A/N: Thank you for reading, alerting, favoriting, and the reviews are always appreciated. Also, thanks for the recs!
The lovely ginginlee stepped in as beta and pre-reader for this chapter. She writes the compelling story, The Earth, It Trembles. Give it a try if you're looking for something unique to read. :)
In the Debris
I have an hour and a half before I pick up Max, so I go by Mrs. Makenna's, lug the lawnmower from her shed and start it up. It takes a few jerks to get it to do anything more than putter out.
On my way to Jasper's last May, I saw the old widow struggling with the lawn mower at the bottom of her hill, pushing it at a near ninety degree slant. She was leaning all her weight into this thing that was practically bigger than she was, and I was sure she was about to hurt herself. I mean, it looked like it would fall on her any second and crush her bones, so I pulled over to offer my help.
She smiled wide at me, flashing a gold tooth in the corner, and said that if I'd come to mow it regularly, she'd pay me two dollars a mow. I never take the money, even though she insists. I have to tell her she's already paid up to get her to stop shoving it at me.
"I am?" she says, clipping closed her money purse. I don't like tricking her, but I won't take her money.
She's not home today when I do it. It takes me maybe twelve minutes to do her lawn, and I imagine it would take Mrs. Makenna twelve hours - and her life - to do it herself. After I'm finished, I close the mower up in the shed and head down to the creek behind her house to rinse my hands. A glance to my left has me doing a double-take. There, sitting on a boulder under the bridge, with her nose in a book, is Isabella. Even from here I can tell it's no textbook she's reading. It's a novel. Curious about what it is, I head over there, wiping my wet hands off on my jeans. She doesn't notice me approaching over the rocks, she's so absorbed.
She jumps when I ask what she's reading and shoots me the most worried look, as if she's been caught breaking the law. I wonder for a second if she has a joint hidden in those pages.
The look on her face turns into a reluctant sort of acceptance. Maybe it's just me she's disappointed in seeing. She flashes the cover of her book at me.
"That isn't for school."
"No, they're reading Moby Dick. Read it last year."
"So, how are you finding Raskolnikov?" I ask in a mock voice of sophistication.
Her eyes widen and it's not my imagination when their color lightens. "You've read it?"
"Don't hide your shock or anything."
One hand covers her eyes, while the other one appears to involuntarily hold her place in the book. I notice she's not wearing her bracelets, and also that she's dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt that looks big enough for a man. "Of course you've read it. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." She spreads two fingers that are covering her eyes and peeks through. It's cute and I try not to smile. "I mean, what student at Forks High hasn't?"
"I guess I get your shock. It's probably the same reason I came over here when I saw you reading."
"Because I'm reading?"
"By choice, it looks like. Why here?"
"I live right up there." She points up the hill to the brick house, next door to Mrs. Makenna's. "I like it under this bridge. I can stay out here even if it rains."
In the sky only three white clouds are in sight; we'll be rain-free for a while.
"Wait. What I'm doing here makes total sense. Why are you here? Don't you live in some forest-hidden mansion?"
"What else have you heard about me?" I squat down beside her so she doesn't have to squint to look at me.
"Sounds like your dad might be Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll. Somebody told me your roof gets struck by lightning once a year."
I laugh at that.
"But I've also been told that I have to go to one of your parties. Nobody throws parties like you do."
I shrug. She'll be waiting a long time if she's expecting me to throw a party.
"So, why are you here?"
"I mow your neighbor's lawn."
Now she's the one who laughs. "You what? You, the richest guy in Forks, mows lawns?"
"That's cool," I say, not laughing. I don't bother telling her why I do it. I look out at the creek. It's a narrow one, and pretty still. It barely makes a sound at all; it's maybe the sound of a dog taking a piss or something.
"Don't pretend to be insulted. I may not know you, know you, but I already know you better than that."
"You think you know me. Enjoy your book, Isabella. Tell Rodya hello for me." I head back up toward the street.
