Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gloaming: 4


The woman who answered my pounding on the door was tall and thin, all pale skin and a dark dress, with eyes like a fish and hair done up in a tight bow. The sort of person you’d call striking more than pretty, like trees frozen after an ice storm.
        “Can I help you?” she said, each word cold and clipped.
        “Is Adrian here?” I said, as nicely as I could manage.
        “Ah. His friend, hmm?” she said, saying the world as though it was a kind of unpleasant disease.
        “And your name is?”
        “Katie,” I said. I waited, but she didn’t offer hers. “Can I talk to him?” I finally added.
        “Wait.” She closed the door, not quite slamming it, and I waited on their front porch, staring about at the yard. It was large, and almost devoid of lawn. Just about every kind of tree I could recall filled it, with various bushes and flowers and some moss that was apparently grass. I wondered if anyone complained that the Holmes’s didn’t mow their lawn, but somehow doubted it. Adrian’s mom looked like sort who’d chew up and spit out the neigbhourhood beautification committee.
        She opened the door again three minutes later. “Upstairs, first door on your left,” she said curtly.
        “Thank you.” I wasn’t surprised to not get a reply and went inside. The house was all earth tones, brown and green, with actual paving stones of some kind for the stairs. The floors were wooden, and walking down the upstairs hallway felt as if I was in some tunnel under the earth. I reached the door quickly, feeling as if I was walking through some Hobbit home, and knocked.
        Adrian opened it a few moments later, suppressing a yawn. He was wearing pyjamas that looked to be a couple of sizes too small and there were dark circles under his eyes. He stared up at me in puzzlement for a few moments and rubbed some sleep from his eyes. “Hi?” he said, voice soft as ever.
        “Sorry, your mom never aid you were asleep.”
        “Stayed up late,” he said around a yawn, heading back into the room. I followed. It was plain and functional, with a bed, dresser, computer desk and nothing else. No pictures on the walls, posters, or anything at all. Everything was in shades of dull green, almost as impersonal as a hospital.
        “Your mom clears your mom daily?” I said.
        He nodded, pulling out the desk chair and sitting down as he stretched, absently rubbing his right arm where I’d squeezed it yesterday after. “You need something? Sorry, didn’t mean to sound rude --.” He yawned again.
        “Is your mom really your mother?” I asked without thinking.
        “What kind of question is that?”
        “I meant, step mother,” I said quickly.
        He shook his head. “She’s my real mom. Why?”
        “I thought she was a wicked stepmother,” I said defensively.
        “Oh.” He was quiet a few moments. “Why are you here? I mean, it’s neat having someone visit me, but not at seven a.m..”
        “Sorry, I just -- something happened to my mom.”
        “Is she okay?”
        “I don’t know. Look, I -- her hands have eyes on them!”
        “Oh.” It was a very different kind of ‘oh’. He didn’t look surprised as much as resigned and went over to the dresser. “You mind turning around? I should get real clothes on.”
        “I could wait outside,” I said.
        “Better not; Penelope hasn’t had breakfast yet.”
        “And Penelope is --?”
        He said something muffled, then: “Sorry, sister.”
        “You don’t want me to wait outside while you change because your sister hasn’t had breakfast,” I said, studying the dull green walls. “That makes no sense.”
        “Does your mom?” he said, a little sharply.
        I turned angrily at that, then froze and stared.
        Adrian had some sweats on and a t-shirt in one hand and I could see the outline of my hand where I’d squeezed his arm in anger as a deep, purple bruise around a far too thin arm. I looked down at my hand and back up, but he’d already wiggled into the shirt, blushing furiously as he did so.
        “I - I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to --.”
        “I’m fine,” he lied. “I just bruise easy.”
        I turned around again and heard a grunt as a dresser drawer opened. “Adrian?”
        “I’m fine. And I’m sorry for what I said about your mom. I’m just tired and I wasn’t thinking straight.”
        “You ever had coffee?”
        “No.” He sat down on the bed beside me and put socks on. “The world is weird enough; we don’t need stimulants on top of that.”
        I had to grin at that. “Feels weird enough today. I’d rather have you not fall asleep mid-conversation, though. Breakfast, my treat?”
        Adrian was silent a few moments, as if mulling over the intricacies of breakfast, then nodded. “Fair payment.”
        “Nothing’s free,” he said, opening the door. “For one thing, another thing has to be exchanged, yes?”
        “That doesn’t apply to just asking questions!”
        “I think it always does,” he said as I followed him down the stairs. “There’s always a cost. Like when predators attack.”
        He looked back up the stairs at me in surprise. “Prey always jump up. It’s like showing off; slows them down.”
        “It tells the predator they’re healthy,” I said.
        He nodded. “And the cost is a few lost seconds, an exchange.”
        “Listening could be cost enough,” I said dryly as he began putting in a black snowsuit.
        “Most people don’t listen; they just wait their turn to talk.”
        “My mom --.”
        “Breakfast first,” he said. “Please. I’m tired, coffee might be good, and I’m going to have to ask you questions too.”
        I started, but said nothing as his mother watched us, eyes cold and dark, not helping her son, only saying he needed to wear more. Adrian told her he had to be able to walk as well, dryly, and received no reply except a stony silence he didn’t seem to find bothersome at all.
        I would have dragged him out the door if I didn’t think it would hurt. I did up his shoelaces while he got the mittens on, trying not to look as impatient as I felt. Adrian just dressed in silence and shook his head when I went to talk as we went outside.
        I headed down the street towards Pat’s Grill. The food was decent, cheap, and it was only five blocks; Grandpa had taken me there a few times when mom had to go clear up business dealings from back home before mom began insisting he make and eat breakfast like everyone else
        I tried not to wonder what he looked like now. Or what customers would think at his store, if they showed up and saw changes in him, if they could at all.
        Adrian reached out and took my hand in his, squeezing it lightly and saying nothing. I returned it as lightly, not noticing anyone watch us from the bus on its way to school.

