Letters to Elliot Hawthorne Ep. 6

Chapter 2

THE POSITIONS

(in regards to the plot)

[1]

Elliot Hawthorne was thinking about windmills. He was thinking about jam jars too, but the jam jars just made him mad. At least the windmills were helping somewhat. Of course, the jars were still in plain sight, all recently washed and dried, sitting in a crate on the kitchen counter in Grandpa Samuel’s one-man cabin. When Elliot finally had enough of their prying nostalgia, he got up from the breakfast table, picked up the wooden crate and carried it out the back door. Then he was alone with comforting memories of tall, sleek wind turbines and their blades slicing through humid August air. But still, he was leaving anyway. No memory, no matter how comforting, could make him stay.

Out on one side of the backyard, knee-high grass looked yellow in the sunlight and on the other side blackberry bushes made short walls of leafy knots and dirt pathways. Birds seemed louder than normal, and Elliot considered scaring away a robin who was stealing newborn berries not ripe enough to pick. He stared and squinted—it was very sunny—and clapped once. The bird stopped, twitched, and carried on.

Inside the cabin, Elliot’s luggage guarded the front door. He packed light. A week’s worth of clothes. Jeans, T-shirts, button-fronts, khakis. When it came to which instrument he was going to take he would have preferred the banjo, but he chose his guitar because he figured people were less likely to judge a guitar like they would a banjo. He stared at the gray flannel duffle bag made by his grandmother and Elliot frowned, even though it was not sunny inside, and he felt for a moment he might not be able to breathe ever again.

It was the birds, I think, that inspired him because a few more tweets from outside forced Elliot to blink and pick up his bag. He wore the strap over his shoulder so the body rested on his back. Then with the neck of his guitar firmly gripped, he opened the screen door and it bounced shut behind him. He made it to the end of the dirt driveway, looked up and down the lineless asphalt road, and then walked back to the porch. The guitar was useless, he thought, and he was afraid people might expect more from him than he was really able to offer. He truly wasn’t outgoing. He locked the instrument inside the cabin and the screen door bounced again when he walked outside. And yet:

He jogged back, grabbed the guitar and never looked back, believing in his heart he was never coming back.

The country road was dead. Only birds playing in the treetops and bugs buzzing in the bush could be seen or heard. Neighbours, alone for miles in both directions, didn’t appear until the sun was high in the midday sky. And as Elliot’s sweat mounted and his feet burned inside his sneakers, his regrets piled high in his mind, somewhere in front of Grandpa Samuel’s lingering words of wisdom. Until he saw a looming mirage on the foreground.

A couple sat listlessly on lawn chairs, guarding vintage, sentimental garage sale gifts. There were tacky velvet paintings, cross-stitch in a frame and a few lamp shades made entirely of stained-glass. A sign, taped to an old typewriter, declared it all for sale, and the only thing Elliot stared at was a yellow bicycle leaning against a cardboard box.

He approached the couple as they protected their precious giveaways; he said Hello and they said Hello, questioning him with their glaring eyes, thinking he was some sort of drifter or gypsy, and in all likelihood wanted to snatch their shotgun from inside the garage before it was too late.

Elliot knelt down beside the bike and thumbed the metal spokes. “How much for the bike?” he asked.

With the husband ready to make a beeline to the garage, the wife said, “A tenner would do it.”

Elliot straightened, smiling with one corner of his mouth as he strapped his guitar strap over his chest. He bounced the bike on its skinny tires and sampled the cushioned seat. His smile grew wide as he finally straddled the yellow frame. Elliot handed the man a ten dollar bill and said Thank you and the couple said nothing.

Elliot pedalled a ways away, wiggling and worming, trying to get the hang of riding a bicycle again. And once he did get the hang of riding a bicycle again, Elliot Hawthorne was pretty pleased with himself. He and his garage-sale yellow bicycle were fast friends, venturing down stretches of highway, zooming across bridge-covered brooks and winding around bended lanes. He was smiling still, pedalling fast and hard, forgetting about the jam jars entirely and narrowing in on those wonderful memories of windmills.

Now, it was known that Elliot Hawthorne was naturally an outcast. Soon it was by choice, though he did everything in his power to conform. He spent his days keeping his mouth closed unless spoken to; something he wasn’t taught to do but became accustomed to at a very young age. He avoided crowds and public places as best he could without being a hermit (something Grandpa Samuel told him wasn’t very becoming). So, of course, Elliot would have avoided the Town he was now currently disrupting with his bicycle-riding if it weren’t for the fact that the parkway, which was leading him out of this place, was the only way out.

Leaving the stares and gasps of mothers and their children, the teenagers and young adults he had known so little about, standing on the sidewalks of the village, near the convenient stores and the coffee shops, Elliot pedalled out, down the bridge, over the brook and onto the next long, paved stretch of highway. It was about this time, that three university students, Gemma Lumley, Tom Doyle and Bridget Welles were found inside St. David’s conservatory, singing and playing in the college choir something about the love of an orchestra.

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Letters to Elliot Hawthorne Ep. 5

[5]

Gemma Arnold, the original Gemma Arnold of the Worthing, who married Thomas Lumley of Lumley Farms, had two sisters and they were like this: Rosy and Elaine. Elaine Arnold was the oldest Arnold. She went about her life as if she was the best because she was the oldest, that she deserved the best because she was the oldest and this didn’t surface until it was time for her to select a spouse. And it was selecting to Elaine Arnold, who was pretty and delicate and high-strung, because she believed her ability to select something very superior. When this day came, a certain young man travelling through Bower stayed at the Worthing and doted on the Arnold’s oldest daughter. This wasn’t the factor which caused Elaine to make up her mind and give herself a ring on his behalf, no, it was the information from the front desk that his name was Joseph Finkle and that name was the only name she needed to hear.

The Finkles were wealthy landowners and very old. Their oldest son, Joe, was in the position to inherit. He fell for Elaine’s manners and looks and they dated and were wed and just in time too. Joe’s mother had died and left her house in Devonsfield to the newlywed couple. But it wasn’t the house Elaine was after; it was the contents. For inside she found numerous treasures including a Herrington Man portrait of Dowager Countess Amelia Throthing, a signed Thomas Hart Benson lithograph, and a hundred-year-old Cartier brooch made of rubies and diamonds. She needn’t keep these finds, plus others of more or less value, but auction them off at a high price, so high in fact to make the new Finkles the richest couple in the county.

Elaine began to have children and her second oldest daughter, Lillie, was something very different. She wasn’t impressed by her mother’s expensive taste or lust for style, she wanted to get out; to be adventurous, but when men were shipped off to exotic countries during the war, her heart wasn’t it in anymore. She tamed her wildness to become a nurse and serve her country. After the war, at the nice age of twenty-three, she came home to celebrate with her friends at the New Town Public House in St. David’s. She chatted and laughed and sang and danced and when the night had almost burned out, she met the love of her life. Lillie Finkle sat down on the same stool Ethan Doyle had intended to claim and she nearly landed in his lap. They both laughed, excusing themselves, never minding the fluttering of nerves and heartbeats.

Ethan Doyle was a pilot. He flew for the army and then came home. His rank gave him a steady job at the School of Aviation teaching other young flyers how to pursue the sky. That winter night in St. David’s lakefront restaurant, a young woman fell into his life just as she had fallen into his lap. He never let her out of his sight and before the night was over, he had kissed her and vowed to be her man for all of her days. They travelled, getting the longing for voyaging out of their minds before having a son, and his name was Tom.

Tom Doyle was a red-headed boy and no one knew why. It must have been the Scotch in his family’s heritage, Mr. Doyle always said. He was hyper and the doctor told Lillie there was nothing to be done about it. She didn’t mind because she and her husband were happy sorts of people, sometimes pokey and sometimes quibblers, but her son was a happy toddler with very little to vex or annoy him. They raised him in a city away from the countryside of St. David’s and the town of Bower while Lillie worked as a nurse and Ethan rose in the position at the School of Aviation and Flight Training. Tom didn’t seem to mind being a city child but it was because he had never known the freedom of living in wide open space.

His parents moved many times from house to house, causing him to attend five separate schools before they thankfully moved back to Bower. Mr. Doyle bought a large piece of property with good incentive from his father-in-law, a Finkle, and started his own school of aviation; repairing old War Bird planes to use instead of text books.

Tom went to St. David’s Public instead of Bower Public; their green-sided farm house was just ten feet past the school board’s dividing line where one half of the county went to Bower and the other half to St. David’s. He developed a stutter, nothing too severe, but Lillie, being the perfectionist that she was, taking after her mother, forced Tom to outgrow it faster than necessary; taking him to speech therapy and ordering him to spend long hours reading out loud. The Doyles, being dependant on God, suggested the Bible, and Tom became well-acquainted with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as well as the Apostles, the Psalms and the Proverbs. Tom never minded because he thought the Bible to be something very true and very poetic. It was then at the young age of seven or eight that he became accustomed to loving songs and, in turn, music.

It didn’t happen overnight, it came surely and smoothly, a mounting inkling to hear music, to sing and to write lyrics every day. It wasn’t until he sat down at his Grandmother Elaine’s house on the Thanksgiving he turned twelve that he realized there was much more to life than he figured.

His index finger fell onto the Middle C and then D, E, F and so forth until he became aware of how the notes could sound together and back and forth and over and under and simultaneously, and the music resounded in the empty living room, alone in the quietness of himself yet in the boisterous noise of the keys. After that it was hard for him to apply his energy to anything else. School became a burden except for music class and spare period when he would jam with his buddies (Matt Sleeth, Joe Finn and Jasper Lauzon, who I will tell you about when the time is right) who also loved music the way only Tom Doyle loved music. He thought he was pretty set in life because all the girls at his school thought he was cute and because he played with a band called Tom Doyle and the Parade at the Campus Pub every Tuesday and Thursday.

And that’s how Tom became Tom Doyle as you might know him, attending St. David’s College playing trumpet in the school’s orchestra presently behind Bridget Welles who was playing the violin near Gemma Lumley who sang like birds in the springtime in the choir in Conservatory Hall. The Tom Doyle who wore a lot of plaid; his dad’s old capped Oxfords and played the piano like Billy Joel; the Tom Doyle who lived in the apartment above his parent’s garage only because it was within walking distance to the college campus. The Tom Doyle who had no idea he would befriend someone like Elliot Hawthorne.

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Letters to Elliot Hawthorne Ep. 4

[4]

In the spring of Gemma’s fourth year, Mrs. Lumley took it upon herself to attract a friend for her shy and timid daughter. The Welles family lived down the road from Reverend Lumley’s church house. Their youngest was a moody child whose attitudes regarding fire, hammers and destruction frightened Mrs. Lumley, so she was not the obvious choice. But the next year, Bridget was admitted into Gemma’s kindergarten class, and church picnic after school field trip after bus rides home with one another, the pair became inseparable.