"Hey," she says, "If I really did hurt your feelings, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."
I nod, leave her wondering.
I am pissed, not so much by what she said, but by allowing myself to think for a minute that she might be different. But no, she makes assumptions about who I am based on my family's money just like everyone else.
At the top of the hill, I glance back at her, under the bridge, rifling through her bag. She did apologize, though, and that's something that would never cross the minds of most of the others in this town.
I still can't get a read on her. I shake my head, no reason to care so much.
I start to my car when I hear her call my name. I look back and she shouts for me to come on over for a drink the next time I mow the old widow's lawn. "We'll talk some more about Dostoevsky… or whatever!"
"Hot and cold," I say.
"What?" she shouts.
"You're hot and cold," I say, louder.
She throws her arms out at her side, camera in hand, and shrugs. Then her camera's in front of her face, she's bending slightly forward, and I know she's taking my picture.
"I'm thirsty, now," I shout at her.
"Come on, then." She slips her camera into her bag and gives a big motion to me with her arm. I start back down the hill, checking my watch. There's still time before I have to get Max.
"What will the caption say under that picture?" I ask, following her through weeds toward her house.
"I don't know yet." She brings a finger to her mouth in thought. I think she might be as confused about me as I am about her.
"Why do you mow her lawn?" We're walking through the garden, up brick patio steps and through the back slider into the kitchen. I wipe dirt off my feet before entering.
"If I don't, she will."
It's a small enough kitchen that it would've driven my mother crazy, but in real perspective it's probably average size, bigger than the one in the pool house, anyway.
"It's nice that you do that for her. I think I might've been wrong about you." She drapes her bag over the back of a chair. The bag sags heavily, seams tearing on the straps. How many cameras does she have in there?
"Maybe." I don't tell her that she's not the only one who's suspected being wrong about me lately.
She pulls a lemon off the top of a basket of fruit and starts slicing it. When she fills my glass of water she slips a slice on top. "It's to rejuvenate you. Try it."
Isabella offers me a seat in the living room. I don't take it. I'm looking around. The room is so normal, and kind of cluttered, that I want to check out everything. I look at the shelving cabinet covered in framed pictures and little glass or ceramic figures. I pick up a snow dome. Mickey Mouse is inside standing with raised arms in front of a castle with a banner that reads: Disney World, Orlando.
"Those things creep me out," Isabella says.
"Why?" I turn it upside down to let the snow fall.
"Poor Mickey. He's stuck in there. That small, snowing world. And he'll never get out. It's creepy."
I place it back on the shelf, snow falling over Mickey. I'm inclined to remind her that the mouse isn't real.
"I like it," I say. "We don't have anything like that. My dad says everything in our house has to have purpose."
"That has purpose."
"What's its purpose?"
She comes over, picks it up and shakes the thing that creeps her out. Apparently she's protective of it regardless of the creepiness.
"It's a decoration. A souvenir, and a memory of where we used to live. What can be more purposeful than that?"
Something about her saying memories strikes me. I want to know about those memories. I would have asked, but she's already moved on, talking about photography, pictures she used to take in Florida. I notice large black and whites in frames on the walls. "Yours?"
All nature pictures - landscapes or close-ups of leaves. Looks like she experiments with lighting, different times of day or something. There's one in which you can see a straight path of light from the sun falling over wild grass.
She points to the largest one in the room, hanging behind the sofa. "Grand Canyon. On our way here from Florida, we stopped at different landmarks along the way. These tell the story of our move."
Every time I looked at her, I notice something different: The lightening of her brown eyes whenever she talks about photography, or maybe anything she cares about; the pink on her cheeks that's always there deepens every so often, just subtly enough that it's hard to catch if you're not watching; her lips, also pink, the bottom one more ridged, dry looking. I want to touch it, let my finger rub right along it for as long as she'll allow. I have to physically restrain my hands from reaching out to touch that bottom lip. My hands find my pockets. Isabella notices where I'm looking and her own hand comes up, her fingers touching right where mine want to be. I crack a knuckle in my pocket.
