Nineteen: Deception Revealed
School was hardly the place that I wanted to be the next day, but I had no choice. Uncle Bodie was up and around when we breakfasted, making conversation about Mother having lined up six grad students to assist in the Attic Dig, and about some kind of building inspector coming by in a few weeks to inspect the flooring for safety. Our lack of smiles told him what was on our minds. Kelsa's eyes were puffy from crying, though Michel's were only reddish. "Hang in there as best you can. You just have to make it through today, and then you have more than a week off. Sully will be here by Thursday. She'll want to spend time with you -- it'll help her to not feel alone. Your mother is taking Thursday and Friday off, too, so we're going to be having early dinners." He lowered his voice. "Including a turkey. We've convinced Chef to make stuffing the same way your Aunt Sully makes it."
Marca's head came up from her slouch like a goat's head in the barn when it hears the grain bin open. (Not that I've ever seen that, but that would be a ear-pricked motion of interest, wouldn't it?) "Really?" she whispered.
Uncle Bodie nodded gravely. "We told him it would be 'comfort food.'"
"Well, I'll feel more comfortable eating that than the gross stuff he usually comes up with. He always puts walnuts in the stuffing, and it makes me want to gag. Owen told me when we were six that the crunchy stuff was pillbugs. I didn't even get halfway to the hall before I threw up."
"My intervention has prevented you from being a habitual bug-eater," I said. "For that alone you should thank me the rest of your life." I used to stare meaningfully at her during some meals, getting her attention, and then rapidly masticating crunchy food with my lips pulled back. She would be both revolted and enraged, and if I played my innocent look right, I was able to get away without being reprimanded. The tease lasted only long enough for her boldness to grow more fully. If I were to try that stunt now, I'd be wearing her plate and all that was on it in a split second.
Our step-father's talk had a good effect, though. We were able to pack away our grief for the time being. When we got to the Lucky Seven bus stop, I could manage to smile at Rachel and say "Good morning" with sincerity.
She swung into the seat beside me, smiling back, and the world came right for a while. "Owen," she asked, blushing, "would you be able to come to have dinner with us some time over fall break?"
My heart fell out of my ribcage and bounced on the floor. "I don't know, Rachel, I'm sorry. I don't know what all my family has planned. My Aunt Sully is coming to visit, and she's going to need us all around her. Her big dog I told you about? He died yesterday."
"Oh, no!" she cried. "That really sucks!"
"Yeah," I agreed. "We're all upset about it. But thanks for the offer of dinner, that's very kind. Maybe another time?"
"Sure," she beamed. "Or maybe we can do a Saturday brunch some time and get Mom to drive us down town. But that's old hat to you, isn't it?"
"If indeed it is my old hat, then I should be best suited to explain all its seams and feathers."
Rachel giggled. "You're a riot, you know that?"
"My siblings call me other things, but I have no intention of relating their descriptions."
She laughed again, and then was quiet, watching the streets flow past. Just before we got to the school, she asked, "Do you think your aunt will get another dog? My grandmother says that if your dog dies, the best thing is to go out and get a new puppy as soon as possible -- that the best remedy for death is new life."
"I don't know what she'll do. Gabe was with her for eleven years. He was such a -- a personality -- that I can't imagine replacing him."
"I've never had a dog, so I don't know," she said. "But I'd bet her house feels really empty right now."
"Yeah, and now she'll have to make sure all her windows are locked."
We bade each other goodbye in the front hall of the school and waded into our personal swamps of mediocrity.
I realize that to be an unfair statement. I found my classes to be mired in mediocrity (except for history, for which I had little interest, preferring to make up my own versions of it, and so having to struggle with it) but Rachel might well enjoy school. Certainly Michel and Kelsa found school pleasant; but they had been heavily oppressed when we went to the private school in Port Laughton, and here at the public school, their natural lightheartedness gained them approval from their cohort. And Marca found her niche in soccer, and lived for the Wednesday evening spring games. Oesha was mysterious to her classmates, giving nothing away about her life, refusing to rise to challenges, being a model 'B' student, and sailing along with a perfect complexion and a figure all of her peers admired. So I guess it was just me who was bored and irritated with the repetition and review of what I already knew.
In each class, I pondered how the teacher would react if I had shown up with Gabe beside me. He would have enjoyed school, too, the sensory input, the opportunity to bark at people who were behaving inappropriately, the attention. He would have been smiling, his tongue hanging out.