Bridget’s father, Dale, blamed her daughter’s temperamental disposition on Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday because their soulful music was always playing in young Bridget’s room. He blames that on his wife’s sister giving Bridget a record player and a stack of vinyl for her sixth birthday. Bridget’s mother, Judy, blames Mr. Welles for letting her read On the Road at too young an age because ever since Bridget had been running around asking people if they’re one of the mad ones, ranting on about burning all the while. Gemma’s mother, Mrs. Lumley, thought that all too corrupting, and so Bridget was also a contributing factor for Gemma to be sentenced to an all-girl preparatory school some forty-five kilometres outside of St. David’s.

Gemma begged Mrs. Welles to enlist Bridget to Potter’s and she was delighted to give it a try. She said that it would be nice if Bridget had a class of well-mannered young women to look up to. But their plan did not succeed because when applying to Potter’s every girl must pass a psychology examination and as you may have guessed, Bridget did not pass.

RESULT OF EVALUATION:

Bridget Elizabeth Welles is a problem child. She is still very impulsive and under-socialized; and not able to harness the constant energy discharge observed in younger children. At the moment, she faces significant psychological problems because of her inability to see and accept boundaries. Her repressed and disrespectful attitudes toward all school learning will make academic progress very difficult. She needs to be seen in psychotherapy to address these developmental delays.

Mr. and Mrs. Welles were not happy about this. They said that Bridget should have tried harder. They said that if she were just herself, she would have liked Dr. Alma and Dr. Alma would have liked her. Bridget said in response: “I was being myself” and “I did like Dr. Alma; before she brought up, well, everything.”

Mr. Welles was put off by words like PSYCHOTHERAPY and DEVELOPMENTAL DELAYS and was moved to concern for his only daughter, suggesting to his wife they might better look into getting help for her after all. Yet reading further on down the report, his opinions of Dr. Alma shifted.

PURPOSE FOR EVALUATION:

This thirteen-year-old student BRIDGET E. WELLES from BOWER, ST. DAVID REGION of English descent was referred by her biological parents (DALE and JUDY WELLES) and MRS. GUTHRIE, DEAN OF STUDENTS POTTER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS, for assessment of her academic ability and mental status.

RESULTS OF THE MENTAL STATUS EXAMINATION:

The results of MSE revealed an alert, attentive individual who showed no evidence of excessive distractibility and tracked conversation well. The patient was casually dressed and groomed. Orientation was intact for person, time, and place. Eye contact was appropriate. There was no abnormality of gait or posture. Speech function was appropriate for rate, volume and fluency with no evidence of paraphrastic errors. Vocabulary and grammar skills were suggestive of intellectual functioning within the average range. However, when mentioning FAMILY LIFE, the patient’s disposition, demeanour, and overall attentive nature disappeared. She appeared aggravated, insulted, and unsure. She complained of her parents (DALE and JUDY WELLES) arguing when she was a child, which lead to their “unavoidable” divorce. They are surely to blame for Bridget’s unstable ideas which could lead to irrational actions, and in turn hurt herself or others.

It went on and Bridget soon had to defend herself to her outraged parents, saying: “I didn’t say that!” and “I didn’t do that!” Mr. Welles swiftly concluded that no child of his would ever set foot in an establishment that excused “ill-mannered head-shrinkers who know nothing of real people’s problems.” Later, adding, “She’s a crook! They just want our money! I’m not paying tuition to a school like that! I never in my life…”

Bridget was torn. To stay in Bower and attend the public high school across the road, which really only produced farmers and football players, was a fate she had always planned on, so it was of no deep disappointment, aside from losing her best friend that is.

The girls had to settle for conversation through post. They sent letters when the days without one another became too long to suffer. They mailed postcards on special holidays; making doily-covered cards on Valentine’s Day and green-glittered shamrocks at St. Patrick’s Day. Gemma sent magazine advertisements of glamourous models, scribbling over the beauty’s flawless face: “THIS IS WHAT I LOOK LIKE NOW”. Bridget created mix-tapes of favourite songs on her stereo, speaking into the microphone before every new track, things like: “This one goes out to a very special friend all the way in Windsor,” and then “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers would play.

At the beginning of every new semester, Gemma sent a school photo of the entire class to Bridget. She would label each girl, not always according to their birth names. “CHARLENE CHEAPSTAKE” and “JESSICA CHUBSTER” some would say. Others would have a marker moustache or devil horns, especially the librarian Mrs. Wisner. In return, Bridget sent a month’s supply of chewing gum because Gemma was not allowed to chew gum at Potter’s, as well as a sample of the newest shade of lipstick her mother had thrown out.

They were reunited in the summer months and they spent the hot, breathless days wading the water at the Worthing Shore Boat Ramp and sleeping weekends at Bridget’s grandmother’s cottage on the far side of the Lake. But when September came with turning leaves, yellow school buses and a chill in the air, the innocent bonding of the two young women was put on hold. While Potter’s School for Girls was like something of her grandmother’s finishing school, Bridget was stuck in a white-walled, speckled-tiled, red-lockered ordinary secondary school; forced to attend spotlighted pep rallies in a stuffy gymnasium, eat cafeteria chilli fries, shun pastel-streamered dances, and listen to a very tired principal over a very scratchy PA system every morning before Mr. Horner played the national anthem on the trumpet.

It took her the entire four years, eight semesters and twenty-four compulsory credits, to ease into adulthood without the resentment she held toward her small-town narrow-minded classmates. She learned to let go of the snickering remarks made by the student council rep about her choice in sweaters or the drama department’s crude attitude about the way her hair looked in the summer time. (Bridget had such curly hair in the summertime when the air is humid; straightening with a flatiron was no use anymore, until she bought a new iron from the beauty store. Her hair has been straight ever since, but it did not come without strenuous hours before school after it had dried; clamping her long chestnut-coloured locks between the burning flat panels over and over to ensure security from waves all day through.) She even gave her teachers a break, but it wasn’t before getting detention for calling her music teacher the devil because she insistently refused not to know who Emmylou Harris was. It went like this:

Mrs. Horner: “Musical influences, anyone? Anyone?”

Bridget: “Emmylou Harris.”

Mrs. Horner: “I’m sorry?”

Bridget: “Emmylou Harris. She’s a singer.”

Mrs. Horner: “I’ve never heard of her before.”

Bridget: “You’ve never heard of Emmylou Harris? You’re a music teacher.”

Mrs. Horner: “I’ve never heard of her.”

Bridget: “You’re the devil.”

Bridget hated that music class until she noticed Philip Cespi began playing the drums. She devoted her time to loving him from afar, staring at him as he stared at the ceiling, bored mostly. Her crush on him only truly began after he mentioned liking her sweater one day when she was standing by her locker. The same sweater Evil Student Council Rep told her (well, it was to her back) that it was “the ugliest piece of fabric” she had ever seen.

Bridget figured Philip Cespi was the only person in the world who understood her or who respected that she wore what she wore; and she wore what she wore because those oversized men’s sweaters were knitted with love by her grandmother for her brother Jack when he and Mr. Welles went hunting in November. She didn’t stop loving him until suddenly Philip Cespi appeared to Bridget like a boy rather than a young man because he let his girlfriends (he had many) treat him badly and Bridget thought he should say something about it or stop making her fall in love with him.

During their final year, Bridget and Gemma made a pact to strive their hardest to receive a position at St. David’s College so they could be united together for the next four years, at least making up for high school spent apart. And when the mail was delivered that spring week in March, one large envelope sent to Potter’s School for Girls Dormitory and one large envelope sent to The Welles Residence on Coach Street, the girls’ celebration could be heard simultaneously from Bower to Windsor. They were off to spend their next educational experience together, dressed in St. David’s navy blue and emerald green. Now, the only reason Mr. and Mrs. Lumley let Gemma attend St. David’s (assuming Bridget would follow) was because Gemma’s second cousin, Tom Doyle, was accepted into St. David’s on account of his musical genius.

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Letters to Elliot Hawthorne Ep. 3

[3]

Gemma Lumley, unlike Elliot Hawthorne, knew the year; she knew which day of the week it was and if you were to ask her at any given point during that day she’d tell you the exact time too. She, unlike Elliot Hawthorne, came from extraordinarily conventional people. You and I both know that for this is the same Gemma Lumley named after her grandmother who grew up in the Worthing and called her great-grandfather “Captain” and the trees in the yard “The Fort”, raised by Reverend Charles Lumley and his stylish wife, Katie Müller.

When Gemma Lumley heard the story of her grandparents’ first meeting, she expected, upon growing up, that her love story would have the same degree of whimsy. However, she did not take into account the times in which she now lived, a time seemingly plagued with everything opposed to simplicity. But she worked at the Worthing hoping she, too, would fall in love with the farmhand from down the road. Much to her luck, or lack of, every new farmhand since the resignation of Gareth Walsh, had been taken, aged or ugly; indicating no initial attraction and eliminating the likelihood of a long, romantic account to tell her grandchildren. And because this haunted her at a young age, her heart set on marriage as the end-all and be-all of growing up and becoming a woman, she set her sights on boys. She liked them. In preschool she teased them, hugged them, and tried to kiss them until one day she really did. She was eight and it was right on the lips; a boy whose mother was determined to leave the church after that. This hurt her in certain ways. So much so it called Reverend Lumley and his stylish wife Katie Müller to take action. Katie enrolled junior-sized Gemma into Potter’s School for Girls.

The revival Georgian house on campus was as historic as the college itself; an icon to the school and the name it carried. The Doll House, as it was so lovingly doted by the class of ’54, was new and vintage simultaneously. Its regal allure had attracted girls from every corner of the county ever since. The city girls found it charming and the country girls thought it sensationally dapper. But Potter’s charisma began and ended with its architecture. Gemma’s first years were plagued with hazing and bullying because Girls from Windsor considered Girls from Bower (who “should really go to public school”) the unofficial students of Potter’s. But even after four years with them, Gemma was still the “outcast of outcasts”. She would wear her snow boots inside the classrooms, chew on the end of her pen during Mr. Sherman’s geography lessons and wear her hair in two braids even at the age of seventeen. So, she outgrew her talkative nature (because she took after her name sake) and tapped into her mother’s gentle demeanour when growing into her looks; subscribing to Vogue and cutting out photographs of Dior and Chanel, hoping to blend in at last.

