In the morning I put on fresh gauze over the burn, my olive green tank top, overalls, combat boots, a huge gray wool button-up sweater. I felt cold and hot and dizzy. School had always freaked me out and now I had to go to a brand new one. I hated first days with a passion akin to my love of the paranormal and freaky little novels and Japanese ukiyo-e. I jammed a notebook and a couple of pens in my knapsack, headed upstairs. Adam said I could catch a ride with him if I was ready by seven fifteen. Whatever.
Mrs. Grant sat at the dining table in front of a laptop, coffee cup and half eaten bagel beside her. I coughed. She glanced up, smiled. “Breakfast’s whatever you make it. Help yourself.”
“I don’t need anything. Has Adam left yet?”
She looked at the clock on the wall; six fifty. She smiled. “Well, now. I don’t know if he’s even up yet. If you want to go in sooner, I’m sure Leah could take you. She goes in an hour early most days for student government stuff. You sure about breakfast? Maybe a cup of coffee? We have North Pole Coffee Roasting Company coffee. Try the St. Snickerdoodle.”
I shrugged. “Naw. Don’t drink coffee. Just tea.”
“Oh,” she said. “We might have some Lipton somewhere.”
I wrinkled my nose, thought longingly of my stash downstairs. Maybe when my stomach wasn’t in a knot. “No. That’s okay. I’m really not hungry.”
She tucked some hair behind her ear, eyed me. “You need to eat more, okay? This’ll be easier for everybody if you realize you need to gain some weight.”
“Great. You the weight police or something? I’m just not hungry.” I didn’t need to gain any weight. I looked fine. Too short, weight whatever. Closely cropped brown hair. Brown eyes that seemed too large for my face. Pale as bisqued stoneware. Ugly with my pointy chin. I was no one anyone noticed, which I liked.
She looked like she had a mouthful more but Adam ran in with wet curly hair, jeans, and no shirt. I looked away, glanced back. I’d never seen a male torso in the same room with me. Whoa.
“Oh, good,” he said. “You’re up. I’ll be like, five minutes, okay?” He grabbed an orange, two bagels, coffee, and a glass of milk, walked back down the hall, looking like he might drop everything.
I couldn’t help smiling a bit and then I looked back at Mrs. Grant. She smiled at me which made me nervous so I looked down at the floor. I couldn’t trust her, I wouldn’t.
She sighed. “Okay, Violet. But a normal body needs food every once in a while. Take something for lunch.”
“’Kay,” I grabbed a blueberry bagel from the Lulu’s bag, looked around for something to stick it in. The kitchen had plants in the windows, a spider plant hung from the ceiling and philodendrons sat on the sill. Tidy but not sterile; mother’s kitchen was always like a Silicon Valley Cleanroom. Wondered if maybe I should eat something, after all.
“Lunch bags,” Mrs. Grant said. “Are in the third drawer down to the right of the dishwasher.”
I opened it, grabbed a zippered plastic bag instead. Paper bags crinkled. Who wanted to draw attention to themselves with sound effects?
Adam came running back in. “You ready? I’ve still gotta grab lunch, you know?”
He pulled down peanut butter, bread and jelly and then picked out two carrots, an apple, a banana, and another orange. He made three sandwiches. I started feeling sick again, shoved the bagel in my knapsack. “So,” he said. “Nervous about a new school and everything?” Looked at me.
“Huh,” he said. “I’d be. But I get nervous all the time. Get nervous when I gotta pee. Uh, sorry. Nervous around you, too. Uh, sorry. ’Cause you’re a girl, you know? Guess you know that, huh? So anyway, I’ll show you around, okay? Introduce you to some people.”
“That’s okay. Just point me to the office when we get there.”
He shoved all that food into a brown paper bag. “Oh. Okay.”
I wasn’t a nice person. He had to realize that.
He didn’t look at me as he went into the dining room where Mrs. Grant still worked at her computer. “Happy writing,” he said.
She laughed. “Yeah, okay. Don’t forget to show Violet around.”
He looked over his shoulder at me. I focused on the tiles of the floor. Pale yellow. Pretty. “Yeah, well,” he said. “No chance of forgetting. Ready, Vi?”
I frowned up at him. “Vi?”
“You’re really not a Violet, Vi. You’re nothing like a Violet. Ready?”
