Yeah. Some miracle.
This was never how I imagined my life after high school. Then again, I never spent a lot of time thinking about what it was going to be like - I just assumed that everything would be better once I got out of that hellhole. Everything was supposed to be solved the moment I threw that funny little hat up into the air. I'd been through the worst life could offer, and now I could get on with more important things, like finding a kick ass job that involved nothing more exhausting than … well, doing anything, and marrying some hunk who loved my quick, witty mind (which I suppose was also going to develop after graduation) as much as my attractiveness, such as it is.
Funnily enough, those things are a bit late in making an appearance. No big deal. I'd be willing to let it slip if they just throw in a dash of fame when they do show up. I can be quite the forgiving girl when the mood strikes.
My plans, or fantasies, or whatever you want to call them, had never included college, simply because that had always been a given. No way around that, as I quickly discovered when I tried to weasel my way out. The best I could get was a year off, this year, before I got to partake in the joy of learning once more. Whee.
I swear, sometimes I just don't understand my parents at all. They want - nay, demand - me to go to college, but even when I manage to wrangle a compromise not to go for the first year, they want me to get a job instead. Yet they won't let me drive their car or loan me money to get one of my own. If they really wanted me to get a decently paying job, they would let me have a car. It's not like it's my fault that we live out in the middle of nowhere, complete with a deep, dark forest separating me from the wide world of commerce. As it is, I'm stuck with a crappy paying job. Babysitting.
I was never much of a doll person. Which isn't to say that I was a tomboy or anything - I wasn't. I even still have one of my dolls, my first one, though that's more because my grandmother would kill me if I ever got rid of it than anything else. I'm not sure how she'd know, being in a retirement home now, but she would. I had other dolls growing up, but by the time I was about twelve, there was just the one, and my family seemed to have finally gotten the message.
Ask anyone - Girls are supposed to play with dolls. That's just the way it is. It's where they develop a lot of their maternal instincts, or something like that… Don't remember where I read it, but it makes sense. It's probably why mine are so screwed up. It's as good a theory as any, at least. Babysitting was never my thing either. Patience is a virtue, yeah, but it's not like I ever claimed to be a virtuous person. If I had been a babysitter through my previous years as a teenager, the death rate of children in the U.S. probably would have doubled.
Not to mention that there's really only one person near me young enough to need to be babysat. If my parents were the devious, plotting kind rather than just plain boring, I would think that they had planned all this out to force me to take care of that kid - Chelsea by name - if I didn't go to college, as a punishment.
It wasn't that Chelsea was a bad kid, really. There are worse around - most of them had been in high school with me. She was ten… or maybe eleven now… and old enough to take care of herself for the most part. And I was helping her parents out, letting them screw me by paying about half what they were paying their last babysitter, who had to drive in from "the big city" every day, and thus demanded higher wages. They aren't exactly a poor family, but they certainly don't have a whole lot of cash to spare. Honestly, it wasn't that difficult of a job, especially since I'd only have her full time for about two months before she went back to school, and I'd just have to worry about being there in the afternoon.
No, it wasn't too bad a deal at all. Except I just didn't want to deal with her.
Let it never be said that I, Raine Irving, am afraid of a little girl. It's simply not true. It's not even that I don't like her. Honestly, I'm mostly indifferent towards her on most levels, now that I've gotten used to her. Hell, she'd make a great goth one day. I could easily make myself feel sorry for her, if I wanted to. There was no real reason for me to avoid her. She was a bit odd, sure, but nothing that being around her every day for God only knows how long didn't help me ignore. Like I said before… I just don't want to deal with her.
Chelsea was still asleep when I knocked on her front door, according to her mother. Just like she told me every morning. I don't know why she bothered to tell me every time; it wasn't as if I expected her to be awake this early in the summer. I didn't even want to be awake this early. She most likely didn't either, but she did a fair job of hiding it as she offered me a cup of coffee, smile plastered on her face. Probably the same one she had all day behind the cash register. Her husband nodded as we entered the kitchen and he walked past, setting his plate down in the sink before heading off to change into his uniform. He kissed his wife as they crossed paths, earning himself a whack with the towel she had just picked up, and a half earnest scolding because I was there. Since I've obviously never seen anybody kiss before.
"It looks like it's going to be a nice day," Mrs. Patterson commented.