Through her adolescence she had a habit of making her own clothes and thought a life in the fashion industry might make her happy. But it was always replaced by the want to get dirty and to wear khaki and dig up bones in Egypt; which was replaced by the want to be studious and attend seminary like her father, hoping to become like C.S. Lewis; which was replaced by the attractiveness of the three-month course be become a stewardess (she thought she would look nice in the uniforms, but her father, as you can imagine, forbade it). It came down to art and music; Kathe Kollwitz her obsession and Michelangelo her genius, but without a role model, maybe only her mother, Gemma took to singing because it was the simplest. (To quote Colin Clark on Marilyn Monroe; “She is really happiest when she sings. Perhaps it is because it is a nice uncomplicated thing to do, something she often does when she is alone or frightened.”)

The one thing Gemma did accomplish during her years at Potter’s, much to her parents’ approval, was lose her infatuation with boys in some nature. Surrounded by hoards of pesky young girls for hours on end, she was able to put her mind someplace else, devote whatever spare time she had between classes into whatever her hobby was at the time. So, Potter’s did, in fact, do some good; she was educated, well-mannered and prepared to work, live and contribute to society; and with that in mind, Potter’s School for Girls was a happy memory for Gemma Lumley and to this day she is still known to put on her navy sweater, the white school crest stamped over her heart, just as ill-fitting and unflattering. The only true trouble, the only colossal problem in Gemma’s eyes about going to Potter’s was dealing with the sudden absence of her friend, Bridget Welles.

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Letters to Elliot Hawthorne Ep. 2

[2]

Elliot Hawthorne was a man of many faces. Multifaceted, complex—sure. Schizophrenic, crazy—no. He went through life smoothly in some matter of speaking because Elliot was a simple kind of man in some matter of speaking. During his school years his presence in class was rarely noticed, though he held a perfect attendance record. He was never outspoken, flashy or rude. No team held his company. He excelled in philosophy, mathematics and chemistry. Yet upon graduating, Elliot, in fact all his life, was rumoured to have been in rebellion. “Attitudes issues,” one of his teachers claimed. They said his post-modern ideas and cynicism were the root causes to his so-called depression. Anger and bitterness toward a person he never met, but soon desired to, was more or less like it.

He came from relatively normal people and they were out there somewhere, alive and kicking. “Such an awful and lonesome idea,” Elliot used to tell people, “to be the one and only offspring of two unfortunate people who had wanted nothing to do with you since your first day outside the womb.”

Angela was Elliot’s mother and she was a pretty girl with heart and soul and a way with words and singing and laughing and dancing that made everyone fall in love with her. So was the case with Richard Hawthorne. He came into her life as fast as he was taken out. They lived, loved and their passion resulted in a child whom, of course, was named Elliot.

Richard Hawthorne was a pitiable creature; a man who you could have some compassion toward. He was born with a capacity for great joy, but so harboured the tendency to wallow in giant grief. He was raised by a single mother who tried her hardest but had no luck with money, men or society. Her efforts to provide for and love her only son were something to admire and esteem, and Richard could have taken after his mother if it weren’t for his itching desire to run, kicking free and wild like a newborn calf out of the stall. If he were smart, he’d blame his nature on the absence of a father, for that was the reason for his inability to nurture things, human or not. He had only known abandonment and so abandonment was all he chose to offer.

Everyone expected Richard to propose to Angela, but he didn’t. Angela was nineteen and wouldn’t have let him go through with it because she didn’t love him, though she loved her unborn child. Richard left the St. David region, the county where everyone knew everything about everyone, and wasn’t seen again for many years.

Angela lived with her parents until her son was born and loved and cared for him for the first two years of his life. She was twenty-one and wanted an education, but there was no way of getting one where she was from; no college near St. David would be the school for her. She needed a new life in some far-away town where no one knew her. So, her father allowed her to go East to study and get a job; he’d taken care of a child before and he could do it again.

Julia and Samuel Weal loved Elliot like grandparents, not as parents for they believed that to be a very sacred love, an irreplaceable love; one they were sure Elliot would be able to sense counterfeit of. Angela wrote letters and sent pictures and assured phone calls home about her success and failures alike, but when the communication dwindled, when the mail was dispersed, long months spent with nothing but anxious days waiting and hoping, her mother and father were moved to disapproval. They wanted to protect Elliot from the false promise, the wavering devotion shown by his mother, to ensure his heart would never grow sick. Because, of course, you and I both know that hope deferred makes the heart grow sick, and deceit and separation lack all good things. And the hope felt by a child to know their parents was deep-rooted whether that child knew his or her parents were out there in the world or not.

Living with his grandparents and his grandparents alone was all Elliot had ever known and it did him just fine. Although, Grandma Julia died too young, too soon and without any warning. Her death hit Samuel in his heart, in his very soul, but young Elliot’s face forced him out of depression and into forward motion, saving him from a life drenched in misery.

Grandpa Samuel, one of Elliot’s only living relatives, roomed his grandson in his one-man cabin built, lonely, in the center of a wheat field on a never-ending paved parkway in the county where everyone knew everything about everyone. And he taught Elliot everything he needed to know about how to be a human. He sang to him, he cradled him, hugged him and fed him. He let him pet giant horses and drive his truck when he was still much too small. He told him he could drink beer and smoke cigarettes when he was old enough and Elliot tried it; his common sense told him he hated it even if a part of his flesh told him he loved it. Grandpa Samuel taught him about God and how to appreciate the water and the sun and the springtime and the sound of a round neck wood-bodied resonator guitar. He gave him a job at the Cheese Factory where he had worked since he was a teenager and paid him to mop the floors at the downtown office. But most of all he loved Elliot and Elliot loved him back and that is what it feels like to be a human he used to say.

They spent summers making blackberry preserves. They grew the berries themselves, picked them, boiled them, added sugar, crushed and sold them at local fairs. They began bright July afternoons practicing their skills with Grandpa Samuel’s new hunting rifle and at night took trips to the Town’s bowling alley. And lest we forget the daily trips to the Lake to catch the night’s dinner. There at the Lake they had many deep discussions, tossing many cosmic questions into the air.

Someone once said that Elliot Hawthorne walked around looking like he knew something the rest of us didn’t. The way he quoted poets; the way he looked at sunsets as if they meant something. He could have for all they knew; Elliot Hawthorne could have been a prophet. But he wasn’t. You and I both know that, but prophet or not Elliot puzzled people. “Oh, Elliot?” some would declare, “He holds his guitar like Johnny Cash.” Others would claim: “He’s a whiz kid, real smart, you know the type?” Of course, the girls secretly loved him, saying: “Who Elliot? He’s a cutie, a total sweetheart.” And, of course, the jocks scoffed: “Hawthorne? If I ever see him in a dark alley at night…” He wore black P.F Flyers, had a habit of wearing wrinkled button-front shirts, and skinny black ties when the occasion called for it, and he had one old blazer made of herringbone which belonged to Grandpa Samuel and oh, how it smelled of him.

One thing was true and it was this. Elliot’s mind was forever winding, constantly turning, switching like a radio scanner with too many stations. And the thoughts channelling through his mind always spoke of a cold war. On that radio inside his head, in between the twang of a guitar and a pull of a violin, voices rang out to him, telling him of this war; a war that would soon come to a head or an end, whichever came first.

The world around them would say it was a life of grief and sorrow that killed Samuel Weal and some even said it was Elliot himself who did it. It happened in the summer, and in that summer when he was alone for the very first time, Elliot decided that he would start a new kind of life, something along the lines of what his mother had done once.

Now, Grandpa Samuel believed solely in the school of life. There’s nothing you can learn in some fancy classroom in some fancy school that you can’t learn out in a field, he always said. And I’ll tell you, Elliot always esteemed his grandfather’s ideas, though he had a disrespectful impulse to refute them every once and a while. This once and a while being this moment exactly, for Elliot had been accepted into St. David’s College on the Lake and was preparing to travel toward it in hopes of securing some intimate relationship with the land and the school and maybe the people around it. And even though it pained him to do it, Elliot liked to think Grandpa Samuel was laughing about it anyway.

His story begins in September when summer isn’t ready to die and autumn isn’t ready to be born. It was about the same time three students were singing in a choir at St. David’s College; they were like this: Bridget Welles, Gemma Lumley and Tom Doyle; and I only mention them because they are of some grave importance to the story.

Returns next Tuesday

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New Story Series Starts Today

This story is very old and very dear to me. If you have read any of my other projects, you may recognize some of the ideas herein, so you can know that this is where they were born.

***

“It is an aching kind of growing.”

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

LETTERS TO ELLIOT HAWTHORNE,
THE ONLY SON,
OR
HALLELUJAH, GOOD LUCK

“O bright-eyed Hope”

Keats

Chapter One

“THE POLAROIDS”
(or the Character Sketches)

[1]

If anyone had heard of Bower, they knew about the hills that wanted to be mountains, the valley and the tunnel they created; the wind and the cove and probably the sheep. And if anyone had visited Bower, they had heard of the Lumleys, their horses and their son, Thomas. The Arnolds, the inn-keepers, used this to their advantage.

In the hub of Bower, where there were shops and restaurants and townhouses made of red brick, there were only three places for visitors to sleep. People who booked rooms were businessmen, city-dwellers and out-of-towners who needed the comforting proximity to a highway or a bank or a doctor’s office. The others, the families with small children who wanted a getaway, of course having heard about the Hills, the Cove and the Beach, opted for the Arnolds’ inn; The Worthing on the hem of the hub, surrounded by farmland and the Lake.

These visitors either came for the Lumleys’ horses or for the Arnolds’ inn, and in either case the Arnolds and the Lumleys referred one to the other, both profiting from their informal partnership. The Worthing was just down the way from Lumley Farm and because the Cove, the Hills and the Lake were such identifying landmarks, without any buildings nearer besides the Inn and the Stables, the homes became monuments, tributes even, to the land and the town; the Arnolds and the Lumleys consecrating their names in the sacred directory of Bower.

It began when Thomas, a Lumley, met Gemma, an Arnold. And when Thomas first saw Gemma he thought she was a ghost.

Gemma Arnold was not yet fourteen, though like most girls when they are not yet fourteen looked like she had seen sixteen at least. Tom was almost seventeen and he was thinking about leaving Bower for St. David’s to study agriculture at the college.

Thomas Lumley rarely spoke and when he did it usually wasn’t in complete sentences. He didn’t even bother with Yes and No; he simply nodded or shook his head. People assumed he was either very bored or very mad; some even believed he lacked a heart or a brain. But most had heard he was nice, so that was what (they thought) got him through life alright. The older, married women said it was his looks that got him through because he was boyish and tall and serious-looking.

