Authors: Stefan Petrucha
Dedicated fondly to all of us who, despite the
evidence, still expect the world to be exactly like
what we picture in our heads . . .
“Some of my cousins who had the great advantage of University education used to tease me with arguments to prove that nothing has any existence except what we think of it. The whole creation is but a dream; all phenomena are imaginary. You create your own universe as you go along. The stronger your imagination, the more variegated your universe. When you leave off dreaming, the universe ceases to exist. These amusing mental acrobatics are all right to play with. They are perfectly harmless and perfectly useless. I warn my younger readers only to treat them as a game.”
It was a word Alyssa Skinson had liked ever since she'd first heard it. It was what some old woman called the flowers at Alyssa's mother's funeral.
“Garish”âsomething that wanted to be lovely but was trying way too hard.
Like Alyssa, right now. Tightly wrapped in the old pink and green leggings Mom had knitted for her when she was nine, her legs pointed out over the roof edge. They were straight and lean and brightly colored. Her old yellow dress shoes sparkled on her feet like flames, making the leggings look like two burning birthday candles.
So . . . why not make a wish?
She looked around.
At her old house (silly to say because it was newer than this place) the night sky always held secret patches of color: blues, purples, greens. She'd even seen a moon-bow once, a night rainbow, so dim it didn't reflect in the pool. Here,
though, the Screech Neck haze made everything gray. Even the stars looked sickly.
Why not wish for color?
She scrunched her face, forming an image in her head. When nothing happened, she tried harder. She tried so hard, she pressed her legs against the swollen gutters, making a stream of brown rainwater roll along her calves, darkening the leggings. Thick drops gathered on the heels of her yellow shoes and tumbled to the dry grass below.
“What're you doing?”
A shadow stood inside the dormer, gray as the town of Screech Neck, the ceiling light behind it as sickly as this poor little city's stars. She tried to ignore the shadow, but it leaned out of the darkness and became flesh and blood, pointy nose and square shoulders, curly hair and hazel eyes that looked like Mom's.
“What do you think you're doing out there, Alyssa?” Ethan asked.
She wanted to answer, but talking to her older brother was hard lately. He'd changed. He didn't even put on his sneakers the same way. He used to slip his feet in and out with the laces still tied. Now he carefully untied and tied them, like he was afraid of ruining them.
“You'll catch pneumonia.”
He used to work an hour a day training at his martial arts, showing off his high kicks and fast punches. Now that they couldn't afford classes, he hadn't even unpacked his trophies.
“Dad'll have a fit.”
He wasn't as smart as he used to be either. He used to read two or three books at a time, not just the same one over and over and over. It was like the move here had dulled him the same way it had dulled the sky.
“I'm looking for the aurora borealis,” she said.
“Ha. It's like a million miles north. You have to be in Alaska. Or England.”
“Stars are farther, and you can see them.”
“The angle's wrong.”
“If I keep wishing, it could happen.”
That, he didn't challenge. He didn't dare, because of that book. Instead, he quietly poked his head farther out and they both stared at the sky awhile.
Was it really since the move that he'd changed? Or since he'd read
The Rule of Won
“It really can't happen, you know,” Alyssa finally said, annoyed to have to contradict her own game. “You believe that book too much. It's just words.”
He smiled like he knew it all. “They're the only words that can explain what
“It's just a game. It's not like I've done anything impossible, like make something fly,” she said with a sigh.
“I bet you could. I bet you could make something fly. You could probably even get Dad his old job back if you didn't like home schooling so much.”
Her face turned red. “That's not fair! I could not!” she cried. “And besides, I miss the academy, too, Ethan, but I think Dad's happier now.”
“At half the salary? Losing our house? Look where we wound up. You think he likes Screech Neck? Do you think
“After Mom died, he thought it was more important for him to be around us. It was a good decision. And I couldn't change any of it even if I wanted to.”
He pursed his lips. “You got the electricity to come on.”
When they had first moved into this small “fixer-upper,” they had had candles for light and bags of ice in coolers for the milk, eggs, and butter. The power company had said it'd be weeks before they could get someone out to fix the line. Technically they weren't even allowed to be living there, but Dad thought it'd be like camping. It wasn't. When the sun set, each room stacked with unpacked boxes, it was more like being buried in a cardboard tomb.
So, just to make herself feel better, Alyssa drew a picture of her new home the way she wanted it to be, all neat and brightly lit. A few hours after she finished, the lights flickered on and the refrigerator hummed. It seemed the house had come to life just because she'd wanted it to.
Which is what Ethan thought had happened.
She kind of liked the idea when she thought he was playing, but that was before she realized how serious he was, how so much of what he believed was right out of that book.
