Home > Breakable (Contours of the Heart #2)(5)

Breakable (Contours of the Heart #2)(5)
Tammara Webber

He’d given away his nice suits before we moved – all but one. We left our furniture and electronics, dishes, cookware and his library of finance and econ and accounting books. I brought most of my clothes, my video games, some books and all my sketchpads – anything I wanted that was mine – but only what would fit into the car. Cindy boxed all the scrapbooks and framed photos, and wrapped Mom’s paintings with brown paper and lots of packing tape. She and Charles took some of them to their house.

Whenever we’d visited Grandpa before, it had been summer. I’d slept on a sleeping bag on the screened porch, or on the shabby, stale-smelling sofa in his living room – which was actually the only room in the house besides the kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom. I didn’t really think about where I would sleep until we got there, two days before Christmas.

A three-foot-tall fake Christmas tree sat on a rickety table in a corner window, looking as pathetic and unfestive as possible. Non-blinking, multicoloured bulbs were affixed to it. The only ornaments were a few actual candy canes, still in their cellophane wrappers and hooked over branches, a dozen shiny silver glitter-coated bells, and eight felt-enclosed school photos of me, from kindergarten through seventh grade.

There was no star. No angel. Nothing on the top at all. No gifts beneath. Just the plastic stand, sitting bare on the wood.

Our trees had always been tall and fresh, chosen at a Christmas tree farm twenty miles out of the city. Mom and Dad always let me choose the tree, and then Dad would pay the tree farmer before cutting it down and strapping it to the roof of our car, where it would hang out over the windshield in front and poke out from the back like a roof-mounted rocket. Last year, the tree I chose was so tall that Dad had to climb to the top of the ladder to circle the top branches with twinkly white lights and add the star.

The tree skirt Mom used looked like a tapestry – trimmed in gold braid and embroidered with gold-threaded words like Noel and Merry Christmas and Ho Ho Ho. There were always lots of gifts on top of it, and most of them said Landon.

I’d been spoiled, and though I’d been somewhat aware of the fact, it didn’t seem to matter, because every kid I knew was the same.

Grandpa grabbed a suitcase from my hand and turned to walk towards the kitchen. That was the moment I wondered where my room would be.

He opened the door to the pantry. Only, it wasn’t the pantry any more. The lower shelves had been removed, and a twin mattress and frame was somehow, impossibly, crammed wall-to-wall inside. From the ceiling, an overhead light hung on a chain – a three-bulb type of light usually found over a kitchen table. I recognized that it had, in fact, hung over the kitchen table the last time I’d been here, months before. The world’s most compact, narrow chest stood crammed into the entry corner. I had to shut the pantry door to open any of the drawers. There was no window.

I had become Harry Potter. Except I was thirteen and not magic, and my destiny, whatever it was, held no profound purpose.

‘Spruce it up or not – whatever you’d like. It’s just for sleepin’ and holdin’ your stuff. You aren’t obliged to stay in here.’ People as old as Grandpa forgot a lot of things, obviously. If he’d have remembered being a teenager, he’d have known we live in our rooms.

Grandpa was commonsensical, Mom always said. ‘He’s like your dad. They see the world in black and white.’

‘Why are they always mad at each other?’ I asked.

‘They aren’t really mad – just in a disagreement about what’s black and what’s white. Problem is, they’re fighting over something in between.’

Dad believed Grandpa was disappointed in him for leaving, instead of staying and working on the boat. I wasn’t so sure. Maybe Grandpa just wanted to be allowed to do what he wanted to do with his life, instead of being judged as not educated enough – not good enough.

‘So they’re fighting over the grey stuff?’

‘Yes, but more like – the colours. Grey tones in black-and-white photos are the coloured things in real life – the green grass, a pink scarf, a yellow rose. I think they sometimes don’t understand how much falls in the middle. How much will never be black or white.’ She smiled. ‘Maybe they’re artistically challenged. Like I’m math challenged. You know?’

I nodded. But I was comfortable with both, so I didn’t really understand.

Lying on my new bed, I stared up at the three faux-flame bulbs of the only light fixture in my microscopic room. The switch was on a cord that hung down the wall by the door. The fixture and arms were a sort of oxidized brass, but so corroded that I couldn’t tell what it was supposed to look like. Maybe the metal had been shiny once – like fifty years ago. Probably, brass wasn’t made to be this near the ocean and never polished.

