Genre: Young Adult
Length: 130 pages
Heat Level: 1
eBook Price: $.99
Print Book: $14.99
Genre: Young Adult
Length: 130 pages
Heat Level: 1
eBook Price: $.99
Print Book: $14.99
Lark Singer’s relationship with her mother is prickly to say the least. As she enters a musical competition that could launch her career, Lark also searches for answers her mother would rather keep hidden. Throw into the mix the fact her best friend Bean has been acting strangely, and Lark finds herself launched into uncharted territory. Will her quest for answers sabotage her musical aspirations?
I want to be like Gideon Lee. My lips move as I read the title of my essay. They twitch as I stifle a snicker. Looking around the room, I make sure no one has seen my facial tic. My eyes light upon the Presidents’ pictures lined up on the wall. They face me, each with a unique expression, and I wonder what they were thinking while they posed. They are above the clock so my gaze naturally falls on it. It’s almost time for lunch.
I settle back in my seat and my lips twitch again. A feeling of defiant exhilaration washes over me like a tidal wave.
I picture him searching Gideon Lee’s name on the Internet. I see his expression changing from confusion to disgust. I imagine him taking off his black, thick-rimmed glasses and shaking his head. I hear him mutter, “Lark Singer, what are you doing?” He rubs his face. I can actually hear the rough sandpapery sound as his hand finds his day old stubble. He sighs and puts his glasses back on. “What am I going to do with you?”
I remember when Mr. Montgomery first told us about the assignment. We were supposed to write an essay on someone we admire, someone who has contributed to society in some way. I know when he says this he wants us to write about a historical figure. After all this is history class, but I raised my hand anyway.
“Lark,” he called out as he stood at his lectern.
“Do they have to be dead?”
He cocked his head as he studied me with his piercing blue eyes. Then he ran his hand over his military style crew cut, and I watched as his salt and pepper hair flattened then popped back into place as if each hair was standing at attention. I could tell he wasn’t sure where this was going. “Well… I guess not.” That’s when he froze, as if he realized he had just opened a door for me and he wasn’t going to like what was on the other side. He shifted his weight, and looked down at the floor before he backpedaled. “But they have to have made a positive contribution to society. It can’t be about a mobster or anything like that.” Pursing his lips, he stared at me, fiddling with those glasses. “This is one half of your semester grade, Lark. I wouldn’t pull any funny stuff.”
“Oh, I won’t. Scout’s honor,” I answered sweetly, placing my hand over my heart and giving him the scout salute, while inside I planned my rebellion.
As I remember that moment with great clarity, Mr. Montgomery’s authoritative voice breaks through and brings me back to the present. “Please pass your essays forward.” He walks to the row of desks by the windows that are so ancient I can hear the wind whistling through the cracks on days like today. I’m sure they’re the original windows; this building is so old my mother considered it old when she went to school here. The wood floor creaks as Mr. Montgomery shifts his weight and fiddles with his glasses, waiting for the students to pass their assignments forward. Quiet conversations stop. The only sounds are the rustling of papers and Mr. Montgomery’s steps on the wood floor.
The boy in front of me turns and waits for me to hand him my essay. We are the only students in the row closest to the door. I like to make quick exits. He brushes his thick curls out of his eyes with a shaky hand as he studies my paper with a furrowed brow. His face is shiny with sweat. I notice this, but it flutters to the back of my mind as I take in his chestnut curls. A girl would love to have those curls, I think to myself sourly.
“Who’s Gideon Lee?” he asks after clearing his throat. He gives me a glassy-eyed stare as he waits for my answer.
The glazed eyes, sweat, and the pinched look on his face confuse me. I wonder if he’s in pain. “Robert E. Lee’s cousin,” I answer, lying through my teeth.
“Oh.” He seems to believe me, turns around, and waits for Mr. Montgomery to pick up the papers. He slumps over his desk and lays his head on his extended arm as I covet his curls. They’re soft and full, like the curls models have in magazines. I wish I had that kind of hair.
