I opened my eyes against the morning glare but immediately shrunk back from a headache. White and black stars pulsed before my eyes; those two words, “Wake up”, a hammer pulverising the side of my face. Wind blew in from the open window, admitting a mean downdraft which pressed me into the bed. I knew, from the smell of rot trailing in on the draft, how this scene was going to end: a storm was coming, and that storm was me.
The voice. It was Dale’s. Uncle Dale, my blood. My savior. I shook my head to let the information slide into place, but my brain rebelled. It crackled with pain, interference. Tenderly, I put a hand to my forehead, as if that would steady the tumult inside, and felt relief. My face, my skin, my head were whole. Only, I wasn’t. Skin grows over wounds. The soul, though. The soul remembers.
Ignoring Dale, I pulled the blanket over my head, groaned, and rolled over to face the wall. This was all too familiar. ‘Here’s to a new life! To a brand new start!’ I felt like puking from the migraine as well as the stupid cliché.
Dale banged on the wall with a hand to get my attention. Little mallets went to work in my head. “Alright! I’m awake! Geez, Dale. Could you have opened the curtains any wider? I’m freaking blind.”
I heard him advance. I pictured him standing in the middle of the room with his arms crossed over his chest. He wasn’t used to teenagers, especially girl teenagers, and he’d let me know it every chance he could. “Get your ass up. You’re late again and I don’t want the school calling to ask where you are. Like I know what goes through that brain of yours! You get up, you get out, and you get to school. Got it?”
When I didn’t answer, he grunted, as if he’d expected it. I rolled over and glared. He stood in the doorway now, watching me, intimidating as a cop. Smarting under his hawk-like stare, I threw my legs over the side of the bed. Vertigo flipped the room sideways. When I put my hands to my head to steady it again, they felt cold, icy, like a low pressure front.
“What?” I demanded, as Dale hadn’t moved from the doorway. “Not moving fast enough for you?”
He saw the incoming storm; his shoulders were braced for a blizzard, the hard line of his lips frozen into place. He wasn’t going to budge, not this time, maybe not ever. What happens when two opposing fronts collide? “I told you. You’re late.”
I watched him, eyes narrowed. “You sure that’s all you want?”
At first, Dale looked confused. Then he blinked. The knuckles gripping the door frame turned white.
“Dammit, Leah. What the hell are you thinking?”
How dare he ask a question he already knew the answer to!
I got to my feet, yanking my nightshirt over my head. “This what you’re jonesing for? Go ahead. Touch me and I’ll have your ass in jail before you get your pants past your knees!”
Dale went pale. His frozen mouth cracked, twisted into a grimace. It had taken just a few words to stop him in his tracks. But not everyone was so cooperative. Life was one mother of a teacher; I’d discovered that words were weapons. Adept at wielding them, I’d learned to neuter certain sons of bitches.
Dale backed out of the room. “You can’t…Geez, you can’t compare me to those bastards your mom had around!” At the top of the stairs, he stopped. “Look, I don’t have a clue in hell how to make this work. And I know things are messed up right now so…maybe we need some time to get to know each other again. But remember, if this doesn’t work out, I can’t stop the judge from sending you back into foster care.”
He left. I listened to his steps as he descended the stairs, watched as his back grew smaller and smaller and the top of his head finally disappeared below the landing. My headache eased. The storm quelled with every step he took. Then I heard the car start, and it pulled out of the driveway.
Alone at last, I held myself to still the shaking.
I looked around, taking in the clean bedroom, the dresser, two night tables and decent-sized closet. Not that I had much to put in it. There was more than enough space for my black army boots, four black shirts and ripped black jeans.
I’m at Uncle Dale’s.
I lay back on the bed, feeling tears pricking the corners of my eyes.
I’m safe. But for how long?
Sliding off the bed, I got on my hands and knees to dig under the bed for my army issue backpack. I rifled through it, sending socks, underwear, books, everything I owned tumbling onto the carpet. Everything, except the one thing I needed.
Then my hand closed over a little wooden box. At its touch, tears flowed fast and free, blending the box, the backpack and the room together so I couldn’t tell one from another. But the cube was firm in my hand. I opened it, letting the familiar creak of the hinges settle my nerves just before lifting out the stone.