He was in the yard, walking to the barn when a figure dodged through the trees behind him.

Tom didn’t believe in ghosts. He thought all the people who claimed to have seen ghosts were just losing their minds, and he didn’t know anyone who was dead yet so he knew no one could have been trying to haunt him. But the figure came again, just as he entered the barn. He could tell it was a girl this time, so she couldn’t have been a ghost. Tom would have never imagined such a ghostly type of girl. When he thought about girls he tried to make them as real as possible, from what their body temperature would be to what perfume they’d wear. But this girl appeared out of nowhere, without him pre-imagining how hot or cold she was or what she smelled like.

He went outside again. The wind blew as he looked in both directions, scanning the property like a light house, turning his head slowly in a semi-circle and then starting again like a sprinkler. Rain-soaked grass stretched over the hills and up to the house. Drying laundry flapped on the clothesline. Ducks waddled down the garden footpaths and bothered the cats along the way. The tree line past the fields was thick and deadly, especially under the dreary grey sky. But no ghosts.

Tom went back into the barn, making eye contact with each of the horses (this was before they had more than only three). He took a step toward Patriot, the nearest of the bunch, and reached over the wooden stall to pet the horse’s neck. Then there was clicking, a creaking and some cracking. Tom spun on his heels. The door in the back of the barn was open and there was the ghost peeking inside curiously.

Tom frowned; his anxious response to a stranger trespassing on private property, obviously. The ghost froze. Now, if she really were a ghost Tom figured she’d vanish like a magic trick because he assumed ghosts to be very scared most of the time, stuck between two worlds like that. But she stood there, apparently startled by his presence. Of course, Tom thought she was pretty and, of course, he didn’t want her to know that her beauty made him off-balance or weak in the knees but it was so.

The ghost laughed a shy sort of laugh; Tom did not. Then: “My sister wants to learn how to ride a horse,” said the ghost.

“The office is inside the house,” Tom said.

“Do you know how much it’s going to cost?” the ghost asked next.

“The office is inside the house.”

The ghost smiled and then walked outside. Tom stared at the empty doorframe, still frowning, wondering where she had come from in the first place. He knew his parents would know (for that’s who was in the office inside the house) but he was not about to ask them about the ghost because he never wanted to appear interested in a girl on account of Mrs. Lumley priding herself in matchmaking and would, without a doubt, begin the challenge of arranging a date. So, Tom waited until he saw the ghost walk away from his house, down the driveway and disappear beyond the way. Then he went inside where it was warm and light and where supper was ready to eat. He ate roast beef and potatoes and said nothing about the ghost.

The next time they met, the ghost was delivering a card (with money inside) to the Lumleys on behalf of her parents for her sister’s riding lessons. Tom didn’t know this first off, so her presence at the barn late one afternoon surprised him and this is what their conversation was like.

“I’m back,” said the ghost.

Tom said nothing.

“What’s your name?”

Of course, he told her: “Thomas.”

“That’s a good name.”

Tom said nothing.

“How long have you lived here? I love horses,” and, after this, she stroked Patriot’s neck, the horse giving a whinnying snort of approval.

The ghost looked more ghostly today, thought Tom, and so finally: “You’re not dead, are you?” he asked.

“You mean, like a ghost?” she asked. “I don’t think a ghost would know that she’s a ghost, do you? Just like how crazy people don’t really know they’re crazy.”

“I guess not.”

“Then who’s to say anything?” and the ghost smiled.

“You don’t live in the woods or anything, do you?”

“Do I look wood-worthy?”

Tom pictured her inside the forest behind his house, running barefoot with ivy in her hair, flowers in her hand, and laughing. “Kind of.”

“Is that a compliment?” the ghost asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“Then, no.”

So, he pressed: “Where do you live?”

“None of your business.”

“That’s not fair,” Tom declared. “You know where I live.”

“That’s because I found it on my own,” and she said this rather proudly.

“So, you want me to find out where you live?”

“No, of course not, weirdo. That’d be creepy. Stalking, even.”

“I just want to know you’re not homeless,” Tom said.

“Wouldn’t you still be friends with me if I was?”

“Well, sure, I…”

“Then why care?”

“Because I do!”

The ghost giggled. “You have too much time on your hands, Tom,” and then she twirled, dashing out of the barn entirely.

When Mrs. Lumley went outside to hang clean laundry on the line, she saw Gemma leaving and Tom staring at her, and shouted: “Thomas, have you met the Arnold girl? She’s lovely, isn’t she? I can’t imagine why her parents called her Gemma, putting a G in front of a perfectly adequate name like Emma. You know, my grandmother Mary had a middle name of Emily; that’s sort of like Emma. Do you remember your great-grandmother, Thomas? Of course, you wouldn’t, you were only two. But Gemma’s sister, Rosy, she’s nine and a half. She’s coming later in the week. I suppose Gemma will come too. You’ll be spending a lot of time together perhaps.”

And Mrs. Lumley was right. No one could have foretold the future quite as simply or accurately. Every Thursday nine-and-a-half-year-old Rosy walked down to the Lumley farm from the Worthing with her older sister, Gemma.

The Lumleys’ riding instructor was Poppy; an old widow whose son was Bower’s doctor. Rosy and Poppy got along famously, as did Rosy and Patriot—thank goodness—which left Gemma bored for two whole hours. Befriending the Lumleys’ son was her first idea to pass the time and it was the last idea, too, because spending two hours with him she found far too intriguing to think of doing anything else. Thomas didn’t stop his chores for Gemma. He continued as if she wasn’t there. She talked about everything at once and when her parents asked her how they got along the conversations went like this.

“He’s just the funniest boy,” Gemma told them.

“He likes jokes?” asked her mother.

“No, I mean, strange. I can talk for an entire hour and he never tells me to stop.”

“That’s generous of him,” said her father.

“I like him a lot.”

“I think he’s handsome,” said Rosy.

“He is, but that’s not the point, Rosy. It’s what’s in his head and his heart that counts.”

“How can you know what’s in his head or his heart?” asked her mother.

“I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s his eyes. They’re very honest eyes.”

The Arnolds took their daughter’s word and favoured the Lumleys considerably. They began sending visitors down the lane for an authentic horseback ride through the country and lakeside (because, of course, it benefited the Worthing, adding one more layer of charm to the already charming inn) and they did this so often Mr. Lumley was forced to buy more horses and hire more help. At first, the only payback the Lumleys could offer the Arnolds was Tom. He helped maintain the inn’s lawn in the summertime and keep the walkways and driveway free from snow and ice during the winter. On Fridays, he drove Gemma, because Gemma refused to drive any kind of vehicle by herself, into Bower for errands, and on Tuesdays he drove her forty-five minutes to St. David’s to pick up supplies for her parents. So, with the subject of Gemma, I will begin to describe her like this.

Gemma Arnold was fair; her hair was light as well, but it wasn’t any shade of yellow nor was it completely white. It was nothing like bleach or brown or even sand. Well, come to think of it, it came nearest to sand, but her skin had no freckles like one would imagine a girl with hair the colour of sand to have. Her hair was just light, but by no means stripped of colour; it was natural light, best described like the sun perhaps. I say this because it was her hair and her mysteriously dark-coloured eyes and eyebrows that made her the attractive thing Tom thought her to be. In his mind she was one of the queens or warriors from the Norse stories his father used to tell him at bedtime. Tom didn’t like to read so Asgard was never as real as it could have been to him if he had sat still long enough to sound out the foreign names on paper. He did like it, though, when stories were told aloud to him and he liked those Northern stories about Vikings and Iceland the best. If Gemma’s eyes had been a pale milky blue instead of that strange brown-green that they were then Tom would have thought she was indefinitely one of the heroines in the stories, but, alas, her halo of hair had to do.

But Gemma was good for a lot of things besides to look at. She did the baking to fill the Worthing’s restaurant front counter with cakes and breads, and she was a welcoming face at the front desk in the inn. Her recent conquest was making her own blends of tea and selling them in the souvenir shop with the postcards and the Worthing and Bower paraphernalia. Aside from her skills in hospitality, Gemma was smart; she retained information like a book and felt the need to share it frequently. She could rant for extended periods of time whether she knew Tom was listening or not, on subjects which he then became expert in too.

Tom became well acquainted with the lime tree; as a species and, also, as the grand heap of them in the Worthing’s side yard which Gemma and her cousin called “The Fort”. Gemma never got around to explaining why they called a huddle of ingrown trees which trunks all connected “The Fort” but Tom knew that was its name. He learned a great deal about the ranks in the army, in particular what it meant to be a captain, and soon found out that “Captain” was what everyone called Mr. Arnold because of his time spent in the R.A.F.

Sometimes Gemma would talk about the weather; how dark it was (“We need more street lamps out this way. Don’t you think we need more street lamps, Tom?”) or how windy (“You would think the trees would snap right in half!”) and Tom always managed to say: “It is very dark outside, Gemma,” and “It is very windy today, Gemma,” because Tom always called Gemma by her name when speaking with her.

Her ramblings, for that was what they were, didn’t bother Tom as one would assume ramblings would bother a man like Tom Lumley would, because, of course, he came to love her, even if unbeknownst to him. Gemma loved him too, and her love was instant like most girls’ infatuations are. But they fell in true love when they got older and married and had a family and lived on the Lumley Farm after inheriting the land and the house. Their children went like this: Diantha, Charles and William; and Gemma waited and waited until one of them had a daughter, so they could name her Gemma because Gemma Arnold-Lumley was so fond of her own name that she thought it important to give it to someone else.

It wasn’t until the middle child, Charles, was called on by God to go to the seminary in Grenville to study theology and there he met Katie Müller. Of course, he and Katie Müller were friends and then friends on fire and then were married and had a daughter who Katie, with the upmost respect of her mother-in-law, named GEMMA.

Reverend Charles Lumley and his picturesque wife Katie (who all the ladies in the town admired, almost to obsessive adoration; mimicking her style of hair, dress and accessory every Sunday morning because Katie was beautiful and kind and compassionate) were given on righteous authority to govern the church in Bower from their second year of marriage just as Katie was preparing for Gemma’s arrival. And when the original Mr. and Mrs. Arnold-Lumley went through rough patches of health or finance, Charles (or Charlie as his mother always called him) came home to the Worthing; so, his wife and daughter grew to love its charm just as his mother and father had.

Little Gemma had her grandmother’s blond hair, though it was not as white-blond as in the pictures but rather a honey kind of brown which darkened in the wintertime and lightened in the summer; an animal adapting to the natural turn of the elements. And she loved the Worthing, calling her great-grandfather “Captain” and the trees in the yard “The Fort”. And in the Worthing’s front cabinet and on the tables in the dining hall were always jars of the best blackberry jam in the county. It came from the back gardens of Samuel Weal and it would forever come from the back gardens of Samuel Weal which he kept with his grandson, Elliot Hawthorne.

