course he might have been rich, and like Sam, could have cared less how he was dressed, but I wasn’t about to ask him.
After a while, he began staring at me more and more intently- so much so that I started feeling a little uncomfortable. He must have realized it because he suddenly said,
“Sorry, I don’t mean to stare, but it’s your eyes.”
I braced myself, unsure of what was coming next- a compliment or a criticism.
“Are they always that color?” he continued, “or do you wear colored contacts?”
I might have been imagining it, but his tone implied that he wondered why anyone in their right mind would have chosen contacts in that particular shade . I stared down at my lime green shirt in embarrassment, having forgotten that this top always made my eyes appear more than usually bizarre. Em, well aware of my insecurity in this area and apparently interpreting his tone in the same way, loyally interjected at this point.
“They aren’t contacts,” she said a little defensively, “She just has amazing eyes. They change colors all the time, depending on what she is wearing.”
“Then I bet you avoid wearing red,” he returned with the same deadpan face as before.I honestly couldn’t tell if he were joking or not, but I laughed anyway. Em was looking a little angry for my sake, and he soon looked as if he wanted to change the subject. Apparently nothing came to mind, so instead, he abruptly turned back around in his seat and resumed his solitude. I exchanged uncertain looks with Em. She shrugged.
“Well, he’s different anyway,” she whispered, as if that were the most that could be said for him.
I didn’t have long to feel offended by his oddities. We soon arrived at the park, and there was the usual noise and crowd of people in the aisles to contend with. I don’t like fighting crowds, so I let Em pass and waited. I gave an encouraging smile to Becca as she went by, closely followed by Sam and her loyal subjects who were jostling for position behind her. I saw one of them reach out and pull one of her ubiquitous curls, trying to get her attention. I grinned as her predictable, retaliatory kick met his shins, thereby quenching his jocularity and causing the whole group of young idiots to step back apace. Maybe someday they would learn.
Once the back of the bus had emptied, I reached down to grab my jacket from under the bench. When I stood up, there was Adam Hale, looking at me, smiling. He had an awfully nice smile, and it made him look like a different person.
“I’m sorry if I offended you before,” he said quietly. “I’m not very good at talking to new people, or girls for that matter.”
I told him I wasn’t offended, even though I was, a little, and assured him that I was rotten at making acquaintances as well. He smiled again.
“Are you coming?” he continued, and I suddenly realized that he was waiting for me. I grabbed my jacket and hurried past him down the aisle, wondering why on earth I was blushing. As a general rule, I avoid blushing- it makes me feel immature and vulnerable.
Things were better once I got outside. The air was clear and free of the smell of 75 teenagers and the diesel fumes of the bus. And the surroundings were enough to distract me from strange new boys with handsome smiles.
“After all,” I told myself, “I have made it through two years of high school without a single crush, and I don’t intend to break that record.” So I didn’t look behind me to see if he was following, but hurried over to join Em and my two younger sisters who were sitting at a table in the covered picnic area close by the river.
We sat munching our sandwiches as Mr. Templin gave his usual first day of school speech. He then introduced my older sister, who stood up, waving nervously. The cheers from most of the students seemed to give her confidence, and she gave us all an inspiring presidential speech about what this year was going to bring. She did look nice in her new clothes, and I thought her prettier than ever in her nervous excitement.
Once lunch was over, we were free to explore and we walked down the rocky path to the sparkling river. Looking to the left, the water meandered along in a respectable stream between tidy wooded banks, looking much like any other river. But looking upstream, I saw about a hundred yards distant, the water emerging from was an immense green tunnel, except its walls were higher than any I had ever seen and there was no top- just a sliver of blue sky far above. It was, in fact, a narrow gorge, whose moss covered cliff walls diffused the sunshine until everything appeared emerald green- the water, the rocks, the light, the river itself.
Sudden shouts echoed off the rock walls as some of the students, led by their fearless president, splashed forward through the shallow water, towards the gorge. I was eager to explore as well, but turning around to take off my shoes, I noticed Becca back at the picnic grounds, looking lonely and uncertain. I went to see what the matter was.
I didn’t need to ask, once I saw her face. I had forgotten her fear of closed in spaces. Being the only one in the family who shares a similar phobia, I felt that I should stay behind with her, but to my relief, Sam came up behind and offered to stay.
“Are you sure?” I asked, being well aware that her love for nature was at least equal to mine.
“I’m sure,” she replied, a trifle grumpily. “I might explore later, but not until those boys get back and I can go without them. I’m sick of boys at the moment.” and she glared in the direction of the shouts fading in the distance. Em, who given the choice, always preferred to have a good chat with friends than explore the great outdoors, decided to stay behind as well, so that in a few minutes, I found myself barefooted, jeans rolled up to my knees, and heading into the green tunnel alone.