It was round and flat and not much wider than a silver dollar—I knew because Mom had had a collection–the only thing she was proud of besides me. I ran my thumb over the convex front, letting the rise and fall of the etched ridges soothe me further. I had no idea what the symbols said, but to me they meant peace, order and, because of Mom, love. It was a map to inner peace that, unlike life, never changed.
Mom? Why can’t things stay the same?
Because, Baby, change means people can become better than they were.
Do you…think you’ll be happy?
I’ll be an angel, Leah. Just look up and you’ll see me smiling down on you.
But I never did see her. Every time I looked at the sky, it was just clouds. And clouds weren’t made of anything. Just water and air.
Full out crying now, I pressed my forehead to the tops of my knees. I held the stone against my heart. It grew warmer, almost hot in my hand the more the tears came. I cried so hard, I almost forgot that there should have been two stones in my palm, not one.
But that was fine. It was better to hurt, even to rage, than to feel nothing at all.
Matt scaled the brick wall, sending dust and dirt showering down on my head. Sneezing and shaking it off, I waited until he reached down for my hand before climbing up behind him.
“You okay?” he asked as I bent to brush off my knees. “Didn’t know if you were going to make it.”
“Funny. Army boots aren’t the greatest for climbing, you know.”
“Which is why I wear Cons. Also good for outrunning cops when you get caught in the wrong places.” He smiled, showing off a good set of white teeth and a grin that—secretly—took my breath away.
We’d met a few weeks before, both of us seated outside the principal’s office awaiting punishment, me for skipping too many classes and him for smoking weed in the boiler room. I dug that he liked to roam, prying his way into forbidden places and acting like he owned the place when he succeeded. Unpredictable and delinquent like me, I decided he was alright. We’d hung out every day since, roaming and talking, and then roaming and talking some more. Liking each other’s presence but not taking the next step; circling, but never landing. I doubted he’d be satisfied with that for long, but pussyfooting around the bush suited me just fine.
I followed him along the top of the wall, arms stuck out on either side for balance. The brown waters of le Fleuve St-Laurent rolled along on one side and land populated by middle-class peons lay on the other. A storm had hit the other day, the second since I’d arrived in this South Shore town, carrying winds which sent garbage and recycling bins careening down the street. The kind of storm that upended trees a hundred years old, revealing thick roots which had once been buried deep, deep underground.
“What do you think we’ll find?” Matt asked. Having reached the end of the barrier wall, he jumped down. Sand and grass and reeds sprawled in front of him, submerging once they reached the water’s edge.
“Dunno. It’s my first fall in Montreal. What usually comes out of the water after a big storm? Leftover poutine?”
“Hey, don’t mock poutine! It’s my favourite! Sticks to your bones and all that crap.”
“More like your middle,” I said with a smirk.
“Ha, right. Now you’re a comedian. Or a dietician. Anyway, lay off our food, Ontarian.”
“You make it sound like being from out of province is a sickness,” I said, still smirking.
“It’s not?” He flashed another amazing smile and again my knees went weak. “Anyway, back to the treasure hunt. I forgot this is your first. Let’s see. Last year, I found a bike—“
“You mean the broken-down piece of crap you ride around on? Some treasure.”
“It’s pretty beat up, but it rides. Just needed some cleaning up and a few new cables and it was as good as new.”
“Not impressed yet. What else?”
“Uh, a broken lawn chair, Styrofoam cups and plates, and a satellite dish. Gave it to my cousin in the West Island.”
“Ah, so you found garbage. Wow. This outing’s got all the makings of a real party.”
But Matt had suddenly gone serious. “Garbage is garbage because that’s how we choose to look at it.”
I shook my head. “Garbage is garbage, Matt. You can’t change that.”
He looked straight at me, penetrating my protective shell and making my stomach simultaneously flip-flop and burn with acid. “Is that right?”
We sat by the water, uncomfortable and squirming on the chunks of broken tree stumps we were sitting on. The silence between us was filled by the rush of the river and of the cars streaming along the lakeshore road. I studied my hands and picked at my nails. Seeing I wasn’t talking, Matt pulled out a cigarette and lit it, sighing after the first drag. I shook my head when he offered it to me.