I shrugged. "I usually like to reserve judgment on that until after the sun rises," I muttered, mostly to myself, though I could see Mrs. Patterson smiling a little as she dried a cup and put it into the cupboard, pulling out a different one to pour the last of the coffee left in the pot into. Like most of the morning ritual, the asking if I wanted coffee was completely unnecessary, since she always made enough for me anyway. Always poured into the exact same cup, some weird thing that had to be a product of the sixties.
"Make sure to watch out for snakes if you two go out into the woods." I nodded absentmindedly at the warning, not planning for a moment to go outside the house at any point of the day until she got home from work and I walked back over to my own house. It was supposed to be just as hot as yesterday, which probably had been hot enough to boil the water in the lake out by the barn behind my house. Luckily for me, it wasn't extremely likely that Chelsea would want to go outside either. Not a big fan of the sun, that one, not that I could blame her. Sunburn was painful enough on me; can't imagine what it's like for her.
I sipped my coffee, watching her and her husband complete their daily ritual of getting ready for work. They appeared in the kitchen door every few seconds, sometimes passing through to get something from inside, sometimes telling me some little instruction for the care and feeding of their daughter they had just remembered. I had gotten in the habit of just nodding whenever either of them said anything, since there was only about a 1% chance of it being actually being important and not something I already knew.
Taking care of Chelsea was a very basic process, nothing that required so many hurried, and repeated, instructions. She did whatever she wanted, and as long as nothing got broken and she didn't bother me too often, all was well. She was quiet for the most part, having quickly learned that I had no more desire to have long, meaningful talks with her now that I was her babysitter than I had before.
If it was anyone else, I might feel bad about ignoring her most of the time. I was never Miss Popularity in school, but at least I had some friends, or people who would hang out with me every once in a while. Compared to Chelsea, however, I was a veritable social butterfly. Of course, that kind of thing was a lot easier for me, since people were slightly less likely to term me a freak before talking to me.
Another figure appeared in the kitchen door, as if my thinking about her had called her forth from the abyss, stretching and reaching behind her glasses to rub her eyes. She almost looked normal, if a little washed out, for that moment, but that illusion was shattered the next moment as she lowered her hands, her pink eyes scanning the kitchen for her breakfast, which was waiting for her on the table beside me. Her hair, a pale yellow color that might just barely be classified as blonde by a generous person, was still mussed up, somehow making it seem even shorter than usual, which was only about shoulder length. Just a little shorter than my own, really, though mine was brown, and in a ponytail.
She unceremoniously flopped into the chair opposite of me, sliding her plate closer to her so she could pick at the food on it. She wasn't a big eater in the morning, and not much more of one in the afternoon. Whether or not that trend continued into the evening, I couldn't say, but I suspected as much. She took a bite of toast, following it with a "G'morning."
"Mornin'," I replied, more into my coffee than to her.
"Do you have the pepper?" she asked, picking up her fork to poke her scrambled eggs.
If her parents weren't in the house, possibly lurking around the corner, I would have said, "Why, yes, I always put pepper in my coffee. I'll be done with it in a minute." Instead, I did my best to convey that with a look as I shook my head. I really hate pointless questions.
"Oh." She got back up to begin her condiment hunt, made her way over to the counter before I noticed the pepper shaker sitting beside me.
I slid it closer to her plate so that she wouldn't have to ask me to pass it before saying, "It's right here, Chelsea."
"Oh," Chelsea repeated herself, a blush giving her face color for a second. "Didn't see it there." She plopped back into her chair, nightshirt, just a bit whiter than her skin, fluttering back down over her legs. "Thanks."
I shrugged, returning to drinking, thus completing what on any normal day would most likely be the longest conversation we had all day.
I lifted the half empty pie pan, instinctively looking inside before setting it on the edge of the sink so that my hands were free to search through the rest of our leftovers. My mother had called to say she working late again, of course, and would I please do the dishes. And my father never bothered to call anymore, since he was always working late. I didn't especially hope to find anything mind-blowingly delicious in the fridge, but I -was- hoping for something a bit more than pie.
It was apple. I have nothing against apples; I love the little buggers, in fact. Apple pie, on the other hand, is a different matter. It used to be my favorite, until one day my body decided it needed to become allergic to cinnamon. Sure, you can make apple pie without it, but it's just not the same. I guess I could have gotten used to it if I had bothered to try. Now I didn't even know if this particular pie was safe for me to eat; my mother will sometimes use cinnamon in them, since I very rarely eat any anyway.
