Sunday, June 30, 2013

Fiction #44: Lauren Mead

Courtship and the Art of Retaliation

MONDAY, 3:00 PM: The Old Field

A truce of sorts; signaled by the waving of an old silk scarf out of her attic window.  The scarf, trailing majestically across the gap between our bedroom windows wasn’t white, but I knew what it meant.  We met in the old field, halfway between the school and our houses.  A narrow footpath ran diagonally across it, blistered and baked by the sun.  In the middle of the path, our shadows nearly touched. 

“You alone?”

She nodded.  A wisp of red hair wriggled in the wind.  I peered at her freckles, which were rust coloured and decided that I liked them. 

“Sorry,” was the word that had meant to come out in that moment but didn’t, because the other girls had shown up.  Except I hadn’t noticed until, giggling like hyenas, they pantsed me and fled. 

I wanted to believe that Stacey Margot hadn’t helped with the scheme—that maybe she had just been there at the same time and hadn’t told her friends yet that All Bets Were Off, but judging by the burning in my cheeks and unsuspected goose pimples that popped up along my naked legs, I thought it probably wasn’t true. 

TUESDAY, 4:00 PM, The Tree House

We all had a stake in it; we all had something to win and something to lose.  In the warm summer breeze, we sat around The Plan, our bums barely touching the hard, splintering wood floor of the tree house as we leaned in to hear more.  Sam had been our leader for a long time, so obviously what Sam said, went.  This—regarding the incident of last Monday, 3:00 PM had been the last deciding moment. 

Jim, short and bespectacled, cleared his throat loudly and pushed his stubby fingers into the air.  His forehead creased into a myriad of questions. 

Sam raised his eyebrows as if to say “Oh yeah?” A flick of bushy black eyebrows conveyed everything Sam needed to say. 

Jim’s hand sunk back into the darkness. 

“We have to find a way in,” said Sam.

A small, dry hand poked up in the gloom.  I saw that it was Moe, a blonde-haired boy with more acne on his skin than a ship has barnacles.  “Why don’t we just go straight to her house?” 

Almost immediately, in that hot, dry silence, after years of watching Sam as he made decisions after he had already made up his mind, I could see that the indecision that swept across his face was just for show. 

“I like it,” he said at last.  I had seen Sam with that childish glint in his eye before.  It made my stomach churn.  There had been the time that we had played a joke on the school librarian involving super soakers and strawberry jam.  The pack howled riotously at the warped and waterlogged catalogue of books, chairs askew and red glop oozing like sweet blood from the fancy dictionary that sat on her desk. 

The moment when I might have said “no” and left the pack behind had seemed more treacherous than playing along.  The plan then had seemed cruel.  But there I had been, after the decisive moment had already passed. 

It took me a minute to realize what was going on.  Sam’s nose poked over the ladder, his eyelashes looked like spiders in the dim flashlight beam.  I paused, thinking about Stacey Margot’s crumpled pink mouth, knit brow and the scream that had grinded the silence into chaos a few days before. 

Sam raised his eyebrows again.  This time, the message was “You gonna let a girl win?”
   
WEDNESDAY, 3:30 PM, the sidewalk

The question floated out of my mouth before I could stop it.  “You ever kissed anyone before?”
   
Sam’s eyebrow drifted upwards, then his dark green eyes fixed shrewdly on mine.  He stopped sharply and crossed his arms.  “If I had, do you think I’d be telling anyone?”

I shrugged, shoving my hands into my short pockets.  “No, guess not.  But do you ever think…”

Sam shook his head.  “I think you think too much.”

On more than one occasion, I had caught Margot watching me from behind her math textbook.  I always sat in front of her.  We never talked.  Would I even be able to get out a word if she asked me a question?  Once, some time after The Incident, that hollow plink of a dropped pencil alerted me to her sudden movement.  Checking that Mr. Harbour was still absorbed in his reading, I bent down and again we were face to face.  Her freckled nose grazed mine—an accident, I’m sure, but I couldn’t help noticing that it was soft as new grass.  I reached for the pencil and her grey-green eyes blinked. Her fingers warmed mine for a second or two before she took the pencil back. 

A croak erupted out of my bottom, into the air as I sat up.  Titters punctuated the silence.

“Ew, Stevie!” said Stacey Margot, pinching her nose and fanning at the air. 

Then again, maybe it wasn’t going too far at all.