There was a mist over the river here, adding to the strange aura of the place. The water was shallow and cold, hardly above my ankles, with slippery stones underfoot. Moss laden trees grew horizontally out of the rocks before bending their course upwards to seek the far away sun. Thin sheets of moisture cascaded down the rock faces like waterfalls of dew, and the myriad drops falling in the rippling water were like music.
Whenever I am alone in a beautiful place like that, I can’t help but sing a little bit. When I am stressed I cook, but singing is for when my heart is full. I’ve always been self concious of my voice for as long as I can remember. It has fog horn qualities that always drew the notice of teachers, who would inevitably point me out to the whole class, asking me to take it down a notch or two. So the only time I really feel comfortable singing solo is around my family, or in a setting like this.
But this was definitely not the time for foghorns. It seemed like a place where fairies might be lurking, so I opened my mouth and just whispered a few words of the first song that came to mind . They floated quietly up to the crack of sky, bouncing off the craggy boulders and sounding like wind chimes. I stood still, breathless for a moment. I sang a little louder-
This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears,
All nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.
I grinned in delight. It was exactly like singing in a round with myself. I went on, louder still-
This is my Father’s world, I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas. His hand the wonders wrought.
I couldn’t believe how long that old hymn went echoing around me- long after I had ceased singing. But the wonder of the moment turned to embarrassment as I realized that the echoes could probably be heard by all the other students. So regretfully, I let the echoes die and moved on more silently.
I began to ask myself when I was going to run into the other students, when the sounds of a distant roaring began filling my ears. As I rounded the next corner, I saw what had happened to them. The sounds of their voices were completely quelled by a waterfall. But it wasn’t big at all, probably only twelve feet tall,- nothing like as big as Mr. Templin had been describing. But it was large enough to fill the little dell with thunder. I needn’t have worried about anyone hearing my little song.
I stood and watched the group for a while, having no desire to go nearer. The water was, of course, deeper near the base of the falls. Some of the bolder students were scrambling up the rocks behind the cascade, egging each other on to jump through it. This frightened me at first, until the first two or three bravehearted souls came bursting through and fell into the pool below. They came up laughing and spluttering, circling around in the slow eddy of the water until they felt hard ground again and clambered out. I watched a little while longer, and to my astonishment, I next saw Britt dive fully dressed through the falls while all the boys cheered. I bit my lip hard until she surfaced again.
When she did surface, she looked concerned, and I wondered if she had hurt herself. But the cause of her worry soon became apparent. The force of the water had pulled one of her hard earned shoes off, and it was floating a few feet in front of her. She struck out after it, but the eddy of the whirlpool kept it just out of reach. It went under the falls again. She soon followed suit, though she was paddling hard to keep away. The boys were all laughing now, watching the sport, but she soon caught up with her waterlogged shoe and made her way toward where I was standing. I looked at her half-worried, half-admiring.
“I never know how you dare to do the things you do,” I said as she came dripping out of the water. ” I just left Becca trembling back on shore with Sam, while I’ve been cautiously tiptoeing through the shallows. Meanwhile, you are fighting with waterfalls. What would mom say?”
“Mom doesn’t need to know,” she smiled at me, looking slightly apprehensive.
“I’m betting you don’t even have a dry anything to change into either. Well, you are not borrowing anything off of me. I intend to stay dry.”
“Don’t you worry about me,” she returned airily, “I’m not afraid of a little water.” And she headed back towards the falls for more.
I watched a few minutes longer, but preferred to continue my the quiet exploration of the maze further still. So I backtracked to where I remembered seeing another small fork of the river carving it’s way through an even smaller canyon and decided to follow it. I could touch the mossy walls on either side of me here, and though I tried singing again, the sound was muffled and the echoes died quickly. I thought the river would cut itself off completely, or else disappear under the ground, when to my amazement the narrow passageway suddenly opened up into a wide and rocky clearing.
As I looked around, I saw that it was almost perfectly round, no doubt carved by the ceaselessly swirling water. It didn’t look deep, but the current looked strong. The sunlight was less green here, and it was brighter, so that it took my eyes a moment to adjust to what I was seeing, and even longer to realize I wasn’t alone. The sudden “Hello again,’’ that came from my right made me gasp out loud. I found the echoes had returned in full measure and I had to hear my foolish little scream reverberate around the walls several times before it faded away. I also had time to realize that my companion was none other than the new boy from the bus.
He was sitting on a large boulder with his arms wrapped around his knees, just a few feet away. And he was smiling his nice smile. I felt my stomach tighten and my face go red again, but I said “hello”, as calmly as I could. Then, to cover the awkward moment, I said stupidly, “I didn’t know anyone else was here,” as if my startled gasp hadn’t made that clear enough.