There wasn't anything else particularly appealing, no matter how hard I searched, so I finally settled on a white styrofoam box from the weekend before, piled high with some Chinese dish I couldn't even pronounce while at the restaurant, much less recall a few days later. It had been okay, though no more than that. Too spicy for my taste; what I get for ignoring the little red star beside its name on the menu, I suppose. My biggest disappointment hadn't been the food, though. No, that had been the plain take home box they'd given me. I was expecting one of those cool little paper or cardboard or whatever they make them out of things like you always see on television. What kind of Chinese restaurant doesn't have those?! The kind that makes their food too spicy, obviously.
I considered getting a plate out for about a second. I wasn't sure if I was going to eat all I had left, but hey, what did it matter? Who else would be eating from the box? No need to get more dishes dirty. As it was, I was already going to be up to one, which was more than enough for anyone, with my fork. I guess I could have been all traditional and eaten with chopsticks - there were a few sets in the silverware drawer for whatever reason - and worn a kimono and bowed to the box before sending it off to the inferno of the microwave, but I never had gotten the hang of eating with chopsticks. Honestly, who eats with sticks? No wonder they lost the War of… Something or Other…
The microwave beeped a few times, freeing me from the guilt of having never paid enough attention in history to know what wars China had been in. "Enjoy your food!" scrolled across the microwave's display screen thing before the time blinked back on. I had never liked that… Household appliances shouldn't be telling people what to do, and just to defy it, I tried not to enjoy whatever I warmed up in it as often as I could.
It almost seemed like my footsteps were echoing through my empty house as I wandered aimlessly through it, dinner balanced in one hand. I set the fork down in the box for a few seconds so I could flip through some channels before giving up and turning the television back off. I'm not sure why I felt so bored when I was alone in the house… I usually just stayed in my room when my parents were there anyway. And when they weren't, I had the whole house to myself rather than a small portion of it.
Four sets of eyes glared accusingly at me from the mantle as I walked over to the fireplace, sitting down on the hearth to finish poking at the noodles. Through the windows, I could see the sun, just a little above the horizon still. It hadn't been quite as hot out that day as I was expecting, as I had discovered walking home from Chelsea's house a couple hours before. It was probably even kind of comfortable out now. I stared at the styrofoam box, then around the room at the silent television and empty couches and chairs. Well, there wasn't anything keeping me there… I took a final bite before shoving the box back into the fridge and tossing the fork into the sink.
It could just about be considered cool out as I walked across the field towards the barn. It wasn't any particular kind of field anymore, since it didn't grow anything more than grass and weeds. The people who had the house before us were some kind of farmers, I guess. It would explain the barn, and the field, though neither of them showed any sign of ever having been used for farming. The pond had some fish in it still, but I'm pretty sure fish farmers would need a bigger body of water than that.
The water was nice and decently cold, so I sat on the bank for a little while, just dangling my feet. I used to get freaked out whenever I felt something brush by my legs while doing this, but I've gotten over that - none of the fish are big enough to bite off my toes or whatever. I probably don't need all my toes anyway. I watched the sun sinking, leaving the world in darkness. In theory. The moon was full, however, and already pretty high in the sky, just getting brighter as the sun vanished.
Eventually I got tired of the water. I wasn't quite ready to go back to the house, so I headed off into the forest. I was a bit rusty at first - I hadn't been in here for quite a while - but it only took a couple minutes to find the old trail. Leaves rustling under my shoes, I followed it for a while, trying to remember how far it had gotten before I gave up on it. I don't even know why I had spent so long making it any more. There wasn't anything in the woods to make a path to.
If there was a reason besides childish ambition, I wouldn't find out that night. I withstood it for as long as I was able before all the stupid insects buzzing around me convinced me to head back to the house, which was thankfully bug free for the most part. If I had been smart, I would have used bug repellent before heading out; now I was going to be scratching mosquito bites for a week. Friggin' Mother Nature.
The path back seemed to be about twice as long as the one in. As incredibly stupid as it sounds, and is, I was starting to get all jumpy now, seeing all kinds of weird things pouncing about in the shadows deeper in the forest, where even a full moon's light didn't fully penetrate. I'd never been nervous in there before, even when I was a kid… Don't know why my mind decided to start.