Mrs. Grant smiled at me as I walked past her. “They know you’re coming. All you have to do is show up. They’ve got your class schedule all ready.”
I must’ve been terribly untrustworthy. “Thanks.” Who was I to call my life my own? It never had been, so why fuss now? Maybe she’d done it just to be helpful, to make the adjustment less painful. Maybe she wanted to set me up.
God, how had I gotten this paranoid? What was wrong with me? I tried to catch my breath.
It felt so strange to put on the same black wool pea coat in that house that wasn’t my own. It seemed as though I’d been turned into a piece of sand in an oyster’s mouth. All I wanted was to be that piece of sand, back on the sea floor. My stomach squeezed.
“Just a second.” I ran back downstairs. Puked. Brushed my teeth vigorously, washed my face. Wished fervently to be dead. Or in a novel in a castle on a cliff, painting, always painting. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, told myself to calm down.
Violet, chill out, I scolded. Just breathe.
Adam smiled as I came back up. What was his angle? Didn’t people always want something, anything, when they were being nice?
Shut up, brain.
He had a little gray Subaru. “Starts at sixty below,” he said.
“The Japanese know how to build cars.”
He beamed at me. “Exactly.”
On the drive to school, an awkward silence settled over us. I didn’t mind so much, but Adam fidgeted around. He finally turned the radio on to KWLF, the station that all the socially acceptable listened to. It played all the new stuff, in an unimaginative loop. Yeesh. Wondered what he meant when he had said I wasn’t a Violet. Obviously I wasn’t the flower but other than that there wasn’t a question.
We pulled into the lit parking lot. I started feeling really sick again looking at all the cars. So many people, all clustered to hate me. He parked and we just sat there. I wasn’t at all sure I could move.
He took a deep breath and then laughed. I jumped and he raised his shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s funny, though, ’cause now all of a sudden I’m nervous, too, you know?”
Great. He already hated me. “You don’t have to walk in with me. I’ll find the office.” I started to get out, stopped. “Thanks. For the ride.” Got out, headed for the building, tried to think of nothing at all. I was the concrete, I was the little bridge over the rocky path. I was dirt.
He called my name. I continued to walk, considered stopping. He caught up with me instead.
“That’s not what I meant, Vi. I meant that I’m nervous for you. Look at you. You’re nothing like anyone who goes here.”
“Adam. You’re not responsible for me. Just point me to the office and you won’t have to think about me until tonight.”
The corners of his mouth turned down and his shoulders sagged. I took a step backward.
“What do you want from me? What...” Stopped myself. Turned away, walked toward the school. He didn’t follow. Wondered why I felt a little disappointed when I should’ve just been relieved. Stupid, stupid traitor heart.
Inside, voices hollered, surrounded by cream walls and a sort of crooked lobby. Lots of kids dressed alike because they didn’t know who they were yet. Or maybe it was me who didn’t know. I didn’t see anybody dressed like me.
All day I felt like the invisible girl. Not exactly invisible. They all saw me but then they turned away, gazes shifting past me. Through me. They pretended I was invisible, which made it true. I didn’t see any of the Grants. Maybe they were invisible, too. The last two periods of my day were all I could think of to get me through the halls. Art. The thought of a paintbrush in my fingers, resting in the curve between thumb and forefinger, almost made me sick I wanted it so bad.
My first period class turned out to be History with a spastic teacher, totally into the gestalt of the thing. Kind of freakish but not altogether uninteresting. I sat in the back and kept reminding myself to breathe. Second period was Economy. Everybody fell asleep. The teacher, Mr. Morris, seemed to be on downers or something. There were spaces between his words. Chemistry was next. I got assigned to the weird kid all in black nobody else wanted; he smelled of fish and breathed through his mouth. Then I had Advanced Placement English which turned out to be cool. I loved English. We sat in a circle and talked about Gertrude Stein. Mrs. Greer guided the discussion but she didn’t seem to harbor a hidden agenda.
Lunch came next, so I hid in the Ladies. There was a pale, skinny, raggedy girl in the corner, crouching down. I eyeballed her, said, “Hey.”
She looked up, startled, stood up real quick. “What are you doing in here?”
“It’s a public toilet, right? Or are you sole proprietor here?”
She ran a hand through her coal black, hacked off hair. She shook her head, bit her nails.
