Authors: Susan Beth Pfeffer
Most Precious Blood
Susan Beth Pfeffer
Of course there was background. Words as angry as the ones pouring out of Michelle's mouth didn't emerge without some sort of history behind them. Val reminded herself of that in the locker room as she tied the laces of her running shoes. Or did she mean to untie them? It was hard to concentrate.
She tried untying her laces to see if that felt better. Whatever she was supposed to do, she was glad to have a reason to be looking down. Michelle was standing right in front of her. Val could feel the words flow down on her like mud.
“You broke your promise again. You always do. You just do what you want, and the hell with everybody else.”
Val's back was starting to hurt from the stooping. She didn't know how much longer she could continue to tie and untie and tie again. At some point she would have to look up and confront her cousin's angry eyes.
“You're so spoiled, Val. You always have been. You've always been given everything you want. You expect the world to revolve around you.”
“You've made your point already, Michelle,” Kit Farrell said. “Before school and during lunch and now here. Give it up already.”
Michelle whirled to face Kit. “The mouthpiece speaks,” she said. “The defender of the faith. Like father, like daughter, right, Kit? I hope your retainer is as big as your father's.”
Val used the moment to sit up straight. “Stop it,” she said. “If you're angry at me, don't take it out on Kit.”
“It's all right,” Kit said. Val knew Kit meant it, but she didn't care. Michelle had never liked Kit, had always resented Val and Kit's friendship. Michelle wanted desperately for Val to like her as much as she liked Kit. It wasn't that Val failed to understand Michelle. That wasn't part of the background.
“Is that where you were?” Michelle asked. “Did you decide to spend the day with precious Kit instead of coming over to my house? Did you think you'd have more fun running wild with her than having a family dinner? One my mother worried about for days, and you never showed up.”
“I told you I was sorry,” Val said. She sighed. It was Monday, and the dinner had been scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Knowing Terry, Michelle's mother, she probably had worried for days. Terry worried about everything, but especially about pleasing Val and her father. Neither one of whom came for dinner. “Daddy had to go out of town on business. And I had that paper to write for English. I'd forgotten all about it, and you know what Sister Gina Marie is like when you don't hand a paper in on time.” It was a lie, and they both knew it. Val simply hadn't wanted to have dinner with Michelle's family. Not given the tension that currently existed between their fathers. Tension that Val suspected Terry had hoped to dissipate with a Sunday dinner.
“Is that why you didn't answer the phone all day?” Michelle persisted. “You were so busy working on your paper you didn't even hear it?”
Val nodded. Another lie. She didn't answer the phone because she was a coward. Because she'd been hoping to avoid the wrath she was now facing.
“Are you sure you weren't at Kit's instead?” Michelle said. “Enjoying yourselves, making fun of me and my mother? Getting drunk with her mother instead.”
A direct hit. Val looked anxiously at her friend to see how she would take it. Kit's mother's drinking was one of those things everybody at school knew about, but most of them were too polite or frightened to mention. Not Michelle when she was angry. For Michelle there were no barriers of decency.
“My mother isn't getting drunk this week,” Kit said. “We took her to a rehab center yesterday. You're a jerk, you know that, Michelle.”
“So that's where you were,” Michelle said. “Spending the afternoon driving up to some posh joint for lushes in Connecticut probably. You thought that was more fun than having dinner with my family, didn't you, Val? You thought Kit's mother was more important than mine.”
Val stood up. She carefully folded her gym clothes and put them in her book bag. “I'm sorry about dinner yesterday,” she said. “I'll call your mother as soon as I get home and apologize to her. Now will you drop it, Michelle?”
But Michelle wasn't about to drop anything. It wasn't her nature to. Val remembered an incident when the girls were ten, when she and Michelle were supposed to go into the city for the day with their mothers, and she'd had to cancel because of a toothache. Michelle still brought that one up on a regular basis. Val was almost surprised Michelle hadn't mentioned it already.
“She cried,” Michelle said. “You made my mother cry. Do you like that, Val? Does that make you feel good?”
“I said I was sorry,” Val declared. Terry cried easily. At Val's mother's funeral, Terry's weeping drowned out everyone else's sorrow. In some dark murky way, Val had never forgiven her those sobs. They seemed cheap and theatrical. Of course that had been over two years ago, and Val knew she shouldn't bear a grudge. That was Michelle's specialty.
“We're going to be late for English,” Kit said. “Come on, Val.” She took Val's arm and began leading her out of the locker room.
Val looked around. The other girls had already left. They must have sensed the best part of the fight was over. It probably peaked for them with Michelle's comment about Kit's mother. Or maybe they'd left even before then. Val couldn't remember when she'd last noticed the other girls. She hoped for Kit's sake they hadn't overheard everything.
She felt a moment of petty satisfaction when she handed in her paper to Sister Gina Marie. She'd finished the paper days earlier, hadn't even looked at it yesterday, but at least it was done, and Michelle couldn't know exactly when it was finished. Michelle handed hers in as well, but Kit didn't.
“I'm sorry,” Kit said. “Something came up this weekend. I'll hand it in tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Michelle whispered. “They had to bail her mother out of the drunk tank.”