Luckily, I made it back out without getting eaten or mauled, trudged back across the field, wanting nothing more than to collapse onto my bed and promise myself never again to try to reclaim my childhood, no matter how boring being an adult had turned out to be so far. Except for when I make it more interesting for myself, I sigh to myself as I try to turn the back door's knob, only to find that I had somehow managed to lock myself out in my hurry to enjoy the bug-filled night air.
If my car was still here, then I could have got my spare key from the glove compartment of that, but, yeah, no chance of that now. I could plainly see that the driveway was completely empty. It probably wouldn't have saved me much more time than what I ended up having to do - going around to the front door. My anger at my own stupidity was starting to drown out the jumpiness from earlier, and I was hardly nervous at all as I walked around my house. Really. After all, I didn't scream when I saw the figure standing on my front lawn, although I'm not particularly sure how I avoided it.
Once the initial shock wore off, it was obvious that the person was Chelsea, who seemed to be staring at the side of my house, hands folded behind her, bare feet sticking out from under the bottom of her nightshirt.
"What the hell are you doing?!" I demanded angrily, stomping over to her.
She blinked a couple times before she started to answer, her eyes looking a bit glazed, though it was more the fact that she was without her glasses that threw me. I don't know anybody under the age of 40 that needs glasses as much as her. She never leaves her room without them… Why would she be out of her house and completely glasses-free?
"The frogs are attacking at midnight," she confided in me. "Thought you should know."
"Yeaahhh…" I would have suspected she was on drugs if I hadn't been with her all day that day, and the day before, and the day before, etc. That, and the fact that there weren't any drug dealers for miles around, simply because there weren't any people for miles around. Which left only one solution that I could think of. I grabbed her shoulders and shook her, maybe a little harder than was necessary, but hey, she'd scared the living bejeezus out of me; she deserved it. "Wake up!"
She gasped, and blinked a few more times before looking around in a daze. "Wha-?" She noticed me, blushed, tried to come up with something to say. I rolled my eyes. "Whatever," I mumbled, half ready to just leave her there. I didn't want to trip over her the next morning if she fell back to sleep, though, so I dragged her back to her own house as quickly as I could - my bed was still calling me, after all.
"Oh, I'm so sorry about that, dear," Mrs. Patterson gushed as she took her child back from me. "She's been sleepwalking lately, you know." I didn't, but I nodded anyway, hoping it would speed this whole thing along. "I guess she climbed through her window this time… I didn't even realize she was gone. She usually doesn't leave the house." Chelsea looked less than pleased to be the subject of conversation as she tried to squirm her way out of her mother's grasp.
"Yeah, okay," I shrugged. "See you tomorrow."
"And the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that…" my mind added as I trudged back to my own house, half watching for the sight of headlights making their way up my driveway, the signal that at least one of my parents was home, debating whether or not to try to beat them to the front door and hope it wasn't locked so that I could pretend everything was normal. My toes had found a rock somewhere along the way, and were kicking it ahead of me a little at a time.
Sleepwalking, huh? That was a new trick. I wondered how long that had been going on. I probably knew, but I didn't want to think about it. It's not like it was all that important, anyway. Her comment was bothering me more, really. There was just something so… familiar… about it. I just couldn't seem to place it. Usually my cue to leave it alone, let whatever it was stay locked in my memory, where it was most likely better off.
I've heard that if you live next to train tracks long enough, you get used to the sound of trains passing by; I've even heard that some people grow to like it. I guess you can learn to ignore just about anything if you hear it often enough. It just becomes part of the background, blends into white noise. Sometimes you don't even realize it. Sometimes you don't even hear the noise anymore, unless you try.
Moonlight glinted off of the rock for a split second as it flew off into the distance. I thought I saw it bounce a few times before becoming lost among the grass, and other rocks.
"Damn it." My voice, quiet, almost involuntary, lingered for a moment before it swirled away into the night, a leaf dancing on a gust of air before floating back to the earth, just another indistinguishable piece of the forest floor.
I used to like summer. Occasionally, when the heat and boredom both let up long enough for me to think clearly, I can remember why. Most of the time, however, the most positive thing about it I can come up with is that, eventually, it ends.