Weird vibe city; was she a tweaker? I pulled out my blueberry bagel and held it out to her. She eyed it, obviously skeptical.
“Look,” I said. “You look like you need it more than me.”
“No need to pity me. I’m fine.” She bit at her lips, stared at the bagel.
“Well, I was just gonna throw it away, anyway.” I walked to the trash.
She yelled, “No!”
I turned back, tossed it over. She tore at the bag, took a big bite. I started to walk out.
“Hey,” she said. “Thanks.”
I left, let the door close behind me, stared at the blank wall across from me. Homeless? What was wrong? I felt really bad for her. How could I... And then I stopped myself. Stupid, stupid me for talking to people. Just shut up, Violet. Get a freaking grip.
And finally the bell rang.
Art. Thank god.
I felt my body relax as I stood in front of the art room right next to my locker. I stopped in the doorway to take it in; big room, five tables, with nooks and cubbies and shelves full of a mish-mash of still-life objects encircling it. I didn’t see anyone, felt as if I was about to tread on sacred ground. I hung there, ready to take off my shoes and bow.
“Hey,” someone said behind me.
I startled, panicked just a bit. I turned, reminded myself to chill out, but it was just another kid. He smiled and walked past me, into the room, looked back to me and frowned. “Do I know you?”
He smiled, nodded. “Brevity isn’t seen much around these parts.”
“Well, then, I’ll be the one to bring it back.”
He laughed, really laughed. I felt a smile coming on, nipped it in the bud.
“Hey.” He brightened. “I know who you are.”
My back straightened. “Yeah?”
“Don’t worry. I won’t turn you in to the authorities. The vice-principal told me I’d be getting a transfer student.”
This was the teacher? I looked at him again. Okay, I could see it; a young early-twenties. And then the thought of people talking about me made me paranoid. Had the vice-principal gone into any detail about my mother or the Grants or anything? Would all the teachers have known what happened to me? I was a tiny pixel in a vast matrix. I decided right then to be a bitch. “You’re the teacher?” In my nastiest voice. Oh, I hated myself.
“Hmmm. Do I really still look like I’m in high school?”
But there was more to it than that. I had felt myself weakening to his good-natured teasing. I studied him again. Ah, I saw it; he had reminded me of my uncle with his brown hair and high cheekbones and tall runner’s build, in jeans and a white T-shirt. I found myself not wanting to keep up my guard, looked again at his face which seemed sort of reminiscent of Uncle Stephen’s. I wanted to trust him but quickly shored up my defenses.
“Huh,” he smiled. “I’m Shay Griffin. All my students call me Shay. You can too, if you want. If not, please don’t call me Mr. Griffin. Either plain Griffin or a ‘hey, you’ should work. Okay?”
“’Kay.” Resist, resist, resist.
“And you’re, um....” He headed over to his desk, picked through the papers piled on top of it, finally chose one that looked like all the rest of them. “Here we go. Violet Knight. Transferred from Lathrop.” He looked up at me. “Didn’t I see some of your work hanging in one of the coffee shops over the summer?” I nodded. McGafferty’s, some sketches I’d done of the cranes this spring. “Good stuff. This first class will be color theory, studying some artists who really worked with color a lot, exercises, that kind of stuff, but next period is advanced painting. Six students. They’re all working on their own stuff. You got anything in mind?”
I felt like maybe I could make it, after all. Like I maybe would be okay somehow, maybe even approaching some sort of semblance of normal. “Yeah. I think I could handle that.”
“Good. We’ll talk about it between classes.”
Students started to filter in, get out their sketchbooks and acrylic paints from one of the lockers lining the walls. They ignored me but I knew I wasn’t invisible, not anymore. Shay saw me.
“I’m doing a lecture today. You got a sketchbook?”
“Not on me.”
“Okay. Use that today.” He dug through the pile some more, sat down, opened one of the file cabinets behind him, flipped through it, found whatever he’d been looking for, handed it over. “A syllabus and materials list. You’ll need that sketchbook tomorrow and paints. Get the colors listed. Sit wherever you want.” He smiled again, scooped hair out of his eyes.
I turned around, chose a table in the corner that nobody had sat at yet, pulled out my notebook. Breathed in that stray bit of calm floating in the air. Shay walked over and handed me a pencil. “Thanks.” I held on to it, tight.