By the end of the school day, I was exhausted, and wanted nothing more than home, food, and bed.
The sight of Rachel, leaning against the wall, waiting for me, was like a warming salve on an aching muscle.
She seemed in a serious mood, however, and I waited to hear what her day had been like until we were on the bus. She motioned me to sit by the window, and then grasped the back of the seat with her left hand, and the bar by the driver with her right, barring my egress.
"You lied to me," she said, as the bus pulled out.
I knew that I had, so I was quiet to see what she had objected to.
"You told me your last name was 'Smith'."
"Yes, I did. I told you my name was 'Owen Serious Smith'."
"Why? Why didn't you tell me your real name?" she whispered angrily, sitting down.
She was so pretty in her outrage. "I didn't want you to make friends with my name before you made friends with me."
"You think a lie is a way to make friends?"
I shook my head. I had no energy left to spar with her. "Sorry."
She turned her back on me for a while. Then she swiveled back and said, "Sara Hower got in my shit first thing this morning, saying, 'Wow, new girl heads straight for the money.' I said I didn't know what she was talking about. Helen Capstan chimed right in with her, 'Sucking up to the big bucks, eh, chickie?'
"I said, 'Are you talking about Owen Smith?'"
"They laughed at me. 'No, we're talking about Owen Owns Half the World Reich-Ambris, don't try to pretend you didn't know who he was!' But I didn't know who you were, and you lied to me, Owen."
"I'm sorry," I said again.
"They were saying I was a damned gold-digger, and I'm not."
"No, I don't think you are -- you know who I am without the name attached. But I did lie to you. That I admit. I wanted to believe you could be friends with me even if you didn't know the name."
"I'm not that kind of person, Owen."
I smiled at her weakly. "Sounds like you aren't. And now that your classmates have told you I own half the world, what would you like?"
"Jamaica," she said. "I want Jamaica and a guarantee of good weather there."
"When I come of age, you've got it," I said. "Provided you're still the same friend then as now, and that Jamaica is agreeable to a takeover. The good weather is a given, except for acts of God during the hurricane season."
Her mouth kind of crumpled, and I realized she was trying not to cry. "Rachel," I said still again, "I'm sorry. You're so -- " I hesitated, whacked suddenly by what I almost said. I was going to say, "You're so pretty" but wasn't that exactly the kind of thing that was making her mad at me? I lied to her because she was so pretty that I wanted to make her acquaintance at any cost. Dazzled by her blue eyes, I had been ready to deny my family and its heritage just to have her sit beside me on the bus. Had she been homely, would I have bothered about her?
"I'm so -- what?" she said, her eyes filling.
Had I not had three sisters, I might have surmised that she knew she was pretty, and was just fishing for compliments. But Marca, Oesha, and Kelsa all worried in front of mirrors, freaking out about pimples if they appeared, lamenting their bodies and faces even though they had to know they were attractive. Rachel was probably no different. I'm sure she knew she was pretty, but didn't know she was pretty, and this wasn't the time to admit that I was bowled over by her prettiness into being an asshole. And I was running out of time. In another split-second, she would be supplying her own answers to her question. "You're so ... honest. You're different. You're up-front ... "
"I'm a rube from the sticks, is what you're saying. It doesn't matter that we lived in a city, it wasn't a city that knows what everyone in this place all seem to know."
We were quiet for a while, and Tennyson began its swift countdown. I leaned a little closer to her and murmured, "I've had on good authority that Rochester was built by termites and only later inhabited by humans, is it true?"
She frowned and tried not to smile. "You're getting Rochester mixed up with Jamestown, in Virginia. That's why they called it a 'colony.'"
I clapped my hand to my forehead. "No wonder I get lackluster grades in History!"
"I'm still mad, Owen, just so you know," she said, rising to exit the bus at her stop.
"Okay," I said, not having any witty pearls to toss after her. Shit, I thought. Damned if I do, and damned if I don't. I'm not sure if that was the first time I really understood that saying, but it was the first time I remembered feeling it fit like a glove. Had I introduced myself as the rich kid from the mansion up the road, Rachel most probably would have behaved very differently toward me, whether she believed she would or not. I liked her, and how she made friends with me. So I'd made a real friend by concealing my identity, and probably lost her, by having concealed my identity. Crap, I'm starting to identify with Clark Kent. How lame is that?