"I know," she says, and her cheeks go ahead and deepen. I'm compelled now to run the backs of my fingers along her cheeks. I know how soft her skin is, no question. This girl is driving me nuts with the simplest things.
"Chapped. All this wind. Don't look, they're so ugly." Her lips disappear into her mouth and when they reappear they aren't at all dry looking. They are now wet, and this does nothing to dispel my want to touch them.
I'm convinced she's trying to turn me on. Except, she appears so unaware of it that either she's really good at it or I'm already falling for her.
I take a deep breath, lifting my eyes. Hers are lightening. On the verge of mentioning her eyes or lips, I scan the shelves again. I pick up a family picture.
"What's going on in this?"
"Nothing. We're just us, posing. My mom, dad and me. Don't you like candids better? This is just so posed." She takes the frame from me, tracing along its base with her thumb as she looks at the picture. "This was back in Florida. Look at the background." She tilts the frame my way. "It's crazy how you can see the heat. It looks like it's a million degrees out. Unbearable. Like, you open your door and you're already covered in sweat. You want to take twenty showers a day. And do you think that's an exaggeration? I bet you do, but it's not. I swear. You take a shower, take one step outside, and you need another shower. Some days you'd want to spend all day in the shower. Or the swimming pool."
I smile at the way she talks as if I'm arguing with her and she has to prove her point. I pick up the snow dome again and shake it until it's all blizzard-white, the contents inside, Mickey and the castle, hidden.
"Tell that to Mickey," I say. "He's stuck in a never-ending blizzard."
Isabella laughs. "Smart ass," she says, hitting my arm.
"How do you like Forks?" I replace the snow dome and pick up my glass of water, then take the seat on the sofa she offered earlier.
She sits across from me on the table and rests her socked feet on the sofa edge. There's a small hole at the tip of her big toe that she plays with, making it bigger. "Most of the time, I miss the sun."
"But you've made friends already. It's hard not to see that."
Her lip pulls back a little, almost in disappointment. "There's a difference between getting to know people and making friends."
And then it's like I know her. One minute I can't figure her out and the next minute, I just know her.
"Have you read any other Dostoevsky?" She asks.
"Just Crime and Punishment."
"I've got one for you to read." She takes off up the stairs and I'm unsure whether to follow her or not.
I stir the floating lemon slice around with my finger, and push at it. The water tastes too much like overly diluted lemon juice. Maybe if the lemon lets out a little more flavor the taste will get stronger. Maybe I should ask for a second slice.
I hear Isabella on her way back downstairs and I lick my finger.
She shoves a book at me.
I lift my eyes to her. "Are you trying to tell me something?"
"Yes. This is how I communicate. Through book titles."
Her humor can be so dry sometimes it's hard to tell if she's joking.
"No, Cullen! It's a good book. Next time you come over, you bring me a book."
"Isn't that what everyone calls you?"
"If you want," I say, "you could come to my house to pick out a book."
"That's not the point. You have to pick it out."
Is that her way of turning me down? Do I ask her again?
"Anything I want?"
"Yep. And I have to read it."
"What if you've already read it and hated it?"
She shrugs. "I'll read it again, maybe change my mind. The point is: I pick your book, you pick mine."
She wants to be book buddies?
"How about if I ask you to come over again, and this time you answer?"
I notice a quick twitch of her eyebrows, as though they're about to pull together, but never do. Damned if I know what that means.
"Tomorrow. I'll pick you up."
She smiles. She has one of those slow-growing smiles that begins as a grin, and then just keeps growing until she's beautiful.
I try to look away; I'm unsuccessful.