He stood up on his boulder, and said, “Do you want to explore?”
“Explore what?” I asked again, looking around. It was only then that I noticed that the thin green canyon continued on the other side of the wide pool.
“How would we get there” I asked, uncertain of the depth of the water. For answer, he merely took a small jump to the boulder nearest him and looked back at me. I stood for a moment, uncertain and shy, but suddenly feeling a new kind of recklessness, I followed him.
We moved from rock to rock, sometimes hopping, sometimes just taking large steps, but it wasn’t nearly as frightening as I had imagined. The rocks were flat and dry, and only a couple of them wobbled when we landed on them. I started to have fun. We didn’t talk at all, just moved forward towards that thin green crack in the rock face. He turned around just before he entered it. I nodded. We went forward.
I expected the current to be stronger here, with all the water from that pool suddenly bottled up into a narrow channel. But although it frothed and splashed more noisily, we found we didn’t need to hop rocks anymore and could simply wade again. He was the first one to break the pleasant silence.
“This place gives me the same sort of feeling as the giant Sequoia groves near Yosemite,” he said. “Have you ever been there? It’s a sort of reverent feeling, like being in a cathedral. But I like it better.”
I replied that I had been to Sequoia once, although I had been only eight at the time. I also remembered I had been distracted from the grandeur of the place by the fact that Becca had gotten violently carsick on the way up and was stopping behind every cedar tree to throw up. I kept that fact to myself.
But I understood what he meant about the holy feeling. It’s always been hard for me to reveal my thoughts about divine things. I think I once gave my father a shock, talking about God and nature as if they were interchangeable, and he gave me a rather long lecture on the dangers of deism. My sisters and I were diligently raised to approach God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and though I have never harbored a doubt that I am a believer in Jesus, I have a very difficult time fitting him into my daily routine. In fact, I have a hard time knowing what a relationship with Jesus even looks like.
Em is always talking about asking Jesus for help with her math tests, or that he would give her a kinder heart towards less fortunate people.(as if she needed it), or even wishing that she felt closer to him than she sometimes does. But I never feel the same way, and I’m not sure I have ever felt what it means to be “close to him”. But when I am out in nature- God the father, God the Creator doesn’t just speak to me- he fairly shouts his undeniable presence. And though I am usually too much overwhelmed to say much, I prefer to feel tiny and insignificant in the face of creation, than trying to ask Jesus to help me with all my petty day to day problems.
Perhaps I don’t seek his presence hard enough when I am home in my home and my comfortable routine, but it’s so much easier just to step out the door and be shown that he is real. It just seems easier to me than getting down on my knees every morning like my mother. It brought to mind the hymn again- “This is my Father’s world- he shines in all that’s fair.” I hummed the tune a little as I looked at Adam, who seemed lost in his own thoughts. I almost asked him if he ever liked to sing, but shyness got the better of me and I refrained.
“I’m really glad there are places like this here,” he continued after a while. “I was pretty miserable leaving California. All I had ever heard about Washington was that it rained here a lot.”
“You can’t have the green without the rain,” I murmured, more to myself than to him. It was the pep talk my mother always gave us when we were inclined to grumble after a third straight month of winter precipitation.
“And yes,” I continued more loudly. “There are lots of places like this here. Haven’t you seen the mountain yet?”
“No. Everyone keeps telling me it’s there, and of course I’ve seen pictures of it, but all I have seen are clouds. I’ve only been here a couple of weeks.”
I thought about asking him why he moved here, but thought it might not be polite, so we continued on without further conversation. The water had been growing deeper almost imperceptibly until I suddenly felt it sloshing over the rolled up cuffs of my jeans. I searched for a boulder and scrambled up it. The current suddenly seemed stronger as well. Adam waded a few feet further, but finally sought refuge on a flat rock.
“Do you want to turn back?” he asked. It was hard to see where the water was headed, as there were so many twists and turns in the tunnel, but I didn’t want to give up just yet. So I shook my head and jumped to next boulder. After a few minutes, I noticed the rocky cliff sides began to alter- their severe, vertical lines widened, yielding to gentler slopes. Then the rock face gave place to patches of earth, and trees were more abundant. The sunlight increased along with the strength of the river until I began to get nervous. But there still plenty of rocks to navigate and I didn’t want to be the one to quit.
Then, without warning, and as we rounded a sharp corner, the sound of the water changed. I looked ahead and felt my stomach drop. Not five feet in front of me, I saw that the water ended in one shining, curving green swell. The water was now rushing past us with astonishing speed, parting around one last boulder and spilling over the edge of a cascade whose height I could only guess at. The very distant roaring of it’s own whirlpool made it sound as if it were a mile long.