Snatching up my flashlight in the present, I peered down the ladder.  The woods were just at the edge of the lot line, the plan being that we would sneak up to her house from behind.   From the back door, nobody could see what we were doing.

“Stevie, you know what you have to do already, right?”

Someone—I think it was Moe—nudged me and I nodded.  The Plan before me blurred a little and I squinted, trying to keep my eyes open.  Outside the tree house doorway was as black as the inside of a deep dark cave and even though we were up high, I wished for once to be in my bed safe at home like I’d let my mom believe.  On the edge of the ladder, my mind found itself wandering to another dark place. 

ONE YEAR AGO, 2:00 PM, THE INCIDENT, Stacey Margot’s drawing room

Funeral sandwiches soaked up the emptiness.  They lined elegant, frill covered tables and perched precariously on china plates held up by a forest of pale, tense hands.  I stood there awkwardly, hands in pockets of a grey hand-me-down suit that should have fit someone much smaller than myself.  The air inside Stacey Margot’s house was hot and stale.

Stacey Margot stood across the room, near the burgundy drapes with some of her friends, Alice and Marcie.  Cool sweat trickled down my palms.  I rubbed my hands again on my pants and they rustled like newspaper.  My mother shot me a sharp look that said, “be good, young man.” I hastily edged towards Stacey Margot’ side of the room.  Alice, thin and drowsy-eyed, took one long, sweeping look at me and rolled her eyes.  I joined the group anyway, standing there shuffling my feet on the grey-white carpet. 

Stacey Margot and I had only met once before, when she had introduced herself to the class as “the next greatest thing” and we all snickered at her declaration.  I thought I should at least say something to her.  Her eyes darted left and right, never quite meeting mine.  Her cheeks grew pink. 

“Thanks for coming,” said Stacey Margot. 

A whistle shrieked through the air and I was back in the gloomy tree house.  “Stevie—you coming?”
I paused, thinking of the moment that had started it all.  Once again I stood on the brink of decision, feet dangling over the edge and knowing all at once that I didn’t have the guts to go home alone. 

At the funeral—her mother’s—I had been faced with the awkward and heavy silence of bereavement and small talk.  I felt my tongue glue itself to the roof of my mouth.  My throat was dry as a dust storm.  I stood there stupidly, cheeks flushing crimson. 

Margot leaned in closer and whispered “Are you okay?”

My eyes had started to water from the heat that my face was creating.  Alice and Marcie regarded me as if I were a strange clod of dirt on their shoes.  I fought to pull a string of words out of my lazy, good-for-nothing mouth, but the words didn’t come.  There were a million eyes pressing into my backside.  In a moment of wordless floundering, I leaned in and kissed Stacey Margot on the mouth. 

Her eyes widened and she shoved me away. 

“Jerk!” she shouted. 

An eruption of giggles sounded from across the room where the pack was hovering around a plate of sandwiches.  For all my well-meaning intentions, I knew why Stacey Margot wanted her revenge. 

THURSDAY, 10:25 PM, the woods behind Stacey Margot’s house

Snickering and snapping through the dark, damp underbrush we went, carting our equipment along in sacks and old pillowcases.  All I had to do was stand there on Stacey Margot’s well-manicured porch and hope she came outside. 

I started thinking again of another time, before all of the scheming began. 

After school, some time after The Incident had happened, Stacey Margot and I walked home along the cracked sidewalk.  Its’ injuries snaked wildly like old, rotted scars.  Sam had been ranting about some new retaliation scheme, but when I’d asked all he had said was “It’ll be good—just you wait.”
As always, I had nodded along, knowing that Sam was too persuasive not to agree with. 

I knew that Stacey Margot usually walked through the field and not along the road, but I couldn’t help hoping that she’d taken this detour for me.  I was thinking about her hands, willow boughs on a breezeless night, draped casually at her side as we walked.  I tried to do the same, but my hands, swollen and clumsy, kept bouncing off of my tree trunk legs, so I shoved them in my pockets instead. 

We hadn’t spoken since her mother’s funeral, making the air between us stale and full of questions. 

At last, I settled on “I don’t blame you.”

She looked at me, eyes wide. “Oh?”

Slumping lower, I looked away. “I mean about the…you know.”

She blushed. “I know.”

I smiled a little. 

She observed her nails for a moment before looking me in the eye, lips parted. 