My hair is dark and curly, but it’s the frizzy kind of curl that’s messy. I blow it dry every morning to straighten it out, especially my bangs. My bangs hang in my eyes and hide my most ghastly imperfection; a scar that rises from my right eyebrow. It’s a white jagged line now, but it wasn’t always that way. It used to be an angry red gouge, so I’ve gotten into the habit of hiding it.
The boy in front of me seems to sense my stare because he turns around and looks at me. Before our eyes can meet, I look down at my desk. I realize he’s just another musically challenged individual walking the face of the earth. He must be; otherwise he’d know who Gideon Lee is. I exhale a heavy sigh and shake my head.
I glance at Mr. Montgomery as he shuffles the papers into position and then drops them on his desk. He straightens his skinny tie and realigns the two ballpoint pens in his pocket. This is how he looks every day. The skinny tie and pens. I lean forward, searching for a pocket protector, but I don’t see one. He opens his mouth to speak but it’s too late, the bell rings. It’s time for lunch.
Just as I snag my books, the boy with the curls stumbles, then collapses on the floor. Mr. Montgomery moves fast and is at his side in seconds. I watch all of this like it’s a silent movie. I can’t understand the voices and everything is moving in slow motion.
Mr. Montgomery yells at another student to buzz the office. The boy does this and our teacher shouts from his kneeled position. “Get an ambulance here, ASAP!” He slaps the boy’s face gently, trying to revive him.
“Tweaker couldn’t manage his habit,” another student says, shaking his head and stepping over the boy on the way to the door.
Tweaker? What the heck is he talking about?
Mr. Montgomery seems to have heard him too, because he lifts the boy to his feet and attempts to get him moving. Another student steps in to help, and together they escort the boy around the room.
The boy wakes up enough to hurl all over Mr. Montgomery’s shirt and skinny tie. His head lolls to the side with his mouth hanging open. That’s my cue to leave. I can’t stand the smell of vomit. It makes me feel like puking. Go figure.
I hustle down the hall and head to my locker. After putting my books away, I make my way to the cafeteria. Picking up my pace, I search for Bean. He’s not in the stream of students heading toward the lunchroom, and I hope he’s already there, saving me a place in line.
When I enter the cafeteria, there are freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors milling about and my ears hurt from the buzz of a thousand different conversations. A random sample. The words float involuntarily through my brain and the image of my math teacher, Mr. Sweeney, comes to mind. We’re studying statistics and probability right now. It’s not my favorite subject.
Disappointed when I don’t see Bean anywhere, I rush forward and step into line, right before a chubby kid who’s in my science class. I give him a quick smile and turn my back on him to discourage conversation. He’s another one of those musically challenged individuals, and those people don’t get me. I’m an enigma as far as they’re concerned. Sniffing the air, I’m hoping for a whiff of what’s on the menu. I’m hoping it’s pizza, but I can’t tell. I can’t distinguish between the mixture of fried meat, the sickly sweet perfume that clings to many of the girls as they pass by, and the musky body spray some of the athletes wear to cover a more ominous scent.
Scanning the cafeteria, I continue my search for Bean and finally spot him, his face floating above the crowd. He sees me just as I see him and he gives me a slow smile and waves. I wave back and enjoy how my heartbeat quickens as a warm tingle starts in my belly and spreads throughout my body until I’m overwhelmed with its warmth. It’s like this every time I see him.
I motion for him to step in line with me. He moves forward with that gangly walk he has. Bean is all legs and arms. Everything about him is tall and thin. Even his hair is skinny, clinging to his scalp as if it were holding on for dear life. He keeps it short just because it’s so thin. Otherwise, he’d have long hair just like the boy in my history class.
Brushing a stray lock out of his eyes, Bean gives me a slow, lazy smile. “What’s on the menu, Chickie?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. I’m hoping for pizza.”
“Ahhh… Italiano.” He winks at me as he twirls an imaginary mustache and draws out the word Itaaaaalllliiiiaaano with a thick accent.