I staggered and crouched down on my boulder, the familiar height-induced vertigo making it unclear which way was up and which was down. I think Adam was only a few feet away, but I couldn’t even look up to see. I thought I would be sick, and then I was pretty sure I would die. But above all, I knew that I would never be able to move from that wretched rock.
And then I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a calm voice, that seemed a million miles away asking me to stand up. I shook my head mutely. There was no noise but the roaring water for another moment, and then “Natalie, I need you to stand up,” The sound of my own name seemed to steady me a little and managed to lift my head and look toward the voice.
“All right,” he continued with a forced calmness. ” I need you to stand all the way up now, but do not look behind you. Just move one foot at a time.” We turned to face the way we had come and were both paralyzed for a moment. The river looked like a dangerous beast from this perspective, and I couldn’t understand how we hadn’t seen it on the way down. The water came rushing straight at us in wild leaps, and though our boulders were still there, they seemed completely out of reach now.
After a few moments contemplation, Adam told me to follow him, and I did it blindly, clutching onto the back of his shirt. He started carefully stepping to the right, getting his own footing sure before he reached out a hand to help me. The river wasn’t wide, and I could see what he was aiming for- the earthen bank just ten feet away. There was a place where it wasn’t as steep as the rest of the hill, and with extreme caution, we finally scrambled, breathless and grateful onto the slippery ground. But we weren’t out of the woods yet. We couldn’t go along the bank, since we knew it would be a sheer rock face just around that bend, and there was no way I was going back into that river. Our only option was to scramble up the steep hillside, covered with slick pine needles and hope for a way out up there. I gritted my teeth at the prospect and we started up.
But it wasn’t as difficult as it had looked at first, and there even seemed to be a little path, as if other adventurers had come this way before to take a peek at the falls. We pulled ourselves up using branches and protruding roots until we were a good deal above the river.
Then without thinking, I looked down. My mouth went dry with horror as I could now see just how high the waterfall was. I grabbed onto the roots in front of me and pressed my face into the dirt, waiting for the dizziness to subside again. As before, I felt the reassuring hand on my shoulder and knew I had to go on. I closed my eyes again and felt my way forward. Before long the slope began to level out and I opened them just a slit. In front of me, to my immense relief was a rustic board fence and Adam was on the other side, reaching out a hand to help pull me over.
I climbed the fence and we both slumped down to the ground, breathing hard and thanking God in fervent undertones. Neither of us knew what to do next, but we couldn’t stay there all day. After another minute, we climbed shakily to our feet and brushed the dirt off of our damp pants. Then we looked at each other. It’s always a bit of an awkward moment, staring at a relative stranger with whom you have just shared a near death experience and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to laugh or cry. Before I could do either, he cleared his throat and said with a tremble in his voice,
“I’m really sorry. I…. That was really stupid of me.”
“You mean that was really stupid of us,” I replied and I started to laugh in a slightly hysterical tone.
“You’d have thought we would have seen that coming.” He seemed relieved at my response and started chuckling too. And there we both stood, laughing and laughing still harder until our sides hurt and we were gasping for breath. I knew it was simply a reaction to the strain, but it felt good. And it suddenly felt like we were no longer strangers- that we had unintentionally become friends in a hurry.
As we set off down the trail, I noticed a sign posted on the fence. It was written in bold black letters and read,
“Do not cross this fence. The lower falls have claimed 14 lives to date.” We looked at each other again and our laughter faded.
Eventually we found the rest of the school. No one had missed us, and our wet and muddy clothes blended in so well with most of the other students that we didn’t have to deal with any awkward questions. The bus was being loaded, and with a shy smile at Adam, I went to find my sisters. We sat together on the way home. Becca and Sam turned around in their seat and resting their chins on their folded arms, we talked over the day. Somehow Sam had managed to convince Becca to overcome her fears and explore a little bit of the canyon. They had even made it as far as the little waterfall, (I knew now how little it was) but the claustrophobic space of the little cove had been too much for her, and she had found it necessary to piggyback all the way to the picnic grounds on Britt’s back. We even talked about a much larger and more spectacular waterfall that they had managed to see from a safe lookout point.
“And where were you all afternoon?” Sam asked me suddenly. I hadn’t said a word up to this point and now they were all staring at me. I had meant to tell them all about my terrifying adventure, but I suddenly found I couldn’t do it. It had been too momentous an event to make public, and I found that I wanted to keep it to myself. Somehow I knew that Adam wouldn’t tell anyone either, and that made it our secret- just his and mine. I muttered something about having explored a different canyon. I told them I had been alone. And if I blushed at the lie, they didn’t seem to notice.