Returns next Tuesday 

Meet Me Back Here (for this sale), Alright?

Meet Me BAck Here,Alright_From August 23nd to the 27th, Meet Me Back Here, Alright is 40% off in the Kobo Store. You can click on the cover to check it out in the store, and keep on reading below. Here are the next ten pages. (If you missed the first batch, click here.) Use the promo code: 40AUG

***

I decide to go to Cece’s and tell her about the Miller-driving-me-to-the-hospital incident when Bristol comes over on account of Daddy being out of the house and Mom not working at Foodland. Bristol talks to Mom about married life and her new apartment in town and how Rob is going to try to get a job soon and that she’s not pregnant yet. Mom tells Bristol that Sophy has joined the choir at school and gets to wear a cute little uniform. It’s free so Daddy is in favour of it. Now Sophy sings all the time in her squeaky voice and makes us all laugh, but sometimes she doesn’t stop and it makes us all really irritated instead.

When I’m getting ready to leave for Cece’s, Bristol says to me, “So how are you holding down the fort without me?”

I want to ask her what I should do about Beckie sneaking out at night. Beckie tells Mom she’s on cheer squad and the girls always have sleepovers and important things to discuss that cannot be discussed over the phone. But she’s lying. Beckie used to be a cheerleader before her attendance dropped and her grades became non-existent. I tried to get her to knock it off once by hiding the ladder she uses to get back into our room, but she went out anyway and instead of finding the ladder in the barn, she tried to climb the tree outside our window. All I could think about was Pollyanna and her twisted legs and her broken doll, so I put the ladder back myself. But I look at Bristol drinking tea out of a Marineland mug at our kitchen counter, and say, “Alright, I guess,” instead.

***

I walk to Cece’s house, because it’s just down the road before the Wilsons, and we sit around her room and listen to sentimental Connie Francis songs on her grandpa’s record player. We do this every time she breaks up with a boy. We eat ice cream sandwiches and she puts her hair into a 1960s up-do and lip-syncs to “Frankie”, and then we watch Gilmore Girls on Netflix.

Cece claims not to remember any boy named Miller Stott from the newspaper. She just keeps asking me what he looks like and if he has any brothers worth pining for. I know about the diner, his uncle and the Olympics and the swimming pool, and that he’s got a brother who either joined the army or works on a farm. But I don’t tell that to Cece. She’s too busy ranting about how she’s going to get fat like her mom and die as an old maid.
Going to Cece’s house always makes me depressed because if she’s going to get fat like her mom and die an old maid, what does that mean for me? Cece’s never been single for more than a month in her whole life. I’ll probably die young. Probably fatter than Cece’s mom too.

***

Ever since Miller drove me to see Grandma he’s been following me around school, smiling at me and trying to get me to talk to him. He walks around with an entire head above most students and he caves in his swimmer shoulders so he doesn’t bump into anyone unintentionally, while holding onto the straps of his backpack. Today he chases me all the way down the science hall and two sets of stairs, past the staff room and my locker. He finally catches me on the way to the library.

“Hey,” he says, all out of breath because of the hunt.

I say hi and keep walking. He follows me and asks me what I’m doing, so I say, “I’m going to the library.”

He immediately asks me why. My answer makes me sound like a nerd, but I say it anyway, “Homework.”

“But it’s lunch,” he says.

I want to say No, it’s an extra meaningless hour I’m stuck at school, but I say, “Yeah, so?”

“Aren’t you going to eat?”

I stop in the middle of the hallway and stare at him. “Not really.”

“Maybe we could eat together.”

“Because you drove me to the hospital?”

“Because you don’t have any friends and because I don’t have any friends.” He laughs like he thinks he’s telling a joke, but of course I’m offended.

“What makes you think I don’t have friends? And I don’t believe you don’t have friends. Don’t guys like you always have brainy little sidekicks?”

Now he’s offended. “What do you mean guys like me?”

I want to say You know, that tall guy who is a prime candidate to be an athlete in high school and could be really popular if he wanted to be, but he’s not that kind of athlete, so he hangs around his dorky childhood best friend or even his cousin, and they, too, in turn could be popular simply by association. But I stop at the library door and say, “I don’t eat in the cafeteria.”

Miller tells me that he doesn’t eat there either, and I give him a look which says I don’t believe you.

“Fine,” he says, twirling his car keys around his finger. “I was gonna offer you a free burger and fries, but hey, suit yourself, bookworm.”

“I’m not a bookworm,” I say, thinking about free burgers and fries.

Miller walks backwards, holding out his hands while he shrugs. “Time’s a-wastin’.”

I really don’t want to go to the diner because Ben Wilson and guys from the football team go there at lunchtime, and I don’t want them to see me. I’m not embarrassed to be seen with Miller Stott, I’m just embarrassed to be me. But I agree to go. I say it’s the awaiting free home-style burger and fries, and not Miller’s smile that makes me do it. But he smiles alright. I have to run to catch him at the end of the hall, and I’m self-conscious because his smile makes me smile, so I look at my feet while we walk outside.

We pass a group of kids smoking beside the NO SMOKING sign on the stairs to the parking lot, and I spot Miller’s small, blue car amidst the half-ton trucks instantly. When I get inside his car the Beatles are playing again and we only get halfway through “Come Together” before we’re facing the back of Stott’s Diner. The drive from school to the diner is literally less than a few minutes, depending on the crosswalk and the traffic light.

Through the side windows of the building I can see Ben and some jocks occupying the corner in the restaurant. I know if I go in there Ben will crack some kind of joke that’s either racist or sexist, and I’m not really in the mood to hear the obnoxious laughter of our school’s football team.

“Are you sure you can eat here?” I ask Miller as he parks and shuts off the car.

“Yeah, that’s my name on the sign in the front,” he says.

“No, I mean, aren’t you, like, super-athletic?”

He looks at me like I’m speaking a different language.

“I read the newspaper,” I say. “Don’t you have a regime or a diet or something?”

“Oh, yeah, but it’s my cheat day. I get one day a week to eat whatever I want.”

I want to say That totally sucks, but I take a deep breath and get out of the car. I go for the diner’s glass door, dreading the moment when I pass through it and Ben and his buddies stop eating and look up.

“Hey,” Miller says loudly on account of being by the other end of the building. “This way.”

I take a glance at Ben through the window and gladly leave him behind. Miller opens what looks like a heavy fire door, so I see straight into the restaurant’s kitchen.

“Did you not hear me before?” Miller asks, gesturing for me to enter first. “My name’s on the sign; we get the red carpet treatment.”

Inside, I immediately hear the snap of grease and sizzle of meat on a grill.

“Hey Molly?” Miller says into the room.

“Miller, thank God,” a woman says, still out of sight. “Could you stack those boxes somewhere out of the way? I’ve been tripping over them and pushing them and kicking them.”

I look around, but I can’t find any face to accompany the woman’s voice. The kitchen is a small area; a stove, some deep-fryers, a walk-in refrigerator. Fresh produce covers a wooden island in the middle. There is an open door to the dining room, and I can hear Ben and the football team now.

Miller spots cardboard boxes blocking a walkway and begins moving them. “Is my dad here?” he asks, shouting in the direction the voice came.

“Not at the moment. He ran out to get some of that…” A woman walks into the kitchen and stands at the island, stopping mid-sentence to stare at me.

Miller stops moving boxes, looks up, and says, “This is Alex.”

The woman wipes her hands on her vegetable-stained apron and grins. “Alex,” she repeats. “Why haven’t I seen you before?”

I stutter, but before any real words come out, Miller says, “She’s from school. And it’s lunch. We’re hungry.”

“I’m Molly,” the chef says, offering me her hand. I shake it and Hi, how are you her. She stands over the grill, squishing some beef patties with a long spatula. “Is your uncle gonna rip my head off if I feed you again?” she asks Miller.

“I can’t promise anything,” Miller says, leaning against the counter when he finishes stacking the boxes. “But it’s not illegal. It’s my cheat day.”

Molly fixes two hamburgers and prepares two plates. She slides on some steaming hot fries, hands the plates to Miller and says, “You said that on Monday.”

Miller smiles and accepts the meals. “This way,” he says to me, nodding toward the back of the kitchen. We walk through a skinny doorway into the break room/ pantry. There’s a small bistro set in the middle, surrounded by shelves of bread and fat cans of tomato paste and Costco-sized condiments.

Miller puts the plates on the table and sits down. I stand there, watching him, thinking this looks a lot like a date. Eventually I slide stiffly onto the other chair and stare at the sesame seeds on the burger bun.

“What’s up?” Miller asks because my apprehension is obvious.

“Are you sure this is alright?” I ask. “I mean, I don’t have any money.”

Miller has already downed two enormous bites. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Really? Because these meals are, like, 7.95.”

He laughs. “And it costs, like, a dollar to make it.”

I suck on my bottom lip as the crispy fortress of fries looks up at me.

“Drinks,” Miller says, half-standing. “Milkshake?”

“Um…”

He points his finger at me. “Chocolate?”

“Uh…”

“Coming up.”

He dashes out of the room and I’m stuck in there, eating beautiful greasy food, wondering how in the world I got into this situation. Then I hear him talking to someone and it’s not Molly the Chef. I think it must be his father.

Two milkshakes, Miller?” I hear from behind me. “Does Kevin know?”

Miller comes through the skinny doorway and puts two Styrofoam cups on the table, bringing his father with him. Over my shoulder, I smile at him like I smiled at Molly, and he, too, looks dumbfounded by me.

“Miller,” he says finally. “Are you hiding girls in the pantry again?”

Miller sits down and drinks some of his shake. “Dad, this is Alex.”

“Nice to meet you,” I say, waving. “You make really good food here.”

“Thank you very much. So, Alex. Where do you live?”

“Dad,” Miller snaps, picking up the small remains of his burger. “Don’t be weird.”

“I live about six houses down from the fire station on Rhettlynch,” I say.

“Oh, okay. Good stuff.”

I look back at Miller and catch him silently protesting for his dad to get lost.

“I’ll leave you alone,” Miller’s dad says, obeying hesitantly but still smiling.

I keep at the fries when we’re alone, watching Miller devour the last of his burger. “I take it you don’t bring girls here a lot,” I say.

He winces playfully. “Harsh judgement.”

“No, not like that. I didn’t mean that you couldn’t get girls to come here…I meant that you don’t.”

“It’s okay. You’re right. I don’t.”