“We can only hope.” I give him a quick grin and he cuts in line ahead of me.
His jeans hang on his frame as if his legs go straight into his back, as if he doesn’t have an ass. I smile when I see the drumsticks wedged in his pocket.
He has been my best friend since third grade, ever since I broke Dwayne McIntyre’s nose during recess. His real name is Robert, but everyone calls him Bean because he’s so thin. Sometimes, when I’m feeling playful I’ll call him Bobby Bean. He hates that. He says it sounds babyish, but I don’t care. I like it.
“Hey,” I say, poking him in the back.
“Hey what?” he asks, turning around.
“A dude passed out in history class.”
“Really? Wow. That blows,” Bean says as he steps back and allows another student to pass through the line.
“Yeah. And then he did an epic hurl all over Montgomery.”
Bean snickers. “So how did the Old Historian handle that one?”
We share a conspiratorial laugh at the expense of Mr. Montgomery. Then I say, “The dude even got his skinny tie.”
Bean laughs aloud at this. One of his full belly laughs, which is hard to do since he doesn’t have a big belly. It gets the attention of several students standing around us. Bean smirks at them, turns toward me, and winks.
I smile and then grow quiet as I think back to last year when Bean dubbed Mr. Montgomery the Old Historian. We had been standing in the lunch line, much like we are today. He had been complaining about all the homework Mr. Montgomery had assigned.
“Dude gives us way too much homework,” Bean had said, shaking his head and frowning.
“Most teachers do,” I had responded with a sigh.
“What’s so great about history anyway? Everyone is dead. You can’t go back and change anything.” Bean had moved forward in line. When he caught up to the student in front of him, he turned and said, “That Old Historian needs to get a life, something to jazz up his mothball existence. I mean really. Skinny ties? Who wears those anymore?”
I smile as the memory fades and I return to the present where Bean has stepped forward in line and is motioning me to do the same. After I step toward him, I continue my story. “Another dude called the guy who puked a Tweaker.”
Something flashes in Bean’s eyes. I don’t know what it is exactly. It’s like a wariness, a fear. Then it’s gone and he’s back to himself. “A Tweaker’s someone who’s a Meth-head.”
“Yep.” His tone flattens and he avoids eye contact with me.
Then I remember Bean’s older brother Brian. Their father just caught him with drugs again and had gone on a major rampage. The Decker home is not the best place to be right now. I give Bean a sympathetic pat on the back and change the subject.
“Are we still on for this afternoon?” I ask even though I already know the answer. Bean’s always ready to jam.
He turns and gives me that slow, lazy smile again. “You bet. I’ve got the drum head fixed so we’re good to go.”
“Cool. You’ll let Stevie know?”
“Absolutely. I have him in math. I’ll tell him then.” Bean turns around and squints at the menu. “It is pizza today. The lunch gods have heard your prayers.” He turns again and gives me a wink, then moves forward in line.
We grab our lunch and then search for a table. “Send another prayer to the lunch gods,” I tell Bean.
He laughs and gives me that Beaner look. It’s kind of a look of exaggerated surprise. He raises his eyebrows, opens his eyes wide, and his mouth forms a perfect O. After he gives me the look, he turns his attention back to the crowded cafeteria.
Bean gestures toward an empty table in the middle of the lunchroom and we make a beeline for it. As we snag it, Bean gives me a grin. “The lunch gods are definitely smiling down on us today, Chickie.”
“No doubt.” I take a bite of pizza. “Another nutritious meal, compliments of Clarksville High.”
Bean laughs. “All four food groups are represented here.”
I nod and smirk at his joke, but keep my mouth closed because I’m still chewing my food and don’t want to gross him out. Our childhood games of See-Food have run their course.
We grow silent as we eat and my eyes wander around the room. They light upon a willowy blonde, Cassandra Miller. Everyone calls her Cassie. I hate her. She’s the head of the cheerleading squad, and she’s sitting a couple tables away with some of the cheerleaders and a couple of football players. I can’t hear their conversation, which is probably a good thing, because I’d puke.