Blues, greens, bubbles, three large paper lanterns dangling from the ceiling, my room is the only room in the house that's been updated recently. For my seventeenth birthday, my aunt and Mud let me redecorate. I kept the same twin bed, which I pushed up against the wall, covered with the bubble comforter, and lined with way too many, or just the right amount of pillows. I turned it into a daybed and a sanctuary. I have the same matching off-white dresser, desk, and nightstand set from my childhood. But everything else is new.
I chose bubbles, rounded edges, circles, because my room is where I dream, where I write most of my poetry, and where I can imagine any kind of life I want. A life where I can sit on a bubble and it will take me to any destination I navigate it to.
As many changes as my imaginary life happens upon, the constants are always there: James and Aunt Cheri.
I'm readying myself now for dinner at James'. I throw my completed homework in my backpack, grab my jacket and head down to the chocolate-ugly downstairs to thank Aunt Cheri for letting me take her car.
My aunt's squishy cheek molds to my lips when I kiss her. Her cool fingers hold my face, and she looks at me for a little while with a sigh - it's something she does a lot. It's her way of saying goodbye, I guess.
Aunt Cheri is the mother I wish was mine. I know, and I've come to terms with this, that I'm better off with her than if I'd never been taken from my mother. Aunt Cheri has always treated me like her daughter, and I believe she wishes I was.
I went through a time when I rebelled against that sweet woman. I was incredibly angry with her by the time I was thirteen because I was starting to get picked on. Lauren had shamed me at school in front of a million kids.
Okay, more like eighteen kids, but still, I was thirteen. It may as well have been the whole world.
I was being taunted because I didn't have parents and my real mom was a "crack whore," and since I was a "crack baby," I had no hope but to grow up to be just like my mom.
At first, I fought back. Right there on the quad, I screamed at them that they were wrong about me. I called Lauren a big fat liar, and I called the rest of them followers. I let insults drop from my mouth like saliva, and all it did was make everything worse. I didn't even feel better afterward. I felt like a drooling moron, and I saw that there was no escaping this. Lauren had shoved me into a cave, and I had tried digging my way out the wrong side.
Earth. I met earth and wall and stone and kids whose taunting grew into hate for me. And when it's gone that far, that's it. There's no where else to go. Even the nice kids who never picked on me or laughed along at the jokes wouldn't befriend me. They feared the same treatment.
James was the only one. He was brave. He didn't care. He could even laugh about it, and sometimes got me laughing about it, too.
I blamed it all on my aunt and acted out at every opportunity.
One night, a night spent strolling the neighborhood streets with James, when I walked through the door past my "home before nine" curfew, they'd had enough. My uncle - he wasn't Mud, yet - said that I didn't care that they worried sick about me, and maybe what I needed was a good spanking. Even if he never touched me before, it scared me enough to finally blurt out, "Everything is your fault, Auntie! Why didn't you help my mom before it was too late? You came there to take me away, but why didn't you come before that?"
Aunt Cheri cried. She took me into her arms, sitting with me on the corner of my bed, rubbing my hair back. My head rested on her pillow of a bosom. "Darling girl," she said, "I wish I'd known enough to help out sooner. I would've done anything, you know. To help her and you. You are the best thing she ever did in her life."
"You're lying," I told my aunt as she rocked me in her arms. "I don't believe anything you say."
"Darling girl," she said, kissing my head. "My darling girl."
She changed me into my pajamas because I refused to do it myself, and then changed herself, before slipping into my small bed where she would sleep all night. In the blackest moment of that night, after the last of the evening light faded, and before the morning light was even the flicker of a thought in our part of the universe, both of us were still awake.
She said, "Maybe your mom will turn her life around someday. She talks about wanting to get well for you. Sometimes she checks herself into rehab. She can't seem to stay away from it all, though. She's sick. She's just so sick."
"I don't want her back. Not ever."
"You're the priority now, Victoria, and you have been since that day eight years ago. Please understand how loved you are. Uncle Phil and I, we love you like our own. Our own."
My aunt Cheri couldn't have children of her own, so maybe I was like hers - the daughter she never got to have.
"You're our gift," she said, as if confirming my thoughts.