The silence stretched. I continued to nibble on my fingernails, tugging on a jagged strip until it finally came off. Usually, I preferred silence, but with Matt the usual rules didn’t seem to apply. He seemed to have been cut from a different cloth of human, to have been born of a different breed of male. He was a mix of the dangerous and the desirable, a thing both terrifying and craved. Matt was the neutral space between love and hate, the eye in my storm. I wanted to touch that place where the winds didn’t swirl or tumble. At times, the quiet made me wonder if it was somewhere I could stay.
“How are things with your uncle?”
I shrugged, thankful to be talking again, even if it was about Dale. “Alright. We mostly try to stay out of each other’s way, though he does check up on me a lot. But, after that crazy morning a few weeks ago…I’m just glad he didn’t send me away. He had every reason to. Others weren’t so patient.”
Another drag on the butt followed by another satisfied sigh. “From what you said, you were pretty messed up. I think he gets it though. I mean, he’d have to be an idiot not to. Losing your mom must have been awful, not to mention all the other stuff you went through.”
Inwardly, I smiled. “Not everybody is like you or Dale.” I scooted over towards him, balancing on the unstable log while pulling my special stone from my breast pocket. “See this? It’s the only thing I have left of my mother. She said she found it years ago on a beach somewhere. It was the day she met my dad, my real one. Actually, they both had stones. She was always so happy when he was around…she was never the same after the accident.” I closed my eyes to hold back the tears. “Life was never the same after that, either.”
Matt looked at the stone, and when he put out his hand I let him take it. “It’s pretty. I wonder what this indent’s for?” he asked, putting his finger in the impression while his voice rose strangely in pitch. I wondered why until, running his thumb over the markings, he added, “I wonder what these mean?”
“I don’t know. But just holding it makes me feel better when nothing else will.”
“Most people cling to other people for that, you know.”
I took the stone from him and tucked it back into my jacket pocket. “You know how I feel about touchy-feely, emotional stuff.”
He blew out a stream of gray smoke. “Yeah, I do.”
The flow of traffic on the road had slowed, becoming more intermittent. The sun had long ago set and only the streetlamps and the creamy half-moon lit the area. “Guess I should go. Dale’s still a jerk but he’s the nicest jerk I’ve had look after me. Don’t want to press my luck by being late again.”
“Do you want me to walk you home?” he asked through another puff of smoke.
“No, I’ll be fine. I can take care of myself.”
Matt nodded, a thin smile tipping the corners of his mouth. “That, you most definitely can. Hey,” he said when I turned away to head to the wall.
“Can you meet me here tomorrow night? There’s something I want to show you.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “As long as you can keep it in your pants, you’ve got a date.”
Smirking, Matt said, “You’re so not a girl, talking like that.”
“I’m…just keeping the boundaries clear, is all. This—what we have—is good just as it is. Right?”
“Right.” He stubbed out his cigarette into the sand. “See you tomorrow.”
“Not likely.” I heard him laugh as I climbed the wall. Walking away, I wondered what unsuspecting place Matt was planning to worm himself into tomorrow.
The microwave beeped, signalling my dinner was ready. Plucking delicately at the super-heated film wrap while stopping to blow on my burnt fingertips, I managed to peel it away from the corner of the tray.
Hearing me squealing and cursing, Dale called from the living room. “You’re supposed to let it cool for two minutes before you open it.”
“Do you always do everything you’re supposed to?” I asked him when he appeared in the kitchen. I seasoned my tone with extra snark.
He arched his eyebrows and set his chin, ready for one of our usual, heated arguments. They seemed as common and as regular as breathing. “I don’t know. I find following the rules keeps me from getting burned. That is, until you came around. Just remember that I should have sent you packing weeks ago and saved myself a world of hurt. But I didn’t.”
“What, so I owe you, now?”
“Some respect, at least. Or even just a change in tone would be appreciated.”
I sucked on my scalded finger while I considered his answer. “Maybe you should have sent me back.” I took a fork from the drawer, slammed it shut and then headed for the hall.