Everything about Cassie Miller is perfect. Her straight hair hangs down to the middle of her back in a shimmering sheet of corn-silk softness. Her clear, blue eyes are the color of the bright sky without the vagueness that Bean’s have.
She is voluptuous where I am skinny. Where she has a bright, confident smile with perfectly straight teeth, I have two front teeth where one collides with the other. She is confident and popular where I am invisible. And all of these things are the reason I hate her.
Bean knows this, so when he sees my eyes glaze over with this poisonous emotion, he draws my attention back to him. “So, did you hand in your essay today?”
Grateful for the distraction, I answer, “Yes. Montgomery’s going to freak when he reads it.”
“I know. I wish I could see his face.”
We share another conspiratorial laugh and my equilibrium returns. My heart swells with gratitude for my friend and I give him a smile. It’s at this moment that grease runs down my hand. I drop my pizza on my plate and wipe it off with a napkin then dab the top of my pie with it, hoping to sop up any residual oil.
I look up and catch another glimpse of Cassie Miller. Her twin brother Ted has joined her group. They’re all sitting together laughing at something Perfect Cassie has said. My jealousy returns and I glare at them, resenting their perfectness.
Ted is the varsity quarterback. Of course, who else would be? The other football players are his minions, following him around like baby ducks follow their mother. As I stare at them, toxic thoughts run through my brain.
“She doesn’t have anything on you. You’re a kick-ass guitar player.”
I give him a grateful smile. Bean always knows how to make things right. We finish our lunch in an easy silence that can only be shared by two people who’ve known each other a long time. It’s comfortable, like your favorite pair of sneakers. They’re scuffed and worn, but you immediately feel at home in them.
After we finish our meal, we take care of our trays before shuffling toward the hall.
“See you about four o’clock?” I ask.
“Make it four-thirty. I have to get my brother to give me a ride. You know; the new drumhead.” He shrugs and gestures with his hands.
“Is the Nazi going to let him out of his sight?” The Nazi is Bean’s father. We call him the Nazi or the Dictator because he’s so controlling. It’s a major drag for Bean.
Bean rolls his eyes. “Yeah. I squared it with him this morning.”
“Awesome. I’ll see you then.”
We part ways and I head to my locker to get my book for science. As I pass classrooms, I peek in and get a glimpse of the students. Some are engrossed in the lectures and jotting down notes. Others are slumped in their chairs staring listlessly out the windows.
As I stroll past the last classroom before I turn the corner, a poster catches my eye. It hangs in all the corridors throughout the school, and it’s screaming about the competition in big, bold yellow letters. I stop and read it and feel that familiar rumble deep inside.
Last year the city council decided they’d put Clarksville on the map. They’d hold a musical competition and invite people from all over the state to compete. This idea was supposed to revitalize the downtown area. It was supposed to increase business for the hotels and restaurants on Main Street. I don’t know if it has, but I do know that I want to win in the worst way.
The winner of the competition will receive a paid-in-full entry onto the hot new show American Singer. The yellow letters seem to shout at me. I lust after this prize. It would be my one-way ticket out of this shithole town. I know our band has the talent to win, just as I know my hair is brown. I feel it with every fiber of my being and it makes me want the prize even more. I can almost feel it in my hand.
I inhale deeply and smell that old familiar scent of waxed floors, gum, and erasers all mixed together. It’s oddly comforting and I inhale again, trying to calm the raging volcano of want that has bubbled up inside of me. The ancient ache of wanting, needing a different life. To be a different person.
Stepping back, I take another deep breath and that aroma grounds me enough so that my feet continue my journey on wobbly, reluctant legs. By the time I reach my locker, the raging need has subsided.
