Authors: Cecil Castellucci
Lise, Vincent & Laurent Castellucci, with love and gratitude,
and those friends (especially Andrea Kleine, Nancy Ross, and Melissa Auf der Maur) who helped me find a way back
Red Means Stop, Green Means Go
The Girls Who Came In from the Cold
I was black inside and so I took everything black.
It was the end of October, and a few leaves were still clinging on to the trees, all bright yellow, red, and orange. These leaves were suckers, I thought, tricking themselves into thinking that this fall would be different, that they wouldn’t have to let go and turn brown and make room for snow.
That’s what I had done. Before I was black, I was like them. I had tricked myself, at the end of summer, into thinking that starting high school would somehow make everything different. That I would be reinvented. That I would find my true friends. But it was almost Halloween and I was still lonely and friendless, and that made me see everything with a dark point of view.
Everyone in my family could tell I had a black cloud over me. I wore it like an extra sweater.
“We’re worried about you, Rose,” my mom said across the table while I barely ate my toast.
She said it all the time, and every time it made my chest tighten. I felt bad that she was worried, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it except mumble that I was doing just fine.
“What?” she said. “I can’t hear you.”
“I’m fine,” I said again. But I knew she was unconvinced.
My dad dealt with it by sinking deeper behind his
New York Times.
My brother, Todd, tried to make jokes, but he seemed to be the only one who ever laughed.
Maybe he just wasn’t funny.
“Come on, let’s rock and roll,” Todd said this time, grabbing an extra banana for the walk down to the bus stop.
“Have a good day at school,” Mom said. As I passed her to leave, she squeezed my shoulder. She wanted to give me a little encouragement, but I couldn’t let anything in.
“Rose,” she said, pulling me back into the kitchen. She put the palm of her hand on my face and cupped it.
Her hand was warm, and I could feel something. I could feel that she was trying to send me some love.
In science class, Mrs. Merrick said that in outer space if you move one inch, you could end up a million miles out of your way.
And that’s what had happened to me.
“Mom,” I said, shaking her off.
It was a good thing, my mother’s warm hand on my face. Standing at the front door with the cold nip in the air, I could still feel it.
As soon as I got outside, I motioned at the two men in suits who always hung out on the street corner in front of our house. They were like overgrown, well-dressed delinquents.
“What do you think—KGB or CIA?” I asked Todd.
It was no secret that our neighborhood in Riverdale was crawling with KGB and CIA agents. You’d think the Bronx would be the farthest thing away from the Cold War, but next door to us was the Soviet apartment compound.
Here, on a daily basis, I was reminded that the superpowers were acting like a couple of stupid kids on a playground. Only they were messing with the whole world.
“You can tell who’s who by their eyebrows,” Todd said, his usual goofy self. But then he stopped dead in his tracks, like he always did whenever the girl next door walked down her front steps.
She was a vision. I’ll give him that. Her legs were impossibly long and lean, and when she walked, it looked as though she were gliding. Her steps were so impossibly sure of themselves. Regal.
” Todd said.
Todd really did think that the girl next door was a Goddess. He had even rolled up a Deity that looked just like
her to use as a Non-Player Character in the Dungeons and Dragons game he ran in our garage every Friday night.
I swear he wanted to bow to her.
I didn’t say anything, though. I waited for him because I knew he always waited for me no matter how much I dragged my feet, or gave him dirty looks, or lived under the black cloud. Every morning he still walked me down the hill to the bus stop.
He did it out of love. He did it out of a brotherly sense of chivalry. We both knew that if he didn’t go with me I would have to stand at the bus stop alone, and even if we didn’t talk to each other, I must admit that it was a comfort to have him there.
“They have a school in the Soviet compound,” Todd said, and he pointed over to the large white apartment building down the street on Fieldston Road. “That’s where she’s going to school. She doesn’t have to live in the compound because her dad’s a Communist bigwig. That’s why they get to be in the townhouse next door.”
Todd’s obsession with the girl next door knew no bounds. One could even say that he spied on her, because he accumulated what information he had and told it to me whenever he was reminded of her existence.
