Fourteen: A Likely Story
My mother and step-father stared at me as though I had suddenly grown fur and fangs. Michel and Kelsa had already gone back to their DVD; for them it was only a matter of changing rooms. Mother bit her upper lip with her lower teeth. "It won't bother you being alone on that floor?"
I shook my head.
"Let me think about it, Owen."
That was even more positive a response than I thought I would get, so I said, "Okay," and went to the front parlor to retrieve the book I'd left there yesterday. As I left the room, I heard Uncle Bodie ask my mother, "Just where the hell do you think my sister is?"
It's about time you asked that, I thought. And just about that time, Uncle's cell phone rang -- Aunt Andersol! I could tell by his words that their uncanny communication was working again.
"You're okay? What? Okay, fine, keep your phone on, would you? Why don't you tell us these things in advance so that we don't worry? Yeah, yeah. Have a good time ... see you Monday." Having stopped outside the door, I heard him click his phone shut and continue, "She's hooked up with some classmates and they decided to drive to the snow. They're in Sonora now and looking for a lodge higher up in the mountains. Idiots. They're going to skip the congestion on the road Sunday evening and drive back Monday morning. She's got chains for the truck, she should be fine."
Fine that she took off before greeting Aunt Sully, fine that she didn't leave a destination for the household, fine that she would be gone for the weekend. Right. Something was up, but the adult members of the household were not all that curious.
Maybe that was something that just occurred when you got to be an adult. No one ran around screaming if Aunt Sully wanted a weekend with Uncle John off by themselves, and certainly it was no big deal when my mother and Uncle Bodie had a long recess from us kids. Though it was very unusual for Aunt Andersol, it wasn't like she had run off to join a circus or anything. They were probably all glad that she wasn't still eebing around throwing up.
But why would she go off partying if she was still barfing? Or had she not shared with the family that she was done being sick? She had still looked kind of sick when she climbed the stairs the last time I saw her.
I supposed, at that time, that adults were more in tune with their bodies and health that they knew when they were ready to be normal again. After all, we kids were always surprised when we turned up sick. It could be the middle of the night, and wham, we were sick, one or the other of us. We would creep from our beds to our parents' room and whimper until noticed. Well, Michel and Kelsa still did. I would merely stand at the door and croak and ask for assistance. Marca and Oesha would simply pick up the house phone and order warm chicken broth or tea, and let the staff inform the rest of the family where they were or why they weren't where they were supposed to be.
But Aunt Andersol?
For the rest of the weekend, Aunt Sully and I (and everyone else) were forbidden to explore the third floor and attic. We ate all of the freezer pizzas Uncle Bodie had bought, an entire two-foot summer sausage, two jars of olives, two heads of lettuce and a big bag of spinach in salads, a bag of oranges, sandwiches without measure, and all of the leftover soup after Aunt Sully "fixed it." We felt very wicked and rule-less, and waved triumphantly at Aunt Sully as she drove away on Sunday evening, Gabe hanging his head out the window, panting as the continuing rain pelted his face.
I was glad to see that; a subdued Gabe was worrisome. But he'd barked and stomped at a squirrel before Mass that morning, roaring at the little creature with a voice loud enough to make our lungs vibrate in our chests. Through the afternoon, he slept, hogging the heat by the fireplace. He was just getting older, I reasoned, and tired out more quickly than he used to.
On Sunday night, we -- The Five -- don't think we didn't know our mother and family referred to us that way -- met in the nursery again. "She has her books with her this time," Kelsa reported. "So she's studying."
"Probably going to classes before she ever gets home," Marca said. "We need to keep close to the olders and find out what's happening. Do you think Aunt Andersol has a boyfriend?"
"Maybe she had a boyfriend, and he dumped her, and that's why she's been so sick and withdrawn," Oesha offered. "That would make sense. She's suffering from a broken heart, and this weekend she saw a chance to have some fun and get away from her sadness."
Michel and Kelsa alternated looking at each other with skepticism and looking at Oesha like she was a lame freak show, but I had to admit that Oesha's hypothesis was about the best explanation we had to the present.
"I'll be in the parlor by the front door," I said. "Kel, tomorrow around four, would you listen for Aunt Andersol upstairs?"
Marca grimaced. "I'll be at soccer practice until six. I want you guys to tell me what you find out, okay?"
"Or we shall all be thumped roundly, yes, I got that, no need to mention it," I said with studied disdain.
"Owen, you're a turd in a small bowl. You just think you're big shit," she said.
"Whereas, you are definitely, my dear sister, a very big turd. In whatever bowl you choose," I replied smoothly.
Kelsa clapped both her hands over her mouth, Michel sucked in his cheeks in an exaggerated way, and Oesha looked at the floor to let her long curling hair hide her face.
Marca's face seemed to turn darker and bulge a bit. Her eyebrows lowered, and for a moment, I feared for my health. Then she burst out with a brief gust of laughter. "You're going to pay for that," she said. "Take that as a promise of The Turd Grande." She stood and left, to the applause of our laughter. I could see her smiling at the accolade, but still resolved to keep out of her way for a while.
I'm not sure why I felt so compelled to torment her, when it was so detrimental to my health, but I had always found exceptional rewards spiritually when I did. That warm and fuzzy feeling, the sense of fullness, the elevation of my heart -- yes, baiting Marca and succeeding in stirring her ire always seemed worthwhile, as well as irresistible.