The girls sitting around Michelle tittered. Val knew Kit must have heard, but she didn't say anything. She just stood there, making eye contact with Sister Gina Marie. Val had gone to Most Precious Blood with Kit, and Michelle for that matter, since kindergarten. She'd seen Kit stare straight at teachers, even the nuns, while clearly defying them for years now. But she never quite got over her feeling of admiration. When Val was in trouble, she always looked down.
“All right,” Sister Gina Maria said. “See to it you hand in the paper tomorrow, Kit.”
“That's not fair,” Michelle said. “How come Kit gets an extension like that, and none of the rest of us do?”
“None of the rest of you asked for one,” Sister Gina Marie replied.
“That's because you said no extensions,” Michelle said. “âNo extensions, no exceptions.' You said that on Tuesday when you gave us the assignment. And now you've made an exception. And Kit didn't even give a reason. You didn't even ask for one. That's not fair.”
“You're right,” Sister Gina Marie said. “It is unfair. You're all juniors in high school now. I think it's time that you learned life is unfair.”
“But Michelle's right,” Jennifer Riccio said. “You did say no exceptions, and now you made one for Kit. I had a busy week too. I didn't want to waste my time writing some stupid paper for you, but I did. And Kit didn't, and she's getting away with it.”
“I haven't read your paper yet, Jennifer,” Sister Gina Marie said. “But when I do, I'll be sure to keep your opinion of it in mind. If you think it's stupid, then undoubtedly it is.”
Kit had sat down. Val thought she saw a glimmer of a smile on her face. They both liked Sister Gina Marie, who'd only been teaching at their school for a couple of years. She hadn't calcified yet. Sometimes they even heard her laugh when she talked with the other teachers.
“I still don't understand why you're letting Kit get away with it,” Michelle said. “We all had to give up things to write our papers. Val was supposed to have dinner with my family, and she had to cancel just to write her paper. Why does everybody treat Kit like she's queen around here? It's been going on for years now. Kit always comes in number one. She always gets the best grades. Everybody always likes her best. It's unfair, and I'm sick of it.”
“This is an English class,” Sister Gina Marie said. “Not a TV talk show. If you have any differences with Kit, I suggest you discuss them after school. We have our own work to concentrate on today.”
For a moment, Val thought Michelle wouldn't stop. She could be like that, get wound up over something and not be able to let it go. Val felt pity for her cousin, pity and affection and concern. And guilt. Michelle would be fine if she'd only showed up for dinner. And Kit would have been spared a couple of embarrassing scenes as well. Val wished she could go back in time just a day, so she could endure the occasion she'd avoided. So what if Terry got weepy, as she undoubtedly would have, simply because Val's father hadn't come too. So what if Bob, Michelle's father, had cast dark and angry looks at her. Whatever was going on was between Val's father and him, and had nothing to do with Val. Her father always kept his business dealings from her. And whatever was going on between her father and his cousin Bob was business. A deal, Val suspected, that Bob had assumed he'd get a share of and didn't. Bob always took Val's father's business dealings personally.
It would have been one lousy dinner to sit through, tears and anger and noise from Michelle's kid brothers and foolishness from her older sister, but Val was used to that. She even envied it sometimes. She was an only child, and she wished for brothers and sisters, especially in the years of her mother's illness. Things had been so quiet then. Things were never quiet at Michelle's house.
Kit had an older brother, Kevin, but he was five years older, and ignored the girls. He was at Notre Dame now. Last summer he went to Europe. The summer before he'd had a different excuse. There'd been another boy in between, but he'd died when Kit was just a baby. Val looked around the classroom. They all had backgrounds, she realized. Each of them had a family history that influenced everything about them. Even Sister Gina Marie, although it was hard to think of a nun, even a young one, coming from a real family. Kit claimed nuns were hatched, like chickens. Val smiled.
“Do you see some humor in Juliet's plight that escapes me, Val?” Sister Gina Marie asked. “If you do, I wish you'd share it with us.”
Val shook her head. “I'm sorry,” she said. “I was thinking of something else.”
“You all seem to be thinking of something else today,” Sister Gina Marie declared. “Don't you think October is a little early for spring fever?”
The girls laughed. Val was glad for the excuse to laugh with them. It relieved some of the tension.
“Very well,” Sister Gina Marie said. “Since none of you seems willing to think about
Romeo and Juliet
right now, perhaps a surprise quiz might make you focus on your work.”
The protests were immediate and loud. “A quiz? That's not fair. I was concentrating. Will it count in our averages?”
“A quiz,” Sister Gina Marie said. “And of course it will count in your averages. If I'm going to have to grade them, the grades should have some meaning. Take a sheet of loose-leaf paper, and I want each of you to take one member of the Montague family and one of the Capulets, and write about how each of them felt about the feud, quoting from the play. Don't use either Romeo or Juliet, it has to be other family members. This is an open-book quiz. Now get to work, and try to remember your grammar and spelling in this hour of need. All right. You may begin.”
The girls opened their copies of the play and searched frantically, trying to find family members and references to the feud. Val searched along with them, but her mind still was on her own family. Bob was angry at her father. Michelle was angry at her. Terry and Kit were innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. So was Sister Gina Marie for that matter, and now all of them who had to take a surprise quiz suffered as well. Just because Bob thought his cousin Rick, Val's father, had cut him out of a deal. This was definitely carrying the sins of the father too far.