So now I have been sitting on this rock, writing until my hand is cramped, for over two hours and the light is almost gone. This day- this strange, confusing, terrifying and magical day is almost over. For the first time ever, I feel as if I am in a book and that today was an enormous plot twist in my life. Those hours in the enchanted green canyon are going to shape my life somehow, for better or for worse, I can feel it. But for now, real life is calling and the story book is fading. Mom is finishing dinner and it’s my night to set the table.
I haven’t written in a while because the days have been flying past and homework has begun in earnest. Each afternoon, I plug away at history essays and algebra assignments as quickly as possible, telling myself that as soon as I am done, I can pull out my own notebook and scribble what I want to write. But so far, I haven’t been able to get an inch ahead. So I am currently ignoring a sonnet I am supposed to be concocting for English class and going ahead with my story. I’m not sure why we have to write sonnets anyway, although sometimes I secretly think Mr. Templin dreams of discovering the next Shakespeare in our tiny little school.
School work busy-ness is of course compounded by the fact that we now have an after school job as well as homework. Mom ended up getting more hours at the office, so she hasn’t been able to help us much at all. And poor dad- his car finally did die, just three days after he lost his job, so he hasn’t been able to go anywhere at all, except by bus. And getting to church and school by bus is such a lengthy ordeal that we told him not to worry about helping us, and just to focus on the wanted ads. But alas, no luck in that department yet.
Being down to one car means that we have to wait around at school until mom gets off of work anyway, so we have plenty of time to clean and do our homework. Most afternoons, we choose a corner of the school and get our books out first while all the other students head home. The broken car has been an admirable excuse to give to anyone who asks why we are at school so late.
It’s been about a month now, and no one has yet guessed our secret. No one except Em, who is frequently after school late as well, waiting for her dad to finish work. But I’m not worried about her telling anyone. When she caught me hauling a big bag of trash out to the dumpster a few days ago, she just looked a little sad for a minute, as if wishing the world was not the way it was, and then gave me a hug, garbage bag and all. I almost cried.
At any rate, we study until we are sure that everyone has disappeared and then head to the cleaning closet for supplies. It’s not so bad really- mostly our job entails vacuuming and wiping down desks. The trash isn’t too awful either- mostly just paper. And the bathrooms- well, we have decided to tag team the bathrooms and alternate weekson bathroom detail. Britt and Sam did the first week, and Becca and I the second. I definitely got the short end of the stick in that deal, since Becca usually just stands in there, rag and spray bottle in hand, and talks. She does keep me entertained though.
Thankfully the school isn’t too big, so it only takes us a couple of hours to give everything a scrub. It’s really just a small building connected to the back of a much larger church- and thank heavens we are not in charge of cleaning the whole church. However, we do have to share a cleaning closet with the man who is. He is one of your typical, stooped, older gentleman janitors, soured a little (or a lot) by a severely under-appreciated job.We learned pretty quickly, that first week, not to mess up his closet. The second day of work, Becca left the window cleaner on the wrong shelf and had to endure a ten minute scolding on the subject. So now she flees the scene whenever she hears the squeak of his mop bucket drawing nigh. Overall he leaves us pretty well alone, but I get the sense that he doesn’t think we are up for the job. To be fair, I get that sense too. But we are learning, and I’m sure we’ll get better at it someday.
My biggest frustration comes when I dwell on the fact that cleaning is the last thing I want to be getting better at! Between school work and piano and this old notebook, I feel like I would rather be doing anything but improving my relationship with a vacuum cleaner. By the way, in the long tradition of our bequeathing names upon unpleasant things, we have decided to call the vacuum Slurpy. It hasn’t endeared him to me yet. But I have learned several of his little quirks already, like the fact that he does not enjoy eating paper clips. I am sure we are going to be good friends in the end.
Anyway…. who wants to read about cleaning, let alone write about it? Not I. I would rather write about Adam. But I told myself I am not going to write about Adam, because I don’t want this book to turn into some wishy-washy melodrama about how I am finally suffering through my first highschool crush- which I am not, of course. (Pssst- Nat, you are lying to yourself)
At any rate, I am not going to admit that fact to anyone else- not to my sisters, not to my best friend, not to him, and definitely never to myself, because that always makes things worse. Especially since, after the big ol’ waterfall drama of last week, he has not made the slightest sign that we ever shared that strange afternoon at the school picnic- just an occasional smile in the hallway or at lunch time. I try not to take it personally and I shouldn’t since it seems as if he
never talks to anyone. (He did, however, kind of save my life, which you would think might single set me apart from the herd a bit) But no, e always sits in the same, back-corner desk and he always eats his lunch alone. I get the sense that he isn’t shy- just a keen observer who would have plenty to talk about if he could just find the right person to talk to. I just keep hoping that that person will be me. I got a little taste of what goes on in his mind that day on the river and….. but enough about that day. I’m beginning to think that I just dreamed the whole thing anyway.