I stretched my arms out to either side and touched the walls, then reached behind me and touched the third wall. The fourth wall was mostly the pantry door, with a tiny bit of wallboard around and above it.

Going up on my knees, I groped along one of the shallow shelves Grandpa had left attached to the wall and grabbed my iPod from its new home next to a stack of my sketchbooks. A few months ago, these shelves held canned goods and preserves and boxes of cereal and macaroni and cheese. There had been a basket of potatoes by the door that Grandpa called tubers, and a basket of onions next to it that I could still smell even though they’d been moved somewhere else – to a drawer in the kitchen, I guessed.

I shoved my earbuds in and dialled to a playlist of a new band I’d just discovered before we left Alexandria. They’d been local, getting some play on the college stations. I was thinking I might go see them, live. Now, unless they got really famous and started touring, I’d never see them. Even if they started touring, they’d never come here. No one came here.

I wasn’t sure what happened to the boxes of ornaments and decorations Mom dragged from the basement closet every year – the strands of lights, twistable green garland, velvet stockings and the advent calendar with its tiny hinged windows.

I hadn’t expected any gifts, but Grandpa gave me a pearl-handled pocketknife with a blade longer than my middle finger. It looked old, but well maintained and wicked sharp. Dad, having failed to remember to buy me a gift on a major holiday, handed me a few bills, and I stuffed them into my wallet without looking at them. ‘Thanks,’ I said to each of them, and then Grandpa pulled an ancient waffle iron from a low cabinet and a box of waffle mix and plastic jug of maple syrup from a high cabinet.

First Christmas without Mom, over.

I’d grown a bit more since summer but hadn’t been shopping for new clothes. I hadn’t had a haircut. Honestly, I sort of forgot about how I looked until the first day I had to go to a new school.

In this town, there was one elementary school, one junior high and one high school, all housed at the same address. Sort of like my private school back home – or what used to be home. Most of the kids here had known each other most if not all their lives, just like we had. Newcomers were mistrusted until they made friends or became outcasts. I knew this, but even so, I didn’t think about how it would apply to me, until it did.

My T-shirts still fitted okay, but my jeans didn’t. My shoes squeezed my toes. I’d outgrown my North Face jacket, and the sleeves of my hoodies were all too short. I tugged them down my arms until the knitted cuffs stretched out like too-wide mouths and stayed that way.

I wore my wide-banded watch and my rubber wristbands every day, relieved they weren’t banned here, because my teachers quickly decided that I was a delinquent. They wouldn’t have bent any rules for the introverted and possibly unstable new kid with ill-fitting clothes, too-long hair, and no desire to participate in class.

The other kids mostly agreed with the teachers.

In class, I took whatever seat the teacher pointed me to and did as little as possible. In the halls, I kept close to the walls of lockers, eyes on the floor, ignoring any insults or ‘accidental’ shoves. Sometimes I imagined myself reacting. I remembered the scuffles and shoving matches we’d had on the ice – the rush of putting an opponent face-first into the acrylic wall when he’d injured a teammate or talked a little too much trash. No skates or glassy ice beneath my feet, I could have smashed noses and popped shoulders from joints before most of these guys knew what hit them.

But then they’d know I gave a crap what they did to me. So I didn’t bother.

At lunch, I was sentenced to the outcast table with a couple of guys from my grade, Rick and Boyce, and a seventh-grade girl, Pearl, who slumped into her seat and read while hiding behind a head full of scraggly, dark hair and glasses. None of them were inclined to talk to me, but they didn’t toss bits of food or hateful comments, either, so I ate my lunch, as silent as I was the rest of every day, and then I pulled out my sketchpad and hunched over it. I’d learned to keep my backpack with me all day. Lockers weren’t secure, even though everyone was warned to guard their combinations. The supposedly confidential codes of those built-in locks had long since spread through the student body.

On my fourteenth birthday, I’d endured two weeks at a new school, and I had four months to go. Next fall, I’d move up to the high school. I had no delusions that it would be an improvement. Sometimes I stood on the weathered planks of Grandpa’s back porch and stared out at the water, wondering how long it would take to drown, and what it would feel like.

Like Christmas, I woke certain of no gifts. I wasn’t sure Dad or Grandpa would even remember, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to remind them.