I turn the dial on the combination lock. It opens with that familiar metallic thunk and I rummage around inside looking for my science book and notebook. Just as I retrieve them, my locker door slams shut. I jump back and snatch my hand to my chest as fast as I can. My heart thunders against my ribcage and sweat breaks out under my arms. I spin around quickly, my anxiety from almost losing my fingers turns quickly to anger as I face my assailant.
“Meadowlark,” the syrupy male voice says as I do my about face.
I bristle at the nickname. The only people that call me Meadowlark are Francine and Bean, and I only allow it under extreme protest. “Duh-Wayne,” I say in a voice filled with venom. My stomach does a flip-flop. “I think I’m going to puke.” Glaring at him, I clench my hands to keep from wringing his neck. “What do you think you’re doing, slamming my locker door like that?”
Standing face to face with Dwayne McIntyre, I wish I could shoot lasers with my eyes, like the zombies in one of Bean’s horrible sci-fi movies. If I could shoot lasers, I would shoot them at Dwayne McIntyre. I’ve hated him since third grade. Ever since we got into a fight and I broke his nose. He had called me a bastard that day and then laughed when I didn’t know what one was. After Bean explained it to me, I had gone after Dwayne with the force of a grizzly protecting her cubs. Right before I broke his nose, Dwayne and I had been wrestling on the ground and the zipper from his winter coat had left a deep gouge on my forehead. That’s where I got the jagged scar.
Since that day, I’ve always felt different from my peers. A loner. With one word, Duh-Wayne had put me in a category where no one else belonged and left me marked for life, figuratively and literally. I finger my scar and it brings back the memory of our fight, along with the label I was given. It’s the mark of the fatherless. The Bastard. I call it the bastard stamp, but only to myself. After that day, everyone steered clear of Lark Singer… except for Bean.
As I stare at Duh-Wayne, I notice the bump where his broken nose has healed and a feeling of immense satisfaction washes over me, but it quickly dispels when I realize it just makes him more attractive in that bad-boy kind of way.
When did Duh-Wayne get so tall?
He backs away as I stare at him. “Don’t get vomit on my shoes,” he says breezily, before slinking down the hall.
I watch him lope away his long, dark hair swinging in time with his strides. “That’s odd,” I mutter under my breath. Duh-Wayne hasn’t spoken to me since the third grade and I like it that way. Shrugging it off, I hightail it to class. Sliding into my seat just as the bell rings, the chubby kid from lunch gives me a smile. I smirk at him and roll my eyes as if to say, this is a major drag.
I make it through the rest of my classes in a daze. I just want to get home and jam. After a week of silence, I’m itching to play with the band again, to hear the epic sound we make together. I pull my books from my locker and make my way to the door.
Once I’m outside, I button my wool peacoat all the way to my throat, hoping to keep the chill from penetrating my bones. Then I put on my fuzzy earmuffs and gloves. Shoving my hands into my pockets, I head for home.
I only live four blocks from the high school, so I make the hike every day. The walk usually invigorates me; the frigid air mixed with the exercise wakes me up. As I trudge home, the crunching snow beneath my hiking boots reminds me of the sickening crunch of Dwayne McIntyre’s nose breaking. I shake my head, what am I thinking about him for? I haven’t thought about him in years and there he is in my head for the second time today.
Shaking my head again, I force my thoughts to something more pleasant, jamming again. I press my fingers against my thigh as I pick up my pace, fingering the chords to my favorite song, “Beginnings.” I can almost feel the guitar strings beneath them.
Spotting my home in the distance, I surge forward. The roof peeks out over a small incline in the road. As I draw closer, I take in the dingy white siding on the Cape Cod style house and the black shutters hugging the windows. It looks just like it did years ago when I’d walk home from the junior high. It doesn’t have much of a porch, just a couple of stairs leading to a landing in front of the door, but it’s the only home I’ve ever known.
My chest tightens like it always does when my house comes into view. I have to travel across the railroad tracks before I reach it. I have to cross the social divide. I live in the unsavory part of town. This is where the have-nots live, the people just scraping by. There are no power players on this side of town. No birthday parties for Lark Singer, I was always too embarrassed to invite anyone to my house.