And speaking of dreams, I dreamt the other night that I was a world famous concert pianist. All my many labors at the instrument had finally paid off, and I had finally achieved my goal of being the wonder of the musical world. My slow and clumsy fingers were a thing of the past, and that piece by Brahms I have been striving in vain to conquer for months? It was crushed beneath my pedaling feet. It was such a blissful dream that my awakening was doubly depressing. Not only did I have groggily to realize that it had all been a dream, but I also discovered that it was Becca I had been hearing in my sleep- playing my piece, as if it were nothing!
Sometimes she gets up early to practice, and it’s always a delight to wake up and hear just how much more gifted my baby sister is than me. (I wish sarcasm showed up better in print) Still, I am usually proud of her, and even managed a smile at her flying fingers, five minutes later, as I shuffled past her in my pajamas on my way to the kitchen.
But my vanity was dealt another blow when we got to school and I heard yet more enviable talent going forth on the choir room piano. Of course it had to be my best friend playing. Have I mentioned that she also excels at the instrument? Well, she does. Behold, I am surrounded by superior abilities of every kind. I keep telling
myself that I should give up- that we can’t all expect to be prodigies. But I can’t quit somehow. I just keep hoping that my musical ship will come in someday.
But enough- this is turning into the whiniest chapter I have ever written or read. I’m getting sick of my own bellyaching, so thankfully Sam just came into the room with a mysterious object under her arm to distract me. I think a volume of Shakespeare will make an admirable cover up for my writing today.
Oh how thankful I am for sisters some days. Well most days. The fates very kindly dealt me a most excellent hand of sisterly companions to comfort me in the hard times, or simply to make me laugh. Just when I was feeling at my poutiest, (is that a word?) Sam plopped whatever she was carrying on the floor next to the bed and said,
“Hey, it’s my week for the sleepy hollow.”
I acknowledged this fact by explaining that I was just there temporarily, as it makes an excellent perch for writing- errr- doing homework.
But she wasn’t really listening. She was on her knees, busy making adjustments to the whatever-the-heck-it-was. After a moment’s indecision, I finally deduced that it must be some kind of a table. I then remembered how she had told my mother the night before that she wished she had a place to put her alarm clock and the little lamp that she uses for reading at night. But before mom could even say that new bedside tables were not really in the budget at the moment, I saw that look in her eye. She had then grabbed a flashlight and disappeared into the old shed out back.
I should have known then what was coming, but nothing ever quite prepares me for the outlandish contraptions she comes up with. For there before me was a bedside table of truly magnificent disproportions. It was hard to imagine anything crookeder since one of the four legs was missing the eight inches it needed to make it equal to the
I looked at the leg and I looked at her and she replied shortly, (though I had asked no questions)
“Shut up. I ran out of wood.”
Clearly she had some idea of how to fix the problem, so I sank a little lower in the hollow and watched the fun. She was soon humming a little tune, busily collecting random books from around the room, and I realized then what she was doing. It was like the worlds largest stabilizing paper wedge, for after adding a book here and removing a book there, she eventually came up with a stack about eight inches high,ranging in size from smallest to largest, to compensate for the lacking wood. She tipped her head to one side, (because it was still fairly crooked) and observed the effect critically. Then, with an inexplicable sigh of satisfaction she said,
“There- I like it. It looks very…. artsy.”
“Is that what we’re calling it?” I replied with a snort, and got a book lobbed at my head in return. She then proceeded to place her noisy little alarm clock on top. To my surprise, the table held.
“Better try your lamp too,” I suggested warily. But she was already pulling it off the bookshelf.
“Where is the lampshade?” I asked, staring at the dusty, naked light bulb.
“Oh,” she replied with some hesitancy. “It’s drying out.”
“Why? What happened to it?”
“Oh, nothing- it’s just I was so tired of that dingy white colored shade that I decided to try and dye it.” (Insert moment of raised-eyebrow silence)
“Well, I thought that red would be nice.”
I did not think red would be nice, so I crossed my fingers against an affirmative answer and asked,
“Did it work?”
“Well, kind of.”
“Well, here’s what happened,” she started in a rush. “We didn’t have any actual dye, so you know how kool-aid always changes the color of your tongue? I knew we had some old cherry koolaid in the pantry, so I dumped the packet in a bucket of water and stirred it around and then just stuck the lamp shade in.”