They thought of me as a gift, as their daughter, but I wasn't. Not really. I had nobody to call Mommy.
James' house is smaller than ours, just about half the size, and no second floor. I think it's nice, quaint.
None of the furniture matches, but everything is inviting. A handmade quilt comforts the sofa, cream fabric drapes the mismatched dining room chairs, tied with bows in the back. And with every dinner, his mom serves homemade bread, wrapped up all cozy in a basket to keep it warm. And that, that bread basket, is exactly the feel their whole house gives off.
Most of the time, that's the way it feels.
I walk into their house; I never knock.
"He's in his room," his mom tells me without a greeting, and her voice is cold. If I looked, I could probably see ice crystals lingering in her breath. Her blonde ponytail cascades over a shoulder as she sets the last plate on the table.
She's cooked steak, mashed potatoes, and canned green beans. Table beautiful and ready, she calls to James. She seems angry, so I call him, too.
I rest my jacket on the back of my chair and take a seat.
His mom is dishing me out some potatoes. She's nervous or preoccupied, and she's piling it on.
"That's fine," I say, catching the spoon on its next trip over my plate. "I'm not an army."
She doesn't laugh. James does, though. He greets me as he takes a seat across from me, plunking heavily into his chair, so much the opposite of how his mother moves. She moves like a breeze in a ballet, even in her anger, or whatever this mood is that's taken over her.
She sits, Donna-Mills-proper, folds her hands in front of her plate and looks down. I think she might pray, which would be something new.
"I visited your father today." Her blue-eyed gaze seems padlocked to her steak.
"Why?" James asks, his full fork not making it to his mouth. It lands on his plate with a metallic clink.
For the first time since his dad was arrested, I feel like I shouldn't be here at all. I can't be still in my seat. James looks over at me and nods.
"Oh, James, it's been almost a year. And, I-I I was… curious."
"Yeah? I'm curious about something, too. How does he look in orange?" James' exit from the table is abrupt. The table rumbles; the hanging edge of the tablecloth quakes. His mother hasn't taken her eyes off her plate. I put my hand on top of her folded ones and then stand to go after James.
"Take him his dinner, Victoria, would you? He's getting too thin." Her voice is soft but monotone.
I'd like to tell her to mother him herself, because I know he needs it right now after what she's just told him. I know he's hurt. But I comply.
Like the rest of the house, his room is a mish-mash of furniture picked up at yard sales or flea markets. His bed is pushed up against one wall, and he's sitting sideways on it, his back against the wall. I join him on the bed, rest my plate on my lap and hand him his. "Your mom wanted you to have this." I want him to know it was her idea, not mine. For some reason I think that's important.
He sets it down, goes to lock the door and then frees the window. A nighttime chill wraps itself around the room like a quick, slithering snake; everything must feel it at once.
I know what the locked door and open window means.
He pulls supplies out of a trick drawer in his desk, and rolls a joint. The woodsy smell, despite the breeze from the window, already overtakes the room and he hasn't even lit up yet.
With the front of his hair falling into his face, he licks the paper, lights up and takes several hits before passing it to me.
I let it burn between my fingers for a little while, just watching James. He blows the smoke out, shakes his hair back and sits on the bed.
"Why would she do that? He'll think he's welcome back here when he gets out."
"You have to ask her."
"I did. She says she's curious? About what? How he might fuck with our lives again? Does he know she had to take a second mortgage out, and I'm paying it?"
"You have to ask her." I take my first hit. It's strong. I can't take much in or hold it long, and I cough it out. My throat burns. "I should've brought our drinks, too," I manage to say between coughs.
"She better not even think I'm going to see him. You know what I think? She's living in this delusion where we end up one little happy family again." He scoffs. "Yeah."
He takes another hit and blows his smoke out the window, tainting the air.
"Hey," he says. "Let's get out of here. Go for a walk."