Pulling the door to my pantry room open, the smell of frying pork and cinnamon greeted me. Most mornings, Dad and Grandpa were already gone when I got up. I’d emerge from my cocoon, get ready in the one bathroom we all shared and walk to school. January was chilly here, but nothing like what I was used to. Grandpa laughed when I asked if it ever snowed. ‘Once in a blue moon,’ he said. ‘Don’t hold your breath or blink.’

I missed the seasonal changes and the blanketing white from the window, but I wouldn’t miss trudging through it when the novelty wore off, or the bite of the wind slicing through my clothes and making my eyes water to keep my eyeballs from freezing over.

Dad was gone, but Grandpa was in the kitchen, sliding sausage links and French toast on to two plates. I usually ate cold cereal or microwaved a packet of oatmeal, so I didn’t waste time beyond mumbling a barely-awake thanks before grabbing a fork and digging in.

‘Thought we’d head over to the Thrifty Sense today,’ he said, and I glanced up, mouth full of toast and syrup. ‘You’re lookin’ like a scarecrow in them short pants. Unless that’s some sorta new fashion with your demo-graphic. I’m not exactly up on all the trends.’ He plunked his plate across from mine and angled a brow, waiting.

I shook my head in answer while confirming what day it was in my mind. Thursday. ‘But, school?’

He waved a hand. ‘Bah. They can do without you for a day.’ They could do without me every day. ‘I’m gonna call you in sick. We got some birthday shoppin’ to do.’ We shovelled a few bites in silence before he added, ‘Don’t suppose you’d go for a birthday haircut?’

I shook my head again, fighting the smile that pulled at the edge of my mouth.

He huffed a long-suffering sigh. ‘Thought as much.’ Patting a hand over his short, silver bristles, he added, ‘If I had it, I guess I’d flaunt it, too.’

I came home with several pairs of worn jeans and cargo pants, two pairs of grungy sneakers and battered-to-hell western boots, and a faded black hoodie. Nothing cost more than five bucks. Everything fitted.

Dad had come and gone while we were out, leaving a small case on my bed containing a dozen good-quality charcoal pencils in different degrees of hardness, two erasers, a sanding block and a sharpener. I recognized the case; it had belonged to Mom. Under it was a new sketchpad with finely perforated pages, the type Mom gave me for drawings I wanted to remove from the pad and display.

I pulled my tattered sketchbook from my backpack and opened it to a drawing of a seagull sitting on the hull of Grandpa’s boat. I spent the rest of my birthday testing the pencils, recreating the simple sketch and shading it until the seagull looked a little sinister – more like Edgar Allan Poe’s raven from a poem we’d read in English last fall, my first week back.

The raven had tormented a guy who was going crazy over the death of someone he loved. Everyone was supposed to write a short essay analysing the poem, but my teacher, staring at a point right between my eyes, gave me permission to choose something else, though I hadn’t asked to be excused from the assignment.

I chose an Emily Dickinson poem about the balance life keeps between bad things and good. I’d had thirteen years of good. I wondered if I would survive the thirteen bad required to pay for them.

LUCAS

A week or two into any given semester, overall class attendance falls off, especially in large intro courses like history or economics. This semester was no different. Unless there was a scheduled quiz or exam, the classroom exhibited an ever-changing pattern of empty seats. But Jackie, and her boyfriend, I admitted grudgingly, didn’t cut class. Not once in the first eight weeks.

Which made her first disappearance noteworthy, and the second – the very next class period – significant.

During a homework break, I checked Kennedy Moore’s social-media status, which now stated: single. Jackie’s profile no longer existed – or she’d temporarily deactivated it.

Holy shit. They’d broken up.

I felt like a complete dick for the jolt of straight-up joy that gave me, but the guilt didn’t prevent me from hypothesizing one more step: she’d stopped coming to class. Maybe she was planning to drop economics … at which point she’d no longer be a student in the class I tutored.

By her third absence, Moore was openly flirting with the girls who’d been fawning over him the past several weeks. The following week, Jackie missed the midterm. I waited for an updated status to come through the system, telling me she’d officially dropped the course, but it never did. If she forgot to officially drop by the end of the month, she’d get an F at the end of the semester.

I knew damned well she wasn’t my responsibility or my concern … but I didn’t want her to fail a class, in addition to whatever that douchebag had done to her by ending their three-year relationship. But after more than a week of scanning and dismissing every girl on campus remotely resembling Jackie Wallace, I started to believe I’d never see her again.

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