He sat on the edge of his desk and waited for everyone to sit down; they did so with minimum fuss. They must’ve really liked him. Everybody stayed quiet for him, too, as he talked about Josef Albers’ theory on color relativity, while we furiously took notes.
He readied us to do some exercises. Our first goal would be to make one color look like a completely different color by surrounding it with another color. Shay threw out a bunch of color chips onto a side table and had us choose from them. I waited until nobody was up there and then went. I knew I could make it work. I could see it. I loved it. I could totally use this stuff in my painting. Class got over too soon.
I sat there as everyone cleared their spots. I just tried to soak it all in. It was like the only time I could remember being affirmed about my art. Like I felt smart doing this, because I had gotten it and a lot of the other kids hadn’t yet. Like I had a right to be there. Like I could claim the title, ‘Artist.’
I was an artist. Had this been the only time I’d been taught the basic building blocks of art? It seemed as though my previous art courses were all about expressing yourself. This had been about what made art: Art. I felt blown away by the enormity of it.
Shay came over, sat across from me. “What do you think?”
“The class. Will it be of use to you?”
“Yeah. Definitely. I, uh.... Well, um....” I wanted to tell him what it meant to me but I was afraid.
Afraid of opening up, of showing myself to him. I wanted him to like me too much.
“Yes?” He waited, seemingly infinitely patient. Uncle Stephen had been that way.
I looked out the window at the bare trees and the gray sky as I spoke. “I’ve never seen it mapped out like this. Didn’t know there were guys like Albers that spent their lives investigating colors. I think I’ll totally find this stuff useful.” I felt changed somehow. New. I glanced back at him.
He smiled. “Good. Thought you might. Have you thought about the painting class? What you want to do?”
Kids started to drift in. They went to their own little areas, set out their stuff, put their paintings on the easels. They called out to Shay when they came in or smiled at him. A couple of them smiled at me too, maybe looked a bit curious.
“Yeah.” Unsure of how much I should tell him, I folded my hands on my thighs. I didn’t know how much information amounted to too much. Any information that anybody owned of me could, in some future time, become a weapon. Paranoia blackened the edges of my vision. I pushed it back, one breath at a time. Didn’t I have to tell him something or wouldn’t he kick me out of the class? I decided to be brief, took a deep slow breath.
“I’m working on a series right now. Interiors of these old abandoned buildings, textures of peeling paint. The decay of life.”
The transience of life, the destruction of what we as humans build. We build houses, we build societies, we build relationships and families. They would all fall apart, crumble. That was what I tried to describe, but I thought that would make me too vulnerable. No matter how much he looked like my uncle.
“Have you finished anything?”
“One’s finished. Two more are in process.”
“Can you bring them tomorrow?”
I thought that would be too much for me to give him. Every painting was me, a picture of my insides delicately described upon the canvas. And what did he want with my paintings, anyway? I tried to calm myself down, told myself it was for the class. I needed this class. I thought about this morning with Adam, me being rude to him. He probably wouldn’t ever speak to me again, much less give me a ride to school. Mrs. Grant had offered to drive me in first, though. Or maybe Leah. No, not Leah. Leah freaked me out.
I decided I would have to do it. “Yeah. Whatever.”
“Great. This sounds really exciting. Like you’ve put a lot of thought into it. Today, since you don’t have materials with you, I’d like you to start writing up a proposal.”
He went on to explain his philosophy of the purpose of this class as I tried to cycle down my heart rate. He explained that he saw it as an introduction into the life of an artist. We would get to do a show with an artist’s statement and would put together a workable portfolio and maybe start to make some gallery contacts. In the past other students had sold stuff, gotten into art universities all over the U.S. Mind blowing shit. If I’d been going to this school since my freshman year....
I felt like maybe good things could happen to a person. Like maybe hope existed, even for someone like me.
Adam hovered outside the art room door after class, trying to blend into the door frame. Like a six-footer ever could. I eyed him.
“Hey,” he said. “Long time.”
“Yeah, well.” I worked the combination on my locker, put on my coat, picked out the books I needed, slung my knapsack onto the good shoulder.
“How was your day?” he said.
“Oh. Huh. You want a ride home?”
I glanced at him. Persistent. Tenacious. Like sturdy moss.