Just like his smoke, we'll go out the window so we don't have to pass by his mom. We've done this before but for different reasons.
"My coat's in the dining room."
He pulls an extra one from his closet and wraps it over me. The sleeves cover my hands and the hem falls to my thighs.
Outside his window we squash plants under our feet as we make our way to the front of the house. I shiver under his coat, but after a few more hits, I don't feel the cold any longer. We're passing small house after small house - all the same shape and size with glows coming from windows, perfectly manicured pocket lawns, and big old trees. We share the joint right out in the open, not even worried we'll get caught. The street is quiet. No cars pass. Wind blows litter mixed with crunchy leaves along the gutter - trash and nature mingling.
As we get to the end of the block, the joint is finished, and James' eyes are slits. A daze of a smile comes to his face.
"When school's over, where do we go?" He hops down off the curb and back up again.
I smile back at him. This is a game we've played since eighth grade.
"Italy," I say with a hop of my own.
"Where will we live?"
"A villa in Tuscany, where else?" I spin in a circle.
"What will we do?"
"Sell apricots from our apricot grove."
His laugh sounds like he's trying to keep it quiet. It comes from his throat. "Ambitious."
"They're obviously sought after apricots. People will come from all over Europe to our little stand on the side of the road. Some people will take the pits and try to grow their own. But they don't know the secret ingredient."
"We just smoked it."
He cracks up and puts an arm around me. "I like your world."
I lean into him, and it's moments like this, when we're so close, and how I fit into his side just so, like I belong here, that I imagine we might be meant to be together. Maybe we were fated to become friends so we could become so much more. Only I don't say anything like that to him. I just let the tickles flow through my body, and ignore the thoughts of love and James and a relationship. I wrap my arms around his waist like I can tie him to me.
"They'll never know why they're so famished after eating our apricots."
"We'll be fat," he says. "Your ankles will be like an elephant's."
He's laughing hard again and I push him, nearly send him stumbling into the street. "Hey! Don't ruin it."
"Who says that's ruining it? Besides, you're the one who drowns all the food in olive oil."
"Maybe you should learn a lesson and do the cooking once in a while, chunky." I poke at his stomach through his jacket.
It's only a fantasy, and we know it. Ever since James' dad was locked up a year ago, it's been up to James to help keep his mother and him in their house. And how does a sixteen year old earn the cash to help pay the mortgage?
As far as where we would go after graduation, there's the possibility James might never get out of Forks.
I'll stay with him if he wants me to. I have no where else to go.
But the future, we don't talk about that. The only talk of of the future is our fantasy world.
In my bed, still a little high, I roll to my stomach, push my arms under my pillow and think of James.
He tried to kiss me once. It was after another dinner at his house. We were fifteen and his dad was still around, funny and vibrant with life and odd. He cracked joke after joke, making us all laugh, making his wife touch his arm and say: "This is why I fell in love with you." Only she couldn't get the words out smoothly, they were laughing words.
James walked me all the way home like he used to before we could drive. He walked me to the front porch where the light was burnt out. The night was overcast and the lampposts on the street were dim, glowing the color of the inside of an apricot.
"You look orange," I told him.
With a hand on my shoulder he leaned toward my mouth. I'd never kissed anyone before and I knew he knew this, which made me too nervous. My stomach flipped over like gymnasts lived inside. I might have giggled.
I turned my head a little at the last second and his lips landed on the edge of my mouth. They pressed, but mine did nothing.
He nodded, backing up. "Okay," he said, still nodding. "Good night."
He hasn't kissed me since.
I think now, lying in bed, my face in the pillow, maybe we missed our shot. I got scared that night like a tiny little mouse in the street scattering away, and I might never find my way back there.
I sit up, switch on the lamp, take my poetry book out, and nestled against all my pillows, I write a poem about cowards who are as big as elephants but as terrified as mice. They're huge and worthless, the color of shadows, and nobody can even see them no matter how big they are because they don't want to be seen.
Thank you for reading!