Or it used to, anyway. No matter how much I despised returning to school, at least it was a break from the monotony, and something new to complain about. Now it wasn't so much a break as a postponement that allowed me several more blessed hours of sleep, and a slight change of scenery for the earliest portion of my daily boredom. At last, I had time to do absolutely nothing in my own room for a while before going over to Chelsea's house to do next to nothing there. Oh, life was so grand - I could almost sing.
For the first couple days, Chelsea almost seemed happy as she got off the school bus, smiling and waving at the bus, empty except for the driver since this was his last stop, backpack clutched in her other hand. She had even thanked me for getting a box of cheese crackers out of the pantry and forgetting to put them back before she got there, and tried to share all the fifth grade gossip in between crunches. I didn't discourage this, per se… I just didn't pay much attention.
I guess she caught on sometime, since before the end of the first week, she had already stopped assuming I cared what a bunch of ten and eleven year olds were up to, or had been up to over the summer. I don't know why -she- cared, either, since from the few bits that I actually listened to, she had just overheard other people talking; I kind of doubted that any of it was from a conversation she had personally been a part of.
I probably should have felt a little guilty. Kids' minds were fragile - who knows what kind of effect our actions can have on them? What if I had somehow permanently damaged her ability to speak to other people? I guess I should have felt bad about that, but there was already too much else to blame myself for. Don't know if there's room.
She would finally run out of words after awhile, or give up, and retreat to her room, leaving me in blissful silence while she studiously toiled at her homework. I'm not sure how smart she is… She's a good kid, so she probably pays attention in class, and, as mean as it might sound to say it, it didn't seem like she had anybody to pass notes to and distract her. She seemed to have her homework under control, however - I think she asked for my help once, but no more than that - which definitely deserved a bit of respect. I'm pretty sure I couldn't have said the same about myself at that age, even during the first week of classes.
And just as I was getting used to this routine, everything had to go and change on me.
The first sign came through the fogs of sleep, bellowing like a foghorn. Or a phone, since that was what it was. At first it was just enough to get me to crack my eyes, catch a glimpse of sunlight sneaking around my curtain. That came as a surprise, since I had been sure it was still the middle of the night a moment before, though since I was also convinced I was in the middle of the forest, even waking up in my bed was a surprise in itself.
There was nearly no reason the phone should have been ringing. I could barely remember the last time it had happened. Anyone that had any business calling my house would undoubtedly know the cell phone numbers of each individual person residing there, and most of them knew that it was better just to use those. We would answer our "normal" phone… or my mother would, at any rate… but it was easier to just call the phone of who you wanted to talk to. Then we wouldn't have to initiate any unnecessary contact just to speak to the outside world. Not that anyone had tried to call me that summer.
I'm not sure if the second sign counted, exactly. I guess it was really more a continuation of the first than anything, though to me it was the point at which I began to suspect that there was something very wrong.
Though first rings on the phone weren't especially common, there were a few possible explanations - telemarketers, people afraid that even talking to someone who was using a cell phone would put them at risk of getting ear cancer, that sort of thing. Second rings were a bit anomalous, as my mother is fanatical about trying to answer before them. Thirds are all but unheard of.
It was already on the fourth.
"Are you gonna get that?" I asked, unfortunately getting no answer, since nobody outside of my room could have possibly heard that, and I, the only person there, wasn't yet in the habit of talking to myself. Out loud, anyway.
A cleared throat, louder volume version of the question brought about an identical reply, however, as the nearly impossible rings continued adding up. Why were my parents ignoring it? I knew they thought I slept too late, but would they go to -this- extreme to wake me up? I even had a fairly valid excuse today, since I couldn't force my eyelids to close before nearly 6 AM, according to the crimson light of my alarm clock. The same light that now showed the time to be…
"Oh, crap," I groaned, praying that I was reading it wrong somehow. 2 o'clock? How had I slept until 2 o'clock?! How had my parents let me sleep so long, past when they headed off to the world of commerce?
My blankets had gotten tossed off of me sometime in the midst of my slumber, so I didn't have to worry about shoving those aside before pushing myself out of bed and making a mad dash for the kitchen. The answering machine had cut off the ringing sometime during my realization, but the person on the other end could still be there… They'd better be after making me get out of bed.
The machine clicked just as I slowed myself down enough that my socks wouldn't slip on the linoleum of the kitchen floor and send me falling to my face, the number of messages reading a steady 00. I stared, vaguely annoyed, halfway considering going back to bed for another hour or so. I had time before I had to head over to Chelsea's house, and it wasn't like there was anybody around to bug me about being lazy.