I heard him groan with frustration behind me. He banged the back of his head against the wall. “Wait, Leah. Can we…do we always have to do this? Why can’t we just have a normal conversation?”
He really looked like he wanted to. Lines of worry and concern replaced the ones of tension and stress I was used to seeing on his face. It was welcome, though strangely uncomfortable.
He went on. “We used to have fun, when you were little. Remember?”
“That was a long time ago,” I said, walking away. “When I was a kid.”
“You know, it’s hard for me too!” I stopped; the pain in his voice rooted me to the spot. “Stacy was my sister. You…have her face, her eyes. Even your voice…” His words ended abruptly.
I couldn’t watch. I trembled from the storm gathering inside me with every tear rolling from the corners of his eyes. If I wasn’t careful, I would explode into a full-blown hurricane and nothing but destruction would remain.
I ran to my room.
“You’ve been spending a lot of time with that friend of yours, the one named Matt,” Dale said, recovering just as I was escaping. “Why don’t you bring him by one day?”
“You’re checking up on my friends now? It’s not enough you call me every few hours when I’m out, now you want to meet the people I hang with?”
Don’t blow it!
“You don’t ‘hang’ with anyone but him, as far as I can tell. Anyway, I’m your guardian. I have a right to know.”
Deep breaths, cleansing breaths, just like they taught you in the youth centre…
Picture clear waters flowing along a mountain stream, the wind blowing through the trees in a sun-lit forest…
“I’ll…I’ll think about it.”
My uncle smiled, warming to his teasing. “Besides, since you two have been spending time together, you’ve changed, a little. At least you come home on time and answer your cell. Even tonight, you were home in time for supper. I figured it’d be a good idea to meet this guy who seems to have such a positive effect on you. Maybe he could pass along a few tips.”
…becoming a geyser erupting, spurting scorching water all around.
“Matt’s just a guy!” I called from the safety of my room. Just before I slammed the door, I hollered, “How about this for a tip? Stay the hell out of my life!”
“So?” I asked Matt. It was just after supper, and I’d slipped out my bedroom window to meet him at the river, as promised. After yesterday’s mini-eruption with Dale, I wanted to avoid my uncle at all costs.
I jumped off the wall and went to Matt who was already seated by the water. Beside him was a stump he’d pulled over for me to sit on. “Well, what’s the mystery about?”
Taking a drag from his cigarette, Matt offered me the extra one in his hand. I could taste the tobacco on my tongue, remembered the feel of smoke as it swirled around inside my mouth, but I shook my head. I’d quit last year after seeing firsthand what long-term smoking had done to the one person I loved, and I wasn’t having any of it.
“What? No ‘Hi, Matt! I’m so happy to see you’ kiss?’” Matt said, tucking away the cigarette.
“Ha, like that would ever happen.” I sat on the log and stretched out my legs. The moon was out, illuminating the shore with a silver-white glow which gave everything a sharp, crisp look.
“Well, maybe if I play my cards right—“ He glanced at me but knowing better than to wait for an encouraging response, he looked back at the river. “I knew what I was getting into when we started hanging out. Only the troubled ones seem to want to be friends with me, and only friends. Story of my life, I guess.”
This again, I thought. “That’s what you get for being too nice.”
“Or just not attractive enough to make a girl’s heart flutter.” He jammed his foot into the loose sand, sending a stone into the water with a plop!
I thought of his smile and perfect white teeth, which sent a fluttering heat through my belly and radiating towards my extremities, ready to shoot out my fingers and toes like balls of flame. But love was not pretty. It was destructive; a terrible force of nature, and delicate things like friendships, lovers, and people only got burned up when they got too close. It hurt that I couldn’t tell him how wrong he was about himself but, thinking of the alternative, I kept my mouth shut. Rejection was the only weatherproofing I could offer him.
I reached into my jacket and closed my hand over Mom’s stone, squeezing it tight. “We’re friends, Matt. Isn’t that enough? Anything else is complicated. We’d break up anyway and hate each other or something. Probably spend the rest of our lives wishing we hadn’t crossed the line.”
“Geez, Leah, you’re so dramatic. Killing a thing before it ever has a chance to live. It’s not like we’re getting married or anything.”