I cough on purpose. “So you’re a swimmer? Or diver? I can’t remember.”

He sits back like it’s going to be a long explanation, so I lean back too, thankful that he’s going to be the one filling the awkward silence. “Both actually, but I stopped diving when I was fourteen. I had a growth spurt so I changed directions. Focused on swimming. I tried to go back to diving a couple of years ago, but since I stopped gymnastics I wasn’t up to par. I do short-distance swim now.”

“Like the butterfly and the backstroke?”

He nods, picking slowly at the fries on his mostly empty plate. “Uh huh.”

“You’re on the school team, right? I saw you at the pep rally.”

“Yeah. I’m surprised anyone notices us. There are only, like, six of us so we’re easy to miss.”

Miller Stott is not easy to miss. I stare at his shoulders, rolled forward like he’s trying to appear smaller, and I’m reminded of his height even when he’s sitting down because he easily shrinks the bistro set.

“How tall are you?” I ask.

“I tell people I’m six-three so they don’t freak out when I tell them I’m six-five.”

“Are you really?”

“See?”

I smile when he smiles, but I get the feeling he’s embarrassed so I change the subject again. “You’re in the newspaper a lot.”

“Yeah, our town gets bored when it’s not football season. Don’t go into the dining room, the articles are framed everywhere. What do you do? Any teams?”

I inhale slowly and look at my half-eaten burger. “No teams.” I try to think of something else to say, but nothing can rival being in the newspaper or owning a diner. Then again: “I work at the harbour across the bay,” I say proudly. “I wait on club members and check out rental kayaks.”

“Yeah, I know,” Miller says, emptying a ketchup packet onto his plate. “The rowing club practices on the lake. I see you at the docks sometimes.”

“The rowing club?”

“Would you like to see the newspaper clipping?”

We both laugh.

“I joined when I took a break from swimming last year,” he explains. “Dad said if I’m going to throw away my scholarships, I need to keep up extracurricular. He tells me St. David’s has a crew team and I should keep that in mind. I didn’t argue. I love anything with water. I’ve been a Kayak and Canoe member since I was five. But I really wanted to drop out of school, become a sailor, join the Navy—I’m kidding—but really. I wanted to sail around the world so someone could make a documentary about me.”

I like boats and swimming and water too, but I didn’t make a sport out of it. No teams. No scholarships. No newspaper clippings. I know he was kidding about the documentary, but it doesn’t seem too farfetched. I look at my food and suddenly don’t feel like finishing it, but it was free so I feel like I have to. Then there’s some commotion in the kitchen. Miller’s dad is there and someone who sounds just like him.

Miller suddenly panics. “Oh, no,” he says, scrambling.

“What?”

He picks up his plate and slides the rest of his fries onto mine.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

“Just don’t say anything,” he whispers, putting his plate underneath my plate. He sits back and crosses his arms, nonchalant.

A man comes into the room and says, “Hey buddy, your dad said you’d be back here…” He stops when seeing me: same look of astonishment.

“I’m Alex,” I say.

“Alex?” The man looks at Miller for clarification. Then to me: “Very nice to meet you.”

“This is my uncle Kevin—my coach.” Miller makes his eyes go wide.

“Oh. Hello. I’m here, eating. He’s not.”

Coach Kevin looks at Miller through narrowed eyes. “Don’t get your girlfriend to lie for you.”

Miller and I exchange confounded glances and then we both begin to explain that I am not—by any means—his GIRLFRIEND. But Coach Kevin stops us. “No, I don’t want to hear it.” He leans over the tabletop and points at my plate. “Do you know what this is?”

“Protein?” Miller says.

“It’s fat and grease. And this!” He picks up a French fry.

“A vegetable?”

“Carbs—it’s a mountain of carbs!”

Miller looks down in defeat. “It’s my cheat day.”

Miller’s dad comes in and Coach Kevin glares at him. “It’s his cheat day,” he says in defense, and father and son laugh.

“I can’t watch it.” Coach Kevin leaves and Miller’s dad snatches a bag of burger buns off a shelf and follows his brother back into the kitchen.

Miller mutters sorry, and I say that it doesn’t matter. He takes out his cell phone to check the time and asks, “What do you have after lunch?”

“History. You?”

“Nothing. I have a spare. I usually just hang out here until last class.”

“Oh, well, I’ll walk back.” I stand and take my milkshake with me.

“I can drive you,” he insists, standing too.

“No, it’s okay. Thanks for lunch. It was really good. And it was fun, too.” I’m awkward and insincere, even though I’m trying hard not to be.

“I’ll see you around.”

I wave and back out the door, sucking on my milkshake straw. I run away from the building, my head leading the way and I almost tumble over myself. When I pass the front window, Ben looks up so I look down and speed walk back to school.

***

I go to the library for my spare, last period of the day, and I stare at my English binder open to today’s notes and read them so many times over my handwriting doesn’t look like handwriting anymore and there is no way I can tell Mr. Gordon what T.S. Eliot was actually trying to say when he wrote Prufrock. I’m too busy thinking about newspaper clippings and cheat days, about burgers and fries and Miller’s smile. I decide to go to my locker and get my history textbook to finish that homework instead and on the way Mr. Tollers stops me outside Student Services.

A twitch of unease runs through me when he asks me to come into his office. For a moment I think it’s about Colton Glasby shoving Grant Danson into a locker. I even recite a short speech in my head about how there was nothing I could have done and I did eventually tell Mr. Tollers about what I had seen.

Mr. Tollers folds his hands together and leans over his desk when I sit down in the chair in front of him. He asks me how I’m doing and I tell him I’m fine. I even ask how he’s doing, but he doesn’t answer. He gets right down to business.

“How’s your sister?”

I want to sigh and roll my eyes, stomp my foot, run out of his office—anything to show him just how annoyed I am by How’s your sister.

“Beckie?” I ask.

“Yes, Beckie,” the teacher says. “Is she here today?”

I inhale and let it out slowly, apparently letting my silence speak for itself.

“Has she been at home lately?”

More silence.

“How are things at home?”

“Fine.” I answer this time because I don’t want student services calling social services. And it has been fine. Mom and Daddy haven’t been fighting which means Daddy has been getting his prescriptions refilled on time and Mom hasn’t said anything about Bristol’s husband not getting a job, and they still don’t know that Beckie is gallivanting around town with a drop-out named Johnny.

“Good,” Mr. Tollers says. He picks up a pen and clicks the end several times before dropping it, intertwining his fingers and leaning over the desk again. “Beckie’s attendance hasn’t been very…pristine lately. It’s not a very good start to the school year.”

“Yeah,” I say slowly.

“Do you have any idea why she hasn’t been in class?”

I want to say Because she’s a teenager and she hates school like the rest of the kids here, but go with, “No.”

“Do you think your parents would have any idea why?”

“Please don’t bother them about Beckie.”

Mr. Tollers relaxes, satisfied, and I look at the ceiling, convinced I’ve just betrayed my sister. Then: “I know things have been…tough at home lately…”

How does he know that things have been tough?

“I thought you could help me before we need to take any…drastic measures.”

Drastic measures.

“Do you think you can get Beckie in class tomorrow?”

I shrug and mutter some sort of an excuse.

“Because if you can’t, I’m going to have to contact your parents and tell them what’s been going on.”

I look up and meet his eyes. “Okay. Yes. I will. I’ll do it.”

“Thank you. Do you have a class?”

“No.” I rush out of his office and dart down the hall, making a beeline for the library. I barricade myself in one of the cubicles in the corner. I sit and stare out the window that overlooks the parking lot. The sight of Miller’s car by the fence makes my heart race. But I force my thoughts back to the task at hand. Beckie. And with the image of her face blinding me from everything but Mr. Tollers’s threat, I see Johnny the Drop-Out smoking a cigarette by the parking lot stairs.

I don’t take much time to think, I burst out of the library and down the stairs, tearing my way to the parking lot. I tap the guy on the shoulder. He turns and blows out a puff of smoke in the opposite direction.

“Oh, hi, you’re…” He winces when forgetting my name.

“Beckie’s sister.”

“Right, right.” He drops the cigarette and stomps it out with his worn-out Converse sneaker. “I’m Johnny.”

I shake his hand when he offers his and I roll my eyes, wondering why a sixteen-year-old boy is bothering to shake my hand. “Yeah, I know who you are. Is my sister around?”

“I haven’t seen her today,” Johnny says.

I squint, trying not to cough in the smoke. “Are you lying?”

“No,” he says, laughing. “Why would I lie? Is she in trouble?”

“Yes, she’s in trouble. She hasn’t been in class.”

The guy looks at the ground, serious. “She never said.”

“You mean she’s not with you all this time?”

He shakes his head and shrugs. “No. We hang out at lunch and after school, but not during classes. I told her she should go because she sure doesn’t want to end up like me.” He manages to laugh.

I stand beside my sister’s boyfriend, feeling the September wind and a jab of remorse rush over me. “If you see her before I do, tell her that Alex needs to talk to her. Tell her it’s important. Please?”

Johnny nods, apparently concerned. “Absolutely.”

I thank him and walk back into school. The bell rings and I breathe a sigh of relief because the day is over. I go to my locker, gather my things and head for the buses in the elementary school parking lot across the street. As I blend into swarms of students, I know I won’t see Miller again today. But I tell myself that I don’t care, not now with more important things to worry about.

I climb the short steps onto the bus and say hi to my bus driver. I slump down into a seat near the middle of the bus and a few kids walk on after me. I lean against the window, watching other kids get on other buses and I think about how I have to check the mouse traps in the basement and empty the dehumidifiers or they’ll overflow because they don’t work right.

Then the air beside me moves and someone plops down on the seat next to me. Ben Wilson is there, looking me up and down.

“What do you want?” I ask.

“Was it you I saw walking away from Stott’s today?” Ben asks, like it was unimaginable.

“I guess so.”

“What were you doing there?”

“Eating.”

He laughs like I’m telling a joke, and relaxes in the seat.

“You’re not sitting with me the whole way, are you?” I ask.

Ben gets excited and moves so his whole body faces me. “Did you walk down?”

“What?”

“To the diner.”

“No, I had a ride.”

“With who?”

“That’s none of your business.”

He looks like he wants more of an answer and I know he won’t leave me alone until he gets one. Do I dare tell him?

“Miller,” I say.

“Who Miller?”

I look at Ben like he’s the stupidest kid on the face of the planet. “Stott.”

“Oh!” he says, pieces falling into place. “The, uh, uh—water polo? Is he the guy on the water polo team? I’m just kidding.” He elbows me in the ribs, trying to get me to laugh as he smiles that wide handsome smile. I look away after glaring at him.