The phone rang again. My stare transfered from the answering machine to it for a moment before I thought to pick it up. "Hello?"
"Oh, I'm so glad you're there!" Mrs. Patterson exclaimed, making me pull the receiver away from my head and miss the beginning of her next sentence. "…you weren't busy."
"Ummm… No, of course not…" I bluffed.
I resisted the urge, kept the phone next to my ear. "So… What's going on?"
Mrs. Patterson sighed. "It's… It's about Chelsea."
Sports had never been my thing, and I tried to avoid them as much as possible. I never really did a whole lot else with a high probability of injury, either. I had fallen down the last few steps to my basement once and sprained my ankle, but that was the only time I can remember where an ice pack was even considered for use on me. Needless to say, I was a bit behind on the whole "ice pack technology" thing, not even realizing that it was technology now.
So it took me a few moments to realize what the things sitting on top of Chelsea's hand and being clutched to the side of her face with her other hand were. There wasn't even actual ice in them… Which, of course, begs the question of if they're even still called ice packs. I guess they would be, for the sake of simplicity if not accuracy. Then again, maybe they weren't, so that if someone wanted real ice they wouldn't accidentally get one of those.
Honestly, it wasn't something I would normally spend a lot of time debating, but there wasn't a whole lot else to do as Mrs. Patterson went off on some huge rant that I'm pretty sure I wasn't a part of. What I caught of it was directed at Chelsea, who kept sinking lower and lower into the couch, her face a mask of fear and pain, tinged with just a bit of pride and anger. You'd have thought that Mrs. Patterson would have done this in the car… Well, who knows, maybe she started there.
She didn't look like someone who had just been in a fight, other than the so-called ice packs on her. The scuffle had probably been broken up rather quickly. There was a smudge of dirt across one of the legs of her jeans; other than that, she looked much the same as I imagined she would have when getting onto the school bus that morning - hair held back with an Alice band, dark blue shirt proclaiming her an "Angel", complete with a halo over the g.
Looks like someone hadn't believed the shirt, or got their kicks by beating up on angels.
There was a break in the lecture, during which Chelsea got the bright idea to say, "She started it." Her mother didn't like that, and Chelsea obviously didn't watch much television if she hadn't been able to predict that. She always had been a creative type of kid… I've always heard they're less likely to watch TV, because they're too busy being creative. Or something.
Mrs. Patterson's ranting stopped again. This time Chelsea kept her mouth shut as her mother checked her watch with a sigh. "We'll finish this talk later, with your father," she threatened as she stood. "I have to get back to work now." She kissed her battered daughter's forehead gently, an almost shocking contrast to the tone her voice had carried just a few moments before. "Get some rest, sweetheart." Chelsea nodded, a shimmer from the corner of her eye making her mother pause above her and give her another kiss.
"I know this is earlier than usual," she apologized as she moved towards my chair. I shrugged; not like I had anything better to do. By now it would probably only have been another half hour, maybe, before Chelsea would normally be home. "I'm sorry about all this."
I shrugged again, wondering if she'd missed the first. "No problem." More money for me was always good. Maybe I'd get paid for sitting through her ranting at Chelsea, too.
I heard the front door close behind me, listened as the car pulled out of the driveway and off into the distance. Chelsea shifted slightly, made no other move to retreat to her room. My hand wavered over the remote control on the little table next to me. It wouldn't kill me to say -something- to the poor kid after what she'd been through. It had to be a little embarrassing, even if she'd won, although I had my doubts about that. Having your mother come pick you up from school was always humiliating to some degree.
"So, uh… How'd it go?"
Chelsea glanced up, surprised at the sound of my voice, utterly confused by what I said.
"The fight," I clarified, already almost wishing I had just kept my mouth shut. "Did you win?"
She shook her head. "I was outnumbered." There was a minor wavering in her voice that vanished almost completely by the final word.
I wasn't thinking. That's pretty much all there is to it. I should have been used to talking to her by now; even if it was only a couple times a day, I had still spoken to her more than any other living soul since graduation. Even so, my tongue still managed to get ahead of my brain. "That's why you keep your friends around, so you can use them as shields."