I knew there was no point in interrupting until she had finished relating her tale, so I let her continue, without snide comment.
“Well, it kind of worked, but it only came out pinkish, and I wanted it really red. But we were out of koolaid, so I figured jello might work just as well.”
“And did it?” I even managed not to roll my eyes.
“No- it just got pinker, and kind of gelled a bit. So I had to dump that out and tried to think of something that always stains things really red, and I thought of tomato sauce! Except all we had was tomato paste, so I had to go with that. But it worked! It turned really red after that. Well, maybe more of an orange-red, but I really like it. So now I’m just waiting for it to dry.”
I know that the above makes it sound like Sam is kind of a ditz, but she’s really one of the smartest people I know. And it’s not that she starts out deciding to make a table with only three and a half legs- it’s just that once she begins a project, she will do just about anything to see it through to the end. And whatever the end product is, she is insanely stubborn about using it.
To be fair, she comes by this trait naturally. I’m prone to a bit of it myself and my mother is definitely guilty, although long experience has taught her how to prepare in advance for and when to let go of a project she is contemplating. In fact, mom once got so frustrated with the smallness of our kitchen that she decided to build a back deck- all by herself, (dad isn’t exactly handy) so that we would have a place to spill out onto when we had guests. And she did it.
I distinctly remember her sawing away at a pile of 2x4s with our rusty old saw (dad’s un-handiness means we are a bit short on power tools) and then swinging a hammer like Rosie the Riveter. The finished product might not have been quite up to code, and the stairs were a little slip shod, but at least all the supports are the same length. At any rate, it has stood the test of several years.
Mom is also the one who decided to tear down the moss-eaten old sheds that grandpa had put up many years ago so that we could have a larger yard to play in. Dad fought her hard on it, since anything that has to do with his father is sentimental to him, but she finally talked him into it, luring him with the promise of more space for the garden he always wanted to put in. She also agreed to leave one small shed out of the three for sentimental value, and as a place to keep our few tools and scraps of lumber.
But the other two sheds- my mighty mother attacked them herself with nothing but crow bar and sledge hammer. Britt also helped. We other girls sat by and watched the fun, wishing we had any upper body strength but Dad couldn’t watch. Within a few days those sheds were reduced to a heap of splinters.
Once it was all cleared away, dad revived and began marking out a space for his new garden while the rest of us rejoiced in the open feeling the yard now possessed. But I remember mom still standing there, sledge hammer in hand, wondering which walls she might be able to blow out of the house. Poor mom, she will never be done with her mission to find more room.
Well, seeing as this chapter is just turning into a random account us and our little quirks, let me just add a little interlude from last night. We had returned home after a particularly long day and Britt ran upstairs to throw on her apron, since she was already late for her other job. Mom exhausted, and we were all hungry, but when we walked in, the living room was dark.
“Where’s dad?” Becca asked. For answer, we all heard a sigh from the general direction of the couch. Surprised, mom went to turn on the lamps, and there slumped on the couch and looking unusually woebegone, was dad.
He has been good about making dinner for us all since he lost his job, but the kitchen was dark too and we could all tell he had been sitting there for a long time, mostly evidenced by the fact that he had all of his old record boxes scattered around the room and had been probably been walking down memory lane, thinking of the good times, reveling in melancholy.
The needle on the turntable was bumping and scratching against the side of the machine, so I went to lift it up. Sure enough he had been playing Harry Chapin’s “The cat’s in the cradle,” – always a bad sign.
Mom silently went and sat down next to him, while the rest of us felt uneasy. Then dad broke the silence with a huge sigh saying, “Well Ellen, I didn’t get the job.”
“Oh Dan,” she replied. “I’m so sorry. But it’s all right. We’ll keep looking.”
Sam, Becca and I stared at each other. We hadn’t been informed that dad had applied for a job at all. We immediately assumed we had been kept in the dark on purpose so that we wouldn’t get our hopes up, but I’m not sure walking in on dad looking like that spared us much in the long run. Britt then appeared dressed for work and in a hurry. Dad made a pretense of getting off the couch.
“I should probably just go with her,” he said morosely, “since they seem to be the only place in the city that’s hiring.” His threat was rather idle since he was wearing his shabby old robe and slippers. Britt looked confused, and in the momentary silence, I saw Becca longingly eyeing the piano. But mom headed off any musical outbursts with one of her “Honeys!” Mom certainly has a way with that word, for Becca changed direction immediately and veered toward the kitchen instead.
“You go on to work,” Mom continued, nodding to Britt. Britt accordingly scooted out the front door and Sam and I, sensing that the folks needed a private word, decided our place was in the kitchen as well. There we found Becca with her head in the fridge, apparently cooling off.