My steps falter as I move forward. It used to be Grandma Nadine’s home before she died and my mother inherited it. Grandma died eight years ago and it still seems like yesterday. With a start, I realize today is her birthday. February eighteenth. She would have been eighty-five today.
A memory of Grandma Nadine floats to the surface of my consciousness. It was after one of my mother’s disastrous dates and she had come home in tears. I was supposed to be in bed, but I snuck out of the room at the time I shared with Francine. I remember hearing my mother sobbing in the living room. I had crept into the bathroom at the top of the stairs to find out what was making her cry. I left the light off and sat on the floor, on the scratchy shag carpet. I remember squirming because the carpet made my backside itch through my nightgown when I sat down.
“Oh, Franny girl,” Grandma Nadine said. I peeked out the door and found my mother and my grandmother sitting on the cheap sofa in the living room. My grandmother had her arm around my mother and was handing her a tissue. “That boy was bad news from the git-go. He had so many problems.”
“I cared about him,” Francine sobbed as she wiped her tears away.
I groaned when I heard this. Francine always cared and was always being dumped. She just couldn’t seem to find a guy who stuck around. For a long time, I had thought it was my fault. No man wanted a wife and a kid that wasn’t even his.
“Franny, he had a gambling problem.”
“You don’t know that,” Francine retorted. She had that tone of denial, of knowing something deep inside herself, but choosing not to believe it anyway.
“He took money from your purse. I saw it with my own eyes.”
So that’s where the money for my voice lessons had gone. I curled my fingers into tight fists. I squeezed so tight that my nails dug painfully into the palms of my hands. It was the only way to stop myself from flying down the stairs and confronting Francine. A fire ignited deep in my belly followed by a crushing sense of shame.
“I told him he could borrow some,” Francine said as she continued to wipe the tears away. She sniffed, crossed her legs, and then glared at my grandmother.
“When are you going to learn to let go of the rope?” Grandma Nadine asked in an exasperated tone.
Let go of the rope? What is she talking about? I lay down on the gold tinted carpeting and inched closer to the door so I could listen undetected. The carpeting irritated the soft skin on my face, and I slid my hand under my cheek so I could still hear.
“Let me tell you a story,” Grandma Nadine said.
I loved Grandma Nadine’s stories, so a wave of anticipation sent tingles down my spine. Forgetting my anger and shame, I inched closer to the door so I wouldn’t miss a single word.
“Oh Mother, really?”
“Yes, really. Now sit still and listen.”
I wasn’t able to see them, but I imagined Grandma Nadine settling back on the couch, while my mother reined in her annoyance at having to endure another one of her mother’s tales.
My Grandmother cleared her throat. “Once upon a time there was an attractive young girl, much like you Franny.”
“Please Mother, just get on with it.”
“There was an attractive young girl who had all these dreams and aspirations. One day she was walking across a bridge over a raging river. And she heard a voice.”
Francine sighed and I knew she was growing impatient, but she didn’t stop my grandmother.
“The voice called out, ‘Help me! Help me!’ Well this young girl was a nice girl and she wanted to help this stranger in distress.”
“How much longer is this going to take?” Francine asked in a bored voice, reminding me of the kids who were always asking how much longer the ride was going to be.
Grandma Nadine sighed and then continued her story. “The young girl looked around and saw a rope looped over the railing of the bridge. She rushed to the rope and gazed toward the river below. She saw a man dangling at the end of it. She quickly picked it up and began pulling it up on the bridge.”
Francine exhaled an impatient sigh and I heard her shift her weight on the couch, but she knew better than to interrupt Grandma Nadine again.
“Soon the young girl grew tired. She yelled down to the stranger. ‘I can’t pull you up any farther you must climb the rest of the way.’ The voice called out from below, ‘I can’t climb any farther. You must pull me up.’ The young girl thought about this, she tried to find a solution but couldn’t see one.”
“So what does she do?” Francine asked, sounding intrigued in spite of her earlier impatience.