Shay poked his head out the art room door. “Violet? This guy bothering you?”
Bothering seemed to be a relative term. Yes and no. Maybe more yes than no. “No,” I said. “He’s tame.”
Shay laughed. “Okay. Bring the paintings by before classes if you don’t want to lug ’em around. See ’ya.” Disappeared back into the room.
“You’re probably not rabid, okay? Sure. I’ll take a ride.”
He perked right up. “Great. What’s this about paintings? Do we need to leave early tomorrow morning?” We started down the hall. “Where did you eat lunch? I kind of looked around for you. Who do you have for history? I’ve got Bosch. He’s like, the best, you know? And then in phys-ed we played soccer out on the field. Wish I lived somewhere that we could play it all year round. Starting to sound like Dixon and Cohen, aren’t I? I’m really not rabid. Just sometimes.”
We got to the Subaru and he grinned at me as he unlocked my door. “This Saturday we’ve got a game with Eielson. You wanna come?”
I hated sports, but wanted to keep him talking. I liked the feeling of someone talking to me. “What sort of game?”
“Football. That’s what I play. Coach says I’m good enough to maybe get a scholarship to a good football college. But I don’t want to play football for the rest of my life, you know? Get messed up knees and dislocated shoulders. No scope for the imagination. Though I already have one. The dislocated shoulder. My left. Pops out every once in a while, like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. Hurts that bad, too. What I really want is to play in a band. We’ve got one, me and some friends. We call ourselves Beeker’s Box. We play some parties, do the festivals, and last year we did the prom. Mostly cover stuff, though. We’ve like, been working on our own stuff recently. Enoch does the music mostly and I do the lyrics. Weird, huh? Me a lyricist. I think I’m okay at it. I like it. I’ll get better, of course. We’re all getting really good. Like demo tape time but no editing rooms in Fairbanks. We’ve hit on the radio stations but we’ve got like no connections so I’m pretty much at wit’s end. Think we’ll just have to do it in Enoch’s basement. That’s pretty soundproofed, not very echoey. I don’t know.”
I sat amazed. He grinned at me.
“Kinda talk a lot when I’m nervous. Sorry ’bout this morning. I’m not at my best before sunrise.”
“No. It was my fault. Shouldn’t have said that stuff about you not fitting in. Shouldn’t have pushed you. You’ve just had some amazingly bad stuff happen to you and I wasn’t sensitive to that.”
I eyed him. “Did you read that somewhere?”
He grinned at me. “Naw. Got it shoved down my throat all my life from my parents. I sound like an airhead jock all the time so I don’t stick out. Wouldn’t want to make waves, you know?”
“Right.” I couldn’t even begin to fathom the working’s of Adam’s brain, so I stayed quiet.
Back at the house nobody greeted us. Mrs. Grant must’ve been running errands, or something. Adam came in for more food and then took off again for band practice. Everyone with their after school commitments. How nuclear family of them.
I sat in the room assigned to me. Was this what real people did? Real families. Splintered off into jagged pieces that fit together whenever mom and dad called? Where would I fit? Could there possibly be room for me?
Wandered upstairs to the living room, to get away from the thoughts filling my head like sand. Five steps up from the front door, the living room stretched out, big and supposedly comfortable, blue and white. Pictures of the family smiled glossily in front of the multitude of books in the bookcases that took up one whole wall. Paintings hung on the other walls. Nice paintings. One of the ocean, probably on the Pacific coast, another of a desert, possibly the Sahara, wide sand dunes stretching out of view. More despondent than I expected them to have. The last one showed a field with rolls of hay waiting to be collected. Very melancholy. Beautiful. They all were.
They had a ton of books. A lot of big travel books, classics, psychology books, books about health and writing and astronomy. Bet their decorator got them wholesale in the ‘Look Really Smart’ set. And each of the photos in special, interesting frames. One of Mr. and Mrs. Grant holding a baby each, smiling like they’d found the answer. One of them with Dixon and Cohen on their knees, elfin Leah and Adam grinning up at the babies. Yuck. Made for television sweetness. Dixon and Cohen tiny in little soccer outfits, soccer ball on the grass between them. Leah in a long blue dress next to a guy in a tux. Adam with what I guessed was his band, a guitar in his hand, the other four with their instruments. Mrs. Grant holding a book, one of her own, grinning on the couch. All of it too perfect, staged. Another family portrait that had to be just last year, a tall slender guy standing next to Adam, maybe a couple years older than him. I looked and there were some more of him, one in a leather motorcycle jacket leaning against the side of the house, gaze looking off toward the horizon. Sad boy. I’d be sad, too, with no baby pictures up. The oldest son. Must’ve been a butt ugly baby. Didn’t want to upset the tableau with imperfection. Another where he stood between Adam and Leah at the dance where Leah wore the blue dress. They all looked really happy.