Silence seemed to thicken the air; my lungs struggled to keep letting it in. Pink eyes glared into blue, one of the former only half open now from the bruise right beside it. How the hit that had given her that hadn't broken her glasses I have no idea.
Everyone has something they regret. I think I probably have more than most.
"But that isn't my fault, now is it?" she asked, the quiet sadness returning to her voice, this time overridden with something more. Regret? Resentment? Who knows?
You could live without feeling something for a long time, but you never quite forget what it's like. Or sometimes you feel it so often that you don't realize that's what it is, until it becomes strong enough that you almost think it will burst through your skin, a sun being contained by a bag of mesh. Either way it's always there, gnawing at the edge of your memory, tainting everything you do, everything you touch. Does any of it mean anything anyway? What's the point?
I used to believe in God. I honestly can't say if I do anymore. On one hand, only the power of a deity could possibly make me feel so utterly helpless as I wind my way through the path of His plan. On the other, how could He let people feel this way? So powerless, so trapped, so… fragile.
I should have answered, but this time it was her that was gone.
Another couple of days.
I honestly don't know what happened. I had established a peaceful, if not entirely merry, way of going about my life with Chelsea. Everything was fine - not more than that, but I didn't really need more, so that was okay. The two of us could survive a few hours together for the sake of me getting paid and her… Well, she wasn't exactly getting anything out of it. Except maybe not having to deal with a babysitter that was worse than me. I'm pretty sure there's a few of those around.
It wasn't her that changed. Once she came out of her room that day, she was the same as ever, though a bit more bruised. I wish I couldn't see that, that I could delude myself into thinking that it was all her fault, and at the time, I think I did manage to do so, somehow. She deserved it all, I told myself. After all, everything she did seemed to get on my nerves somehow, from the way she got off the bus to the little wave when I left.
Okay, to be honest, she didn't have to do anything. All I had to do was look at her face, and it all came back, everything I had feared she would remind me of when I first started the job. Before, I could make myself see past that, I could almost ignore it completely if I tried hard enough. No more. No matter what I did, I couldn't stop my brain's reactions.
Am I trying to justify what I did? I don't know… I guess. I know that really there is no justification - I exploited her weaknesses, used my knowledge of her for the sole purpose of torment. If I could go back, I would stop myself, or at least try to. Whether or not I'd be successful is another matter. I could tell myself everything, get the past me to see how I was letting my emotions cloud my judgment too much this time; I still don't know if that would be enough to override the thoughts that flooded through my mind every time I saw her.
What was I trying to accomplish? The only thing I can think of is that it was my way of getting revenge, of making her pay, even if it was for something she had no control over. Maybe I thought doing so would free my thoughts, allow me to let go. To move on. It didn't work, of course. Nothing ever does.
She was more scared the second time, but I could still sense the anger smoldering inside. She never felt like that around me, or if she did she hid it extremely well. The closest she came was her comment a few days before, yet even that hadn't been angry in the same way as this. I don't know why.
Mrs. Patterson was more angry this time as well; hers was at the forefront, however, most likely the reason that Chelsea's was so well hidden. She was more scared, too, the scratches I saw on Chelsea's arms before she was banished to her room probably the source. Mrs. Patterson stared down the hall at the closed door of her daughter's room for a minute before getting a glass of water and joining me in the living room.
"She's going to get suspended if it happens again," she said as she set her cup down on a coaster, hard enough to send a few waves splashing over the top. If she wasn't going back to work in a little while, I'm sure she would have been drinking something a lot stronger.
I'm not the greatest at cheering people up, but I do occasionally try. Especially when the person I'm cheering up is paying me. "At least she hasn't been yet. Most people don't get three chances."
Mrs. Patterson sighed.
"I don't know if I would have been able to put up with as much teasing as I'm sure she did before I got the urge to shut people up with my fists," I offered.
She picked up her glass again, took a sip. "The principal says that she started the fight this time."
"Oh." Well, that was a bit unexpected. "But the kid must have said something, right? I mean, she wouldn't just…"
Mrs. Patterson shrugged. "Nobody knows. The other child claims that he didn't say anything; Chelsea says he did, but she won't tell anyone what it is; no one else saw the beginning of the fight."
"Huh." There wasn't anything more to say. Maybe Chelsea was just trying to rid herself of pent-up frustration at past insults that her opponent, whoever he was, had hurled at her. Maybe she was trying to get revenge on the student body in general. Maybe she had been telling the truth and the boy -had- started it, but a random blow had caused selective amnesia to overwrite the part of her memory containing the prelude to battle.