“She had a choice to make,” Grandma Nadine responded. “She could either let go of the rope or eventually go over the side with him.”
“What? She can’t let go of the rope. He’ll die.”
“Ahhh… but she will live,” Grandma Nadine said, and she had the tone that she used to get when she was making a point but wanted you to figure it out on your own. “Sometimes all you can do is let go of the rope.”
I sat up, stunned. What does she mean, let go of the rope? She told my mother to let someone die? I inched forward again. This story was too good to miss.
“Where in the world did you get a story like that?” Francine asked in an indignant voice. I heard the shock and disbelief in it and it matched my own.
“It’s an old fable. One that I read when I was a young girl, it was written by Rabbi Edwin Friedman.”
“Who?” Francine asked my own question and I could tell by her tone that she was just as shocked I was.
“Never mind. The author isn’t important, but the message is,” Grandma Nadine responded in a firm voice.
“That’s a crazy story and doesn’t fit my situation at all.”
Grandma Nadine sighed. “Think about it, Franny girl.”
I strained to listen as shock coursed through my veins like a spark of electricity traveling along a wire. I didn’t understand this message and I hoped to hear some nugget of information that would enlighten me. I mean my grandmother had just told my mother to let someone go, to let them die. I couldn’t believe it. My grandmother, the kindest person in the world had just told my mother to let go of the rope.
As I lay on the itchy carpet and pondered this, I heard Francine tell her she was going to get a drink of water and then go to bed. The creaking of the floorboards signaled she was on her way to the kitchen. I peered around the doorway and into the living room. Grandma Nadine was staring off into space. The light from the lamp sitting on the end table highlighted her features. She looked like my grandmother, the woman who had bandaged my knees and kissed my scrapes, but the advice she’d just given my mother hadn’t sounded like her at all.
I dashed from the bathroom into my bedroom and scrambled for my bed. Burrowing under the covers, I pretended to be asleep. Within minutes, Francine entered the room. She slowly opened a drawer and pulled out a nightgown. I heard her change her clothes and climb into bed. The bedsprings squeaked protesting her weight and then all was silent.
As I lay there, listening to Francine’s rhythmic breathing, I pondered my grandmother’s advice. I tried to see her point of view and it finally dawned on me that the guy with the gambling problem was just like the guy dangling at the end of the rope. Francine was like the girl. She tried to help, but since the man at the end of the rope couldn’t or wouldn’t help himself, then Francine couldn’t help him without losing herself. This made sense to me and I wondered why Francine didn’t get it.
A car drives by and splashes slush all over my boots and calves, pulling me from this vivid recollection. These memories are coming less and less frequent, but when they do, they hit me hard, like a punch in the gut. I stop and take a ragged breath trying to get my equilibrium back. I cough and tears well in my eyes. Then my grief settles into my chest, heavy like a stone.
Leaning on my knees, I take gulps of air, the pain recedes, but the heaviness is still there. It will be there for a while, I know. I’ve had this happen before and it’s always the same. Wiping my eyes, I straighten and put one foot in front of the other. My steps are less animated now and the weight I carry slows my journey.
As I cross the railroad tracks and then my street, I notice a car parked at the curb on the side street. It’s a beige Ford Taurus and it’s missing a hubcap.
The Mad Hungarian is Mr. Szabo our neighbor. He’s a thick, little man with dark, beady eyes and a tangle of gray hair. A few months ago, he had stormed across his yard when Francine had gotten home from work. He raged about my music, saying it was too loud and it hurt his ears.
My mother had calmed him down, explaining that my music kept me from running with a bad crowd, and what would I do if I didn’t have my music to keep me out of trouble? She promised she’d talk to me about the volume.
This seemed to mollify him because his tone of voice lowered and I could no longer hear his grumbles. He hasn’t complained since then, but when I see him, he shoots me these dark, angry looks as if he’s just waiting for one tiny transgression before he goes off the deep end. When my mother walked through the door, she dubbed him the Mad Hungarian and the name had stuck. I hardly call him Mr. Szabo unless I’m saying hello.
