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May 20, 2024

Transitions 16

By Sand Pilarski

Sixteen: Rachel, and More Rachel

Tuesday morning, by the time I was downstairs, Aunt Andersol was once again gone, and Marca was nowhere to be found. Tuesdays we usually took the bus to school, if the weather was all right; Monday-Wednesday-Fridays were the days that Mom and Bodie drove us all in and dropped us off. With the bus running in reverse order from departure from the school, I had my prime choice of seating behind the driver. Three stops along, Rachel Owen's blue eyes lit as she saw me. "Owen!" she said, enthusiastically.

"Hiya," I said, waving my right hand tentatively. Here's where she finds a seat near the back of the bus, I thought.

"May I sit here with you?" she asked. "Please, if you'd rather not share a seat, I can find another place. I can understand that."

All my worries about my family pinwheeled into a tiny, insignificant dot. "Sit, sit," I said to her. "What are neighbors for?"

Her grin nearly stopped my heart, and I hitched myself closer to the window to make more room for her, and so that I would not be fried to a crisp by the electricity of her if she touched me.

The morning was deep in fog, and her hair was curling in dark, glistening corkscrews. I tried not to look, and restrained my hands from reaching for them. My sisters' hair curled in the damp; that is , Oesha's and Kelsa's, but Oesha's hair was like a mass of waves, and Kelsa's was like a crinkled, used mop. "How are you today?" she asked, as the bus lurched on to the next stop.

"Today is a day like many another," I said, trying not to sound as though I had rehearsed that line over and over again through the night. "Not too cold, not too wet, not too loaded with peril."

She laughed. "I love it. 'Not too loaded with peril.' I have to remember that one and repeat it to myself when I get ready for school, because this place scares me to death."

"Why?" I asked her, curious.

"This is the West Coast," she said, whispering. "New York City likes to think it's in control, but it isn't. The West Coast is where everything comes from. I feel like I'm a hick."

"Ah, feh, don't worry about it. We all do unless we're from Los Angeles or San Diego or San Francisco. But really, even those people are trying to live up to a freaky kind of fashion standard. My mother and my aunts buy issues of Vogue to look at over glasses of wine and laugh themselves senseless."

"Well, how do you get over feeling like a hick?" she asked.

"I do my homework and my chores at the house, and practice my fencing between lessons," I said. "I don't have a lot of time left over to worry about being anything." It was sort of true.

"Fencing? Oh my god, you fence, with swords?" she was completely distracted, and I was very glad for my hobby.

"$Eacute;pée, actually," I informed her. "Swords are for blades, épées are for points."

Michel and Kelsa appeared in the seat behind us, having been too nosy to ride the route in seats in the back. "He's good," interjected Michel. "He stabs his instructor regularly."

"My younger brother and sister, Michel and Kelsa," I introduced. "This is Rachel Owen."

They all shook hands.

"Now shut up and please go away," I said to the younger twins.

"Fine, shithead," said Michel. "Be that way."

Kelsa cackled and scurried to the back seat they'd held before.

"Why'd you send them away?" Rachel asked. "They're cute!"

"They are everywhere I am except when we are at school. This is my idea of vacation," I replied, looking out the window.

"You're lucky," she said. "I don't have any brothers or sisters. I wish I did."

The bottom of the bus seat seemed to fall out from under me. She was a singleton, too. I reined in my skittering heart, and said, in a serious voice, "I shall speak to my mother this evening about renting them to you."

"That's a deal, then. I'll let my mother know tonight, and your mother can fax over the rental agreement tomorrow morning."

"I can hardly wait."

When she spoke again, I had the vain hope that she was actually pursuing my acquaintance. "So," she said, once again pronouncing the O in a slightly drawn out way, and as though she was gathering the sound in the front of her mouth, "how did you decide on fencing as a hobby? Is it hard to do?"

"It was my Aunt Sully's idea, to tell the truth, when she saw how big my feet were getting about a year ago. My dad was tall, so I'm likely to be tall, too. And it's cool -- it's not just about blades, it's about footwork and strategy!"

"Where do you take lessons?" she asked.

Enthusiasm had taken me in its flow for a while, but my conversation slammed into a solid wall. Where do I take lessons? Why in the abandoned ballroom in the mansion, of course. I'm a rich kid, after all, where else would I practice? And then, the nice kid on the bus with the eccentric hobby would become the rich boy at the end of the bus route, and the interest in his hobby would become a desire to be associated with his wealth. I cleared my throat to gain a few seconds of time, and then was inspired. "My aunt arranged for a private tutor," I said, and that was completely true. When my aunt had broached the subject with my mother, Mom had just waved a hand and said, "Great! Have Redell set it up." And so Aunt Sully had done, after spending some time picking out a reputable instructor.

"Wow, cool aunt!"

"She is," I grinned, glad to change the subject. "She's got a German shepherd as big as a horse, and cooks like a dream come true. She taught us how to camp out, and how to paint, and how to make a garden. She's terrific."

"Does she live with you?"

"No, we all wish she did, but she lives down past Stockton, in Riverton -- oh, uh, out in the Central Valley, where it's hot most of the year. Totally different climate from here."

The school was in sight, much to my surprise, and the bus, which had filled along the route though I had not noticed, was now emptying.

