Authors: Wendy Delsol
I couldn’t help thinking. And when we’re done with that, we can ask the Sorting Hat to divide us into houses. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just take the initiative and ask the guy yourself? It’d save on paper.”
I couldn’t read the look on Penny’s face. She was either offended or concerned. “I’ve heard of it happening before, but not very often. Anyway, there’s a Sadie Hawkins dance later in the year. Why? Is there someone you want to ask?”
I took a step back. “No.”
“It’ll be a fun night,” Penny said. “There’s a really popular local band scheduled to play.”
A kid with a five-dollar bill in his hand stepped in front of me. “I’ll take one.”
Penny ripped off a ticket, placed his five in the cashbox, and handed him two singles. He walked away.
Penny drummed her fingers on the tin box. “So you wanna go?”
“The Asking Fire.”
“Oh.” It wasn’t like I had anything else to do, but then again, it would take more than a magic fire to get me excited about Homecoming. For one thing, I wasn’t home — far from it. For another, the whole thing was a prelude to a dance I had no chance, or desire, of attending. Though the bonfire thing did sound like the sort of oddity you couldn’t help but rubberneck, like Mormon prairie hair or extreme lowrider pants. “I don’t know.”
“Come on. Tina and I are going. You can come with us.”
I recalled tall Tina, master of the curling iron. Who could pass up an invitation to hang with two such hair specimens? Penny and her hedge head and Tina and her barrel bangs. I was about to say no when I thought of my mom’s have-an-open-mind lecture. Maybe I needed to give the place a chance. So what if it was a little hokey? So what if I had no intention of going to the dance? It was nice of Penny to include me. “I guess.”
“How about we meet at your grandpa’s store at seven? We can walk from there.” Penny held out her hand. “That’ll be three dollars.”
I unbuckled a side pocket of my satchel. “You’re a smooth salesman.”
smooth,” a cloyingly sweet voice interrupted. I turned to find Monique and one of her friends behind me. “And have you done something different with your hair today? It looks . . . I don’t know, fluffier.” Monique smiled as if her perfect white teeth could conceal the sarcasm. “I’ll take two.” Monique dropped a five and a single on the table.
Penny made an effort to flatten her hair.
The pair sauntered off, but not before I overheard Monique say, “Chia Pet Penny smooth? Now, that’s a joke.”
I turned back to Penny. She pulled her mouth into a fish-kiss, tucked a big section of frizz behind her right ear, and looked down at her hands. I felt terrible for even thinking like Monique.
“Remember what I said about getting rid of the monarchy around here and giving that democracy thing a go?”
Penny lifted her shoulder with a small shrug.
“That one is evil and wicked and deserving of an overthrow,” I said.
“Not likely,” Penny said.
“I’ll take one.” I recognized Jack’s voice and turned to see him holding three crumpled bills. He looked at me curiously and, as usual, for longer than is acceptable in polite society. Were we gunslingers in the Wild West, we’d both have had fingers on the trigger. Something dark passed over his impossibly blue eyes.
“I thought you couldn’t go.” Penny’s voice was strained.
“Change of plans,” Jack said, finally wresting his gaze away from me. He swallowed hard, and his neck muscles tightened. Gads, the guy really couldn’t stand me.
“We’re all going.” A wash of pink crept up Penny’s neck and over her cheeks. “Tina, Kat, and I.” So she had a thing for Jack. How did I not pick up on this before? But good for her, though she seriously needed to play it a little cooler. “Who are you going with?”
“We’ll see you there,” Penny said.
Jack walked away, but not before throwing a glance in my direction. A chill ran through me. I handed three dollars to Penny and sat on the edge of the table. “So how long have you liked Jack?”
The red in Penny’s coloring moved into even deeper territory, something in the purple family, violet or possibly plum. “What? Why do you ask?” She handed me a ticket.
“I have pretty good radar about these things.”
Penny opened her mouth as if to contradict me, but then snapped it shut and folded it into a look of defeat. “It’s hopeless. We’ve been friends too long. He doesn’t see me that way. He doesn’t see anybody that way.”
“Maybe he needs to see you in a new light.” And maybe I could atone for being so judgmental.
“I’ll come to your house at six tomorrow. Have your hair wet and your closet open. We’re gonna change things up a bit.”
“And tell Tina to be there, too. We’ll make it a two-fer.”
“I don’t know. What’s the point?”
“The point is you have pretty hair — people pay their stylists big bucks to get that color — and you have a cute figure, but if you want him to see you differently, if you want everyone to see you differently, then you have to give them something new to look at.”
“I’m not so sure.”
I crossed my arms. “You didn’t answer my question. How long have you liked him?”
“And how’s that working out for you?”
She blew a big puff out of her cheeks. “Not so good.”
“Hair wet. Closet open.” I walked away before she could argue any further.
The rest of that school day was blissfully incident-free. Penny was warming to my
costume ideas and looking forward to our appointment the next day — what she was calling Extreme Makeover: Minnesota Edition. Gotta love a girl with the sense of humor. And Jack completely ignored me at lunch, which was fine by me.
After school, I walked to Afi’s fighting a headwind. The tails of my scarf whipped about my head, and leaves skidded across the downtown sidewalk. Some squawker of a Canada goose was blaring at me from across the street. If I didn’t know better, I’d think it was trying to tell me something. Like, we’re all heading south — wanna catch a ride?