"I just don't know what to do." Her voice was so tired, so worn out… So helpless.
Did I take advantage of her? Did I use her to get revenge for something that was never Chelsea's fault in the first place?
Yes, of course I did. I shouldn't have been able to - I had a damn good idea what she was going through from all too much recent first hand experience - but I did. I'm not proud of it. I'm not proud of any of this. When was the last time I was proud of anything?
"I think I might."
I'm no expert at detecting fear, trying to decipher what it is that someone dreads deep down. Alfred Hitchcock I am not. I'm not even a Stephen King.
There are just a few things that you pick up from being around people as long as I've been around the Pattersons. Most of them were pointless, things that I would delete to make room for more pertinent information if I could. There are a few things that come in handy every now and again, however.
For example… Take Mrs. Patterson. Working mother of one, around thirty-five, I would say. Formerly one hell of a bridge player, judging from the trophies on her book case, but now that her child is in school, she would feel guilty using the little time that they could potentially spend together in order to play a card game that her daughter just didn't get yet. There wasn't enough time in the day to waste like that.
What does she want more than anything? More time. She wants to be able to do the things she would like to do, and still have time to spend with her daughter, to bring her up the right way.
What does she fear? She fears that without that extra time, she isn't raising Chelsea correctly, that she has somehow will turn her into a juvenile delinquent.
I guess that's the sort of thing most parents worry about, but with her it seemed to be almost an obsession. She was subscribed to at least three different parenting magazines, that I had noticed anyway, and she had at least one shelf full of books on the subject, though most of them were rather old, probably having been used by her own mother first.
Too bad there wasn't enough time to read all of them. Or even most of them. With things the way they are, I'm sure she's lucky to be able to flip through one of the magazines before she realizes she should be getting something else, something more important, done.
Now, take Chelsea. There are a lot of things she is afraid of - she's just ten years old, after all. Heights, for one, and also spiders. Places that are pitch black, though she was over having to have a night light as long as her curtains were open a little. Scarecrows, after watching a late-night horror movie she wasn't supposed to see. Extremely tall grass, after being given, for the billionth time, the lecture that snakes and other creepy-crawlies lurked about there. Owls, although I have no clue where that one came from.
There are some things that can be more powerful than fear, however. Embarrassment is one of them.
I could have told Mrs. Patterson that the best way to keep your child from fighting was to shove her into a windowless room full of spiders and owls. It would have scared the hell out of Chelsea, and there would have been some degree of satisfaction in it. But for what she had made me feel, I wanted - no, I needed - something deeper. Something that would bring about a whole different form of suffering.
Like I said, I've known the Pattersons for a long time. I've known them since I was ten myself, and Chelsea was still a toddler, waddling around in her diapers. I knew them when I started middle school, all shy and awkward, as Chelsea started to grow up a little, acting a bit less like a baby, despite her failed venture into the world of potty training. I knew them when Chelsea started kindergarten, so little, half afraid, half excited, her pants still very slightly puffy with the outline of a Pull-Up. I knew them as I started to consider myself less of a kid, as I entered high school for the first time, and Chelsea went into first grade, much more afraid than excited this time, when her greatest fear was that the older kids that made fun of her last year would remember all the reasons they had picked on her.
You know all of this already, I know. You know it better than I do, most likely.
But it was that knowledge that drove me, that inspired the lie I was about to spin. It was the memory of the fear and humiliation in her eyes when I walked past her on the school bus, tears softly, or sometimes not so much so, shining at the corners of her eyes after another day of being made fun of, whether that be on account of the way she looked or that she still had to wear diapers until halfway through first grade.
I felt sympathy for her then. My heart went out to her every time I saw her, and I wished I could help. But the elementary school was across the road from the middle and high school, and we weren't supposed to leave the grounds, even to cross the road, unless we were upperclassmen.
That sympathy had run out a few days before. Anything I could convince her mother to do to her would be nothing compared to what her simple presence did to me.
"I've heard about this new… technique… to deal with 'problem children'…" I started, my B.S. engine running full speed, luckily rust-free despite not being used since the last paper I wrote for school.
I just had to look at Mrs. Patterson to tell she was falling for it hook, line, and sinker.