Rachel stood, and blocked my way, with one hand on the bar behind the driver's seat and the other on the back of the bench we had shared. "Owen, can I share a seat with you on the way home? Please?"

I was stunned, but remembered how new she was to the school. "Sure," I said, patting her hand as I stood. "But if you find a friend today you'd rather sit with and get to know, that's okay. Have a great day at classes!" She flashed her white grin at me and then sped away, leaving me the last kid on the bus.

The driver turned to me, pursed her lips, and hummed, "Mmmm-hmmm" in a subtly suggestive way.

She saw me grin before I could turn away.

* * *

"Mr. Owen, do you have the assignment to hand in or not?" the English teacher asked, breaking me out of my replay of the bus conversation. I scuffled the papers out of my notebook and handed them forward. The rest of the classroom muttered and giggled.

In gym class, watching the other boys toss the basketball back and forth, I forgot that I was just outside the striking circle and Danny Biramandi passed the ball to me, bouncing it off the side of my face. "Owen!" shouted the coach, "wake up!"

Study hall had been a waste; by the end of the day, I could not find it in my heart to give half a shit about California History; I took not one note, and only hoped that the next test would be from the text and not from our teacher's droning monologue. He'd been saying something about the Missions and how the great earthquake had leveled so many of them, or something like that. Whether it was the same earthquake that had wrecked San Francisco, I wasn't sure, but there were historical earthquakes trashing everyone. I couldn't muster a good grade with that statement, so I knew I had to do some studying before the next test.

* * *

I had no sooner cleared the school building that afternoon when Marca piled into me, grabbed me by the zippered lapels of my sweatshirt, and hauled me into close talking range. "She did it again!"

"Who?" I asked, disoriented. "What?"

"Aunt Andersol, dumbass! She was at the doctor's again this morning! I rode along in the truck like the last time!"

"You're insane," I told her, sincerely.

"Nuts," she said. "Why would a woman go to an OB/GYN two weeks in a row?"

"I don't know," I said, batting her hands off my sweat shirt. "I'm not a woman, last time I checked."

"Because something is wrong, dickweed," she hissed at me. "Aunt Andersol's sick."

"You don't know that," I said to her, backing away. "Unless you managed to get the doctor's report somehow."

"Owen, are you okay?" cried Rachel's voice behind my elbow.

My upper torso felt like it hit the ground. "Yes," I said. "Rachel Owen, please meet my eldest sister, Marca."

"You're Rachel? Pleased to meet you." She held out her hand for a shake. "Don't mess with my brother's head, got it?"

Marca turned and trotted off to soccer practice.

Rachel shook her right hand to ease Marca's crunch. "Uhh ..."

"Sorry," I said. "She's a bit overprotective and ... maybe lightweight champion of boxing if she cared to go out for it."

"She had you by the jacket like she was going to beat you!"

"That's life in a big family," I told her. "At least ours. Marca was born that way, that's her way of catching up on family news." I hitched at my sweatshirt to make it hang more tidily. "Nothing to speak of, but how was your day? Are you settling in?"

She looked back at me as she climbed the bus steps, and swung into the seat behind the driver. "It was all right." She looked at her feet, and I understood that she was allowing me the choice to go sit somewhere else.

"Am I still sitting here?" I asked, indicating the other half of the seat.

She blushed, a pretty sight, very encouraging, and said, "Please!"

I did, and watched the bus driver smile in her mirror. "Only 'All right?' Settling in, I mean."

"Ah, it's going to take a while. The girls all giggle at my accent, and the boys all eye me up and down to see if I'm a mark. They don't know if I'm open season or someone they ought to respect. Mom says it's just going to take months, and she told me to get ready for some snubs. Rochester is bigger, but Port Laughton ... " she stopped, realizing that I was part of Port Laughton, too.

"Port Laughton is stuck-up as hell," I said, sotto voce. "That's one of the reasons my parents sent us all to stay with Aunt Sully in Riverton sometimes, so we could see dairies and orchards and little farmhouses, and things. Don't tell anyone, but some of that stuff is cool."

Rachel laughed, my paycheck for the day. "Don't you ever go to your Aunt Sully's anymore?"

"No," I said. "We've become too busy with extra-curricular activities, so she just comes to visit us. But last summer, I spent a month there, just digging in her garden, cooking, and painting and writing, and talking to her when she got home from work."

"What did you do while she was at work?"

Confused, I repeated, "Cooking, painting, writing ... "

"No television?" asked Rachel.

I shook my head. "She has a TV, but no cable. She just uses the TV for DVD's."

"What did your brothers and sisters do?"

"They weren't there, just me. It was my time, for myself."

"There's Tennyson, I can start counting down, and so can you. Was that a punishment or a prize?"

"A prize. A month with my aunt was like winning a lottery."

"God. A month with one of my aunts would be like being sentenced to Hell."

"Why?"

"Kids fighting, freaky goth cousins, divorces, nutcase neighbors -- you name it, they got it. Crap, there's my Lucky Seven. See you tomorrow, Owen."

As she exited the bus, I only recalled that she had said "Crap" when she stood and left the bus. Leaving my company had made her say "Crap."

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-06-01
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