Happy. Prozac, anyone?
There were only a few paperbacks in the shelf closest to the wall on the bottom. I sat in front of them; L.M. Montgomery, Robin McKinley, Jane Austen, John Grisham, Tanya Huff, Patricia McKillip, Stephen King, Maggie Steifvater, and four Anna Grant’s. I pulled those out, turned the first over in my hands. How amazing. Her very own books. Broken, Simple Choices, Pheonix Falling, and Journeys. They were apparently a hybrid fantasy/sci-fi, all on the same world. Broken and Journeys looked like the same story basically, told from two different characters’ points of view. I wanted to read them all, to maybe figure out Mrs. Grant a little. To figure out her angle. Wondered if she’d mind. Took Pheonix Falling, the first one, put the rest back. Hoped maybe she wouldn’t notice.
The phone rang and I felt like an interloper. It rang a few more times. Should I answer it? Maybe it was the state lady checking on me. I picked it up on the fifth ring.
“Uhhhh... This Janie?” Guys’ voice, low and warm.
“No, wait. Is Adam there? Anybody?”
“Just us sticks.”
“I mean anybody in the family.”
Nice. “Nope. Wanna leave a message?”
“Who is this?”
“Huh. Okay. Tell whoever comes home first that Ivan called about Thanksgiving.”
“Sometime in November, right? Clear it up for you?”
“You’re Violet. I’m so sorry. I forgot. I’m Ivan.”
“Said that, bucko. Got the message. ’Bye.”
I hung up. Boring conversation anyway. Band member? Leah’s boyfriend?
The front door opened and I got nervous. I did, however, have a right to be there. I was supposed to be here. I had no where else to go. So I tried to breathe, felt my shoulders begin to hunch.
“Hello? Anybody home?” Mrs. Grant. I stared at her book in my hand. Crap.
“Up here.” Put the book behind my back.
She came up, cloth grocery bag pulling down her right side. She smiled. “Hi, Violet. Dixon begged for sloppy joes tonight. Is that okay?” Eyed the arm tucked up behind me and frowned.
I shrugged. “Whatever. Ivan just called. About Thanksgiving. Wanted me to give the message to whoever came home first. That’s you. So I’ll go downstairs and do homework.” I headed for the horizon, tried to hide the stupid book but it just didn’t work that well.
“What are you hiding?”
“Valid question. I’d rather not say.” Too embarrassing.
She looked obstinate, the bag looked heavy and she didn’t seem to want to move so I pulled it out. She kind of smiled a little, shook her head.
“Why were you hiding that?”
“Didn’t know if it would be okay.”
She laughed. “Violet. You can read anything in this house. The living room, kitchen, study, and bathrooms are public domain. Use what you want. Eat whatever you want. Bedrooms are private. I won’t go into yours without asking, either, okay? I’m pleased that you’d want to read one of my books. I’m sorry you felt like you needed to hide that from me. Don’t be embarrassed.”
“’Kay.” There was no frame of reference for me here. I had found myself on another planet, a totally different society. I was an alien. I felt sick.
“About Ivan. He’s the son away at college. So you’ll meet him at Thanksgiving, I hope. If he can get away. I think I’ll fall apart if he can’t come home. I miss him so much.”
“Oh.” I knew I was gonna throw up.
“Violet? Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Ran for the stairs, barely made it to my bathroom. All I could do was retch, though. I hadn’t actually eaten much since I’d gone into the hospital. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt hungry or when the thought of eating something didn’t make me ill. The bagel from that morning had gone to that kid who’d looked like she needed it way more than me. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and stared at it in the mirror, pasty and tight. A face of wax. A face like a lie. I retched again, brushed my teeth.
A knock on the door shook me from my downward spiral. “Violet? You okay?”