“There’s nothing in here to eat,” she said a little waspishly. “And I’m hungry.”
I told her to move over and I would find something. But she was right. The fridge was astoundingly empty. It appeared that dad, who had been puttering around the house a lot lately, looking for odd jobs to do, had decided the fridge needed cleaning out. And he had done it with a vengeance. No more leftovers, no more onion halves or wilting celery stalks. Even the door shelves were void and bare. All the mustards, the salsas, and the salad dressings- even the resident, elderly condiments that had expired some thirteen years ago or more had been mercilessly evicted from their long home. We were left with half a bottle of ketchup, two gallons of milk and you guessed it- no butter.
I opened the freezer, praying that it had avoided the purge. Thankfully it had, but almost a month of a shrinking grocery budget meant that it hadn’t been stocked in a while. I picked up a spatula and started chipping away at the accumulated frost coating everything inside, trying to identify mysterious, saran-clad lumps. Meanwhile, Sam and Becca had gone to the cupboards. They were digging pretty far back into the recesses, fishing out a can here and a box there.
After five minutes of hunting, we turned around to survey the kill. The cupboards had yielded one can of pinto beans and one of beets, a half empty box of macaroni that we immediately threw away because some kind of beetle had gotten into it, and lots of saltine crackers.
The freezer yield was little better- a bag of freezer burned green beans, some of last summer’s homegrown garden corn and three hamburger patties- no buns.
We stood and looked at the forlorn pile. I thought Becca might cry, but instead she got the giggles- little hysterical giggles that had half a sob in them.
“Well ladies,” I declared resolutely. “Let’s make some dinner.” I began opening cans and dumping them into sundry small pots and pans while Becca tried arranging the saltines artistically on a plate. She giggle-sobbed harder than ever.But Sam didn’t feel like settling for beets just yet, so she protested that there must be something else in the freezer. I hesitated dramatically for a moment and then told her there might be one last thing. I opened the door, reached down into the bottom shelf and pulled out a ridiculously long and heavy item, wrapped in several thicknesses of black garbage bag. I brandished it at her and told her to open wide.
She shrieked and laughingly dodged the mystery object. Well, there really isn’t any mystery about it. Even with all it’s wrappings, it would be evident to even the dullest observer that the thing was a very large fish. This fish had been a part of our freezer so long that the details of its origin were growing foggy. But I still remember the day that our old neighbor had brought it over, freshly caught from a river up north.
“I’m not sure what kind of a fish it is,” he had drawled to mom as he handed the enormous thing over, “And it’s slimy as snot. But there must be good eating on it.” He had then walked away, leaving mom looking helplessly after him. She had kept the thing, however, all these years, perhaps for just such an occasion as tonight.
Becca was laughing in earnest now as I continued to swing the fish in Sam’s direction. But it was so heavy that before long I dropped it. The resounding thud brought mom and dad to the door.
Dad’s face was looking slightly more cheerful- he was even smiling- but at sight of the pathetic dinner we were concocting, his smile began sliding back droop. He looked down at the floor with a sigh and suddenly saw the fish, whose frozen eye, now visible, was peeping mournfully back at him.
There was a moment’s silent contemplation and then- Oh Joy!- he laughed.
He laughed as we hadn’t seen him laugh in ages- laughed till the tears had to be wiped from his stubbly cheeks. Mom was laughing too- we were all laughing, holding onto the counter and our sides as the fish looked on.
Mom and dad came in to help cook. But instead of sitting down to “dinner”, we sat around the rest of the evening, nibbling saltines with burger fragments on top and throwing pinto beans at each other until mom made us stop. Dad went back to his record boxes and pulled out some Stevie Wonder. He turned the volume up as high as it would go.
When Britt came back from her shift, she found us all having an impromptu dance party in the living room. Being the good sport that she is, she asked no questions, threw off her apron and joined right in. It had been so long that we had all let go like that, that mom let us stay up ‘til almost midnight. She had even found some popcorn in a tin on the shelf that we had missed in our search and popped it up for us to add to the festivities. When she finally told us to head
to bed, Dad looked sadly after us, some Steely Dan held hopefully in his hands. He always hates to see a good party die.
We trooped upstairs obediently enough, tired and trying to ignore the fact that we had all failed to finish the day’s homework assignments. But as we snuggled down for bed in our little room which was now lit by the rosy glow of Sam’s ‘new’ lamp shade, I told myself I didn’t care. Tonight had been a night for living- for seizing the moment, for making sure dad (and ourselves) knew that things were going to be all right. I said goodnight to my dear sisters. They answered in kind. But before I drifted off, I heard a sleepy voice from the top bunk saying,
“Does it smell like spaghetti in here to anyone else?”
Sam did not reply.