“I didn’t mean to…I mean…it was…”

We stopped walking.  Stacey Margot leaned in closer.  I leaned in too.  She stopped mid-pucker, her lips curving into an “o,” her cheeks flushed and eyes wide, shiny and wet and full of rage.  A scream escaped her lips as she clutched the back of her white dress, which was now soaked in grape juice a-la super soaker.  The pack jeered and clapped as they ducked out of sight, leaving me red-cheeked and mutely apologetic.

A week later, she and her crew had stolen my gym clothes and forced me to walk all the way to the principal’s office, naked.  I can’t say that I didn’t blame her, but Sam reckoned that this meant WAR. 

In the present, there were a few stray whispers as the boys set up The Plan. Electricity hummed serenely, a meditation imposing itself over the chirp of crickets as the fan was tested.  Somewhere, Ben, who wheezed when he sniffed dust, ripped open the feather pillow sending a silent explosion of gossamer wings drifting gently downward in the hot air. 

Sam’s job—the best one—was to oversee it all.  He whistled an upbeat tune that I didn’t recognize as he watched the others stringing wires, checking equipment and slinking around the yard.  As I stood there on the creaking porch, I wished that I could be Sam, who was charming and always knew what to do and say.  That’s why Sam was the leader and not me.  On the other side of the landing, Moe made sure the wires were ready so that when Stacey Margot opened the door…

I punched the doorbell and stood there on her clean wooden porch. 

“C’mon Stevie, run away!” shouted someone out there in the dark.  I turned to look, but only saw the vague shadow of hands waving. 

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon!” the pack chorused. 

A hush fell over the group as the sound of footsteps getting nearer echoed in the silence of the dusk.  Eyes roving, I stared at the welcome mat, feet like stone. 

The crickets had stopped.  The snickers were silenced.  Stacey Margot’s pale face gleamed in the moonlight as she flung open the door, eyes wide. 

“Stevie?” pink lips parted into a glorious smile. She crossed her arms, observing me as she stood in her pink nightgown, bare feet lined up against the doorframe.

I fumbled, words tripping over themselves as they tumbled out of my mouth.

“I just thought…I mean…maybe…”

Stacey Margot’s eyebrows raised a fraction. She crossed her arms.  “Truce?”

I looked up at her sweet, sincere face and said, “Yeah, I do.” I meant it too. 

From the bushes, I heard Sam hiss “Go! Go! Go!”

A burst of fly-infested honey oozed languidly out of the tin bucket above Stacey Margot and I.  We watched it glop downwards, the golden hues shining dully under the humming porch light.  I shoved Stacey Margot backwards as the honey landed with a wet plop in my curly hair.  Cool air gusted white feathers floating down like an absurd snowfall on the whole mess.  Stacey Margot let out a gasp as she tumble backwards, arms akimbo.  A hint of a smile, crooked and soft, crept up her perfect pale face.  I smiled too, because Stacey Margot was smiling at me.  Of course, I did what any gentleman would do: I held out my hand to her and to my surprise she grasped it.  Warmth spread through my body. 

A chorus of laughter erupted from the yard. I turned, blinking to see who might be there and was blinded by a flash.  When I turned back to Stacey Margot, she was smiling that wry smile, her lips parted.  She leaned in and pulled me close. Lavender hung on the air.  Blinking away little white spots as they danced in the dark air like firecrackers, I wondered if all first kisses were this spectacular and strange and embarrassing.  Stacey Margot pursed her lips and I stopped breathing, feeling the tingle in my palms as sweat trickled down my fingertips.  I closed my eyes and leaned in, feeling the warmth of her cheeks—or maybe that was still the warm honey running into my ears.  When she leaned in closer, my heart felt like it was going to take off.  I peeked open on eye to see her lips parting, her head bent towards my boiling lobster ear. 

“Gotcha,” she said.

As the sparks cleared and the door slammed in my face, I felt the blood rush to my cheeks so hard that my ears were on fire.  Blinking, I saw two girls dashing behind the bushes. One of them turned around and made a puckering sound as she waved the Polaroid of me, covered in feathers and honey and red-hot shame.  Sam shook his head at me, raising a furry eyebrow and the rest of the pack traipsed off after him.  The picture would be all over school tomorrow; there was no doubt about that. It wasn’t likely that the pack would stick by me after the fool I’d made of myself, but I decided that it didn’t matter.  I was nearly-sort-of sure that I’d almost kissed Stacey Margot. 

*

Lauren Mead is a secondary school teacher of English and drama who has been writing short stories, poems and novels since she was thirteen.  She has an MA in English and enjoys reading everything that she can find. 

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