Authors: Ingrid Jonach
For my husband Craig
Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.
Albert Einstein, 1879 - 1955
I remember when I first heard his name â Tom. I was sitting in the cafeteria with my best friends, Jo and Sylv, in the last week of our sophomore year at Green Grove Central High School, scraping Wite-Out off my nails and wondering whether I could stomach the burger on the tray in front of me, when the news broke about the “new guy”.
It was a lifetime later â three months, twenty-four days, eight hours and three minutes â before I came face to face with him and before he literally turned my universe upside down and inside out.
His arrival in our small town was heralded by Melissa Hodge, who had heard the news from her father, who had heard it from his accountant, who in turn had heard it from the local gallery owners.
Green Grove, Nebraska, has a population of four thousand, six hundred and something, which results in about two degrees of separation between the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. But during his first summer in Green Grove, Tom was like the Loch Ness monster or some sort of sasquatch. You know what I mean; seen only by a friend of a friend of a friend.
Melissa had a photo on her cell, but given our social standing we were the last to get a look. She snorted through her snobby nose about it whenever we saw her at the shops or the pool over summer, but it ended up being one of those grainy shots they put on the news when some hillbilly spots a UFO. It could have been Tom, or it could have been Mr Brady, the hermit who lives in the grasslands with the prairie dogs.
Then we heard that Tom had enrolled in our school and would start at the end of August.
Looking back, I wonder if I had an inkling that my life was about to go from ordinary to extraordinary. I like to think of it as BT and AT â Before Tom and After Tom. I must have guessed. I mean there were the dreams after all â nightmares, really. They started a couple of nights after I heard about Tom. You might think it a coincidence, like I did. But I can tell you now that the two were well and truly linked.
In the first nightmare, I was murdered in my bed. In my dream, I woke to see a figure standing beside me, silhouetted in the light from the open window. I screamed as he â she? â leaned towards me, coming so close that I could feel the scratch of what I thought was a beard on my cheek.
I was suddenly racked with cold, like I had been thrown into a bathtub of ice. I screamed again and the sound echoed in my ears as if it came from someone else.
I woke with a start and found Deb shaking me with both hands, like a child with a snow globe.
I slumped against her, breathing in her scent of lavender as she rocked me. It had been a long time since I had allowed her to hold me like that, a long time since we had been in the role of mother and daughter. My tears left damp patches on her nightdress.
“Hush. Hush. Hush,” she whispered to the rhythm of our rocking.
I continued to repeat the word in my mind after she had stopped. They say you can talk yourself into anything through repetition, which is why they replay TV commercials about a thousand times. They call it the “rule of repetition”.
I managed to calm down after what seemed like a few hundred hushes and looked up at my mother through swollen eyes. “I dreamed I died,” I told her between hiccups.
She rubbed my back. “Death symbolizes a new beginning, you know. It means the death of the past and the birth of the future.”
My mother considered herself a dreamologist, amongst other things.
She cupped my face in her hands, considering me with crinkled eyes. Suddenly, she frowned and wiped my top lip with her thumb, showing me a smear of blood; a nosebleed.
My bottom lip quivered. A nosebleed? From a dream?
“Poor Lillie,” Deb clucked, holding a tissue to my nose. “Let me make you a cup of chamomile tea. I could add valerian,” she mused. “And I think I have marshmallow root.”
My mother made herbal teas that were akin to dirty dishwater. Her herbologist credentials came from a couch surfer who had stayed with us last summer who had also read tea leaves. I used to tip my tea leaves into the trash before she could tell me there was someone tall, dark and handsome in the bottom of my mug. I was used to couch surfers and their sideshow talents. When I was about four years old a guy had me convinced he could pull a handkerchief out of his thumb. He stayed for so long that I started calling him Dad. He packed up and left the next day, leaving behind the handkerchief and its rubber thumb.
I drank the tea that night, but the dreams went on and on â a summer of nightmares. Deb continued to wake me with soothing noises and hot cups of tea, as if it were medicine.
In another dream, I was being chased. My sneakers thudded on an uneven flagstone path with dips and crevices that turned my ankles. My breath was short. My heart beat fast. A row of shrubs lined the path on either side and red birds flitted in and out of their branches, their wings waving like warning flags.
I looked over my shoulder at a figure dressed in black and realized the scratch of his beard had been the wool of a balaclava.
Like my other dreams, this dream ended with a chill that spread through my body, from my head to my toes. It brought my lungs to a standstill and stopped my heart dead. The sensation followed me into waking hours, blurring the line between my dreams and reality.
Cold. Cold. Cold, I thought, as I stood in the shower the next morning, my mind like a mouse on a wheel, turning, turning, turning. I shivered under the hot stream of water. The rule of repetition.
The day before Tom was due to start at Green Grove High, I was hanging out with the girls in my shoebox-sized bedroom, like we did every Sunday. We were supposed to be taking photos of Sylv, or at least I was, because she was going to be a famous model, but talk had turned to Tom.
“I bet he has a six pack,” Sylv said.
Jo snorted. “I bet he has two heads,” she said facetiously. She was kneeling in front of my bookshelf, alphabetizing my library, which consisted of a ton of photography books and a few novels from school.
Sylv shrugged. “I would take two heads in this town.”
Sylv hated her mom for giving birth to her in Green Grove, instead of a city like New York or London. “How am I supposed to be scouted in Green Grove?” she complained, as she changed into a silver sequined top with a V-neck that ended at her navel.
“Kate Moss was scouted at an airport,” I reminded her. I loved trivia. I spouted stuff I had heard on second-rate cable shows or read in trashy magazines, as if from an encyclopedia.