“You're so stupid, Ethan. The power company just fixed it early.”
He ignored the insult. “What about Sam, your lost stuffed bear? You drew a picture of that, too, didn't you?”
Her eyes narrowed. She'd hidden that picture. “You went through my things.”
“I talked to Aunt Sarah about it on the phone after I drew the picture. It made her look for it again in Mom's stuff, and she found it and sent it to me.”
“Liar. You didn't call her.”
“I did. I swear!”
Ignoring her vow, Ethan pulled himself inside, turning back into a shadow.
“You'll still draw the pictures I ask for?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes.”
He grunted and vanished, probably to his room to work on his notes for the big after-school meeting tomorrow with all the other people who read
The Rule of Won
over and over and over.
She didn't mind helping him, even if it was stupid. Maybe if she helped him, he'd go back to being a little more like the way he was. Not so angry. Not soâ¦ garish.
Alyssa sat there a while, in her wet leg warmers, trying as hard as she could to see some color in the gray. But her legs were cold, there was grit in the fabric, and the memory of her brother's voice buzzed like a bee in her head.
The spell broken, she sighed and went inside.
As a proud self-avowed slacker, I've actually been accused of being un-American, but the fact is I just don't want anything badly enough to have to work for it. Stuff? Nope, got some. Riches? Thanks but no thanks. Power? Not unless I can fly. Love? Well, you never really
love, do you?
To my mind this attitude, despite popular belief, is not an indication of laziness but evidence of a higher state of being. I feel I've achieved a near-perfect state. Here I am, Caleb Dunne, scruffy hair, brown eyes, lousy dresser, just sixteenâat peace with practically everything.
It turns out, though, there's a problem with this way of being. When you don't want anything yourself, all sorts of people pop out of the woodwork to want things for you. Spiritually speaking, this can be a pain. In my case, ever since an ugly incident last January, the following flies were in my buttermilk and would not shoo:
Mom wanted me to get a job.
Grandpa Joey wanted me to get a good swift kick in the ass.
My math teacher, Mr. Eldridge, wanted me to start thinking seriously about college.
Mrs. Ditellano, my creative writing teacher, wanted me to “float” along the river of my “deep self” to discover my “true purpose.” That might be kind of pleasant if it didn't sound so much like drowning.
Even Dr. Wyatt, principal of Screech Neck High, was in on it. He wasn't so interested in me finding my true purpose in life, though, and instead wanted meâ¦
“off the streets”
“away from decent folk”
before I did some
(I think that's sort of like a poem, which may be like floating, but I'm not sure. I'll have to ask Mrs. D.)
Last but in no way least, of course, was my go-getting girlfriend, the slight, hyperenergetic Vicky Bainbridge, who wanted me to have “grounding.” Vicky B is the opposite of a slacker, always working on something: selling handmade cards in elementary school, volunteering at an ad agency in middle school, now running for public office (student body president) in high school. The yin to my yang, she completed me the way others might complete a midterm algebra exam (more on that later).
The morning Vicky spelled out her expectations for me, we stood in a poorly lit hallway of Screech Neck High School,
just before classes began. She had a “Vote Vicky” button pinned on the chest of a tight green shirt. Beneath the bold words was a color photo of her pretty, perky face. Both the real Vicky and her button smiled with equal enthusiasm.
Only one of them spoke.
The Rule of Won
, Caleb. It'll change your life if you work at it. And, let's face it, you need groundingâbadly,” Vicky said. “So you'll go?”
It wasn't a question really, more a demand. She rapped her long nails, painted with tiger stripes, against the tile wall, waiting for me to say yes.
I, of course, wanted to say no, especially since she'd used the “w” word, “work.” I wanted to explain how, historically, mankind's work ethic is pretty new, and IMHO, has yet to prove itself. I prefer the ancient Greeks, who thought it better to laze around philosophizing while some other poor slobs built the temples and farmed the crops. They believed the
leisure time you had to contemplate life, the better a person you became. And I was out to be the best person I could possibly be.
But here she was with her big grin, her straw-blond hair, and her shapely green shirt, insisting otherwise.
It wasn't always this way. Once, for better or worse, I was left to my own devices. That is, before that fateful day last January.
It was a snowy afternoon during winter break, and with Mom working overtime at the mall, as usual, and GP Joey taking up the couch in our small apartment, as usual, things at home were painfully boring. So I was out braving the cold,
doing what I do best, wandering aimlessly, when I reached the grounds of Screech Neck High.
SNH, built in 1935 and looking every bit its age, is shaped like a broken T. About a decade ago, it was a total T, but the wing containing the gym and a couple of classrooms collapsed during a major storm. Just last year they finally, finally found the money to fix it.