“She’s sixteen. From Moscow. She just got her hair cut. She speaks French as well as she speaks English. She’s a ballet dancer like you. She likes strawberry ice cream. She listens to The Police.”
My room looked out into hers—the townhouses we lived in shared a garden path. I’d seen her brush her hair, read a book, talk on the phone. I’d noticed that we had the same ballet poster hanging on our walls. I had never seen her pull down the shades, have friends over, or listen to records. Or. Or. Or…
Just last year, half the neighborhood had been emptied of those with special privileges, because a bunch of them turned out to be bona fide Soviet spies, caught in the act of stealing state secrets. But not our neighbors. They seemed to be the only ones who hadn’t been deported. She was as Soviet and Communist as they come.
“Yrena,” Todd said. “Isn’t that a beautiful name? Like a poem?”
I had reached my limit. I punched Todd hard in the shoulder to snap him out of his stupor.
“Ow,” he said.
“Put your eyes back in your skull,” I told him. “You are setting back U.S.-Soviet relations fifty years with your tongue wagging around like that. You are going to cause Armageddon with your leering.”
He ignored me.
“Okay. But, Rose, be honest. Do I look okay?”
I gave him the once-over. With his overgrown muttonchops, he looked like a soulful sheepdog—not at all like someone who could cause any trouble.
But, I thought, he was also a sack of hormones. Todd was
skinny skin skin with a sunken chest. He wore wiry glasses like John Lennon’s and his face was a little too shiny. But he didn’t need to know that. He just needed to know that he was letting his adolescent boy hang out a little too much.
I kind of softened.
“You look like you always do,” I said.
He seemed relieved, and I realized (at least a little) that my brother was a good guy—even when he said dumb things.
“Russian girls are hot,” he said now. “James Bond agrees with me. Just watch
From Russia with Love.
As the girl next door got to the bottom of her front steps, she noticed me and Todd, like she always did when we left our buildings at the same time. There had been many mornings that fall when we all walked out of our houses at exactly the same time. That particular day happened to be the one when everything fell right into place. At the time, I thought it was just a coincidence. But it wasn’t.
Yrena never smiled at us. Or waved hello. But that day she caught my eye as she stopped to smooth her hair and check the pins in her bun, fixing the large white bow she always wore on top of her head.
Not for the first time, I wondered how good a dancer she was.
Is she better than me?
I thought. Probably. No matter how badly I wanted to be good, it seemed like everyone was always a better dancer than I was.
I tried to push the dark thoughts out of my head. I wanted one part of me to be good today.
“Oh my God, is she looking over here?” Todd said. “Walk slower.”
Todd slowed down his gait until he fell twelve paces behind me. I slowed down, too, but that made Todd walk even slower until finally I just stopped and waited for him to do what he needed to do to leer at Yrena as she passed us.
When she walked by me, she was looking at me and so maybe that’s why I gave her the I’m-sorry-my-brother-is-a-perv look and she pressed her lips into a tiny smile that said to me It’s-okay-and-I-understand-that-boys-will-be-boys.
Then we both smiled. For real. And I had to catch my breath because it was the friendliest moment I’d had in weeks.
I took that smile and I put it right where the hole in my chest was. It was better than coffee, or chocolate, or a perfect pirouette. I clutched it and held it tight.
“I seriously think I’m in love,” Todd said as he watched Yrena retreat toward her school in the big white apartment building down the street.
“You are not in love,” I said. “You don’t even know her.”
“I want to know her,” Todd said.
“You will never know her,” I said. But I think I said it sadly, because at the time I was thinking that I would never know her, either.
She was around the corner now and we could no longer see her. The KGB and the CIA guys had followed her,
presumably to make sure that she actually made it to the fenced-in white building.
“What do her parents do?” I asked Todd.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“How come you don’t know that?”
I said it teasingly. Like he should know. But he took it to be a judgment. Todd was sensitive like that. Sensitive like me.
“I’m not that good a spy,” Todd said, sounding genuinely disappointed in himself.