Rain continued throughout the day on Monday, though not hard enough to keep the school parking lot flooded. The only noteworthy event of the day was unfurling my umbrella as I left the school building and finding a girl I didn't know nearby, a girl with nearly coal-black hair and eyes as blue as a sky through a break in the fog. She was pretty. She was getting wet. My mouth said, ahead of my brain, "Here, take my umbrella, please."
"Oh, that's okay, my bus is just over there, I think. The Number Four bus."
"That's mine, too. Shall we share?"
She looked at me as though I was a mythical creature, a centaur perhaps, or a foreign student fluent in the English language. She laughed a little, a charming sound, and said, "Okay."
As we walked through the rain, I mentioned that I had not seen her before.
"Just moved here, from Rochester, New York. We'd be probably have seen snow by now."
I folded my umbrella as we got to the bus door, shaking it, and furling it neatly.
"Thanks for sharing your umbrella, very much."
Although she'd climbed the stairs of the bus first, she hesitated at finding a seat. I claimed the seat behind the driver with long habit, and the girl surprised me.
"May I sit here, or were you saving this seat for someone else?"
"No," I rather stammered. "Please, feel free." I thought to myself that I sounded like a stuck-up moron. Shouldn't I have just patted the cushion to my right and said, Come on, have a seat!
She sat down and extended a right hand. "I'm Rachel Owen, by the way."
I shook her hand, but in the lightning bolt preceding our touch, I thought to be someone other than who I was, in order to be who I was and not just the subsidiary of a name. Reich-Ambris was a flag hoisted with multiple dollar signs; I knew I could adopt a pseudonym, as my goal in life was to be a writer. "My name is Owen, too, first name, though. Owen Smith," I told her, cursing myself for coming up with such a dull alias.
"Jeeze, that's a wild coincidence! Are you serious?" she asked peering at my face.
The face that was rapidly turning bright red, judging from its heat. I cleared my throat. "Pleased to meet you, Rachel. I am always serious. In fact, "Serious" is my middle name. Owen Serious Smith." Just then, a soggy pair of socks rolled into a ball hit the back of my head and bounced into Rachel's lap. "Eeeech!" she squeaked, shaking them from her skirt onto the floor.
I looked back and saw Michel standing on his bus seat, laughing like a hyena at a fresh kill. "I'm sorry," I said to Rachel. "That was the doing of my disgusting little brother." A pair of red socks hit me and bounced off also. "And my equally disgusting little sister." A third pair caromed off the driver's seat in front of us, and I rose to see Oesha nearly lying on her seat, her bare feet in the aisle, her arms wrapped across her middle as she hooted laughter. "And my older sister, who has shown better sense before today." Rachel grabbed her hair with her arms as balls of socks began pelting us from all over the bus. "I'm not related to any of these other socks, welcome to California."
The bus driver turned around when a pair of heavy athletic socks hit the rear view mirror. "Knock it off, NOW, or you can all walk home!" she bellowed.
The weather changed, and the shower of socks passed. Rachel cautiously lowered her arms from her hair. "Does it rain like that every day on this bus?"
"No," I said honestly. "Your presence near my unworthy personality has been as a cropduster assigned to seed the very clouds."
She laughed. "Do your brother and sisters talk like you do, too?"
She pronounced "too" as though it were "toooo", somehow spoken at the front of her mouth. Simply charming. "No. They are troglodytes, I assure you."
She threw her head back and laughed, a whole-hearted sound. Her teeth were even, and very white. Her eyelashes were black as her hair. She wiped her eyes, and still smiling, began studying the stops the bus made.
Of course, she was new here. She might not be sure of when her stop was coming up. "Where's your stop?" I asked her.
"Mariposa on Reich Road," she said. "Almost in the woods outside of town."
That was three stops before mine, in a housing development that had taken the place of a dairy farm when I was nine. I nodded. "I know the stop, I'll remind you if you don't recognize it."
Frowning, she looked at me more closely. "Thank you, Owen. Are you a genius or something?"
I looked at the floor for a moment, my face reddening again. "No. I don't think so." I sat up again. "You said you just moved here, and then you were studying the street signs. Made me think you might be as worried about stops as I was when I first started riding the bus."
She nodded. "You're right. You're right, right on. This is my first day at this school, and I don't want to end up calling home from down town, saying, 'Mom, help, I forgot where I got on the bus this morning.' Hey, I didn't see you on the bus this morning, I'm sure."
"Mom and my step-father usually drop us off at school in the morning on their way to work. Together time, you know. We don't get to throw socks at them, though." I changed the subject, pointing out the windows of the bus to the right. "See that sign for the Tennyson Estates?"
"After Tennyson, your stop is the Lucky Seven. Tennyson is ten stops out from where we live."
We counted another stop, Nine, and then Eight, and there was the Lucky Seven, Mariposa and Reich. As the bus stopped, we saw a woman in a raincoat with a large umbrella waiting, a woman with dark, dark hair. "Bye, Owen," Rachel called as she bounced out of the bus to the woman with the umbrella.
Michel slid into her vacated seat with so much speed he slid into me. "Get off me!" I snarled, shoving him.
"Whoa, Owen, she's hot! Who is she?" he asked.
"Eleanor Roosevelt," I said to him in irritation. "She's a senior."
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