As I reach the curb in front of my house, I hear a plaintive meow. It sounds so sad and lonely that it wrenches my heart. I stop and search for the source of the noise. I hear it again, and move toward a large maple at the end of our driveway. There sitting in the crook of the tree is one of Mr. Szabo’s kittens. It’s pure white and the tiniest little thing.
The Mad Hungarian’s cat had kittens about six months ago. He was able to get rid of five of them, but this last one, the runt, he hadn’t been able to give away. It must have escaped his house and climbed the tree. Now, it was too scared to climb down. The little snowball of a kitten lets out another meow and a lump rises in my throat.
It’s so scared and lonely. I identify with it immediately and rush to the house, so I can open the garage door and get the ladder.
As I drag the ladder across the yard, it bumps along the frozen ground and leaves skid marks in the snow. I prop it against the tree. The little kitten spots me and meows again, but he’s not sure if I’m a friend or foe so he turns away when I reach for him. I coax him back and grab the little fur ball. As I pull him toward me, I wrap my hand around his middle so I can tuck him inside my coat. His little heart drums a rapid beat against my hand. He’s frightened so I take a second and give him some reassuring pats.
Once I’m down on the ground, I try to calm the little guy some more by petting him and speaking in a soothing tone. His frantic meows turn to purrs and I hustle over to the Mad Hungarian’s house to return him.
Mr. Szabo answers the door and glares grumpily at me. “Hi Mr. Szabo. Your kitten was in our tree.”
He glances at the cat, and relief flickers in his eyes. “Thank you, Lark,” he says in his thick Hungarian accent. “I was very worried for him.” He reaches for the tiny ball of fur and says, “I searched for him earlier this afternoon and couldn’t find him. I was afraid he was lost for good.” Then he looks at me and his eyes shine with gratitude. I can tell he has warmed toward me a little bit. I may still play loud music, but since I saved his kitten, I must have some redeeming qualities.
“You’re welcome,” I say and head toward my house. I finally reach my door and again the thrill of playing my music infuses me. It crushes the stone that has been weighing me down and a jolt of anticipation rushes through me. I stomp the snow off my feet before I rush in.
Once inside, I shrug out of my coat, and lay it on top of my pack, where I tossed my earmuffs and gloves earlier. As I bend to untie my hiking boots, I hear a low, guttural sound that sends an icicle of fear through my heart. My stomach clenches into a knot and my throat tightens. I freeze, waiting to hear the noise again, hoping I’ll come to a logical explanation so I can relax.
I hear it again and my heart thunders against my chest. Inching my way forward, I peer around the living room. Taking in the dull beige paint on the walls and the carpeting that’s the color of old silly putty, I groan. The room is so depressingly blah and the urge to get out, to leave, is so strong that I actually turn around. Then another guttural noise stops me, it almost sounds like a snore. I tiptoe toward the living room and scan the area, ignoring the cheap, drab furniture and the worn carpet. I squint because the curtains are drawn and the room is dim.
That’s when I see him sprawled out on the couch asleep. As I stare at him, another snore escapes his thick, rubbery lips.
Lisa Orchard grew up loving books. She was hooked on books by the fifth grade and even wrote a few of her own. She knew she wanted to be a writer even then. Her first published works are the “Super Spies Series.” These stories revolve around a group of friends who form their own detective squad and the cases they solve. “The Starlight Chronicles,” is the next series that Lisa created with musical misfit, Lark Singer as her main character.
After graduating from Central Michigan University with a Marketing Degree, she spent many years in the insurance industry, pining to express her creative side. The decision to stay home with her children gave her the opportunity to follow her dream and become a writer. She currently resides in Rockford Michigan with her husband, Steve, and two wonderful boys. Currently, she’s working on the next book in the Starlight Chronicles Series. When she’s not writing she enjoys spending time with her family, running, hiking, and reading.