“Love takes away everything we care about, eventually. That’s just how it is.”
Matt shook his head. “What do you always say? ‘Better to feel pain than to not feel at all’? You’re so afraid, you can’t even follow your own beliefs,” he said. A harshness had crept into his voice.
“But—“ I stopped, frustrated. “That’s not what I meant!”
“What did you mean, then?”
I couldn’t think. Nothing was clear in my own head. These last few weeks with Matt had shifted so many things around. Just like an earthquake changes the landscape, I didn’t recognize the lay of the land anymore. But maybe I could figure this out, saving myself, and Matt. Saving us. “Hurting is part of life; we all suffer. But pain is inflicted. I…don’t want to cause you pain.”
“But you’re okay if I hurt.”
“No! Matt, come on! I’m just better at being alone. People…”
“I know. They suck, which is why we losers have to stick together. Take care of each other.” He reached into his pocket but didn’t pull his hand out yet. “Did you bring it?”
“Bring what? You mean this?” I took out the stone. “Yeah. Why do you—“
He opened his hand, revealing a matching stone in the lamplight. A little worse for wear than mine, and the symbols were almost all smoothed down, but in all other ways, it was unharmed.
“Where’d…you get this?”
“It washed up on the shore after the first storm a few weeks ago. When I saw yours last night, and, after you told me about your parents, I thought you should see it.”
Matt took the stones and fiddling with them a moment, laughed softly in disbelief when they fit perfectly into one another and held. “I knew they were made for each other. How weird is that?”
“Yeah, weird,” I said taking them from him to examine them closer. They fit like a glove, like they were part of a set. Mom and Dad had had nesting stones like this. Dad lost his…could this be…?
I suddenly felt faint, far away. I got up and my legs wobbled.
“Leah, what’s wrong?”
“My parents met like this. On a beach. They found nesting stones in the sand.”
“Yeah, I know. So?”
The ground lurched, stars flashed black and white before my eyes, and a noise like rolling thunder filled my head. I took off running. A mega-storm was going to hit, but it couldn’t be here. I couldn’t live with the casualties.
I ran as fast as I could. My boots sloshed in the muddy water and bushes pulled at my legs. At a frothy part of the river, I stopped to catch my breath. Matt was quick approaching, and since I couldn’t run anymore, I hurled the stones into the river. It rushed so loud I didn’t even hear them plop. But I knew they sank and, locked together, there they would remain.
Catching up with me at last, Matt took me by the arms. “What did you do?”
I wanted to push him away and grab hold of him at the same time. I couldn’t look at him. If I did, he’d see the truth, the toxic lake within me which had no beginning and no end.
“I just wanted to make you happy,” he said. “I thought I could.”
“I was happy, Matt. For a while, anyway.”
I didn’t resist when he pulled me against him to kiss my forehead. And I didn’t call him back when he left. The river rushed along. The lights of the cars flickered as they took the sharp bend in the road. I watched Matt retreat until he was a black dot disappearing into even blacker shadows and the moon’s silver outline of his form was swallowed by gloom.
Gutted, I sobbed. Unabated but contained, my torrent swirled.
And then, I finally understood.
Pain was inevitable. You lived and, if you dared, you loved, treading waters which would one day, invariably, roll over your head.
But I had turned the tables.
I looked back at the river, watching as the water ran past, unaware and uncaring of the treasure resting on its riverbed. Tears burned my eyes, but I forced them back.
I had ripped out my heart. Safe under water, it would sleep.
But I would live forever.
Dyane Forde’s love of writing began with an early interest in reading and in words in general. She was always amazed at how linking words together in different ways had unexpected and pleasing results on others. This revelation sparked a life-long desire to write all types of things from short stories, novels, flash fiction, and poetry. Every story or book represents new joys and challenges. Dyane views writing as an intimate communication tool by which she seeks to connect with others on a level deeper than intellect.
Dyane is a social worker by profession. Learning to see the world through other people’s eyes has enriched her as a person and as a writer. She is also a wife and mother to two children, a cat named JackJack and a dog named Sparky. She runs a writing blog
(www.droppedpebbles.wordpress.com) where you can discover her other book projects and short stories, and meet new and exciting writing talent.
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