“So, listen, I’ve been seeing Beckie around…”

Her name makes me look up. I listen closely for any information I might not have already.

“She’s been hanging around that Adams kid, what’s his name?”

“Johnny,” I say.

“Yeah, that’s it. Are they serious?”

I look at Ben and glower. He. Is. Not. Dating. My. Sister. “Very serious.”

“Oh, that’s so cute—trying to keep me for yourself?”

“Ew. No. Get out of my seat.”

Ben grins and winks at me as he inches off the seat and into the aisle. “You used to be pretty, Podolski,” he says, gently whacking me on the side of my head. I pull away from his touch instantly. “What happened?” He winks again.

I ignore him as he leaves for the back of the bus and a small group of his friends welcomes him loudly.

Ben is beautiful, confident and different, and popular because of it. He inherited his mother’s skin and his father’s height, and he’s nice and smart when he wants to be. I try not to take his comments to heart, but I unexpectedly want to cry in embarrassment, hoping no one on the bus was listening to what he said. I wonder if he means it, if he thinks that I’m not pretty because I don’t wear my hair down anymore or because I don’t wear short skirts or tight shirts—that I gave up trying to get attention a long time ago. I curl up against the bus window, shove my hands into my jacket pockets and try to forget that today ever happened.

Keep reading here

Meet Me BAck Here,Alright_

P.S. The paperback is coming. Shh. (I’m quietly clapping my hands, if you couldn’t tell.)

Happy (Book) Birthday

In the wake of releasing Reeds & Wicks, I almost forgot that it’s actually been one whole year since I launched Meet Me Back Here, Alright? To celebrate this milestone, here’s the first 20 pages. Happy reading.

Before

PART ONE

The doctors have told me that my grandmother isn’t dead yet. They have also assured me that she’s not floating around in heaven or walking the hospital halls like a zombie. They have to say that because they’re doctors and because of science. Sophy has asked them about ghosts and spirits and emotions and stuff, but they don’t answer her. They just tell us that Grandma is unconscious and she probably will be for a very long time. Still, sometimes I imagine she’s sitting right next to me or wandering around the psych ward, flirting with some of the cute doctors or something funny like that. Opposed to what she really is—sinking in ICU bed number five, comatose.

I heard that people in comas can understand things going on around them, so I wonder if Grandma knows that Aunt Bernice gives me her money every time I come to see her. Because after I go to the hospital, I go to Aunt Bernice’s house for dinner and she gives me more of Grandma’s money to put in the bank. I go because Daddy would take the money for his pain-killers and Mom would refuse the charity. Visits aren’t so much about support as they are survival. So I hope Grandma isn’t mad at them for not coming to see her or Aunt Bernice.

After I leave Grandma’s hospital room and after I eat dinner with Aunt Bernice, Sophy and I ride the bus home. Every time we get back to the village Sophy asks me if we can get milkshakes at Stott’s Diner and I always say no. I don’t like going to the diner because I know a kid who works there. His parents own the place so I know he will be there, waiting to recognize me.

Stott’s (not to be confused with Scott’s, the hardware store across the street) is directly beside the bus stop. I can jump off the bus and see right through the restaurant’s windows. And Sophy always asks for a milkshake and I always say no. But today I say yes. I feel bad for telling her to shut up on the ride home. Her voice is small, just like she is, and you can only take so much of it.

We go inside Stott’s Diner and a bell announces our presence. There’s really no one inside so I creep through the door like I’m planning to rob the place. I can’t stop Sophy from charging the counter, but she needs help getting on top of a stool.

A woman appears in front of us and I try not to stare at the kid I know standing behind her. I’m thankful his back is toward us so it’s easier to avoid eye contact, but he’s just so tall that I can’t help from staring at the back of his head. I ask for two chocolate milkshakes, and the woman smiles and rings us through the cash.

I think I’ve escaped an awkward Hi, how’s it going but the Stott kid turns, looks at me and then looks again. He stares at me for a while so I look at the top of Sophy’s head and say hi. He says hi back and “How’s it going?” spills out of his mouth. His voice is deep and it throws me off because I guess I thought he was going to sound differently.

The woman slides two Styrofoam cups with lids and straws toward Sophy. I say thanks and the guy from school says, “See you later.” I have to make sure I smile at him before pushing Sophy out the door.

On the sidewalk Sophy sucks her straw so fast she forgets to breathe, and I think of how the Stott kid’s first name is Miller. Two last names but no real first name. He’s in the newspaper all the time because he’s some wannabe Olympian. His uncle was the first swimmer to qualify from Woolf Island in, like, forever, so they built a pool at the school for him back in the day, and now I’m pretty sure Miller Stott is the only person who still uses it.

***

Beckie climbed out of our bedroom window at nine o’clock last night and didn’t climb back in until after midnight, so I have a hard time waking her up this morning. It’s almost eight o’clock and she’s still belly down on her bed, scared of the light. I’m about to throw my brush at her again when Sophy barges into the room, kneels near my bed and bows her head.

“I’m ready,” she says.

“Not today, Soph.”

Her red ringlets are still damp from bath water and she’s chosen to wear green socks with pink tights and a sweater that used to be mine then Beckie’s now hers. Sophy looks at me with her pudgy cheeks and turned-up nose and knows she’s cute, so I kneel beside her; my body an exact replica of hers, only bigger.

“Put your hands together like this,” I say. “Now you can go ahead—say it out loud.”

“ ‘Our Father which art in heaven…’ ”

I recite the next line in my head, waiting for Sophy’s kindergarten voice to fill the room.

When she pauses, I open one eye. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m praying to a wall,” she says.

“You’re supposed to close your eyes. Close your eyes and see the face of God.”

“What does he look like?”

While I take time to think about it, Sophy gets up and puts her finger under Beckie’s nose to make sure she is still breathing. I look at the alarm clock on Beckie’s bedside table and the red, digital colon blinks. Tick, tick, tick.

“Get back into position,” I say, pulling Sophy’s chubby torso over so we’re kneeling respectfully again. “You know the nativity scene Mrs. Wilson puts on her lawn at Christmastime?”

Sophy nods, her eyes shut tight and her short fingers intertwined at her chest.

“The little baby is Jesus,” I say. “Think of that.”

“A baby?”

“Just do it. And start over.”

I copy her, eyes shut and hands together, and we both try our hardest to see the face of God.

“Our Father in heaven, hollowed be your name…”

“It’s not hollowed it’s hallowed.”

“What does that mean?”

“Ugh. Sophy, come on.”

“It means kept special,” Beckie says, rolling over in her bed and stretching. “Important, holy.”

I glare at Beckie, half-annoyed, half-grateful. “There, Sophy, okay? Now finish.”

Sophy nods again, more determined. “Our Father in heaven, haloed be your name…”

“So-pheee!”

Beckie and Sophy giggle, and in their fit of laughter I almost don’t hear Mom calling for us from downstairs.

When I go down Mom is in the kitchen, wearing her red Foodland apron, and making Sophy’s lunch for school. She puts the brightly coloured lunch pail into the brightly coloured backpack and then puts the backpack over Sophy’s brightly coloured outfit. I stand beside her with my non-existent lunch occupying my black backpack hanging over my very dull outfit. I say goodbye to Mom, and she kisses us and shoos us out the door.

Daddy is sitting in the lawn chair on the porch again, staring at the driveway and the barns and the road in the distance. His cane leans against the orange armrest.

“See you later, Daddy,” I say, walking down the porch steps which squeak like they might snap under any more weight. He doesn’t look at me for long and I wonder if it’s because I remind him of Bristol. Out of the four Podolski sisters, Bristol and I look the most alike.
Sophy stretches onto her tiptoes to kiss Daddy on the cheek and he leans down to accept her. They both laugh when Sophy squirms because of his prickly gray and brown beard.

“Be good,” he says, coughing immediately after.

Sophy holds my hand and I wave to Daddy and try not to think about how much pain he must be in.

We don’t make it very far down the driveway before Mom runs after us. She holds out a tinfoil-covered pie plate and catches her breath. “Take this, will you, down to Gloria with me?” she asks.

I stare at her name tag clipped onto her apron, and the sparkly Little Mermaid stickers

Sophy used to decorate it. “Mom, we’re gonna be late,” I say.

Mom’s expression, not more words, tells me that she’s begging. Because she doesn’t actually speak after that on account of not wanting to upset Daddy. But from the look on his face he’s not even in the same world as us, let alone listening.

***

The Wilsons buy our hay and rent our fields ever since the accident, so Mom likes to keep herself in their good graces whenever she can. When we get there Mrs. Wilson, a beautiful Korean woman with ageless skin and perfect hair, sweeps Mom away into the kitchen and leaves me inside the living room with her son and only tiny Sophy to defend me.

“I thought you would have brought one of your pretty sisters,” Ben Wilson says to Sophy when seeing me.

Sophy’s blond eyebrows make a knot between her eyes and she says, “Alex is pretty.”

Ben laughs.

The fabric of my windbreaker makes a swooshing kind of noise when I tuck a loose strand of hair behind my ear, self-conscious in the silence. I say nothing and hold onto Sophy’s hand until Ben’s ogling stare causes me to take action.

“We’re leaving,” I say and then drag Sophy out the door. She whines about how we’re leaving without Mom, but I assure her Mom can find her way back home without us.

I stop at the end of the driveway when I notice Ben at the window. His T-shirt is so tight it might as well be painted on, making it easy to imagine what he’d look like without it. But I don’t have to imagine. When he cuts our grass in the summertime, he’s always shirtless, wearing his hat backwards, shielding his neck instead of his face, and turning himself brownish pink by June. Beckie stares from the kitchen window every time, ready to reward him with a sweating glass of lemonade.

When we’re on the road Sophy pokes my arm for attention and asks if we can walk up the hillside on our way to her bus stop. I tell her no and she asks if we can at least sing the song. “Only if you start,” I say. But we never really sing the song.

***

Today at school there’s a pep rally and we have to sit on the gym floor because our school isn’t one of those fancy catholic schools with auditoriums and cushy chairs like the school Cece goes to. Kids from the fancy catholic schools call us hicks because we don’t have lines on our main roads and because we only produce farmers and football players. We only get to sit on chairs when it’s something important like Remembrance Day or because someone has died. So during the assembly today we have to sit cross-legged on the dusty gym floor, cramped inside the dark with only random spotlights shining on the student council rep and the cheerleaders as they bounce around in front of the stage.

The football team grunts and shouts whenever anybody says our school name, so the principal has to start his speech over multiple times. The track and field team is the only team bigger than the football team, but they’re a lot quieter and skinnier. All the sports teams are called up to the stage one by one, even the chess and badminton teams, as music blares from every corner of the gym.