Gloaming: 3

Apologies; the month was hectic, and the novel has been going oddly slow; still feeling my way around the plot.


The important question to me wasn’t how I’d ended up with the groundhog’s shadow in mine, as much as: if you see a groundhog on February second with no shadow at all, what does that mean for six more weeks of winter or what? I’d have asked Adrian, but I was pretty sure he’d have just said that he had no idea.
        Duncan was shovelling the sidewalk outside his house when I went by and waved to me. I returned it.
        “Hey, you.”
        He grinned. “Sluffing off?”
        “A little,” I admitted.
        “So, what’s wrong?”
        “Normally, I make a joke, you make one, we get serious later. If we bother. So spill.”
        I had to grin at that. “Just something weird I saw.”
        “Huh.” Duncan looked at me, and he didn’t even bother with a joke about my reflection. “Want to talk about it sometime?”
        “Maybe later,” I said, a little surprised I’d been that easy to see through.
        He didn’t press it and went back to shovelling as his father yelled something out the door about wanting it done before the snow melted before slamming it. I winced, but Duncan just kept working. I left him to it, since sometimes being a friend is knowing when to walk away, when words just aren’t enough and don’t matter.
        We’d taken to playing the DS Lite at my place, after his dad had sold his. I’d asked why, not getting it, and Duncan had just shrugged, voice light. “Dad’s got a drinking problem.” And then he laughed. “Mom calls it that. But it’s not true. Dad has no problem drinking at all. The rest of his life, now --.” And he’d just shrugged and kept playing, and beat my high score.

Someone had already shovelled the driveway when I reached Grandpa’s house. It was probably mom, since the sidewalk was done as well. Grandpa’s sign was still in the yard, even in winter. Some neighbours had taken issue with Grandpa never mowing his lawn shortly after we’d arrived. I’d said I could, but Grandpa had said it was his lawn and a matter of principle. Hence the: ‘Caution: Dandelion Preserve’ sign he’d put up in September.
        I’d asked him how serious he was and he’d just smiled, told me all jokes were half-truth, and began learning how to make dandelion tea. Given that, the neighbours took my mother’s palm-reading hobby entirely in stride.
        Aside from it, the house was pretty normal all told. Yellow and brown, one level, and just one oak tree in the back (Grandpa hated raking leaves as well; I’d never been certain why he hadn’t moved into a condo and avoided a lawn entirely.) The interior was mostly country, even in the garage: lots of wood, warm colours and a homey feel to everything.
        Mom was making a stir fry when I came in from the garage, singing Billy Joel songs to herself. The kitchen had brick walls, which Grandpa apparently had insisted on, and more pots and pans than seemed remotely sane. I avoided using most of them to be on the safe side.
        “Singing means I was right about Ichabod?” I said.
        Mom looked over. “Maybe. Grandpa told me about your all-nighter. You want to tell me why?”
        “I made a new friend,” I said. “I wasn’t sure yesterday, when we met, but we met again today. He was wondering what I was doing in the park. Nice kid, but a bit too serious. The kind of homeschooling my mom warned me about.”
        “Flattery will get you nowhere,” mom said.
        “So I should stop?”
        “Heavens, no!” We shared a laugh and mom put the frying pan down on the stove, turning off the burner. It was only then that I realized she was wearing oven mitts on both her hands.
        “You burn yourself?”
        “Oh, no. I’m fine.” She took them off and showed me her hands. “See?”
        I looked at the bumps on her palms in confusion, about to ask, when the eyes opened up. The same green-brown of my mom’s, but on her hands. I stared down in shock, and mom looked down as well.
        “Is something wrong?” she said, or started to say, but I was already in the hallway, skidding across the floor. I remember reaching my room. I don’t remember bolting the door, but I know I did. I slammed it, locked it, and buried my head between two pillows as her questions outside rose into stern demands I ignored.
        Reading palms. It was almost funny. I made sounds that could have been laughter and hugged myself in the dark. My diary was on the desk with my pen beside it, but I couldn’t bring myself to write anything or even get out of bed at all. I was cold, and hot, and running a fever and terrified and helplessly sane.
        Somehow the shadows in the room were only shadows and I slept in fits and starts, wakening to the certain feeling I was being watched from the shadows even though the room was empty. Turning on all the lights just made it seem darker an d I eventually dug out my headphones and played show tunes under the covers until dawn.

Duncan locked his bedroom door all the time after his father stole his DS; I never locked mine before that night.