I picked up her book where I’d dropped it, took a deep breath, tried to pull myself together, and opened the door. She stood with her hand on her stomach, lines between her eyes.
“Are you all right?”
“Fine.” I folded my arms across my middle.
She paused. “Are you sick?”
“Naw. Just tired or stressed or something.”
“How long have you been nauseous?” She placed the hand that had been on her stomach into a jeans pocket, took a couple steps back. I stepped back, too.
“This the inquisition?”
One side of her mouth smiled, like a question mark or a comma. “I’m responsible for your well being, Violet. If you’re nauseous, we can do something about it.”
“I’m fine, now.”
“So you threw up?” She tucked a bit of hair behind her ear, took another step back. Was she pretending she gave me room by doing that, somehow?
“Geez, yeah. Okay? Is that what you wanted to hear? I puked, okay? Let it go.”
“How long have you been throwing up?”
My head felt like a tunnel, like I was falling further and further away from her. I felt like I was swirling alone in some cosmic vortex of doom. I was afraid of her power over me. She’d be so angry if I told her I hadn’t been eating, couldn’t stand the feel of food in my mouth, that I’d been throwing up a lot. But I couldn’t exactly lie to her, could I?
Did I even want to? “Few times last night. This morning. At the hospital some. I’ve always had a weak stomach. Nothing new, okay? I’m fine.”
“Have you been able to keep anything down? How long since you’ve eaten last?”
I managed to squeeze out of the bathroom into the hallway, walked towards the stairs. “It doesn’t matter. I’m fine. I’ll have some saltines. Got any soda?” I tried to play it down, tried to be calm.
We walked upstairs together. I felt so strange. Hollow. She walked behind me and I kept expecting her to push me or trip me or something but we made it okay. I looked behind me and she had a frown settling in. I felt a slap coming on but nothing happened. What was she thinking? When was she going to get me?
In the kitchen she pulled down the crackers and a Sprite. Nothing. No pushes, no punches. Mother sometimes got me in the stomach when I was sick so I kept waiting for one in the gut. Nothing.
We sat at the table and she watched me, I guess to make sure I ate. So I chewed and swallowed, ran immediately for the upstairs bathroom, puked, rinsed out my mouth, splashed water on the back of my neck.
I rested my elbows on the sides of the sink, stared down at the cold white porcelain. I felt shaky, weak, at the end of whatever strength that had kept me going since I woke up in the hospital, memories of heat and fire and pain so intense I could barely breathe from the memory of it. Alone, that’s what I was, no matter what the state said. I straightened up. I had to keep going, didn’t I?
I walked back slowly, quietly. When I stepped around the corner I saw Mrs. Grant leaning on the table, shoulders slumped, head down. I felt that way a lot. I pulled the chair out, opened the soda. She straightened up, smiled her half smile. I took a sip, focused on the cherry wood table top, cool and gorgeous. It stayed down so I tried it again. That one stayed down with the first.
She got up, started dinner, put groceries away. I flipped through her book, nervous with her moving around in there, but nothing happened. She didn’t push my chair out from under me. She didn’t yell at me for how stupid and weak I was. I studied her as she did those homey little tasks. She had a slim ballerina build, tiny but somehow impossibly strong. Her hair was a glossy blue-black, cut in a swingy blunt shape that brushed her jaw on one side and reached just above her ear on the other. She wore huge round hoops and a small silver leaf on a chain at her neck, khakis, a long sleeve indigo tee, and a pink wrap-around sweater. Oatmeal wool socks. I managed to get the whole can down, so I tried another cracker. It stayed put, too.
I remembered sometime when I was a lot younger, at Uncle Steven’s. I got sick from the heat in New Mexico. He brought me crackers and lime Jell-O, moved all the fans into my room. He brought me clear sodas with straws in them. Mother yelled at him for fussing over me. He just grinned at me and did it anyway. We left early that visit. I used to think it was because I was so sick but after that he was more careful about being nice to me, trying to do so only when she wasn’t in the room. She didn’t like him being nice to me. I could never do anything right, never did enough for her to like me.
I’d never been good enough. I started to feel sick. I probably shouldn’t have tried for the cracker again. I got up to make a run for the bathroom but instead the room went fuzzy and faraway.
I heard Mrs. Grant calling my name, but I was miles away.