I had the creepy sensation that someone was watching me when an old woman swept past on a bike, her sharp profile making my breath catch. Grim. She did not smile or wave or acknowledge me in any way. The Wicked Witch of the West’s theme song from
The Wizard of Oz
played as she pedaled away. It did. I heard it. It made me giggle. My cell phone rang.
“How’s my Kitty Kat?”
“OK, I guess.”
“It’s Friday. Got any big plans?”
I didn’t know if hiding out in my bedroom from my mom and her okely-dokely boyfriend was big, but it sure was my plan. “Nah. Tomorrow, though, there’s some sort of bonfire going on, a school tradition. Some band’s gonna play.”
My dad chuckled. “Pagan sacrifices? Viking reenactments? The Icelandic Sagas: The Rock Opera?”
I went all rubbery. I had to stop for fear of bouncing off the sidewalk. If only he knew the half of it. “Something like that.” Had we been speaking in person, I might have told him more about the Asking Fire. He would have scoffed loud and long. I missed him. “Where are you?”
“Still in Tokyo.”
“How’s it going?”
There was a long pause on the other end. “Not so good.”
“The contract with the factory, it fell through, so looks like our financial backers are pulling out.”
“Oh, no. After all your hard work.” For months my dad had been working on a start-up deal for a factory that would manufacture a newly patented design for small- and medium-size wind turbines. Last I had heard, they had a rental agreement to take over an abandoned plant in Long Beach.
“This whole trip’s a waste,” he said. “Without a contract to prove we have a facility, the deal will fall through.”
“It might still work out.” The goose had now crossed over to my side of the street. It was big and waddled toward me with authority, still squawking.
“It would take a miracle at this point, honey.”
“What are you going to do?” I worried about his funding falling through. It was a really big deal to him. Another goose circled above and then dropped in next to its buddy. The two of them walked behind me, jabbering away.
“Try to buy us some more time. We’ve got one more meeting. Then we fly home.” I could hear the strain in my dad’s voice. “And start all over again.”
“Will there be time to come see me?”
The triangle formed by me and my parents was rubbed raw on all three sides. My dad hadn’t wanted my mom to move from California, though there was no way he could have fought for custody. Even without the affair as a blemish, he traveled too much and worked too many hours. My mom didn’t want to take on our home’s mortgage alone. But more than that, she wanted to go home, as in Minnesota. Wanted to spend more time with her widowed father. Wanted a fresh start.
Dad was the quintessential Californian. He surfed, played beach volleyball, drove a convertible, and wore shorts and flip-flops year-round. My mom used to describe him as fun-loving, but that was before she knew the full extent of his fun. The rip in my gut flapped every time I dwelled on the whole thing. Still, I wanted desperately for the two of them to just find a way to deal. And I wanted my dad to visit. And I wanted my mom to be OK with that.
“When?” I turned a corner; so did the birds, still tail-feathering me.
What the hell?
“And don’t say Thanksgiving, because that’s too long from now.” Plans were in place for me to visit him in November, but that was over two months away.
“Soon as I can.”
Which was post-divorce-speak for “no promises.” A truck rushed past me. It was the old faded green junker with
painted on the side of the cab. I couldn’t tell if it was Jack in the driver’s seat, though. A cap obscured the identity of the driver, as did the speed of the vehicle. Suddenly, a rush of wind came out of nowhere. It blew my hair into my eyes and mouth. I had to stop and turn my back to the squall. My dad must have heard the howl through the phone.
“Was that what I think it was?”
“Yes. Humans have no business living in this climate.”
I could hear my dad laugh all the way across the ocean. He had a great laugh, the kind you hope for, and work for. All the more special, given the setback in his business deal. “Heck. Sounds like we should set up shop right there. Who needs a ridgeline when you’ve got Canada blowing down your neck?”
“That’s a great i—” There was a bunch of static, and then the line went dead. I looked up to see Wade and Monique coming my way. They were ticker-tape parading their conjoined status. Honestly, a start-of-game Jenga tower didn’t touch at that many points. It was too late to cross the street. I pocketed the phone and wrapped my scarf around my face. As if it wasn’t bad enough with the two carping geese still following me and winds battering me from above, I had bad news headed straight for me.
As they approached, forcing me off the sidewalk and onto a grassy strip, I found myself growing wary. Wade, I could see, had a vile twist to his mouth. They passed, and I momentarily locked eyes with Monique until something drew my attention upward. Around the crown of her head bounced little corking spools of air. I stopped suddenly, startling the geese. They honked angrily and flew off with great flaps of wings just a few feet above my head. I saw Wade duck his big head at the thunder of their takeoff.
After they turned the corner, I stood in the same spot for many minutes, shivering. Monique — could it be? She had the same vibrating spirals as Jaelle. Monique — could it
be? Or was I going crazy?
The wind howls as if wounded. I can’t see; leaves the size of beach towels encircle me, flapping in the gale and blocking my view. I look down. My feet are bare and cold. I inch forward, first on tiptoe and then the balls of my feet, anything to avoid full contact with the frozen ground. My dress, a long flowing gown of a gauzy red linen, is tattered and frayed and bunches at my ankles, twisting and wrapping itself until my gait becomes geisha-like. All the while the maelstrom of cold air continues, lifting my hair and holding it aloft as if it were flotsam in a raging river.