They put the cross-country team and the swim team on the stage at the same time and I don’t really know why. But I stare at Miller Stott standing in the back row. He makes all the little runners look even smaller than they really are. For a second I think he’s staring back at me, but it’s too dark to tell. So I look away and I sit there while my brain starts to melt and my feet fall asleep, wishing that this stint of my life was already over.

My schedule for this semester is still being sorted out because it’s only the fifth day back and everyone, including teachers, is still living in summer time. I signed up to see the guidance counsellor the first day back to drop Advanced English and just take Regular English, and I want to switch Philosophy for Social Science. But I have yet to have my name called over the PA system. So I walk around the school halls during the empty slots like the potheads do when they’re not in class.

I thought I’d get special privileges because of my impending graduation, that the teachers would want to get rid of us in the kindest, quickest way possible. But, less than a week in, I get the feeling this is going to be the longest year yet.

When I come home from school I find Daddy in the exact same spot I left him in, sitting in that lawn chair, drinking a can of pop and staring at the road. He says hi and I say hi. He asks me how my day went and I say fine. Mom is hanging laundry on the clothesline in the side yard, and after a few moments of staring at my parents on opposite sides of the property, I go inside to change.

Every other afternoon I bike to the ferry and cross a skinny part of the St. Lawrence River to get to the harbour on the mainland in time for the dinner shift at the boat club. I work in the members-only clubhouse, serving preppy old people from the city in my navy polo, khaki shorts and white Keds. Sometimes I roam the boardwalk to make sure everyone who is checking out the sailboats is supposed to be checking out the sailboats or tell people about the night’s specials and invite them into the dining room. Rich people’s children come and jump off the docks into the water at sunset and the crew team from St. David’s comes to practice. The Kayak and Canoe Club teaches kids how to wear life-jackets properly and it’s all an extremely lively place until October comes and everyone goes away and I don’t have a job anymore.

I come home just after the sun has set and I hear my parents before I’m even inside the house. My head feels ready to explode whenever they fight. It’s like I’m caught in the air, floating aimlessly, wanting to intervene and run away at the same time. I thought Bristol getting married and moving out of the house would help. Because it was always Bristol against Mom, and Mom against Daddy, and Daddy against the world.

They’re in the kitchen this time, drinking coffee and watching the news on the small TV on the counter. I slam the front door shut so they know I’m home, and hang my jacket on the banister in the front hall. For a split second I think they may have stopped talking altogether. But as soon as Mom mentions Bristol’s new husband, Daddy starts at her, loud slamming door or not.

Sophy is on her knees in my room, trying to talk to heaven again. I shut the door behind me as I drop my backpack onto the floor. Mom and Daddy’s voices are distant and if I try hard enough it sounds like they’re having a normal conversation, laughing even.

“How’s it going?” I ask Sophy.

“I get to ‘And forgive us…’ and then I don’t remember.”

I get down beside her to help. “ ‘And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’ ”

“What’s that?”

“Things we do that aren’t right and people who hurt us.”

She nods and closes her eyes.

“ ‘And do not lead us into temptation’,” I say, obviously jogging her memory because she joins in afterwards.

“ ‘But deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.’ ”

We sit on the floor and I stare at the empty chair by the desk in the corner where Beckie should be doing her homework. Then: “Alex, why do we say that?”

“That’s how we talk to God.”

“Do we always have to talk to God?”

“It never hurts.”

***

Today at school I’m finally called down to Student Services to get my schedule fixed. On my way from the library I notice Miller Stott walking, solo, down the math hall so I have to turn around and take the long way to the front foyer. He’s been everywhere ever since I saw him at the diner and I don’t know if our schedules are suddenly colliding or I’m just noticing him for the first time.

Before I get to Student Services I see Colton Glasby shoving Grant Danson into a locker. I stop, stunned, as a surge of angst jolts me. I’ve never seen someone actually trying to put someone else inside a locker before. The skinny boy is kind of squealing and the bully isn’t saying anything. He just gives one big shove and his friends shut the door, slamming the lock into place. They laugh and high-five each other before walking away and disappearing up the stairs.

I walk into Student Services and wait until Mr. Tollers calls me into his office. I change Advanced English for Regular English, but I don’t get to switch Philosophy for Social Science. My new pink schedule is still warm from the printer. Before I leave I tell Mr. Tollers that I think there’s a kid stuck in a locker in the hallway. And I think about how if I’d taken the math hall I probably wouldn’t have seen Grant get wedged into the wall and he might have been trapped in there all day. Then I go back to the library to kill my spare like none of it ever really happened.

***

I’m late for the bus when I need a ride to the hospital. I argued with Sophy for ten minutes too long about whether or not she was going to come with me. She stayed home from school because of an upset stomach and was apparently not faking it because she still wouldn’t come with me, even when I offered to get milkshakes after.

I run to the bus stop in the village and wait for what feels like five minutes, but in reality is probably only one. I know I’ve missed the bus, but I want to confirm it so I look inside Stott’s Diner (like I’m going to rob the place again) and eventually open the door. The bell rings and I’m half-inside the nearly dead restaurant. I don’t care who the first person I see is, I blurt out, “Hey, did I miss the bus?” in the general direction of the counter.

Miller Stott appears behind the counter, wearing an apron. “What?” he says.

“The bus, did I miss it?”

“Oh. Yeah, it looks like it. That’s the last one too.”

“I know. Thanks.”

I turn to leave, but then: “Do you need a ride?”

Everything in me feels like it has stopped working so all I can do is frown and stare across the restaurant. I want to say Of course I need a ride, that’s why I’m taking the bus.

But Miller says, “I can give you a ride.”

I step all the way inside to weigh out my options.

1. Go home.

2. Drive into town with Miller Stott.

“You’re working, though,” I say.

Miller takes off his apron and tells me that he’s off in five minutes. “Where are you going?” he asks.

I say, “The hospital,” and he looks a little confused, so I say, “I’m going to visit my grandmother.”

He insists after that and is ready to go before his five minutes are up. He puts on a jacket and I hear keys jingle, making this very real.  “Let’s go,” he says, opening the door (ding-ding).

I stare at a man finishing a hamburger at a table in the corner.

“You know who I am, right?” Miller asks, not in a proud way but in an I-hope-this-isn’t-weird-for-you sort of way. “We go to the same school.”

I walk by him and his out-of-place height is more real when being so close, and I get a good look at his face. I kind of like it all of the sudden so I laugh, a silly little giggle. Apparently I’m nervous. “Yeah, I know who you are,” I say. “Do you know who I am?”

The door shuts behind us, and I follow him toward the line of parked cars on the street.

“You’re Alex Podolski,” he says. “Your older sister Bristol married Jasper Lauzon’s brother Rob. You have another sister named Beckie and a little one too, but I don’t know what her name is.”

Miller stops by a little dorky German car and unlocks the passenger door. I say, “Sophy,” and I get inside the car.

Miller shuts the door on me and slams it so hard, using the side of his leg to ensure it shuts properly, that it sounds like the window could shatter, and he says, “Sorry. It sticks sometimes.”

My mouth melts into a smile because I do like his face and then I’m alone for a few seconds, taking it all in until I realize my backpack is still on. I take it off and hold onto it like it’s a flotation device.

Miller gets in the car and has some trouble turning over the engine. The radio comes on and the Beatles start singing. They play all the way to the hospital and all the way back. I’m freaking out inside because this is so random and Miller doesn’t talk to me until we’re on the parkway and he asks, “So is your grandma sick?”

“She’s in a coma.”

“For real?”

“Uh huh.”

“How long has she been in a coma?”

“Three months.”

“No way. That’s crazy. I read about this one guy who was in a coma for, like, thirty years.”

“Yeah…”

That’s pretty much all that goes on until farmland disappears behind us. We pass signs which say WIND FARM and BRIDGE TO USA, and storefronts that say Woolf Island Convenience and Woolf Island Grocer, Woolf Island this and Woolf Island that. I count tall wind turbines staggered in yellow fields, looking like skinny metal dinosaurs because they’re that out of place, until I lose track or get bored.

The city emerges in the form of housing developments and shopping malls. We pass Lowe’s, Home Depot and Canadian Tire all in a row, and then I see City Hall and the Holiday Inn and then we’re facing the hospital.

Miller parks outside the patient pick-up area and I tell him I won’t be long. I run inside and the volunteer sitting at the information desk reminds me to squirt my hands with hand sanitizer, and the rubbing alcohol burns a cut on my thumb.

I take the elevator to the fourth floor and walk into the ICU family lounge. I tell Dennis the Security Guard that I’m here to see May Podolski because I’m her granddaughter, and he flashes an ID badge, making the ward doors open with a buzz.

I find Grandma in the same place I find her every week. Intensive Care Unit, bed five, a different nurse outside her room every twelve hours. Today it’s Stephanie with the long blond ponytail.

I stand beside Grandma as she breathes with a ventilator and has all these IVs sticking out of her neck and arms. Her skin is still wrinkly and her hair is still white, and all I can think about is Miller Stott parked downstairs in his dorky German car. It’s blue. Navy blue.

I wait for a while and sit with Grandma, contemplating what I’m going to tell Aunt Bernice when I phone her and say that I can’t make it to dinner. I can’t go to dinner. I’d have to bring Miller, and Aunt Bernice would think he’s my boyfriend. She’d give him a hard time like he is my boyfriend, and he’d think I’m a nut case and never want to see me again. Not that I want him to want to see me again.

After ten minutes I call Aunt Bernice from the pay phone because I forgot my cell phone and I tell her that Sophy’s sick and we couldn’t make it to see Grandma either. She tells me that it’s okay and that she’ll see me next time. Then I’m off and racing for Miller’s car.

He asks me how it went and I tell him it was fine, so he drives me back to the countryside, “Here Comes the Sun” playing in the background all the while. When we get closer to the village, he volunteers to drive me to my house, and I say, “No, that’s okay. I can walk.”

“From the bus stop?”

“I do it all the time.”

“It’s dark out.”

I don’t disagree on account of it actually being dark out. Then Miller stops the car at the intersection near the center of town and asks, “Where do you live?”

I point to the right and say, “Down there.” I point straight ahead and say, “And you live down there.”

“How do you know where I live?”

“I’m just assuming.”

Miller flicks on his blinker and turns right.

“Hey,” I say.

“It’s not a problem. I can drop you at your driveway, I can drive you to your front door. I can drive you to Toronto if you want, but I’d have to stop for gas…”

Smiling is hard to control. “My driveway is fine.”

So Miller stops at the end of my driveway and I walk inside my house. No one any the wiser.

 

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