“Great,” Sylv said. “I suppose I should go hang out at the airfield then, in case a model scout arrives on the weekly flight from Newark.” She threw a cushion at me, a lime-green monstrosity my mother had crocheted when I was a baby. I ducked, letting it hit the wall instead.
We all hated Green Grove. For three quarters of the year it was flat and brown, for the other quarter it was waist deep in snow, which made its name as misleading as the sign that declared it the gateway to the renowned wine region, the Open Valley. We were more like a backdoor, or even a cat flap, to the rolling vineyards which grew, out of place, next to our desert-like town.
Even the flowers in Main Street had died two months after they were planted, despite the thousands of dollars the city council had spent on an irrigation system, against the advice of the community. “The community” being the Hodge family, principally Mr Hodge. He was king of Green Grove, owning about half of Main Street. I guess that made his daughter the princess.
Princess Melissa was in our grade at Green Grove High. She had shiny black hair to her waist and a spectacular smile without the embarrassment of having had braces for two years like me. Oh yeah, I had been called Brace Face, Metal Mouth, Train Tracks, you name it, not to mention the day Paul Gosling came at me with an industrial magnet, courtesy of Melissa.
I know your jaw will drop when I tell you that we used to be friends with Melissa, best friends in the case of Sylv. The two of them had even got their ears pierced together without telling their parents in third grade. They were competitive though. I remember the day Melissa arrived at school with a new haircut. Sylv immediately took a pair of scissors into the bathroom and hacked her own hair above her ears, at least three inches shorter than Melissa. Then Sylv hit puberty early, aged nine and a half, and Melissa started spreading rumors about Sylv, telling everyone she had gone to second base with Simon Caster.
I wound the film on and snapped a shot of Jo. She ducked her head as the flash bounced off the lemon-colored walls.
I had been bitten by the photography bug when I was nine. Deb had gone to a wedding where they had given the guests disposable cameras because they had been too cheap to hire a professional photographer. She had brought hers home unused. She hated photography, claiming it was a science, not an art. Deb liked to think of herself as an artist. I think it gave her an excuse to be half-baked.
She said she would paint the reception instead, but managed to put down about five brush strokes before she moved on to basket weaving, followed by woodcarving. Her list of unfinished projects was as long as her wavy hair, which flowed down to her backside. Not that she had a backside. She was straight up and down. We both were. But while it was good, enviable even, for a forty-one year-old to be as thin as an A-list celebrity, for me it was hell to be flat-chested at sixteen.
“I look like a boy,” I complained, as I snapped a shot of myself in the mirror.
“At least you look like a hot boy,” Jo told me. “I look like an ugly boy; an ugly, fat boy, like Jack O'Lantern.”
Jackson Murphy was an overweight kid we had known in Elementary. He had lost his front teeth in second grade like the rest of us, but, by fifth grade, there had been no evidence of his adult set. He was given the nickname Jack O'Lantern, which he had put up with until he moved with his family to Kentucky or Texas or Hawaii, or wherever he went to escape the witch-hunt.
“Neither of you look like boys,” Sylv said. “If you did, I would have hit on you by now.” She pointed at me. “You look like a pixie.” I put my hands up to my ears self-consciously, knowing they were kind of pointy, but Sylv moved her attention to Jo. “And you look likeâ¦”
“A boy,” Jo finished. “Just say it. I know it. You know it. Lillie knows it. We all know it!”
It could be said that Jo was a bit masculine. Her mom had died of breast cancer when she was three and she had been raised by her dad â a truck driver. When Jo was eight, our teacher called Child Services because her dad had left her at home by herself for a week while he delivered a load of grain to New Jersey. She started spending so much time at my house after that it was like we were sisters. We shared a love of musicals and knew the words to all of the songs from films like
Oklahoma, Singing in the Rain, Meet Me in St Louis, Oliver
and the list went on.
“I was actually going to say a bitch,” Sylv joked.
Jo laughed, despite herself.
“Now,” Sylv said. “Do you think we could stop talking about how you girls look and start talking about how I look? Last time I checked, this was my photo shoot.” She shook her shoulder-length hair, which was currently blonde with two pink streaks, and struck a pose that looked pornographic.
While I snapped and Sylv posed, Jo continued to tidy my books, followed by my photos, stationery, shoes, clothes, etc. “You have so muchâ¦ crap,” she complained.
“Thanks,” I said sarcastically.
“You know what I mean. You have a sweater from when you were like five years old on the floor of your wardrobe.” She held it up against herself and peered into the full-length mirror on the back of my door. “Hey Sylv, I think this is your size.”
“Hilarious,” Sylv said, rolling her eyes.
“And when have you ever skated?” Jo asked, picking up a pair of ice skates that used to belong to Deb, proving she had been into materialism once upon a time in a land far, far away. The leather had split and one of the blades was bent. “I think you need to do some serious spring cleaning.”
“I like my crap,” I pouted. Each pen, each book, each photo represented a moment in time, a memory.
I had no need to hop from hobby to hobby like Deb. I knew who I was when I looked under my bed and saw the hundreds of empty film canisters from seven years of photography. Or opened my desk drawer and found pens out of ink from years of homework.
It was like having a ball of twine to guide me through a maze.
That was what I loved about photography. I could follow the ball of twine back to second grade by walking into the living room where Deb had hung my school photo next to her Feng Shui good fortune coin. Second grade was the year she had been into henna. I could tell, because there was a spray of stars tattooed across my right cheek. And within an instant I could revisit the first year Deb had baked a tofu turkey for Thanksgiving and had accidentally used silken tofu instead of firm. I had set the camera on a timer and the photo shows us sitting around a table eating a four-bean salad, Jo and her dad included.