“They probably just work at the UN. Or maybe at the consulate,” I said.
spies. Maybe they’re just so good that they didn’t get caught in that sweep last year.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Well, it would be
My gaze floated over to the white apartment building. It was only when you noticed the large electric barbed wire fence patrolled by armed guards and a big Soviet flag flying from a flagpole that you began to see that it wasn’t your average Riverdale apartment building.
I wondered if all the American flags that people on our street had waving in their yards were in response to that big red flag.
“Did you know that, technically, if I threw a ball over that fence, it would be in the Soviet Union?” Todd said. “With all the KGB and CIA, we probably have the safest street in New York City.”
“Unless there’s an international incident,” I pointed out. “Then I guess we’re screwed.”
“I can think of lots of ways that maybe we could bridge the gap between the U.S. and the USSR. There could be a cultural exchange. We could have some kind of U.S.-USSR dating service. I could volunteer to date Yrena.”
“What makes you think she’d want to go on a date with you?” I asked.
“I’m pretty brilliant,” he said. Todd was not even kidding—he
brilliant. He had been smart enough to skip grades and go to college early, but instead he chose to stay with his age group and go to Bronx Science for a normal high school experience. I went to the High School of Performing Arts for dance.
“Probably I’d be a person of interest,” he went on. “I could grow up to be almost anything.”
I was glad that Todd and I didn’t go to the same school, not only because Daisy, my ex–best friend, went to Bronx Science, but also because I didn’t want to have to live up to Todd’s academic reputation. When I was in junior high school, all the teachers expected me to be as smart as Todd, and then were inevitably disappointed when I barely hit average.
Still, Todd was uncoordinated, knock-kneed, ungraceful, and gangly. He couldn’t even tap his foot in time while sitting down. I’d like to think that as smart as he was, there was a little part of him that was jealous of me for my dancing abilities, however flawed they were.
Todd and I walked in silence, each lost in our own early morning thoughts, till we got to the bottom of 254th Street and Broadway. Todd joined up with a group of Bronx Science kids and I stood off in my usual spot, off to the side and by myself.
No one I was friends with from junior high school went to Performing Arts, except for Stanley—but I hadn’t talked to him since fourth grade, so he didn’t count. Also, he was in the drama department and I especially didn’t like the Drama (capital D, please) people. They thought they were all so cool, but really they were just
I thought they were too loud and wore too much makeup. Even Stanley.
High school sure had changed him.
I remembered when everyone gave Stanley the silent treatment in fourth grade. Or when he left a green turd in the bus toilet on the way to the dude ranch on the sixth-grade trip. Or when his too-tight, too-high pants split right in the crotch when he ran onto the stage for a chance to sing “Food, Glorious Food” from
in an assembly in eighth grade.
But now I noticed that, despite the fact that Stanley was the same old Stanley, he had a lot of friends, and his weird fashion sense looked kind of cool. He looked like he belonged.
I was still the same, and yet nothing had changed for me.
Of course, someone like Daisy would say that everything
about me had changed completely and that was why we could no longer be friends.
I tried not to notice her, but she was there at the bus stop, like she always was, hanging out with my old group of friends. We were far beyond the “hi” stage.
It used to be that, for a while, everyone except Daisy would smile at me when I got to the bus stop. Sometimes they would even ask me how I was, or how Performing Arts was. But in the last few weeks, that had all stopped. Daisy had made sure it had stopped.
Now they all left me alone, and when I got there, Daisy always looked at me and squinted her eyes into a hard stare.
Instead of being freaked out by her staring, I tried to notice how Daisy had changed. Her hair had more mousse in it than actual hair. It was shiny and her curls looked stiff. She wore big earrings that dangled in seemingly impossible geometric shapes. Even worse, she had on a miniskirt with leg warmers.
I hated it when nondancers wore leg warmers.
Daisy’s black eyeliner made the mean look she was throwing at me even meaner. I felt that look right in my gut. I tried to look away, but I wasn’t fast enough. I still saw what Daisy mouthed at me.